The lovely city of Cardiff sails past me as I ride a bus to London from Swansea, South Wales. I’ve been in the Swansea valley for about a month now…a city that gets a bad rap, like Liverpool or Pittsburgh used to before their rebirths. Industrial cities all three, abandoned by the national power structures but alive with people resilient, robust, and with scorching wit. Swansea, or Abertawe in Welsh, is the only one of those three that hasn’t quite made its resurrection but the heat and fire are rising and it’s only a matter of time now before the great phoenix wings explode into bright, soaring heights. Needless to say, I loved it there. Swansea is filled with music and the energy of artists—always the first to plant the seeds of growth and renewal in abandoned locations. I’m reminded of the call to action, “Plant Seeds and Sing Songs.” Like Oregon, I found a comfortable intergenerational rapport there and one always found time for a cup of tea and a few laughs. This was true everywhere I went in Wales, north and south, where magic is afoot and the old ways are just under the surface. Or in your face, fierce and beautiful. In the north one senses a razor sharpness even as everyone around me spoke soft and lilting Welsh. The North Welsh are very clear about not being English, whereas in the South there seems to be a more blended acceptance of the English. I also never heard Welsh spoken while anywhere in the South, although I know there are Welsh speakers there. But not like in the North where it's the first language. It's been in this latest generation where Welsh has really been reanimated, with nearly all schools in the North teaching in Welsh, which is compulsory for all state-educated students from five to sixteen. This has revived a language all but lost to the English domination of the area when, in the early 15th century, the last Welsh rebellion was stamped out by the English and the Welsh language was forbidden. This was more or less upheld until the Welsh Language Act of 1993, where it was established that "in the conduct of public business and the administration of justice in Wales the English and Welsh languages should be treated on a basis of equality" (Welsh English Language Act 1993, 21st of October, 1993). The early rebirth of the Welsh language is dated to about 1880, but the first seat in Parliament wasn't held until 1966. Welsh millennials and those who have come after them tend to be Welsh speakers now, particularly in the North. In any event, I was inspired by the ongoing determination to reclaim the original culture of the Welsh through language and traditions.
One such tradition was the The Mari Lwyd (Old or Grey Mare), with her skull bare to the moonlight she makes a midwinter journey, going from door to door, bringing fertility and good fortune to the community. The church all but killed this wassailing tradition that occurs between Christmas through to Twelfth Night but it lived on in the Swansea Valley and is being rejuvenated throughout Wales. The Horse pre-dates Christianity and can be connected to the Gallic Epona, the Irish Macha, and the Welsh Rhiannon, goddesses whose realms are healing, fertility, and death.
I was fortunate to be at a gathering on Twelfth Night when the Mari Lwyd made a visit to the gathering for three friends who shared a birthday, bringing with her good tidings for the year. She danced with us until the social club kicked us out and I, for one, felt the old ways meld with the new in a beautiful fusion of light-heartedness and serious magic. I think this combination of playfulness and seriousness is what I find most captivating about Wales. Freedom from an oppressive system using ancient methods, like returning to the source. I like that and seek to integrate this wisdom into my daily life.