Celtic Bards: Wielders of the Word
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
They could make you legendary. Or destroy your reputation, possibly even your life. They were custodians of history and genealogies, and foretellers of the future. They were poets and philosophers. It is said their words were so powerful they could stop corn from growing or calm the wild sea. The Bards of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and other Celtic societies were not simple poet-singers, entertaining storytellers or wandering minstrels. They belonged to a high social class, commanded respect, and wielded such power with their words they could make or break heroes and kings.
Celtic bards memorized hundreds of poems, histories, and genealogies. They were professional poets, musicians, and storytellers. But they were so much more. In Celtic society, bards were, as druidery.com calls them, the "memory of the tribe" and "custodians of the sacredness of the word" (https://www.druidry.org/druid-way/what-druidry/what-druidism/what-bard ). Even though Celts, from the third century A.D. on, had a writing system called the ogham, their societies wrote little, relying primarily on oral tradition. The spoken word was important. In the 21st century, people say, “drop dead” or “damn you” without giving much though thought to what those phrases really mean. To an ancient Celt, words had an effect. If someone cursed you, bad things were going to happen unless you could find a way to ward off the evil. And in this word-based society, Celtic bards were pre-eminent masters of the spoken word. Additionally, they were believed to possess magical powers. They were seers who could foretell the future. But their power wasn’t limited to divination. Amairgin, a bard of the legendary Irish race of Milesians, is said to have calmed the sea in the midst of a raging storm by singing an incantation. Another bard is said to have cut a man’s life short by his words.
Regardless of whether or not magic exists, words have the ability to help or harm. I know of a high school teacher who was accused by a student of sexual molestation. The student’s accusation was proven false. Nevertheless, the teacher’s reputation and career were ruined. Ultimately, he had a heart attack from the stress. Words, once spoken, can be apologized for or corrected, but they can never be unspoken. If a parent continually tells a child, “You’re stupid,” that child will believe he or she is stupid and act accordingly. On the other hand, the words “I’m so proud of you!” can build self-esteem and confidence. “I love you” and “I’m sorry” can heal wounds.
A bard’s word held more power the average person’s. In a society that did not have cable news, newspapers, public libraries, or the internet, Celtic bards were the official keepers of knowledge. They could tell you who did what, when, why, and how. But a bard didn’t just memorize and repeat stories he had been taught about the clan, its heroes and kings. A bard also composed new poems and stories. And he disseminated the information to clan and community. So if you were a chieftain or a king, you wanted—and needed—a bard. You needed him to build up and maintain your reputation. And you needed to keep that bard on your side. In ancient times, people followed a king they believed in. They followed strong, courageous warriors who were able to lead them into battle and to victory. A cowardly king didn’t last long. The praises of a bard could make a king. A bard’s satire could destroy him.
By the 6th century A. D. , bards in Ireland had become so powerful and influential that monarchs decided they were dangerous and wanted to ban them. A national convention to address the issue was held in Derry. St. Columbkill came from his monastery on Iona, Scotland, to advocate for the bards. In the end, he was persuasive enough that the Order of Bards was allowed to continue--but only under strict regulations. In the 14th century, the English, who had invaded Ireland but were having difficulty subduing the natives, enacted The Statute of Kilkenny which, in part, made receiving a bard illegal. Bards, the act claimed, were Irish spies. Many bards were killed by the English who recognized their ability to inspire and incite people with their words.
Bards gained their skill at crafting and wielding words and their esteemed position in society through many years of intensive study. The requirements to become a bard varied from Scotland to Wales to Ireland, but here is an example of the years and learning required to become a bard. In Ireland, the training took twelve years. In the beginning, the apprentices learned the ogham and grammar. In addition, they memorized poems, learning close to three hundred by the time the training was completed. They also learned place-name stories and studied philosophy. As they progressed, they learned different poetic forms as well as prosody, oration, and prophetic invocation. They became skilled at praise and at satire. Bards memorized lore, history, laws, and clan genealogy. They discovered how to find inspiration and how to inspire, and they began to compose their own stories and songs. Once they had graduated from apprentice to master, they were awarded a “barred cap,” the title of Ollamh (teacher), and a golden branch with three bells (https://www.libraryireland.com/Druids/Irish-Bards.php). The bard would ring the bells to call for silence prior to reciting, singing, or pronouncing to the clan or community. Master bards could roam about the counties, selling their services as they went, but generally they were attached to (and paid by) royal patrons or specific clans.
There were numerous hereditary bards. Members of certain families would serve as bards for another family or clan generation after generation. For instance, I am related, on my mother’s side, to the Maguires, the rulers of Fermanagh, Ireland. The O’Cianans (anglicized Keenan) served as hereditary bards for the Maguires. As it happens, I’m descended, on my father’s side, from Keenans. Some other hereditary bard families include the O’Dugans, bards to the O’Kellys of Galway and Roscommon, the MacKeogh, who served Clan MacMuurrogh, Kings of Leinster, and the MacWards of Donnegal and Tyrone, who were bards to the O’Donnell and O’Neil clans.
Some famous Celtic bards are Dafydd ap Gwilynn, Taleisin, and Myrddn of Wales, along with Coirpre Mac Etane and the aforementioned Amairgin of Ireland. Two of those have become quite famous as legendary figures. There is evidence that Taleisin was a historical person who worked as a bard in the royal courts of Northern Wales in the 6th century A.D., but over time, he has become a time-shifting, "shape-shifting, all-knowing mythological being" who is "both timeless and eternal" (https://www.digitalmedievalist.com/opinionated-celtic-faqs/who-is-taliesin/). The historical existence of Myrddn has been debated by scholars but there is no debate about the bard / seer’s continued existence as Merlin of Arthurian legend. Torlough O’Carolan, a blind harper and composer who lived in 17th century, is called the Last Bard of Ireland and Robert Burns is known as the National Bard of Scotland. They seem to have been awarded these titles, however, because of the excellence and enduring quality of their artistry. There is no evidence that either one studied to be a bard or was a member of the official bardic societies of their respective countries.
While the societal position of the Celtic bard may have disappeared, these masters of oral tradition and the power of the spoken word have left a rich legacy, such as Arthurian legend and the proliferation of Celtic folklore. In fact, some argue that the bardic tradition continues to a degree in the form of Seanchai, the modern oral storytellers of Ireland who enchant and captivate their listeners as they weave a wondrous web of words.
Giveaway and Drawing: In celebration of bards and storytellers, and as a nod to November, National Novel Writers’ Month, I am giving away a gift to the first 15 people who comment* on this post between now and November 1, 2019. Also, the names of the first 25 people to subscribe to the blog (or who comment, if they are already subscribers) will be put into a drawing to be held on November 2nd.
The first 15 commenters will receive via email “10 Tips for Breaking Writers’ Block.” The winner of the drawing will have a choice between two prizes. The first is two free writing lessons with feedback from Christine Dorman (creative or nonfiction writing—winner’s choice). The alternative prize is to receive an evaluation and written profile of “What Celtic Folklore Character Are You?” ** Both prize options are a $50.00 value.
*You must subscribe to the blog in order to comment. It only requires a name and a valid email address. Click on the button in the upper right corner of this page to sign up. Once you do, you will be able to comment and will receive the blog link in your inbox each week. Subscribing to the blog is completely free and I do not share or sell information.
**To receive this prize, you will need to complete a short, multiple choice questionnaire with questions such as “What is your favorite time of the day?” and “Would you prefer to live in the city, countryside, woods, or the sea?” Once you complete and return the questionnaire, the answers will be evaluated and you will receive back not only the name of your Celtic character, but a unique descriptive profile of your character written just for you by Christine Dorman
If you enjoyed the post, please like and share it. Thanks! Next week's post is about Samhain!