What is a Bard?

What is a Bard?

Bard, n 1. A poet, traditionally one reciting epics; 2. the winner of a prize for Welsh verse at an Eisteddfod. (O.E.D.)


The classic image of the Bard based upon Thomas Gray’s poem, by John Martin, 1817

The above definition, however limited and unsatisfactory, at least suggests two things about a Bard relevant to our present purposes, a. A Bard was skilled in poetic language; b. A Bard won prizes with her skill, through a public ceremony or competition. Both of these notions are ancient but hold true. For the Twenty First Century I think we need to both look back and forward for a suitable definition. In the Celtic Tradition, the Bard was recognised as a combination of the following:

*Remembrancer (chronicler of their community/lorekeeper, e.g. genealogies)
*Voice of the tribe/the people/the land/the ancestors
*Seer-poet (Awenyddion/filidh)

I think all of these are applicable to the present, yet some imaginative interpretation may be required, indeed essential. A Bard has no need to be archaic in his methods or material. We are not trying to recreate an idealised notion of the past here, but expressing what always needs to be expressed: the eternal truth, the voice of the land, the wisdom of our ancestors, and the soul of the people. The Bard’s existence should be justified by their relevance to their community. A Bard should never rest on his or her laurels.

In the modern era, what should a Bard be able to do? The following suggestions are by no means intended to be prescriptive or exhaustive. Each Bard interprets their role in accordance with their awen:

  • Remember and recite.

  • Tell stories of old and create new ones.

  • Compose and perform poems.

  • Research and disseminate Bardic lore.

  • Use an instrument of some kind &/or their voice as an instrument (in song).

  • Use the magic of words for healing & inspiring, in a responsible way.

  • Teach, either directly (through workshops) or indirectly (through performance).

  • Raise the Awen.

  • Have a working understanding of the Ogham, Runes or other magical lexicons.

  • Be able to speak one of the Celtic languages/the endangered tongue of their culture. If not, at least have a fascination with the mysteries of language, word origins, etc.

  • Have ‘mythic literacy’ – be steeped in myths, legends, folk tales, fairy stories; recognise the different characters, common motifs and so on.

  • Explain Bardic Chairs. Enter and judge Eisteddfodau when asked.

  • Promote peace, reconciliation, understanding and healing.

Such a list is asking to be challenged and subverted – and I would not expect anything less from a modern Bard worth their salt – but you have to start somewhere. Being a twenty first century Bard is to be in a role constantly redefining itself to the needs of the present, and to the idiosyncracies of the individual.

Extract from the forthcoming ‘The Bardic Chair: inspiration, invention, innovation’ published by Skylight Press early 2016


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