John Matthews’ Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman

cover, Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman Lisa Spangenberg wrote this review.

John Matthews, like his wife Caitlin, is prominent in Neo-Pagan circles, and they have separately and together written an enormous number of books regarding Celtic, Arthurian, and spiritual subjects. You can find reviews here on GMR of John Matthews’ The Quest for the Green Man, The Summer Solstice, and The Winter Solstice. The Matthewses also offer a variety of services from their Hallowquest Web site.

In The Last Celtic Shaman, a new edition of a book previously published in 1991, John Matthews, with assistance from Caitlin, is ostensibly presenting an in depth exploration of the early Welsh poet Taliesin, placing the poet and his work in the context of shamanism. This is trickier than it might seem, since there are two Taliesins, so to speak. One of them is a historic, very traditional Welsh bard, serving in the Northern Welsh courts of Urien Rheged and his son Owain ap Urien, at the tail end of the sixth century when British princes and chieftains were fighting off Anglo-Saxon invaders.

The “other” Taliesin is a legend, a poet right out of mythology, who transforms himself from one shape to another, and is associated with arcane, abstract, metaphysical poems in which he describes himself as timeless, eternal and all-knowing.

There are two central Welsh texts for Taliesin studies, whether historical or legendary. One of them, Peniarth 2, is the fourteenth century Welsh manuscript in the National Library, Aberystwyth, usually known as Llyfr Taliesin, or The Book of Taliesin. This fragmentary manuscript contains ninety-three leaves, and about sixty poems. Twelve of those poems are associated with the “historical” Taliesin, fifteen of them with the “legendary” Taliesin, and the rest are a mixture of chronicle, tract, elegy, and conventional bardic forms. Matthews is only concerned with the work of the “legendary” Taliesin in this book.

The second central Taliesin text is the “Ystoria Taliesin,” sometimes known as the “chwedl Taliesin,” most recently finally properly edited by Patrick Ford as the Ystoria Taliesin. This is a mixed prose and poetry text about the legendary Taliesin. It tells of the boy Gwion bach filching three drops of “inspiration” from the cauldron of Ceridwen, after which he is pursued by her through a series of shape-shifts on both their parts, until she manages to swallow him whilst she is in hen-shape, and he is a grain of wheat. He is then reborn nine months later as Taliesin, the archetypal poet, and eventual apprentice to one Elphin, a hapless master. In the second half of the text Taliesin champions Elphin, defending Elphin against detractors by means of his (Taliesin’s) poetry.

The back cover of Matthews’ Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman says this: “Now in this first collection of Taliesin’s major works, John Matthews, a preeminent Celtic scholar, sheds new light on the poems of Taliesin. … With the help of fellow Celtic scholar Caitlin Matthews, the author presents completely new translations of Taliesin’s major poems in their entirety.”

Is that an accurate description? Well, yes and no, as both Irish fili and Thomas Aquinas might answer. Matthews certainly endeavors to shed new light, but he fails in several ways.

My problems begin with the “Preface,” where Matthews apologizes for using the term “shaman,” since it is a word drawn from the language of the Tungus peoples. That’s true, as far as it goes, but if John Matthews had troubled to look up the word “shaman” in the American Heritage Dictionary, he would have discovered that in fact the word “shaman” is Indo-European in origin, that the Tungus peoples inherited the word from the Tocharians, and the Tocharians from Sanskrit. Although Matthews uses the word shaman to refer to the Welsh and Irish poets, the bards and fili of Celtic literature, I would have preferred him to have simply used the word “poet,” since the shamanic behaviors he refers to are engaged in by poets, and discussed by them, and are part of the lore of Welsh bard and Irish fili, as well as of their Indo-European cousins.

Matthews certainly makes a concerted effort to incorporate recent scholarship — he refers to the work of Marged Haycock, Patrick Ford, Patrick Simms-Williams, cites Ifor Williams, and does provide a bibliography. But he relies far more extensively on scholarship (and translations) from the nineteenth century, and from scholars that, if not downright discredited by many modern scholars, are at least used exceedingly cautiously.

Indeed, Matthews’ much vaunted new translations are, well, pretty wretched. The method seems to have been to use other translations, primarily those of Nash, Skene (actually the work of Reverend Robert Williams), and even the extensively emended translations by J. Gwenogvryn Evans (of whom Patrick Ford, the modern editor of Ystoria Taliesin, wrote “they can best be described as ‘imaginative’ “). Matthews takes a line or verse from one version and inserts it in another, or alters a word or phrase here and there. There are a handful of poems whose translations are attributed to Caitlin and John Matthews, but in all honesty, they’re not terribly reliable. Granted, in his “Introduction” Matthews describes his translations as “versions,” but throughout his book he treats the translations as if they were accurate renderings of the texts. They aren’t. In some cases it looks as if someone with rudimentary knowledge of modern Welsh vocabulary attempted to translate word for word, without really dealing with early Welsh syntax and grammar.

And that’s the crux of the problem with this book; in its mingling of outdated with current, of academic scholarship with New Age wishful thinking, the free-ranging combining of texts from different sources, and an excess of unsupported assertions, the book is not at all reliable in a scholarly sense. For instance, Matthews states, “In a line of the poem called “Hostile Confederacy,” Taliesin says ‘I have been a well-filled crane-bag, a sight to behold” (page 80). That the crane-bag is a reference to Irish myth, and Irish texts, not Welsh, is a problem in itself, but a greater problem is that the line doesn’t occur in Matthew’s translation of the poem, or in the one he provides from Nash, nor can I find anything that might be interpreted as a crane-bag in the text of “Angar Kyfyndawt,” the Welsh original of the poem.

Matthews’ assertions that the scribes who copied the texts were in error and did not understand the works (often given as a reason for an emendation), are particularly grating. Yes, scribes make errors, but these errors tend to be easily categorized by type. Scribes did not waste time laboriously, expensively copying texts that they did not understand or value. It is far more likely that we don’t understand.

Another problem is Matthews’ over-fondness for emending texts, purely on the grounds of interpretation, a practice that medievalists, philologists and Celticists started frowning upon in the nineteenth century. He views all the Christian allusions he spots (and he misses many) as scribal interpolations, conveniently ignoring the fact that even the historic Taliesin would have been Christian, viewing Christian theology as more matter to draw upon in his art (the poems of the legendary Taliesin are particularly rife with allusions to the Apocrypha and early encyclopedists). At one point, Matthews even refers to the mother-maiden-crone triad popularized by Graves, but not identified as such in Celtic myth (there are mothers, there are even maidens and crones, but they aren’t a universal trio, nor are they specifically unified in Celtic texts).

Over and over again, Matthews’ scholarship falls far short of what I would expect — there’s nothing new here. In his “Introduction” he refers to Patrick Ford’s book on Ystoria Taliesin as not yet available, though it was published in 1992, and was available for the current edition. I was pleased to see the discussion of genuine “shamanic behaviors” by Irish fili, like imbas forosnai, tarbheis, and dichetal do chennaib, which despite Matthews’ confusion has been recognized since the early nineteen hundreds to mean “incantation from fingertips.” But most of Matthews’ examples and conclusions about the role of inspiration and ritual behavior as described by historic documents and mythological texts had already been made before 1991, and better ones too, by authors that he should have specifically cited, particularly Joseph Nagy. Nagy’s book The Wisdom of the Outlaw (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1985) is listed in the bibliography but not cited in many places where it should be. Nagy’s 1990 article, “The Blind, the Dumb, and the Ugly: Aspects of Poets and their Craft in Early Ireland and Wales” (Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 19, Summer 1990, pages 27-40) presents this material particularly well, in Irish and Welsh, with translations. Indeed, one of the oddities of Matthews’ bibliography, aside from a reliance on outdated and notoriously poor translations, is the absence of texts in Welsh or Irish, an especially flagrant problem for an ostensibly scholarly work and new translation.

The last third of the book is particularly daft, as Matthews theorizes about ogham divination and attempts to equate insular and continental Celtic and Pictish animal iconography to the calendar, in a bizarre parody of the zodiac. I’m more than willing to accept tribal associations with animals, and with geographic boundaries, but the conclusions Matthews makes are cringe-worthy. For instance, Matthews turns to Ogham, an Irish writing system, to explain a Welsh poem, “Cad Goddeu,” “The Battle of the Trees.” Yet there are no Ogham inscriptions in Welsh, or even in other Brythonic languages; the Ogham inscriptions in Wales are in Irish, often with side-by-side Brythonic-influenced Latin translations. Ogham is itself based on the Latin alphabet, and scholars tend to see the fifth century as the earliest era of its use. The idea of its use in divination by druids is, at best, controversial, given the dates. Moreover, most of the tree-alphabets are a late addition by the medieval glossators, rather than ancient Irish practice.

Matthews’ efforts to create tables and diagrams of Celtic cosmology rely extensively on contemporary Neo-Pagan and Wiccan assumptions, and also draw on ceremonial magic. These techniques, unlike the earlier discussion of imbas forosnai and other genuine poetic practices, may well be very useful for practicing Neo-Pagans, but they aren’t ancient Celtic practices. Matthews would do better to look to the Indo-European research of Dumézil and even Littleton, if he wishes to engage in Celtic reconstruction, as well as modern scholar’s editions of ancient Insular and Continental sources — and I do not consider the eighteenth century brilliant but erratic Iolo Morgonwg to fall into either category.

(Inner Traditions, 2002)

If you’re truly interested in the rituals, beliefs, and myths that surround poetic inspiration and creation in Celtic myth and poetry, then you’d do better to read Patrick K. Ford’s Ystoria Taliesin (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1992); the “Introduction” is entirely in English and places Taliesin the legend firmly within the conventions of Celtic poetic inspiration, and even the larger Indo-European concept of the poet and his craft. Also read Jospeh Falaky Nagy’s “The Blind, the Dumb, and the Ugly: Aspects of Poets and their Craft in Early Ireland and Wales” (Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 19, Summer 1990, pages 27-40) for more on the roles of poet/fili/druid and inspiration. You might also turn to Patrick Ford’s anthology of Celtic poetry in translation, The Celtic Poets: Songs and Tales from Early Ireland and Wales (Ford and Bailie, Belmont, Massachusetts, 1999), which includes the complete English translation of the Ystoria Taliesin from the earliest Welsh manuscript, including the poems. Marged Haycock’s “‘Preiddeu Annwn’ and the Figure of Taliesin” presents an edition and translation of Preiddeu Annwn (Studia Celtica 18/19, 1983-84, pages 52-78), and Taliesin’s association with the poem; see also her “Some talk of Alexander and Some of Hercules”: three early medieval poems from the Book of Taliesin (Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 13, 1987, pages 7-38); and Joseph P. Clancy’s The Earliest Welsh Poetry (Macmillan, London, 1970, pages 105-7) for some translations of the “legendary” poems.
With a bit of effort at learning early Welsh, you can have a go at the Welsh of the twelve “historical” poems from Llyfr Taliesin via J. E. Carwyn William’s edition (complete with English notes and a glossary), The Poems of Taliesin (Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1987). If you’re interested in translations of the “historical” poems, take a look at Joseph P. Clancy’s The Earliest Welsh Poetry (Macmillan, London, 1970, pages 23-32) (poems 1-3, 5-6 and 9-10, using the numbers given in Williams’ edition); T. Conran’s Welsh Verse (Poetry Wales Press, Bridgend, 1992, pages 105-12) (2-3, 5-6 and 9-10); John T. Koch and John Carey’s The Celtic Heroic Age, 2nd ed. (Celtic Studies Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts, 2nd ed., 1995, pages 295-96, 338-44 and 346-47) (poems 1-3, 5-6 and 10; there is a third edition out, which includes these texts on different pages); or Patrick K. Ford’s The Celtic Poets: Songs and Tales from Early Ireland and Wales (Ford and Baillie, Belmont, Massachusetts, 1999, pages 162-67) (poems 1-2 and 4; Ford includes several original translations of the Irish and Welsh texts relating to the origins of poets and poetry).

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