The Birth Of Taliesin

Long ago, in the time of King Arthur, there was a Lady of great magic called Ceridwen, who lived by the shores of Bala Lake. Ceridwen had two children, a girl and a boy. The girl was called Creirwy, Dear One, and she was as fair as the moon upon water. But her other son, Avagddu, whose name means Darkness, was ugly, crooked, and stupid as a block. But Ceridwen loved her misshapen son, and longed to bring brightness into his life, so she studied the books of the Druid alchemists known as the Pheryllt, and mastered the secret art of brewing a Cauldron of Inspiration, three drops of which would bestow the knowledge of all things past, present and future upon her hapless son. She learned under which moon to gather the herbs, under which stars to steep them, and when at last she had all the ingredients together, she set them to cook in her great iron cauldron for a year and a day.

To watch over it she hired a local peasant boy, a young lad called Little Gwion. For all that year little Gwion stirred and stirred the simmering brew with a great wooden spoon, spending his days feeding the fire with twigs and dead leaves, and his nights keeping warm by its flickering flames, until the time had almost come when the magical brew was ready. But on that last day, as Gwion stirred the potion sunwise for good luck, three drops sprang out of the cauldron and landed on his hand – and without thinking about it, the lad sucked the burn and swallowed the three drops of Inspiration. In that moment he was filled with a great light that burst open the horizons of his young mind. It was as if everything that had ever happened and was going to happen in the world rolled out before him, and infinity made a home in his head

But with his outer eye, he saw Ceridwen coming towards him, her face exploding with anger! So little Gwion dropped the wooden spoon and he ran, but she came close behind, and he heard her footsteps like thunder upon the path. The boy ran and ran, and in his thoughts he was Hare leaping to safety – and he turned into a hare and leaped away. But she turned into a greyhound, and Hare was swift but Greyhound was swifter, and soon the little animal could feel her breath on his neck. He bounded to the edge of the lake and leapt into the water, and in his thoughts he became a fish, and Salmon he became and swam away through the dark reedy waters of the lake.

But Ceridwen leapt into the water and she became an otter, and though Salmon was swift, Otter was swifter, and her paws flexed for the kill. But the fish leapt out of the water, and in his thoughts, he became a bird. He was Crow, beating at the air with his wings, and he turned into Crow and away he flew. But she leapt out of the water, and she turned into a hawk. And Crow was swift, but Hawk was swifter, and swooped down and dug its talons into the neck of the smaller bird. But at the last minute, he turned into a grain of wheat and dropped down between the cruel talons onto the threshing-floor of a nearby mill. And there he hid with thousands of other grains of wheat.

But Hawk turned into a Black Hen, and she fluttered and flew down from the sky onto the threshing-floor, and scratched and pecked until she found the one grain among the many and swallowed it up. And no sooner had Black Hen swallowed the grain of wheat than the great cauldron over the fire rocked one way and rocked another and with a great crack, it split in two. A black liquid oozed out, dowsing the fire, and trickling away in a black stream that poisoned all the land and all the horses that grazed there.

In the belly of Ceridwen, the little grain of wheat began to grow. It grew and it grew and three months passed and six months passed, and she was getting bigger, and when nine months were over, she lay on her back and gave birth to a baby boy. As soon as the child was born, she took a dagger—for she knew well who he was—and went to slit his throat. But she made the mistake of looking into the child’s face—and he was so beautiful and he was her own son, and she couldn’t bring herself to kill him. She threw the dagger down with a clatter and she made a coracle out of withies, hide and pitch, wrapped the baby up in layers of animal skins and placed him gently in the coracle. Then she tucked it under her arm, and strode over mountain and moorland until she came to the ocean and cast the coracle upon the salt-cold waters. The little boat was sent spinning and tossing by the waves and currents and winds of the sea for many hundreds of years, but in all that time the child wrapped in skins did not age by a single day.

Now, many years later, a Welsh prince called Elphin lived at the mouth of the river Conway. He was a wastrel and a gambler and heavily in debt. One May Eve, he heard that the salmon were running, so he said to himself: "Now if I stretch some nets across the river banks, I can catch some salmon, and make some money."

So he stretched his nets across the estuary and all night long he waited there under the bright stars, and in the morning he waded into the water to see what he caught. There he found not one single fish—but, caught in the nets was a little coracle, all encrusted with limpets and barnacles.

And inside the coracle something lay wrapped in animal skins.

Elphin folded back the skins one by one, and when the last one slipped off, there lay a little baby boy smiling up at him. Around his head shone a bright light. Elphin could not believe his eyes. All he could say was: "Look at that shining brow!" And in Welsh that is Taliesin, and so the baby boy was called from that time forth. Elphin lifted the boy in his arms and carried him as softly as if he had been sitting in the easiest chair in the world. And presently Elphin asked the boy what he was, whether man or spirit. Whereupon Taliesin sang this tale:

First, I have been formed a comely person, In the court of Caridwen I have done penance;
Though little I was seen, placidly received,
I was great on the floor of the place to where I was led;
I have been a prized defence, the sweet muse the cause,
And by law without speech I have been liberated
By a smiling black old hag, when irritated
Dreadful her claim when pursued:
I have fled with vigour, I have fled as a frog,
I have fled in the semblance of a crow, scarcely finding rest;
I have fled vehemently, I have fled as a chain,
I have fled as a roe into an entangled thicket;
I have fled as a wolf cub, I have fled as a wolf in a wilderness,
I have fled as a thrush of portending language;
I have fled as a fox, used to concurrent bounds of quirks;
I have fled as a martin, which did not avail;
I have fled as a squirrel, that vainly hides,
I have fled as a stag’s antler, of ruddy course,
I have fled as iron in a glowing fire,
I have fled as a spear-head, of woe to such as has a wish for it;
I have fled as a fierce hull bitterly fighting,
I have fled as a bristly boar seen in a ravine,
I have fled as a white grain of pure wheat,
On the skirt of a hempen sheet entangled,
That seemed of the size of a mare’s foal,
That is filling like a ship on the waters;
Into a dark leathern bag I was thrown,
And on a boundless sea I was sent adrift;
Which was to me an omen of being tenderly nursed,
And the Lord God then set me at liberty.

Taliesin would grow into a great poet.

End of The Birth Of Taliesin