The White Deer Blog – Page 8 – celticsource.online

Iolo Morganwg and Welsh mythology.

Today, we have far more accurate editions of old Welsh poetry and prose than ever, largely due to the growth of Welsh language university departments, sometimes with whole teams of post-graduate editors and researchers devoted to editing 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 these Welsh classics were only available in confused English translations. In comparison we are living in a time of plenty when it comes to the availability of reliable editions of old 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. University departments today will always make research decisions based on funding. Over time this financial conditioning of research tends to neglect types of scholarship that are in any way experimental, risky or adventurous.

Coupled with that is the reticence about mentioning anything to 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 in re-dreaming the mythic past of the Welsh nation. He fabricated 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. The main success of such organisations has been in turning the older English antiquarianism into a relatively popular modern-day spiritual movement.

Regardless of his trustworthiness as a scholar, Iolo was a great visionary and a truly inspired nationalist. His ceremonial interpretation of Welsh mythology gave his nation a durable vessel that has sustained 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 bit of a problem when it comes to actually following through on his main claim: that there is an historical connection between medieval bardic culture and the earlier druidic culture of the Iron Age. 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 history or its philosophy, or how druidry may have persisted 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. New professors usually get the job when they have proven they can appear relevant while not being too controversial within their fields (the proverbial ‘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. It’s far easier to just keep your head down and keep pumping out non-controversial research. 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 historical connection between druids and later bards, but interpretation of the key texts is usually given by linguists, not by anthropologists or mythologists.  This is of course a key part of the work, and it’s essential that editors 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 broader, much more eclectic comparative study the takes the genuinely interesting medieval Welsh material and considers it from the perspective of anthropology and mythology. The material is all there, expertly presented in an abundance of new editions, we need only learn to read beyond the text.

The Tale of Taliesin in the Landscape

Place names and monuments close to Bedd Taliesin, the bronze age cairn in the Cletwr Valley, could throw a little light on why it bares the name of a popular Welsh folk hero. It’s impossible to tell whether this was originally the grave of the historic Taliesin, chief bard to Urien Rheged, although there’s no reason why (no matter how unlikely) he couldn’t have been buried there at a later date. Such ancient cairns were used time and again throughout their history. But regardless of whether the real Taliesin was  buried in the mound or not, what’s important is its relationship to the myth of Taliesin.

The cairn itself is situated in a place called Pen y Sarn Ddu, or ‘End of the Black Road’, a name still retained by the old farm next to the cairn. This could refer to the old ‘Roman’ road, or Sarn Helen, that runs along the coastal highland from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth. But that ancient highway doesn’t end at Bedd Taliesin, so why call it the ‘End of the Black Road’?

It’s more likely that the farm’s name refers to the old track that runs at right angles to the Roman road, following the Cletwr Valley east towards Moel-y-Llyn. So if this is the ‘End of the Black Road’, where is its beginning? The present track runs along the south side of the valley through Cae’r Arglwyddes Farm and due east up the slope of Moel-y-Llyn through the pass into the Einion Valley. If the Black Road originally followed a similar path, we can see it takes a straight line from Bedd Taliesin, through Cae’r Arglwyddes Farm to the pass into the Einion Valley. If we extend that straight line down the other side of Moel-y-Llyn we come to a small farmstead called Bronwion, or ‘Gwion’s Hill’. Is this where the Black Road begins?

Bedd Taliesin Map

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, or ‘The Lady’s Field’. Heading east up the Sarn Ddu (the ‘Black Road’) from Bedd Taliesin there are several 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?

Long 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 Cletwr Valley from the top of Moel-y-Llyn and that kerb the cairns over on Foel Goch on the northern slopes.

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.

So what of the name Cae’r Arglwyddes (‘The Lady’s Field’)? After some digging around in the National Library and County Archive, I am yet to discover if it was ever owned by a lady. 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.

The lady referred to may not actually be a historical person. I’ve spoken to a woman 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’ that inhabits the small llyn that gives Moel-y-llyn its name. Such folktales are common throughout Wales, and feature an otherworldly woman who comes out of the lake, usually followed by an abundance of farm animals. These ladies of the lake could well be late versions of earlier water deities. It would be afir enough to ask if Taliesin’s connection to this place had anything to do with this piece of folklore. Is there an otherworldly ‘Lady’ associated with Taliesin and the rights of the dead?

One possibility is that the Sarn Ddu between Bronwion and Bedd Taliesin corresponds in some way with the mythical bard’s life-journey. If so, 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 him into the Dyfi? It would make sense if he was then washed up on Borth beach.

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

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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