the inheritance of Welshness

There are roughly 700,000 Welsh-speakers worldwide, and I am one of them.  I am also, incidentally, a druid.

When I first started following a consciously pagan path, I was naturally drawn to druidry – not for any mystical strain of Celtic magic latent in my bloodline, but because the language of its rituals felt so reassuringly familiar to one brought up with eisteddfodau and the tales of Gwydion and Manawydan.  I knew from the outset that this familiarity was only superficial; I also knew that modern pagan druidry was at first an English phenomenon, however inspired by Celtic myth (or Welsh forgery).  But most importantly of all, as a religion crafted around sacred relationship with the gods, the land and the ancestors, I knew this path was mine as much as anybody else’s, and that there would be space within its sanctuary to explore the weight of my cultural inheritance.

I am not entirely, uncomplicatedly Welsh: I was born in England (purely by chance), with an Irish grandfather, a Scottish great-grandfather and a great-grandmother who was adopted, her origins entirely unknown.  My ambiguous cultural identity got me punched on the schoolbus and pushed down the stairs – yes, by the living descendants of the ancient Celtic peoples of this island – at least as many times as it won me the chair in our school Eisteddfod.

Venturing into a pagan community which draws on the sites, sounds and images of Wales for inspiration, I learned fairly quickly that distance bestows the gift of simplicity, and simplicity leaves ample room for the imagination.  I will happily concede that there are some dysgwyr – learners, the lifeblood of any ailing language – in the druid community who have dedicated so much time and effort to their learning that they know more about the old Welsh stories than I ever will.  But there are just as many others (though they tend to hail from further away) for whom ancient Wales seems as long-lost as Atlantis; druid priests who have named themselves baffling combinations of not-quite-words, who speak loudly and confidently about our ancient Celtic forebears, the people who dwelt for millennia in the places I call home.

Mindful of my ambiguous identity and ambivalent inheritance of Welshness, I tend to keep quiet, but I do sometimes wonder if I ought to speak out.  Today, at last, I did just that, and I want to follow up my comments on social media with something a little more heartfelt: an invitation, in the best tradition of sacred hospitality.  You are sincerely welcome to enter the sanctuary of my language and my culture – but please remember, honoured guest, that this is, in some small way, my home.  I will gladly share of it all that I can.  If you enter with an open mind and heart, you will find much of value – more, perhaps, than I could ever find without your help.  But if you cross this threshold without that awareness, much of value will be hidden to you.

Life under our princes was not ideal.  Our legal system, though better than some, was not an absolute paragon of justice.  The people who long ago raised dolmens on our coastline may not have been much wiser than we are today.  But set aside your illusions, and you will find lakes where fairies emerged to marry earthly men, hillsides where kings sat while goddesses rode past, and oak trees where bards and wizards sang their prophecies. And, sure, these stories are no more factually “true” than the stories being told about our wise and just forebears – but with one important difference: they are Welsh, rooted in the landscape of this country.  They carry a poetic, imaginative truth that runs deeper than history: the story of my people, and perhaps your people, too.

This is not the utopia you are looking for; but it is a wellspring of inspiration for those patient and respectful enough to learn from it, just as any other culture will be.

Postscript: in reading back, I’ve been reminded of the many wonderful people I know who take inspiration from the old stories and craft beautiful bardic art.  They don’t necessarily know the language – nor do they need to – but their respect for the source of this inspiration shines through their work, casting new light on the old familiar tales, and I am thankful for it.

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2 thoughts on “the inheritance of Welshness

  1. Thanks for posting this. I’m one of many who draws inspiration from the Bardic Tradition, without being Welsh and still not having made much progress learning the language…

    I believe ‘The Mabinogion’ in particularly ‘How Culwch Won Olwen’ and many of the poems in ‘The Ancient Books of Wales’ contain the history not only of contemporary Wales but ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘The Old North’ – the land stretching from Wales to Southern Scotland including my home county of Lancashire (many people forget the historical Taliesin spent alot of his life serving Urien in Rheged -Cumbria). For this I’m grateful to the people who carried these stories to Wales, for the scribes who penned them and the people who have transcribed them and kept them alive over the centuries.

    I love the lines: ‘They carry a poetic, imaginative truth that runs deeper than history: the story of my people, and perhaps your people, too’ and the phrase ‘a wellspring of inspiration.’ This is exactly how I see the Welsh myths, which for me are still very much alive both in Wales and The Old North.

    • Your poetry was one of the main reasons I added that postscript. I also believe the Mabinogi harks back to much earlier, Brythonic times, when the ‘Welsh’ kingdoms even included London (cf. Lludd and Llefelys, and the final resting place of Bendigeidfran’s head). I suppose the most important distinction is that your work draws on the deep inspiration of these stories without using them to make claims about “the truth” of Celtic culture. Modern Wales may have very little in common with the Wales of our iron-age ancestors, but it still exists!

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