As I’ve made clear, this blog is my process of exploring the writings of Iolo Morganwg in Barddas, the source of contemporary Revival Druidry, and trying to put it into modern terms as a system firmly rooted in the authentic Welsh cultural tradition.
That means going beyond Barddas itself: recognising that the Four Branches of the Mabinogi contain a pantheon of ancient Brythonic deities, for example. My experience is that they exist; they are real, and represent real powers. Barddas, however, comes from Iolo’s spiritual insights, rooted in a Christian background, and his writings are full of references to God. Can these things be reconciled? I believe that they can.
Iolo was a Christian, but of a particular, and heretical, kind. During his lifetime and afterwards, Welsh society was dominated by Dissent, meaning Calvinistic Methodism – a stricter, more puritanical, form of belief than the Wesleyan Methodism that dominated non-conformity in England.
Both forms of Methodism were in the mainstream of Christian belief in that they were Trinitarian: they followed the orthodox (small ‘o’) dogma of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Iolo, however, belonged to the Unitarian movement which grew out of Arianism, and which had been persecuted for centuries. In modern times, the Unitarian movement seems to have emerged from Transylvania, of all places, and spread across Europe.
The Unitarians believed in Rationalist Deism: that there was no need for a divine revelation, because human reason is sufficient to discover the truth. Personally, I’m not so sure that this is the case, and I suspect Iolo had his doubts as well. Nevertheless, that is what the Unitarians believed, and they rejected Trinitarianism. For them, divinity is one and undivided – hence the name. In Iolo’s time, at least, they revered Jesus, but as a man with no divine aspect. There was no place in their system for the Holy Spirit. This did not go down well with the Church of England or with the State.
Iolo may originally have encountered Unitarianism in Wales, but it was during his sojourn in London in the early 1790s that he really immersed himself in it. As radical religious thinkers in conflict with the official Trinitarian Established Church, Unitarians were also often political radicals, and the circles Iolo moved in lived and breathed both forms of dissent.
Later, after returning home to Wales, Iolo became one of the leading figures in Welsh Unitarianism. He was instrumental in establishing the first official Unitarian society in Wales, acting as its secretary and writing its statutes.
So, when Iolo was writing about Bardism, Druids, and the belief system that he promoted as emerging from the Welsh tradition, he very much believed in a universal, benevolent God. Nevertheless, being rational, he acknowledged that evil and suffering exist and, like many monotheists, sought to reconcile this with his faith.
Being open-minded, he found answers in other faith systems, particularly in the belief systems of India. The concept of reincarnation as a journey – of gradually working towards perfection and union with the Divine over lifetimes of experience and self-understanding – met his philosophical needs, and was fully compatible with his understanding of Christianity.
Barddas thus sets out a model which reconciles the legend of the Fall with Buddhist-style reincarnation and karma. It posits that all life, the spirits animating all physical and non-physical entities in the universe as we understand it, was once present with God in the world of spirit but, through pride, fell into Abred: the world of material incarnation, and all the experiences and suffering that comes with it. By experiencing the trials and rigours of material life, we are given the opportunity to reflect and consider, and to learn how to respond with love and kindness, gradually over lifetimes purifying our spirit until, ultimately, we regain the virtue that allows reunion with the Divine. Our actions and thoughts in one life have consequences in those that follow.
Q. Will those, who shall return to the circle of Gwynvyd after the fall in Abred, be of the same kind as those who fell not?
A. Yes; and of the same privilege, because the love of God cannot be less towards one than towards another, nor towards one form of existence than another, since He is God and Father to them all, and exercises the same amount of love and patronage towards them all, and they will all be equal and co-privileged in the circle of Gwynvyd, that is, they will be divinities and holy angels for ever. (Barddas: Abred – Gwynfyd – Abred)
That last sentence – “they will be divinities and holy angels for ever” – shows us where the Gods of the Mabinogi fit within the system of Barddas. Like the Buddhist bodhisattvas, they are spirits who have powers and influences in our material existence, and upon whom we can call for help and assistance.
It’s tempting to leave it there, but that wouldn’t be an honest place to conclude. After all, there are very important differences in the belief systems. In Buddhism, there is no supreme Divinity; the bodhisattvas are here to help all living beings out of choice and compassion. Barddas posits that there is a God, while anyone involved in modern polytheism knows that the Gods do their own thing, which may or may not help humans. So we still have the question: how do we reconcile these things in one belief system?
Let’s look at a few things Iolo says about God:
God is three things, and cannot be otherwise: coeval with all time; co-entire with all essence; and co-local with all mental purpose. Could what is called God be otherwise, it would not be God, since it could be surpassed, and no one is God that can be surpassed. He is also co-sentient with all animation. (Barddas: God)
- God is everything, in everything, and is not separate and distinct from us.
Some have called God the Father HEN DDIHENYDD, [the Ancient and Unoriginated One] because it is from His nature that all things are derived, and from Him is the beginning of every thing, and in Him is no beginning, for He can not but exist, and nothing can have a beginning without a beginner. (Barddas: The Divine Names)
- God is the source of all things, and eternal.
Question. Why is the face turned towards the sun in every asseveration and Prayer?
Answer. Because God is in every light, and the chief of every light is the sun. It is through fire that God brings back to Himself all things that have emanated from Him; therefore it is not right to ally one’s self to God, but in the light. There are three kinds of light, namely: that of the sun, and hence fire; that which is obtained in the sciences of teachers; and that which is possessed in the understanding of the head and heart, that is, in the soul. On that account, every vow is made in the face of the three lights, that is, in the light of the sun is seen the light of a teacher, or demonstration; and from both of these is the light of the intellect, or that of the soul. (Barddas: God in the Sun)
- God is the light that seeks to bring us home, through illumination and the effort of our own mind and spirit.
These, I think, set out what Bardism says about God: God is everywhere and anything; we should not conceive of God as a distinct and separate personality (the stereotypical man with a beard in the sky). God is benevolent, because without God neither we nor anything could exist. And yet, we are spiritually separated from God, as the result of our own lack of understanding. God will not reach out to help us; it is for us to remove the darkness and ignorance from our own minds, through learning and reflection, until we are finally, once again, able to perceive the Divine.
In other words, for the followers of Bardism, there is no Divine cavalry coming over the hill to save us from the sufferings of this world: the rescue lies in our willingness to reflect upon our responses and reactions to our trials, learning across lifetimes to act without anger or pride, and to master the powerful influence of the flesh. We have fallen through Ceugant – the Closed Circle – into Abred. From within the circle we cannot perceive the Divine; it is through our own efforts that we will leave it.
So is there no help?
Here we have the Gods. In Bardism, we can see them as advanced and powerful spirits, still on their own journey out of Abred towards Ceugant, acting in a spiritual context that is impossible for us to comprehend. They have their own interests and requirements, their own needs and demands. For some of them, that may involve helping humans, but they are not Bodhisattvas acting purely out of compassion. Neither have they yet overcome their flaws: they are not yet perfect.
This means that the theological framework of Bardism is not unlike that of many cultures of west Africa, such as Yoruba theology, in which a supreme God is the universal creator but does not actively participate; the God of Bardism is very similar to Olódùmarè. God is on the other side of Ceugant. The Gods of polytheist systems exist within Ceugant, not outside it, and are equivalent to the Orisha. The model extends further, since the Welsh tradition of the Awenyddion, reported by Gerald of Wales, who may have represented a parallel to the spirit mediums of African religion.
It may well be, therefore, that, in developing an understanding of how Iolo’s vision, and expanding the implications of his writing, can be applied to the modern world, we should look not only to the religions of Asia, as he did, but also to the religions of the Caribbean such as Santería for working examples.