How do you become a Welsh bard?
There's a well-known story about Cadair Idris, a mountain in southern Snowdonia: if you sleep one night on its summit, it's said you'll wake either a bard or a madman. However, bards – or beirdd as they're usually called in Welsh – are not just figments of folklore. They are instead representatives of an ancient poetic tradition, one that survives in Wales to this day. How, then, does someone become a bard, if not by sleeping on a hill?
Evidence of named Welsh bards goes back to the sixth century. They were a vitally important part of society in medieval Wales, often composing praise poems in the courts of kings and noblemen.
Becoming a fully qualified bard was not easy: it required mastery of complex metrical systems, and a thorough grounding in historical and legendary lore. However, we sadly know little about the details of bardic training: evidence suggests that pupils were taught orally by experienced practitioners of the craft.
This system was codified to some extent in the later medieval period, but by the end of the seventeenth century, the medieval system of bardic training had effectively died out.
Our earliest example of the legend that sleeping on Cadair Idris turns someone into a bard comes from the scholar Siôn Dafydd Rhys (1534–c.1609), in a collection of tales about giants. Cadair Idris (or "Idris's Seat") was the site of a supposed giant's grave, and it seems this conferred upon it magical powers.
Similar legends have nevertheless spread far and wide: the eighteenth-century travel writer Thomas Pennant told a similar story about Snowdon, and it even turned up in a 1995 Hugh Grant movie set in southern Wales.
In one sense, all modern Welsh poets are bards: bardd remains the most common word for "poet" in the language. However, there is also a more formal way to become a bard: that is, to be inducted into Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain [the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain], which meets every year at the National Eisteddfod.
This institution, and the ceremonies and robes associated with it, were invented by the fiery, inspired, and occasionally laudanum-addled Iolo Morganwg (1747–1826). Claiming to reveal ancient truths, but in fact heavily influenced by French Revolutionary politics, Iolo and his collaborators (like many others in Welsh history) made becoming a bard exactly what they wanted it to be.