1.  The Heritage of the Celts

1.1 Celtic Music in Pre-Christian Times

We have no reliable Celtic record about Celtic music in very early times, but are de­pendent upon contemporary Greek and Roman historians who above all describe the Celts in Gallia. However the Brythons (the Gauls who came over to Britain) were certainly not very different from the Gauls on the mainland.[1]

Diodorus Siculus wrote: “They have poets whom they call bards, who sing songs of eulogy and of satire, accompanying themselves on instruments very like the lyre.“ [2]

Caesar knew the institution of the druids in Britain, in which the bards played an im­portant role. It is pretty sure that among the British Celts there was an order of leading musicians and poets.[3]

Athenaeus writes about Celtic singers: “These men sing their praises before large as­semblies, and also to any individual who cares to listen to them. They have also a class known as Bards, who play the music. These, too, are poets and set out their virtues in odes.“ [4]

Music and poetical work seem to have been deeply rooted in the Celtic tribes. After the departure of the Romans the Welsh nation was formed from the mixing of the Goidelic and Brythonic members of the population. Among Welsh tribesmen were skilled poets and musicians. The Welsh expressions “bardd“ (poet), “cerddor“ (musician [artist]), “crwth“ (crowd), “telyn“ (harp), “cathl“ (song) etc. are of purely Celtic origin.[5] The poems and songs were of course passed on only by word of mouth.

We find the best descriptions of Welsh culture in the work of Gildas (mid 6th century). He writes that Maelgwyn, a patron of native poetry and music, was surrounded on state occasions at Degannwy by 24 bards.[6]

One of the most famous bards of the 6th century was apparently Taliesin. He sang songs of eulogy, and he probably accompanied himself on the ‘telyn’ or harp.[7]

The poem ,Gododin‘ (believed to have been written by Aneirin) originates from this

age. In this poem it is said that “minstrels existed who sang the praises of famous men, and in return obtained their patronage”.[8] 

The duties of the bards were: to play the harp and sing at weddings, funerals, games and other festivities, or to sing songs of praise to honour heroes – these were held to be sacred.[9]


[1] cf. Williams, W. S. G., Welsh National Music and Dance, London, J. Curwen & Sons, 1933, p. 4
[2]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 5
[3]
cf. Caesar, Gallic War, Book VI, Chap XIV, as cited in Williams, W.S.G., p. 6
[4] cf. Fragmenta Historicum Graecorum, Vol III, pp. 259-60, as cited in Williams, W.S.G., p. 6
[5]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 12
[6]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 12
[7]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 13
[8]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 14
[9]
cf. Bingley, W., North Wales; including its Scenery, Antiquities, Customs, London, T. N. Longman and  O. Rees, 1804, Vol. II, Chapter XXV: Sketch of the History of the Wels Bards and Music, 312-314

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