I’ve been studying Iolo Morganwg, the poet and father of modern Druidism. His influence began the Gorsedd of the Bards of Britain and from his ideas descended modern “traditional” British druid orders. Yet, if you look him up in Wikipedia (and just about anywhere) you will find him called a “forger.” This is because he represented his own creative writing as coming from medieval manuscripts that faithfully conveyed the wisdom and rites of the ancient Welsh druids. I always bristle at that word “forger.” It is a judgement of intention, which may or may not be true. Historians of druidry, such as Prof. Ronald Hutton (Blood and Mistletoe), also write of Iolo as if he was a charlatan. I suppose historians have no choice. Academics stake their careers on adherence to the idea that claiming false sources is one of the worst of the deadly sins. Plagiarism is the sin of failing to attribute someone else’s work and presenting it as if it is your own. Forgery is the opposite, equally bad, sin of trying to fool your readers into beleiving that your own ideas are based on actual historical documentation (or in some cases archaeology). The skull of Piltdown Man is perhaps the most famous example of deliberate archaeological forgery.
It is understandable why historians are angered by both of these sins. Nobody likes to be fooled. And, after all, historical sources either exist or they don’t. Of course, there are some classical Greek and Roman sources that claim to be based on works that are no longer extant. Did they really exist? No one can say. But historians evaluate the reliability of classical historians. If they seem to be reliable in citing their sources and noting when they are repeating folklore or mere hearsay, then we can say they are likely reliable and the lost sources were probably once real. In Iolo’s case, his claim to be bringing forth ancient Bardic doctrines did fool some people at the time. How can the average reader know whether a writer’s sources are real or made up? The only way to know is to examine the actual manuscripts of the sources. If the manuscripts are lost or destroyed, then one has to make a judgement on internal evidence.
In the case of Iolo’s triads and his Druid religion, it seems reasonable to conclude that some of the material came from the author’s own creative genius. When J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his novels as if they had come from ancient manuscripts, he did not attempt to connect those manuscripts with the history of our world. There were only hints that Middle Earth and her kingdoms might have been our ancient ancestors. Everyone can agree that Tolkien was writing his own myths and legends. So, that does not constitute forgery. It is merely a literary device. Yet, one writer on Iolo’s Coelbren alphabet made the comparison to Tolkien’s elvish alphabets and runes, saying that Iolo’s were no more “genuine” than Tolkien’s.
That word “genuine” is very loaded with bias. What makes a text “genuine?” The word comes from Latin in an interesting way. The Latin word “genuinus” came from the word for “knee” and refered to the custom among the ancient Romans for fathers to recognize the legitimacy of a child by putting the wee tot on his knee. So, when you use the word “genuine” think about paternity. If an author writes as if someone else is the author of the book, then the book, or at any rate the act, is not genuine. Morally speaking, it’s just lying. It may or may not do others harm. Usually literary forgeries do no more harm that misleading their readers and embarrassing scholars who make the mistake of falling for the joke.
Iolo Morganwg is compared to two other contemporary poets. One is Robert Burns, whose poetry everyone accepts as genuine. The other is James Macpherson whose Ossian poems are called forgeries. Macpherson’s Ossian however, had a tremendous impact on culture in the Romantic period. It was wildly popular and was used as inspiration for music and opera. It appealed to the romantic spirit of the time that looked back on earlier ages as times of great love and loss, tragedy, and emotion. The story of Fingal was dramatic and its “primitive” setting before Christianity appealed to people of the time when the churches seemed so very disappointing. Corruption and schisms, dishonesty, and new ideas about the reliability of the Bible as history, led many to a radical desire to reform religion and society. Christianity, the religion based on the Prince of Peace who preached forgiveness and charity, had turned out to be nothing but the accomplice of kings and tyrants making constant war with each other, at the expense of ordinary people. It was comforting to think of the age of the Druids and Bards as an enlightened time when individuals were free to live and be inspired by a peaceful worship of nature and poetry.
The ancient Gauls, Gaels, and Britons probably had as much warfare and strife as any other tribal culture. Judging from the legends, the warrior class loved to do nothing better than get painted up and steal someone else’s cattle. The Celts might have surrendered to Roman military might; and they might have sceded their own religion of nature spirits to the sword of the Roman Catholic Church; but the Celts did not go away, nor did they give up and simply become Romans. The history of Britain matters when we think of Iolo and the Welshmen of his time. Between Roman conquest and Christian “conversion” the Celts saw their lands invaged by Germans (Angles, Saxons, Franks, Goths etc.). The Germanic tribes and their cousins, the Vandals and Goths, effectively took over the Roman Empire and wrecked it. At the same time, the former provinces of the empire recovered and became the powerful imperial nations of Europe. By the 17th century imperialism was alive and well in the former Roman provinces. The process of civilization that the Roman legions had enforced, the coersion of the Church finished. Unfortunately for the Church, their control of the new empires did not last very long. The Portuguese, French, and Spanish Empires, which were Catholic lasted only about two centuries. Remnants remain today, but as a great power the Catholic Empires collapsed.
Catholicism was exported successfully, however, so from the Pope’s point of view it wasn’t a total loss. You could always find another tyrant to support your missionary efforts. The Pope inherited the Roman emperor’s mission to convert the heathen and barbarian peoples of the world to the civilized Roman way of life, and to the Christian religion. The Age of Empire in the 17th-19th centuries made European nations extremely rich and this in turn fostered the Industrial Revolution. The new inventions, however, undermined the authority of the Church. The Protestant Reformation owes its success to the printing press and the growth of Biblical scholarship that translated the old Latin Vulgate (which nobody understood anymore) into the new European modern languages. Protestanism created the Church of England, but the same impulse caused it to be disestablished in the 19th century. Protestantism became a part of the radical desire for personal freedom — liberty, brotherhood, and equality! These were the ideas fueling the French revolution and to some extend also the American Revolution.
Iolo’s time — along with Macpherson and William Blake, another poet of Druidism — was the time of Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars. It was very much like the Communist Revolution in the 20th century for upsetting the old world. Communism, in theory also was driven by the desire for economic equality, a classless society, and brotherhood. Unfortunately, it was implemented by tyrants who felt they had to use tyrannical methods to drive out the old tyrants — the Tsar and the empires of the “Capitalist” nations of the West.
What does this all have to do with literary forgery? Well, it seems to me that the ethos of the age was one of radical skepticism. Daring thinkers were pointing to the apparent truth that the Bible itself was a literary forgery, a lot of myths being passed off as history. Moreover, the religion that was based on it had become inimical to the ideas of Jesus. If Salvation lay anywhere it lay in those original teachings of peace and brotherhood, of equality rather than a class system, and of pacifism against war. So, what Iolo did in creating his modern Druid religious texts was the same thing that had been done by the writers of the Bible. He used some genuine medieval poetry that fit his ideas and intentions for the religion. He created more material to make a new sort of Bible — one that presented the radical ideas of the Revolutionaries as being ideas carried by the ancient ancestors of the modern Welshmen, indeed of the whole Celtic world. Even Julius Caesar, who conquered the Gauls, represented the druids as what we should today call “freedom fighters.” Well, we would probably call them “terrorists,” but no matter. They fought against the invading conquerors who wished to wipe out their way of life and replace it with Roman culture. Sound familiar?
Yes, pretty much every empire since then has tried to do the same thing to tribal cultures living at a different level of technology. The tribal cultures, and even the great kingdoms and empires of Asia and South America were overrun by guns (and germs and steel, as we know). The possession of war machines is what made the European empires possible. The American empire was driven by vastly superior arms and also by McDonald’s and Coke. It has been just as destructive of the culture of those it conquered, even when no military occupation was established. The power of a culture to change another culture is a matter of propaganda, but it also appeals to a human vice: the vice of wanting to be like the cool kids. What happened in Iolo’s work that makes it so fascinating is that it changed the dominant culture. Not completely, perhaps, but in some deep ways.
As Ronald Hutton traces in Blood and Mistletoe, the figure of the druid as freedom fighter and wise ancient philosopher destroyed by brutal invaders worked its way into the English consciousness. The Gorsedd and the Ancient Order of Druids took their place alongside Freemasonry, and today when the numbers of Freemasons are declining the number of druids is increasing steadily. Two hundred years after Iolo, the Druid’s Prayer is still spoken by druids who wish to express the unity of all druids, no matter which order, lodge, or grove they belong to. The fundamental respect for nature, the ancient Celts, the modern Celts, brotherhood of humankind, equality without social rank, charity, and peace — these are shared by all druids today, I would venture to say. And those same values are deeply established in both American and European culture today, and indeed worldwide.
Does it matter then that this system was partly based on historical misconceptions and creative writing masquerading as ancient wisdom? Freemasonry can be accused likewise of claiming for itself a lineage back to the ancient stonemasons building Solomon’s Temple. But the fact that such claims are the legends of the organization and not documented history do not matter. Indeed, that fact might be essential to the effectiveness of the myths themselves. I would argue that “forgery” of the kind perpetrated by poets is exempt from moral opprobrium if it is used for good. The best poets are tricksters and fools. They are almost the opposite to historians, creating myths and legends that force us to look at ourselves differently; myths and legends that give the impetus of Story to our deep longings to change our behavior and the behavior of the dominant institutions of our culture. The great philosopher of the Scottish Rite, Albert Pike, was a similar sort of great soul whose writings may not satisfy academic critics, but his use of myth and legend — of ritual combined with Story — is brilliant and effective. It is a different way of teaching and knowing than the orthodox ways of academia.
We wonder what is wrong with our educational system today? Why, for all our skeptical scientific reverence for facts, does it not seem to actually educate people? I would suggest that it is because Story has been abandoned in favor of a soulless memorization of facts and orthodox interpretations of theories that might as well be myths. The belief that all knowledge is only legitimite, genuine, if it is measured and proven — this is an idea that appeals to only one small corner of the human mind. It is Story that excites the soul; Story that inspires children to remember lessons; Story that inspires all of us to reach for spiritual heights, for something beyond the miseries and luxuries of mortal life. It is Story that we remember, not facts and formulas. The more we try to turn our children into scientists and engineers, the less intelligent and less effective will we be as humans. By revering machines, we turn our goal away from being more human to being less human — indeed to being not human at all.
Believing in the stories of the bards of our culture requires a mind far more nimble than the minds our “civilization” has produced. The Romans were bad poets and worse philosophers. Their culture was made up of things they borrowed from the Greeks. And quite honestly, I don’t know if the Romans understood myths. The nimble mind accustomed to stories knows the difference between storytelling and lived life experiences. Nobody with a true understanding of myths would kill someone else for denying that a story was “true.” But it seems that something odd happened when humans went from having oral cultures to having cultures based on widespread literacy and books. When stories get written down, it becomes possible to mistake them for factual accounts of actual experiences. I hardly think anyone thought about relating their experiences “factually” until the idea of History was developed by the Greeks. The idea that narratives might relay true or factual accounts of the events of the past, led to a whole new way of thinking. Suddenly we had “fiction” and “non fiction” made-up or not made-up. And these two categories of writing were radically separated. Greek philosphers had that one fault — the desire to divide everthing into either-or categories. It is worth noting that this same either-or logic is the bases of computers. But it turns out that it is not the way human minds work, and it is not the way they should be encouraged to work. In humans, either-or thinking has the really bad side effect of causing murder and war.
I am speculating, but I like to think that the bards of old and their audiences understood a story when they heard it and did not expect “truth” in the scientific sense. They expected a good story and a good lesson. Iolo Morganwg, trickster that he was, claimed to be one of three remaining True Bards representing the ancient tradition (the other two were friends of his). This was not an act of charlatanry — or if it was it was not only that — this was an act of symbolism and Iolo was saying to his world that he did understand that stories were just stories. The genuine triads and myths of Wales were things that were made up by his ancestors, by earlier generations of poets. For him to take that material and integrate it into his own poetry and rituals demonstrates exactly what I think the genuine druidry taught. That is, creativity is the virtue above all others. Druidry was not a religion of laws and commandments. It was a religion of Awen — poetic inspiration. And without a literalism and the mistaken belief that some texts were fiction and some non-fiction, it was a religion free of bigotry, hatred, and the either-or mentality of conquest. That’s what I like to believe. The old druids wanted to keep their culture an oral culture not out of silly notions of secrecy and initiation. They rather knew (or intuited) that cultures of the book became insane. When written words were fetishized and believed to be “true” rather than created by the human imagination, cultures became destructive and inhuman.
I like books. I may even fetishize them in my own way. But I have learned the lesson: there is no non-fiction. Striving, as academics do, to nail down language and pin down facts is the result of having mistaken a story for fact. Which story? The made-up story that told them that there was such a thing as “non-fiction.” The religion of the book tells that story. It says, some books are not made-up. Some stories have been handed down directly from the Mind of God, and are therefore not made-up. Step back a moment and tell me if you notice that my last sentence sounds like a made-up story. Humans who began to realize that the Bible was made-up by human creators panicked. They had to have some other source of non-fiction. If they did not replace God with some other source of non-fiction then the logic of their whole world view would explode because it was based on old Aristotle’s “true-false” dichotomy. So, scientists in the time of Iolo Morganwg were very busy creating the scientific method, a set of careful rituals in which they could invest their faith. The laboratory experiment could save the great Idol Eitheror. It couldn’t save the Bible, of course, and in that respect unfortunately pitted religion against science in a battle of culture that is still going on.
Our bookstore shelves are filled with fiction and non-fiction. That is one of the most fundamental beliefs we have. One that lies at the foundation of the scientist’s naturalism just as surely as it does at the root of the religious fundamentalist’s theological certainty. Logic — the tool — has become the master. The result? The masters have been going slowly insane for centuries. They have been trying to repress half of their souls, maybe more than half because it is the better half. In the struggle to believe in the story of materialism and the logic of true-false, our mastery has slipped. Indeed, the most intelligent among us are noticing that our whole story of mastery over the world, over ourselves, over vice — the whole myth has slipped and underneath the mask is a trickster — the Creator. The Creator is us. And if we create while denying that what we create is actually a story — what does that make us? Ahh… wait… Wasn’t that the definition of forgery?