There’s a tale about Gwyn ap Nudd and the Christian Saint, Collen, which appeared in Lady Guest’s original translation of the Mabinogion, but isn’t in today’s editions.
The second of the primitive Bards is the Ovate, and it is incumbent upon him to be acquainted with literature, that is, to read and write, and to know the kinds of arts which may be beneficial to Bards and to the world, and to exhibit them in their authenticity before a Gorsedd or Chair, or a Bard of presidency. It is incumbent upon him, also, to collect and to search for knowledge, and to impart instruction in it, after it shall have obtained the judgment and privilege of Gorsedd; he is not bound to do more, except in virtue of a degree and grant. The dress of an Ovate is to be green, being of the same colour as knowledge and learning, which grow like the green vegetation of spring; and in the attainment of knowledge the Ovate is the chief of the Bards.
Barddas: The Voice of Gorsedd
4. There are three Bards of equality, namely: the Primitive Bard; the Druid; and the Ovate; for there should not, and cannot be supremacy to one over another of those three, though each has a privilege over the other, according to the privilege and speciality of office and obligation.
The function of an Ovate is to amplify and to improve good sciences in virtue of awen, reason, and circumstance, that is, inevitable obligation; on this account, the Gorsedd does not enquire concerning his teacher, when he is privileged a Bard, but merely concerning his sciences, his art, and his life. Those particulars are enquired after; and, it is in virtue of what he has of them, that he is privileged by the judgment and verdict of Chair or Gorsedd of vocal song. Two memorials and records appertain to him, namely, the memorial of vocal song, and the memorial of letters. And when his memorial and record are imposed upon a Primitive Bard by the verdict of Gorsedd, then those sciences will depend systematically upon the voice of Gorsedd, which cannot take place before an efficient judgment is pronounced upon what is so imposed.
Barddas: The Triads of Privilege and Usage
The second is an Ovate, according to awen, exertion, and circumstance; and his function is to poetize according to imagination, circumstance, and art, and to defer to the judgment of Gorsedd, until it becomes efficient.
The third is Ovatism; and it is incumbent upon an Ovate to endeavour after learning and knowledge, as he can, by means of hearing, seeing, and devising. That is, a poet ought to maintain all learning and knowledge which may be privileged by an efficient Gorsedd; an Ovate ought to improve and amplify learning and knowledge, and to submit them to the judgment of Gorsedd, until it becomes efficient; and a Druid ought to teach, according to the original usage and privilege of an efficient Gorsedd, and according to any new discovery, in respect of reason, nature, and cogency.
Ovatism; and it is incumbent upon an Ovate to endeavour and seek after learning, as far as he can, by means of the hearing and voice of the world, of sight and contingency, and of attempt, awen, and imagination.
98. The three sorts of the primitive Bards of the Isle of Britain: a Bard of privilege, or poet, to rule, and to record; a Druid, to teach; and an Ovate, to improve learning and knowledge.
an Ovate, on whom it is incumbent to genialize and to improve learning and sciences;
the Ovate, being a Bard according to sciences derived from imagination and circumstance.
It was in those days that the three primary Ovates, Cadog, son of Myl, the Wall of Greatness, Trysin, son of Erbal, and Rhuawn of the Silver Song, were instituted and privileged. The Ovates were appointed and enjoined to collect Bardic and good sciences, from whatever incident, and from whatever awen and imagination, to submit them to the judgment of Chair and Gorsedd, and to regulate them according to the sense, judgment, and system of art.
Barddas: The Triads of the Bards of the Isle of Britain
Back in 2015 there was a brief media sensation about a dress in a photograph. Some people saw it as blue and black. Other people were convinced it was gold and white. Neither group could understand how the other group could possibly see it so differently. How could this happen?
The Bards speak of the the bond between the living and the dead, and of the bonds between the living.
They praise the deeds of the ancestors: deeds mighty and, perhaps, not so mighty, but all of the tales, nevertheless, that will keep alive the name of a man or a woman so that their descendants may rejoice in the telling of the tales.
As I wrote in my review, I had mixed results using the divination methods in John Michael Greer’s book. I don’t mean any criticism by that; John Michael is an extremely experienced occultist, and he will have used that experience when devising his methods. Nevertheless: they don’t work for me.
After meditating on the problem, I concluded that there’s a major difference in our interpretation of ab Ithel’s material. The Coelbren consists of a set of symbols that represent sounds, and of the sounds of the Welsh language in particular.
In Dosparth Edeyrn Dafod Aur, ab Ithel explains to us how the movement and shape of our speech organs helps us to understand the meaning of each letter. Furthermore, he illustrates how the Coelbren can be linked to words in Welsh; the meaning and associations of the words expand and illustrate the meaning of the sounds.
Thus: it seems to me that the Coelbren, to be used and understood properly, need to be spoken aloud whilst contemplating their meaning. This is appropriate for the repository of the Secret of the Bards of the Island of Britain; the Bards whose primary role is the expression of poetry by means of the voice!
This, it seems to me, is the cause of the problems I was having with the methods in John Michael Greer’s book. Although he is clear that the meaning of the Coelbren lies in their sounds, in his divination methods he treats them as you would the cards of a Tarot pack: once you’ve drawn one, you can’t use it a second time, and the sound plays no direct role.
Of course, this isn’t the way language works. Sounds are repeated, often in the same word. It’s hard to imagine a language in which, once you’ve used (for example) a ‘d’, well, you can’t use another ‘d’ in the rest of your sentence! Perhaps such a language exists, of course, but, if so, I’ve never heard of it.
So, I meditated further on this, and the two divination methods became apparent to me. To these, I add two basic and obvious methods which John Michael also uses. I’m going to discuss each of these in its own post, but all will use the same basic principles which I discuss below.
For my own practice, I bought a set of blank wooden Scrabble tiles, and inscribed the Coelbren on them using a black Sharpie pen, being sure to put a dot on the bottom (ie visible) edge of each tile to indicate which way is up. The Coelbren letters are not reversible: some of them, turned upside down, become a different letter with a different meaning, so it’s very important to know which way is up!
I keep them in a stiff leather pouch, felt-lined, which is voluminous enough to thoroughly shuffle the tiles when the pouch is vigorously shaken.
For each of the methods I’ve been using, the bag should be shaken before withdrawing a tile.
The meaning of the letter should be recorded. Until you know them by heart, the sounds of the letters should also be recorded.
The tile should then be returned it to the bag, and the bag shaken again. This allows for the production of more complex, language-like, sound combinations.
Each of the four methods uses a different number of tiles:
- A Single Sound uses one tile;
- The Awen uses three tiles;
- The Council of Voices uses six tiles;
- The Chorus of the Maidens uses nine tiles.
Whichever method you are using, once you have drawn the appropriate number of tiles, consider the meaning of each tile in the light of whose voice is speaking (as described in separate posts for each method). Now consider the meanings taken together. How do they influence each other?
Finally consider the sounds:
- A Single Sound produces one sound. Make that sound, and extend it. Is it easy to produce, or pleasant to hear?
- The Awen produces three sounds, forming a short word. Is it easy to say, and pleasant to hear?
- The Council of Voices produces six sounds, forming another short word. Is this easy or difficult to say? Is it pleasant to hear?
- The Chorus of the Maidens produces nine sounds to form a chorus. Is it pleasant to listen to, or are there harsh notes?
In each of the last three methods, a given sound may be reproduced more than once, if you happen to draw a particular tile more than once. In this way, the sounds of the letters add to the meaning: if the combination of sounds is easy to produce and pleasant to listen to… that adds to the message you are receiving. If not… that is also part of the message!
The sound and meaning of each of the letters of the Coelbren will be discussed in an individual post.
Those explained in the Dosbarth Edeyrn Dafod Aur:
In ancient times, according to the tale of Lludd and Llefelys, Britain suffered from three tribulations. One of these was an invasion of the island by the Coraniaid – a race of dwarves who could not be defeated, because they could hear any word that the wind could carry. The Welsh Triads add that the Coraniaid originally came from Asia (which in those days meant anything east of Greece, including what we call today “The Middle East”). Some versions of the Triads are more specific, and say that the Coraniaid came from Arabia. This is significant, but that’s for another post.
From Barddas Vol II (my emphasis):
1. There are three Banded Bards.
The first is the Primitive Bard, or Poet, whose function and art are to poetize, and to preserve the memorial of every thing that is commendable in man or deed–to celebrate in song every thing that is commendable and good, as would be fitting in respect of what is meritorious and deserving–to teach in song every thing that is good in respect of doctrine and usages, and to maintain the memorial and teaching of the art of song, and all the privileges and usages which have been conferred upon the Bards of the Isle of Britain, and to teach them in methodical song, according to the proper art of vocal song of the Bards of the Ancient Cymry; And it is his duty to arrange and systematize matters, according to the privileges and usages of the Ancient Cymry, in every Chair and Eisteddvod, and Gorsedd of vocal song; 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.
The second is the Herald-bard, whose office and art are memorial, instruction, and history–to symbolize good and laudable deeds, and to record in book and writing the genealogies and descent of the nation of the Cymry, their privileges and usages, so that they may be known, lest there should happen to the nation of the Cymry that degeneracy and ignobleness which impoverish the descent and privileges of a nation, and hence ensue non privilege and false privilege, and every lack of system, as has been the case with those unlearned nations, among which neither Awen from God, nor Bards, nor Bardism proceeding from that Awen, have been found. It is his duty to learn to read and to write the Cymric language, and to commit it to book and song properly and correctly, and to know the privileges and usages of the Bards of the nation of the Cymry, with their nature and essence. He ought also to impugn all ignobleness, all lack of privilege, all false privilege, and all illegality and disusage, lest the nation of the Cymry, their privileges and laudable usages, their language, innateness, and celebrated antiquity should suffer corruption.
The third is the Post-bard, whose art is vocal song according to the inventive instruction and skilful art of the later Bards, and to impart instruction in every science, wisdom, arts, and good and laudable usages, and to systematize new sciences according to kind, number, time, place, occasion, and dignity.
And this is the distinction between the Primitive Bard and the Post-bard: the Primitive Bard ought to bring with him what has been behind him from old ages, and the Post-bard ought to call to him what he sees before him; whilst the Herald-bard arranges these things according as the advantage, requirement, nature, essence, time, and dignity of them may demand; and to bestow instruction, sciences, wisdom, art, dignity, and honour out of them upon the nation and country of the Cymry, as befits what is good and praiseworthy.
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.
I really liked this owl painting when I saw in an art gallery south of Tiananmen Square. The price I was quoted when I first saw it was equal to a month’s rent, but I decided it was worth it. So, yesterday afternoon, I went back, pockets filled with red 100-Rmb notes. When I walked in, the manager remembered me. “Have you come back for the painting? I told you 5,000 RMB, didn’t I? You can have it for 3,800”.
The Druids were once an elite, spread across the British Isles and Gaul. They did not directly rule. However, they were responsible for laws, culture, medicine, and interactions with the Gods; they could and did exclude transgressors from these areas, and so they were listened to and respected by all levels of society, exempt from taxes and military service, and able to intervene to stop all conflicts. Their greatest centre of education and learning was on Anglesey, but there must have been other schools in other places. We don’t know where their revenues came from but they must have been substantial to support this kind of system.
After the Roman conquests of Gaul and Britain, druids entered a new phase. The Romans had destroyed their power structure, as well as their ‘university’ on Anglesey (though probably incompletely). Many of the druids were killed (though many must have fled to northern Britain, and to Ireland, or gone underground). Rome commanded the areas of law, and commerce, and its military might compelled the loyalty of all levels of society in the area under their rule. Druids were proscribed throughout the empire.
During this period, and during the post-Roman period in Britain, druids continued to exist, and teach. However, instead of being a separate, independent, super-tribal elite, they were now dependent on individual tribes and kings for their support, and so became counsellors to their patrons – who existed in the Old North, the Welsh-speaking kingdoms north of Hadrian’s Wall, where tribes were Romanised, but still politically and militarily independent. Bards were probably still free to wander where they liked, being less committed to one king or the other. Also, it seems likely that there would have been less opportunity to pursue astronomical observations, discuss philosophy, etc in this context, so it may be that the “druids” of this period were more like the “ovates” of the pre-Roman golden age.
In Gaul during this period, the proscription of Druids seems to have fallen into disuse; it seems that Druids also continued to exist on the continent. However, in this very different socio-economic environment, there were no independent kings to support them, so they must have had to support themselves – hence the record of a future Roman emperor taking advice from a druidess who ran a tavern.