The Bardic Ideal
by Alferian Gwydion MacLir

ANY PEOPLE wonder what the adjective "Bardic " means. Remarkably few people have any association with the word "bard." Yet the Bards were one of the most powerful and valued classes of people in the ancient Celtic world, respected as much as kings, and often moreso. That respect for the poet is still quite visible in Irish and Welsh culture, as well as other parts of what has come to be known as "the Celtic fringe" of Great Britain. The word "bard" comes from the ancient Welsh term for poet. In ancient and medieval Wales the bards were musicians and poets, but also historians of a sort, pledged to the preservation of their culture. They sang the laws and the heroic tales of the people and they praised worthy kings and noblemen by recounting their genealogies, often traced back to heroes and gods. When leaders were evil or selfish, the satires of the bards brought down ridicule and a loss of face that even the most powerful feared. They created the legends of heroes and of the gods. Indeed, some of the most famous of the Irish pagan divinities were accomplished at harp, song, and the enchantment of words - Lugh of the Long Hand, Ogma Sunface, and the Dagda himself.

As a consequence, the bards were highly respected and when they traveled around the country from village to town to castle, they were received with high honors and given many gifts in exchange for the service they performed. It was customary in ancient Ireland, for bards to be paid in cows and horses, the measure of wealth in that agrarian society. The bardic poets are often associated with medieval troubadours and minstrels, or court poets supported by noble lords and ladies. To the bards is attributed the survival of the "Matter of Britain" which evolved through the troubadours of France and Brittany into the Arthurian Romances. This same tradition, with its roots in Welsh and Irish myths, has been endowed with a mystic or esoteric dimension by such writers as Robert Graves in his famous book, The White Goddess. The very term "bard" seems to impart a kind of supernatural power of enchantment and magic, which is perhaps why it is used as an honorific for "The Bard," William Shakespeare as the archetype of English poetry and drama.

Today, in a Western culture that respects and reveres engineers more highly than poets or scholars, we can easily underestimate the importance of bards in Celtic societies. It is thought that the bards were one of three grades within the community of the Druids, those holy men and women of the oak groves who were for the ancient Celts healers, judges, prophets, and priests. The Druids were the leaders of society, revered for their long education, and the bards are thought to be the first, most fundamental grade in the Druid orders.

Educated for as much as twenty years, bards memorized vast numbers of poems and learned to compose and extemporize in hundreds of verse forms and rhyme schemes that were traditional in the Irish and Welsh tongues. They learned of the interconnection among all things and the importance of the cycles of the seasons and of birth and rebirth. Cycles of human life, of the seasons, and song cycles proclaimed the wonder, glory, and beauty of the Creation. The bards used the arts of memory to preserve the stories of their people, the myths and legends that told them who they were and where they came from. Stories of the old gods and goddesses and the Sidhe-folk gave the mysterious universe meaning in a very similar way as the explanations of science offer modern Westerners stories that create a sense of meaning out of the chaos of experience.

The other grades in the Druid order -- the Ovates and the Druids, as they were named -- carried the student on into the lore of healing, law, natural philosophy, and right reverence towards all things. These scholars studied methods of prophesy and sacrifice, which they performed in their sacred groves of oak and ash. Animals and trees were, for the Druids, sacred and holy beings to be respected for their age and wisdom and their deep knowledge of earth, water, and stone. Spirits lived in the trees as they lived in men and women, and indeed in all things. Sun, moon, stars, and the very cycles of time were linked in a spiritual, astral dimension of coordinated interdependence.

Modern scholars of the Druids long believed that the tradition died out, even though there are surviving references to bards as late as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But whatever the truth may be about the institutional dimension of druidry, and the bardic tradition, it is certain that in the late eighteenth century the rediscovery of these old, pre-Christian teachings captivated the imaginations of many.

Poets of the Romantic Movement in particular fancied themselves to be the inheritors of the old mantle of the ancient bards, a calling to poetry that bordered on the holy. They were to be prophets, calling out to their nations to return to the old ways of unity with nature. It is not surprising that the resurgence of druidry should occur at the same time as the emergence of the Industrial Revolution that so altered the landscape of Britain. William Blake wrote famously of those "dark Satanic mills" that were blighting the "green and pleasant land" of Albion in his time. Those Satanic mills have only grown more vast and powerful since Blake's day.

During the Druid Renaissance of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, new orders of that philosophy were founded in an attempt to recapture the ancient British and Gaelic spiritual heritage that had been so thoroughly wiped out first by the Romans and later by the Christians. Groves which seem to have existed as early as the 17th century, came together in the 18th to form the Ancient Druid Order and the Order of the Universal Bond. The Welsh Eisteddfod and Gorsedd of Druids was reinstated after having almost been extinguished by English prejudice against the all the Celtic peoples. It was during this Druid Revival that associations were made between the Druids and the many stone circles and standing stones scattered throughout Britain and Europe. The Celts and their prehistoric ancestors produced these monuments, and although the oldest historical references we have to Druids come from the Roman writers of the first century BC, nevertheless, the claim was made that Druidry represented a profoundly ancient philosophy of the same stature as Taoism in China and Pythagoreanism in Greece - and perhaps even older.

Poets such as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Burns, and James MacPherson (the ostensible rediscoverer of the "Ossian" poems) saw themselves as part of the tradition of the poet as visionary and prophet, seeing more deeply into the truth of things than other men. Blake, in particular, sought a poetic style that combined the prophets of the Biblical Judaic tradition with the Druids of Albion. For Blake the Druids and their human sacrifices represented a priesthood of literalism, the sort he hated and satirized in his own time. The Bard, on the other hand, was the voice of the Divine Imagination. Blake considered that religious feeling and imagination were intimately linked and the greatest evil came from mistaking one's religious myths for literal facts and seeking to impose them on others. The Bard, for Blake, epitomized the life of the Artist - a person who looked upon the world and human experience and found a medium through which to express a unique vision, not dogmas or dry sacred scriptures. Bard and prophet were one and the ancient Britons could lay as much claim to their own visionary and prophetic tradition in Merlin and Taliessin as could the Hebrews and Mohammedans. The significance of this can be easily lost on us today, but in its time it was a radical challenge to Christian orthodoxy which claimed that the scriptures and myths of the Bible were literally true and were indeed the only truth worth having.

During the Romantic period, Stonehenge became a symbol of the Druid religion and groups in England and the rest of Britain sought to restore such sacred sites to their supposed original uses as places of ceremony. Subsequent understanding of the age of the megalithic monuments of Britain led to the realization that they pre-dated the classical Druids described by Caesar and other classical authors by many centuries. The makers of Stonehenge seem likely to have been pre-Celtic inhabitants of Britain and yet modern druids embrace the ancient neolithic monuments just as surely as the image of the Iron Age sages.

Later in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries theories were advanced that Stonehenge and many other stone alignments and circles were in fact complex solar and lunar observatories. Their purpose, it was suggested, was to predict and mark the precise moments of sun and moonrise on the principal quadrants of the calendar: the equinoxes and solstices. Such interpretations of the stone rings are nowadays almost taken for granted, so powerful is that interpretation, and as a result the Druids have joined many other ancient cultures, such as the Mayans and the Babylonians, in their possession of highly advanced astronomical knowledge. Equally impressive are the mathematical and engineering knowledge required to construct megalithic structures such as Stonehenge.

The end result for us today is the perception that northern Europe and the Celts did possess a highly refined culture, both in terms of science and scholarship, and in terms of the arts. The Celts and Germanic tribes reviled by our Classical Roman authors as "barbarians" were, it seems something much more complex. It is intriguing that this realization comes during the same historical period when anthropologists have discovered that so-called "primitive" societies throughout the world are in fact highly complex and possess arts, mythologies, and knowledge of healing that rival those of the "developed" West.

Traditional British Druidry traces the Bards forward in time too, through the Christian era and the medieval troubadours who preserved many of the elements of Welsh legends in the Arthurian Romances. In the medieval period, even after Druids ceased to be a political and intellectual force in Britian and Ireland, the role of the bards continued. Poets were entertainers when few other forms of entertainment were available. They also sang the praises of the noble lords and ladies and so gained their favor and added to their fame. The bards could also satirize and even curse with their songs if a noble host was stingy or disrespectful of their order. In a culture in which armed warriors ruled with few restrictions on their behavior, the bards and troubadours became the conscience of the military ruling class. It was no small embarrassment for a king to be satirized for his poor leadership qualities -- just as today political leaders are lampooned by editorial cartoons and television comics.

However, it is in the Matter of Britain that the Troubadours were instrumental in preserving something of the ancient wisdom of the Druids. In the story of the Holy Grail there is not only an echo of the Cauldron of Ceridwen that brewed wisdom, or that of the Dagda named "Undry" because it was never dry and produced constant abundance, especially of porridge. There is a thread of mystic wisdom that has appealed to generations. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table -- Parsifal, Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad -- remain among the most popular and inspiring of legendary heroes - culture heroes of a people hearkening back and conjuring in their present a greatness in their culture that could not be extinguished by the conquests of Rome, the Saxons, or the religious missionary zeal of the Roman Catholic Church. Arthur would return, and has returned. How many are the movies made in the last few decades about King Arthur and Merlin?

Today there is greater interest than ever in the Arthurian stories and the mysteries they hold for human conduct and nobility. There are many Mordreds still at large in the world, corrupting their fellow humans and seducing them into selfishness and violence, and disregard for women and children. The Bardic ideal is about the elevation of the human spirit through art, music, story, and the understanding of the human faculty of imagination. If one truly understands Imagination, one can never engage in religious war or the brutal defense of such imaginary constructs as "the nation" or "the state." Kings, and all the rest of us too, are creatures of myth.

Alferian Gwydion MacLir


Minneapolis, November 2004