So in a previous blog I looked at evidence supporting the roles of the Druids as ritual leaders, judges, and seers, but this is only a small piece of who the Druids were. We also have evidence that within their societies they were sacred poets, teachers of wisdom, and the ones who understood the deeper mysteries of the natural world, and magic users, however discussing the bardic role of Druids alone is complicated enough to take a whole blog on it's own, so we will have to get to the other aspects later.
The role of sacred poets, often called "Bards", is one of the most often written about but at first glance, especially of the continental materiall, it can give the appearance that the Bards were a separate class from the Druids. In several of the Greek and Roman sources it is said that there were three types of men held in esteem, the Bards, Druids, and Seers, such as Strabo saying "Generally speaking, there are three uniquely honored groups among the Gauls: Bards, Vates, and Druids." (Freeman, 2002). Adding to the confusion about the Bards are several references that seem to place them in what we might see as a very low social position. Some examples of this:
Diodorus Siculus "They have singing poets called bards who perform playing an instrument like a Greek lyre. These bards sing songs of praise and of satire."
Athenaeus: "Posidonius of Apameia says...the Celts have with them in war and peace companions...[who] recite the praises of their patrons before gatherings and to all listening in turn. They are called bards - poets who sing praise."
Ammianus Marcellinus "And the bards sang the great deeds of famous men in heroic verse, accompanied by the sweet tones of the lyre." (all - Freeman, 2002).
However, I think much like the false separation of the Seers from the Druids which I had previously discussed, the Bards were in fact Druids. If we look at the Irish material it is much more apparent that this was the case as we see the same interchangeability of the terms that we saw in the continental use of Druid and Vate. As Daithi O hOgain explains it in The Sacred Isle "In Irish they are all well attested as bard (a term for a minor poet or reciter), faidh (a prophet), and drui (a druid or magician). All three words are to a large extent interchangeable, although bard is not generally accorded equal status with the others. Instead the Irish sources have fili (later, file) as a member of the exalted triad, and it is most plausible to regard this as having been the situation among the Continiental Celts also." (O hOgain, 1999). This may also explain why when reading material in translation we can sometimes find discrepancies, such as in different versions of the Tain Bo Cuilange were Fedelm is alternately called a Prophetess, Bard, or fairy.
I personally suspect that the account of continental Bards who served in the retinue of "patrons" represent Druidic Bards of lower rank. The later Irish material also supports that possibility, although it is only speculation, as the Uraicecht Na Riar discusses the different grades of poets and, as with all things, it is likely that the majority of people remained in the lower ranks with only a few achieving the highest levels. This would mean many Bards and fewer Fili.
It is also worth noting that while contemporary groups often emphasize the Bard's role as poet or musician, in the ancient texts Bards - or more accurately Fili - were equally skilled with magic, prophecy, and judgment, once again supporting the interchangeability of the role with that of the Druid. In the Cath Maige Tuired the File Coirpre laid a satire on the Fomorian king Bres who was ruling over the Tuatha de Danann for his lack of hospitality.
"'Without food on a dish,
Without cow's milk on which a calf grows,
Without a man's habitation after darkness remains,
Without paying a company of storytellers - let that be Bres's condition,
Bres's prosperity no longer exists,' he said, and that was true. There was only blight on him from that hour" (Gray, 1983). This demonstrates the poets ability to magically curse with his art just as he could bless. In a similar way when the forces draw together for battle in the Cath Maige Tuired and Coirpre is asked what he will contribute to the fight he responds by pledging to make a satire against the Fomorian army that will weaken their warriors so that they offer no resistance (Gray, 1983).
The Bard's skill with prophecy, something we have already seen is a Druidic art, is very often attested in the Irish material. In fact all of our surviving understanding of Druidic prophecy techniques - the dichetal do chennaibh, teinm laeda, and imbas forosnai - are attributed to "poets", although we know that these were Druidic practices. Two of the three were outlawed in Ireland by the Church because they involved calling on pagan spirits or gods. Interestingly the practice of bardcraft, or sacred poetry, survived well into the Christian era, nearly to the modern era, carrying with it many of the older practices associated with Druidic prophecy. For example, from A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland circa 1695:
"I must not omit to relate their way of study, which is very singular: they shut their doors and windows for a day's time, and lie on their backs, with a stone upon their belly, and plaids about their heads, and their eyes being covered, they pump their brains for rhetorical encomium or panegyric; and indeed they furnish such a style from this dark cell, as is understood by very few; and if they purchase a couple of horses as the reward of their meditation, they think they have done a great matter." This is strikingly similar to the practice involved in the imbas forosnai, omitting only the initial eating of meat and adding the stone, but the elements of the practice seem to be related.
It is also worth noting that Bards had a role as judges that also connects them to the Druids. Both were able to make judgments against kings and assess a fine, or in the case of Bards, possibly lay a satire. As O hOgain puts it "The functions of drui, file and faidh seem to have been interchangeable in archaic Irish with that for a judge (written brithem, later breitheamh) and...we can be sure that arbritration was also one of the functions of these wise men in Ireland." (O hOgain, 1999). Should a Poet, Druid, or Brithem make an unjust ruling their face would break out in blotches, a literal mark of shame (O hOgain, 1999).
As we can see it is virtually impossible to truly seperate out the different functions of the Druids into completely different groups. Each subgroup overlaps with the others and often the term used to describe a person would vary based entirely upon circumstance so that she might be called a Druidess and then a Prophetess or Bard in the next line of the same source. Of all of the subgroups the Bards, or Fili, did seem to have the clearest distinctions in many cases, yet they still had the same blurring of function and interchangeablity of labeling as any of the other groups that fall under the auspices of being a Druid.
Freeman, P., (2002). War, Women, and Druids. University of Texas Press
Gray, E., (1983). Cath Maige Tuired. Irish Texts Society
O hOgain, D., (1999). The Sacred Isle. The Boydell Press