13 Bardic Attributes
by Rhianna Nodens
Below is a list of 13 Bardic attributes. 13 is a number that is important to many pagans and it is considered a number to be celebrated rather than feared. But, before I get into the list, I will attempt to answer the question: What is a Bard?
We’ve all heard the word – bard. But bards have been around a long time – thousands of years – and the role has evolved and gone through many changes over those years. So now it means different things to different people. To some, a bard is a wandering troubadour, complete with lute and a huge range of songs, stories and poems. To some, a bard is anyone who chooses to serenade his lover, or write poems to her beauty. To others, the only bard of note in the whole of human history is William Shakespeare (or whoever actually wrote his plays and sonnets). But to many, these days, being a bard is one of the options in becoming a pagan.
The bards of old were very learned people (both male and female), who had studied for many years to acquire not only the talents of the druids, but also the skills required to be singers, songwriters, musicians, poets and storytellers, as well as all the scientific and natural history knowledge that the ancient world had to offer.
Bards were so well respected that they were entitled to sit at their lord’s right hand, receiving the best cuts of meat, and they were gifted gold and silver jewellery for the making of a fine poem. At one time, they were also entitled to hold 5 acres of land, be fed and watered wherever they went, and were granted freedom from taxes. Their word was literally law – they were both judge and jury – and no-one was allowed to wear a naked weapon in their presence.
So what did the ancient bards offer their patrons in return for all this, and how are these skills relevant today?
1. Genealogical record-keeping. One of the main reasons for keeping a bard at Court or in your household was so that he (or she) could remember and recite your genealogy. Family history – where you came from, who did what heroic or notable deed – was very important in Celtic society. It was your bard’s job to remember these details and pass them on, often reciting them at important occasions, such as weddings and funerals, perhaps as part of an epic poem. This would be a much harder job to do today for most people as, unless your patron was indeed wealthy and their family had been wealthy for generations past, you would have to do a lot of work to put together their genealogy. It is also much less important to most people, though many now are becoming interested in where they came from in terms of the family’s past.
2. Knowledge of land boundaries and ownership etc. At a time before writing, let alone the Land Registry, this was an important service. As today, people then tried to move boundary stones or claim ownership of land that wasn’t theirs, perhaps by a spurious attempt to claim kinship with the previous (deceased) owner, or by force of arms. The bard would be the ultimate judge of who owned what, and all would honour their judgement, however unwillingly, or risk a war with their neighbouring tribes or lords. These days, of course, it’s all written down and solicitors argue over such things – for a fee – so this aspect of ancient bardism is also less relevant today for most bards.
3. Writing and reciting epic poetry. A bard came into his own when wars, skirmishes, and natural disasters were met and lived through. It was his or her job to record the ‘facts’ (or embellish them to make his master look good). Who did what to or for whom, who killed the greatest number of enemy or ensured the tribe survived – all these things were noteworthy events and needed to be recorded in memorable form. And what more memorable form could there be than an epic poem? Of course, stories might also be told, and either poem or story accompanied by a musical instrument, but the poem was most likely to be passed down the generations of bards yet to come, in something like its original form. The closest most of us come to such a service today, of course, is the office of Poet Laureate, who is commissioned to write poems about major events that happen during his/her appointment to the Crown. Although, of course, many bards write about what is important to them, be it personal, family or national or international events.
4. Knowledge of the movements of stars and planets. Bards were excellent astronomers, and were probably responsible for the exactness of the placement of stones in monuments such as Stonehenge, where the position of the sun at certain moments of the year had to be precisely calculated. To a people for whom the seasons were vitally important, having someone who knew when the days would start to get longer, or when the sheep would give birth, could mean the difference between life and death. And predicting the attributes and challenges of a newborn child could help the tribe to know what they would be good at, or need help with, giving them an excellent start in life. Today, of course, there is a wealth of astrological information available, so that anyone can discover what’s in their birth chart – usually for free – and get readings for all sorts of other information as well. Do bear in mind, if you want to do this yourself, that your birth chart contains far more than just your Sun Sign – each of the other planets, and a few other astrological events – will be included as well, giving a much more accurate picture of you as an individual.
5. Play an instrument (or several), not just well, but magically. The Three Noble Strains, which every bard was expected to learn, refers to the ability to play the harp or other instrument in such a way as to create joy, deep sadness, and sleep, in every member of the audience. Even today, most of us have favourite music that will reliably put us into a certain mood, or help us get to sleep.
6. Use the magic of words to heal and inspire. Of course, they could also use their magical words to harm and even kill – it was believed that upsetting a bard could result in you breaking out in boils or worse, and most people were very careful not to upset a bard, for their words were feared. One modern day equivalent – the media – still has the power to seriously affect those it writes about, even to the point of pushing its victims into suicide. The healing and inspiring part of this role today would be taken by those who practice talking therapies, such as counsellors, psychologists, etc, and by those wise people who are often known as gurus, but also by the very best storytellers. Who hasn’t listened, ‘spellbound’ to a tale being read or told to them by someone else?
7. Teach, either directly or indirectly. This would be not only in training future bards in all the knowledge, skills and wisdom they would need in their future careers, but also to teach the people about their history, and to help in maintaining the society’s values and norms by including these things in stories and poems. Of course, many people practice this skill today (notably the media again, but also teachers, lecturers and professors), but few would expect to teach more than one or two subjects.
8. Being ‘mythically literate’ and able to pass on the old stories in a variety of ways. Myths are more than just stories, however, and the bards would have had a deep understanding of the parable and mystery inherent in each tale they told. Many people tell stories today, and some, like Joseph Campbell, have a deep understanding of the ways in which stories express the most basic of human needs and desires, and why a certain storyline works – or doesn’t. Not many, though, set out expressly to provide a story that not only entertains, but also informs and moulds the unconscious mind, as the bards of old did.
9. Acting as arbiter between disputing people and tribes. In Ireland, the Brehon Laws were known and administered only by bards, and in England, a similar service was performed; even before a written code of law was available to them. Bards were judge, jury, lawyer and all other Court officials rolled into one. No-one would try to settle a serious dispute without the help of a bard, and many wars were prevented because of their arbitration. What a boon that role would be today! To have someone who was known by all to be truly neutral, impartial and wise, acting as go-between and pronouncing fair judgement, based on all the available evidence would probably go far towards preventing much of the conflict that arises in the modern world, especially perhaps those tribal wars and coups that happen all too frequently in less developed countries. Perhaps they could even help sort out the crises in the Middle East?
10. Providing magical and spiritual support to the community. The latter part of this role has been split into numerous fragments today, and would now be carried out by a whole range of professionals. Examples would be vets, doctors, surgeons, herbalists, therapists and healers, lawyers and judges, careers advisors, teachers and lecturers, authors and poets, musicians and singers, but the list doesn’t end there. Much of what such professionals do would have fallen under the category of ‘magic’ in bardic times, but most people don’t believe in magic today.
11. Communion with the Otherworld. This would mainly have been for the purposes of finding cures and solutions that were simply not available in the ordinary world. There are still people today who perform this service, if you know where to look for them. Many call themselves shaman (a word originally coined by indigenous tribes in Siberia). Their role is to travel to the ‘other side’ to find wisdom and help, and perhaps retrieve and pieces of the client’s soul, in order to help them become healthier or remove a blockage on their path to growing and learning.
12. Knowledge of many Oghams. (The ogham was an ancient alphabet.) These days, those people who are even aware of the ogham tend to think of the tree ogham as the only one there is, but bards were expected to learn over a hundred of them! The origins and purpose of these oghams are now rather obscure, but they were most likely, at one level, a sort of mnemonic to help the bard remember a set of stories, poems, or information, which was attached in memory to the letters of the ogham. At another, they would have acted as ways for bards to communicate their knowledge to each other without the ignorant (to whom some of their information would have been dangerous without full knowledge of its implications) having access to it. Thus, bards could discuss magical knowledge in full hearing of others, while apparently having a simple – or perhaps rather strange, and even stilted – conversation.
13. Shape-shifting. A bard would have the ability, whether physically or mentally, to take on the shape of other beings – especially totem or healing animals. This could be so as to take an inner journey to find the answers to important questions, such as ‘where can we find food in the dead of winter’? It could be to aid with healing, or to help bring prey animals towards the waiting hunters. It would always be done with respect for the form being taken, and only when absolutely needed. Again, the only practitioners of this art in the modern world are the shamans, though you could argue that animal communicators come close, in that they understand how to ‘become’ an animal in their mind-set and attitude, if not quite as completely as a shaman would.
These days, we’re taught that you can’t be a jack-of-all-trades and master of them all. But that’s partly because we simply don’t take the time to master them all, although it would take a special kind of person to even want to attempt it. Way back before computers and books and the Big Society and globalisation etc, people had the time and the willingness to spend a lifetime learning all there was to know about the world, and to disseminate and use that knowledge along the way for the good of their fellow men. Many people make the attempt today, though few come close to the achievements of the early bards.