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"And there are among them composers of verses whom they call
Bards; these singing to instruments similar to a lyre, applaud
some, while they vituperate others."
Diodorus Siculus Histories 8BC
The Bards were the keepers of tradition, of the memory of the tribe
- they were the custodians of the sacredness of the Word. Although
they represented the first level of training for an apprentice Druid,
we should not make the mistake of thinking that a Bard was somehow
in a lowly or inferior position. There were many levels of accomplishment,
but the most skilled of Bards were held in high esteem and partook
of many of the functions of both the Ovate and the Druid.
The training of a Bard was intense and lasted for many years. There
were variations in the curricula between Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
In Ireland it is recorded that the training lasted twelve years,
with students undergoing the following rigorous curriculum:
In the first year, the student progressed from Principle Beginner
[Ollaire] to Poet's Attendant [Tamhan] to Apprentice Satirisist
[Drisac]. During this time they had to learn the basics of the bardic
arts: grammar, twenty stories and the Ogham tree-alphabet .
Over the next four years, they learnt a further ten stories each
year, a hundred ogham combinations, a dozen philosophy lessons,
and an unspecified number of poems. They also studied dipthongal
combinations, the Law of Privileges and the uses of grammar.
By his sixth year the student, if he had stayed the course, was
called a Pillar [Cli] and would study a further forty-eight poems
and twenty more stories.
Over the following three years, he was termed a Noble Stream [Anruth]
because 'a stream of pleasing praise issues from him, and a stream
of wealth to him'1. During this time he learnt a further 95 tales,
bringing his repertoire up to 175 stories. He studied prosody, glosses,
prophetic invocation, the styles of poetic composition, specific
poetic forms, and the place-name stories of Ireland.
The final three years of his training entitled him to become an
Ollamh, or Doctor of Poetry, passing through the grades of Man of
Learning [Eces] and Poet [Fili]. In his tenth year the student had
studied further poetic forms and composition, in his eleventh year
100 poems, and in his twelfth year 120 orations and the four arts
of poetry. He or she was now the Master or Mistress of 350 stories
As Ollamh, Doctor of Poetry, he was entitled to receive a gold branch.
As Anruth, Noble Stream, he had carried a silver branch, and before
that - throughout his training - he had carried a bronze branch.
These branches had bells attached to them, so that as the poet strode
into the hall to recite a poem or tell a tale, he would be accompanied
by the sound of bells - warning the audience to become silent, and
summoning the help of the inner realms to ensoul his poem or story.
In Wales and Scotland the training of a bard was similarly rigorous,
although with different grades and a different curriculum.
O Hear the voice of the Bard
Who present, past and future sees
Whose ears have heard the holy Word
That walked among the ancient trees...
-William Blake, first Song of Experience
Knowing something of what the Bards did and how they were trained,
we can ask ourselves what relevance the Bardic work might have for
It is no coincidence that we begin our study in Druidry within the
Bardic Grade. Its importance as a foundation for our lives and character
and spiritual development is no less significant than it was thousands
of years ago, and it could be argued that it is even more essential
today than it was then. The clue to understanding why this should
be so lies in the realisation that the historical Bards worked with
Record and with Inspiration. One of the prime reasons for modern
man's sense of alienation lies in the fact that he has cut himself
adrift from both the natural world and from the roots of his past.
Practising Druidry is about healing this alienation - reconnecting
to our past and to the world of nature. In the Bardic grade we open
ourselves to the restorative power of the Druid understanding of
Nature - we allow the Mandala of the Eightfold Seasonal Cycle, explained
in the next chapter, to be grounded in our beings. Working with
Record means working with heritage, lineage, and the mythology and
stories of the tribe. Working with Inspiration means opening ourselves
to our inner creativity.
The Bardic stream is not simply a body of knowledge we once possessed
and which we attempt to regain - it is a spiritualised mode of artistic
creative consciousness which is dynamic and living - the future
holds as much, if not greater promise than the past.
In the Bardic Grade we open to what it means to be living on the
earth with the ability to be creative. Although this is the first
stage of Druid training, its purpose reaches to the very heart of
Druidry - which is the development of a mastery of the powers of
generation - at the Bardic level this involves the generation of
creative works - of music, song, poetry and art in all its forms.
In the Ovate and Druid work we relate to this power in the same
way but we also become concerned with generating healing and love,
ideas and light. The Bard's knowledge of and skill with the power
of the Word becomes magical with the Druid: understanding the creative
force of sound, the Word is used to generate seeds of light that
echo through creation.