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The database, the non-trivial Bard, and the colour of the sea

A Celt and a Saxon would agree that of the colour of the sea, the colour of ivy leaves, and the colour of an Ovate’s robe, two belong together and one is different. They would, however, disagree on what the two are.

What is the colour of the sea?

The answer to that question tells us why Iolo Morganwg called his system ‘Bardism’ and not ‘Druidry’. Bards, not Druids, are the essential element of the Gorsedd, because the role of the Bard is to master language.

To illustrate this, let’s talk about databases. Most of us are aware of databases: after all, they’re fundamental to the internet which is now the main way of interacting with the world for many people.

We can start with a working definition: a database is an attempt to model an aspect of the real world. The more talented the database designer, the more closely the model represents that particular element of the real world.

The first step in designing a database is to develop a representation of the real world in an Entity-Relationship Diagram. Here’s a basic introduction: it would be helpful if you took a quick look at that before we go on, just to get a sense of what we’re talking about.

As you might guess from the name, the key elements of the database design are the ‘Entities’. These are the ‘things’ that are important in the subset of reality that you’re modelling. It might be people; it might be buildings; it might be products. They might be dogs, or shipping containers. You get the drift.

Once you’ve decided which ‘things’ are important, you have to name them. This is completely arbitrary, and in many ways this is at the whim of the database designer – but, of course, the name has to be meaningful to all the other people who will use the database, so the name should have a commonly understood meaning.

That’s not sufficient, of course. If you’re building a database about dogs, it’s not enough simply to create an entity called ‘Dog’. After all, dogs have an endearing tendency to be different from one another. How do we build this in? 

To help us do this, ‘entities’ have ‘attributes’; the attributes allow us to describe the differences between individual specimens of the general category ‘dog’. What should these categories be? Again, this is arbitrary and, depending on the context, the database designer may replicate a list of categories developed somewhere else, or they may need make their own decisions based on their personal understanding of what makes dogs different from one another. So, we might perhaps settle on: 

  • The dog’s name
  • The dog’s breed
  • The dog’s colour
  • The dog’s sex
  • The dog’s age

As I said, it’s arbitrary; the database will allow us to create whatever attributes we like. However, there’s something we have to remember: computers can’t read the developer’s mind. Once the database is operational, it can only work with the attributes that the developer has created for it. If the developer did not include an attribute, that aspect of reality cannot be represented. In this case, it is impossible to discuss a dog’s pedigree, since the developer apparently didn’t think this was important. A different developer, creating a different database, may have included it; users of that database will be able to handle the concept of a dog having a pedigree.

We can also, perhaps, now introduce a ‘Person’ entity, representing the general concept of a human. Since we’re not identical clones (phew!), we also need to think up a set of attributes to differentiate individual humans from one another. Again, this is pretty arbitrary at the design stage but, once the database has been finished, sold to the customers, and put into operation then those decisions about attributes define how the users will be able to handle the concept of a person, and how they will conceive of any given individual human. If, in the real world, humans possess a particular feature but the database designer did not include that attribute in their Entity-Relationship Diagram, then that feature will be impossible for users of that particular database system to comprehend or represent.

Since, in the real world, there are interactions between humans and dogs, we need to include this in our database. This is where the ‘Relationships’ come in. We might call one of these relationships “Ownership”. Thus, we can say that a given dog is ‘owned’ by a human. However, Relationships also need to be given attributes. A given human may own several dogs at once, or many over time. A given dog may have several owners over time, or may be in shared ownership. However, a dog will never own a human (we hope!). So, “Ownership” is a one-way relationship, but can be “Many to Many”.

Humans also have relationships between themselves. Once again, the designer is free to define this whichever way they choose but, once the system has been finalised, those decisions are the only relationships which the system can process.

So, is ‘Marriage’ one-way or two-way? Is is one to one? Many to many? Or one to many? (And if so, in which direction?) What about the relationship between brothers? Is it one relationship, ‘Brother of’? Or are “Older brother to younger brother” and “Younger brother to older brother” two separate and distinct relationships, with different properties? Make your decision: that’s the way the system will work thereafter.

I’m sure by now that you have understood where this is leading.

Entity-Relationship Diagrams are essentially a meta-language: a set of rules for defining the way a language will work. ‘Entities’ represent nouns. The attributes of entities are adjectives. Relationships are verbs, and their attributes are adverbs.

E-R Diagrams are super-simplified versions of human languages and, like E-R Diagrams, human languages represent fairly arbitrary views of the complexity of the real world. They represent the things that a given culture thought was important, and leave out the things that were deemed unimportant. It can be very difficult to represent or discuss those things, and so speakers of different languages may have quite different understandings of the world.

Take the case of colour. 

Many people reading this will speak English as their first language. English represents colour based on the property of ‘hue’: this is the feature that makes an Ovate’s robe (made of cotton, wool, linen, etc) and an ivy leaf seem similar: we describe them as ‘green’. The hue of the sea is very different; it is not the same colour.

Celtic languages look at the same reality in a different way. The ancient Celts viewed things in terms of their ‘luminosity’. Thus the shininess of an ivy leaf, and the shine of the sea, and of a steel blade, or of wet slate, made these things similar: they all have the colour glas. The Ovate’s robe, being made of non-reflective cotton, wool, or linen, is not the same colour.

The underlying reality remains the same, but now different languages, and different cultures, experience it differently: what you cannot express in language, you cannot process in your mind.

In our technological world, of course, databases can be upgraded. If an aspect of the real world is absent in the first version, and is found to be necessary, it can be included in a later release. This isn’t ideal, though, because the upgrade will probably not be designed by the original designer; the designer of the upgrade may or may not fully grasp the implicit rules and underlying logic used by the original designer. As a result, the attributes added later may or may not interact well with the attributes and relationships originally built in. Furthermore, not every customer will install the upgrade, leading to different versions of the system being used in different places; it might be that different customers find themselves trying to interact with what they think is the same system, but encountering problems because the different versions don’t work well together.

And, of course, you will already have understood that exactly the same thing is true of human language.

In Iolo Morganwg’s system, the Bard is paramount because in a human culture it is essential to have people who understand the logic of language, the rules of language, the structure of language, and the usage of language. It is essential to have people who can keep the language up to date, and to ensure that the community is using the same version of the language. Otherwise, the community will fracture and drift apart into increasingly incompatible groups. It may be increasingly unable to accurately represent  a changing reality, and hence to process it, discuss it, and respond to it. Therefore, it is not only essential for the Bards to understand language in depth: it is essential that they ensure that the general population properly understands their language as it stands, and as it changes over time. This is explicitly set out in Barddas:

it is incumbent upon him also to preserve and maintain the Cymric language free from degeneracy and corruption, and to teach it correctly, according to its quality and original and proper arrangement.


to know the articles of the wisdom of the Ancient Cymry, and proper arrangement of the Cymric language, and all its syllables, words, and sentences, and to write them properly and systematically;


to uphold the Cymric language, and to teach it, as to its substance, quality, and arrangement, to such as may desire, to teach the proper writing of it, and to teach what in it refers to Bardism, vocal song, and their appurtenances.

Without a full command of the language, a person cannot properly understand the way their culture perceives reality, partial and incomplete though that perception is, as every language must be. To be able to deal with reality effectively one must fully command language; to command language is the role of the Bard, and this is why Iolo named his system Bardism, not Druidry.

In Iolo’s day, the situation was somewhat better than today. Every educated person was comprehensively taught Grammar before they reached their teens. ‘Grammar’ here means more than just the formal rules of a specific language; it also included the meta aspect, the understanding of how language functions as a representation of the world’s complexity.

This was one of the three basic skills every educated person could be assumed to have: the Trivium. To have a full command, and comprehension, of language was taken for granted, and nothing special; hence, anything that was assumed to be common and unsurprising came to be called ‘trivial’.

Of course, people use language for more than representing the world. They can, and do, use language to manipulate other people’s understanding of the world. This can be for good, or for evil. Understanding, and commanding, language is therefore insufficient; one must be able to evaluate, and understand, the way someone else is using the language, to understand whether their reasoning is sound, and how they are choosing their words to manipulate perceptions the way they want to. Thus, the second skill of the Trivium is to be familiar with Logic (which today would also need to include a command of Discourse Analysis).

Finally, of course, one must be able to use language effectively oneself: to make arguments persuasively, and to shape other people’s perceptions to become the same as your own. This is the third aspect of the Trivium: Rhetoric (which today would be expanded into broader Communication and Presentation skills).

So, to have a full knowledge of your language’s grammar and a very broad vocabulary; to be able to analyse and deconstruct what other people are saying, in order to clarify their true intent and meaning; and to convey one’s own arguments effectively – these skills do not make someone a Bard. Possessing these skills is simply the prerequisite for being considered an educated person. Becoming a Bard, as considered by people in the past, required being fully familiar with the cultural corpus, and with many other things besides. And all those things had to be mastered and practiced before one could even consider becoming a Druid!

This might sound daunting. It certainly helps us to understand why Caesar noted that Druidic education sometimes took up to twenty years. It’s worth noting, though, that he said some people took twenty years; others must have achieved it more quickly. So it can be done  – and we can do it, if we put our minds to it.

And someone who fully commands language, and who fully understands how to use it, can use it to change the way people perceive, and understand, and respond to the world around them. And this is one reason why Bards, and Druids, were considered healers and magicians. And that’s something to talk about on another occasion.



One reply on “The database, the non-trivial Bard, and the colour of the sea”

Traethawd gwych (=great essay). Bravo. Your point about database design and the limitations inherent in data capture are so relevant in this time of politicised data interpretation. And I absolutely love Masaryk’s proverb from central Europe, usually rendered in English: ”As many languages you know, as many times you are a human being”.

I know I can count on learning something new from you each time I come here. Lovely to have this introduction to Morganwg, as I have not yet read any of his work. Rwy’n mwynhau dysgu mwy am hen iaith (= I enjoy learning more about Welsh).


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