Fantasia Revisited

The internet has been alive with comments on the druidical ‘ordination’ of the next Archbishop of Canterbury. In a ceremony apparently invoking the ‘god and goddess’ (very PC) and the sheathing and unsheathing of a ceremonial sword (rather less so) Dr Williams donned garb from the dressing-up box and entered the Valhalla of Welsh culture.

To portray this event, as some have done, as proof of the involvement of the Welsh archbishop in a neo-pagan conspiracy is barking mad. But that does not mean that the event is devoid of a significance beyond itself. The significance surely lies in the way in which the self-proclaimed ‘victim’ status of certain groups or cultures encourages the development of their own fictional history.

If truth be told, we know next to nothing about the Celtic druids of old.

Posidonius may or may not have visited the Celtic lands in the second century BC. Both Caesar and Tacitus have axes to grind; and it would be a bold man who ascribed historical accuracy to their accounts of human sacrifice and the transmigration of souls. Much of this sounds like pandering to the more sensational sections of Roman literary taste.

But mere lack of firm evidence has predictably been unable to stifle the Celtic imagination.

The present Druidical ‘revival’ owes its origins to one Edward Williams (or Iolo Morganwyg, as he called himself.) A poor man’s James Macpherson, Williams claimed to have uncovered an ancient Welsh book of Druidic wisdom (The Barddas) which he duly ‘translated’. The first Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain, based on the book, was convened in 1792, on London’s Primrose Hill.

Though not as successful in his own lifetime as Macpherson (whose Ossianic forgeries fooled everybody but Dr Johnson, gained the enthusiastic plaudits of Goethe and were employed in the Napoleonic propaganda machine by Ingres), Williams/Moranwyg nevertheless bequeathed a heritage of Romantic mock-antiquity upon which his archiepiscopal namesake has now enthusiastically entered.

Readers of New Directions will be aware that this is not the only Romantic fiction which Rowan has mistaken for truth. The proponents of women’s ordination, of course, in the great tradition of Morganwyg and Macpherson, have been having their own creative way with the past.

GK

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