What Is an Ovate?
In ancient times an Ovate was a prophet, seer, healer and diviner. In modern times, an Ovate is one who studies or practices herbalism, healing and divination within a Druidic context, or who has entered the Ovate level of training within a Druid Order.
Lucan, in the above quotation, is addressing Druids generally, but it is an appropriate quotation to open our study of the Ovates, for it was they who, to the greatest degree, were responsible for understanding the mysteries of death and rebirth, for transcending time - for divining the future, for conversing with the Ancestors - travelling beyond the grave to bring augury and counsel to those still living on earth.
If the Bards were shamans in Michael Harner's understanding of the term because they opened doors with the power of the Word, then the Ovates deserve the term shaman even more so - for they open the doors of Time.
From a study of the classical authors, a general categorisation of the three different grades accords the arts to the bards, the skills of prophecy and divination to the Ovates and philosophical, teaching, counselling and judicial tasks to the Druid.
The Ovates, then, were seers and diviners, travellers in Time, and it seems likely that they were also healers, herbalists and midwives. The English word ‘Ovate’ comes from the various terms used by the classical writers: Vates, Uatis, Euhages, which may derive from the Indo-European root uat, ‘to be inspired or possessed’. The classical author Strabo described the Ovate as ‘an interpreter of nature’. It was the Ovates who were skilled in reading omens and divining auguries – whether from the flight of birds, the shape of clouds, or the behaviour of animals or the weather – and it was the Ovates whose task it probably was to heal, using their knowledge of herbs and spells to cure disease in humans and livestock. The Ovate seems, in many ways, to conform to the type of person most people would describe as a Witch, and it is certainly possible that when Druidry went underground with the coming of Christianity, the Ovate stream may have become a source that fed later generations of healers and followers of the Old Ways, until they came to be known as the Cunning Folk– healers who could still be found in villages in Britain up until the 1930s. And it is quite possible that these Cunning people were in fact the Witches of modern popular perception.
The Ovate as master or mistress of prophecy and divination needed, and still needs today, a reorientation in relation to Time. To travel within time - to read the Akashic Records as some would term it, requires a conception of its nature and dynamics that is radically different to post-Enlightenment thinking, and more akin to the understanding now being offered by the New Physics.
The belief in the cyclicity of life, as we shall see in the next chapter, was fundamental to the world-view of the ancient Druids. In common with the Hindus, the Druids believed in reincarnation. Caesar, in De Bello Gallico says of the Druids:'The cardinal doctrine which they seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one to another; and this belief, as the fear of death is thereby cast aside, they hold to be the greatest invective to valour.' Diodorus quotes Posidonius when he says that the Druids held that 'the souls of men are immortal, and that after a definite number of years they live a second life when the soul passes to another body.' And Philostratus of Tyana in the second century noted that the Celts believed that to be born in this world, we have to die in the Otherworld, and conversely, that when we die here, our birth into the Otherworld should be celebrated.
Now we can understand how the Ovates were able to conceive of time-travel. The Realm of the Ancestors was not the realm of people dead-and-gone - it was the repository of tribal wisdom - the realm in which the Ancestors lived whilst awaiting reincarnation and to which the Ovate could turn for guidance and inspiration on behalf of the tribe. The experience of the shaman is one in which they undergo some type of death but return to life - only this time knowing the inner soul-geography. In the past, this experience of returning to life from the realm of death was a rare occurrence. Today, with sophisticated techniques for reviving the body the experience is becoming more frequent. A growing academic interest in the subject means that we now have an enormous amount of data on these near-death experiences. Out of the thousands of such experiences recorded a clear pattern of experience emerges: the dying person experiences cracking, clicking, or rushing noises, or sometimes wonderfully harmonious sounds; this is followed by an experience of leaving the physical body - observing their physical body and surroundings from a distance; they then feel themselves drawn through a dark tunnel out of which they emerge into brilliant light. This light assumes an almost personal quality and frequently encounters occur with spiritual helpers or protective beings and the Ancestors - friends and relatives who have died previously. There then often follows a rapid review of their life in which they realise instantly where they acted rightly or wrongly. This experience of self-judgement is followed by an entry into a state of being in which past, present and future merge into one reality - a world filled with ecstasy, radiant colours, and immensely beautiful landscapes.
We know nothing more, with such certainty, of the post-death state for those who reach this realm of beauty are then brought to a Being who tells them that they must return to their body - their visit, this time, has been only temporary.
What does this tell us of the Ovate work?
Firstly that the realm of the Ancestors does exist, and that it can provide support and guidance. Secondly that a realm exists in which our experience of time is transcended, or fundamentally changed. It is to these realms that the shaman travels, to bring back guidance from Past Souls and insights into the future.
In megalithic times the early Druids were probably not distinctively classed into three branches of learning. The Druid shaman would probably have been the doctor and priest and repository of tribal lore all in one. The bones found in the chambered cairns such as West Kennet Long Barrow near Avebury would almost certainly have been used ritually in the way bones have been throughout the world, to summon the protection of the dead, to ward off evil and to offer augury.
It is the Ovates particular connection with the Other World, with death, which makes them officiants in the rite of Samhuinn - the feast for the departed on 31st October. But it is only in the naive imagination that this concern with death is viewed as morbid, for in reality the Ovate is concerned with new life, with regeneration. They know that to be born they have to die - whether that means in the literal sense or in the figurative sense, as a death to one way of being to be reborn to a deeper experience of being alive.
In working with the processes of death and regeneration, the Ovates particular study is - fittingly - tree-lore, herbalism and healing. The plant world is a great teacher of the laws of death and rebirth, of sacrifice and transmutation, and the tree is the supreme teacher of the mysteries of time, with its roots for the most part invisible in the past and the subconscious, and its fruit and leaves likewise mostly hidden from us in the heights of the superconscious - holding the potential of the future in the seeds that will in due time fall.
The art of healing concerns the application of natural law to the human body and psyche. If the heart, mind or body is out of tune with nature we suffer. The application of natural remedies - with plants, with the four elements, with solar, lunar and stellar power are studied by the Ovate. Knowing that it is only through death to one state that we achieve a wider life, the Ovate is in this sense also a psychotherapist. The Ovate learns and teaches that it is often only by letting go, rather than holding on, that we truly find what we have been seeking.
How is the Ovate Way of relevance to us today? The fact that many healers - of both body and soul, find Druidry helpful lies in its ability to open the Self to something more than just the personal. The story of psychotherapy illustrates this point, and suggests that we can place Druidry, and the work of the Ovates in particular, at the leading edge of psyche (soul) therapies.
Psychotherapy as a form of healing began by discovering the value in opening up communication between the different parts of ourselves – within our intra-personal world. Healing occurred, for example, when our sexual selves were able to relate more openly with our rational cultivated selves; or when our hearts were able to speak freely to our minds. But this was found to be insufficient - for not only do we need to have successful communication between the different parts of ourselves, we also need effective communication with those around us, in our inter-personal relationships. Group therapy was born. More healing occurred as we shared our fears and joys with others - discovering our common humanity and our unique differences. But more was needed - we could resolve a good deal of our intra-personal and inter-personal difficulties, but we were still haunted by 'existential neurosis' - we needed to move beyond the personal to the transpersonal, to find our place in existence by going beyond the Self. The spiritual psychologies were born. They opened up the channels of communication not only between ourselves and others, but also with our Overself, our Transpersonal Self and with the Divine.
By now it looked as if psychotherapists had covered every base - we had been put back into relationship with ourselves, with our fellow humans and with our sense of the Divine or Spiritual. But to many therapists’ surprise the existential neurosis and sense of alienation often continued for their clients, because in all this therapy they had inadvertently been guilty of 'speciesism': they had ignored our relations with the rest of nature. We may have successful communication with humanity and God/dess, but what about with our home, the Earth - with the stars and sky, with animals and trees? The Druid argument, and the argument of all earth religions, is that we can only be fully healthy, fully whole physically and psychologically and indeed spiritually, when we are in communion with all of nature.
The walls of the consulting room and the church collapse... client and therapist, patient and analyst, confessing and confessor, walk away from the debris, remove their clothes and immerse themselves in the pool that stands before them in the light of the sun. only then are they whole. only then can they claim that the healing is complete.
We now have an insight into the healing power that Druidry can bring, and the way in which this can be mediated by the Ovate with their knowledge of herb, tree and animal lore and their ability to commune with the spirits of the departed. But what of their divinatory skills?
Understanding the hidden dynamics of Time and knowing the reality of the spirit worlds enables the Ovate to divine without the interference of the rational mind. This mantic work falls into three categories: augury - which is the making of predictions based on signs and omens; divination - which uses particular methods for finding hidden things - whether they be 'intangibles' such as future events or 'tangibles' such as water or metal; and prophecy - which needs no outer methods but which depends on the Ovate's ability to channel higher wisdom in relation to future events.
The methods of augury used in the past were many: from simple weather-witching to sophisticated interpretation of bird flight - from the observation of animal behaviour to the interpretation of planetary configurations. Almost certainly each of the four elements was used for augury, as they were used for healing. It is likely that the signs and associated feelings conveyed by earth cast on a sheet or drum-skin were read as a modern fortune teller might read the tea-leaves or in Eastern Europe the coffee-grounds, and the shapes of passing clouds or of the images found in the fire or in gazing into pools of water were undoubtedly further sources of inspiration. We know the term the Irish Druids used for cloud divination – Neldoracht – and we know too of more complex methods of divining used in Ireland, including Tarbhfeis, which involved the diviner being wrapped in a bull’s hide to aid their clairvoyance.
that Etain was in Bri Leith with Midir.
Divination is a more sophisticated form of augury. It need not be simple fortune-telling - an attempt to see into the future. It can be an effective means of revealing hidden dynamics - whether they are within oneself or within a relationship, or within a group. Divination then becomes a means of gaining self-knowledge and a deeper understanding of the hidden causes behind appearances. Seen in this way it becomes yet another way that we can try to go beyond the surface, to plumb the depths, to look at causes rather than effects. Modern day Ovates are able to turn in this quest to a number of distinctly Druidic methods of divination, including working with the sacred animals of the Celtic and Druid tradition and working with Ogham, which has come to be known as the sacred tree-alphabet of the Druids. It is claimed that the Druids used Ogham for divination. Medieval Irish stories, such as the Tochmarc Etaine suggest that this was so, even though actual inscriptions in Ogham, found on stones, have only been dated to the fourth and fifth centuries. Although from the historian’s point of view we cannot be certain that the ancient Druids used Ogham, it certainly provides us today with an evocative means of understanding hidden dynamics and future events, and has become an integral part of modern Ovate training.
However it is not only the divination of the subtle, intangible realms of the psyche and the future that is the field of Ovate study. Divination can be carried out for tangible things - for water and for metal, for items lost or deliberately hidden, and traditionally the Ovate divines with a wand of hazel. Water sources were always accorded special reverence by the Druids - not only were they naturally dependent on a good supply of drinking water, but springs were revered because they demonstrated the source of life springing up out of the body of mother-Earth, and they were seen as access points to the Otherworld.
The Ovate, with their divining skill would have been used to find water sources and sources of metallic ore, for this was important to the Celts who used both bronze and iron. The Druid, in their capacity as Pheryllt, or Druid Alchemist, worked the metals that the Ovate found in a raw state in the earth. And here we perceive another function of the Ovate - to seek out and find what is hidden. We can surmise that it was the Ovates’ function in the past, and can still be today, to find the sacred groves in which the Druids work. Likewise it is the Ovate who finds the wisdom of the Spirit, plant and animal world and brings it back for the benefit of all. It could even have been the Ovate in this aspect of their work who was responsible for finding criminals and stolen property or missing bodies. As ‘discoverer of the hidden’, the Ovate might have been the detective as the Druid was the magistrate or judge.
Finally we learn that prophecy was a function of the Ovate. Here the Ovate needed no outer form to help them find what was hidden. Their years of training as a Bard, then as an Ovate, their ability to commune with the spirits, their refinement of their being and their attunement to the world of nature meant that at certain times they could prophesy - predicting the future or warning of possible dangers so that they could be avoided. Merlin is seen in his Ovate role when he utters the prophecies compiled by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century.
The ability to prophesy should be understood in its widest sense within the Ovate work. The Bard learns how to open themselves to transpersonal creative energies to provide inspiration and integration. The Ovate builds on this connection with the inner world and combines it with an ability to negotiate time-tracks, so that they can also channel transpersonal creative energies. These channellings may take the form of prophecies - in the sense that they deal with that aspect of time which we term the 'future' - or they may deal with hidden levels of reality and causation that require elucidation and communication.
The Ovate curriculum is vast indeed. Just as the Bard needed years of training, so did the Ovate, although we have no details of this from the classical authors. When Druidry went underground with the triumph of Christianity, the Bards suffered the least - they simply pretended to be 'mere' minstrels and poets all the while carrying the tradition in their hearts and hidden in their words and music. The Ovates undoubtedly continued their work as healers and herbalists - keeping the tradition alive though in a more discreet way, becoming eventually perhaps the Cunning Folk or ‘White Witches’ who acted as local doctors for those too poor – or too wise – to consult the nearest leech, charlatan or quack.
Today, those who study the Ovate Grade learn to work with the powers of Nature – they learn the Ogham and come to know the trees as living Beings with their own medicines and gifts. They work with the sacred animals of tradition, and with different methods of divination, and many begin a study of herbalism or other methods of healing, and in particular they learn how to encourage the flow of Nwyfre through the body. Nwyfre is the Druid term for Life-force, known as Chi’ or Prana in the East.
The tree which represents the Ovate Grade is the Yew - the tree of death and rebirth, of eternity. The North is the place of the Ovate, for it is the Grade in which we learn of 'The spiritual intelligence of the night' [The Book of Taliesin] when we understand the mystery that the spirit is reborn in the place of greatest darkness. The times associated with the Ovate Grade are Autumn and Winter, Evening, dusk and midnight - times when we assimilate the experience of the day or the year, and when we are nourished by the great depths of the Unconscious.
Adapted from Druid Mysteries by Philip Carr-Gomm
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Explore the significance of sacred animals in the Druid tradition