Today in questions from my community we have this amazingly awesome, if slightly complex question.
'What are the duties, responsibilities, of being the Bard?' or 'What does it mean when someone steps into a bardic role.'
As anyone who is in my social network will know, I really love a good question. The kind that brings about a deep discussion and gets the mind firing. For me a question is an open invitation to exchange ideas and share perspectives and that is something that I really value. I will have all the time I can spare for a well thought out question.
So lets talk bards then. The first thing that comes to mind when general folk think of the word bard is either William Shakspeare, known in some literary circles as The Bard, or if your me... a D&D player class who is all about entertaining. The show and dance, the mischief and magic. A jester or jongler out to make their living by tumbling, juggling, or prat falling. What I was intrigued to find in my exploration of ancient Ireland was something all together different to my preconceptions.
Bard's were trained as almost a specialist class of draoi or druid. It was a highly educated position and one that came with a lot of responsibility and no little amount of power. Ancient Ireland was known to hold to an oral tradition. Even though there was Ogham, our first written language, it was through story that our people were first exposed to learning. Bards were trained from childhood to remember. Not just entertaining tales of adventure, but also family lineage, heroic accomplishment, or even failures and lapses in hospitality. As I am fond of saying....if a hero slays a dragon in a forest and a bard isn't there to compose the epic tale...did they even do it? Of course I'm making light of things as is my way, but being a bard was serious business. A person's claim to land or deed, or inheritance could be based on their lineage. If a bard wasn't there to provide that record then what validity could the claim hold? How can a people progress and avoid the mistakes of the past if there was no one who remembered them? No one to provide the 'cautionary tale' or instill in people the 'morale of the story'? To understand the true power and importance of the Bard, one must consider the importance of not just joy at an evenings entertainment, but also the importance of memory, history, and even language itself.
So let us consider is the power of words. From our earliest childhood, it is words that help us understand the world in which we live. It's these vocal sounds that help us identify 'Dada', 'Mama', 'dog' or 'tree'. The words we are given help describe the thing in our minds. Yet more than just describe it, they inherently define the thing, and in some cases our relationship to the thing, all in one set of sounds. If the first person never pointed to a tree and said 'tree' then would it actually be a tree? Maybe that's a bit existential but lets consider something a little more specific. In modern Irish the word for green is glás yet when we look back to older language there wasn't just green. It was listed as a descriptive of various shades of light green and blue, passing from grass-green to grey. Who knows, maybe Ireland should be known less for its green fields and more for its grey skies, both of which could have been referred to as glás. Maybe that might be a better example of how the language can define our understanding of a thing.
It could be fair to say that the stories which we experience often define our perceptions. Its through our perceptions that we experience reality. So, in some way, the stories define reality. For example, what if you heard a story about an Irish Dagda bard who might have a perspective to share with you. You are interested of course but what if that story had mentioned he was, in some way, 'rude' or 'egotistical'? Would you still be inclined to engage with that person? The stories we are exposed to inform our choices in a very real sense. If someone you trust says don't go to this or that coffee house for some reason, it could be fair to say you would at least hesitate the next time it's suggested as a venue. This again is an aspect of bardic power. A person in a position of trust, who records and remembers the stories, can literally change reality by the words they choose to share.
One of the other key aspects of ancient Irish bardic purpose was to function as a balance to those in power. The druidic role often sat just outside certain tribal power structures and that was why some of them functioned as Brehons or judges. Holding the knowledge of the laws and ensuring that fair justice is given by their decisions. Bards too held a facet of this power. Existing just outside the defined power structure they could observe and record the actions of rulers through out the land. It was even widely established that a person would be found unfit to rule, should a bard place a lawful satire against them. One of the clearest examples of this from the Irish mythology is when Bres, the king of Ireland, mistreats a bard who came to his court at Tara. The bard was put aside and given the scraps of a feast for their meal. They warned the king to make things right by them but Bres ignored the warning. As such the Bard had a) grounds for honest grievance in the poor hospitality the king offered and b) justification in the king's reluctance to address the matter, allowing him to place a legal satire against the king. This took the form of a tale, which of course the bard would tell everyone. A tale of the in hospitality of the king, his disrespect for those skilled in art, and his breach of what is considered right and just of a ruler under the law. This satire was the final step in undermining the false rule of Bres and lead to him being deposed. What came next of course was the Second Battle of Moytura, where Bres returned with a Fomorian war host to try seize power. Interestingly to me is the fact that, as far as we know, at no point was the judgment of the bard questioned. At no point were they called to give an accounting of their story. This was bardic truth, and regardless of the consequences, the truth must be told. As the example of Bres shows, even those at the highest levels of authority were still subject to the power of the bard and held accountable for their actions.
The power of satire was such that some bards could use it to cause literal blemishes appear on a person's face, so that their shame would be publicly known. Of course the intent of any satire should always be in keeping with the highest ideals. True bards would always use this power wisely to ensure those in the highest stations didn't err from that which is Right and Just. Bards held everyone accountable as they were the ones who kept the account. In an early society where ones very existence could hinge on the value of your name, where your position within society is directly linked to your deeds, it was widely accepted that one should never mess with a bard.
Being a bard is not easy. Sure its about sharing an entertaining story and providing delight and engagement, but its also about observing, recording, remembering and using the power of words to ensure the Right and Just rule of a tribe. We are each of us a collection of stories. Some good, some bad. Some joyful, some sad. It's the stories that we choose to focus on that define who we are as a person. It's the stories we share in together and propagate as a group that define us a tribe. Its the stories that we allow our tribes to engage with that define us as a people.
Those who know the stories, those who help others choose the right kind of stories, those that help people experience the good, bad, joyful, and sad; they are the Bards.
As I said, being a bard is was pretty serious deal.
If this has been any use to you and you would like to know some more about Irish story and even a few examples of ancient bards, I have a few videos on you tube HERE
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An Scéalaí Beag
We all have thoughts and perspectives and opinions. Its simply part of the human condition as a socialized species. So In the interest of insight, this is where I will share my perspective and opinions.