Taliesin’s description of the world in ‘Vita Merlini’

The Monk and the Magician

The Monk and the Magician

Geoffrey of Monmouth – ‘Vita Merlini’: The speech of the bard Taliesin about the order of the heavens and the earth: Trans. John Jay Perry (University of Illinois, 1925)

“…Out of nothing the Creator of the world produced four [elements] that they might be the prior cause as well as the material for creating all things when they were joined together in harmony: the heaven which He adorned with stars and which stands on high and embraces everything like the shell surrounding a nut; then He made the air, fit for forming sounds, through the medium of which day and night present the stars; the sea which girds the land in four circles, and with its mighty refluence so strikes the air as to generate the winds which are said to be four in number; as a foundation He placed the earth, standing by its own strength and not lightly moved, which is divided into five parts, whereof the middle one is not habitable because of the heat and the two furthest are shunned because of their cold.  To the last two He gave moderate temperature and these are inhabited by men and birds and herds of wild beasts.  He added clouds to the sky so that they might furnish sudden showers to make the fruits of the trees and of the ground grow with their gentle sprinkling.  With the help of the sun these are filled like water skins from the rivers by a hidden law, and then, rising through the upper air, they pour out the water they have taken up, driven by the force of the winds.  From them come rain storms, snow, and round hail when the cold damp wind breathes out its blasts which, penetrating the clouds, drive out the streams just as they make them.  Each of the winds takes to itself a nature of its own from its proximity to the zone where it is born.  Beyond the firmament in which He fixed the shining stars He placed the ethereal heaven and gave it as a habitation to troops of angels whom the worthy contemplation and marvellous sweetness of God refresh throughout the ages.  This also He adorned with stars and the shining sun, laying down the law by which the star should run within fixed limits through the part of heaven entrusted to it.  He afterwards placed beneath this the airy heavens, shining with the lunar body, which throughout their high places abound in troops of spirits who sympathize or rejoice with us as things go well or ill.  They are accustomed to carry the prayers of men through the air and to beseech God to have mercy on them, and to bring back intimations of God’s will, either in dreams or by voice or by other signs, through doing which they become wise.  The space beyond the moon abounds in evil demons, who are skilled to cheat and deceive and tempt us; often they assume a body made of air and appear to us and many things often follow.  They even hold intercourse with women and make them pregnant, generating in an unholy manner. So therefore He made the heavens to be inhabited by three orders of spirits that each one might look out for something and renew the world from the renewed seed of things….”

This is a great vision of the spiritual realms of the heavens delivered from the mouth of Taliesin in Geoffrey’s ‘Life of Merlin’ from the 12thC. Geoffrey was Bishop of St Asaph in Wales, and friends with Jocelyn of Furness who seems to have incorporated aspects of the ‘Merlin’ story into his own ‘Life of St Mungo’. Both were keen to retell local Pagan mythology within a pseudohistorical Christianised framework, and to do it in a way that would influence popular culture, consigning ancient ‘religious truths’ into the realms of fantasy, and helping reinforce the foundations of European christianity.

Taliesin was a ‘bard’s bard’ – a literary character who was a verbal expert, historian, fount of knowledge and a storyteller. His account is almost the same as that you would have heard in ancient Athens in the 4thC BCE and stayed consistent across Europe until the start of the ‘Early Modern’ period of European history in the 17thC.

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