§ 5. Who were the Bards and Poets?
The popular image we have of Bards is, as you might expect, not quite like the historical reality. Bards were considered cheap entertainers, outclassed by the fili, the poets. The poets had far more respect because they had tougher responsibilities: in addition to musicianship and poetic composition, they were responsible for memorizing the histories and genealogies (very important to ensure the continuity of a political dynasty’s power) and were also capable of magic. The poets were very close to the Druids in that respect, and the mythologies describe many Druids who were poets as well. The difference here between bards and poets is rather like the difference in medieval times between minstrels and troubadours. Minstrels were traveling musicians whose usual repertoire consisted in praise for the military exploits of their employers, or of the military life in general, and also in comic entertainment like juggling acts, clowning, and even toilet humor. Troubadours, on the other hand, performed music and poetry on more sophisticated themes, especially on the theme of romantic love, and generally performed for a more educated audience.
A Druidic-poet was expected to be able to perform what were called the “three noble strains”, which was music to inspire laughter, tears, or sleep. Poets and Bards were guaranteed to receive special hospitality wherever they went, and be free from insult, among other rights. A breach of these rights would allow them to compose a satire-poem that would tarnish the offender’s reputation for generations to come. In Ireland, Bards and Poets survived up until at least the 17th century. Some of the ancient Druids found that they were able to survive by becoming travelling poets. We also have a record of an edict by Queen Elisabeth the 1st of England outlawing the “poets and lewd rhymers” of Ireland. They were providing a national communications network for the Gaelic nobles, and they had a habit of portraying the English nobles in a very bad light.
The last of Ireland’s great bards in the old Gaelic tradition was a harper named Turlough O’Carolan, who lived in the 1700’s. He was blind from the age of 18, due to smallpox, and was apprenticed to a harper so he could still earn a livelihood. One night, apparently after an evening of very heavy drinking, he fell asleep on the walk home between the hills of Si Beag and Si Mor (in Ireland’s county Leitrim). These two hills are also the location of two underground faerie forts: one rules the surrounding territory from Bealtaine to Samhain, the other rules from Samhain to Bealtaine. During the night he was able to hear the music of the faerie hosts in his sleep, and the music continued to reverberate in his head for most of the rest of his life. The music he composed thereafter we can say is actual faerie music, or inspired by faerie music. It has become a standard part the repertoire of nearly every traditional Irish musician today. O’Carolan’s “planxties”, for instance, were tunes composed in honor of families who gave him room and board as he traveled around Ireland. And in old Gaelic fashion, O’Carolan would recite a glam (a curse or a satire) on someone who refused to offer him hospitality. One of them, in loose English translation, ran like this:
Alas! As Hell’s gates are kept by O’Flynn!
So surely the dog would let no one in.
The life of O’Carolan, then, we can take as a fine example of the Bardic life in a Celtic society, as near as we are able to tell.
The bards and poets fill a special social function not filled by others. They are the keepers and transmitters of culture. A community has a history, and by taking part in community one takes part in its history as well. The history of one’s community is an inheritance which forms a large part of one’s social identity. Indeed every role one plays as a member of a community, be it a family role, an occupational or professional role, or even the spiritual path one commits to, also has a history. Insofar as I take on these roles I take on their history as well. Even original composition, when it is clearly a part of a living tradition, serves to keep and to transmit culture, and so help people know who they are. The songs, stories, histories, genealogies, and so on which forms a Bard’s repertoire embodies the very past which informs everyone’s present social identity and relations, being either a commemoration of certain people or events, whether historical or mythological. Through original composition on those events, and on events as they happen, the bard brings the community forward into the future. Her repertoire expresses the values and shared cultural commitments that in large measure makes a community what it is.
§ 6. Who were the Warriors?
It is difficult to describe the life of an Iron Age Celtic warrior to twentieth century people living in modern western societies, because there is very little that is comparable. A young boy in Celtic society was “initiated” into manhood when an elder of the tribe gave him his first weapons. Roman writers frequently said that all grown Celtic men were “mad for war”, and that they were constantly preparing themselves for the next cattle raid, the next border incursion, the next territorial conquest. They would drink heavily (Romans used to mix water in their wine, whereas Celts drank their wine “straight”) and boast about what great fighters they are and what great deeds they would do at the next battle. An insult against their honor might trigger a sword fight. These warriors were rough, dangerous, bombastic and proud young men, assured of their greatness and the greatness of their tribe. The nearest modern day equivalent would be the typical British football hooligan.
However, the energy and recklessness of the ancient Celtic warrior was also tempered by allegiances to tribes and territories, and to high-minded notions of honor, reliability, trustworthiness, and fair play. These allegiances are more important to a Celtic warrior than how deadly and dangerous a fighter she is. The custom of fosterage, in which a child would be raised by another family for half of his childhood, created strong and complex bonds of solidarity. This enabled fighters to share in each other’s honor. They made it important for each fighter to uphold his own honor lest he bring shame upon his friends and family. Warriors like Asterix and Obelix, although they are cartoon characters, exemplify this spirit very well. Among the members of an Irish mythological army called the Red Branch Knights, it was important that only honourable noblemen can be members, and that they commit themselves to the protection of the province of Ulster, whatever their personal allegiances and prejudices might be. It was also important for warriors to have a sense of dry humor. At the end of the Battle of Clontarf, when the Irish king Brian Boru expelled the Vikings from Ireland, one Viking warrior was found not fleeing to the ships with the others, but instead nonchalantly tying up the straps of his shoes. When questioned by an Irish captain by the name of Kerthialfad, the warrior said, “I live in Iceland, and would not be able to get home tonight”. Kerthialfad spared him.
A custom known as the “single combat” enabled Celts to earn personal glory on the battlefield and also keep the number of casualties down. The two fighting sides would line up and challenge each other with noise, taunts, threats, boasts, and curses. It is probable that each tribe had its own battle-chant, connected with a choreography of threatening gestures, rather like the way the Maori tribes of New Zealand have a battle chant called the Haka. (Even today, the “All Blacks”, New Zealand’s national rugby team, chant the Haka before every game.) At some point during all of this mad shouting, a single fighter would step forward and challenge the best fighter of the other side to a one-on-one combat, often to the death. The outcome of the entire battle, then, would be decided on the outcome of these warrior line-ups and single combats. This enabled conflicts to be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed.
One group of Celtic warriors worth special mention is the Fianna, a class of outlaw warriors, typically adolescents and young adults. Fianna may spend their time living off the land, travelling, cattle raiding, and experiencing some freedom. There was a mystical dimension to them. Many Fianna bands required their members to learn music and poetry. And Fianna legends are filled with magical hunting expeditions, in which white animals with red ears lead hunters on a wild chase through unknown territory, after which they emerge in the Otherworld, in the presence of the gods.
Hunting was part of the life of the Celtic warrior, for hunting was an important source of their food. Yet the prey that the hunter follows is also a guide and a pathfinder in the Otherworld, in a manner reminiscent of the “totem animals” used by shaman as they travel through the spirit world. The Welsh story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, for example, brings Pwyll into the presence of Arawn, lord of Annwn (a Welsh word for the Otherworld) while the two of them were hunting after the same stag. Most societies across the world that have hunted for their food have developed rituals to affirm and strengthen that brotherhood with the animals they hunt, and to bring the hunted animals back again. It is very difficult to convey this idea when the animals we eat are captive, fed with hormones and genetically selected, and the preservative-laden meat we purchase bears little resemblance to the animal it came from. It is sometimes believed that the hunted animal chooses the hunter, and allows itself to be caught and killed. But it does not make it easy for the hunter, so that the hunter is not allowed to forget the danger involved, and not allowed to be casual about bringing death to other beings. After all, the same death will some day come to him in return. If a hunter caught something, it might be because the quarry found him worthy. The hunter’s honorable character is thus one of the things he needs to be a successful hunter. In this way the relationship between predator and prey is not one of competition nor antagonism, but of love and kinship.
I am happy to be friends with several people in both Ireland and other countries who are part time battle re-enactors. They “perform” at festivals and public events, using actual (blunted) steel weapons, not padded plastic tubes, to make their fighting skills as authentic, and as disciplined, as possible. Most of the ones I have met also take their role as warriors to heart in other parts of their lives. They are prepared for action at almost any time, yet they are also judicial and prudent in the actions they choose. They do not go out of their way to court danger. They don’t even like to draw attention to themselves. When called upon, they do no more and no less than what needs to be done. What distinguishes a warrior is not his or her ability to obstruct or harm people, even if a righteous cause can be said to justify the action. Rather, a warrior is someone willing to risk danger and suffer harm, or even death, in the service of a righteous cause. Thus, warriors are not just soldiers, police men, or firemen; they are also women’s shelter workers, food bank volunteers, ambulance attendants, and third-world relief workers. They are in the fight for social justice, human rights, and environmental protection. I spent many years on this path myself, first as an environmentalist and then as a labor union activist. Many people follow the warrior path without knowing it.
§ 7. Can Women become Druids, Bards, or Warriors?
Yes. The mythologies many women who were powerful warriors, excellent poets, and wise Druids. In fact Celtic women enjoyed more freedom and rights than women most other cultures of the same time in history. They had the right to enter battle, own and inherit property, trace her kinship through her mother’s family line, and to choose and divorce her husband. The Irish hero Cú Chullain was trained by a land-owning warrior queen named Scathach, for whom the Scottish island of Skye is named. The Welsh heroine Bloduedd can be seen as a positive role-model for women: although she was magically created to be Lleu’s wife she made her own choice to love another man. Similarly the Irish beauty Deirdre, betrothed before birth to Conchobor, chose to love Naoise and preferred to flee the country than marry a man she did not love. The enormously popular novel, The Mists of Avalon, re-presented some of the Arthurian stories from the point of view of the lead female characters, and interpreted them as representing a conflict between the falling world of the Earth Goddess and the rising world of Christianity. Morganna le Fey, traditionally cast as an evil witch, is presented (quite appropriately, I believe) as a priestess of the Pagan order trying as best she can to hold on to her Goddess, and to her independence. Mogh Roith, who was one of the greatest Irish Druids, was taught by a female Druid named Banbhuana, the daughter of Deargdhualach. Similarly, Irish women have a heroine in Queen Maeve of Cruachan, who led an army against the province of Ulster, all to establish her equality in her marriage. Queen Maeve employed the services of a Druidess named Fedelm, who had a gift for prophesy and who was asked by Maeve to predict the outcome of the war she was launching against Ulster. Fedelm predicted (correctly, as it turned out) that Maeve would be defeated.
Women were also permitted to become warriors. Fionn Mac Cumhall, from the Irish Fianna myths, was raised by two Druidesses who lived in the Slieve Bloom hills (county Laois). A woman named Asa (Irish for “Gentle”) became Fianna and took the name Ni-Asa (“Not Gentle”). Her name was shortened to “Nessa”, when she became mother to King Conchobar. Her influence was such that her son kept her name instead of his father’s name, thus: “Conchobar Mac Nessa”, or “Connor, son of Nessa”. Historical British tribal queens like Boudicca led rebellions of united Celtic tribes against the Romans.
Thus there is no good reason to believe that Druidism was strictly and unilaterally patriarchal in ancient times, and modern Druidism certainly is not patriarchal. A great many women who feel themselves disempowered or damaged by Christianity often find in Druidry a more welcoming and inclusive spiritual home.
§ 8. What are the Celtic holy days?
There are eight major festivals in all, and they are used by pagans from nearly all traditions with few shades of variation in meaning. Some are still commemorated to this day as secular festivals by people in modern Celtic countries, with bonfires, costuming, special meals, and wild parties. Four are connected to solar observations: they are the solstices and equinoxes. The other four are called “fire festivals” or “cross quarter” days and they are located on the calendar between the solar days. There is almost nothing in the literary record or in the mythologies to indicate that the Celts celebrated the solar festivals. Even the Coligny Calendar, the most important ancient calendar to have survived to our time, indicates only one special day by name: the date of Samos, the new year, around the same time as the Irish festival of Samhain. In the archaeology of the Neolithic time, the reverse is true: there is nearly no evidence for the fire festivals but abundant evidence for the astronomical days, mainly in the form of solar alignments in stone circles and other monuments. Modern Druids, of course, celebrate all eight. Although each of them deserves a whole book of its own, it is enough for the present purpose to introduce the four “fire festivals”:
• Samhain (pronounced SOW-win) The word literally means “end of summer”, and in modern Irish it is the standard word for the month of November. Games, feasts, and bonfires were held in honor of the dead, and it was believed the faeries and spirits would hold revels of their own, and sometimes invite mortals to join them. The historian Ronald Hutton has suggested that the burning of bonfires on this day is not a continuity of an ancient custom, and that there are reasons to doubt that Samhain was the Celtic New Year. However he did observe that the date has always been regarded as related to supernatural powers, and that costuming, feasting, and trickery has always been among its traditions. This festival has become the primary New Year’s festival on the Celtic calendar and the main occasion for confronting death and the supernatural. On this day it was thought that the boundary between this world and the Otherworld is weakest, and so passage between the worlds is smoother, making the night more dangerous. Festivities to honor, to banish, and indeed to make fun of these powers would have helped people psychologically prepare themselves for the hardships of the coming winter.
• Imbolc (pronounced IM-volk) The Return of Light. In Ireland and Britain, the ewes (female sheep) begin lactating around this time of year, and spring flowers start to bloom, which are the signs that spring is coming. Perhaps divinations were cast to determine when spring would come (from this practice we might have got Groundhog Day.) Imbolc celebrates the coming springtime and preparations for the planting season are begun. In Anglo-Saxon and Wiccan culture, Imbolc is sometimes called Candlemas. Imbolc was sacred to the Goddess Brigid, and the rituals on this day tended to centre upon the home and family.
• Beltaine (pronounced Bay-AL-tin-yuh). This was a day of fertility and life, often the choice day for marriages. This is the beginning of the summer half of the year, and the mid point of the seasonal cycle. Fairs, dances, and divination games to determine the identity of future marriage partners were held at this time of year. It has become the primary festival of beauty, fertility, frivolous fun, sexual play and romantic lovemaking. The Tuatha de Dannan are said to have landed in Ireland on this day, and it is also on this day when Nemed lit the first fire in Ireland, on the Hill of Uisneach, in present-day county Westmeath.
• Lughnasad (pronounced Loo-NA-sa) The Feast of Lugh. The essential harvest festival, to give thanks to the Earth for Her bounty. The name is a reference to the Irish god Lugh of the Long Hand, son of the Sun, who defeated Balor in the Battle of Maigh Tuireadh and won the knowledge of animal husbandry for His people on this day. Lugh is said to have instituted athletic games for this festival in honor of his foster-mother Taltiu who died in the battle against Balor. Accordingly, Lughnasad festivals in Celtic times were characterized by sporting competitions. It marks the end of the supplies from the previous year and the beginning of the current harvest.
When should these festivals be celebrated? In the case of the four astronomical days, there can be only one day, and indeed only one moment. The other four days were mainly agricultural festivals. Not only did they last for several days, sometimes even weeks, but it was also the case that they were celebrated when certain environmental observations were made: the blossoming of certain flowers and trees, the availability of certain harvest crops, the behaviour of certain animals. We have, then, four festivals of the Sun, located on fixed dates, and four festivals of the Earth, which are more flexible.
Just to make things easier, here are calendar dates and astrological occasions on which the eight festivals could be fixed, to space them all apart evenly and symmetrically. We can now see the complete mandala of the wheel of the Year:
• Samhain (“Halloween”), 1st of November, or 15 degrees Scorpio
Celtic New Year: a feast of the dead and of passage to and from the Otherworld.
• Midwinter Solstice, 21st December, or zero degrees Capricorn
The shortest day of the year; the death and rebirth of the Sun.
• Imbolc (“Brigid’s Day” or “Candlemas”), 1st February, or 15 degrees Aquarius
The first signs of the end of winter.
• Spring Equinox, 23rd March, or zero degrees Aries
The equal balance of night and day, with the day increasing.
• Beltaine (“May Day”), 1st May, or 15 degrees Taurus
A festival of spring fertility, of marriages, and of the transfer from the dark half of the year, that began at Samhain, to the bright half.
• Midsummer Solstice, 21st June, or zero degrees Cancer
The longest day of the year, and the height of the strength of the sun.
• Lughnasad (“Lammas”), 1st August, or 15 degrees Leo
The beginning of the harvest, and the usual time for harvesting grain crops.
• Autumn Equinox, 23rd September, or zero degrees Libra
The feast of the harvest of fruit and berries; the equal balance of night and day with the night increasing.