Are you a Bard?
By: Ceallaigh MaCCath
When I was elected to fill this post [Bardic Sig Coordinator -Ed.] I was invited to lay down the criteria by which a member of Keltria might legitimately call her/himself a Bard. So I thought awhile on the things we know historically about Bards. It’s pretty impressive stuff.
Bards were required to memorize hundreds of tales using highly sophisticated mnemonic techniques, many of which are simply lost to us now. In the early days they carried news from tribe to tribe, preserved the lineage and history of the Great Celtic Houses, commemorated significant events with poetry and song, lifted noble behavior high with words of praise, and laid waste to pettiness with brutal satire. In later days they performed these functions and more, since they became one of the sole repositories for Brehon law in a world rife with political and religious rivalries. Finally, the Bard outlasted his (or her, though they were usually men, especially in Ireland) patron when the new religion, the new political structure, and the Protestant landed gentry (who had no use for family Bards) took root in Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries.
From the earliest recorded Celtic histories we learn that Bards were accorded a status equal to that of Chieftains. The good word of a respected Bard was the most desirous of endorsements. Conversely, the satire of a Bard, any Bard, was believed to bring real and lasting harm to the recipient of it. The prestige of the Bard and the value of her/his gifts was so high for so long that it’s little wonder how many people want to recapture that glory now.
We are not so far removed in time from Aogàn Ò Rathaille and Robert Burns. The wind is still heavy with the molecules of oxygen they themselves inhaled. If we listen carefully, we can still hear them mourn the loss of this ancient and noble heritage in the whisper of the oaks who breathed with them when they were alive. By what right do we pick up the stones of learning that were wrenched from their bellies and place them on our own? Can any of us hope to live up to the grand heritage of our forefathers and foremothers in the tradition? Even if we can, do we have the right to command the respect that they did? What does it take to be a Bard?
I don’t presume to speak for the whole of the Bardic tradition, but I can tell you what I’m doing and what I respect in others.
- Read the sacred tales of the Celts with an eye to their spiritual significance. Among these are the Mabinogion, the Tàin Bò Cuailnge, The Lais of Mairi De France, and the Fenian tales. Learn at least three stories well enough to tell them to others. These will help you to understand the foundation of your craft.
- Read the folktales of the Celts. There are a number of fabulous compilations by various editors. Sean O’Sullivan’s compilation, called Folktales of Ireland, is an especially good one. These will help you to understand the storytelling craft as it was preserved in the last two centuries. Again, learn a few of these well enough to tell to others.
- Keep the heritage and stories of your family. Encourage your elders to tell their stories. Write them down on special paper. Hold them close to your soul. Tell them to your children.
- Keep up with the news, and be prepared to discuss it intelligently with others.
- Read to children, old people, and your lover.
- Write your own story. Why are you a Celtic Pagan? What brought you to this place? What sacred experiences still give you the shivers when you think about them? What are your own, personal miracles?
- What else matters to you? Write it down. Tell it.
- If you play an instrument, practice regularly.
- Please participate in the Bardic SIG. It’s so good to share ideas with like-minded folks.
I’d really like for this group to be a place where we can all grow in our respective definitions of the word Bard and still have a touchstone to our Keltrian identity.
In short, be grounded in the sacred tales and storytelling technique of our forebears, but live your life and perfect your craft in the present. We cannot go back to the glory days, but we can make new ones.
[Note: The Henge of Keltria no longer has SIG Coordinators -Editor.]