Thursday, 22 August 1861
First National Eistedfodd - Aberdare, Wales
The Celtic organization, known as the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain, appeared in the opening as well as the closing ceremonies of the First National Eisteddfod despite misgivings of some of the organizers. The Gorsedd had been involved since the beginning of this festival of Welsh (Cymric) arts so they were allowed to participate. The Gorsedd have been praised as the saviours of Welsh culture. They have also been called a bunch of humbugs running around in silly costumes.
I could write a book (and many have) trying to explain the Gorsedd. I will try to condense it all down into a short blog. I also know I will probably get a lot of angry comments, no matter which side I take. Keep in mind this is the personal view of a confused Englishman from the twenty-seventh century and does not reflect the opinions of the University of Cambridge or the Association of Temporal Anthropologists. I accept full responsibility.
The Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain (Throne of the Bards of the Isle of Britain) was founded in 1792 by Iolo Morganwg, the bard (also known as Edward Williams, the stone mason.) Iolo was also an antiquarian who collected ancient manuscript. He had published the lost writings of the druids who had been wiped out by the Romans. Since, the druids had been adverse to recording their teachings and their lore really was lost, Iolo was forced to fabricate his own ancient manuscripts.
Iolo saving grace was he was a great poet and a patriot who wanted to revive the heritage of the Welsh, which had been chewed away by centuries of English domination. Indeed he was instrumental in the Celtic Revival of the 19th century. For that he is considered a hero. The literary forgery I shall mark down to an act of desperation rather than an outright scam.
Iolo did get one thing right. After the Romans destroyed the Druid Headquarters at Anglesey (Isle of Mona) and outlawed druidism, it was the bards who continued what traditions survived. The original Gorsedd didn’t have druids, just bards. The rank of “druid” will not be added until 1876. By then the Gorsedd will become more of a club, and people want ranks they can aspire to.
Poetry and druid mysteries may seem like the main focus of the Gorsedd, but it’s true mission is to promote Welsh nationalism, language and culture with ceremonies and festivals rather than violence. The various Eisteddfods before this one were often their projects. It is because of this aim that other Gorsedds have been formed around the world. Even the Bretons have one to promote their Celtic heritage.
So, even those Welsh that think the Gorsedd are silly have to approve of anyone holding ceremonies in Welsh and backing cultural events. The “druids” will eventually earn the admiration of the English, and count people like Winston Churchill and Elizabeth II among their members. It’s a way to show pride in their Welsh ancestors--and they get to wear those stunning costumes.
Princess Elizabeth - the future Queen Elizabeth II - being made a member of the Gorsedd of Bards in 1946.
Here are a couple of videos showing Gorsedd Ceremonies:
Welsh National Eisteddfod (1916)
Procession of the Gorsedd
Wales: The National Eisteddfod - Early 21st cetury
The Gorsedd Prayer (in Welsh, of course)