This post is a part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.
Dragons, harps, costumes and flowers: they all have something to tell us about the development of Welsh identity!
These symbols came to be essential ingredients when advertising anything ‘Welsh’, such as national events and traditional produce. Take, for example, Wales’s National Eisteddfod. Still held annually at the beginning of August, this festival; historically centered around literature, music, art and poetry, made a profound use of ‘Welsh’ symbols in its promotions.
Pageantry, symbolism and ceremony played an important role in a Welshman’s life during the 19th and 20th centuries. These customs fed into an effort to project Welsh identity, at a time when indigenous cultures were consciously displaying their distinctiveness.
In this blog, we will use the National Eisteddfod’s official programmes to show how meaningful symbols were used to project ‘Welshness’.
A brief history of the National Eisteddfod
- The beginning: In 1176 Lord Rhys hosted the first known ‘eisteddfod’. He held two major competitions at Cardigan Castle; one in poetry, and the other in music.
- A sudden decline: Similar tournaments were held in the 15th and 16th centuries. The phrase ‘eisteddfod’ was coined during this period. However, these gatherings declined during the reign of Henry VIII.
- Revival: London based Welsh societies revived the eisteddfodic tradition at the end of the 18th century. Iolo Morganwg, inventor of the famous Gorsedd of the Bards ceremonies, played an important role in reviving the eisteddfod on a national scale by associating the Gorsedd with the institution.
- Formalising the ‘National Eisteddfod’: At Denbigh in 1860 a Council and General Committee were elected to manage ‘Yr Eisteddfod’, a newborn national organization. The following year, at Aberdare, the first official ‘National Eisteddfod’ was held.
Popular symbols and their roots
- The Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch) is one of Wales’s most recognizable symbols. Believed to have been used by King Arthur and other Celtic leaders, it symbolizes Wales’s ancient roots and represents its formidable past warriors.
- The Triple harp (Y Delyn Deires) is thought of as Wales’s national instrument. Used for centuries to accompany folk-singing, dancing and poetry recitations, the triple harp epitomizes Wales’s rich literary and musical heritage.
- The Welsh Dress (Y Wisg Gymreig) was largely developed during the 19th century by a devoted cultural patron called Augusta Hall, or Lady Llanover. The most basic traditional Welsh costume consisted of a red woolen cloak and a tall black hat. Hall believed that such a custom would promote Welsh industries and identity.
- The Mystic Mark (Y Nod Cyfrin), the symbol /|\ was devised by Iolo Morganwg. It represents the virtues Love, Justice and Truth. The symbol was widely used on Eisteddfod programmes and represented the Gorsedd’s presence at the event. The Gorsedd was once thought of as an ancient Druidic circle which glorified Wales’s rich bardic tradition.
Reviving Welsh Culture
The use of symbols on Eisteddfod programmes can be considered within a wider context of a general effort to revive Welsh culture. It is clear that such a movement looked to the past for inspiration and encouraged Welsh people to take pride in their heritage and history.
Elen Haf Jones, National Library of Wales
This blog post was created as part of the Europeana ‘Rise of Literacy’ project.