Dragons, leeks, love spoons and much more
The Celts dominated Mid and Western Europe including Wales for a thousand years. But it is only recently that the importance of Celtic influence on the cultural, linguistic and artistic development of Europe has been realised. The Celts as an identifiable race or ethnic group have long since disappeared, except in places such as Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.
The Celts transmitted their culture orally, never writing down history or facts. This accounts for the extreme lack of knowledge about them prior to their contact with the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. They were generally well educated, particularly on topics such as religion, philosophy, geography and astronomy.
Celtic knots or Celtic interlace are ornamental patterns still found in many parts of Wales – primarily used to decorate Bible manuscripts, monuments (notably Celtic crosses and cross slabs) and jewellery. They probably were used in other media such as wood carving and textiles but these have not survived. Knotwork tradition in manuscript painting possibly came to Ireland in the middle of the 7th century in manuscripts illuminated by Coptic monks from Egypt or Syria.
The best evidence of style, coloring and methods of construction points to Middle Eastern prototypes. From Ireland the style spread to Scotland (in those days Pictland and Dalriada), Wales and Northumbria and with missionaries of the Celtic Church to Europe. Viking raiders later appropriated some of the design concepts into a more chaotic style of animal interlace.
St. David is the patron saint of Wales. He was a monk who lived on bread, water, herbs and leeks and died on March 1, 589 A. D.
The leek had been recognised as the emblem of Wales since the middle of the 16th century. Its association with Wales can in fact be traced back to the battle of Heathfield in 633 AD, when St. David persuaded his countrymen to distinguish themselves from their Saxon foes by wearing a leek in their caps.
It was decided that from 1984, British £1 coins would feature different reverse designs for each of the four parts of the United Kingdom. All £1 coins dated 1985 feature on the reverse the Welsh Leek.
Nowadays, the leek is worn on March 1 (St. David’s Day – the Welsh national holiday) and at Welsh rugby matches. The daffodil is also a Welsh national emblem because its Welsh name is translated as a type of leek.
All over Wales you will find wishing wells into which people still throw money. Some wishing wells are said to help your love life, others, tradition has it, can heal the sick.
A favourite souvenir for the tourists is a Welsh love spoon. They are made of wood and are carved very beautifully. Originally, they were made by young men as a love token for their sweethearts. There are many different designs demonstrating the skill and love of the hopefulsuitor. If the girl kept this present, all was well, but if she sent it back, she did not want him.
As in many other customs, the eating of food seems to have a lot to do with the choice of a spoon as a gift. The practice of using a particular utensil to eat led perhaps to the spoon’s being chosen, first for its utilitarian use, but then as a symbol of a desire to help one’s lover. No longer to be used for eating, the spoons were given long handles and could be hung on the wall as reminders or as decorations. Elaborate patterns and intricate designs began to proliferate, and Welsh love spoons began to appear in every conceivable size and shape, and in different kinds of wood.
The Red Dragon of Wales (y ddraig goch), although perhaps of Chinese origin, was introduced to Britain by the Romans some eighteen hundred years ago. Initially a military standard, in time this mythical beast developed into the flag of a nation. The Welsh may be the only people to have entered this millennium with the “same” flag as they entered the current one.
Today despite the dominance of its neighbour England, the people of Wales have never ceased to be Welsh. The language culture and flag have all survived. The Welsh flag is seen perhaps now more than ever before in its history. Abroad you will see the Welsh flag still following the Welsh Regiments in the Falklands, in the Gulf and in Bosnia. At home the Welsh flag is to be seen flying in most towns as well on a massive scale at Rugby matches and other national events.
Wales has always been known as a country of music and song. As well as the many male-voice choirs and famous rugby match singing, some of the greatest opera singers, like Geraint Evans, and pop singers, like Tom Jones, are also Welsh. Since the 12th century we have records of an annual competition (or Eisteddfod [ais’teSvad] in Welsh), which was held to find the best poets, writers and musicians in the country. Originally only professionals took part, but now the Eisteddfod is open to the public and, because all the events are in Welsh, it encourages a strong interest in the Welsh arts.
The Eisteddfod now includes local crafts, orchestral and brass band contests and even ambulance work! Many local communities organize their own Eisteddfod, and the National Eisteddfod is held in August each year, alternately in a northern or a southern town.
An International Eisteddfod (the international festival of folk-dancing and music) began in 1946, and no one expected much foreign interest. In fact fourteen countries took part.
Nowadays, the International Eisteddfod takes place in the second week of July at Llangollen [laen’goBlan] (this town is in North Wales). People from over thirty countries come to compete in choral singing, folk-singing and folk-dancing, and the little valley is full of thousands of visitors coming to listen and watch.
The Deities of Wales
Children of Don – One of the rival dynasties of Welsh mythology, and equated with the Tuatha de Danaan of Ireland, the Children of Don includes Gwydion, a warrior magician, and Aranrhod, sky goddess and symbol of fertility. Their sons were Dylan, associated with the sea, and Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Children of Llyr Bendigeidfran, Branwen and Manawydan, who appear in the story of ‘Branwen Daughter of Llyr.
Amaethon – The Welsh god of agriculture.
Arianrhod – Celtic earth goddess. She is the daughter of Don, sister of Gwydion.
Bran – Bran (“raven”), son of Llyr and Penarddun, and brother of Branwen and the sea god Manawydan, and half brother Nisien and Efnisien. He is a hero god and perhaps also the god of poetry and the underworld.
Branwen – Branwen is the Celtic goddess of love and beauty, also worshipped in Manx and Wales. She is the sister of Bran the Blessed and Manannan mac Lir, daughter of Lir, and wife of the Irish king Matholwch. After the death of her brother Bran, due to a war caused by her husband, Branwen died of a broken heart. She corresponds with Aphrodite and Venus.
Belatu-Cadros (Belatucadros) – The Celtic god of war and of the destruction of enemies. His name means fair shining one. The Romans equated him with their god Mars.
Caridwen – Mother of Taliesen, greatest and wisest of all the bards, therefore she is patron of poets. Caridwen corresponds with Brigit. She is connected with wolves, and some believe that her cult dates to the Neolithic era. Originally a corn goddess.
Dewi – An old Welsh god. The official emblem of Wales, a red dragon, is derived from the Great Red Serpent that once represented the god Dewi.
Dylan – Welsh sea god, brother of Lleu.
Gwydion – Welsh warrior and magician god. By his sister Arianrhod he fatherd Lleu and Dylan.
Lleu – Brother of Dylan, son of Arianrhod and Gwydion. Hero god who corresponds with the Irish Lugh. His festival, the Lugnasad, was held on the first day of August.
Pwyll – Prince of Dyfed (southwest Wales) who marries the Goddess Rhiannon and has a son Pryderi.
Rhiannon – Believed to be the Welsh counterpart of Gaulish horse goddess Epona. Her son, Pryderi, succeeded his father Pwyll as the ruler of Dyfed and of the otherworld.