Druids, bards and rituals: What is an Eisteddfod?

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1. Europe's largest cultural contest

The National Eisteddfod of Wales – Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru - is a cultural festival that celebrates music, performance, art and literature. There is no English word for ‘eisteddfod’, but it can be roughly translated as ‘being seated’.

The Eisteddfod, as it's commonly known, is a week-long event that takes place every year during the first week of August, with the venue alternating between north and south Wales.

Steeped in the bardic tradition, the Eisteddfod is awash with lavish ceremonial rituals involving druids, swords, and mystical symbolism, which to the uninitiated appear to be no more than strange pagan rites. So how did an 18th century chancer and forger con the Welsh to found Europe's largest cultural contest?

2. A day on the Maes

Sian Williams attended her first Eisteddfod in 2013 and enjoyed a look behind the scenes at this spectacular annual event.

3. How did it start?

The earliest recorded eisteddfod was held in 1176, when Lord Rhys hosted a gathering of bards, musicians and performers at his castle in Cardigan.

But it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that the eisteddfod developed into a form recognisable as a precursor to the modern National Eisteddfod.

Its aim was to create a burning interest in poetry, raise standards and create a focal point for the arts in Wales.

The history of the elaborate, modern-day ceremonies, in which poets compete for the prestigious chair or crown, can be attributed to the idiosyncratic fantasies of one man – Iolo Morganwg.

A stonemason by trade, but easily the most knowledgeable man of his generation about early Welsh literature, he began to expound bogus theories on bardic lore and contrived a past for Welsh literature which it had never possessed.

He invented the concept of an assembly of bards - Gorsedd y Beirdd - falsely claiming it harked back to the time of the ancient druids. Gorsedd literally means throne, but the meaning has been extended to mean an assembly of people.

As many of Iolo Morganwg’s theories were based on fact, no one disputed his claims, and the first meeting of the Gorsedd was held on 21 June 1792 on Primrose Hill in London.

The Gorsedd has been an integral part of the Eisteddfod since 1818, and the first official National Eisteddfod as we know it today took place in Aberdare in 1861.

4. Anatomy of the Eisteddfod

Click on the image below to learn more about Gorsedd y Beirdd (Gorsedd of the Bards).

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Gorsedd y Beirdd is a society of authors, musicians, artists and people who have made a contribution to the Welsh language and culture.

5. The main ceremonies

Colourful pageantry and spectacular rituals are an integral part of the eisteddfod and no eisteddfod would be complete without the following Gorsedd ceremonies.

Proclamation ceremony

Gŵyl y Cyhoeddi takes place exactly one year and a day in advance of the next Eisteddfod. This ceremony is held within a circle of stones - Cylch yr Orsedd - which is erected on the site of each National Eisteddfod as a mark of having visited the area.

Crowning of the bard

Seremoni’r Coroni (crowning ceremony) is one of the main events of the Eisteddfod and is held on the Monday afternoon of each Eisteddfod. In an impressive spectacle, a unique crown, fashioned by a local craftsperson, is awarded for the best poem written in free verse.

Prose Medal

Y Fedal Ryddiaith (the prose medal) is the prize for best volume of prose. It is held on the Wednesday afternoon and the winner is awarded a medal. The prize is celebrated in an official ceremony similar to the chairing and crowning of the bards.

Chairing of the bard

The Friday afternoon of every Eisteddfod culminates with the elaborate Seremoni’r Cadeirio (chairing ceremony). A unique chair, or throne, created by a local carpenter, is awarded for the best poem written in a traditional form of Welsh verse using a strict metre known as cynghanedd.

Other ceremonies

The pavilion plays host to other notable ceremonies during the week. Dysgwr y Flwyddyn (Welsh learner of the year), the Drama Medal and the Daniel Owen Memorial prize for best novel are all honoured, albeit on a smaller scale than the main Gorsedd ceremonies.

6. Other eisteddfodau

The National Eisteddfod celebrates the richness of the language and culture of Wales. But other eisteddfodau (plural of eisteddfod) are also popular all over the world.

Eisteddfod yr Urdd

Similar to the National Eisteddfod, this festival is aimed at young people aged 7-24 years old. It is celebrated during the last week of May, and is one of the largest youth festivals in Europe.

International Eisteddfod

Known as the International Eisteddfod, this event attracts talented performers from around the globe. Unlike the National Eisteddfod and the Urdd Eisteddfod, it is held in the same place every year, namely Llangollen in North Wales.

Local eisteddfodau

Countless mini eisteddfodau regularly take place throughout Wales. Many schools in Wales host their own eisteddfod to celebrate St David’s Day.

Celtic festivals

Other Celtic countries celebrate similar festivals to the Eisteddfod. The Mòd is celebrated in Scotland, the Oireachtas na Gaeilge in Ireland, Esethvos Kernow in Cornwall and the Kan ar Bobl in Brittany. Cornwall and Brittany also have their own Gorsedd.

Eisteddfodau around the world

Many Welsh settlers who emigrated to different countries around the world were keen to retain their cultural traditions. Eisteddfodau are held in America, Australia, South Africa and Patagonia to this day.

Non-Welsh eisteddfodau

One of the unique features of the Eisteddfod is that all proceedings are held in Welsh. But the concept of the eisteddfod has been adopted by a selection of non-Welsh speaking communities, most notably the Jersey Eisteddfod, the Guernsey Eisteddfod, the Kettering & District Eisteddfod and the Bristol Dance Eisteddfod.

7. Location challenge

Which of these places has never hosted a National Eisteddfod?

Cardiff

Cardiff

Incorrect!

Wales’ capital city has hosted the Eisteddfod five times in 1883, 1899, 1960, 1978 and 2008.

Harlech

Harlech

Correct!

The Gorsedd of the Bards march to the refrain of Men of Harlech, but a National Eisteddfod has never been held in the town.

Liverpool

Liverpool

Incorrect!

Liverpool – unofficially named the capital of north Wales – played host to the festival in 1884, 1900 and 1929.

London

London

Incorrect!

The first National Eisteddfod was held in London. The city played host again in 1887 and 1909, but today every National Eisteddfod is held on Welsh soil.