I’ve been reading John Michael Greer’s blogs for over a decade now, and he has been a huge influence on my thinking, in terms of ecology, economy, society and spirituality. If it hadn’t been for his writings, I may well not have decided to take a leap of faith and join OBOD. So, when he announced that he had a book coming out explaining Iolo Morganwg’s Coelbren alphabet, and its use as a divination tool, I knew that I would be getting a copy! And so I did, a year ago now, and it’s been a worthwhile purchase. It’s not without its flaws, and I do have criticisms. It’s still a book I would recommend, though.
The contents of the book are:
1. The Bard from Glamorgan
2. The Coelbren of the Bards
3. The Letters of the Coelbren
4. Coelbren Divination
5. Coelbren Meditation
* Appendix 1: Summary of the Divinatory Coelbren
* Appendix 2: The Coelbren and the Celtic Golden Dawn
The Introduction sets out how the book came about. The Coelbren are copiously referred to in Iolo Morganwg‘s Barddas. The Coelbren are frequently mentioned as holding the key to the Secret of the Bards of the Island of Britain. However, Barddas never mentions what the secret is, or how the Coelbren should be used. However, a chance discovery led John Michael to a text written by Iolo’s student, John WIlliams ab Ithel: the Dosparth Edeyrn Dafod Aur. This book explains the meaning and usage of the Coelbren.
Chapter One gives a potted history of Iolo Morganwg and his times. Iolo was no obscure mystic: he was a political and religious activist as well as a supremely talented poet and historian. He mixed in some of the most cutting-edge literary and political circles of the time. The Coelbren were fairly widely used as a functioning alphabet for Welsh poetry in his lifetime, and for some time afterwards, before falling into disuse.
Chapter Two introduces the concept of the Coelbren, and the history of their development as elucidated in Barddas. John Michael validates them as a divinatory tool, pointing out that whether or not they are genuinely ancient, they work – and that’s what’s most important! The means by which the Coelbren function – sound symbolism – is put into a historical context.
Chapter Three individually introduces the twenty-four letters of the Coelbren alphabet. Each letter is shown individually and named. Most are connected with a Welsh word which helps give it meaning. The sound is given and explained (necessary, as these are often very different to the way the letter would be pronounced in English, while some do not exist in English at all). The phonology is examined in detail, with discussion of how this also helps to understand the letter’s meaning. Finally, examples are given of what the letter represents if it’s drawn in divination. Of the twenty-four Coelbren, Dosparth Edeyrn Dafod Aur explains fifteen. John Michael Greer leans heavily on ab Ithel’s text for these; the explanations of the remaining nine are his own interpretation.
Chapter Four suggest several ways in which the user might make their own Coelbren set to use in divination, and then provides five methods by which to use them. Two are simple and fairly obvious: drawing a single letter, and drawing three to relate to the Three Rays of Druidry (Y Nod Cyfrin), which Iolo introduced in Barddas. There are also three more complex methods which John Michael has devised to deal with more complicated questions and situations.
Chapter Five describes how the Coelbren might be used in meditation of the Western, rather than Asian, tradition, and in scrying.
Appendix One recaps the letters, their sounds, their Welsh keyword (if any), and summarises the meaning.
Appendix Two connects the Coelbren letters with Tarot Cards, and with John Michael’s preferred magical tradition, the Golden Dawn.
Having summarised the book, what do I actually think of it, now that I’ve been using it for a year?
The first point, which I cannot emphasize enough, is that JMG has done the world of Druidry a great service indeed by rediscovering Dosparth Edeyrn Dafod Aur, and bringing its content back to our ken. The Dosparth is mainly a Welsh Grammar and guide to Welsh prosody; only a few of its pages deal with the Coelbren, but these are of immense value. The text can be found and downloaded in PDF format here. I was sufficiently enthused to seek out an original copy, being lucky enough to find one for 55 pounds on a trip back to Wales.
Chapters One and Two are really interesting as background but, of course, only bear reading a certain number of times. I hope, though, that they will encourage more people to learn more about Iolo Morganwg, who has slipped into an entirely undeserved obscurity, with even the Druid Revival movement which he did so much to create now seeming to downplay his memory. His reputation needs to be restored, as he has much to teach us for our times.
Chapter Five is interesting, but could be used with the Tarot, the Ogham, or the Norse Runes, for example. It’s a useful supplement, but not directly connected to the Coelbren.
Appendix Two seeks to bind the Coelbren into JMG’s own personal system, in which the Western Tradition of the Golden Dawn is given a Celtic user interface. I know that many people are finding this useful, but it’s not something I’m interested in, and it’s not part of Iolo’s system or thinking, or of the Welsh culture in which Barddas and the Coelbren are properly rooted.
The important parts of the book are Chapters Three and Four. As you will see from the photograph, I made my Coelbren from wooden Scrabble tiles, with the letters inscribed using a black Sharpie pen. It works very well.
For about half a year, I used the system as introduced in the book, using John Michael’s explanations, and the divination methods he listed. I found it to be very definitely a valid and effective divination tool, easy to use, and capable of providing solid answers to my questions.
But… but, but but… The answers I was getting never seemed quite right. The meanings seemed foggy; the message from the tiles never quite cohered. The answers were there, but somewhat obscured.
I found that I needed to go back to ab Ithel’s Dosparth for some tiles, and found greater meaning there. For example, John Michael covers how the letter ‘Li’ conveys flow and movement without effort, but omits how ab Ithel extends this to the image of a torrent, or a river in flood; this made some of my readings much clearer.
As a Welsh-speaker myself, I genuinely appreciate the effort that John Michael has made to learn the language. As someone who has lived immersed in the language, I can say that he misses some of the nuances of the spoken language.
For example, he correctly explains the difference in pronunciation of ‘U’ between what ab Ithel calls the Silurian and Venedotian dialects, and opts for the latter version, with which I concur. However, anyone who has spent time with speakers of this dialect could tell you that the northern ‘U’ has a rising tone, which isn’t mentioned in the book – but, again, knowing that helped to clarify some of my readings.
Finally, there are outright errors: for example, he explains that the Welsh word dynion, or ‘men’, is pronounced ‘duh-NEE-on’. This is simply wrong; it is pronounced “DUH-nyon” – two syllables, not three, with the two vowels ‘-io-‘ being a dipthong, not separately pronounced. (That’s not just my opinion, by the way, I double-checked with experts). This may seem to be a small thing, but it’s not: the whole basis of the use of the Coelbren for divination lies in the sound of the Welsh language, and these small inaccuracies accumulated, in my experience, as ‘noise’ in the reading.
I also, in the end, abandoned John Michael’s own methods of reading. The first two (single tile, three rays) worked well, but the other three never really cohered. I have reasons why this is the case, but that’s for another post.
Pointing out these issues may make it sound as if I am not enthusiastic about the book. Be assured, I am.
Overall, if you are interested in Druidry, divination, and/or Welsh culture, you should buy this book. Once again, I cannot emphasize enough John Michael Greer’s contribution of rediscovering and re-introducing John Williams ab Ithel’s work. Anyone who buys and uses this book will find that they have a useful, and unique, tool at their disposal. However, I have to say, that this is not the definitive guide to the Coelbren as a divination tool; there are too many errors and ommissions for that. Let’s hope that the future will bring works that build on, and extend, what John Michael has begun.
One final note: since I started using the Coelbren, I’ve been experiencing a steady stream of synchronicity, with unconnected things popping up to show a big picture that I would never have seen otherwise. One of these has given me a pointer to something Iolo may have had in mind when he described the Coelbren has being the key to the secret of the Bards. I need to work with it a bit more before I write anything more, though.