Gorsedd Circles

Megalithic sites of recent origin are the stone circles that were built all over Wales from the early nineteenth century onwards.

The Gorsedd Circle in Cardiff 1899 (from Bowen & Bowen 1991)

These stone circles were built for ceremonies of The Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain which since 1819 formed part of the annual Eisteddfod, the National Arts and Music Festival of Wales (Cynan c.1963; Parry c.1963; Miles 1978; 1992). The late 18th and early 19th century saw a larger revival of the Eisteddfod and is also known as 'the Welsh Renaissance', in which Welsh scholars rediscovered (or created) historical, linguistic and literary traditions of their national past (Morgan 1983: 43f. and passim; Evans 1988).

The 'Gorsedd Circles' are references to the prehistoric past in which stone circles were also built, and as such they are expressions of history culture and cultural memory. They can also be called sites of memory because they are created while remembering, and that includes interpreting, an ancient tradition in a new context. It is well-known that the traditions of The Gorsedd of Bards, with its ceremonies taking place in a freshly built stone circle, were (literally) invented, like other parts of 'Welsh culture', by a Welsh stonemason turned poet and scholar, Edward Williams or Iolo Morganwg (1747–1826; see Morgan 1975; Gibson 2000).

"The Gorsedd of Bards...was born of the imagination of a humble, but scholarly, country stonemason, Iolo Morganwg, who came under the influence of the antiquarian revival that turned men's minds towards Stonehenge and 'druidical altars', and of the radical romanticism that was stimulated by the French Revolution. He had a dream in which he saw the land of his fathers as a haven of culture as it was, according to Caesar, in the time of the Druids... He linked the Welsh bardic tradition with ancient beliefs and created 'an arcana of neo-druidism', and set out to 're-establish' the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain" (Miles 1992: 7)

Iolo Morganwg's work should be seen in the context of contemporary poets, travellers, antiquarians and other scholars who often idealised the prehistoric past in their descriptions and illustrations, and tended to link ancient monuments with the ancient Druids (Moore 1976; Morgan 1983: 62–66; Evans 1988). In addition, Iolo had a particular agenda: his nationalist Romantic (re-)construction of Welsh culture invoked deep antiquity as a revolutionary force against an anglicized establishment in Wales (D. Austin 9.2.98, pers. comm.).

Iolo claimed that the druids could look back on a long tradition and the stone circles were expressions of an authentic tradition reaching back into prehistory (Evans 1988: 152f., 161f., 171; Miles 1992: 9–17). According to A.Hadrian Allcroft, there are references to gorsedds in ancient Welsh literature such as the Mabinogion, where it is described as a lofty mound, and there would be "abundant evidence that amongst the Welsh it was the custom to hold meetings, judicial meetings in particular, at such mounds" (Allcroft 1923: 224; link added). But there is in fact no indication of any true continuity of these traditions until the present, and Allcroft too had to admit that all the modern Gorsedd Circles share with the older sites is their circularity (Allcroft 1923: 121). Nowadays no-one attending the Eisteddfod would believe that the stone circles or the ceremonies of the druids are really ancient in their present form. A local dowser, however, claimed recently that earth energy lines, which are often found near ancient monuments, also occurred at the new stone circle at Llandeilo, built in 1995 (Dubé 1996).

While the first Gorsedd Circle apparently consisted of a few pebbles which Iolo took from his pocket (Parry c.1963: 35; Morgan 1975: 20), they soon became bigger and rivalled megaliths in their size. The stones are erected according to a strict plan (see Miles 1992: 209 for the earliest version of the plan, dated 1901), although the earlier Circles (see image above) show some variation.

"The circle consists of twelve stone pillars, sometimes hewn from a local quarry, sometimes gathered from the fields, or brought down from the surrounding hills. A large, flat-topped stone, known as the Maen Llog (the Logan Stone), lies at the centre of the circle and provides a platform from which the Archdruid conducts the proceedings. Facing it, at the east cardinal point, is Maen y Cyfamod (the Stone of the Covenant), at which the Herald Bard stands, and behind this are Meini'r Porth (the Portal Stones) which are guarded by purple-robed Eisteddfod officials. The portal stone to the right of the entrance points to sunrise at midsummer day, while that to the left indicates the rising sun at midwinter. The shadows thrown by these three stones form the pattern /|\ symbolising the ineffable name and signifying the rays of the divine attributes—love, justice and truth." (Miles 1978: 136) 

There are some great historic photographs of ceremonies at various Gorsedd Circles in Geraint Bowen's book Golwg ar Orsedd y Beirdd (1992). The Eisteddfod moves each year to a different place in Wales, and a new Gorsedd Circle is built for the ceremonies. As a result, examples of twentieth century Gorsedd Circles can now be found in most Welsh towns, e.g. in Bute Park in the centre of Cardiff and in the park behind the war memorial in Lampeter. The stones have been chosen on the mountains or in quarries according to size but otherwise at random. On one occasion, however, in Fishguard (1986) selected parishes were asked to contribute one stone each (Dillwyn Miles 21.6.1996, pers. comm). In Aberystwyth (1914) the stones in and outside of the circle represented the Welsh counties as well as the Welsh Abroad, and in England (Allcroft 1923: 121).

Ceremony of The Gorsedd of Bards in Ffairfach near Llandeilo, during the Eisteddfod 1996

To this day, the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales, which is entirely Welsh-spoken (with some translation facilities), as well as hundreds of smaller Eisteddfods all around the country are at the heart of Welsh culture and identity. While the ceremonies related to the arts and music competition nowadays take place inside the main pavilion, the initiation ceremonies to The Gorsedd of Bards are still being held inside the Gorsedd Circle, if weather allows.


Literature

Allcroft, A.Hadrian (1923) The circle and the cross. Archaeological Journal 80, 115–290.

Bowen, Geraint and Zonia Bowen (1991) Hanes Gorsedd y Beirdd. Cyhoeddiadau Barddas.

Bowen, Geraint (1992) Golwg ar Orsedd y Beirdd. Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru.

Evans, Paul R. (1988) Mythology and Tradition. In: T.Herbert and G.E.Jones (eds) The Remaking of Wales in the Eighteenth Century, pp. 149–173. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Cynan (c.1963) The National Eisteddfod and the Gorsedd of To-day. In: The Eisteddfod of Wales, pp. 39–47. National Eisteddfod Court.

Dubé, Steve (1996) Energy lines 'caused stomach bug'. The Western Mail 20.6.1996, 3.

Gibson, Alex (2000) Circles and henges: reincarnations of past traditions? Archaeology Ireland 14 (issue 51), 11–14.

Miles, Dillwyn (1978) The Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales. Swansea: C.Davies.

Miles, Dillwyn (1992) The secret of the bards of the Isle of Britain. Llandybie: Gwasg Dinefwr Press.

Moore, Donald (1976) Cambrian antiquity: Precursors of the prehistorians. In: G.C.Boon and J.M.Lewis (eds) Welsh Antiquity, pp. 193–221. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.

Morgan, Prys (1975) Iolo Morganwg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Morgan, Prys (1983) From a Death to a View: The Hunt for the Welsh Past in the Romantic Period. In: E.Hobsbawm and T.Ranger (eds) The Invention of Tradition, pp. 43–100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parry, Thomas (c. 1963) The story of the Eisteddfod. In: The Eisteddfod of Wales, pp. 29–38. National Eisteddfod Court.

© Cornelius Holtorf