There was a moment in February 2016 when I became suddenly attracted to the idea of living in the village of Taliesin. One of the strongest motivations at the time was the relatively cheap price of property there and the proximity to both Machynlleth, Aberystwyth and Borth. These places form the quincunx of my life here in Aberystwyth and Taliesin lies at their centre. Then a medieval chapel came up for sale not far from Taliesin for a very reasonable sum, and suddenly I discovered a double incentive to visit Taliesin: to visit the remains of a beautiful closed church and to visit the grave of one of the most curious and venerated figures in the Welsh literary tradition: the Taliesin poet.
I first encountered the Taliesin poet through my readings of George Burrow’s Wild Wales – an obvious starting point for any student of Welsh literature, culture, and its interpretation through an English cultural filter. Through my readings of this good-natured Victorian traveller’s walking trips through Mid-Wales I became familiar with the prophesy of Taliesin after which his travelogue is named.
Within my mind
I hold books confin’d,
Of Europa’s land all the mighty lore;
O God of heaven high!
With how many a bitter sigh,
I my prophecy upon Troy’s line pour:
A serpent coiling,
And with fury boiling,
From Germany coming with arm’d wings spread,
Shall Britain fair subdue
From the Lochlin ocean blue,
To where Severn rolls in her spacious bed.
And British men
Shall be captives then
To strangers from Saxonia’s strand;
From God they shall not swerve,
They their language shall preserve,
But except wild Wales, they shall lose their land.”
George Burrow, Welsh Poems and Ballads, (Jarrold & Sons, London) p. 49.
Tracking the scent, I found a collection of lyrics and ballads that Welsh-speaking Burrows had personally translated. In this collection the Taliesin poet was well represented.
Who is the Taliesin poet? I am not a scholar of Celtic literature; merely a creative writer with a natural interest in the rich literary heritage of the country in which I live. However, it seems that this is not an easy question to answer. Taliesin is not just a man – a fifth-century poet – but also a myth. He turned himself into a myth even in his own lifetime when he claimed supernatural heredity from the Sorceress Cridwen. In his ‘Hanes’ or ‘History’ he boasts of an unlikely transcendence, ‘And I know the Milky Way / Where I tarried many a day.’ (p. 54). Given this, it is no wonder that he awed contemporaries and they crowned him ‘Bardic King’.
Bard to the Chieftain Elphin, Taliesin was reputedly discovered in a coracle floating in a salmon weir in the Prince’s lands. An orphan, and later a poet, he attributed his Orphic gifts – or ‘Awen’ as poetic inspiration is referred to in Welsh – to his magical origins. According to the poet, ‘My inspiration’s flame / From Cridwen’s cauldron came; / Nine months was I in gloom/ In Sorceress Cridwen’s womb’. The story is not altogether clear, but according to a rendition of it that I heard recounted by Peter Stevenson, a talented local storyteller and artists, Taliesin accidentally imbibed magical potion from the sorceress’s cauldron while tending it. When Cridwen realised what had happened, an enormous shape-shifting contest began, in which the enraged Cridwen chased the newly empowered boy across the countryside. He changed shape from a bird, to a hare, to an ear of corn and was eventually eaten by Cridwen who had assumed the shape of a bird. However, rather than killing him she gave birth to him nine months later and left him floating in a coracle, believing that he would die.
The tale of Taliesin has become woven into the fabric of pre-Christian folklore, and the legendary figure, whose name means ‘brow of brightness’ still exists as an archetype of pagan poetic genius. So perhaps like Christ, Taliesin was a real man, a man that existed, a poet working in the service of a prince, but he was also a myth – an archetype of the singing Welsh minstrel. He himself revels in this ambiguity: ‘None knows with certainty / Whether fish or flesh I be.’ (Quoted from Borrow’s translation of ‘A History of Taliesin’, p. 56).
Of course, some of this was playing over in my mind as Tom drove us up towards Tre- Taliesin – a place I bizarrely didn’t associate with the poet until it was flagged up on a Google search engine.
With all honesty I had almost no idea where to find Taliesin’s grave. I naively thought that once we stopped in Taliesin and asked a local, it would be obvious: I imagined a monumental tomb, perhaps an obelisk, marking the place where his body was interred. Instead, when pushed to provide a concrete destination on a busy road, I asked Tom if he knew of any graveyards in Taliesin. He nodded and drove down a side road.
As soon as I saw the small, pleasant graveyard which serviced the village in a slightly overgrown paddocks, I realised this could not be the final resting place of a fifth-century poet. We both giggled a little at our stupidity and cast about to see if there was anybody nearby we could ask the way. The only person to be seen was a farmer in an opposite field, leaning against the barbed fire fence and looking fixedly into the middle distance where a mechanised harrow was chiselling furrows into the earth. Tom shooed me off and I skipped up to him.
The Welsh farmer was very affable. As soon as I explained what I was after, he smiled and launched into a detailed explanation of how to find the grave. I was pleased to have confirmation that it did indeed exist and wasn’t too far away. But in order to decrypt the detailed verbal atlas of mountain roads and farm names coming my way, I needed to enlist the help of someone else. I beckoned Tom over. The two of them exchanged manly nods and the farmer repeated what he told me. I could not tell if Tom’s eyes were flashing with understanding or if he was just being polite. But it wasn’t long before we were back in the car and on the road again.
“It’s this way,” said Tom, with modest satisfaction in his voice.
He pointed the car, not as I expected, back towards the main road, but up into the hills. We climbed steadily, and still Tom was unfalteringly following the directions the farmer had given him. Tom had worked on farms himself not far from here, when he was a boy and knew the area well.
We passed cottages and smallholdings, wound up into the hillocks that rise steeply behind the A487 and the village of Tre-Taliesin. Once at the top the view was tremendous, we were perched almost exactly above the Dyfi Estuary.
We had crossed two cattle grates but now the car ground to a halt. We weren’t sure whether to fork left or not. We were in agricultural land now, well and truly, and there was not a soul in sight for miles around, except for a number of contented-looking horses and sheep.
Instead we decided to investigate ourselves on foot. But after about ten minutes, I felt it was hopeless. I realised now that Taliesin’s grave, if it was indeed here, wasn’t going to be officially marked. There might be a slight barrow or a cairn but that was it; searching lamely beside the road was unlikely to yield us what we wanted.
We returned to the car disappointed, but then as luck would have it a 4×4 screeched round the corner, with some local men inside it and Tom hailed them down. I could see from the way he was speaking that they were giving him directions. He came back to me with a twinkle in his eye.
“It was the right direction,” he said, reassured.
Now we ploughed on by foot.
“It’s up here,” he said, his tall form walking up the mountainside ahead of me. “That’s it,” he said at last
“That’s it?” I was surprised, there was almost nothing there, just a curious long flat rock lying on the turf, propped up by a few rough boulders.
“That’s what the men said.”
I didn’t doubt him. Looking about me, I felt this was the right place, as I remembered dimly an image online I had seen of the place.
Of course there was only a slim chance that the real Taliesin poet was buried here. But I liked the idea of it, even if it was just a fiction. After all that was what the Taliesin poet was all about: his entire life was a fiction.
And there could not be a more stunning spot to lay your bones to rest, in even a fictional world – than this. Far from the madding crowds on the coast or in the inland towns and villages, the tall mountainside overlooking the Dyfi estuary, offered unparalleled views of this stunning part of Wales. It occurred to me that even if the modest barrow by my feet was not the final resting place of the Taliesin poet, it had been a worthwhile journey to a sacred spot nonetheless.