The earliest representations of bards are found on pottery found in modern-day Austria, dating from about 800 BCE. The bards are shown playing lyre-like instrumentsand wearing shirts and trousers with diamond patterns.
The picture to the left shows a bard of the 1st century BCE, wearing a torque, or neck-ring, and holding the Gaulish lyre called a chrotta, forerunner of the traditional badic harp. A smaller, bronze figure of a bard from the same period shows him wearing a costume similar to that worn 700 years earlier, as described above.
From classical writers such as Diodorus Siculus, we know that bards of these early times composed verse of praise and blame. Julius Caesar (c.100-44 BCE) tells us that “students of Druidism… have to memorize a great number of verses – so many, that some of them spend twenty years at their studies.” (De Bello Gallica)
Medieval British and Irish literature confirm these roles. Medieval bards studied in colleges, a system that survived until the 18th century in some areas. Even at this late period, there were teaching methods in these bardic colleges that hark back to a much older time. One is the emphasis on learning by rote rather than relying on books. Another is the practice referred to as ‘the cell of song,’ in which bards were shut up alone in darkened, silent cells for a day and a night to ‘incubate’ a poem.
In earlier times, bards were part of the retinue of the nobility, and it was to them that much of their praise poetry was directed. In Britain, this system began to break down in Tudor times, when many of the Welsh nobility moved to London. It ended completely following the closure of the last of the bardic colleges in the 18th century, after which bards turned to the general population for support, setting up ‘hedge schools’ and entertaining in taverns.
In 1760, James Macpherson, a Scottish schoolmaster, published poetry dealing with the exploits of legendary Irish warrior, Fionn mac Cumhaill. MacPherson claimed they had been composed in the 2nd century CE by Fionn’s son, Ossian, and had survived in Scots oral tradition. Although they were forgeries, they were very fine poems and sparked a revival of interest in genuine bardic poetry and traditions.
Public interest was further fuelled in 1792, when a Welsh stonemason called Edward Williams held a ceremony on Primrose Hill in London, claiming it to have been handed down from time immemorial by the bards of his home county of Glamorgan. It was the ceremony of the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain, and Edward Williams promoted it under his bardic name of Iolo Morganwg. He had, of course, written it himself, just as he invented the costumes, stone circles and other regalia that went with it.
Nevertheless, it sparked the imagination of the public and to this day, Iolo’s ceremony can be seen every year at the National Eisteddfod in Wales. Notable members of the Gorsedd today include the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (which does not, of course, mean that Rowan Williams is a Pagan, as the Welsh Gorsedd is a Christian cultural organisation that has nothing to do with Paganism). Iolo was also a talented poet, though he often passed off his own poems as the work of earlier, better-known bards. He was also a great promoter of Welsh language and culture, whose enthusiasm ultimately led to the foundation of the National Library of Wales and the University of Wales.
The 19th century saw the publication of English translations of medieval bardic works such as the Welsh Mabinogion and poems of Taliesin, the Irish Book of Invasions and many others. These in turn fuelled the Celtic literary, artistic and cultural renaissance that came to be known as ‘The Celtic Twilight.’ Notable figures of this time include W. B. Yeats, AE (George Russell), Lady Augusta Gregory, and Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp).
There are many fine bards operating today, among whom I would single out Robin Williamson and Alan Stivell as two of the finest. The new generation of bards draw inspiration from the past, learning and performing older poems, stories and songs as well as composing new material of their own. To see a fine bard in performance is a deeply magical, profoundly moving experience. Touched by their gift of awen, we find our own inspiration and creativity awakened. And so the awen is passed on…