EISTEDDFOD SANGAM in South Africa
Dr Cyril A. Hromnik
INDO-AFRICA, 4, North Oak, 12 Dulwich Road, Rondebosch 7700, Cape Town, S.Africa.
I, remember how many years ago my daughter Iracema, then a pupil at Rustenburg Girls Primary School, was busily preparing for her first appearance in the eisteddfod. It was a new thing for me, for I had grown up in Communist Czechoslovakia where anything as competitive and bourgeois as eisteddfod was never even mentioned. In the following years I attended many eisteddfodau with my daughter, realising that this Welsh, and as many would say, Druidic competition of arts, had ancient roots and was well alive throughout the Anglo-Saxon world. Eisteddfod came to Johannesburg in 1896 and the newly-formed National Eisteddfod soon had its branches in the Cape and Natal. Pupils from a majority of schools in South Africa participate and compete in eisteddfod, but this competition is enjoying its greatest popularity in Indian schools, even though there it was introduced by the Natal Vedic Society only in 1963. Why is it so? Where from this enthusiasm? Are Indians better Brits than the Brits themselves? No one can tell, but many agree that it is so, as if there were something in eisteddfod that appeals to the deepest artistic feelings of the Indian people.
The Welsh tradition
"The Eisteddfod in its present character appears to have originated in the time of Owain ap Maxen Wledig, who at the close of the 4th century was elected to the chief sovereignty of the Britons on the departure of the Romans," so we are told by the 9th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. But the modern Eisteddfod is much more ancient and the Welsh Triads tell us, that it sprung from the much earlier "Gorsedd or assembly," which dates at least "to the time of Prydain the son of Aedd the Great, who lived many centuries before the Christian era." During the Roman times, while the Druids were still influential, the tradition of "Chairs" is said to have been added, the usages and laws regulating the Gorsedd were codified, and the motto of Y gwir yn erbyn y byd (The truth against the world)" was given to the Eisteddfod.
The earliest recorded eisteddfod seems to have been convened by Maelgwn Gwynedd, prince of North Wales, in the 6th century. Following the demise of the Druids, the Eisteddfod gradually declined, but it was revived in the early 12th century by the prince of North Wales, Griffith ap Cynan. He opened the Eistedfodd to the bards, harpers and minstrels of England and Scotland and invited many musicians from his native Ireland who "greatly improved the music of Wales." The Eisteddfod held in Cardigan Castle at Christmas 1107 saw the best bards, harpers and minstrels that could be found "in all Wales," and their host Cadwgan, prince of Powys, "gave them chairs and subjects of emulation according to the custom of the feasts of King Arthur." What were these "chairs?" The Eisteddfod went truly international when it convened on the banks of the Conway in 1176, at the court of Lord Rhys in Cardigan, South Wales. The tradition survived, with ups and downs, ever since and all the way to the present times. Throughout the centuries eisteddfod provided a platform for Welsh and broadly Britonic bards to display their arts and to compete in singing, playing musical instruments and reciting poetry.
In 1819, at the eisteddfod held at Carmarthen, a throne called the Gorsedd of Bards is said to have been introduced by Edward Williams alias Iolo Morganwg, a stonemason from Glamorgan, and this, in time, became identified with the megalithic dolmens, especially with the greatest of them all in Great Britain, the famous Stonemason. The idea was received with great enthusiasm and miniature Stonehenges were build all over Wales. The eisteddfod at Stonehenge used to take place around the mid-summer solstice (June 21). The crowds drawn to Stonehenge grew each year and with them the inevitable unruly behaviour . Eventually, the Druidic orgies at Stonehenge had to be abolished in 1964, and when I wanted to observe this ancient temple/observatory at sunrise and sunset on mid-summer day in 1994, I was prevented by sixteen armed guards stationed around the monument. The whole idea was discredited and ridiculed, and this is reflected in Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (1968) where gorsedd is defined as "a mock druidical institution established in the late 18th century that assembles twice a year for the granting of bardic degrees and the conferring of bardic titles." The 9th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Gorsedd as "assembly." Which of the two is correct? Neither!
The essential constituent elements of all eisteddfodau were and still are the musical and literary competitions adjudicated by a board of judges, whose sole purpose was/is to decide who of the thousands of performers was/is the best or the truest bard. In other words, eisteddfod aims to find the best, the essential, the true art. This function should be reflected in the meaning of the name eisteddfod; but it is not. Webster's Dictionary (1968) derives eisteddfod from the Welsh eistedd 'to sit' or 'session' and bod 'to be'. In this reading eisteddfod would mean "seated be", a notion so general that it could never have been applied to such specific activity as was the bardic competition and adjudication. Obviously, in this instance, Webster's and all other English dictionaries which offer a similar definition have failed to enlighten us. How otherwise could they give practically the same meaning to two very different Welsh words, eistedd said to mean 'session' and gorshedd to mean 'assembly'?
Druidic or bardic?
The Eisteddfod tradition is today considered to be Druidic in origins, but in fact it stems from Bardic roots, and there is a significant difference between the two. The Bardic tradition predates the Druidic (which is Indo-European) and in Ireland reaches to the mythological times of the men-like/god-like Tuatha de Danaan, who mysteriously lurk behind the more historical British Picts and Irish Cruithni. Probably the oldest bard on record, mentioned in the Ultonian Cycle of tales of legends, is Eisirt, the bard of lubdan, the King of "Faylinn, or the Land of the wee Folk, a race or elves" or dwarfish people.
The name Eisirt means nothing in Welsh or Gaelic, which were the languages spoken by the Druids. Eisirt is a compound name, the first part of which, Ei-we recognise in the word eisteddfod. This is not surprising because eisteddfod was a bardic institution. The second part,- sirt, we recognise in the Tamil word for a bard sarittirap padalkal, which can literally be translated as the 'songster of history or biography' or as a 'songster of good conduct'. And here we have an indication that a kind of relationship, a kind of contact must have existed between the ancient Dravidian Tamils and the pre-Druidic Irish and the Welsh. That at one time, all three of them used the word saritai, meaning 'history', in their term for 'a bard', even though today the Irish call him bard, the Welsh bardd or prydydd, while the Tamils alone retain the original root sarit. But the legendary bard Eisirt proves beyond any doubt that the Tamil sarit-was once used in Cornwall, Wales and Ireland. And who is this Eisirt? Reading this name in Tamil we get the answer: Eisirt is Ey-saritai, that is 'One who Understands History'. It was a bardic duty to understand and memorise the history.
Who understands history can judge it and can decide about it, and 'to decide' is the second meaning of the Tamil ey. This brings us back to eisteddfod, which begins with ei- or ey-. The second part of this compound word, stedd is easily recognisable in the Tamil sattu meaning 'truth' or 'essence'. Finally, the last part- fod can be recognised only when we realise that instead of the letter 'f' Tamil uses 'p', hence Tamil podi, 'a group' is the nearest source word of the Welsh fod. Reconstituting the word from its three Tamil components we get the form ey- sattu-podi, which is the apparent source of the Welsh eisteddfod, with the meaning 'a Group to Decide about the truth'. And this is a precise description of the Bardic eisteddfod, which was 'a literary and musical competition of bards adjudicated by a group of judges', who decided whose artistry was the truest and hence the best.
The Victorious Bards
Meanwhile, what will be the prizes won by the competing bards at the forthcoming eisteddfod? Gold certificates. That won by the ancient bards were different. They received "chairs" (as late as 1107), later 'silver chairs" (1451), and even later "a silver chair" for the winning bard and "a silver harp" for the winning musicians (in 1567). No explanation is available as to what was the meaning of these "chairs", but they were called Gorsedd or Gorsedd of Bards. Encyclopaedia Britannica speculates that "the chairs was a kind of convention where disciples were trained, and bardic matters discussed preparatory to the great Gorsedd ". Hence it was not a real four-legged chair. However, presently, there are four chairs in Wales, each with a distinctive motto: "A laddo a laddir (He that slayeth shall be slain)", reads the motto of the "royal" chair or powys; 2. Duw a phob daioni (God and all goodness)" is that of the chair of Gwent and Glamorgan; 3. "Galon wrth galon (Heart with heart)" is the motto on the chair of Dyfed; 4. "Iesu or O Iesu! na'd gamwaith (Jesus, or Oh Jesus! suffer not iniquity" is the motto of Gwynedd, or North Wales. If there is a common denominator to this mottoes, it must be 'Victory'. Gorsedd-Victory Chair? Yes indeed! "The great day of the Eisteddfod was the 'chair' day - usually the third or last day-the grand event of the Eisteddfod being the adjudication on the chair subject and the chairing and investiture of the fortune winner. Victory in Eisteddfod "is the highest object of a Welsh bard's ambition." This, however, is not implied by the alleged root of the Welsh word Gorsedd, which is said to be 'station' and 'throne', or even 'court' and 'mound'.
The real root of Gorsedd can be recognised in the Welsh word gorchfygwr for 'victor' (lit. 'victorious man'), where from comes the prefix gor 'super-' or 'over-' and the adjective gorau 'best'. The best man is victor and, once again, the source word is the Tamil gorr-avan for 'victor' and gorr-am for 'victory'. Its root meaning is noble and generous: 'bravery', 'strength', 'sovereignty', and the same root in a Welsh adjective from gorchestol means 'excellent', 'masterly'. Interestingly enough, the Welsh do not form their word for 'victory' from the same root. Instead, they use the root budd, with a meaning, selfish or 'profit','benefit', 'gain'. As a result, there are two words for 'victor' in Welsh, one based on the Tamil gorr - gorchfygwr, describing the victor as 'excellent' and 'masterly', and the other, based on the Welsh budd- buddugwr, describing the victor as 'profit making'. The ancient eisteddfod men ('a Group to Decide about the Truth') rightly preferred the Tamil word to describe the chair of the eisteddfod victor. They, in fact, may have had no choice, because at that early time, possibly long before the Celtic settlement in Britain in the 7th century BC, the original Dravidian or rather Pictish bard knew not the Celtic word budd for 'profit'. The Welsh word for 'seat' sedd in Gorsedd is an obvious derivative from the Latin sedes for 'seat', giving to Gorsed the meaning of Victor's Seat, not a bard's seat as is commonly but erroneously believed. Not every bard, only the victors, were awarded "chair" or the silver gorsedd (chair). But it is also possible, that sedd is only a Roman or Welsh reading of the Tamil word sedan, which means 'a great man'. In this case, the Welsh Gorsedd, or the less corrupted Tamil gorr-sedan, would simply be 'a victorious great man', a great winning bard, which would make more sense, and the eisteddfodian 'chair' would become a figment of Roman misunderstanding and of the post-Roman druidic fantasy. It does not really make sense to give a chair to the victorious Eisteddfod bard.
This explanation of the origin and meaning of the Eisteddfod and Gorsedd may not go well with those who trust the infallible authority of Webster's or Oxford dictionaries but Tamil 'bard's competing in the next Eisteddfod later this year (3-4 May in the Transvaal and the finals in June/July in Natal) may take comfort and encouragement in the knowledge that they are in fact taking part in a Tamil competition that was brought in ancient times to the isles of Britain and Ireland from Dravidian India. The historical process which made the transfer of this tradition possible is too complex to be explained here, but it is within our grasp and will be explained elsewhere. Meanwhile, the linguistic argument based on the apparent cognate relationship between the Tamil ey-sattu-podi and the Welsh eisteddfod, and between the Tamil gorr-sedan and the Welsh gorsedd is so strong, that it can stand on its own. It is up to the Indian scholars to rediscover the Indian prototype of the pre-Druidic, Welsh and Irish eisteddfod.
The most likely candidate is the ancient Tamil Sangam -the literary academy or arts, of which there were three in the millennia preceding the Anno Domini and preceding the beginnings of modern Indian history. The earliest commentary on the subject (ca. AD 750) claims that the Three Sangams of Madurai lasted, with some breaks in between, for 9,990 years. They all survive very vividly in the traditions of Tamil Nadu and there still is a Sangam temple in the south-west part of Lord Somasundaresvara temple in Madurai. The earliest Sangam academy is said to have been attended "by gods and lagendary sages," but none of its works have survived to our times. The early Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam is attributed to the Second Sangam. The Third Sangam produced, among other works, the "Eight Anthologies" known as Ettutogai, which survive to our days even though they are little known outside the Dravidian India. To propagate this classical Tamil literature overseas as Indo-Czechoslovak project was launched in 1981 by the International Tamil Research Institute in Madras and my alma mater, the Charles University in Prague.
The periodical meetings of the three Sangams are generally imagined as academic sessions of poets, but it is more likely, as A.L. Basham has suggested, that Dravidian bards or sarittirap padalkal of the ancient Tamil Nadu, "who wandered over the country enjoying the patronage of chieftains and villagers alike, would meet from time to time in the city of Madurai for great festivals of poetry and music, "and this was called Sangam , 'a gathering, 'a get-together', 'an assembly'. Inadvertently, but subconsciously reflecting the continuity from Sangam to Eisteddfod and Gorsedd the meaning of 'assembly' has mistakenly been attributed to the name Gorsedd. Bards attending a Sangam spent days sitting together in sessions, which most probably explains why the Tamil word ey-sattu-, associated with such sessions was corrupted into the Welsh eistedd, which meaning of 'to sit' and 'a seat' and the form eisteddfod acquired the meaning of 'a session'. Eistedd, with these meanings, does not exist either in Irish Gaelic or in Breton where it should be expected had it been a Celtic word, leaving the only option that it is a borrowing from as yet unidentified language, which obviously, must have been the Tamil.
The live wire of the Tamil Sangam leads elsewhere. A competition that must have naturally developed among the bards and minstrels participating in a Sangam had to be adjudicated by a board of knowledgeable and honest judges. Thus came into existence the Tamil ey-sattu-podi and its Welsh champion eisteddfod, bot with the meaning of 'a Group to Decide about the Truth (of bardic art)". Sangam survived in the traditions of the Dravidian East while its western offshoot Eisteddfod thrived in the Bardic tradition of Wales. In 1963 the two traditions met in the South African land of rebirth, Natal, where Eisteddfod Sangam has been thriving among the Tamils ever since.
Eisteddfod conveys the idea of competition, Sangam conveys the meaning of 'union', 'friendship and love'. This bodes well for the future of the resurrected Eisteddfod Sangam. The concept is not strange to the Nguni and other Bantu languages-speaking people of South Africa either. The Tamil Sangam is readily recognisable in the Shona word ma-sanga 'meeting' and ma-sangano 'gathering of people', 'meeting of two rivers'. The same we find in the Xhosa, swati and Zulu umhlangano for 'gathering' and hlangana', 'to unite'. This means that Tamil Sangam had been planted in ancient Southern Africa as well, and the seed has survived. Masanga is the 'Greeting by one traveller to another (both being strangers to each other)' in the ancient Gold Land of MaShonaland, Zimbabwe. And there lies a great potential for the South Africa Eisteddfod Sangam. It can bring together in friendship the seemingly varied but historically united peoples of South Africa.
Return to Front Page