‘It is the bards of the world who judge men of valour’ – Gododdin
So says Aneirin in the oldest surviving text in the Welsh language. Aneirin was one of the bards mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (1) as having been active in the 6th century:
Talhaern Tat Aguen was then renowned in poetry, and Aneirin and Taliesin and Bluchbard and Cian who was called Gwenith Guaut, were all renowned at this time.
Of these, only Aneirin and Taliesin have surviving poems attributed to them and, in the case of Taliesin, poems continued to be written in his name by bards using him as the mouthpiece of the awen up until the end of the thirteenth century. The language of the Historia is Latin, but the epithets for Talhaearn and Cian are in early Welsh. Talhaearn is described as ‘the father of the Awen’, which could mean that he is the source or the earliest of the poets identified as inspired by the Awen, or perhaps that he was a particularly skilful awenydd and foremost of those practising that art. The epithet applied to Cian is usually translated ‘Wheat of Song’. The word for ‘song’ here (guaut, modern Welsh gwawd) is particularly applied to a song of praise or a prophetic song. Certainly the later bards who adopted the Taliesin persona saw prophetic vision as one of the attributes of the figure who became the chief vehicle for the expression of this role of the bards, variously described by them as derwydd (druid), sywydd (enchanter), dewin (wizard) and daroganfardd (soothsayer).
‘Song’ or ‘sing’ are key word in early Welsh poetry, describing the role of the bards. At the beginning of the manuscript of The Gododdin are the words ‘ ..Aneirin ae kant’ (Aneirin sang this). It was a formula used by many of his successors in identifying themselves as authors. A bard not only wrote poetry but he sang it. We might wonder how to take ‘sing’ in this context. It could relate to delivery, in the way that a singer today sings a song, but it is certainly also to be taken in a wider sense of the nature of bardic composition as significant performance. The Celtic scholar J.E. Caerwyn Williams has examined a number of examples of the stem *kan– in early Welsh verse. (2) Among other observations he points out that it is contained in the word cynghanedd, the term for the complex sound combinations which are part of the strict-metre practices of the bards. Also that it is contained in the word dachanu (to declaim, often with a harp) which has a variant form dychanu (to satirise). One theory of how these terms are related is that the satirical implications developed in response to the over-fulsome praise by the bards of their patrons, as witnessed as early as the 6th century when the monk Gildas criticised the Brythonic kings in general, and Maglocunus (Maelgwn Gwynedd) in particular, for the praise received from what he regarded as their lickspittle bards (3).
But the stem *kan is also contained in other emphases of the practice of singing, e,g. darogan (prophecy) and its associated term gwawd (prophetic song, praise) with its cognate forms in Old Irish fáth and Latin & Gaulish uatēs. Caerwyn Williams is drawn to the conclusion that there is an implication of enchantment in the singing of the bards and that this always had both positive and negative implications: “It is obvious that they sang charms, blessings, curses, predictions and prophecies. They were wizards and soothsayers as well as poets.” He reminds us of the description of the awenyddion as described by Giraldus Cambrensis (4) and suggests that the word awenydd contains all of these magical attributes, such as are frequently claimed in the poems of Taliesin. He also asserts that: “..to say that the bards were originally wizards and enchanters is as good as saying that they belonged originally to a priesthood”, by which he understands the druids, citing links between the uatēs and the druidae according to ancient writers (5).
In spite of the more recent sceptical view from Ronald Hutton who asserts that druids and bards should not be confused (6), the testimony of the early bards themselves is rather that they were the inheritors of such a role, re-shaped to meet the needs of changed times and embedded in the grades of the Bardic Order and the arcane matter recorded in the prosodies of the chief poets (7). This is certainly implied by the description of Giraldus of the awenyddion as going into a frenzied state to utter prophecies and of the many references to vaticinatory and related practices in the poems of Taliesin. We might also note a line from the 13th century bard Iorwerth Fychan ‘Gorffwylaf molaf mal awenydd’ (I become frenzied and praise like an awenydd) (8). As J E Caerwyn Williams concludes : “The Celtic bards and their early descendants in Ireland and Wales were inspired (and therefore possessed) by the gods.”
The graphic is from an inscription by David Jones
All quotes from J E Caerwyn Williams are my translation from the work listed in reference 2 below.
1. Historia Brittonum Ch 62
2. ‘Bardus Gallice Cantor Appellatur’ in Beirdd a Thywysogion (GPC, 1996)
3. De Exidio Britanniae Ch 34. These, it might be noted, are the same bards that Taliesin claims to have trounced when he defends Elffin. A typical act of mythic synthesis of Gildas’ criticism of them with his own affirmation of the bardic virtues.
4. Giraldus Cambrensis Descriptio Kambriae Ch 16
5. ‘antiquos poetas vates appellabant‘ – Varro as cited by J E Caerwyn Williams
6. Blood and Mistletoe (Yale, 2009) passim
7. The earliest recorded threefold divisions being Pencerdd (chief singer), Bardd Teulu (household bard), Cerddor (minstrel). Later the divisions were Prydydd (poet), Teuluwr (household man), Clerwr (clerk). Their duties and status are recorded in the various versions of the prosodies brought together as Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid ed. G.J. Williams & E.J. Jones (1934)
8. Gwaith Beirdd y Tywysogion VII (GPC, 1996)