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Taliesin is one of the earliest known Welsh poets. The real-life figure lived in the last half of the sixth century; little else is known about him. He is mentioned as an early Welsh poet in the Historia Britonum, and his name has been paired with a medieval manuscript, The Book of Taliesin, which contains, among other things, twelve poems attributable to him. These poems praise several sixth century Celtic figures such as Cynan Garwyn, king of Powys and Gwallawc of Elmet[?] -- but most of his poems are addressed to Urien Rheged[?], which suggests that he was a native of the kingdom of Rheged, which is located in the region of the Solway Firth on the borders of present-day England and Scotland.

Elias Gruffydd wrote in the mid-sixteenth century an account about Taliesin, which drew from Celtic folklore. Some scholars believe that Gruffydd recorded a tradition that existed before his time.

Birth (according to Gruffydd's account)

A witch named Ceridwen had a beautiful daughter and an ugly son, Morfran. Morfran was hideously ugly, so she sought to make him wise. Ceridwen had a magical cauldron that could make a potion granting wisdom. The mixture had to be cooked for a year and a day. Morda, a blind man, tended the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion, a young boy, stirred the concoction.

The first three drops of liquid from this cauldron gave wisdom; the rest was a fatal poison. Three hot drops spilled onto Gwion's hand as he stirred, burning him. He instinctively put his hand in his mouth, and instantly gained great wisdom and knowlede.

Ceridwen chased Gwion. He turned himself into a rabbit. She became a dog. He became a fish and jumped into a river. She turned into an otter. He turned into a bird; she became a hawk. Finally, he turned into a single grain of corn. She became a hen and ate him,

When Ceridwen became pregnant, she knew it was Gwion and resolved to kill the child when he was born. However, when he was born, he was so beautiful that she couldn't do it. She threw him in the ocean instead.

Discovery by Elphin

Lord Gwyddno Garanhir of Gwynedd had a son named Elphin that was extremely unlucky. Gwyddno sent Elphin to a spot known for salmon and had him fish. Instead, Elphin found the baby and called it Taliesin ("radiant brow"). Along the way back to his father, Taliesin, though still a baby, spoke in beautiful poetry.

At the court of Maelgwn

A few years later, King Maelgwn who demanded that Elphin praise him and his court. Elphin refused, claiming Taliesin was a better bard and his wife a prettier woman than anyone the King had in his court. Taliesin knew what was happening, because he was a seer, and told Elphin's wife. Maelgwn's son Rhun went to Elphin's house to seduce his wife and prove Elphin's claims weren't true. Rhun got her drunk. When she passed out, Rhun tried to take her wedding ring off to prove her unfaithfulness; since the ring wouldn't come off, he cut off her finger. When King Maelgwn attempted to show the finger to Elphin, he pointed out that his wife cut her fingernails more often than the owner of the finger, had servants to kneed dough and never had any under her nails, and her ring was loose on her finger, and that one was tight.

Maelgwn demanded Taliesin come to his court to prove the other claim wrong. Taliesin gave twenty minutes for both himself and the King's bards to come up with an epic. The royal bards couldn't do it. When it came Taliesin's time, he caused a massive wind to rattle the castle. Frightened , Maelgwn sent for Elphin. Taliesin's next song caused Elphin's chains to detach. Maelgwn challenged the pair to a horse race. Taleisin arrived the next day with an old, weak horse. As each of the king's horses passed him at the very start of the race, Taliesin touched its rump with a twig of holly. When they had all passed, he dropped his hat to the ground. When the king's horses came back, right before the finish line, they stopped at the holly twigs Taliesin had laid there, and began to dance. Taliesin's old horse strolled back in quite a bit later and won the race.

According to this tradition, Taliesin afterwards joined King Arthur's court as his chief bard. However, since the historical Arthur lived in the years on either side of AD 500, and Taliesin lived in the last half of the sixth century, one can safely assume that there is little truth in this tradition.

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