The Book of Taliesin is a great collection of medieval poetry. You should read it on its own merits. But for this inaugural post of my series, Literature for Magicians, I’ll be focusing on ways that the Welsh bard’s poetry could be useful to you in a magical or ritual setting. From direct quotation to loose adaptation, the verses of The Book of Taliesin can be incorporated in a variety of ways.
The Llyvyr Taliessin or Book of Taliesin is a collection of poetry from medieval Wales, ascribed to Taliesin, a mythic Welsh bard who, in some versions of his story, was servant of Ceridwen and magically transformed into “The Radiant Brow” (Taliesin), the greatest and most magical poet in the land. The jury’s out on whether a historical Taliesin existed, but it’s likely that some poet or other was, or was posthumously named thus. Like all good names, it didn’t lie dormant: both through poetic tradition and possible mystical inspiration, later poets inhabited the Taliesin guise, less a muse than an archetypal spirit form channeled for poetic brilliance.
The version of Book of Taliesin I’ll be referring to, by the way, is the one translated by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams. Insofar as this post is a book review, the book is good: the introduction goes into much more detail than I am about the history and persona of the book and its titular author; the translations are readable and powerful, while avoiding any attempts to copy the meter or sound patterns of the original, opting instead to create similar effects in unrhymed English poetics; and the notes, though a mix of footnotes and endnotes (death to endnotes!), fill in the many blanks admirably.
Taliesin and Ceridwen are very important to druidic practice today, with Ceridwen arguably being the center of some traditions, with Taliesin as the inspired magical practitioner the druid models themselves after. Primarily that comes from the Ystoria Taliessin, not the Book of Taliesin. The Ystoria is now usually appended to The Mabinogi, a tradition begun by Charlotte Guest. In the Ystoria, a child named Gwion Bach serves Ceridwen, who is brewing a potion to make her son wise and magically powerful – he’s so ugly she believes this is the only way he will prosper. Gwion Bach stirs the cauldron as she comes and goes, adding ingredients over the course of a year and a day. On the day the potion is ready, it splashes drops onto Gwion’s hand, and he sucks the burn, getting the benefit of the knowledge meant for Ceridwen’s son. She pursues him, and they transform into a series of animals. She eventually swallows him, and then gives birth to a baby: she can’t kill him, but neither can she bear to have him around, so she sends him down the river, where he is found and becomes the poet of a lord named Elffin.
I’m truncating the story and focusing on the early part because, while the Ystoria is more recent than the Llyvyr, it, too, reflects some version of this story. Many of the poems, again, attributed to Taliesin, have to do with transformation, and that’s where I want to begin the practical side of the essay.
I’m not going to try to quote or even name all the moments that the Taliesin persona talks about transforming or, more simply having been stuff. But I’ll show you a few examples.
From “The Battle of the Trees:”
Neither of mother
Nor of father was I formed;
My creation was created
Out of nine elements:
From fruit, out of fruits,
From the fruit of God’s beginning;
From Primroses and gossiping flowers;
From wood and trees’ pollen;
From earth, from the soil
Was I formed;
From Nettle flowers,
From the ninth wave’s water. (p. 59).
From “An Unfriendly Crowd:”
A second time my shape shifted
And I was a blue salmon,
A hound and a stag,
A roebuck on the mountain,
A clod and a spade
And an axe in the hand,
An augur gripped in tongs,
For a year and a half;
A speckled white cockerel
For the hens in Eidyn,
A stallion at stud,
A ramping bull…” (p. 52).
There are a number of reasons you might want to recite these, and other of Taliesin’s transformations. There are powerful symbolic associations here. In the short section from “An Unfriendly Crowd” alone, the speaker becomes creatures associated with water, fire, and earth (salmon, roebuck, and bull). Additionally, the mere act of identifying with a variety of creatures and creations in the world increases our interbeing with those things. A common meditation technique is to quiet the mind and say, “I am…” each thing that the eye encounters. A magician should always countenance transformation, in literal and figurative senses. Finally, the poet becomes these things through poetry, through being so skilled and inspired in poetic creation that they channel the thing. As the translators write in their introduction, “[t]he poet under the sway of awen is at once himself and an embodiment of the constantly transformative force that has possessed him” (p. liv). On a very pragmatic note, ritual often has us move through creatures, angels, or abstract signs of varying forces, identifying with each as we pass. These poems are powerful ways to do just that.
Awen is a sort of vital force, divine inspiration emerging from God or from Ceridwen – many contemporary druids identify Ceridwen as the source of awen, though it might be more apt to think of Ceridwen as the person we go to when we want to connect to awen, and not necessarily the creator of it, though from what I’ve seen both points of view exist out there.
A very short passage in “Teyrnon’s Prize Song” caught my eye as easily adaptable to ritual calls to awen:
Noble is the truth when it shines,
More noble when it speaks.
Nobly it came from the cauldron,
From the Trinity’s awen. (p.73).
For practitioners who aren’t enthused by Christian imagery, the cauldron is Ceridwen’s emblem par excellence. One could revise it for practical use thus:
Noble is the truth when it shines,
Nobler still when it speaks.
It comes from Ceridwen’s cauldron,
The mighty awen.
This verse could be an excellent recitation before divination or artistic endeavor, as well as magic more generally.
Kristoffer Hughes, linked above as author of a Mt. Haemus lecture, adapted a verse from the Book of Taliesin on the OBOD podcast, so I thought I would end with providing the original (well, translated original) for free adaptation:
My poetry’s patron – songs from Ceridwen’s cauldron.
My tongue ran freely, a store of inspiration –
And that inspired voice, my God formed it
Just as he made milk, dew, and hazelnuts. (p. 70).
Hughes freely adapts this passage to focus on Ceridwen’s gifts to us and a way to honor her with offerings of milk, dew, and nuts.
Many traditions have ready-made prayers, spells, and poems to pull on, while others prioritize creating them yourself. However, for a variety of reasons, you might find yourself interested in adapting or simply reading and reciting verses: there’s no Common Prayer Book for contemporary polytheism, or, at least, no universally agreed-upon book; some of the poems are just that good on their own; and adapting a new work from an ancient poem is very traditional actually. I hope these verses, and the awen they inspire, are helpful to you in your practice!
Aside from the wide body of Taliesin’s transformation poetry, perhaps the best example in the generally “Celtic” tradition is “The Song of Amergin.” You can find a number of translations – Carey’s being the best, at Celtic Myth Podshow.