Whenever we drove from our home in Glamorgan, just along the river from Iolo Morganwg’s cottage, to West Wales, my father would remark on the change at the Afon Llwchwr (in English, the river Loughour).
He was quite right: as you go west over the motorway bridge, with the railway bridge over the estuary to your left, something changes in the air. The Chinese might say that the qi is different; we Druids, that the nwyfre has a different property. The Llwchr – for all that the Gwendraeth and Tawe and Amman valleys to the east, still speak Welsh – feels like the true transition, the boundary, between Anglo Wales and Y Fro Gymraeg, “Welsh Wales”. It’s the boundary between the Anglicised, globalised, post-industrial coalfields and the land where traditional Welsh culture still endures; the territories where the land is considered for what can be extracted, and the territory where the land is a partner in poetry. You feel that the light is softer, the colours more vivid, and the Tylwyth Teg still ride by moonlight.
Here, yn y Fro, the tales of Pwyll and Rhiannon, and Pryderi, of Brân and Branwen and Manawydan, the story of Gwydion and Lleu and Blodeuwedd, the legends of Arthur and Culhwch and Rhonabwy, of Peredur and Gwalchmai, of Ceridwen and Taliesin, and Elffin and Gwyddno Garanhir, of Aneurin and the men who rode to death at Catraeth, the memory of Gwyn ap Nudd, they are part of the unbroken, living culture. They are ours. They belong to us and we belong to them. They inhabit the lands we live in, and the lands we once held that are now lost to us.
And that brings me to address the issue of cultural imperialism in contemporary paganism, and in particular the approach to the Welsh cultural heritage which, together with the culture of the Gaels, forms such an important part of today’s Druidry. What disturbs me is the way in which so many people, actively or passively, try to separate our myths and legends from the living culture which produced them and transmitted them down to the present day.
To try to give a sense of why this is so sensitive, let me give you a brief timeline:
1401: The towns established and populated by the English in newly-conquered Wales make the Welsh the only people other than the Jews forbidden to live within their walls. The Welsh are forbidden from purchasing land in England, and from holding any kind of public office. No Englishman could be jailed for any offence committed in Wales if the legal case was brought by a Welshman.
1535-42: Traditional Welsh law is abolished in Wales. The Welsh language is banned from any official role or status.
1682: An English pamphleteer reflects mainstream English attitudes when he writes “The native gibberish … (if the stars prove lucky) … may be quite extinct and may be Englished out of Wales“.
1746: The English Parliament declares that all references to ‘England’ include Wales by default.
c1750: Robert Hay Drummond, Scottish-born Bishop of St. Asaph, in north Wales (and later Archbishop of York) declares “it would be better if the Welsh language were pulled up from the root“.
1774: Iolo Morganwg notes that ordinary English workmen in Kent are furious that a Welshman should be given authority over them as an overseer. “[T]he Englishmen are damn Mad (to use their own phrase) that a Taffy Should rule them“.
1780: the racist, anti-Welsh, rhyme “Taffy was a Welshman“, depicting the Welsh as thieves, is first published. The rhyme continues to be circulated today.
1847: the London-appointed Commission on the State of Education in Wales declares that “[t]he Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects“.
199?: Prominent writer and columnist AA Gill calls the Welsh “loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls” in The Times of London.
2001: Prime-time media personality Anne Robinson says on television “We used to go on holiday to Wales and they all used to speak Welsh there … I’ve just grown to dislike them more and more. I’ve never taken to them. What are they for?”
2010: Prominent media personality Rod Liddle calls the Welsh “miserable, seaweed munching, sheep-bothering pinch-faced hill tribes“.
2011: Journalist Roger Lewis calls Welsh an “appalling and moribund monkey language”.
2017: Staff at Sports Direct in Bangor, north Wales, are told they “must speak in English at all times when they are at work. […] This includes any personal conversations that may be taking place during work time.”
2018: Prominent right-wing media personality Katie Hopkins calls Welsh “a dead language“.
2018: Staff at Babcock, a contractor with the RAF on Anglesey, north Wales, are told that “Welsh speaking is not tolerated“.
2019: Staff at the Pullmaflex factory in south Wales told not to speak Welsh at work.
2019: Care home staff in Ystradgynlais, south Wales, told not to speak Welsh at work.
2019: ‘The Original Factory Shop’ in Pwllheli, north Wales, forbids staff to wear “Welsh Speaker” badges; orders female customer to leave for speaking Welsh.
2020: “Don’t we control Wales?” asks an English woman stopped by Welsh police for breaking Welsh Covid-19 lockdown laws (which differ from those in England).
I could add many more. The point of this is to impress on you that for the Welsh, the survival of their language and culture in the face of our larger neighbour is a struggle that has been going on for centuries and, despite improvements in the legal status of the language, is still very much going on today. We care about these things. A lot.
So two things have brought this to mind recently.
The first was a conversation in a forum about cosmology in Druidry. I pointed out that Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas provides a cosmology which works very well – that is, after all, what I’m exploring in this blog. The response? “Iolo Morganwg was a forger, not a guru”. And that was that; there was no willingness to engage further. Never mind that Iolo was a genius, accomplished in many fields, a master poet, a peer of some of the most influential people of the eighteenth century, and a religious scholar and campaigner. None of that mattered.
I’ve encountered this fixed thinking about him, this mental impasse, so often, that I have become convinced that there is something significant going on. His system works. It’s older than the Church of the Latter Day Saints; it’s older than the Baha’i faith. It’s nearly as old as Sikhism. So why does Iolo’s Druidry get so angrily rejected, even by members of the Druid orders which are his spiritual descendants?
I think a part of it is that it is older, and it is the creation of a man who was deeply concerned about the individual in society. It is not a self-centred belief system. Some modern Druids really get this: Penny Billington’s book, The Path of Druidry, does a very good job of using Welsh myth to convey the responsibility Druids have towards others, for example. Many people in modern Druidry, though, seem to want a system that’s just about them; placing them and their feelings at the centre of an undefined relationship with an undefined ‘Nature’; the duties and responsibilities of Iolo’s system would naturally be something they would shy from.
There does seem to be something more, though. It isn’t just about Iolo as an individual; it’s about Iolo being Welsh… Welsh, not English, and so Anglo culture cannot claim his Druidry for itself, no matter how much it wants to. It suppresses his memory, denies his influence, tries to pretend that modern Druidry is English… but always, there is the knowledge that, without the Welsh, modern Druidry would not exist.
There’s an unwillingness to acknowledge that Welsh-language culture is alive and well today. Too many people want to strip-mine the Welsh legends because they are ‘ancient’ and ‘authentic’ without engaging with the people whose legends these are. They want to enjoy the wealth of our culture without being disturbed by the struggles we are facing every day, even now, to keep that culture alive. So there is a major cognitive dissonance in evidence, in which people seek to explore the Welsh myths and impose their own meaning, whilst downplaying, even denying, the fact that the Welsh nation already have claim on that. Take the concept of ‘Awen’, for example. Many English-speaking Druids wax lyrical about this Welsh word, and earnestly give it meanings and associations which it does not in fact have. Please: just look it up in the dictionary? You do not have the right to redefine the words in our language!
This leads me to the second issue: a low-key, but nonetheless palpable, effort to detach the legends from the Welsh. I wrote a post recently in response to a paper published on academia.edu. The author’s take on Gwyn ap Nudd spurred me to write my own exploration of the way in which he is portrayed in the original Welsh sources. However, there is one aspect of the paper which needs a strong response, an aspect which I found to be quite shocking (my emphasis added):
Gwynn ap Nudd. Certainly ‘ap’ is Welsh for son of, and the name Gwynn has a Welsh ring to it. But to assume Gwynn to be Welsh is erroneously imposing modern day conceptions. Is not Gwynn British? The modern Welsh in their western section of Britain descended from a race that was once more widespread on our islands. The Welsh language developed from the British. Just as the battle between the red dragon (British) and the white dragon (Saxon/Angle) has no direct relevance today in terms of war between the British and invading Saxons/Angles, surely any attempt to take possession of Gwynn on the basis of locality or to restrict him to some particular segment of Britain is pointless.
The inference seems to be that because the ancestors of the Welsh occupied most of the Island of Britain, anyone living in Britain today has equal claim to the Welsh cultural inheritance.
Would we accept, even for a moment, someone saying that since “shamanism” is derived from the practices of Siberian tribes, and since the territory of Siberia has since been conquered by the Russian state, that the inhabitants of Moscow and Saint Petersburg can now claim shamanism as their own culture?
Would we agree with someone who claimed that since European settlers have conquered the lands once inhabited by native Americans, in the process driving away the original inhabitants to distant reservations, that the white population of the United States now has the cultural rights to the spiritual practices of the Sioux, the Iroquois, or the Navajo?
Would we nod in sage agreement as we were told that the descendants of white settlers in Australia now have a perfect right to change the tales of the Dreamtime, and to make up their own, and that their new stories are just as valid as anything the Aboriginal culture produced?
We would not. And yet this seems to be the position taken by many in the modern pagan movement. They argue, for example, that since their ancestors conquered the lands once inhabited by the ancestors of the Welsh, destroyed their culture and society, and driving them away – that they now have a perfect right to pillage the culture that was transmitted down by the surviving British culture in the west of the Island of Britain. This is not the case.
It is not “erroneously imposing modern day conceptions” to consider Gwyn ap Nudd, for example, as Welsh. He is of the Welsh. He belongs to our culture, our tales, our legends, transmitted down to the modern day from our ancestors, who inhabited the island of the mighty. Cumbria, Strathclyde, Lothian, Devon, even Oxford and London, may no longer be occupied by the Brythons but we Welsh, their descendants, preserve in our cultural memory the time when they were.
The passage I’ve quoted is typical of a particular mindset in contemporary paganism. Perhaps this is not what the author intended to convey, but it reads to me as an attempt to remove Gwyn ap Nudd from the cultural context in which he belongs, and to claim ownership for another culture. And this is not acceptable.
Adam Price, currently the leader of the Welsh independence party, Plaid Cymru, has argued very convincingly that Wales is, even today, essentially a colony. I recommend watching his speech on the topic
If you don’t have time to watch it, the transcript is here.
Ireland was also colonised for centuries, and Irish Druid Lora O’Brien talks here about cultural appropriation vs cultural appreciation, about Ireland as a post-colonial nation still seeking to deal with the effects of having been colonised on its culture. She makes excellent points and suggestions, which hold true for Wales as much as for Ireland; it’s very much worth watching.
The issue of the appropriation of Welsh culture is also addressed by Gwilym Morus-Baird:
The Welsh are not obviously different; we look like any other white people. Not all have obviously Welsh accents; many have a Welsh accent but not the Valleys accent that many non-Welsh immediately think of. And yet, we are a separate people; we have the right to be respected, and to have our equal place among the peoples of the world.
Even today, though, many Welsh schools don’t teach the history of Wales. Our language is consistently denigrated and treated as second-class, and as a joke, by the dominant culture of the Island of Britain. Our national institutions, so recently won, are treated with disdain, or ignored by Westminster.
The Way of Druidry follows many winding, diverging paths, and that is good. Some are self-defined; that’s great. Some deal only with the individual relationship with nature. That’s fine. And some deal with the myths and the legends of the Welsh, or of the Irish. That’s also fine. We welcome those who wish to learn from them, and to share in the wealth of their insights, just as we welcome the people who move to our communities and learn our language, and become a part of our living culture. It’s great that our culture is being appreciated, and that it’s being acknowledged, and shared around the world, it really is! But: please remember that these things do not belong to you. Please acknowledge the people who have passed these legends down, whose poets even today charge the living landscape with meaning and inspiration. Do not think you can take our culture from us and make it your own.
The Druids, ancient and revival, were Celts. If you choose to follow a Celtic path… please acknowledge that the Celts are still here. Do as Lora O’Brien suggests, and contribute time, money, and/or publicity to those working with, and maintaining, Celtic culture today.
If you use the three rays /|\ or chant the Awen; if you recite the Druid Prayer; if you study the story of Gwion Bach and Ceridwen; if you invoke Gwalchmai, the Hawk of the East; if you revere Elen, or Modron and Mabon, or Gwyn ap Nudd; if you are inspired by Blodeuwedd or Rhiannon or Manawydan: you are drawing from the treasures of Welsh culture. Please give something back, because that culture is under great pressure.
Learn something of the language. Buy downloads of Welsh music. Buy goods from Welsh craftsmen and craftswomen. Tell your family and friends how rich and vibrant Welsh culture is, and how much positivity it has contributed to your life. Don’t try to ignore us, or just take our heritage from us because you want it. That really is cultural imperialism, and appropriation.
(And if you don’t want to engage with the Celtic peoples… well, perhaps don’t call yourself a Druid? Maybe Woden and Thunor, and the rest of the invader gods, might be a better match for you!)