‘Awen’ from earlier Celtic Auen ‘to blow’.
“I know the secrets of Ceridwen’s song”
– Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr (1155 – 1200)
There are fifteen occurrences of the word awen in The Book of Taliesin as well as several equivalent words or phrases, such as ogyrven which is used both as a division of the awen (‘Seven score ogyrven which are in awen, shaped in Annwfn’) as well as an alternative word for awen itself. The poem ‘Armes Prydain’ (The Prophecies of Britain) begins with the phrase ‘Awen foretells …’, and it is repeated later in the poem. The link between poetic inspiration and divination is implicit in the description of the Awenyddion given by Gerald of Wales in the 12th century and the link between bardic expression and prophecy is a common feature of much early verse in Wales and elsewhere.
Several of the uses of the word awen in The Book of Taliesin are simply boasts , emphasising the skill and the depth of inspiration of the poet compared to lesser practitioners of the art. In one poem awen is specifically conceived of as threefold and having its source in a cauldron, an emphasis which commonly occurs in the references to awen by the early bards, often also linked with Ceridwen as the keeper of the Cauldron. These lines could also contain a reference to the Trinity which was much emphasized in the Christian theology of the time. In one of the few poems in The Book of Taliesin which has been assigned to the historical 6th century bard rather than one of his later imitators or adaptors, the awen is referred to as an ash wand, implying that it is a weapon in the poetic armoury, or perhaps a magical implement. The military metaphor is also implicit in the Llywarch Hen cycle where Llywarch, in his old age, refers to the loss of his awen as his strength and vigour wanes.
A poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen by an unidentified bard, but addressed to Cuhelyn Fardd (1100-1130) asks God to allow the awen to flow so that ‘inspired song from Ceridwen will shape diverse and well-crafted verse’. This anticipates much poetry from identified bards of the Welsh princes between circa 1100-1300 which juggles the competing claims of the Christian religion with the source of the awen in the Cauldron of Ceridwen, enabling a formal adherence to Christianity to be balanced against the inspired utterances of earlier awenyddion who were perceived as deriving their inspiration from ancient native sources . These early poems also anticipate the development of the verse techniques of cynghanedd as an embodiment of the woven words and interlocked phrases used by the bards of the princes, and formalised by later generations to keep the tradition alive in memory. These are not only exercises in creative technique but also close to being a system of coded reference among the bardic elite.
So Llywarch ap Llywelyn (1173-1220) – also known as ‘Prydydd y Moch’ – can address his patron Llywelyn ap Iorwerth like this:
I greet my lord, bring awen’s great greeting
Words from Ceridwen I compose
Just like Taliesin when he freed Elffin.
The same poet also penned the often quoted lines
The Lord God grant me sweet awen
As from the Cauldron of Ceridwen
Elidr Sais (c. 1195-1246), ‘singing to Christ’, wrote
Brilliant my poetry after Myrddin
Shining forth from the cauldron of awen
while Dafydd Benfras (1220-1258) included both Myrddin (Merlin) and Aneirin in his backward glance:
Full of awen as Myrddin desired
Singing praise as Aneirin before me
when he sang of ‘Gododdin’.
So far all the bards quoted inhabited an independent Wales which looked back to a more extensive homeland which comprised much of western Britain. After the killing of Llywelyn, the last native Prince of Wales in 1282, there was an outpouring of grief from the bards and a sense that an end had come to the world they inhabited, best represented by the ‘Elegy for Llywelyn’ by Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Coch with lines such as
Not since Camlann has there been such weeping
All Britain is struck down with Nantcoel’s defender
Hearts chilled by a pall of fear
The sun falls and the stars are shrinking
Can you not see our world is ending,
Why does the sea not run over the shore?
As the Norman aristocracy gradually moved into Wales this proved prophetically accurate. There are no surviving further references to awen or the Cauldron of Ceridwen in the poetry for the period after 1300, although much has been lost so we cannot know for certain. The topic does re-emerge in the 15th century, so it is likely that some continuity was maintained. But by then the debate about the source of the awen is framed entirely in Christian terms with the Virgin Mary, rather than Ceridwen, identified and there is no mention of a cauldron. It was not that this had been entirely forgotten. The prose tale of Gwion, Ceridwen and the re-birth of Taliesin dates from this period and includes fragments of the earlier poems. The story was, by the testimony of Elis Gruffydd in the 16th century widespread in popular knowledge in Wales. But it seems that the bards had abandoned it to the folk tradition rather than keeping it as part of their own arcane lore.
I have drawn upon the essay ‘Awen y Cynfeirdd a’r Gogynfeirdd’ by Y Chwaer Bosco in Beirdd a Thywysogion (Cardiff, 1996) for some factual information.
I have also used the editions of the Beirdd y Tywysogion series for quotations from the early bards together with Marged Haycock’s Legendary Poems from The Book of Taliesin (Aberystwyth, 2007) and Prophecies from The Book of Taliesin (Aberystwyth, 2013) and the edition of Armes Prydain by Ifor Williams and Rachel Bromwich (Dublin, 1982).
Translations from the poetry are my own.