“There are seven primary materials of the world: the Blue Bard of the Chair has said it.
“The first, earth, from which are every corporeity and hardness, and every firm foundation;
“The second, water, from which are every humour and freshness;
“The third, air, from which are all respiration and motion;
“The fourth, sun, from which are all heat and light;
“The fifth, nwyfre, from which are all feeling, affection, and wantonness;
“The sixth, the Holy Ghost, from Whom are all understanding, reason, awen, and sciences;
“The seventh, God, from Whom are all life, strength, and support, for ever and ever.
“And from these seven primary materials are every existence and animation; and may the whole be under God’s regulation. Amen.” (1)
The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg, by J. Williams Ab Ithel, was published in 1862. It was presented as the lore of traditional Welsh Bardistry going back to Druid times, based on the earlier work of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams – 1747-1826). Iolo had organised the first Gorsedd of Bards for several hundred years at Primrose Hill, London, on 21 June 1792, thereby initiating the modern Welsh Eisteddfod movement. He was a personal friend of Tom Paine and George Washington subscribed to his first volume of poetry. He is said to have influenced William Blake’s poetry and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.
Iolo described himself as a Unitarian Quaker in religion, and a revolutionary Welsh nationalist in politics. In the later 1790’s the Glamorgan magistrates sent the yeomanry (a volunteer cavalry force drawn from the property-owning classes) to break up an open-air Gorsedd led by Iolo in that county. The reason given was that it was being conducted in the Welsh language and allegedly included a toast for Napoleon – then admired by radicals as defender of the French revolution. This is also a time of revolt in Ireland and the birth of Irish republicanism.
Culturally, Iolo was, as well as a poet in his own right, “a first-rate forger of literary Welsh; some have commented that his forgeries were as good or better than the real thing. Furthermore, he wrote much of the Barddas under the influence of laudanum (an opium-based medicine which he took for asthma)” (1). In consequence he has been widely dismissed as an embarrassing fraud. My response is more complicated. There is something poignant for me about ‘forgeries’ that are “as good or better than the real thing”. On the forgery question, I am sad that Iolo could not openly be a catalyst for the creation of new culture inspired by an old one, rather than having to pretend, even to himself, that he was recovering an old one as it had been (in his own mind perhaps through psychic means). As for medicinal laudanum, I wonder why this should be stigmatised in Iolo whilst accepted in his contemporary S. T. Coleridge. It may be is because Coleridge’s work was unambiguously original, and therefore seen differently. The issue of new culture creation in Druidry is a significant one to this day and is well discussed in Philip Carr-Gomm’s preface to Contemplative Druidry (2) where the voices of a number of open culture creators are included.
Going back to The Seven Primary Materials of the World, I feel friendly to this text despite its patriarchal language and its statement of a world view significantly different from my own. In my reading, it suggests a seven-step ladder from matter to the divine, with four material elements that point also to non-material qualities, where the the fourth and highest is not on the Earth. Then there are two subtle elements (though the first finds room for ‘wantonness’) and an ultimate ascent to the divine. It is the kind of evolutionary spiritual scheme that many transcendentalists down the ages have related to. Written at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and edited in mid Victorian times, it seems to me congruent with the outlook of medieval Welsh Bardistry as expressed in The Book of Taliesin (3), and the theology of the ninth century Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena (4). It is a Christian referenced path that is not sin and fear based, and I am sure that many people involved in Druidry and Celtic Spirituality today would be in essential sympathy with it. Made up by Iolo or not, it reads as a clear and simple expression of a universalist and transcendentalist stance within a specific cultural setting. I find nothing fraudulent about it. It is what I would expect from place, time and person.
Indeed, key concepts remain relevant to my own Druid practice. I work with the wheel of the year and with the four classical elements, including fire. I am concerned with the Earth’s relationship to sun and moon. I work with my body and my sense of energy and think of nwyfre as synonymous with prana or chi, now well-known thanks to the popularity of yoga and Chinese energy arts.
At this stage in my personal journey, I am in renewed inquiry with awen. For the Barddas, it is a distinct higher mental faculty, close to the divine source like Coleridge’s primary imagination. In my own work I get a sense of energised and articulated insight. I do not think of awen as a substance in itself, but rather a quality of how we express ourselves when at our most enlivened and ‘on song’. But this inquiry is far from concluded.
Where the Barddas speaks of God, I speak of nature. I think of the web of life, and of our interbeing within it. I also think of the mysteries of quantum events, dimensions that we cannot perceive directly, galaxies flying apart and the possibility of multiple universes. But to me nature’s most extraordinary phenomenon is the gift of aware experiencing, with all the joy and suffering it brings, in the apparent here and now. To this I add the capacity to bear witness to this miracle through words, non-verbal media, silence, celebration and action. Here, I find myself still using most of the key terms from The Seven Primary Materials of the World. In this sense, I am happy to have The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg as part of my spiritual ancestry.
- J. Williams Ab Ithel The Barddas of Ilo Morganwyg, Vol I & II: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862)
- James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Create Space, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
- William F. Skene The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1868)