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To praise a noble bard

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 West Wales. The poem itself reveals much about bardic culture and custom in medieval Wales.

Cuhelyn The Bard Lecture Handout

What do myths and symbols mean?

When trying to interpret myths and their symbols we usually find ourselves doing so at some distance from the culture that gave birth to them. Surviving texts have very often been long separated from their original social contexts, orphans of a long dead culture. With such a lack of contextual information, often our only guide is our own intuition.

When we do come across motifs and symbols we don’t understand, they don’t necessarily stay meaningless for very long. Our minds are continually interpreting our experience, ascribing meaning as naturally as breathing. If we stare at it for long enough, a cloud will often turn into a face, just as a symbol will often resolve into a complex of meanings. 

Clearly, a purely personal interpretation of myth or symbol won’t tell us much about the source culture they grew out of, especially if we are greatly removed from that culture. It’s reasonable to look for comparisons in such cases, similar symbols either from within the source culture itself, or if that’s not available to us then symbols from a close cousin. I believe that this, in reality, is one of the few ways in which we can claim some objectivity in this type of work.

But even so, no matter how carefully we may arrange our comparisons, they are still selective readings that are only minimally objective. In using comparison as a guideline for interpretation, there is still a need to identify our subjective responses before reverse-engineering an ‘objective’ rationale for them. Only after doing so will we be able to see our responses clearly enough to distinguish them from the actual material itself.

But after separating them out, we should neither neglect to consider these instinctive insights. There is nothing wrong with creative responses to myth and symbol; some of the world’s greatest art is a result of such engagement. If we are correct in regarding at least some myths as drawing on the imaginal life of a people, approaching them without any regard for our own imaginal lives would seem to be missing the point.

A useful approach in trying to understand a myth is to look at the situation in which it arose. But making assumptions about a myth by re-creating its social context isn’t as straight forward as it sounds, and generally impossible to do so without leaning somewhat on our own learnt ideas about what a myth can and cannot do. It is a mistake to think that any old story can simply be analysed like an antique box, prodded and tinkered with until it finally pops open to reveal its hidden curiosities, all without any creative engagement by the researcher.

An overly reductive, classificatory investigation is doomed to miss the woods for the trees. Either we approach myths and their symbols as the active, engaging and stimulating complexes of meaning that they were to their respective societies, or we simply classify their perceived forms and move on. Unfortunately, such treatments will inevitably tell us more about how we tend to classify things than reveal the imaginal potential of a myth.

Myths are probably more akin to living animals than a dead constructs, yet there is a danger of assuming that they have almost machine-like workings. That is an unfortunate and pervasive influence of some of the natural sciences: depicting the human body as a mechanical thing does not mean that everything it creates, even its ideas, are necessarily mechanical. That is a very difficult position from which to investigate the condensed dreaming of a culture. No myth ever evolved as a result of a storyteller thinking rationally about functions and utilities, so what makes us assume that defining those functions and utilities is the primary way of studying myth?

A myth and its embedded symbols contain multiple dimensions of meaning all at the same time, ranging from the instinctive and personal all the way through to the collective, historical and political; pretending to be able to fully separate any of those dimensions out reduces myth to an explanation that serves no purpose beyond satisfying an arbitrary standard of objectivity. All of the dimensions of myth need to be brought into view if we are ever to succeed in offering honest interpretations.

What is a Celtic bard?

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 the nobility to praise them in poetry as legendary heroes. Even though they attended mainly to politics and the ever-present threat of attack, these warlords kept one eye on their reputation and the good name of their lineage. They knew that for their name to echo down the generations, they needed a highly skilled bard such as Cynddelw to commemorate their great deeds. Many of Cynddelw’s awdlau (1) have indeed survived to the present day; proof enough that Cynddelw fulfilled his obligations.

But this simple fact hides a complex reality. There were many factors beyond the control of the bards that were just as responsible for the preservation of their poems. Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr did not work in a vacuum: he was part of a tradition, and when employing him as a bard his patron was also calling upon the power of his tradition. Cynddelw was, by necessity, far more than an individual poet, no matter how unique. He was also a vessel of the traditional idealism, mythology and ritual of his nation, not just a master of the ancient art of bardic declamation.

When reading Cynddelw’s poetry, one get’s the sense of a very clear personality, but one that’s dressed in very traditional garb. Cynddelw presented himself dressed as a mythic figure, a chief bard of deep learning and eternal wisdom. He could speak in the authoritative voice of the Hengerdd (2), and within him were to be found centuries of lore. The figure of the court bard as we find him in Cynddelw’s work, is a regal figure, and the same archetype that we find in the legendary Taliesin.

Through the figure of the mythic bard, his audience touched their strange and heroic past, reliving the great histories of their forefathers. What’s more, the bard presented these mythical heroes as ideals by which to live. Regardless of how much of this actually rubbed off on the warrior elite, in the ritual life of the court Cynddelw was the wise old druid giving council to the king, able to save his patron from any misfortune.

There are many historical examples of this same archetypal figure – in Geoffrey 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

It’s not surprising that the same awareness of the power of myth can be found in the works of the Gogynfeirdd as it can in the works of modern psychologists. Both have appreciated the ability of myth and ideal to influence broader culture.7 Of course, as has already been noted by Jung, only in the last two centuries did Western intellectuals 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 could provide a kind of psychological orientation for the benefit of those taking part. Public ritual can foster social equilibrium where there is potential or actual conflict.11 In the context of a brave young man returning from a horrific battle, the ritual may be an attempt to curb dangerous arrogance, and instead foster healthy pride. If this is the case, the role of the bard was far more involved than simply composing poetry. Court bards such as Cynddelw may well have been masters of ceremony, responsible for bringing the community together on special occasions, like victory in battle or the death of a chief. It would be easy to identify the bard as a public figure, and in light of that it would have been natural for a bard to adopt a dramatic persona in performance.

Perhaps the oldest archetype is that of the performer itself: the entertainer, the storyteller, the musician or the bard. We can at least say that it’s through the figure of the performer all other archetypes are explored. 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.

* * *

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.

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