Over the last century more accurate editions of historic Welsh poetry and prose have become available, largely due to the growth of Welsh language university departments, sometimes with whole teams of post-graduate editors and researchers devoted to revealing and understanding medieval texts. Even greats such as Dafydd ap Gwilym have found themselves caught up in the flurry of new editions repackaging masterpieces of medieval European literature for new audiences. Only a hundred years ago – a relatively short period in the history of some of our older texts – many of the Welsh classics were only available to the wider Welsh speaking public in confused English translations. In comparison we are living in a time of plenty when it comes to the availability of editions of our native Welsh literature.
But we have so much text available to us now, and so much still being edited and re-edited, I believe an aspect of critical interpretation has been somewhat left behind, specifically assessing the Celtic and pre-Celtic roots of medieval Welsh literature. This is for many reasons, the main one perhaps being that there is more money in turning out hard copies of texts than there is in talking about them. The general tendency has been to view interpretation as a byproduct of editing, not the primary focus. Cash strapped university departments will always have to make hard choices from within shrinking budgets, and over time the financial conditioning of research results in the development of attitudes and skills that leaves less financially profitable academic work neglected.
Coupled with that is the reticence about making any reference to anything too mystical sounding or druidic. Druidic in this sense is a catchall term that refers to several strands of culture, some historic, some pertaining to the present. Historically, there have been occasions when the Welsh have gotten themselves a bit drunk on their own myth-making; a dangerous habit, but we have been indulging in it for millennia so it comes quite easily to us. On one particular occasion, towards the end of the second half of the 18th century, the debauched mead-feast was lead by the then master of ceremonies, Iolo Morgannwg (who had a habit of mixing his myth-making with opiates). Iolo was in fact a talented scholar and poet, but he found his real calling was to repackage the mythic past of the Welsh nation. This re-dreaming of the past enabled him to develop and fabricate tenuous links between the ancient British druids and the Welsh bards of his present day, the consequence of which was the forming of a bardic guild dressed up as a mystery school. In his wake came many druid enthusiasts primed by antiquarianism, desperate for any justification to get up in their splendid ceremonial outfits.
Iolo provided them with that justification, thereby giving us the modern druid order of Wales, or Gorsedd y Beirdd, and their outfits were so fetching that the English got a bit jealous and appropriated the look for their own version of neo-druidry, the heirs of which we see today in venerable organisations such as OBOD who have succeeded in turning the older English antiquarianism into a large and popular modern-day spiritual movement. But for all this poking fun at poor old Iolo, at the end of the day he was a great visionary and a truly inspired nationalist. His ceremonial interpretation of his native bardic arts has given the Welsh durable vessels that seem to sustain our public culture from decade to decade: proof enough of his genius, no matter how peculiarly it was expressed.
But the snake-oil peddling fakery of some of his antics has left latter scholars with a degree of reticence when it comes to actually following through on his main claim, that being that there is an historic connection between medieval bardic culture and the earlier druidic culture that preceded it. In other words, for all the pomp and ceremony that the Gorsedd provides, not many people involved in modern Welsh academia can actually take the idea of druidry seriously, at least in public, never mind speculating about its historic position on philosophical and metaphysical matters and how they evolved in the professional bardic orders of medieval Wales.
If we consider that much of the fabricated evidence that Iolo presented was swallowed hook, line and sinker by many renowned scholars for almost a century, its not difficult to understand the over-cautious attitude that modern Welsh academics tend to take in view of the foolish mistakes made by some of their predecessors. New professors usually get the job when they have proven they can appear relevant while not being too controversial within their fields (a safe pair of hands). Putting on the donkey ears of druidry doesn’t make for an appealing professorial candidate. Further to that, no one wants to earn a reputation that could haunt them well beyond the end of their careers. A debunked theory doesn’t make for a great epitaph to ones life work. With Iolo clanking his chains in the background, Welsh academics understand better than most the power of memory and the durable nature of the written word.
This is not to say that there is no discussion at all of the historic link between druids and later bards, but generally it is editors themselves that try to provide the reader with a little clarity, not only offering explanations for archaic words and common sense corrections for miss-copied or damaged text, but providing contextual information to help elucidate meaning. But what is needed is a much wider, much more eclectic comparative study the takes the genuinely interesting medieval Welsh material and places it in an objective, useable anthropological context. The material is all there, waiting in the abundance of new editions sitting on the library shelves, we only need the right perspective to see it for what it is.
So what of the name ‘Cae’r Arglwyddes’, ‘The Lady’s Field’? After some digging around in the National Library and County Archive, I still haven’t been able to discover who this Lady is. There is no record of a church here so it’s unlikely to be St Mary. It could refer to a now forgotten noble woman, but usually an owners personal name is preserved in place names. All became clear when I had a conversation with an old lady who’s father had been born at Cae’r Arglwyddes, and according to her the name of the farm refers to a ‘lady of the lake’ folktale about the small lake up on Moel-y-llyn. Such tales are common throughout Wales, and feature an otherworldly woman who comes out of the lake, usually followed by an abundance of farm animals. These otherworldly women are more than likely late versions of earlier water deities, fairy women with magical powers. Is there an otherworldly ‘Lady’ associated with Taliesin and the rights of the dead?
If the ancient processional way of Y Sarn Ddu between Bronwion and Bedd Taliesin corresponds in some way with the mythical bard’s life-journey, this could offer an explanation as to who this Lady is. In the tale, Ceridwen stands between Gwion and Taliesin, and directly between Bronwion and Bedd Taliesin is Cae’r Arglwyddes. Is this where Ceridwen chases the magically enlightened Gwion Bach? Was it here that she swallowed him in the guise of a large black hen and then gave birth to him as the beautiful infant Taliesin? Is this the place of his symbolic death and rebirth? If so, was it the River Cletwr that she set him adrift upon, carrying him down through the vulva-like ravines of Gwar-y-Cwm waterfalls before spilling into the Dyfi? It would make sense if he was then washed up on Borth beach.
Not all of the ancient monuments in the Cletwr Valley have been marked on the OS map – the valley itself and the surrounding landscape is littered with what were probably covered mounds at one time, many of which are in fields around the old farm called Cae’r Arglwyddes, which means ‘The Lady’s Field’. Heading east up the Sarn Ddu (the ‘Black Road’ discussed in the previous post) from Bedd Taliesin there can be seen many suspicious piles of stones on either side of the road, including many fallen standing stones, several of which clearly mark the old way. Was Cae’r Arglwyddes once the sight of a complex of intact burial mounds through which the Sarn Ddu passed as a processional road?
Pillaged stones are clearly seen supporting the southern bank of the road, and there is a line of large boulders further along just before Cae’r Arglwyddes farm house. All of the stone piles in the valley contain large quartz stones, just like the ones that cap the cairn that overlooks the Black Road from the top of Moel-y-Llyn and that kerb the cairns over on Foel Goch on the northern side of the valley.
If the Cletwr Valley once contained many obvious burial mounds, it could give one explanation to what the name ‘Y Sarn Ddu’ is referring to. It’s easy to see how black has an almost universal association with death, especially in Europe, and probably has done so for a very long time. Y Sarn Ddu may preserve the connotation of a Death Road or a Road of the Dead. The fact that this name still survives suggests that its processional use, or at least its association with burial and death, may have continued into the early medieval period.
This audio clip is from a course on The Welsh Bardic Tradition, held at Aberystwyth University; I haven’t included the course notes as some of them are scans from a published books. This excerpt summarises some of the initial features of the Taliesin persona as found in The Book of Taliesin, and takes a quick look at the poetry triads.
This audio clip is from a course on The Welsh Bardic Tradition, held at Aberystwyth University, alongside an excerpt from the course notes. It looks at the life and early work of the greatest of the Gogynfeirdd, Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr during the time of the fall of the Kingdom of Powys.
Awena is a collection of recent folk songs with a few older tracks thrown in for good measure. As some folks have asked for translations of some of these songs, I’ve put together an accompanying booklet with some images. The album is available to download from my music website on this page. You can also listen to some of the songs here:
This audio clip is from a Symbolic Keys Skype session alongside an excerpt from the course notes. It covers an initial interpretation of the Cernunos ‘Lord of Animals’ symbol from the Gundestrup Cauldron. This older Celtic symbol is a forerunner to some of the symbols found in the Mabinogi.
This audio clip is from a course on The Welsh Bardic Tradition, held at Aberystwyth University, alongside an excerpt from the course notes. It summarises a discussion on a sequence of anonymous medieval gnomic stanzas from around 1100.
This audio clip is from a course on The Welsh Bardic Tradition, held at Aberystwyth University, alongside an excerpt from the course notes. It covers a medieval praise poem written around 1100 to Cuhelyn Fardd, a powerful nobleman and bard from South Western Wales. The poem itself reveals much about early bardic culture and custom in medieval Wales.
Throughout the second half of the twelfth century, Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr served the most powerful Welsh princes as a court bard. He was paid generously by these aristocrats in the hope that his skillful praise poetry would portray them as legendary heroes, and not only to their contemporaries. Even though its likely that political matters, including the ever-present threat of attack, was the priority for these warlords, its likely they kept one eye on the good name of their lineage. In this respect, Cynddelw’s patrons relied upon him to commemorate them in such an elegant and majestic way so as to ensure their names would survive the oblivion of the centuries. Many of these awdlau,1 praises and laments, have survived to the present day, which is testimony in itself that Cynddelw succeeded in safeguarding the names of his patrons throughout the centuries.
But this simple fact hides a complex reality. Without mentioning the effort, the devotion and the unique talent that was responsible for such sublime verse, there were many factors beyond the control of the court bards that were equally responsible for the longevity of their poems. Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr did not work in a vacuum: he was part of a tradition, and when employing him as a court bard his patron was also calling upon the power of that tradition. In this sense, Cynddelw was far more than an individual bard, he was a vessel and a vehicle for the traditional idealism, mythology and ritual of his nation, as well as being a master of the ancient art and craft of the bardic declamation. By seeing him in this light, we can begin to reveal the wider context of the period he lived in, eight hundred and fifty years ago.
Cynddelw succeeded in drawing together the myriad threads of his tradition and weaving them together into one wondrous tapestry – a kind of ritual gown for his own use. He mastered the complex network of mythological figures and their respective tales, alongside the authoritative voices of the Hengerdd.2 Within him were located centuries of cultural development, and he gave voice to all these wondrous and ancient cultural artifacts through his public persona – the regal figure of the court bard. When he declaimed his odes before the court, in his voice the voices of Aneirin, Taliesin and Myrddin could be heard. Through him his audience touched their strange and heroic past, reliving the great histories of their forefathers. What’s more, he presented these mythical heroes as ideals by which to live, as mediums for the ancient principles of the Welsh aristocracy. Regardless of how much of this actually rubbed off on the military elite, in the ritual life of the court he was the old druid giving council to the king, and implied in that was the claim that just like Taliesin before him, he could save his patron from any missfortune through his learning, his wisdom and his mystical abilities. In this respect, it is easy to see how the court bard was the respectable descendant of the old tribal bard. As the court poets of Cynddelw’s period, that is the period of the Gogynfeirdd,3 portrayed themselves as descendants of the Cynfeirdd,4 it is natural to see the tribal bard in the form of Taliesin or Aneirin as an integral part of the court bard’s public persona.
As a result, this persona, that shines so brightly in the odes of Cynddelw, Prydydd y Moch and many other bards of the tradition, can be considred a dramatic expression of the old wise man archetype. There are many historic examples of this figure – in Geofrey of Monmouth’s ‘Merlin’ or in the stories of the old hermits of the early Church. Jung’s name for this particular archetype is the senex,5 and the concept was adopted by later scholars, for example Joseph Campbell:
. . . the Wise Old Man of the myths and fairy tales whose words assist the hero through the trials and terrors of the weird adventure. He is the one who appears and points to the magic shining sword that will kill the dragon-terror, tells of the waiting bride and the castle of many treasures, applies healing balm to the almost fatal wounds, and finally dismisses the conqueror, back into the world of normal life, following the great adventure into the enchanted night.6
Considering Cynddelw’s self-portrayal as the mythical wise old druid, it is easy to locate his dramatic persona in the same archetypal lineage. It would be fair to say that his effectiveness as a court bard would have depended to some extent on his ability to portray himself as such. It is not suprising that the same awareness of the power of myth is seen in the works of the Gogynfeirdd as it is in the works of modern psychologists. Its likely that both appreciated the ability of myth and ideal to serve various moral objectives, including the attempted transformation of the individual and the community.7
Of course, as has already been noted by Jung, only in the last two centuries did Western intelectuals begin approaching myth as an area of scholarly research. As far as we know, it is only comparatively recently that there has been a structured approach to the study of myths and the psychological meanings expressed within them. Certainly there is no obvious evidence to suggest that the Gogynfeirdd treated myth in such an analytical way. But we can see that many modern psychologists and anthropologists follow Jung in his fundamental view that there is a very practical relationship between myth, ritual and the psychological evolution of humanity. For example, Joseph Campbell again:
It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.8
Some decades later we see the anthropologist Victor Turner taking on the same concept. For him, public rituals, particularly rituals which mark periods of transition, such as the public declamation of a praise poem in honour of a brave young man, may suggest the fundamental values of communal life as expressed in symbolic terms:
. . . I wish to show that where transition in space-time is ritualized, how it is ritualized, . . . gives us clues not only to the cherished values of the society that performs the rituals, but also to the nature of human sociality itself transcending particular cultural forms.9
Like Campbell,10 Turner believed that public ritual can provide a kind of psychological orientation for the benefit of those taking part by attempting to foster social equilibrium where there is potential or actual conflict.11 In the context of a brave young man returning from a horific battle, this may be to avoid dangerous arrogance, and foster healthy pride. We can suppose, therefore, that the role of the court bard was far more involved than simply composing poetry. Its likely that he was also at times a master of ceremonies, responsible for bringing the community (the old tribe) together on special occasions, like victory in battle or the death of a chief. It would be easy to identify him as a public figure, and in light of that it would have been natural for him to adopt dramatic techniques that supported his public performances. It is the acknowledgement of this dramatic element in this medieval poetry which is the first step in trying to better understand the ruitual context of a Gogynfardd declaiming his song.
References by Jung, Campbell and Turner to the medieval culture of Wales are rare. But the global reach of their research has ensured their relevance to anyone wishing to explore the basic tendencies of native cultures. There is a basic similarity in the way most cultures make use of public performance as a way of getting to grips with collective mental and spiritual health. In this sense, it could be argued that one of the oldest archetypes is maybe that of the public performer itself: the entertainer, the storeyteller, the musician or the bard, those who provide a focus, who attempt to provide communal equilibrium through the medium of their performance. It is clear at least that it is through the figure of the performer all the other archetypes are mediated as dramatic characters or spiritual embodiments. The Welsh bard, in this case, can be considered as a member of a very wide family of performers that developed independently in cultures large and small all over the world.
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1. ‘odes’. Long strict meter verses with chiming alliterations and rhymes; usually with
long passages, if not whole poems, on the same rhyme.
2. ‘ancient poetry’. The traditional term of the earliest Welsh poetry.
3. Otherwise known as the Poets of the Priness. Their period roughly spanning from the first half of the 11th century to the fall of the Llywelyn the Last Ruler in 1282.
4. The name given to the poets who preceded the Gogynfeirdd. Their period roughly spanning from the 6th century to the middle of the 11th.
5. C.G. Jung, The Collected Works vol. XIII (Llundain, 1967), p. 220.
6. Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Fontana, 1993), p. 9-10.
7. Ibid. p. 10: “When we turn . . . to consider the numerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitive tribes and great civilizations of the past, it becomes apparent that the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life.”
8. Ibid. p. 11.
9. Victor Turner, ‘Variations on a Theme of Liminality’, Secular Ritual, ed. S.F. Moore and B.G. Myerhoff, (Netherlands, 1977), p. 38.
10. Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p. 29: “It is the business of mythology . . . to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy. Hence the incidents are fantastic and “unreal”: they represent psychological, not physical, triumphs. Even when the legend is of an actual historical personage, the deeds are rendered, not in lifelike, but in dreamlike figurations; for the point is not that such-and such was done on earth; the point is that, before such-and-such could be done on earth, this other, more important, primary thing had to be brought to pass within the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams. The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward – into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.”
11. Victor Turner, ‘Are there universals of performance in myth, ritual and drama?’, By Means of Performance, ed. R. Schechner, (New York, 1990), p.10.