Gorsedd y Beirdd Ynys Prydain

Eisteddfod Proclamation

Gorsedd y Beirdd Ynys Prydain (The Gorsedd of Bards of the Island of Britain) was founded in 1792 by Iolo Morganwg as part of his project to imaginatively re-construct druidry. The insititution has survived with the same name up until the present and is closely associated with The National Eisteddfod of Wales. The Gorsedd performs ceremonies such as the announcement of the annual Eisteddfod festival, the presentation ceremonies of the main literary prizes in the Eisteddfod pavilion and the setting of the competitions for those prizes, including the tasks to be fulfilled by those competing for the Chair (a long poem in cynghanedd, using the strict metres) and for the Crown (a poem in the ‘free’ metres). The Gorsedd also honours practitioners in the other arts and those who have contributed the cultural life of Wales and in the Welsh language, conferring druid robes of white, green or blue for different categories to be worn when taking part in the Gorsedd ceremonies. 

This year a proposal to change the name simply to ‘Gorsedd Cymru’ was announced. This has caused some controversy. Those in favour welcome the acknowledgement that the Gorsedd now has a far wider remit than poetry and that it is a specifically Welsh institution and the name should recognise that. Those against deplore the break with the tradition going back to Iolo Morganwg who also devised many of the ceremonies on which the current practices of the Gorsedd are still based. But the main objection is that the name change also breaks the link with the practice of composing poetry in the language inherited from the earlier inhabitants of Britain according to rules devised by the medieval bards who sought to define and continue that earlier tradition.

The arguments and counter-arguments are essentially those of pragmatists, identifying a need to work with current realities and present a modern image, against idealists who see the Gorsedd as embodying an expression of Welsh life inherited from a time when the Bards of the Island of Britain were just that. They see the proposed name change as undermining an important idea at the centre of Welsh identity: that the Welsh language, and the bardic tradition expressed in that language, continues a cultural thread that binds the modern inhabitants of Wales to the Brythonic-speaking peoples who inhabited Britain when the Romans invaded and who continued to speak that language in spite of the dominant influences of Latin and, later, the first English speakers.

Identity and tradition are tricky things which need to evolve and to adapt in order to survive. But they also need to retain certain characteristic features to continue evolving rather than simply being replaced by something else.  Does ‘Gorsedd Cymru’ replace the idea that Welsh is the language of the bards of the Island of Britain with an acknowledgement that it is simply the language of the people of Wales? And if so, does this reinforce the sense of Wales as a separate part of of Britain or does it undermine an essential aspect of the identity which underlies and reinforces that sense of separateness? 


A Feather …..

….. settled on the threshold, drifted in ¬ from one of the martin nests in the eaves ¬ (chicks seem to shed them when flying ¬ for the first time to sail away on the air) ¬ but this one settled, made a claim for possession ¬ of the home the birds return to year on year. ¬ It seemed like a gift, as some claims are, ¬ a token of shared habitation right there ¬ at the entry to the house where we found it ¬ feathering a nest beyond the cup of mud ¬ stuck beneath the overhang of the roof tiles ¬ marking a gateway to the world.

Socrates and the Nymphs


In Plato’s account of the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus he describes them walking out of the town to a wooded glade by a stream and sitting down under a plane tree to shelter from the midday sun. Such a time and place has significance in the lore of otherness. Queen Herouis, in the lay of Sir Orfeo, a version in Middle English of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, falls asleep at Midday under an apple tree and is visited by otherworld beings and eventually taken into the Otherworld. Socrates comments that the place in which they are sitting is clearly blessed with the presence of nymphs. As the dialogue progresses he shifts his initial position of skepticism about the value of love to an acknowledgement that it must be recognised. The change in his position leads to an exposition in which he speaks not in analytical prose but in verse - specifically, he says, in ’dithyrambics’, adding "Truly the place seems divine [theios], so do not be surprised if I often seem to be numpholeptos as my discourse progresses”.* So perhaps Sir Orfeo owes more than its outline narrative and plot to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but also reflects specific Greek lore about Midday as a liminal time. Morning or evening twilight would seem to be more common in native tradition but we should also note that Herouis is taken to a parallel Otherworld rather than to the Land of the Dead as is Eurydice, and so reflects British rather than a Greek mythos in this respect.

That Socrates should be inspired - the awen falling upon him as we might say - at this place and time, is also interesting. Welsh awenyddion, as described by Gerald of Wales in the 12th century, were inspired to prophesy in this way, and Socrates says that he has a ‘prophetic misgiving’ that in denying love he may have offended a divinity - Eros - and a recantation is necessary. He says that madness is a divine gift which may not be refused, and that love, like prophesy, is a form of madness**. Madness, he goes on, might also come from ‘the soul being possessed by the Muses ….. whoever has no touch of the Muses’ madness comes to the door and thinks to get into the temple by the help of art or poetry, but will not be admitted’. 

After much further exposition, including an account of the immortality of the soul, Socrates concludes the dialogue with a prayer:

“Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who here abide, grant me to be beautiful in the inner man; 
and all I have of outer things be at peace with those within”.

Which is as it should be!


Prayer to Pan from the translation of Plato’s Phaedrus by J. Wright in Socrates A Source Book ed John Ferguson (Macmillan, 1970). 

Other references from Jennifer Larson in Greek Nymphs : Myth, Cult, Lore (Oxford, 2001)

*Numpholeptos ('possessed by nymphs') :  “the term nympholepsy, which is a blanket word that can be used to describe several overlapping concepts. ….. In such contexts, texts, poetry and prophecy, always closely related, cannot be separated, and the nympholept, like the poet, the Sibyl, or the Pythia, experiences a state of divine madness but not one that his or her contemporaries would regard as pathological.”
(Larson, 1.3)

** Socrates suggests (playfully?) that the letter tau (Greek ’t’) is an insertion into  ‘manike’ to make ‘mantike’.

The Land of the Dead and the Otherworld

Epona on the paths of the dead.
Funeral stele from ancient Gaul

Akhilleus: “I’d rather slave on earth for another man -
Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive -
Than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
Odyssey Book IX

The hero of the Iliad drained of his life blood,
So a Greek view of the Land of the Dead,
The shades no more than that - shadows
Of their living selves, dwellers neither in
Paradise nor any place of horrific torture
Beyond the emptiness of their deaths.
Odysseus feeds them blood to bring them 
Into his living world, but soon again they fade.

Some Greeks thought the druids of the Keltoi
Had no Land of the Dead, believing instead
In reincarnation, reviving from death as
One or more others, a creaturely exchange
Of life for life, or lives - anything that dies
Becoming again and again in one world.


[the Gauls] “do not fear death  ….. 
the human spirit is immortal and will enter a new body”  
Diodorus Siculus 

For the Greeks numphai live in forests, groves, 
Rivers, streams and springs of our world. 
For Brythons there is the Otherworld - Annwfn
From which otherness comes to us,
And returns.

The Otherworld’s a world within world,
Without world, a not-world (that negative
Does not deny but asserts a presence) 
But animate life is eternal in Thisworld, 
Before and after.

What then of our many dead,
 Passing on roads of transformation, re-configuration?
Here a present life continues to know itself absolutely, 
Uniquely, not recognising past or future selves
Though they share a time that is Forever
With a sense of an also world that is Other.


It is not possible to be absolute about what was believed in a particular place and time, let alone in the wider arcs of space and time encompassed by ‘the Greeks’, ‘the Celts’ etc. Certainly, centuries after Homer, and far longer still after the origins of the stories from which he distilled his poem, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras advanced the theory of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls to new physical bodies. Even the Odyssey, with its vivid portrayal of the Greek Land of the Dead in Book IX, also tells us in Book XXIV, where this land is revisited, that Hermes, leading the ghosts of the dead with his golden wand, “charms the eyes of men or wakens those he will”. But the main thrust of the historic heritage of such belief sees the Greek Land of the Dead as a place of gloom which transmutes and becomes overlain over time into later views and of the nature of Hell in the Middle Ages. The Celtic Otherworld, by comparison, though sometimes viewed as an Underworld, seems to originate in a quite different sense of a parallel realm to that of everyday between which exchanges are possible and, indeed, often occur.

Ynys Manaw

Mist over Man gathering - Ellan Vallin
Island of Manannan
Grey cloud and grey rock merging
His spell the isle protecting.

In Two Fields

The gap between Parc y Blawd and Weun Parc y Blawd,
the 'two fields' of Waldo Williams' poem

There is a line in the poem 'Mewn Dau Gau' (In Two Fields) by Waldo Williams which is as follows:

Awen yn codi o'r cudd, yn cydio'r cwbl

This can be literally translated as 'Awen rising from hiding, linking everything together'. The fact that this sounds rather awkward in English, lacking the compactness of expression of the Welsh as well as the links of emphasis provided by the cynghanedd, might explain the fact that neither of the available translations into English attempt a literal translation of the line. In particular neither translate 'awen' to its usual literal meaning of 'muse' or 'poetic inspiration'.
Tony Conran's translation blends the line with the previous one as
' ... goodwill widened / And rose out of hiding, to make us all one'

Rowan William's translation seeks to unpack the compactness of the Welsh rather than translate it literally:
' ..... there is a new voice / rising and spilling from its hiding place .....' 
Rowan Williams has also provided a commentary on his translation in which he explains his strategy. On this line he says "The Awen that rises out of hiding ... needs a bit of a gloss, as 'muse' in English would have an unhelpfully precious and archaising feel. It will have to be 'a new voice/ ... call it the poet's', hoping that there is enough to make it clear that this is not just a matter of some one poet's imagination at work. I don't think this is properly captured in my version, I have to say."
So how should we read 'awen' here? Clearly it is being used in a special way and one which eludes both translators.  In both cases, of course, they have some part of the meaning. The poet certainly does mean to say it arises from poetic inspiration and 'goodwill' certainly plays a part in the overall sense of oneness which envelops those working in the fields in this poem. But if it both contains them and is contained in their sense of community, it also arises from something or someone outside of them: the "sea of light" rolling over the dark land at the beginning of the poem, the one who "hides amidst the words" the "bringer of quietness", the "silent hunter who casts a net around us". 'Awen' is a spiritual force that arises from all this to bring everyone, and everything, together as well as an inspiration for the poet who discovers it in the words in which it is hiding.
‘Awen’ is a word that is deeply ingrained in Welsh cultural awareness and response to landscape as well as carrying the literal sense of poetic inspiration and as a word for the Muse. I think too of the words of the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan who speaks of awen as having inhabited a young shepherd in the form of a hunter figure dressed in green and carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows. I’m not sure that Waldo Williams would have known this reference from Vaughan’s correspondence with his cousin, the antiquary John Aubrey who had written to him asking about remnants of the ancient bards in Wales. He would certainly have known Vaughan’s poetry but the ‘hunter’ figure here and the “silent hunter” of Waldo Williams’ poem, though they come from different cultural sources, and are presented in very different contextual frameworks, both emanate from a landscape in which spirit infuses animate matter.
Awen, then, arises both from without and from within. Words are shaped from the silence of not-world into the world. For Waldo Williams the world was a community in which 'adnabod' ('recognition' - a key word in his poetry) was part of the experience of living alongside others in a recognised place. So those working in the fields shared the experience of being one and it is awen that makes sense of it all, bringing it all together, in the poet's words and also in the felt presence, in the gap between those two fields, into which comes "the outlaw, the hunter, the exiled king" parting the rushes to reclaim his domain.

  Rowan Williams' translation of the poem, together with other information about Waldo Williams, can be found 

and also, together with his commentary in Cof ac Arwydd ed. Damian and Jason Walford Davies (Barddas, 2006)
Tony Conran's translation can be found in his parallel text edition of Waldo Williams' poetry The Peacemakers (Gomer, 1997)

Henry Vaughan's description of the inspired shepherd can be found HERE