Chapter 1

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The Beginning of Wales

The traveler to the British Isles soon becomes aware of distinct dialectal differences as he moves around from town to town and county to county. For example, the inhabitants of Liverpool in the Northwest use a dialect completely different from that of Manchester, only a few miles away. The Cockneys of London, in the Southeast, are well known for their equally colorful speech habits, documented early in the 20th century by George Bernard Shaw in such plays as "Major Barbara" and "Pygmalion" and later recorded in such Hollywood movies as "My Fair Lady."

It is something of a surprise to visitors, as they travel into Wales, over the centuries-old and much-worn ditch and earth-mound barrier known as "Offa's Dyke," for almost without warning they find themselves in areas where not only the dialects become incomprehensible, but where even the basic language itself has changed. The roadside signs "Croeso i Gymru" let it be known that one is now entering a new territory, inhabited by a different people, for the translation is "Welcome to Wales," written in one of the oldest surviving vernaculars in Europe. To account for the abrupt linguistic change, one must journey far, far back into history.

From evidence found in such caves as Paviland, in the Gower Peninsula in Southwest Glamorgan, and the Elwy Valley in Flintshire, it is known that the area now known as Wales was probably inhabited as early as 250,000 BC (the Lower Paleolithic Age), and hand-worked tools have been found at various sites that date from around 26,000 BC. It wasn't until the retreat of the glaciers during the Ice Age around 10,000 BC, however, that human settlement in any significant numbers could begin.

It was at that time that mainland Britain became an island, separated from the continent of Europe and the large island to the west that is now known as Ireland. Then, in what we call the Neolithic Age, just around 5,000 years ago, many settlers came over from the European continent and perhaps from Ireland. Their huge stone structures, the Megaliths and their chambered-tomb companions, the Cromlech, dot the landscape of much of southwestern Britain even today. The immensity of these undertakings points to the skills and ingenuity of their builders, even if time and weather have long since eroded evidence of their purpose.

These were the same people who built Stonehenge, perhaps their finest monument, certainly the best known, although even this is dwarfed by the huge circle at Avebury, not too far away. The inner circle of uprights at Stonehenge was formed of the so-called "blue stones" transported somehow from the mysterious heights of Preseli, far away in Southwest Wales, long considered a holy or magic mountain and still an area regarded with awe by the locals.

By 2,000 BC, people entering the island of Britain included those we now call the Beaker Folk, who it is believed came from the area of the Rhine River in Germany. Excavated battle axes, bronze knives and other weapons of war and hunting show us that these people were already quite expert with the use of metal, a skill they passed on to the native tribesmen.

By 1,000 BC, the Iron Age proper had arrived in Wales; there, its people grouped themselves into large hill forts for protection, such as are found at Tre'r Ceiri in the Llyn Peninsula. They seem to have practiced mixed, settled farming, but they also worked extensive copper mines, the remains of which can still be seen in such places as the Great Orme (Pen y Gogarth) Llandudno, Gwynedd. More advanced metalworking seems to have been introduced as a result of contact with the Halstatt culture of Austria, from an area near present-day Saltzburg.

This culture had benefited from prolonged contact with others in the Mediterranean area, whose use of the symbols and patterns so characteristic of Celtic design, is named La Tene, after a village on the shores of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. It was also at this time that the Celtic languages arrived in Britain, probably introduced by small groups of migrants. The advanced skills of the Celts seemed to have made them dominant in their new western homelands, despite their relatively few numbers. They were part of a great-unified Celtic "empire" encompassing many different people all over Northern Europe.

The Greeks called these people, with their organized culture and developed social structure, Keltoi, the Romans, Celtai. We call them Celts. In spite of the fact that they were perhaps the most powerful people in much of Europe in 300 BC, with lands stretching from Anatolia in the East to Ireland in the West, the Celts were unable to prevent inter tribal warfare. Their seeming lack of political unity, despite their fierceness in battle, ultimately led to their defeat and subjugation by the much better disciplined, and certainly much-better armed legions of Rome.

On the European continent, as a result of the administrative skills and military power of Rome, the majority of the Celtic languages eventually gave way to those stemming from Latin. Very few modern European languages can be derived from Celtic, despite its former widespread use. But in Britain, at least for a few hundred years after the Roman victories on mainland Europe, the Celts held on to much of their customs and especially to the distinctive language which has survived today as Welsh.

This language, used throughout most of Britain at the time of the Roman invasions (except in the far north where Pictish survived for a while) was derived from a branch of Celtic known as Brythonic: it later gave rise to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These differ from other Celtic languages derived from the branch known as Goidelic: namely, Irish, Scots, and Manx Gaelic (now confined to a western fringe in Ireland, to the north and west of Scotland, or to the history books as an extinct spoken tongue). Along with the new languages, new religions entered Britain, particularly that of the Druids, the guardians of traditions and learning and caretakers of shrines to the myriad Celtic gods and goddesses.

From what we know of the Druids, they did not commit their learning to writing, they glorified the pursuits of war, feasting and horsemanship. They controlled the calendar and the planting of crops and they presided over the religious festivals and rituals that honored local deities. They had nothing at all to do with the building of huge stone monuments such as Stonehenge and Avebury, in place long before their arrival.

Chapter 1 Continued

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