An Introduction to Bardism
by Rhianna Nodens
The title of Bard is one of three orders within the general grouping of Druidism, the other two being Ovate and Druid. Bard is the first degree of Druidry, but this does not necessarily mean that a Bard is a lesser practitioner. Bards of old were masters of many trades, and could study for half a lifetime or more. Nowadays, few people have the time or energy to do this, but the skills, knowledge and abilities of a Bard may still encompass any or all of the following:
- Music – performance and/or composition of songs and tunes, whether simply vocal or accompanied by an instrument. The traditional Bardic instrument was the harp (now translated by many into the guitar), but any instrument, even percussion, can be used;
- Story-telling – Bards learned a huge number of stories, which they would then tell in their own inimitable style. The Druids were famous for not writing anything down, and there were many reasons for this. One was that each re-telling would be different, depending on the audience, current events, the person telling the tale, and their reason for telling it at that particular time. They would also re-tell the stories of the people they knew or were contemporary with, again in their own style and moment;
- Poetry – Bards were expected to learn a great many poems – long, rambling story/history/myth poems, and praise poems, for the most part. Again, they would also compose their own poems, in praise of a particular king or hero, or to commemorate a notable event or person;
- History and genealogy – Bards recorded and recited details of historic events and the genealogies of great lords, princes and kings;
- Magic – it was said of the Bards that their words could both bless and curse, even unto death. Their curses were very much feared, and a sensible king or lord would cultivate the Bards and Druids, and be very careful not to offend them. If he upset one, he was likely to find things starting to go very wrong for him – crops might be blighted, cattle become diseased, even friends and family sicken and die;
- Lore – Bards were taught everything the Druids knew about the Universe. This encompassed astrology, nature, herbalism, medicine, and all the ancient sciences. They would then pass this knowledge on to their apprentices;
- Arbitration – it is said that the Bards and Druids were often called to settle disputes between people or tribes, and Caesar mentions this in his writings. There is generally less scope for this function in modern times (unless you also happen to work in an area that deals with this, such as law, arbitration or counselling), but Bards can still be called upon to help in less formal circumstances, as their wisdom can be invaluable in helping to come to an equitable conclusion;
- Oghams – most people (at least in pagan circles) are aware of the Tree Ogham, an ancient alphabet where the letters equate to trees and all the lore and uses (magical and material) of those trees. However, it is probable that the oghams were used mainly as mnemonic devices to help Bards remember a vast number of stories, myths and poems. Bards were expected to learn hundreds of oghams. In their simplest form, they are merely akin to A is for Apple, etc. However, there are many layers to the Bardic knowledge, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the many meanings of the Oghams;
- Community – although the most common image of Bards these days is of the Wandering Minstrel, this phase occurred relatively late in the life of Druidism. For most of the heyday of paganism, Bards were very well respected and central figures in a community. They were able to preside at rituals and ceremonies of all kinds – weddings, funerals, baby-namings, etc, as well as the eight rituals around the Wheel of the Year, and any moon ceremonies the tribe or village etc might hold.
Orpheus is often cited as being the first recorded Bard, with his famous lyre, which Apollo later used. Brutus, fresh from the Trojan War, who landed in Britain and established a kingdom here, brought his Bard Plenydd with him.
The most famous Bard of all time is known as Taliesin. Scholars are divided as to which of the extant works of the ancient Bards should be attributed to him, giving as their reasons the differences in style and tone of what has been written down from the sixth century, when he is believed to have been active. But as stated above, all Bards gave performances in their own words, and it may well be that many of the poems and stories that are disputed are simply other people’s versions. Or maybe not! It may be that other Bards attempted to copy Taliesin’s style, with varying degrees of success. Or that Taliesin was more of a title than a name, and there was a succession of Bards who held that title.
There was a great Bardic revival in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the first modern Eisteddfod, open to the public, was held in 1789. It is now possible to receive training in Bardism, either by working through a book on the subject, such as Kevan Manwaring’s The Bardic Handbook, or by studying with one of the Druid organisations, such at the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, or the British Druid Order.
Other useful books on the subject of Bardism include The Lore of the Bard by Arthur Rowan, and The Way of Awen by Kevan Manwaring – a follow-up to the year-long course given in The Bardic Handbook. John Matthews has also written books on the subject, and any of his works are recommended to a seeker after Celtic wisdom.