Moses, Taliesin, and the Welsh Chosen People: Elis Gruffydd's Construction of a Biblical, British Past for Reformation Wales

By Mulligan, Amy C. | Studies in Philology, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Moses, Taliesin, and the Welsh Chosen People: Elis Gruffydd's Construction of a Biblical, British Past for Reformation Wales


Mulligan, Amy C., Studies in Philology


This article focuses on the sixteenth-century Welsh Cronicl o wech oesoedd ("Chronicle of the Six Ages [of the World]") written by the exiled Welshman Elis Gruffydd, and in particular the section treating the poet-prophet Taliesin. A legendary figure who flourished in the sixth century, Taliesin is described in a powerful story that nonetheless saw wide circulation and reworking throughout the medieval and early modern periods. In this article, I argue that Elis Gruffydd associates Taliesin with the chosen prophet, divinely empowered emancipator, and routinely tested spiritual leader Moses, and I explore the effect of a sixteenth-century construction of the past that positions the Welsh, their ancestors, and their literary heritage in relationship to Moses and the Jews. This article first focuses on the sixteenth-century political and cultural context in which the massive, 2500-page Cronicl was composed by the Reformation Protestant Elis Gruffydd, largely in Calais. It then considers references, prose and poetic, to Moses in the Ystoria Taliesin section of the chronicle and the ways in which the native poet-prophet Taliesin is paralleled with Moses. Thirdly, to move closer to an understanding of the contextual import and force of the Mosaic references for Elis Grufydd and his readers, the essay briefly surveys the various roles played by the Jews and Israelites in medieval and early modern Wales and Britain, and, in particular, how the largely ideational Jews intersect with and inform a sense of Welshness. In conclusion, it is suggested that Elis, potentially reading himself as a sixteenth-century inheritor of the mantle worn by both Taliesin and Moses, deployed this Mosaic window on the past to frame a specific vision of the Welsh present and future, one which constituted a response to Tudor England's alienation of Welsh language and culture through disempowering and disenfranchising policies.

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IN Ceist na Teangan (1990) ("The Language Question"), the contemporary poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill compares the act of writing poetry in Modern Irish and publishing it in a time and place dominated by the English language to Moses's mother sending her threatened infant downriver in a basket.

   Cuirim mo dhochas ar snamh
   i mbaidin teangan
   faoi mar a leagfa naionan
   i gcliabhan
   a bheadh fite fuaite
   de dhuilleoga feileastraim
   is bitiumin agus pic
   bheith cuimilte lena thoin

   ansan e a leagadh sios
   i mease na ngiolcach
   is coigeal na mban si
   le taobh na habhann,
   feachaint n'fheadarais
   ca dtabharfaidh an sruth e,
   feachaint, dala Mhaoise,
   an bhfoirfidh inion Fharoinn?

[I place my hope on the water / in this little boat / of the language, the way a body might put / an infant // in a basket of intertwined / iris leaves, / its underside proofed / with bitumen and pitch, // then set the whole thing down amidst / the sedge / and bulrushes by the edge / of a river // only to have it borne hither and thither, / not knowing where it might end up; / in the lap, perhaps, / of some Pharaoh's daughter.] (1)

Perhaps the infant (Irish naionan)--her work in its precarious Irish-language form--will perish or disappear into the waters without a trace. Or perhaps, like Moses, God's Chosen One, it will be rescued by "some Pharaoh's daughter" and go on to play a crucial role in uniting a people and allowing them to reclaim a lost inheritance. Despite the brevity of the poem's references to Moses--Muldoon does not even translate "dala Mhaoise" ("the case of Moses") in the penultimate line--the reader cannot help but recall Moses's role in the larger biblical narrative: his liberation of the Israelites from their Egyptian oppressors; the defeat of Pharaoh's magicians; plagues sent and lifted; forty years of wandering in the desert; acquisition of God's laws; and Moses leading his people to the Promised Land. The poem is about more than just one moment of survival on the waters: the comparison between literature in a threatened vernacular and Moses in his river-bound basket evokes a more extensive vision that includes the past, present, and future of linguistic and cultural survival. …

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