Bards and Harps

‘The Last Bard’
Frontispiece to Musical and Poetical Reliques of the Welsh Bards by Edward Jones (1784)

The traditional view of the inspired bard or divine singer is of one holding a harp. This image goes back to the Greek Orpheus whose words and music could charm the gods. He was given a golden lyre – a type of small hand-held harp – by Apollo who taught him how to make music with it. In the Brythonic tradition we might think in terms of Maponos and Taliesin, although Taliesin’s most often identified source of inspiration is the Cauldron of Ceridwen and although he says “I was the string in a harp” in one of his many metamorphoses in Cad Goddeu, references to him playing a harp are few. One such is the ‘Elegy for Uthr Pendragon’ where he tells us:

I’m a bard,
I’m a harpist,
I make music
   On a pipe
  On a crwth;

Seven score, or more
Could not match my skill,
My craft, my art …

Surviving references to musical intruments used by the early Welsh bards are not common, though Gerallt Cymro in his twelfth century Description of Wales said “the Welsh use three instruments: the harp, the pipe and the crwth”; but the professional court bards tended to be contemptuous of the ‘lesser’ bards and entertainers who played such intruments. Here, though, in spite of singing his own praises as the greatest of poets, in typical boasting style, the Taliesin figure is happy to sing his praises as a musician too. As for other bards, at least one text relates the issuing of “a harp, a crwth and pipes” by a king to his poets*, and Llywarch ap Llywelyn (Prydydd y Moch) praises his prince “ â thafod a thant” (with both tongue and [harp]string).

Earlier practices in the Ancient World and in pre-medieval heroic society in different parts of Europe highlight the harp, and the lyre, and sometimes an instrument like the crwth, as an accompaniment to recitation. A 15th century Latin text on the history of the viol and similar stringed instruments comments that, before the development of a raised bridge holding the strings separately away from the body of the instrument, the flat-bridged arrangement would have produced a drone sound rather than individual notes and was used “for the recitation of epics” adding that this was common “over the greater part of the world”.** Such instruments might be played with a bow on the reciters lap or held out in front, rather than on the shoulder as with a modern violin. This suggests that bards and cyfarwyddwyr (story-tellers) had a choice of a steady drone or the sounds of single plucked strings on the lyre or the small harp when reciting, in addition to any music they might also make in the intervals to recitations or to accompany songs. In Welsh, the modern word ‘telyn’ for harp had a wider earlier usage to include the lyre and similar instruments, so the distinction may not always be clear. Similarly the crwth, often seen as an earlier form of the violin, may have overlapped in form with the lyra and the lyre before distinct forms of these intruments and the terminology used to decribe them became fixed.

Of particular interest here is the terminology used between Wales and Ireland. In Ireland one word for a small ‘harp’ was ‘croth’ which seems to indicate a crwth rather than what we would think of as a harp. But the word ‘teillin’ was also used, although it is not the current usage, which, as well as sounding like Welsh ‘telyn’ apparently, according to the Irish scholar Eugene O’Curry, could also indicate the sound of a buzzing bee***. We need to distinguish here between the small harps, or other instruments, which a bard might hold while reciting, and the larger harps used for musical recitals. The fluidity of terminology between harp, lyre and crwth probably reflected the fluidity of form of instruments so described.

Then there is the matter of strings. Traditionally the strings were made from woven horse hair. But in the later medieval period gut strings began to be used and, especially with the larger harps, strings of metal. Such strings made it easier to play individual notes, as with the strings of the viol with an arched bridge noted above, and so to perform polyphonic music. They gave a clearer sound for each note but the horse-hair strings produced a softer sound which seems to have been more to the taste of the bards. The distinction between ‘telyn lledr’ (gut strings) and the ‘telyn rhawn’ (horse-hair strings) was made in one 15th century poem by Iolo Goch, complaining that the new-fangled strings of gut (or “dead sheep”!) are inferior to those of horse-hair and make a harsher sound:

Un delyn , ddiddan angerdd
Onid o rawn, gyfiawn gerdd

(‘a harp’s innate quality, its sweet tone/best from horse-hair, a well-made tune’ – ‘cerdd’ here can refer to either poetry or music).

In the same poem he reminisces about a past when there was time to ‘clera’ before the coming of the gut-stringed harp. To ‘clera’ was to go about as a minstrel, presumably singing and playing as well as reciting poetry. But as the professional bards were above such things, the clêr, or minstrels were a lesser grade of bard. But this strict grading does not seem to have survived the times of the independent Welsh princes and poetry in the later Middle Ages is more often associated with music and song as the bards travelled around the houses of the gentry to ply their craft and the difference between grades of bard disappears.

So Iolo Goch is not remembering back that far, but clearly the soft sweetness of a humming bee was more to the his taste than the sharp ringing of single notes. We might also think here of the drone sound of the flat-bridged viol used for recitation of epics noted above. Should we think also of the crwth, or croth/crotta related to the early Irish instrument so denoted? It seems anyway that there was a reversal of terminology between Wales and Ireland. What’s in a name if things so named are different? The crwth and the harp may well have developed separately from the lyre, as might the viol. Overlapping forms and names across Europe as new instruments were developed can make it difficult to pin down references to them in historical texts. But one scholar was prepared to declare that the crwth (‘crotta’) was certainly a Brythonic instrument***.

In addition to these considerations, the nature of bardic recitation and its relation to ‘song’ should be considered. The point of traditional bardic measures and verse forms is that they should be musical, and the bards were said to ‘sing’ rather than recite their verse. It is noteworthy that still today the modern Welsh word ‘canu’ can mean both ‘singing’ and ‘versifying’ and the related words ‘ynganu’ (‘recitation’) and ‘llafarganu’ (‘chant’, or literally ‘songspeech’) contain both the sense of speaking and of singing. So the voice made the music and was supported by the background sound of the strings. There could be music too, of course, as part of an evening’s entertainment. The chief bards at the courts of the Welsh princes may have thought themselves above such lighter forms of entertainment. But for Taliesin, even when his name was taken by one of these chief bards, though he thought himself seven score times their equal, the awen came through him in a multiplicity of forms in words, music and inspired song.


A poem containing conceits interacting with these deliberations appears on my Web Portal weblog HERE~>

*in The Black Book of Chirk (c.1200)

** J Tinctoris , quoted in Ian Woodfield The Early History of the Viol (Cambridge, 1984)

*** A O H Jarman ‘Telyn a Chrwth’ Llên Cymru 6 (1962) Discusses O’Curry’s remarks.
Jarman’s comment on the crwth:
“Nid rhaid amau nad oedd y crotta yn offeryn ‘Cymreig’ neu Frytanaidd”

Elder Mother


{a continuation of Rhiannon’s Apples}


Elder Tree

Dark elderberries hang on twisted boughs
Unpicked and shrivelled,
Bare twigs twist to point the way
That turns upon itself a shadow veil
Shielding the world she is leaving behind
As she rides the grey mare
Fading to grey mist for a season
Seeking her fair form far away
Where he expects her, her shadow lord
Conjuring the woven ways
Through mists of his own making
Shaping a path through shapeless drifts
Each one receding through layers of world
Intricately dispersing
Wider to bring her to world’s end:
To not-world’s becoming.


Another watches her go as strewn leaves lie
On sodden forest floors
Bereft of shelter, mysteries
Of dappled green depth emptying.

Samahin Cover
Samhain Scene : from a cover for The Waxing Moon by Pat Blackmore






Manawydan fab Llŷr

Manawydan’s Glass Door – water colour by David Jones

Visions and Propositions

Manawydan waits in shadow, biding his time, watching. I visualise him cloaked and hooded, looking as if over my shoulder, yet also withdrawn to a liminal space where a portal opens into the Otherworld.

Was he there when Rhiannon came? The tale* does not tell it, only that she came to claim Pwyll for a husband. Did Arawn watch from the other side?

Was one watching when her child was taken from the cradle by her side? Or when she waited by the horse-block for Pryderi to return?

The tale* tells that Pryderi, grown now, went to Ireland (or was that Annwn?) with Manawydan and his Brother Brân for the sake of their sister Branwen (but there was also a cauldron).

They returned with the head of Brân (just seven in all from a great army returned) and Branwen who broke her heart.

The Birds of Rhiannon sang to them then and time was still until the door – which Manawydan reminded them should not be opened – was opened; and they went to the White Mount to bury the head – Brân’s head – that had kept company with them when time did not flow.

Manawydan, alone now in Thisworld of the siblings of Llŷr, he who was “wise of counsel” as the Black Book has it**, took counsel from Pryderi to go to Dyfed and be with Rhiannon.

So they are wed but he watches Pryderi and then Rhiannon go through the enchanted fort into the Otherworld (he counsels caution – another door best not opened? – but will not hinder) and must wait for his chance to release them and restore the land.

So he waits until it is time to act. Then he acts. Like a gatekeeper opening and closing the Portal he watches – and enables – the coming and going of those who would pass and those for whom passing is a rite of passage.



Consider the Triad, referred to in the Mabinogi, about the Three Golden (or noble) Shoemakers, one of whom is “Manawydan Son of Lludd” in one of the manuscripts of the Triads, though “Son of Llŷr“ in another. Rachel Bromwich says that this transference is common so that Llŷr & Lludd are interchangeable***. As Lludd is cognate with Nudd should we therefore regard Manawydan as the brother of Gwyn ap Nudd?

If Manawydan is a son of Nudd (Nodens), Brân and Branwen are also children of this god. By which perhaps we should understand ‘of his family’ or even perhaps ‘expressions of his nature’? Family relations between gods are never quite the same thing as those between people.

Beli Mawr is said to be the father of Lludd and Lleuelis****. But also in legendary history of Caswallawn (i.e. Cassivellaunus) leader of the Brythons who opposed Julius Caesar in his brief incursion into Britain in 54 bce. Many of the early kings of Wales traced their lineage back to Beli Mawr via Cunedda. Clearly here we are in territory where myth, legend and history merge and the difference between gods and ancestors is either confused or irrelevant, depending on your point of view.

But if Manawydan is an offspring (however understood) of Nudd, and shares an identity (however understood) with Gwyn, the identification of these two ‘sons’ of Nudd as Thisworld and Otherworld faces of a god, on either side of the portal, seems to cohere.


*‘The Tale’ here is the First and Third branches of The Mabinogi

** In the poem ‘Pa Wr yw’r Porthor?’ (Which one is the Gatekeeper?)

*** Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Third Edition, p. 419 & p.421)

**** In the medieval Welsh tale Cyfranc LLudd a Lleuelis

Gatherer of Souls by Lorna Smithers


Available HERE

This is the third collection of poems and prose by Lorna Smithers chronicling her dedication to the Brythonic god Gwyn ap Nudd and it takes her quest to interpret and re-present his mythology to deeper levels of significance. It also defines her path as an awenydd, engaging in visionary explorations and written evocations of her discoveries. The book is divided into a brief introductory section followed by six longer sections, each taking the reader through a different historical period. A major source for any study of Brythonic lore is the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen. This tale is often drawn upon here, in particular the episode in the tale where Arthur kills Orddu “the Very Black Witch, daughter of the Very White Witch from Pennant Gofid”. The episode provides an imaginative frame for the chronology of Gatherer of Souls, spanning an immensity of time between the end of the last Ice Age to the present. The work opens with the migration into Britain as the ice begins to recede, led by a wise woman and her daughter, an already well-established matriarchal succession of witches who then take residence in the cave which they continue to inhabit until Arthur brings their line to an end. The closing piece of the book is a chilling present-day visionary confrontation in the cave on Nos Calan Gaeaf when the bottle containing Orddu’s blood is poured out and Arthur is confronted and defeated to bring the age of his imperium to an end.

If the killing of Orddu provides a mythic underlying theme for the volume, the role of Arthur in her death and his opposition to Gwyn ap Nudd, the implied father of Orddu and all her ancestors, provides the foregrounded mythic focus. The view of Arthur as a usurper of the old ways and conqueror of the gwiddonod – the giants, witches and other denizens of the world he brought to an end – is a theme that emerged in Lorna’s previous collection. It involves reconfiguring the heroic view of Arthur and viewing him as an archetype of the absolute ruler. So, in the final contemporary section of the present work, he returns “to make our country great again” which is about as up to date as you could hope to get in portraying a view of the Arthurian type in our own time.

As readers are taken through the successive ages covered by the work they will encounter much material gleaned from a knowledge of Brythonic lore that has been internalised and imaginatively re-shaped rather than simply recycled, much as the medieval tales in Welsh re-shaped Brythonic inheritance in a range of stories in prose and in verse to keep it alive for us to inherit. That lore tells not only of the emergence of Arthur as a power figure but presents Gwyn ap Nudd as a character who has retreated into the shadows, giving us only tantalising glimpses of his nature and the power he maintains in “keeping all the devils of Annwn from destroying the world”, as the Welsh tale has it. Lorna’s quest, then, is not simply one of discovery but also one of actively bringing Gwyn back into focus and out of the shadows to be recognised as the gatherer of the souls of the dead and Lord of the Otherworld.

The project includes re-telling stories from the Brythonic past, particularly those located in what Welsh medieval culture thought of as ‘The Old North’, the lands of Northern England and Southern Scotland where Brythonic culture made a last stand before retreating to Wales where the legends and myths were kept in the original language to perpetuate them in memory. So there is a substantial account of the story of Myrddin, not the ‘Merlin’ of later Arthurian stories but the figure on whom he was partly based, or with whom he was confused, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. This Myrddin ran wild in the Forest of Celyddon along what is now the border country between England and Scotland. Myrddin’s ‘madness’ when he flees to the forest after The Battle of Arfderydd, fought between Rhydderch and Gwenddolau, between christian and pagan, had also been incorporated into the Life of St Kentigern, but is reclaimed here as part of the narrative of the shift away from the old ways and the old gods to the new world which became medieval christendom.

It is true that this process began far away from Britain in Constantinople in the eastern part of the divided Roman Empire, when the emperor Constantine embraced christianity in the year 312 of the current era and, with more force, by later emperors such as Justinian who made christianity the official religion in 380 and Theodosius who began to actively suppress what he called paganism in an edict of 391. But the western Empire was slower to follow this change and by the time it was widespread in the West the Romans were leaving Britain, so the drama was played out over a longer period both within elite Romano-British culture (which Arthur represents) and within native Brythonic culture, further complicated by the arrival of Anglo-Saxon and Norse invaders who themselves underwent their own transition from paganism to christianity as time went on. This marks out Britain as a particularly conflicted arena as the emerging christian world view pushed for dominance. Figures such as Arthur become emblematic of the changes taking places while Myrddin, originally a victim of those changes, later becomes incorporated as Merlin in the Arthurian ethos.

So re-claiming what has been lost, and what was transformed, is a necessary part of a re-connection with the age of the old gods in our own time when spiritual allegiances are shifting and the character of Arthur as an opponent of that old order can be re-evaluated to restore the focus on Gwyn ap Nudd. This is Lorna’s project which also involves an animistic view of the world reflected in some of the work collected here. ‘The Shield of Rheged’, for example, is ingeniously addressed by re-telling the story of one of the ravens who were depicted on it and relating the image to other raven stories in the Brythonic canon. In more recent times, the folklore of Lorna’s own area is retold in stories such as the eerie tale of ‘The Lady of Bernshaw Tower’ in which a woman who might be regarded as a spiritual descendant of Orwen and Orddu, but who also has a negative ‘other’, shape-shifts and rides with The Hunter. The final section of material set in the 21st century contextualises Brythonic sources in modern terms and focuses on what we have to do now to bring about “the ruins of Arthur’s Empire and clear the way for the next world”. If this is an ambitious and demanding task, the writings collected here display a personal commitment and an imaginative vision that makes it possible to think it can succeed.


Working in the garden today. Spiders in webs everywhere gleaming in the soft, clear light of summer moving into autumn, including this splendid orb weaver (Araneus diadematus) hoping to catch some of the many small insects still on the wing.


Between scythe and budding shoot …



I have recently been reading a posthumous collection of Welsh-language verse by Tony Bianchi: Rhwng Pladur a Blaguryn. I was friendly with Tony when I was a post-graduate student and he had a fellowship in the same university and I have had intermittent contact with him, both professionally and informally, in the 35 years or so since then. So it was a shock to hear of his death last year. Tony was a Geordie from North Shields who, like myself, came to university in Wales and never left. He learnt Welsh sufficiently well to be able to write and publish both poetry and prose in the language. The posthumous collection that I have been reading includes poems written in Welsh cynghanedd metres. Some are very compact and highly charged englyns which manage both to be good examples of the formal requirements of this verse form and also very personal expressions of his characteristics and his concerns. The one that gives the volume its name goes like this:

Rhwng plader a blaguryn; rhwng afal
a’r anghofio sydyn;
rhwng y gwaed a’r angau’r gwyn;
o wynfa i bla: trwch blewyn.

Which I venture to translate, without the supporting force of the cynghanedd, like this:

Between scythe and budding shoot;
between an apple and the sudden forgetting;
between the blood and the pale death;
from paradise to plague : a hair’s breadth.

So it was for him: a vibrant life suddenly ended after a brief illness. That ‘hair’s breadth’ between life and death crossed in what seemed like an instant, the poem capturing in the brevity of its concise form the moment of transition. Finding those perceptions embedded in the tight formal structure of an englyn, opening out from the cynghanedd links which hold together the sequence of images leading to the final half line: ‘trwch blewyn’ with its shiver of liminality, is a miraculous revelation.

So the Awen fell on a scion of the Old North living in modern Wales, allowing the expression of an insight that was so characteristically his own, carrying his living breath, contained in an apparently restricting verse form which one of its exponents has described, paraphrasing Dylan Thomas, as ‘singing in chains’*, but which here seems to wear those chains lightly, releasing rather than imprisoning his words.

The book also contains longer poems, including an account of his daughter’s wedding which is both tender and amusing in a way that expresses Tony’s own character so eloquently. It will remain for me a living record of his voice, contained by death but released by his words and so free in the world he has left behind him.

*Singing in Chains by Mererid Hopwood (Gomer, 2004)
Rhwng Pladur a Blaguryn Tony Bianchi (Barddas, 2018)

Cynghanedd and Multi-Culturalism

Vikram Lyengar

Multi-culturalism is sometimes seen as a melting pot: cultures all mix together and the result is a universal, globally similar, amalgam which encompasses all. But people also value diversity. Visiting a place and finding it is the same as where you came from seems to defeat the object of travel. I am reflecting on these things after attending an evening of Welsh and Indian poetry interactions. Poets from Wales and from India have been involved in a project to see how each can learn from, and benefit from, the other while also acknowledging the value and distinctiveness of each of their traditions. The poets visited each other’s countries and held sessions to explore the particularities of their artistic practices and how they could compare and contrast them, and of course translate each other’s work.

The latest instalment for two of these poets culminated in an evening of activities including a traditional Indian dancer who had been working with them. The dancer, Vikram Lyengar, spoke of his use of music as a base rhythm over which the steps of his dance were made. This was compared to the rhythmic pulse of a line of verse, arranging the syllables of each line around the accents of the main stresses, shortening or lengthening them for emphasis. The poets, one writing in Bangla (Bengali) and the other in Welsh cynghanedd metres, sought to emulate this in their verse and the dancer separately sought to to dance the rhythms of their verse.

It was difficult for me to evaluate the way Sampurna Chattarji wrote the rhythms of the dance in her verse in Bangla, or how Vikram Lyengar danced the work of either poet, though his performance was both impressive and enjoyable in its own right. But I was fascinated by the way that Eurig Salisbury transformed the dance steps into a series of cynghanedd lines across some englyn forms chosen because of the correspendence between the required syllable count and the number of steps he had to ‘translate’ in each case. It couldn’t be said that the englynion produced said anything significant in terms of their meaning. But they did seem charged as forms with the energy of the exercise and the cross-cultural frisson by which the Welsh verse patterns were enlivened without in any way diluting their distinct character and mode of expression. Reflecting on the evening, it seems to me that something very deep was achieved. But, as often with such things, its significance remains elusive, even mysterious.  As it should be.