The Welsh word eistedd means 'to sit' so an eisteddfod (pronounced eyestethvod) is literally 'a sitting'. The purpose of the sitting is to listen to stories, songs and poetry, and later, to watch dancing. The people reciting the stories and poems and singing the songs were the bards. At a time before writing, history was oral. The bards' task was to keep the history alive by retelling it and praising the leader's great deeds.
In the mid twelfth century Rhys ap Gruffydd gained control of Deheubarth and caused enough trouble for Henry II that he granted him the title 'Lord of Ystrad Tywi'. He had a good ear for music and patronised poets, who wrote verses proclaiming him a man of power and humility. In a period of peace he held a bardic tournament with prizes for music and poetry, at Christmas 1176.
This event is considered to be the very first eisteddfod, and contained many things in the modern event, including being announced a year in advance. Minstrels and bards were invited from far and wide to compete in Cardigan Castle. The winners for poetry and music were presented with chairs, and today the chairing of the bard is still the climax of the event.
A man from from Gwynedd in north Wales won the poetry chair, and a son of Eilon the Crythwr from Rhys's own court won the music chair. Important bardic tournaments continued to be held right up until Henry VIII's Act of Union, when Welsh culture declined.
In 1819, the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain held a special ceremony at the Ivy Bush Hotel in Carmarthen, and marched through the town in full regalia. This was the impetus for the eisteddfod to become a more significant force in Welsh culture.
Today, the Welsh National Eisteddfod is held at a different site every year, alternating between north and south Wales.
There is also an Urdd Eisteddfod, which is for the young people, and encourages their creativity. It is one of Europe’s largest youth touring festivals.