Taliesin & The AWEN

The Awen in Welsh Tradition

Words from Gwyneth Lewis on the Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff

Although ‘awen’is usually translated literally from Welsh to English as ‘poetic inspiration’ or ‘muse’, its resonance in Welsh is both broader and much deeper. In his poem ‘Mewn Dau Gae’ , the twentieth century Welsh poet Waldo Williams uses the phrase “awen yn codi o’r cudd …” (awen arising from the deep, or from what is hidden). In a commentary on his translation of this poem (1), Rowan Williams says that he didn’t feel able to translate the word ‘awen’ literally here because it would not adequately convey the sense in context, as it is “not just a matter of one poet’s imagination at work”. I would endorse that comment and add that it is just as much a matter of communal inspiration and a shared sense of something arising from the landscape and the ‘Deep’ from which the spirit of the landscape arises.

Rowan Williams further develops his discussion of awen in the Introduction to the translation from The Book of Taliesin which he has published together with Gwyneth Lewis(2). There it is linked both to bardic craft and to “the shamanistic gift of inhabiting a life other than the poet’s own”. Noting that the concept of awen is central to the Taliesin poems, the assertion is again made that simply translating the word as ‘inspiration’ or ‘muse’ would be misguided. Reference to the awenyddion as described by Gerald of Wales in the twelfth century is also made to reinforce the sense of “spirit possession” that the term also implies in these poems, and that this is the mark of a true poet rather than the lesser practitioners Taliesin often denigrates alongside monks and other clerics whose knowledge is seen as inferior to that of the bard.

Taliesin is seen, therefore, as a poet of “ecstatic utterance” and compared to the Greek Orpheus, defining part of the way of ‘being’ a poet. Many of the poems in The Book of Taliesin – both the so-called ‘Legendary’ poems and the ‘Prophetic’ poems – refer to the awen as the source not only of inspiration but of deep knowledge. The source of awen is also often located, both in these poems and in the poetry of other Welsh bards of the period, as coming from the Cauldron of Ceridwen. There is a sense, then, of awen as having a spiritual origin so that, in the more orthodox christian theology of the later Middle Ages, it is seen as coming from the Virgin Mary, or directly from God.

So how has that usage survived into modern Welsh where the dictionaries seem satisfied with ‘poetic inspiration’ or ‘muse’, but the example from Waldo Williams’s poem and Rowan Williams’s commentary on it suggest deeper meanings? ‘Awenydd’, in modern Welsh is often used simply as a synonym for ‘poet’, functioning in a similar way to the word ‘bard’ in English. So ‘inspired poet’ might be a good way of translating it, though it doesn’t usually imply shamanistic possession. Similarly ‘awen’ is what inspires a poet or anyone with a creative gift. It can be used simply in these terms, but the linguistic archive of Welsh still makes that deeper meaning available and the sense of it arising from the ‘Deep’ haunts its usage and implies a deeper mystery to the practice of an awenydd’s craft than simply having a way with words. So Taliesin’s strictures about the necessary qualities of a bard still stand!

1. ‘Translating Waldo Williams’ by Rowan Williams chapter in Cof ac Arwydd , Golygwyd gan Damian Walford Davies & Jason Walford Davies (Barddas, 2006)

2. The Book of Taliesin :Poems of Warfare and Praise in and Enchanted Britain, Translated by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams (Penguin Classics, 2019) * (Discussed separately HERE~>)

Myth, Legend and Folklore

Rivers (with nymphs!) flowing across Cors Fochno, map by Wm Hole from Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion (1612)

Many rivers and streams run into the drowned lands of Gwyddno Garanhir where Mererid’s~> cry can be heard in the sigh of the turning tides, the cries of the wading birds and the winds gusting over the waves. This is a mythic world in a place that I inhabit. To the north the wide estuary of the River Dyfi washes the salt marsh and the mire of Cors Fochno shadowed by mountains to the east. These lowland acres stretch out to meet the sea, crossed by a web of streams flowing into rivers such as the Clettwr which rushes from the high ground through a rocky cleft and down through a wooded gorge to level out across the bog and into the estuary. And Ceulan, which flows from the same high ground where the cauldron lake of Moel y Llyn, fed by a perpetual spring, drains into the capillaries, veins and arteries around Cae’r Arglwyddes, flooding into the rivers below. Ceulan meets Eleri, running down from even higher ground, and as the land begins to level out they run together through another wooded gorge towards Cors Fochno, once flowing directly into Cardigan Bay but now diverted into the estuary to drain the land between the bog and the sea(*see note). Was it here that Gwion Bach was found in the fish weir of Gwyddno Garanhir and re-born as Taliesin? And so, was the flood that drowned Gwyddno’s realm the same flood that flowed from Ceridwen’s cauldron and poisoned his horses?(Discussion on this and the lake of Moel y Llyn  HERE~> )

The geography of the tale of Gwion and Taliesin is diverse. In the most well-known account Ceridwen set Gwion to tend the fire under her cauldron above the waters of Llyn Tegid. But this is too far north of Maes Gwyddno for the watersheds to bring the flood from there, though Llyn Tegid is itself said to have been formed by an inundation. Other parts of the tale of Gwion and Taliesin take it even further north to the Conwy estuary on the northern coast of Wales, where yet another inundation legend is set. Gwyddno himself may have originated in the ‘Old North’, that is the borderlands between England and Scotland.

So these ‘legendary’ events have geographical fluidity! But what of their source myth? Here, at the crucial meeting place of legend and mythic narrative – and the liminal ground of folklore through which the stories are diffused – is where historical memory, geology, and cultural ancestry come together in inherited mythos, and so cultural identity. It tells us where we belong, and who our gods are. When Gwyddno Garanhir leaves his lands to dwell with the ancestors accompanied by Gwyn ap Nudd ~> it is a mythic event represented in legend as located in a specific place, though his land could be any of many where historical inundations took place or where geological events re-shaped landscapes and seascapes as the narratives of these events themselves become ‘folklore’ and are written down as ‘literature’. They are our events when they are located in familiar landscapes or narrated in culturally specific ways. But the mythos is universal and this universality is reflected in the apparent universality of international folklore motifs, though mythic universality runs deeper; this is why Annwn is the ‘Deep’ from which our shallow world is manifest.

But it is never ‘shallow’ to us. because it is given depth by legends and mythic narratives which enliven the lands we inhabit, just as the empty winter woods take on a depth when sunlight shimmers through trees in full leaf to shadowy hollows and glades. Already, then, when Taliesin is re-born in Gwyddno’s lands, they are places of legendary history where mythic events have occurred. So when Gwyddno’ son Elffin adopts Taliesin as his bard at the court of Maelgwn Gwynedd, characters from the historical record become the stuff of legend and the carriers of mythic narrative: here the bard re-born from the waters to sing of the Deep from which he came. Here too is Mabon, freed from the dungeon below the waters of the Severn, who himself shares a story with Pryderi, stolen from his mother, Rhiannon, soon after his birth. The stories are told with many variations and inter-leavings as myth becomes legend and lore: the Harp of Maponos ~> playing to inspire multiple narratives.

And Taliesin? His historical, legendary and folkloric dispersal weaves  a mythic identity as the archetypal bard. But when Gwyn ap Nudd invites him into The Deep~> he seems reluctant to leave the legendary territory of his shaping for the mythic realm he claimed to know. Such is the ambiguous fate of heroes and demi-gods of ancient story, living between worlds. It is so for us too, when The Deep reveals itself and its darkness illuminates our world.

Continue reading “Myth, Legend and Folklore”

Non’s Well

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Ffynnon Non

Waters broke from a rock when Non,
pregnant, gripped it in a storm. By the well
Dewi was born: such tales do legends tell.

Now the waters that sit in the bowl of the rock
are still; beyond, waves break on the beach;
far out on the sea dolphins break the swell.

The view from the headland out over Bride’s Bay
is of islands, Sgomer, Sgogwm and between
and further out, too far to see, Gwales

keeping its secrets, where Brân’s head
sojourned while time stood still, the company
enchanted by the singing of Rhiannon’s birds.

Here a light spray showers down
as clouds break for a brief asperging
of a moment, which passes like the rain

as soon as it came, bringing a blessing
as did the touch of water from the well,
shaping a story : a tale I have to tell.

Non’s Well is a mile or so outside Tyddewi (St David’s) in Pembrokeshire where the cathedral to Wales’ patron saint is located. Non was his mother as told in his biography, though whether he was born here or further north in Ceredigion, the territory of Non’s father Ceredig, is disputed, as is often the case in legendary history.
But this site was already a place of significance and the well remains mythically present.


The story of Brân’s head and Gwales is told in the second of the four Mabinogi tales.

The Dragon Lord

Delightful to the Dragon-Lord …

After the final lines of ‘Mydwyf Merweryd’

(‘I am the Pulse …’) from The Book of Taliesin

Delightful to the dragon-lord

are songs from Gwion’s river

Flowing through the halls,

the scent of fair weather,

A horn full of mead

fragrant with honey and clover,

Druids skilled in Awen

– nothing pleases him better!

So the bard instructs the chieftain as to what is valuable and what, therefore, should please him: Gwion’s River : the flow of inspired song, fine weather, fragrant mead and the inspired utterances of his poets.

Bride’s Well

Bride’s Well

(Coed Tan yr Allt – a hidden place)

In these woods there is a place where water
Wells to a still pool in a cleft of rock
Like crystal, in which a sibyl might augur.

To enter is to inhabit a stillness as complete
And consistent as the cool water that ponds there
Beyond the ferns that arch from the steep

Rock face of the entrance to the cave.
Looking intensely at the face of the waters
No prophecy came but that I would engrave

This image on the stone of memory
And it would remain with me always
Welling in the mind’s pool, constantly

Bringing a blessing of Bride’s healing springs
And the tranquility such remembrance brings.

The Girl in Ogyrvan’s Hall

The Girl in Ogyrvan’s Hall

(Amended version of an earlier translation, with extended commentary).

I love a fair fort on the side of a hill

where seagulls glide : there stands a shy girl.

I yearn to be with her but she would not have me

Though I came on a white horse for her sweet mirth

To tell of the love that has overcome me

To lighten my darkness out of the gloom,

To see her whiteness like the foam on the wave

Flowing towards us out of her realm,

Gleaming like snow on the highest hill.

To cool my vexation in Ogrvan’s Hall

Unwilling to leave her (it would be my death)

My life-force is with her, my vitality ebbs

Like Garwy Hir* my desire undoes me

For a girl I can’t reach in Ogrvan’s Hall.

After the Welsh of Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd (died 1170).

Ogrvan’s Hall was identified by Sir John Rhŷs as a place in the Otherworld, occupied by the god that ruled over it. But there is also legend of a giant called Gogvran who was said to be the father of Gwenhywyfar who may, in turn, have been confused with [G]Ogyvran who occupied a fortress in Powys in the sixth century.

*Garwy Hir was a legendary lover in Welsh tradition. His love affair with Creirwy is alluded to by other early poets though the details of their story is lost beyond the idea that she was ‘the fairest maiden in the world’ and, in one version of the Taliesin story, the daughter of Ceridwen. Garwy was enchanted by her and made helpless by the thought of her, as Hywel in the poem seems also to be by the unattainable girl in the otherworld fortress.

An ogyrven is also one of the divisions of the Awen (poetic inspiration) according to a poem in The Book of Taliesin. There may be no etymological connection between these names, but that Hywel (and others) should be inspired by a woman in Ogyrvan’s Hall is surely a correspondence no poet could ignore!

Mari Lwyd


To celebrate Old New Year (13 January) the Mari Lwyd came to the Prom in Aberystwyth.

Sang the songs in the traditional dialect versions:

Wel dyma ni’n dwad

Gyfeillion diniwad

I ofyn cawn gennad i ganu …

(Here we come, innocent friends, to ask if we can sing …)

Then watched the starlings settling under the pier at sunset,

Before a disorderly parade through the town

Culminating at the Clock Tower for more music and song

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!