Tuesday, 18 January 2011
A few days after the winter solstice, we drove up the coast to the Dyfi Valley looking for signs of the Welsh bard, Taliesin. Under a sky so clear and cold it looked like it might shatter into shards of blue ice, we made our way to the estuary where the river meets Cardigan Bay. This big bite taken out of Western Wales is the result of floods in ages past; beneath these waters lie the Cantre’r Gwaelod, the ‘Lowland Hundred.’ Some still hear the bells of the lost kingdom ringing below the waves. Twisted stumps of trees on the long sands reveal a half-petrified forest at certain low tides.
Here Taliesin was born, or rather reborn, according to legend. He had started out life as a simple peasant lad called Gwion, who lived around Bala Lake in North Wales. Little Gwion fell foul of the goddess Ceridwen when he drank three drops of Awen, or Inspiration, from her cauldron. The potion was not meant for him, but for her own son. She tried to destroy him in a furious shape-shifting battle in which he turned himself into a succession of animals and birds. At the last he became a grain of wheat, but Ceridwen became a black hen and swallowed him whole. Nine months later, she gave birth to him as a human child, and not having the heart to kill him, she cast him out to sea in a leather coracle. After hundreds of years, the coracle was washed up at the mouth of the Dyfi, and found by a fisherman who was astonished to find he had netted not a salmon, but a live and kicking baby boy, whose head was surrounded by the glow of holy inspiration. He called the child Taliesin, meaning ‘Radiant Brow.’
Gwion was reborn as Taliesin on Calen Mai, the first day of summer. Today there were no signs of birth. A bitter north-east wind blew down from Snowdonia, carving the sand dunes into frozen wave patterns. It was hard to imagine the purple orchids and helleborines that draw bees and butterflies to these hollows in July. The piping calls of wading birds were stilled by the hissing wind which drove wisps and eddies of sand like ghosts racing into the sea.
Later we drove up into the hills behind the hamlet of Tre Taliesin in search of the poet's grave. The burial cairn of Bedd Taliesin was actually built in the Bronze Age, thousands of years before the bard. We found it plundered and forlorn, yet the original dolmen was clear to see, its grey stone slabs stained red by the huge round ball of the setting sun. Perhaps this was not for the dead after all, but an initiation chamber, since the story is that a night spent up here could make you mad, dead, or a poet.
Among the tumbled stones, the now fading light picked out a strange object: a small white seashell in the shape of a perfect spiral. Taliesin may not ever have been buried here, but the shell spoke silently of the endless spiral of life, death and rebirth, as day turned to night and the year began anew.