Talesin began life as boy named Gwion Bach, a servant to the crone Ceridwen. Ceridwen had a beautiful daughter and an ugly son named Mofran whose appearance no magic could cure, so she sought to give him the gift of wisdom as compensation. Using the cauldron of knowledge, Ceridwen cooked a potion granting wisdom which had to be cooked for a year and a day. A blind man named Mordra tended the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion Bach stirred the concoction.One day as Gwion Bach was stiring the cauldron it became so hot that 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 knowledge. The first thought that occurred to him was that Ceridwen would be very angry at him for doing this. Scared, he ran away, but all too soon he heard her fury and the sound of her pursuit.
As Ceridwen chased Gwion, he turned himself into a rabbit. In return, she became a dog. He then became a salmon and jumped into a river, and in response, she then turned into an otter. He turned into a wren, and in response she became a hawk. Finally, he turned into a single grain of corn and hid in a silo. She became a hen and ate him, and became pregnant. She resolved to kill the child, knowing it was Gwion, but after he was born, he was so beautiful that she couldn’t go through with the deed. Instead, she threw him in the the sea inside a leather bag.
Discovery by Elphin
The baby was found by Elphin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, ‘Lord of Ceredigion’. Elphin was the only son of the king but he was not beautiful of face, nor a good warrior, or a good hunter. Each year at Samhain the King would go to the river Eyre and lift up a tfish trap. If there was a salmon in the trap then the year would be good. If there were many salmon then the year would be great for the whole land of Erye. When Elphin lifted the trap there were NO salmon and he was distraught. Thinking himself a total failure he turned to go and saw the leather bag with the child. He was very surprised at the whiteness of the boy’s brow, he exclaimed “Tal iesin”, meaning “radiant brow.” Taliesin replied, “Yes, that will do well enough.” While Elphin carried the baby back to his father in a basket, thinking of what his father would say when he learned that Elphin had caught a baby, but no salmon, the baby began to recite beautiful poetry, saying:
Fair Elphin, cease your lament!
Swearing profits no-one.
It is not evil to hope
Nor does any man see what supports him,
Not an empty treasure is the prayer of Cynllo,
Nor does the Goddess break her promise.
No catch in Gwyddno’s weir
Was ever as good as tonight’s.
“Fair Elphin, dry your cheeks!
Such sorrow does not become you,
Although you consider yourself cheated
Excessive sorrow gains nothing,
Nor will doubting the miracle.
Although I am small, I am skilful.
From the sea and the mountain,
From the river’s depth
She gives Her gifts to the blessed.
“Elphin of the generous spirit,
Cowardly is your purpose,
You must not grieve so heavily.
Better are good than evil omens.
though I am weak and small,
Spumed with Dylan’s wave,
I shall be better for you
Than three hundred shares of salmon.
“Elphin of noble generosity,
Do not sorrow at your catch.
Though I am weak on the floor of my basket,
There are wonders on my tongue.
“While I am watching over you,
no great need will overcome you.
Be mindful of Her gifts and none will overcome you.”
Amazed, Elphin asked how a baby could talk. Again Taliesin replied with poetry, recounting the transformation chase between himself and Ceridwen. Finishing, he said:
“Floating like a boat in its waters,
I was thrown into a dark bag,
and on an endless sea, I was set adrift.
Just as I was suffocating, I had a happy omen,
and brought to land to you.”
At the court of Maelgwn
A few years later, when Taliesin turned thirteen, Elphin was at the court of King Maelgwn, who demanded that Elphin praise him and his court. Elphin refused, claiming Taliesin was a better bard and that his wife a prettier woman than anyone the king had in his court. Although he was not present, Taliesin knew what was happening, because he was a bard of strong repute, 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, and when she passed out, Rhun tried to take off her wedding ring to prove her unfaithfulness. When the ring wouldn’t come off, he cut off her finger instead. 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. Moreover, the fingernails had bread dough under them, but his wife always had servants knead the dough. Moreover, his wife’s ring was loose on her finger, but this one was tight.
Maelgwn then demanded Taliesin come to his court to prove wrong the claim that Taliesin was a better bard than the ones in his court. Taliesin responded with a challenge in which both he and the king’s bards were to compose an epic in only twenty minutes. The royal bards failed at the task, but when it came time for Taliesin to recite his, he caused a massive wind to rattle the castle. Frightened, Maelgwn sent for Elphin. Taliein’s next song caused Elphin’s chains to detach. Maelgwn challenged the pair to a chariot race. Taliesin 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, and the king’s chariots turned back right before crossing the finish line, stopping at the holly twigs Taliesin had laid there, and began to dance. Taliesin’s chariot strolled to the finish line and won the race.