I’m writing this essay because, over the past few months, I have noticed a number of people speaking either of their reluctance to identify as awenyddion due to fears of cultural appropriation or more generally voicing their concerns about English and American Pagans appropriating the term.
I first came across the term awenydd ‘person inspired’ in Natural Druidry by Kristoffer Hughes. In its lightning-like connection to the awen ‘poetic inspiration’ and used as a descriptor of one who quests and gives voice to this divine breath in poetry I intuited it was the word I’d been searching for to describe my spiritual path (I had formerly identified as a bard). This was confirmed by my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, on the Winter Solstice in 2013. Since then I have served Gwyn as an awenydd by giving voice to his myths and those of other Brythonic deities, the lore of the land, and the ancestors. With Greg Hill I co-founded the Awen ac Awenydd website and, with Lia Hunter, we have been working on compiling an anthology featuring the voices of other modern awenyddion.
So it came as a bit of a shock that my adoption of the awenydd identity might be seen as cultural appropriation. And that, much worse, I might have unwittingly influenced the choice of others to appropriate the term. Over the past few weeks I have led discussions on the topic on the Awen ac Awenydd Facebook page and discussed it with Greg by email and would like to share some conclusions.
The Awenydd Identity
Firstly I will provide an introduction to the awenydd identity. The earliest use of the term awen is found in Nennius’ History of the Britons (828) where he refers to Talhearn ‘Tad Awen’ ‘Father of Inspiration’, chief of the famous bards Aneirin, Taliesin, and Cian. This may be our first reference to an awenydd.
Here it is important to note that bardism has its roots in an older Brythonic tradition. From the Iron Age, throughout the Roman-British period, until the Anglo-Saxon invasions all of present-day England, Wales, and southern Scotland were part of a shared Brythonic culture. Taliesin and Aneirin composed poems about the battles between the Brythonic rulers and the Anglo-Saxons which gave rise to the fall of Yr Hen Ogledd ‘The Old North’. As the invaders pushed the Brythonic peoples west they took their stories and traditions with them, leading to them being maintained in Wales.
In his Description of Wales (1194) Gerald of Wales speaks of awenyddion ‘people inspired’ who ‘when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit.’ Their answers are described as ‘nugatory’, ‘incoherent’, and ‘ornamented’ yet can be explained the ‘turn of a word’. These are hallmarks of both poetic and prophetic language. Their inspiration comes from states of ecstasy and dreams. The awenydd is depicted as a solitary spirit-worker and soothsayer.
In medieval Welsh poetry awen originates from the cauldron of Ceridwen and/or from God. It is seen to flow from Annwn, ‘the Deep’ or ‘the Otherworld’, where the cauldron is guarded by Pen Annwn. In The Story of Taliesin receiving (or in some versions stealing!) awen from the cauldron, thereby becoming an awenydd, is the source of Taliesin’s omniscience and mastery of the bardic arts.
The term awenydd is consistently used as a synonym for an inspired poet. For example the fourteenth century poet Dafydd ap Gwilym describes himself as an ‘awenydd gwyrdd’ ‘green poet’. Lewis Glyn Cothi, in the fifteenth century, refers to Grufydd ab Rhys and his kinsmen as ‘awenyddion’.
In a letter to his cousin (1694) the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan speaks of an orphaned shepherd receiving awen when the ‘hawk upon the fist’ of ‘a beautiful young man with a garland of green leaves upon his head… a quiver of arrows att his back’ flies into his mouth and awakes in him ‘fear’, ‘consternation’ and ‘the gift of poetrie’. This of interest because it is suggestive of awen being gifted by a numinous figure – perhaps Maponos/Mabon, a god of youth, hunting, and music/poetry.
During the Druidic revival, awenyddion are conceived radically differently. In hisBarddas (written in the late 18th century but published in 1862), Iolo Morganwg speaks of Awenyddion as ‘Aspirants’ who have ‘no privileges’ within the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain until they have completed three years of discipleship. Only then may they graduate from the lowly status of Awenydd to ‘Primitive Bard Positive’. Iolo states that Awen comes ‘from God’.
Following Iolo, in his introduction to the heroic elegies of Llywarch Hen (1792) William Pughe refers to Awenyddion as ‘disciples’ who are examined for their ‘understanding, affections, morals, and principles’, undergo ‘severe trials’, and must ‘learn such verbs and adages as contained the maxims of the institution, and to compose others himself, on any relative subject, doctrinal or moral’ to gain the the degree of ‘Bardd Braint’ a ‘Bard of Privilege’.
Here we find the awenydd as the lowest position within a highly moralistic order based on Christian concepts. We are miles away from the shepherd lad being gifted with inspiration by an unnamed god.
The term awenydd is defined today in The Dictionary of the Welsh Language as an ‘(inspired) poet; bardic pupil; inspired person, genius’. In modern Wales it is used to refer to poets who write in strict metre.
Like many terms some parts of the meaning of awenydd have changed through the centuries, but its essence remains the same. It consistently refers to somebody who receives awen from the divine (be it the Brythonic gods and spirits or the Christian God) and expresses it in well crafted poetry.
Last year, on the basis of these two underlying currents, at Awen ac Awenydd we created our own definition of the awenydd identity – ‘an awenydd is a spirit-worker and inspired poet in the Brythonic tradition’.
Awen ac Awenydd is a community of self-identified awenyddion. Some of us, such as Greg, live in Wales and are Welsh speakers. Others, such as myself, live in other parts of the UK, or in America, and are learning Welsh. For us the question has risen of whether we are appropriating the awenydd identity.
To answer this question we need to understand the concept of cultural appropriation. This came into use in the 1980s as part of the discourse critiquing Western expansionism and colonialism. It entered the Oxford Dictionaries in 2017 where it is defined as ‘the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.’
Cultural appropriation involves a dominant culture taking elements from a minority culture and using them to make a profit, for fun, or for fashion, without giving anything back. This is often done without knowledge of or sensitivity to their meaning within the culture they are taken from and is a form of colonialism. This differs from cultural exchange in which the interchange is mutually beneficial.
Examples of cultural appropriation include the adoption of ‘exotic’ aspects of Indian culture following the economic exploitation of the Indian subcontinent by the British Empire, the claiming of the religious term ‘Shaman’ outside the indigenous religion of Siberia and its neighbouring peoples, and the use of ‘Sweat Lodges’ from the Amerindian tradition against the wishes of the Lakota elders (who suggest casually employing their techniques may be harmful to the participants).
Unfortunately, since the term has become fashionable, there have been a proliferation of more superficial examples such as an eighteen-year-old girl wearing a cheongsam to her high school prom and the row over Jamie Oliver’s ‘punchy jerk rice’.
Am I Appropriating?
So the question arises of whether English and American Pagans (members of dominant cultures) are appropriating the term awenydd from the Welsh (a minority culture) thus engaging in an act of colonialism.
First off I’d like to say that this question is based on the presuppositions that there is an absolute distinction between England and Wales and that Wales has been colonised by the English. There is a strong argument for the English colonisation of Wales over the last thousand years. There are numerous examples of military (Anglo-Norman castles), economic (mines, reservoirs), religious (the English Prayer Book), and linguistic (the Welsh Not) oppression. However, Wales along with England and Scotland, has benefited from oppressing other countries as part of the British Empire. More positively there are numerous examples of mutually beneficial cultural exchange between Wales and England (such as the Anglo-Welsh poetry of Henry Vaughan, David Jones, and Dylan Thomas).
These issues are complex, thorny, put our presuppositions into question, and do not take into consideration that for many centuries beforehand present-day England, Wales, and southern Scotland were part of a Brythonic culture which remains alive within the land and our shared heritage.
During our conversations Greg suggested, as a general condition, that an English or American Pagan would be appropriating the awenydd identity if they were doing so without knowledge of the Welsh culture and its Brythonic roots and were profiting in some way without giving anything back. For example an English Pagan selling courses on becoming an awenydd without knowing the background of the Welsh myths and mispronouncing the names would be appropriating.
Since I discovered that the stories of the Brythonic deities have been preserved in the Welsh myths I have been studying them and sharing them online and through performances in my local community. I’ve written three books based on the lore of the land and Brythonic mythology. I occasionally give talks and workshops sharing my knowledge and facilitating connection with the Brythonic gods. I am slowly learning Welsh, am a member of Preston’s Welsh Club, and for the past few years have made sure that Welsh poetry is included in the World Poetry Day event I help organise.
I believe I’m making the necessary effort to learn about the Welsh/Brythonic culture and language. Yet could it be said I’m profiting financially and in terms of status from selling it to other English people? Possibly, but my financial gains from books, talks/workshops,and poetry performances are miniscule in contrast to the amount of time and effort I’ve put into research and creative writing, plus the majority of my work is available for free online to people of all nationalities. And there is really nothing to be gained in terms of status by identifying with a little known path – it’s not like I’m declaring myself Arch High Druid of the Old North or Chief Bard of Gwyn ap Nudd or something.
Conclusion – In the Eyes of the Gods
More fundamentally it’s my personal belief that what we call the awen and the deities associated with it are much older and deeper than human concepts and distinctions. When Gwyn appeared in my life seven years ago I was completely befuddled by the question of why a wild Welsh god would want anything to do with a suburban English poet. It’s taken me that long to unravel his connections with the Old North and role as a psychopomp guiding the dead and the living back to Annwn and presiding over the mysteries of the awen as the guardian of the cauldron of Ceridwen.
For me being an awenydd is a religious calling based on my relationship with my patron god. It’s not something I can give up because I’m afraid someone will accuse me of cultural appropriation.
This was proven when I tried taking down the term ‘awenydd’ from my blog and the Annuvian Awen symbol I’d been gifted. It hurt. Both are essential to my relationship with my god and to my soul.
My personal decision to continue identifying as an awenydd is based on this feeling rather than logical and political arguments, which always break down into meaninglessness in the eyes of the gods.
*With thanks to discussion and feedback from Greg Hill, who is a paradigmatic example of an awenydd who honours and serves the Brythonic gods and is engaged in modern Welsh culture, having learnt Early Welsh and provided translations of many Welsh texts into English as part of his vocation.