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John Michael Greer4 min

The Coelbren of the Bards

by John Michael Greer A bardic alphabet from Welsh tradition is reborn as a divination oracle for today The leaves were turning their fall colours on Primrose Hill in London as a line of people filed out of a pub and walked together through the streets toward the hilltop. Most of them were young, and all of them wore the colourful clothes that were fashionable just then; some had ribbons, blue, green, or white, tied around their right arms above the elbow. Passers-by looked on in bemusement as the group reached the hilltop and formed a circle. The leader of the group, a forty-something man in a bright blue coat whose unruly brown hair fluttered around his face in the breeze, went to the centre of the circle and called out:  “Is there peace?” The people in the circle responded together,  “Peace.” The celebration of the autumn equinox had begun.  Many people alive today remember similar happenings in the London counterculture scene of the 1960s and 1970s. A few people remember that such things also happened back in the 1920s. This particular ceremony, however, took place on September 23, 1792. On that day George III was on the English throne, France was wracked by revolutionary violence, and George Washington was near the end of his first term as President of the newly United States. This was the world into which Iolo Morganwg launched what he claimed were the teachings of the ancient Welsh bards.  Iolo’s real name was Edward Williams.  A stonemason’s son born in 1747 in rural Glamorganshire, he spent his teen years studying with some of the few Welsh poets who kept the old bardic verse forms alive.  An addiction to laudanum and a habit of putting poetry ahead of making a living kept him in poverty for much of his life, and led him to write verse in medieval Welsh and pass it off as the work of famous poets of the past—a habit that has done nothing to endear him to the world of scholarship.  To this day no one is quite sure how much of the material he “collected” and published was his own invention, and how much of it came from his encyclopedic knowledge of old Welsh literature and his many journeys through Wales in search of lost manuscripts. One way or another, he produced reams of material, and one of the central themes of his lore was an alphabet called the Coelbren of the Bards.  The Coelbren, according to Iolo, was invented in primeval times by the mythic loremaster Menw, Son of the Three Shouts, and took many forms over the course of Welsh history.  The most widely used form had 24 letters.  The Coelbren letters look a little like runes, but the resemblance is accidental; runes and Coelbren alike have the shapes they do to make them easy to scratch or carve into wood or stone.  If Iolo invented the Coelbren, he did a good job of imitating that feature of his alphabet.  Like the runes, each of the Coelbren letters also has a meaning.  Those meanings were lost for many years after Iolo’s time, and was only preserved in an obscure book on Welsh poetic grammar written by one of Iolo’s pupils, the Welsh bard and minister Rev. John Williams ab Ithel. Once this book became available in internet archives, the secret meanings of the Coelbren letters were easy to rediscover—and they turned out to be based on an unexpected principle.  The secret of the Coelbren isn’t a matter of letter names with meanings, like those of the runes.  Rather, the Coelbren letters take their symbolic meanings directly from the sounds they represent, and from the shapes made by the mouth in the process of pronunciation. Try a few examples and it’s easy to see how this works.  If you speak the sound “aah” and pay attention while you do it, you’ll find that your mouth is open and relaxes, so that the sound flows smoothly and easily.  That’s what the Coelbren letter A, which is pronounced “ah,” means: proceeding onward smoothly, continuing in a current state. Now say the sound “eh,” and feel the difference; your throat is constricted and your tongue moves back as though to block the sound.  That’s what the Coelbren letter  E, which is pronounced “eh,” means:  motion stopped, interrupted, or broken off.  For another example, make the sound “mmm.”  Notice how your lips touch, closing off an open space inside your mouth.  The Coelbren letter Mi, which is pronounced “m,” means enclosing, embracing, or surrounding.  Now make the sound “nnn.” Here the position of the mouth is very different, with the tip of the tongue pressed against the roof of the mouth, as though pointing out one thing.  The Coelbren letter Ni, which is pronounced “n,” means an individual item or object, something pointed out among others.   All this makes it possible to use the Coelbren alphabet for all the purposes of a sacred script. Like the runes, the Ogham, the Hebrew and Greek alphabets, and more, it has a rich symbolism that can be put to work in spiritual practice in many ways.  One of those ways, of course, is as a divination oracle.  It’s possible that the Coelbren may originally have been used in this way by Iolo Morganwg and his students—the word coelbren itself is medieval Welsh for “omen stick.”  What is more certain, though, is that it makes an effective and accurate oracle for spiritual purposes as well as the questions of everyday life. Now that its meanings have been recovered, the Coelbren can reclaim its place as one of the classic oracles of the Celtic tradition. 

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer is the award-winning author of more than fifty books. An initiate in Freemasonry, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, Greer served as the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). His book, Coelbren: Traditions, Divination Lore, and Magic of the Welsh Bardic Alphabet – Revised and Expanded Edition (£16.99) promises to reveal the secrets of the esoteric druidic alphabet and unlock its potential as a powerful magical tool.