Half bard

A friend of mine does duvet impressions. Without incriminating him, maybe I should explain. A duvet impression is just that – your pseudo-magical transformation into another object through the use of bed linen. If you ever meet him, I particularly recommend his interpretation of a mushroom.

The furore over a group of about thirteen hundred Welsh speakers, clad in what many would see as clothes more suitable for a bedspread, seems to have exercised certain sections of the media quite thoroughly recently. There is a non-existent connection between the ceremony that the soon-to-be Archbishop of Canterbury took part in earlier today and Celtic paganism. It’s no surprise that it took The Times, official dampener of Welsh spirits since the days of the Rebecca Riots, to make it.

[If you’ve read this far and wondered ‘what on earth is he on about?’, by the way, have a look at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/2172408.stm – I would try to hyperlink it properly, but it’s only my second day on this PHP weblogging thing 🙂 ]

Some background, then. The website of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) can be found at http://www.druidry.org/. OBOD members, and those in related organisations, probably have the greatest right to claim to be the inheritors of the Celtic Pagan flame. The remnants of the flame may be hazy, but they seem to be doing their best to reconstruct what they can.

It would be very easy to think that the Gorsedd of Bards of the British Isles is a relative of OBOD. Its head is called an Archdruid; the winner of key competitions in the eisteddfod (http://www.eisteddfod.org.uk/) is presented with a bouquet of wild flowers by a virgin; there is generally an abundance of sheathed and unsheathed swords. But to believe that the Gorsedd is Pagan misses quite a few points regarding its origins.

The Gorsedd, as we know it today, was founded by a late eighteenth century Welsh polymath called Edward Williams. His more well-known name is his bardic one, Iolo Morgannwg. We know a fair bit about his life – the fact that he had a fair acquaintance with opiates, for example. I’m not quite sure whether to see him as a media terrorist – a sort-of nineteenth century Welsh version of Chris Morris, say – or a genuine social engineer.

According to http://www.celtica.wales.com/hanesfa/celtiaid/pennod13/t34.html (Welsh only) Iolo Morgannwg tried to extrapolate the myth, or maybe belief, that the pre-Christian Druids survived the conversion of Wales by getting ordained in the Church. To extend the evidence of the manuscripts to its logical conclusion, he did this by persuading the nineteenth-century religious leaders to form an organisation that would educate, lead and seek the preservation of Welsh culture. In a word, a modern-day equivalent to the Druids that existed seventeen hundred years previously.

That’s one interpretation; the other is that, well, if you were a nineteenth-century Chris Morris, what better way to poke fun at the idiocies of Welsh society than by persuading hundreds of the great and the good to dress up and prance around carrying swords? But the previous paragraph is probably fairer on Iolo, and certainly on the Gorsedd itself.

Either way, it should be clear by now that Gorsedd members wouldn’t really be seen dead at an OBOD camp. And I can’t help but feeling that some ‘proper Druids’ feel a little bit peeved that their sincerely held beliefs are pastiched by the Gorsedd. But I’m not intending to go there tonight.

So was the proto-Archbishop of Canterbury dabbling in paganism? Not to my mind. The main point raised by those who would seek to draw a link between one group of ‘druids’ and the real thing is that, well, people see these funny costumes, and won’t they be drawn to paganism then? Well, given the negative as well as the positive publicity regarding the Gorsedd ceremonies today, I wouldn’t expect OBOD to be taking on many more membership secretaries any time soon.

As far as this being an attack on the Christian faith goes (and what does that say about our confidence as Christians?) I read volumes into the fact that this year’s Eisteddfod, honouring the head in waiting of the Anglican communion, is held at St. David’s. We can be certain that Christianity has existed in Pembrokeshire for a good fifteen hundred years. And in spite of the best efforts of many quarters to smear the Archbishop, we can be reasonably sure that it will continue there for a good while longer.

And there you have it. My opinions, of course, but the ‘comments’ link at the bottom does give you a right of reply. And one thing is certain – if Rowan Williams ever uses a duvet in a sermon illustration, I’ll be at the front of the queue for tickets.

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