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Were the Welsh bards shamans?

A question that often arises on courses is whether or not the medieval Welsh bards — those that gave us the Taliesin myth as we understand it today — were shamans in any way? As always, the answer is more complex than a simple yes or no.

The Welsh Bardic Triads

The Welsh Bardic Triads (‘Trioedd Ynys Prydein‘) provide an index to the oral storytelling tradition of medieval Wales. They were used by bards across the centuries not only to help them remember the vast network of traditional myth and lore, but also to present a distinct vision of the ancient past.​

Bardic Trickery

Taken from the Gafael Tir tour 2018, a show I perform with my good friend Owen Shiers. Gafael Tir is a history of land-rights and protest in Wales, telling a thousand years of the common folks’ history through folk song, story and verse. Mwynhewch:

The bard as druid

Medieval Welsh bards had a taste for the theatrical. Like many men of high standing they had an appreciation of the power of drama. In the 12th century, Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr composed a poem blessing the Lord Rhys’ court gates, probably declaimed in a pounding voice as the old bard swished into the hall followed by a proud troop of young apprentices. In the praise poetry of many a medieval Welsh bard there is the same sense of occasion, of grandeur and majesty.

Court bards such as Cynddelw would have worked hard not only to evoke the traditional authority of their ancient guild, but also to conjure a particular mystique. They would have refined the ability to create a sense of dignity, of continued tradition and ancient power. To this end, their poetry was laden with references to the works of esteemed past masters such as Taliesin and Aneirin. In a theatrical sense they were creating a dramatic persona based on the legendary figures of these long dead bardic forefathers, attempting to embody the archetypal wiseman.

But it wasn’t just the myth of the ancient bard that Cynddelw and his fellow poets were trying to evoke. It’s a little known fact that 12th century Welsh court bards also publicly portrayed themselves as derwyddon, as druids. Cynddelw could have actually traced his bardic lineage through Taliesin back to the ancient priest class of the earlier Britons, but that actual historical lineage wasn’t as important as the idea of it. Just as Cynddelw would have conjured the mystique of his bardic ancestors in performance, so he also conjured the basic notion of an ancient priest class of which he was the current embodiment.

In many ways this testifies to the central realisation of medieval Welsh bardic culture: the idea of the past is far more powerful than it’s historical reality. Time and again in prose tales and bardic poetry, the idea of an Arthur or a Taliesin is far more potent than the historical figures themselves.In much the same way, to a medieval Welsh bard such as Cynddelw, the idea of a druid was of more immediate value than any actual historical connection. Publicly claiming membership of an ancient order of wisemen has always had its perks.

Merlin, Robert De Boron, 13th cent.

Merlin, Robert De Boron, 13th cent.

What’s becoming clearer today is the long-term effect of bards such as Cynddelw mythologising themselves, through the theatre of court ceremony turning themselves into symbolic figures that represented profound wisdom and magical enlightenment. The myth of the archetypal wiseman promoted by the Welsh bardic guilds long outlived the bards themselves. Since Geoffrey of Monmouth borrowed the Welsh Myrddin to create the now internationally famous Merlin, many people have been captivated by this same mythology.

Time and again in subsequent centuries, both Welsh and English antiquarians found themselves enchanted by the same ethereal figure of the priest-poet so elegantly conjured in medieval Welsh poetry. The romantic figure of the ancient bard, harp in hand, beard blowing in the wind, became one of the most enduring caricatures of 18th and 19th century British culture.

The Bard 1778 Benjamin West 1738-1820 Purchased 1974 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01900

Benjamin West, The Bard, 1778

So successful was Taliesin, Aneirin and their descendants at mythologising themselves that the shadows they cast down the halls of history were felt by generations centuries later, amongst them generations of English men and women who couldn’t even speak the Welsh tongue. The Welsh bardic tradition was fascinating because of the effect of antiquity it conjured, not necessarily because of its historical lineage back to the druids. That, in essence, was the glamour the Welsh bards so successfully cast upon British culture, and its effects can still be felt to this day.

The 18th and 19th century obsession with all things druidical was on occasion fed by translations of medieval Welsh bardic poetry, more often than not presented as ‘the real’ mystic knowledge of the ancient druids. One Welsh antiquarian of the 19th century who took the opportunity to make such grandiose claims was the Rev. Edward Davies in his Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (1809). Half a century later, the scholar W.F. Skene said of his work “It would probably be difficult to find a stranger specimen of perverted ingenuity and misplaced learning than is contained in [Davies’] work . . .” It wasn’t so much the standard of translation that provoked the ire of academics, but the fantastical theories put forward about the poems themselves.

From "The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands" by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith, 1815

From “The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Islands” by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith, 1815

That’s not to say that there is nothing at all of interest in these old texts regarding the beliefs and philosophies of the medieval bardic guilds, nor how such things may relate to the earlier culture of the Druids. Ironically, some of the poems badly mangled by early translators such as the Rev. Edward Davies have in recent years been re-edited, the new editions providing hints and clues of the actual mysticism of the Welsh bardic tradition. The magic they practiced was, perhaps unsurprisingly, akin to the sacred theatre of the Greeks and all other such cultures that find power and transformation in public performance. In many ways, their greatest secret was the practice of mythology, the conscious use of myth and symbol to project their ideals onto present and future generations. The enduring figure of the Welsh wiseman, most popularly seen these days in the fictional characters of Merlin and Taliesin, is proof enough of their mastery of that craft.

Ancient Order of Druids, 19th cent.

Ancient Order of Druids, 19th cent.

In the early days of Celtic studies, much confusion was created by early translators being unaware of the theatrical aspect of bardic culture, of how intentionally the bards controlled and projected their chosen mythology. As a result, many succumbed to the glamour of bardic mystique, and were thereby blinded to how skilfully that mystique had been conjured. Captivated by the magic trick, they failed to appreciate the skilful sleight of hand. Thankfully, the resulting tangle of assumption, fact and fantasy slowly began to unravel in the 20th century. John Morris-Jones arrived on the scene to prune back some of the more wacky branches that had grown on the tree of understanding. And that pruning was essential, because without it, we would still be looking for the wood in the trees.

One of the majour stepping stones towards dispelling the glamour of the medieval bards was the publication of The Four Ancient Books of Wales by W.F. Skene in 1868 (in fact a significant portion of the translating work was carried out by D. Silvan Evans, with Skene taking responsibility for the final publication). Although by now considered too unreliable as a text for study, it was one of the more important attempts to clear away the brush and take an objective look at the texts. The countless errors that Skene and Silvan Evans’ translation contains can mostly be put down to the immaturity of the academic tradition they worked in, not necessarily a lack of diligence. The lack of decent reference works may have hindered them, but The Four Ancient Books opened the way for later scholars, Ifor Williams chief amongst them, to present editions that have so far stood the test of time.

The Triads of Bardic Craft

Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid* (‘The Grammars of the Chief Bards’) are a family of texts found in various manuscripts from about the 14th to the 16th centuries, although its quite likely the basic material they contain is much older. They would have been used as teaching tools in the bardic schools and reference works for those wealthy enough to have copies made. At one time, much of this material would have been memorised and transmitted orally.

These bardic grammars contain, as one would imagine, the basic rules of Welsh grammar. They also contain long sequences of triads on poetic craft known as the trioedd cerdd. The bards were very fond of the three-fold form. We find it not only in the structure of prose tales, but in the oldest kinds of poetry – the three-line englyn remains one of the most popular types of stanza to this day. The story triads (edited by Rachel Bromwich in Trioedd Ynys Prydein) were once valued sources of knowledge in Welsh medieval culture.

The triads of poetic craft are a little window onto the life of the court bards. They reveal how a guild of poets taught and practiced their oral craft of poetry. As expected, we find the different aspects of performance to be very important to them. They also continue to be sound advice to anyone wishing to take up poetry, and the performance of poetry in particular. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

Three things that make a poem strong:
depth of meaning, regularity of Welsh, and excellence of imagination.

Three things that make a poem weak:
vulgar imagination, shallow meaning, and a lack of Welsh.

Three things a poem likes:
clear declamation, skilful construction, and the authority of the bard.

Three things a poem does not like:
feeble declamation, vulgar imagination, and the dishonour of the bard.

Three things that make awen for a bard:
genius, and practice, and art.

Three things that impoverish a bard’s awen:
drunkenness, lustfulness, and criticism.

Three essentials for a bard:
liveliness of speech when declaiming a poem, and meditating upon poetic art to ensure it is not faulty, and the boldness of his answer to what he is asked.

Three things that make a bard consistent:
the telling of tales, and poetry, and the old poetry (hengerdd).

Three things that give honour to a bard:
dress, authority, and boldness.

Three things that cause a bard to be loved and praised:
generosity, making merry, and praising good men.

Three things that cause a bard to be hated:
miserliness, insipidness, and satirising good men.

* The standard edition is by G.J. Williams, Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid (UWP 1934). These are my translations.

The Bard as Prophet

Pawb at Dewi was a poem composed by the prophet-poet Dafydd Llwyd, probably in 1485. When Henry Tudor was making his way through Wales gathering support and troops for his forthcoming battle with Richard III at Bosworth, he stopped off at Mathafarn Hall just outside of Machynlleth, specifically to visit Dafydd Llwyd. Dafydd Llwyd was a trained Welsh bard that practiced the ancient art of political prophecy, a genre of bardic poetry associated with the myth of the mab darogan, the son of prophecy.

Henry Tudor, needing the support of his relations amongst the Welsh nobility, knew that a proclamation of support by the famous Dafydd Llwyd would aid his cause. According to folk tradition, having spent the evening with Dafydd and his wife, Henry asked the bard straight out “So who do you think will win the battle at Bosworth? Me or Richard?” Being caught unawares, Dafydd replied he would meditate upon the question that night and give Henry the answer next morning.

Later on that evening, with the young Henry and his companions tucked up in bed, Dafydd was pacing up and down his bedchamber pulling at his beard. His wife, trying to sleep, asked him “Dafydd, what’s wrong, come to bed and let us sleep!”, to which Dafydd replied “But what shall I tell him? He could be king in a few weeks time; I must get it right.” To which his wife replied “Just tell him he’s going to win. If he does, he’ll look favourably upon you. If he looses, well it doesn’t matter because he won’t be around to complain about it. Now come to bed!” So that’s what Dafydd told him and the rest, as they say, is history.

The poem we’re performing in the video bellow was probably composed by Dafydd Llwyd to be declaimed before the Welsh troops just before going into battle at Bosworth. It’s a rousing call-and-response between the bard and the troops, stirring them to action and calling for the blessings of St David for those about to go to war. It’s led by Twm Morys, a well regarded chaired bard, and based on the research of Peter Greenhill (first on the left of the group) who also provided the research and interpretation for Paul Dooley‘s album of music from the ‘ap Huw’ harp manuscript.

Taliesin and bardic learning

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 teaching triads of the bardic schools.

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