contemplativeinquiry

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Tag: Taliesin

POEM: PRIMARY CHIEF BARD

Gnostic Bardistry from The Book of Taliesin? These are just five of the verses, selected by me from one poem. What interests me is not so much working out what to us seems like a set of puzzles, but how something new and dialogical is created by interweaving indigenous material and biblical references. I say a few words in italics after each verse.

Primary Chief Bard

Primary Chief Bard

Am I to Elffin

And my native country

Is the region of the summer stars.

 

The first statement is a statement of identity. It begins with a local (though important) role, and goes on to the cosmic and transcendent. This taps into a sense of belonging somewhere else (whether perceived as a place or state). It makes me think that statements like ‘being here now, in the present’ and ‘my native country is the region of the summer stars’ only seem contradictory: meaning depends so much on context and the work that words are doing. If the two statements are separated and polarised, they diminish into limiting slogans. Taken together, they can lead us to a different quality of experience.

I was full nine months

In the womb of the hag Ceridwen.

Before that I was Gwion

But now I am Taliesin.

Taliesin’s current personal identity is explained in terms of a second birth, in this life, triggered by the actions of Ceridwen. This second birth fits him to be a Bard and take the Bardic name ‘Radiant Brow’, one that bespeaks major shifts in energy and consciousness. It also allows the sense of the summer stars as his ‘native country’ to be real within him. It orients him to his true home.

I was patriarch

To Elijah and Enoch.

I was there at the crucifixion

Of the merciful Mabon.

Elijah and Enoch ascended to heaven without dying. They have deep roles in Jewish mysticism. They are in the tradition of so-called ‘ascended Masters’. If we treat these metaphors (insofar as they are metaphors) as concerned with enlightenment, then – as their ‘Patriarch’ – Taliesin is claiming primacy over them. He is in some sense a Christ figure and so can be present at the crucifixion of another Christ figure, referred to here by the name of the magical child of British tradition ‘the Mabon’.

 

I was at the cross

With Mary Magdalene.

I received the Awen

From Ceridwen’s cauldron.

The poem presented here is a product of the later Middle Ages, likely as late as the fourteenth century. Traditions giving Mary Magdalene the role of major teacher and possibly spouse of Jesus were deep underground, but everyone in Christendom Knew of her witnessing role at both the crucifixion and the resurrection, and so as privileged in some way. She also shares her name with Mary the mother. The two couplets together bring the idea of Christ’s transformation through death on the cross with Taliesin’s transformation from Ceridwen’s cauldron, and the critical role of a feminine power in each.

I was in the larder

In the land of the Trinity

And no one knows whether my body

Is flesh or fish.

Despite all the above, Taliesin remains an enigma – a shape shifter and trickster. He defies definition and description and won’t fit into any box that attracts unwanted piety. Other readers may understand this verse much better than I do, but I see it as very tough minded and unwilling to let me parcel up this poem and tie it with a neat bow. To the extent that I get a sense of medieval Welsh literature, this seems very characteristic. However, in the most obvious ‘Land of the Trinity’ (Western Christendom) people want to know where everyone stands. The accepted narrative is that we’re with Jesus the avatar of Pisces and through the sign of the fish we know him. And yet the old Celtic world has many trinities and many fish, including the salmon of wisdom. And Taliesin’s body might be flesh after all. So we are thrown back on our resources, with riddling words and ambiguous images to reflect them.

 

The complete poem can be found in Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland by John Matthews London: The Aquarian Press, 1991.

POEM: TALIESIN

An unfamiliar (at least to me) image of Taliesin. One of ‘Six Celtic Sonnets’ by Thomas Samuel Jones, first published in 1930. Taken from the ‘Isles of Dream’, an anthology of work from the ‘Celtic Renaissance ‘.

On lonely shores where dreams are drifted sand

He follows to the end a star’s bright course,

A ghostly hunter without hound or horse,

The warrior-bard, last of the Druid band;

But still his wizard harp rings in his hand

Beside the Stream of Sorrow’s hidden source,

Still from a breaking heart his wild songs force

Their way into the god’s mysterious land.

Dauntless he sings, and sees the drear woods turn

To golden orchards by the river bed

Where healing waters of the rainbow run;

And past the valley near great peaks that burn

With beaconing fire the hero-bard is led

Up toward the Dragon City of the Sun.

Taliesin is one of Six Celtic Sonnets written by Thomas Samuel Jones and included in From the Isles of Dream: Visionary Stories and Poems of the Celtic Renaissance, selected by John Matthews and with a foreword by Robin Williamson (Floris Books, 1993).

Thomas Samuel Jones (1882-1932) came from Welsh and Irish stock and was born in Oneida County, New York State, near the Adirondack Mountains. Each of the six sonnets reflects a facet of Celtic tradition. They were originally published in 1930 as part of the collection Aknahton and Other Sonnets. For those of us who resonate with Druid and Celtic spirituality, they are part of our modern cultural ancestry.

HANES TALIESIN (THE CAULDRON OF CERIDWEN)

The Sage Ceridwen was the wife

Of Tegid Voel, of Pemble Mere:

Two children blessed their wedded life,

Morvran and Creirwy, fair and dear;

Morvran, a son of peerless worth,

And Creirway, lovely nymph of earth:

But one more son Ceridwen bare,

As foul as they before were fair.

She strove to make Avagddu wise;

She knew he never could be fair:

And, studying magic mysteries,

She gathered plants of virtue rare:

She placed the gifted plants to steep

Within the magic cauldron deep,

Where they a year and day must boil,

‘Till three drops crown the matrons toil.

Nine damsels raised the mystic flame;

Gwion the Little near it stood:

The while for simples roved the dame

Through tangles dell and pathless wood.

And when the year and day had passed,

The dame within the cauldron cast

The consummating chaplet wild,

While Gwion held the hideous child.

But from the cauldron rose a smoke

That filled with darkness all the air:

When through its folds the torchlight broke,

Nor Gwion, nor the boy, was there.

The fire was dead, the cauldron cold,

And in it lay, in sleep uprolled,

Fair as the morning-star, a child,

That woke and stretched its arms and smiled.

What chanced her labours to destroy;

She never knew, and sought in vain

If ‘twere her own misshapen boy,

Or little Gwion, born again:

And vexed with doubt, the babe she rolled,

In cloth of purple and of gold,

And in a coracle consigned

Its fortunes to the sea and wind.

The summer night was still and bright,

The summer moon was large and clear,

The frail bark, on the springtide’s height,

Was floated into Elphin’s weir:

The baby in his arms he raised:

His lovely spouse stood by, and gazed,

And, blessing it with gentle vow,

Cried “TALIESIN!” “Radiant brow!”

And I am he, and well I know

Ceridwen’s power protects me still:

And hence o’er hill and vale I go,

And sing, unharmed, what’er I will.

She has for me Time’s veil withdrawn:

The images of things long gone,

The shadows of the coming days,

Are present to my visioned gaze.

And I have heard the words of power,

By Ceiron’s solitary lake,

That bid, at midnight’s thrilling hour,

Eyri’s hundred echoes wake.

I to Diganwy’s towers have sped,

And now Caer Lleon’s halls I tread,

Demanding justice, now as then,

From Maelgon, most unjust of men.

This poem comes from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829. It is (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin, in which the Bard Taliesin he has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales. Taliesin has to win a Bardic contest at the court of the High King, Arthur and thus be able to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the Taliesin’s winning entry and concerns his mysterious birth. It differs somewhat from the version presented 20 years later by Lady Charlotte Guest, whilst being a recognisable if variant presentation of the same tale. The audience “shouted with delight” at this song, which wins the contest for Taliesin and entitles him to a boon from Arthur.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy. Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, and also recommends the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog in Merionethshire for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.

POEM: AVALLENNAU MYRDDIN (MERLIN’S APPLE TREES)

Fair gift to Merlin given

Apple trees seven score and seven;

Equal all in age and size;

On a green hill-slope, that lies

Basking in the southern sun

Where bright waters murmuring run.

Just beneath the pure stream flows;

High above the forest grows;

Not again on earth is found

Such a slope of orchard ground:

Song of birds, and hum of bees,

Ever haunt the apple trees.

Lovely green their leaves in spring;

Lovely bright their blossoming:

Sweet the shelter and the shade

By their summer foliage made:

Sweet the fruit their ripe boughs hold,

Fruit delicious, tinged with gold.

Gloyad, nymph with tresses bright,

Teeth of pearl, and eyes of light,

Guards these gifts of Ceido’s son,

Gwendol, the lamented one,

Him, whose keen-edged, sword no more

Flashes ‘mid the battle’s roar.

War has raged on vale and hill:

That fair grove was peaceful still.

There have chiefs and princes sought

Solitude and tranquil thought:

There have kings, from courts and throngs,

Turned to Merlin’s wild-wood songs.

Now from echoing woods I hear

Hostile axes sounding near:

On the sunny slope reclined,

Feverish grief disturbs my mind,

Lest the wasting edge consume

My fair spot of fruit and bloom.

Lovely trees, that long alone

In the sylvan vale have grown,

Bare, your sacred plot around,

Grows the once wood-waving ground:

Fervent valour guards ye still;

Yet my soul presages ill.

Well I know, when years have flown,

Briars shall grow where ye have grown:

Them in turn shall power uproot;

Then again shall flowers and fruit

Flourish in the sunny breeze,

On my new-born apple trees.

This is my second poem drawn from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829 and based (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin. The Bard Taliesin has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales by winning a Bardic contest at the court of the High King, Arthur. Victory entitles him to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the work of Merlin, also a contestant. The audience response is described thus: “this song was heard with much pleasure, especially by those of the audience who could see, in the imagery of the apple trees, a mystical type of the doctrines and fortunes of Druidism, to which Merlin was suspected of being secretly attached, even under the very nose of St. David”. In a future post I will also present Taliesin’s winning entry.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy. Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, and also recommends the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog in Merionethshire for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.

POEM: GORWYNION GAUAV (THE BRILLIANCES OF WINTER)

Last of flowers, in tufts around

Shines the gorse’s golden bloom:

Milk white lichens clothe the ground

‘Mid the flowerless heath and broom:

Bright are holly-berries, seen

Red, through leaves of glossy green.

Brightly, as on rocks they leap,

Shine on sea-waves, white with spray:

Brightly in the dingles deep,

Gleams the river’s foaming way;

Brightly through the distance show

Mountain summits clothed with snow.

Brightly where the torrents bound,

Shines the frozen colonnade,

Which the black rocks, dripping round,

And the flying spray have made:

Bright the ice drops on the ash

Leaning o’er the cataract’s dash.

Bright the hearth, where feast and song

Crown the warrior’s hour of peace,

While the snow storm drives along,

Bidding the war’s worst tempest cease:

Bright the hearth flame, flashing clear

On the up-hung shield and spear.

Bright the torchlight of the hall

When the wintry night winds blow;

Brightness when its splendours fall

On the mead-cup’s sparkling flow:

While the maiden’s smile of light

Makes the brightness trebly bright.

Close the portals; pile the hearth;

Strike the harp; the feast pursue;

Brim the horns; fire, music, mirth,

Mead and love, are winter’s due.

Spring to purple conflict calls

Swords that shine on winter’s walls.

This poem comes from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829.  The story is (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin, in which the Bard Taliesin he has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales.  Taliesin has to win a Bardic contest at the court of the High King Arthur and thus be able to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the work of Prince Llywarch, one of the contestants. It is well received: “Llywarch’s song was applauded, as representing a series of images with which all present were familiar, and which were all of them agreeable”.  It treats winter as, among other things, a period of respite from warfare. In future posts I will also present the entries of Merlin and the winner Taliesin.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy.  Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, also recommending the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog, Merionethshire, for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.

MABON

Druidry has its own view of the magical, redemptive child or youth: the Mabon. Here is my transcription (and I apologise for any inaccuracies) of Mabon, a song recorded by Silver in the Tree as part of their Eye of the Aeon album in 1991 and re-recorded on Dreaming the God in 2007.

I am the Mabon I am the child
I am YR the golden bough
I am the dart the yew lets fly
Three pure rays the pillars of light
I am the Wren the King of Birds
I am Bard and teller of lies
I am a song within the heart
I am a light that will never die
I am stars within the void
I am the Eye of the Aeon

In Celtic times the reference is always to Mabon, son of Modron (Youth, son of Mother), “the primal child who was in existence at the beginning of things” (1). The story of How Culhwch won Olwen (2) includes a section where a search is mounted to find and rescue the lost and imprisoned Mabon. Roman Britain and Gaul record devotion to a youthful male deity called Apollo Maponus, very well described by Lorna Smithers in a From Peneverdant post on 26 December 2012 http://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/Maponus/.

In the medieval poem Primary Chief Bard – attributed to Taliesin – Christ is referred to as the “merciful Mabon” and the “Maiden’s Mabon” (3) The Taliesin of the Hanes Taliesin (3) is himself a Mabon figure. The area around Loch Maben in Dumfriesshire is tied to stories of Lailoken, the Scottish Merlin (see also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/merlin) and his interaction with St. Kentigern (aka St. Mungo) at the time of Christian conversion (4).  When I visited the Loch at Lochmaben some years ago, the water’s edge, in morning mist, had some of the numinous feel of Llyn Tegid at Bala, though the Scottish loch is much smaller.

Modern Druidry gained momentum as a spiritual tradition at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when, more widely, a ‘Celtic twilight’ current met that of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (think of W. B. Yeats). Hence in some iterations of modern Druidry, the Mabon can be understood as a Celtic Hermes, birthed within the practitioner as the fruit of inner alchemical work. It may also be that the “Eye of the Aeon” reference at the end of the Mabon song nods in the direction of Aleister Crowley’s view of our ‘new age’ as being the Aeon of Horus (5). The eye of the Aeon is also the ‘I’ of the Aeon, the you and me of the Aeon, because that’s how this age is understood to work. It’s about transformation of consciousness, and if we want to use such a term, divinisation, within the individual – Jung’s journey of individuation, from self to Self.

The Mabon is a primary archetypal image within Druidry, and we can relate to this image – resonance, presence – in many ways. For me, Mabon, the song has power. Ten brief lines, each one a portal in itself. Silver on the Tree can be found at http://www.last.fm/music/Silver+on+the+Tree

1: Matthews, Caitlin & John The western way: a practical guide to the western mystery tradition (volume 1: the native tradition) (1985) London: Arkana

2: Davies, Sioned The Mabinogion (2007) Oxford: The University Press

3: Matthews, John Shamanism and the bardic mysteries in Britain and Ireland (1991) London: the Aquarian Press

4: http://www.everything2.com/title/Saint+Kentigern+and+Lailoken

5: DuQuette, Lon Milo (2003) Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser

MERLIN AND CONTEMPLATION

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (1) draws on the legendary history of Wales, Cumbria and South West Scotland. The overall story, written in the middle of the twelfth century, is about wounding and healing in various forms at the level both of the individual and the collective.

My interest here is in the resolution. Four people, somewhat bruised by life and getting on in years, retire to the Caledonian woods. They vow to live a contemplative life – outside in the summer, and in an elaborate ‘observatory’ in the winter, dedicated to star lore. Their leader is Merlin himself, recovering from a period of (still masterful and charismatic) breakdown, precipitated by a war of neighbours between the old British peoples of Cumbria and Strathclyde. This was at a time when both of them had invaders from other language groups (English and Gaelic) to contend with.

The little community’s second member is Merlin’s sister Ganieda, now widowed, previously Queen of Strathclyde – a kingdom ruled from Dumbarton and extending south to the Solway Firth. The third member is the traumatised vagrant Maeldinus, disoriented and damaged by the juice of poisoned (i.e. magical) apples. Last but not least is the Bard Taliesin, often taken as the model for self-realization in British Celtic tradition. He is world weary after the passing of Arthur from the apparent world into The Isle of Apples – Avalon, a Celtic Otherworld – to be healed and cared for by a wholly benign Morgan and her sisters. In the deeper picture Arthur will never die. But it is still it is the end of an era and a time of lengthening shadows for the culture he defended.

Geoffrey of Monmouth became the first Bishop of St. Asaph in North East Wales, though he never visited the diocese.  But for literary purposes, he relies on the imagery and world views of both Roman and Celtic paganism. The forest contemplative group is dedicated to the Roman wisdom and owl goddess Minerva (often used as an equivalent to native British goddesses as in Sulis Minerva at Bath, and inscribed on a cliff overlooking the Dee at Chester, the city called Deva/Dea by the Romans). Indeed Ganieda, taking on the mantle of prophecy, in a sense becomes the Minerva of the little community. Describing his reason for joining forces with Merlin, Taliesin says “I have spent enough time living in vain, and now is the time to restore me to myself”, which seems to me to have a subtle tinge of divine self-recollection, thereby synthesising Pagan British and Neo-Platonist understandings of who he is. A recent verse translation (2) goes as far as say “I will have time to discover my true self”. I prefer the older translation, since Taliesin has already made that discovery, much earlier in life (3). What he needs is a place where he can fully connect again, after a life of service in the world. Either way, it’s an untypical view of contemplative spirituality for the place and time in which it was written.

The Vita Merlini is a poem written in Latin hexameters and presented as a literary game. It is an opportunity to display both classical and indigenous wisdom as understood in the twelfth century Renaissance (2). Yet in The Mystic Life of Merlin (4), R. J. Stewart shows how the work has greater potential depths for anyone open to them. His Merlin Tarot (5) images draw on two of Geoffrey’s books, the second being the better known History of the Kings of Britain (6), and on Stewart’s own seership. They are further explored in The Complete Merlin Tarot, (7), and The Miracle Tree (8) and ask for our contemplation as much as divination, having the power to open imaginal doors. Geoffrey’s books themselves introduced Merlin and Morgan to medieval European literature outside the Celtic language sphere and did much to establish Arthur. The imagery of the Vita Merlini evokes a sense of woodland renewal, of groves as healing places, and a restorative ‘Island of Apples’, presided over by a magical Otherworld sisterhood. It offers something to medieval people in Western Europe that was unavailable through the mainstream spirituality of the day. The world that Geoffrey made has been a potent resource ever since.

 

References

1: http://www.sacred-texts.com Geoffrey of Monmouth (ca. 1150) Vita Merlini Latin text with English translation by John J. Parry (1925). (Transcribed for Sacred Texts by Graham K. Tallboys.)

2: Walker, Mark (2011) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’: a new verse translation Chalford: Amberley Publishing

3: Hughes, Kristoffer (2012) From the cauldron born: exploring the magic of Welsh legend and lore Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications

4: Stewart, R. J. (1986) The mystic life of Merlin London: Arkana

5: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The Merlin Tarot London: Element (Illustrated by Miranda Gray. Boxed set with pack of cards, handbook and notebook for users. An earlier edition was published by the Aquarian Press in 1992)

6: Geoffrey of Monmouth (1136) History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966. (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)

7: Stewart, R. J. (1992) The complete Merlin Tarot: images, insight and wisdom from the age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press (Not to be confused with the Merlin Tarot handbook which accompanies the pack, but is sometimes sold separately)

8: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

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