I very recently – a few minutes ago recently – uploaded my first assignment for the New Order of Druids’ Bardic Youth Course. This introduction assignment asked two questions, that I will summarize: What is a Bard, and what does being a Bard mean to me? and What led me to the path I’m on? As I answered the latter in my first post (and my submission is very similar to my post), I am only posting my response to the Bard question.
As always when assigned a reflection on the meaning of a word, the first place I turn to is the dictionary. Definitions of one word do, of course, differ from dictionary to dictionary, but they provide a good starting point and a general understanding. The word “Bard” has much historical significance, but also has a different meaning in modern contexts. According to Dictionary.com, a bard was “(formerly) a person who composed and recited epic or heroic poems, often while playing the harp, lyre, or the like” – I bring notice to the use of the word “formerly” in this definition (Dictionary.com). For current definitions, the same source lists the following: “one of an ancient Celtic order of composers and reciters of poetry”, “any poet”, and “the bard, William Shakespeare” (Dictionary.com). The term “Bard”, therefore, simultaneously defines a historical occupation, any person past or present who calls him/herself a poet, and one specific man particularly talented at telling stories in poem form. Turning to another source, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, I can see they provide similar definitions: “a tribal poet-singer skilled in composing and reciting verses on heroes and their deeds” and “poet” (Merriam-Webster).
Considering the fact that both of these dictionaries are a record of ENGLISH language, it is perhaps more appropriate to turn to sources chronicling the actual role of a Bard in Celtic history. The word “Bard” itself is not English, instead originating in the 15th century from Scottish Gaelic and Irish languages (Merriam-Webster). The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica gives a brief overview of the Bards in all of the Celtic nations, explaining that the level to which they were respected varied a little from culture to culture, but all “were exempt from taxes or military service” and all “gave poetic expression to the religious and national sentiments of the people, and therefore exercised a very powerful influence” (Encyclopædia Britannica). In his scholarly chronicle of old Irish Paganism, James Bonwick explains that “the Bards proper occupied a high position in Ireland” and “studied for twelve years to gain the barred cap and title of Ollamh or teacher” (Bonwick). The Celtic Bards, at least the Irish ones, were highly educated people, knowing countless stories, songs, and histories. Even more than that, they could invent new songs and war change, or quickly turn “his praise for you into a satire” (Dom). I will spend maybe a year or so with this course, and I cannot even begin to know what those Bards learned, nor will I have their wit and skill. And as nothing was written down by them, and what was written by others (like Julius Ceasar) was misinformed and largely incorrect, even spending twelve full years of study with Bardic ideas would not make me one of the honored Ollamhs of old. Each Bard, after learning all he must, became a “professional poet, employed by a patron, such as a monarch or nobleman, to commemorate the patron’s ancestors and to praise the patron’s own activities” (Wikipedia). In a similar way we are Bards of nature, or of the gods if that is how you view divinity. We are all, Druid or not, “employed” by the world, the universe, to sing our history and our future through our words and actions. Much of what we do will not be written down and it will be forgotten when we die, but it will have happened just as the Bards’ songs happened.
To me, Bards are several things all at once. They are a group of extremely intelligent people from history, they are any poet in the world, they are people who honor nature and sing (either literally or metaphorically) nature’s history. The fact that the meaning of the word has changed, ever so slightly, speaks to the strength of the idea of the Bard: when the original definition was no longer relevant, the word was re-assigned so the ancient Bards could continue in a new sense.
Bonwick, James. Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions. 1894. Internet Sacred Text Archive, 2010. Web.
Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing, LLC, 2012. Web.
Dom, David. “Bardic Youth Course: Entering the Forest”. New Order of Druids, 2006. PDF.
Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2012. Web.
The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. “Bard”. The Wikisource 1911 Encyclopedia Project, 2010. Web.
Wikipedia. “Bard”. Wikipedia Foundations, Inc., 2012. Web.