What Is a Bard?
Diodorus Siculus Histories 8BCE
In ancient times a Bard was a poet and storyteller who had trained in a Bardic college. In modern times, a Bard is one who sees their creativity as an innate spiritual ability, and who chooses to nurture that ability partly or wholly with Druidism.
In ancient times the Bards were the keepers of tradition, of the memory of the tribe - they were the custodians of the sacredness of the Word. Although they probably represented the first level of training for an apprentice Druid, we should not make the mistake of thinking that a Bard was somehow in a lowly or inferior position. There were many levels of accomplishment, but the most skilled of Bards were held in high esteem and partook of many of the functions of both the Ovate and the Druid.
The training of a Bard was intense and lasted for many years. There were variations in the curricula between Scotland, Ireland and Wales. In Ireland it is recorded that the training lasted twelve years, with students undergoing the following rigorous curriculum:
In the first year, the student progressed from Principle Beginner [Ollaire] to Poet's Attendant [Tamhan] to Apprentice Satirisist [Drisac]. During this time they had to learn the basics of the bardic arts: grammar, twenty stories and the Ogham tree-alphabet.
Over the next four years, they learnt a further ten stories each year, a hundred ogham combinations, a dozen philosophy lessons, and an unspecified number of poems. They also studied dipthongal combinations, the Law of Privileges and the uses of grammar.
By their sixth year the student, if they had stayed the course, was called a Pillar [Cli] and would study a further forty-eight poems and twenty more stories. Over the following three years, they were termed a Noble Stream [Anruth] because 'a stream of pleasing praise issues from him, and a stream of wealth to him'. During this time they learnt a further 95 tales, bringing their repertoire up to 175 stories. They studied prosody, glosses, prophetic invocation, the styles of poetic composition, specific poetic forms, and the place-name stories of Ireland.
The final three years of their training entitled them to become an Ollamh, or Doctor of Poetry. In their tenth year the student had studied further poetic forms and composition, in their eleventh year 100 poems, and in their twelfth year 120 orations and the four arts of poetry. He or she was now the Master or Mistress of 350 stories in all.
As Ollamh, Doctor of Poetry, they were entitled to receive a gold branch. As Anruth, Noble Stream, they had carried a silver branch, and before that - throughout their training - they had carried a bronze branch. These branches had bells attached to them, so that as the poet strode into the hall to recite a poem or tell a tale, they would be accompanied by the sound of bells - warning the audience to become silent, and summoning the help of the inner realms to ensoul their poem or story.
In Wales and Scotland the training of a bard was similarly rigorous, although with different grades and a different curriculum.
How were the Bards trained?
Bardic schools formed around a Chief Poet and their attendants. A good deal of time was spent in learning by rote, to strengthen the memory and learn the fantastic number of tales and poems required of an accomplished bard.
Records from both the Western Highlands and Ireland show that much work was undertaken through the technique we would now term sensory deprivation. Their accommodation was spartan in the extreme, and much time would be spent incubating poems and seeking inspiration in total darkness. It is only recently that we have rediscovered, through the pioneering work of John Lilly, the fertile power of the darkness found in the isolation tank.
Their curriculum shows that they were accumulating in memory a vast store of stories and poems. But this was only half their work. They were training to become masters of both Record and Inspiration. It was only one of their tasks to record the lore, laws and genealogy of the Tribe. Just as important as performing this task of keeping alive tradition and heritage, they were entrusted with coming to a knowledge of the sacred power of the Word - manifest as the ability to become inspired and to inspire others. To carry the records of the tribe they needed to know the stories and poems which preserved the lineage and the lore of their people, but to be Masters or Mistresses of Inspiration they needed to compose their own poems and tales. It was for this reason that they practised sensory deprivation, and employed the arts of invocation. Such a training naturally awoke inner powers. A powerful memory, and an ability to plumb the depths and roam the heights of consciousness in search of inspiration and the creative flame, developed within the bard an ability to see into the future and influence the world around them in a way that foreshadowed the work of the Ovate and the Druid, and which allowed them to carry the spirit of Druidry through the centuries when the light of both the Ovate and the Druid could not be seen in the world.
It is fitting that this first level or grade of Druid training should so encompass both the Ovate and the Druid work. It seems that the Druid would concur with the opening words of John’s gospel: 'In the beginning was the Word'. The way in which the word could create, command, nourish, heal, cut through, purify, invoke, unite, provoke, deter and bind was a power that the Bard in their long training came to know and utilise in the service of their patron, their King or Queen, their Druid, and their God or Goddess.
O Hear the voice of the Bard
Who present, past and future sees
Whose ears have heard the holy Word
That walked among the ancient trees...
William Blake, First Song of Experience
Now that we know something of what the Bards did and how they were trained, we can ask ourselves what relevance Bardic work might have for us today.
In the training of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids, we begin our study in Druidry with the Bardic Grade – and this is deeply meaningful. Bardism is understood in its widest sense as the development of the artistic and creative Self, and its importance as a foundation for our lives and character and spiritual development is no less significant than it was thousands of years ago, and it could be argued that it is even more essential today than it was then. The clue to understanding why this should be so lies in the realisation that the historical Bards worked with Record and with Inspiration. one of the prime reasons for modern humanity’s sense of alienation lies in the fact that we have cut ourselves adrift from both the natural world and from the roots of our past. Practising Druidry is about healing this alienation - reconnecting to our past and to the world of nature. In the Bardic grade we open ourselves to the inspiration of the natural world, and we allow the mandala of the Eightfold Seasonal Cycle to be grounded in our beings. Working with Record means working with heritage, lineage, and the mythology and stories of the tribe – it helps us reconnect to the past.
Working with Inspiration means opening ourselves to our innate creativity. Many of the problems that we suffer from in the developed world result from our suppression and denial of the artistic - in all its forms. Modern brain research shows that for most of us, our primary mode of functioning comes from the dominant cerebral hemisphere, which mediates the function of analytical thinking. The opposite hemisphere has less of a say in our current way of living - it is the hemisphere that mediates the synthesising, non-analytic forms of thought and expression: it is the part of the brain considered responsible for artistic expression. It is generally agreed that to become complete we need to allow both sides of ourselves adequate opportunities for development and expression. This truth was expressed by the Alchemists (and there is a strong tradition of Alchemy within Druidry) and later by Carl Jung (whose work first began to influence modern Druidry through Ross Nichols). Jung developed his theory of the personal animus and anima - male and female aspects of the psyche - which for our development need to relate and periodically conjoin. Alchemists knew of the importance of this conjunction, and they termed it the Mystical Marriage or the Mysterium Coniunctionis.
Our education has, for the most part, concentrated on developing our skills of analytical and mathematical thinking, but when we enter the Bardic Way, we begin a process that develops our less dominant hemisphere. We open ourselves to the artistic, the creative self. This is no simple task, and in a way typical of Druidry, the work is undertaken in an apparently round-about way. Through working with the eightfold festival scheme, and with the power of the four elements that are allocated to the cardinal points in the sacred circle of Druid working, the Bard is brought to a stage where they have acknowledged and worked with the four aspects of their being - represented by Earth, their practicality and sensuality; Water, their receptivity and feelings; Air, their reasoning; and Fire their intuition and enthusiasm. As these four elements and parts of the Self are explored and harmonised, the Bard finds him or herself naturally opening to their inner creativity. Gradually the resources of their body and heart, mind and intuition become more fully available to guide and inspire them.
By working in this way, we learn to by-pass the rational mind, which so loves to create limits to understanding. To be able to operate, the intellect creates distinctions, categories, mental constructions - through which experience can be comprehended and acted upon. This is essential for our survival and progress in the world. The problems arise when this ability to create frames of reference is not counter-balanced by the ability to transcend these frames and open oneself to the trans-rational - the inexplicable-in-words-but-no-less-true. Poetry and music are supremely competent at helping us to go beyond frames and viewpoints. Sound - spoken, sung or played - stretches our boundaries, opens horizons, invokes energies that the intellect alone cannot grasp or categorise with its workings. Here is the power of the Bard - to dissolve our boundaries, our frames of reference - even if only for a moment.
Take this poem, by the modern Bard Jay Ramsay:
Behind and in everything -
Valley - kestrel - celandine:
You nowhere, and in everything -
And being nothing, being silenced,
Being unable to speak
You see everything,
And I see You
And I see I am
The core I am seeing:
The sun closening
To meet the man
Who has crossed the line,
Who has walked out of himself
Stands ahead there,
Naked in the light.
One's mind cannot fully grasp the power of such a poem - one is impacted by the force of the words and imagery in a way that defies description or explanation. This is the work of poetry - of the bard. To go beyond. To travel. To bring back. Professor Michael Harner, a world authority on shamanism, speaks of the shamanic way as one which is best defined as a method to open a door and enter a different reality . This is precisely what happens with powerful and effective poetry.
The difference between 'secular' poetry writing, reading and reciting and the same activities undertaken in the spirit of bardism is that in the latter this shamanic process is consciously acknowledged and worked with. Creativity and inspiration are seen as gifts of the Gods, as powers entering the vessel of the Self through the Superconscious. Appropriate preparation, ritual, visualisation, prayer and meditation create the channels through which such generative, creative power can flow. In Druidry this power is known as Awen, which is Welsh for ‘Inspiration’ or ‘Flowing Spirit’.
The relevance of this work to the contemporary artistic scene is clear: when art became secularised what it gained in freedom of expression, it lost in depth of inspiration. Now we have turned full circle and are able to spiritualise our art once again - freed at last from the limitations of religious dogma. The potential for enhanced creativity is immense when we recontextualise our creativity in terms of the sacred. Previously this involved being bound by Christian themes and dogma. Now it means recognising the sacredness, not only of the Spirit, but of the Earth, and the four elements, and of our body and sexuality too.
The Bardic stream is not simply a body of knowledge we once possessed and which we attempt to regain - it is a spiritualised mode of artistic creative consciousness which is dynamic and living - the future holds as much, if not greater promise than the past.
In addition to reciting poetry and story-telling, the Bards undoubtedly made music and danced. There are intriguing stories of Druid dances remembered in Brittany, and it is possible that traces of this early sacred and celebratory dancing is contained within Morris dancing, the Abbot's Bromley Horn dance and other folk dances. Our challenge is to rediscover the music, chants and dances of the Druids - by contacting the archetypal sources of inspiration within. These sources are transpersonal and out-of-time. They fed the Druids in the past and they can feed us now. We know some of the instruments they probably would have used: in the early days of animistic proto-Druidry they would most likely have used flutes made from birds’ bones (eagle bone flutes have been found in Scotland). They would probably have banged stones on hollow ringing rocks, which produce a bell-like sound. The Dord, a form of horn, with a sound like the Australian Aborigine's didgeridoo was clearly a sacred instrument of the Bronze Age, as were almost certainly an animal-skin drum which later evolved into the bodhran, and the claves - two sticks of wood banged together to produce a rhythm alone or counterpoised with that of the drum.
Those who choose to explore Druidry by entering the Bardic course of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids open themselves to what it means to be living on the earth with the ability to be creative. Although this is the first stage of Druid training, its purpose reaches to the very heart of Druidry - which is the development of an intimate knowledge of the powers of generation - at the Bardic level this involves the generation of creative works - of music, song, poetry and art in all its forms.
In common with oral indigenous spiritual traditions the world over, the ancient Druids encoded their teachings in story form. The Bards learnt these stories and were therefore able to preserve the memory of the teachings across the centuries, despite the fact that they were never written down. Fortunately for us, the Christian scribes recorded these tales, and even though some details may have been omitted or distorted, we can still discern the teachings of the Druids encoded within them. one such story is the Tale of Taliesin, which recounts the progress of a young boy who eventually becomes the finest Bard in the land. He does this by drinking three drops of Awen – inspiration – from the cauldron of the Goddess Ceridwen.
In the home-learning programme of the Order, as we enter the Bardic Grade we are told this story and then are invited to explore it in depth over a year, since encoded within the tale is an entire curriculum that shows each of us how we can become the ‘finest bard’. The story of the young person’s journey towards a full flowering of their creativity interacts with our own personal story, gradually helping to release the Bard, the Creative Self, within.
The tree which represents the Bardic Grade is the Birch - appropriately it is the first tree of the Druid’s Ogham tree-alphabet, and the tree which represents new beginnings, pioneering and giving birth. The West is the place of the Bard. It is from the West that we enter the circle in Druid ceremonies, and the West is therefore the place of Entrance, of beginnings - the receptive, feminine West that faces the East of the Dawn Ray. The times associated with the Bardic Grade are the Spring, and Dawn - times when we are fresh and ready to begin a new cycle of learning and experience.
See the section on the Order's Honorary Bards
Adapted from Druid Mysteries by Philip Carr-Gomm
Explore the significance of the Druid seasonal celebrations
Explore the practice of meditation in Druidry and listen to sample meditations
Explore the significance of sacred animals in the Druid tradition