The word itself is derived from Welsh, meaning ‘to sit’ and
refers to a sitting of bards. The seating aspect is also a
connotation of the Bardic Chair which traditionally is awarded to
the best Bard of that particular locality.
Bards of times long past held great
influence over their people as they were the keepers of history
adept in reciting stories, poetry, legends and songs of heroes and
their deeds. Wherever the Bard traveled they were greatly received
and given the best hospitality.
Before printed materials existed
the people of towns and villages relied upon the Bards to bring them
the latest news from their courts and for some this was the only
reliable source of information the people could rely on. It was also
thought that the Bards safeguarded the ancient mystery traditions
and practices of the Druids whose teachings were kept safe in the
minds of initiates.
Through ancient times the Kings,
Princes and Chieftains maintained their Bards, presenting them with
gifts for their services and in return the Bards would put on great
displays of performance through stories, poetry and harp-led song.
However, during the 12th and 13th century Bards no longer were
appointed to a particular Kingdom as native rule ceased and their
position significantly changed as it soon became apparent that
competition was the deciding factor in whom should be ‘Chief Bard’.
One of the earliest documentations
of such competitions can be traced right back to the 12th century at
Christmas time in 1176 when a ‘sitting’ of Bards took place when
Lord Rhys assembled the people of Wales to Cardigan. Rhys (Rhys ap
Grufffudd) had been appointed justice of South Wales by Henry II,
and his rights to the territories he controlled were recognised by
the king. The purpose of this meeting, apart from demonstrating the
position of authority he held among the Welsh princes, was to
control the business of the Bardic orders. T
he Bards were organised into
various grades and required to serve long apprenticeships and
acquire skills before they were granted a license to serve
professionally. Two types of contests were held at Cardigan, one for
the storytellers and poets and another between musicians in which
two chairs were held for the victors.
Other Eisteddfods were documented
periodically through-out Wales as the Bards competed for ‘Chief
Bard’ status and legend hints that 31 English cities were also once
Bardic Seats. However, with the growing influence of the English
Monarchy the encouragement of independence from the Bards to their
people was taken the wrong way and seen to be encouragement of
rebellion. In consequence laws were enacted to put the Bards down
and some suffered great cruelty as Thomas Gray reflects in his Poem
Centuries later in 1772 Edward
Williams who came to be known as Druid Iolo Morgannwg introduced the
idea of a Gorsedd (a community of Bard’s and Druids). Iolo was
infamous for inventing a colourful past in which he sought to
protect the future of the Welsh language and Bardic craft through
convincing his peers of his unbroken ancestry of ancient druidry.
Iolo held the first ritual of the Gorsedd of Bards in 1772 upon
London’s Primrose Hill with an Eisteddfod.
The ritual began with the laying of
the twelve portable stones of the great circle with a central altar
stone. The Goddess of liberty was then honoured as Iolo called an
end to slavery. It is here a sword was placed upon the alter and
later sheathed by the Bards. The Gorsedd eventually brought order to
the Welsh Eisteddfod which was adopted by the Gorsedd in 1819 when
Iolo lay out the same stones initiating more people into the Bardic
Crafts. The Gorsedd have served the opening rites for the Welsh
Eisteddfod ever since, a tradition over a century old.
In time Iolo was branded a fraud
and fabricator of truth but none the less he was a genius and his
book ‘ The Barddas’ still causes controversy as to which parts were
forged and exaggerated to this day.
When we refer to an Eisteddfod in
the modern sense we are talking of the festival that prides itself
on the Welsh Language and Culture however we cannot ignore the fact
that its cultural foundations are grounded in Celtic and Druid
history. In the now we take structure and inspiration from the Welsh
Eisteddfod Tradition by keeping the oral tradition alive and by
bringing about a deeper sense of community and spirituality to our
creativity and artistic expression.
The Flag Fen Eisteddfod is not
about historical accuracy or re-enactment but it’s about
strengthening community, deepening the connection to the muse
within, sparking the imagination of adult and child and allowing us
to view the sacred in life whether deity, family or place.
It’s also about encouraging and
supporting those with talent to further their skills and create a
deeper understanding of different cultures and faiths so we feel a
more profound sense of belonging in such a diverse multi-cultural
place. May the ancient muse that our ancestors found through poem
and prayer, verse and story seek out your imagination once again and
bring the fires of creativity to illuminate your mind.
May your fire burn bright within,
The Ancient Muse