What Is a Bard?

WHAT IS A BARD?: The Myth & the History

al‑Sayyid Amr ibn Majid al‑Bakri al‑Amra

The word “bard” has been used in a great many ways throughout history.  Unfortunately for the purpose of the current discussion, most such references are inaccurate, inappropriate, and / or just plain wrong ‑‑ at the same time that they may be “right” for the person speaking or writing.  Among other issues, it is important to consider the time‑frame of the “voice” speaking, the culture from which they come, and the origins of the person being spoken of.  The inexactitudes of English and other modern languages are further compounded when even well-learn’d scholars have been known to muddy the issue through loose applications of the term “bard”.  (Modern authors are noted for their tendency to the reductio, often to the point of in absurdio, in other matters — why not in this as well?)

The equation of bard equal poet is often made, and is supportable in certain specific contexts.  The inverse, poet equal bard, can not always be said to apply.  The Welsh formalities, and the tightly controlled style so lovingly summarized and portrayed by Robin of Gilwell (Jay Rudin) within the structures of the same {[1]}, are the strongest example I am familiar with.  And even those strictures may tend to confuse matters more thoroughly than they might explain them (every Welsh bard after a certain point in time had to have composed in each of twenty-four schemes to be accorded the title of bard, but the term in general still transliterates as “poet”).

Some authors within “modern” times make this verbal distinction between bard and poet differently: Robert Graves (in his influential work The White Goddess) distinguishes between Muse-poets, inspired by “the Goddess” as personally experienced, and Apollonian poets, praising the patriarchal kingdoms and related institutions.  Geoffrey Ashe (The Discovery of King Arthur) uses “bard” more loosely, but echoes an important related theme:

The Druids were a close-knit, highly trained religious order, an immensely influential elite.  They were priests, scholars, bards, royal counselors, and seers.  They flourished in Ireland and Gaul as well, but their advanced colleges were in Britain. {[2]}

Historical Variations & Terminologies

Professional storytellers among the ancient Greeks were called _rhapsodes_, and were organized into at least loose organizations.  (One such band were in fact known as the Homeridae.) How often are we subjected to characterizations of Homer himself as a bard, even when later Greeks strove mightily to discredit the poets for their departures from the rational (what we might call “the scientific”)? Who in the modern world would NOT accord Homer such a rank and title? Poets and folk who were most likely “true” bards are found many places throughout the surviving Greek and Roman sources.  In the Odyssey, we are told of at least two bards and a herald: Phemius, Demodocus, & Medon.  Orpheus, that great lyre-player of mythic fame who has been advanced to the rank of demi-god by several “classical” sources, was noted as “a musician of such power and sweetness that even the wild creatures would gather to listen to him”.

Patrons of the bardic arts among the ancient “Classical” non-Christian deities included Dionysus, Apollo, the Muses {[3]}, Pan, the Graces, Liber, and the old centaur Chiron.  Indeed, special note should be made of Chiron, considered “the source of the arts of healing and music”.  At least one modern observer has made the connection between this figure and the tribal traditions of horse-nomad “medicine-men” or shamans among the ancestors of the Greek culture (some one of the successive waves of invasion which served to mold the Pelasgian [sea-people], Achaean, Argive, Doric, Ionian, Mycenaean, and other Graician civilizations) {[4]}.

Non-GrecoRoman deities and related mythological figures which are associated with bards, or poets, or similar professionals such as the skalds and saga-men, include: (Norse / Germanic) Baldr, Suttung, Odin/Wotan/Woden, Kvasir, Loki, Mimir, Hoenir; (Celtic) Brigid, Lugh, Bran, Math, Ecne, and others; Coyote in the tribal lore of the American Southwest is very recognizably a storytelling inspiration AND patron; among the Botocudo of the Brazilian mountains “The master of spirits was ‘Father Whitehead’, the owner of songs and lord of the rain and the storm”.

Lucan, a Latin author of the 5th century (449ce) {[5]}, used the term “Bardi” in reference to the national poets & musicians of both Gaul and Britain.  In fact, among the old Gaelic / Celtic tribal clans, each chieftain had a household bard.  Even into the 18th century CE, the house-bard sang the lineage and deeds of the clan IN IRISH, or at the very least what we now call Gaelic, among the Highlanders of Scotland.  It has been observed by several sources that “The most influential and conservative element of Celtic society was that of the bards.” {[6]}

In the redoubtable _Oxford English Dictionary_, on “pg. 667” of the Compact Edition, we find reinforcement for the basic view of the bard-as-poet/musician as already presented here, and also intimation of his association with prophetic ability.  The word “BARD” is derived variously from Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, and Latin, in addition to Old Celtic (this last may be referred to in some other sources as “Goi(d)delic” [?]).  Definition One from the OED reads:

An ancient Celtic order of minstrel-poets, whose primary function appears to have been to compose and sing (usually to the harp) verses celebrating the achievements of chiefs and warriors, and who committed to verse historical and traditional facts, religious precepts, laws, genealogies, etc.  Still the word for “poet” in modern Celtic languages; and in Welsh _spec_: A poet or versifier who has been recognized at the Eisteddfod.

Quoted from the sources cited in the OED as supporting this definition:

from Powel writing in 1584CE _Lloyd’s Cambria_ pg. 15: “This word _Bardh_ signified such as had knowledge of things to come.”

Shakespeare, _Richard III_, 4th Act: “A bard of Ireland told me once, I should not live long after I saw Richmond.”

The entry for “bard” in the OED also supports the view of the gleeman as being the equal of both bard and scald.

Bards in Historical Celtic Society

There were definite cultural differences in the expectations associated with the station of bards even within the longest-surviving “pure Gaelic” civilizations.  Welsh & Irish bards both developed into distinct classes, with subtly differing yet well-defined views as to the hereditary and other aspects of the transmission and accordance of rights, responsibilities, and privileges granted to or reserved by the recognized bards.  Among the Welsh, the formal laws governing bards are recorded as having been first codified / regularized by Howel Dda and later substantially revised by Gruffyd ap Conan. {[7]} The Welsh are also thought of as those primarily responsible for the concept of the Eisteddfod, although it should be noted that the Irish training system of twelve year’s study culminating in the award of the title OLLAVE was in its fashion much more rigorous.  We will return to this distinction shortly.

Within the SCA, we seem to think most often of the capital-B Bard as found and defined within the Celtic, Gaelic‑speaking, cultures.  There are at least related positions found in most so‑called “primitive” peoples.  The shaman, “witch doctor”, or “medicine man” may or may not fill many of the same functions as the Celtic bard.  More than entertainer, the “true” bard was (and is) also an educator.  It was (and is) completely within his power to make or destroy reputations — and thereby whole lives.  The concept of the bardic “right of satire” is dealt with in more depth elsewhere in this study.

Even given his traditional protections, the bard was not always safe.  In at least one notable case, this was because of apparent vainglory: Taillefu, personal bard to William the Conqueror, became famous not only for advancing into England from the beach while juggling his sword and singing the tales of Charlemagne or Roland, but also for being the first man killed at the Battle of Hastings.  He had previously begged for the privilege of being allowed to strike the first blow… {[8]}

Cultural and Other Possible Bardic Equivalents

Other titular names which might be considered substantially similar to “bard” in the European cultures with which we have the best familiarity are the Norse “scop” (for the Anglo-Saxon, residents in the hall of an *atheling*, or petty king), perhaps the jongleur (France) and gaukler (in the Germanies); maybe the generally noble troubadour (southern France, northern Spain, northern Italy) & the trouve’re (northern and central France, plus some penetration into Norman England: poets similar to the troubadours); the Minnesingers of Germany (associated also with the troubadour tradition, and forerunners of the Meistersinger) *maybe* the ioculator (although this is more often associated with a type of jester?), et cetera.

It has been observed by at least one student of Jewish rabbinical history that the rabbi was, from the most ancient times, very much similar to the bard as well: above all other things, bards and rabbis are both teachers, both use parable and allegory, and both professions use music as a method of presenting their teachings.

Frank Muir, writing in the last quarter of the 20th century CE, notes that:

A certain amount of class distinction entered into music during the Middle Ages.  The Roman name for a professional musician was JOCULATOR; this became “juggler” in English and was the word used to describe the practitioners at the bottom end of the entertainment world, the conjurers, acrobats, bear-leaders and actors as well as the fiddlers. {[9]}

[Sources used in preparing this study disagree whether the following related tidbit applies more probably to the troubadour or the trouve`re: tunes used with their poems are believed by some to have been written primarily by jongleurs, or possibly apprentices / servants called “joglar”, although the poetic words associated were typically very much ‑‑ sometimes quite jealously! ‑‑ the troubadour’s own.]

Some more‑specific bardic appellations within Celtic regions include the filidh (seer: see Ioseph’s article for the relation between this and the word “druid”); ollave (master poet); and the Gogynfeirdd or Prydydd (types of Welsh “Court Poets”).  For all that oral and recorded histories do not always agree, the names of some of the most famous Celtic bards survive: Taliesin, Amergin mac Miled (also accorded the place of first Druid in Ireland), Myrddin (who is often equated with Merlin), Tuan mac Carell, Craftiny, etc.  One Welsh source quotes a “prime bard of the Cymry” named Taliesin as saying “Iddno and Heinin called me Merddin”.  Another source claims that there were three class divisions of “bards among the Druids”: Fe-Laoi (Hymnists), Senachies (epic singers & historians), and Fer-Dan (the more musical and secular wandering entertainers AND satirists). {[10]}

“Fellow-Travelers”: Entertainment Specialists

Positions and titles which it is often believed would *not* usually have been considered TRUE bards within at least the earlier portion of the SCA “period” (600ce to 1600/1650ce) include: minstrel or “menestriers” (see following paragraph for a dissenting view {[11]}); gleeman {[12]}, musician (or specific instrumentalist type such as the harpist, piper, lutanists, or the trumpeteer), juggler, “ystriones” (actors), “waits” (town pipers or bandsmen, after a fashion), goliards (minor ecclesiaticals and students: “Their writings were often frothy, sometimes obscene; their conduct was in accordance.” {[13]}) and also vagantes (“wanderers” related to the goliard); harlequins, and other “players”, etc.

Dissension Among the Experts

For some feel of just how greatly modern authorities differ in reference to the terminology, I will note in passing that under the listing for “minstrel” in the _Encyclopedia Britannica_, c. 1960ce, are also listed many of the equivalents we generally account “true bards”.  Minstrel derives from the same Latin roots as minister, which originally meant particularly and specifically “servant”.  A minstrel, by my own derivation, is therefore one who serves through music. {[14]} Minstrel guilds date back to at least 1105ce at Arras, 1321ce Paris, and 1469ce London (the London guild survives even today, as the Corporation of Musicians of London).  At least one guild (at Beverly) restricted membership to those of “position” or of proven worth (either through demonstrated skill or proof of employment by a noble household).

In the late 15th century, at least according to _Britannica_, the introduction of printing led to an increasing emphasis upon instrumental performance by minstrels and a related decline in the oral tradition.  The “wandering minstrel” as a recognized type dates generally to earlier times, and their activities are often associated with at least two general revolts (Peasants’ 1381ce, Jack Cade’s 1450ce) as well as other, lesser, riots.  Particularly following the Black Death in 1349, wandering (i.e. non‑aligned, un‑associated, non‑guild) minstrels were at continual risk of penalties for vagrancy and more serious charges.

One last nod to the _Britannica_:

“The term minstrel covered a great variety of performers.”

Significantly, at least according to one modern authority:

“There is no real equivalent to the Celtic Bard

in Anglo‑Saxon England…”

Refining the Scope of the Discussion: Pre-Christian Bardic Origins

For terms of a general discussion, serious consideration should be given to the so‑called “hedge‑Bards”, as those certainly seem to have been responsible for carrying on the real “traditions of the Bard” even after the formal ancient Pagan / Druidic schools were disbanded or taken over by Christian influences.  These were also the folk who developed and preserved many of the most important poetic cycles ‑‑ and most probably were instrumental in introducing the troubadours of France to Arthur & all his band of gentlemen, and their greatest achievements (and failures).

The “true” bards (those named Muse-poets by Graves), at least within surviving manuscript sources, were almost invariably male in Europe, the British Isles, and the majority of Old‑World “contact cultures” during the SCA “period” (fall of Rome to 1600CE).  As with most other professions, there were of course exceptions ‑‑ and some traditions of “wise women” who entertained in a fashion, in addition of course to the priestesses of pre‑Christian times and non‑Christian cultures.  There are significant survivals in ORAL tradition which indicate that the woman as bard was in some places the norm rather than the exception.  Lineages can be particularly hard to trace for another related reason: some bardic traditions also held that bards were not permitted to marry.

Male & Female Bards: First Notes

As with other aspects of life, the “male‑ness” of bards was most noticeable in cultures that included patriarchal religious structures and inheritance laws.  (How much of this bias also revolves around the nature of those who were making the written records — the monks and other Church-folk — can only be conjectured at.) For all that the bard was originally tightly associated with Goddess-worship, he also represented the respect of men for the female principle.  MUCH more about this might be included were this principally a religious discussion; as it is, some additional related comment will be found later.  As important as oral tradition has always been to bards, scholars generally reject oral sources of information in favor of permanent records such as manuscripts: in the manuscripts, where are the women bards?

UPDATE (Summary):

Additional resources have been located which affirm the existence and importance of women as fully­‑trained bards.   Among other items, a woman was one of the seven harpers at an Irish gathering in the 18th Century (Christian era) which attempted to preserve more of the repertoire that had been passed hand-to-hand.  Also collected but not yet integrated are notes about the systematic destruction of records by Church zealots and government officials charged with “correcting” inheritance records (or otherwise suppressing previous claims).

The Essentials of Being a Bard

It should be reinforced here that the true-bard, the thoroughly wonderful and honestly-complete original of which this study tries to approach, survived historically well into SCA “period” BUT was very much the child of earlier times.  What are the essentials, then, which form the quintessential bard? We may begin by noting the tradition of oral histories, the role as religious teacher, the association with “magick” such as prophecy or divination, and the incidental existence as an entertainer.  And no one aspect among these is more or less important than any other.  And the listing we start with here is by NO means complete or definitive still.  As observed by Rudyard Kipling in reference to a hypothetical poet of still earlier ages:

There are nine and sixty ways of reciting tribal lays,

And every single one of them is right!

Bardic traditions span many variations of personal approach, public conception, and historical context.  From the earliest tribal gatherings around the cook fire up through modern Neo‑Pagan survivals (we might even say with tongue only partly in cheek “revivals”), the practitioner of the bardic arts has been a valued member of the community.  So much so, in fact, that poets have been blinded, strong men deliberately lamed by hamstringing, and even fierce battles fought over the “right” to keep a particular bard in residence.  Competition, and attendant danger for the targeted bards, became so fierce in some times and places that it became necessary for bards to reserve to themselves the right of free passage ‑‑ to come or go as they please ‑‑ among other rights and defined responsibilities.  As a group, bards would enforce this by imposition of a ban against performances & other bardic services, including their priestly functions, upon the lands and holdings of any who violated this most basic of “bardic rights”.  (For those not particularly familiar with religious history, note that this method, often referred to simply as “the Ban”, was also adopted for use by the Catholic Church against the lands of excommunicated nobles at more than one time and place.)

The application of the bard’s power of satire as a retaliation was a feared consequence of offending the great and the not-so-great.  In Welsh tradition, when Arawn is offended by Prince Pwyll of Dyfed, the prince is threatened with being “satirized to the value of a hundred stags”.  In one notable occasion, a bard greeted with less than complete hospitality by an early King of Ireland composed such a powerful satire that said King was forced to abdicate in favor of a more generous man. {[15]}

Mighty bards were even said to be capable of raising blisters selectively on a human target solely through the biting heat of their performance. {[16]} Other aspects of the traditional bardic powers were said to derive from non-worldly forces as well.  Bards among the Welsh were said to receive their inspiration and power from the _awen_, a divine force raising the poet beyond his normal self and abilities.  In the resultant ecstasy-trance, the bard became something of a prophet and occasionally a type of “spirit medium” as well.

In the poetic “Cad Goddeu” (Battle of the Forest), among other sources, we find a record of the ability of the bard to change shape into any beast, human, or natural feature (granted through supernatural forces and also the power of personal will).  The bard was also believed to be able to send his spirit forth from his body, in order to move through time and space “acquiring at first-hand all knowledge”.  There certainly seems to be a close relationship between bardic prophecy and shamanism (both as practiced in Siberia and otherwise).  The “Cad Goddeu” may also be one garbled record of the Celtic cosmogony otherwise believed lost except for the version recorded in the _Barddas_.

Assorted Notes Upon Bardic Tradition & Contributions

In his role of priest in the pre-Christian faiths, the bard was also associated with the gods, just as “the shaman in his ecstasy in any case [is] identified in part with the god”. {[17]} It was believed that in at least two locations, Cader Idris or under the Black Stone of the Arddu on Mount Snowdon, an individual spending the night would descend the next morning as either a madman or a bard.

The “triduan” is a ritual fast of three day’s duration meant to induce ecstatic trance and visions derived from usage by bards.  It was one aspect of Druidic and bardic existence that was particularly absorbed into British and Irish Church practices, with very few changes made to hide the guilty.  (Fasts are associated with religious practice in many ancient / “primitive” cultures, particularly those with belief in seers and prophetic visions.)

The _Glossary of Cormac, dated to the 9th century ce, tells us of the “tugen”, or bard’s clothing, made of the skins of both white & many-coloured birds.  This garment was also called the “enchennach”, and is believed to have included in particular the feathered hides of the wild ducks that could be captured.  Reade tells us:

Their ordinary dress was brown, but in religious ceremonies they wore ecclesiastical ornaments called “Bardd-gwewll”, which was an azure robe with a cowl to it — a costume afterwards adopted by the lay monks of Bardsey Island (the burial place of Myrrddin or Merlin) and was by them called “Cyliau Duorn”, or black cowls; it was the borrowed by the Gauls and is still worn by the Capuchin friars. {[18]}

A great bard’s income could be astounding indeed.  One hundred horses, cloaks, and bracelets, along with 50 brooches “and a magnificent sword” were given to Taliesin by Cynan Garwyn at Pengwern.  Cattle, mead, oil, and even serfs were also included in rewards and largesse.

Historical Resistance to Bardic Influence

An important side‑note, a matter which I only recently become aware of through the good graces of an electronic copy of Rosario di Palermo’s previous Collegium Gradium presentation concerning “defenses” of Poetry within the Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance timeframes: poets in general, of whatever type, were barely tolerated by the Church and other authorities for many centuries.  Before the rise of the Church, philosophers since at least Classical Greek times (Plato and Socrates in particular) objected to the inaccuracies of the poet’s language.

This was based primarily upon the imagery of the poet being imitative while Philosophy was thought to be a direct revelation of Truth; but there was also a lesser but still‑strong argument based upon morality (in the words chosen by Rosario: “…it can be dangerous to the moral health of the state if poets discuss immoral acts.   They may set a bad example by appealing to the baser instincts of man.”)

Graves (_The White Goddess_) noted in reference to Socrates’ attitude a quotation from the philosopher himself, in which the man rejected myth in favor of “everything as it is, not as it appears, and to reject all opinions of which no account can be given”.  The modern author further addressed the classical by noting that:

…  by Socrates’ time the sense of most myths belonging to the previous epoch was either forgotten or kept a close religious secret, though they were still preserved pictorially in religious art and still current a fairy-tales from which the poets quoted.

Graves’ claim is also that Socrates was turning his back on the Goddess principle and religion in favor of “intellectual homosexuality”, even in the face of direct experience with the power of magic within the philosopher’s own lifetime (as evidenced by the actions, and results, of the priestess Diotima Mantinice in stopping a plague in Athens).

All of this led in part, later on, to one of the more humorous paradoxes to face the organized Christian Church in Europe.  While bards, minstrels, and other notorious poetical sources wandered the countryside spouting allegory and fable, and generally being denounced for their heresies in doing so, the churchmen found that the (thanks for the phrasing once again, Rosario!) “only way to teach large groups of people the faith was by example, by allegory ‑‑ by stories.   Jesus himself taught by means of parables and stories…” Churchmen and secular writers who used poetic forms both often resorted to the “it was all a dream” claim in order to avoid sanctions, and often wrote letters of general retraction to be released upon their deaths (Refer to Rosario’s paper for some interesting notes upon the Retraction penned by Chaucer; consider also the apocryphal tale of Marco Polo’s deathbed refusal to issue any retraction: “Father, I only told the *half* of what I saw!”)

Nikolai Tolstoy comments: “With the establishment of Christianity, the role of the bards was greatly reduced.” Previously, the telling of the genealogy of the new king or other great chief included a prophecy as to his successors.  Tolstoy’s sources otherwise also attribute this portion of the ritual of elevation variously to druids, “a Highland sennachy”, and “the Orator” at differing times and places.  As Churchmen took over the sacred portions of these rites, the tradition of prophecy concerning the future succession was abandoned.


As we have spoken of a few of the rights and responsibilities of bards, this might be a good time to consider a brief & still‑incomplete list of some of the most commonly acknowledged duties and abilities that should be considered the province of a bard.  Appendix B is one version of such a partial list (along with related commentary).

An ancient British law held three classes of employment (“professions”) to be free from slavery: smiths, scholars of languages, and bards.  “When once the smith had entered a smithy, the scholar had been polled [?], or the bard had composed a song, they could never more be deprived of their freedom.” {[19]}

As an (expanded) extract, consider that a “true Bard” might have been called upon to fulfill ANY of the task‑names which are shown in the following list at some point in his career: go‑between, judge, neutral party, arbitrator, law‑keeper (NOT — usually — law‑*giver*), satirist, saga‑singer, poet, musician, herald (particularly in some cultures in the sense of “the voice of the King”, or ambassador), story‑teller, composer of music, maker of riddles, teller of parables, historian, herbalist / healer, newsman, news commentator, messenger, teacher, student, priest, warrior, linguist, craftsman, record‑keeper, genealogist, military scout, spy, etc.

There is much else which is also considered to be in the province of the Bard.  Indeed, there is very little which is *not* to be expected of a true Bard, in either lesser or greater degree, at some time within his or her current lifetime on this plane. {[20]}

Indeed, and in both deeds and in fact, much that we associate with the “typical” Code of Chivalry has a direct relationship to the expected behaviour attributed to a bard.  Consider this: perhaps the greatest bards of all have no titles nor need for them, at least as they go about their primary work.  Bards use among other tools the parable as a way to teach others, and are expected to interpret the laws of the land (and the religion!) so that even the simplest farmer can understand it readily.  If one is willing to expand their world-view slightly, this makes one Yeshua bar Maryam the greatest bard to ever walk the planet we call Earth.  Yes, that is right: Jesus of Nazareth was by all rights a shining example of what it is to *be* a Bard (ignoring for the sake of THIS argument the significance of events of a purely religious nature and interpretation within this mortal life-frame ‑‑ I leave it to your personal discretion as to just how this may be accomplished…)

Bards as Judges & Lawyers

As noted above, one particular duty of bards was that of “keeping the Custom”: remembering, interpreting, and sometimes even passing judgement upon a basis of Customary Law.  As a portion of this responsibility, Bards would occasionally go to great lengths in order to preserve their neutrality in the consideration of a particular situation: relocating from the noble’s comfortable tower & kitchens to a village house or even a rude camp in the woods, refusing to listen to any portion or word concerning the case in advance of the hearing, and even leaving the region entirely once a judgement was rendered.  This is not to say that all called “Bard” were so conscientious: every cellar has its dusty corners waiting to be swept, and money or the promise of power has been known to speak more loudly than the righteous…

Bards as Historians & Genealogists

A related function of the bard, one which was especially important in determining the chronologies of the past and as a reinforcement to the scanty formal written records of birth and death, was the maintenance of the genealogical records.  Whether in formal rolls or chanted saga, knowledge of where one stood in relationship to an ancestor also placed the individual as regards the great moments of history.  Well into the late Renaissance and even beyond, it was common practice for the chroniclers of the European world (as well as elsewhere) to record dates in reference to the ecclesiastical calendar (how can we not remember St. Crispin’s Day, with our perspective given us courtesy of that playwright‑fellow from Stratford‑on‑Avon; who would not know the time of the year when All‑Saints Day was to be celebrated?) in combination with the time since the accession of the local monarch, or in reference to some Great Event (“in the Third Year of the Reign of Our Good and Righteous King Richard, Known to All the Christian World as the Lion‑Heart”, “in the Fourth Year Following the Great Siege of Our Duke Jean’s City of Calais”, and other similarly flowery artifices were more common than we of the modern age often acknowledge).

Keeping the genealogy was further exceptionally important due to the importance of maintaining the lines of succession, particularly for tribes and clans where political and religious power both were matters reinforced by hereditary rights.  And, to no particular surprise for modern ears, where death due to disease was even more common than death due to violent means a successor from collateral lines of descent was needed a bit more often than we today find comfortable or likely.  The need to prove relationships to a currently powerful ruling family was also important for other reasons: a man or woman’s starting place and opportunities within the social and political structure was determined almost entirely by birth‑rank.  Position at table, potential marriages, opportunity for service as a military officer, and even suitability for consideration as a clergyman OR as a “true” bard all could derive from nothing more than one’s relationship to the current chieftain, baron, jarl, or what‑have‑ye.  If you could not prove your parentage, there was even the possibility of severe penalty for impersonation of a person of true rank and privilege.

Bards as Peacemakers

Bards were also noted as restorers of the peace, as well as inciters of heroic deeds.  The old tales tell of more than one instance where two armies in full array faced each other across the field, only to be kept from the fight by the power of the bard’s song and reasoning of his arguments.

Language Drift as the Bard’s Foe

All of this was made more difficult with succeeding waves of migration, invasion, and conquest.  Tracing back through the oral records afterwards gives us some peculiar difficulties for the occurrences of the remote past.  Language changes with time, even given the best efforts of well-intended historians, grammarians, churchmen, and bards.  So do systems of calculating relative position in regards to some historical event.  For example, three of the royal figures associated with the supposed “historical Arthur” all have names translating to some form of “king” and almost certainly were titles before they were names (or were perhaps adopted when they ascended the throne, after the manner of the Roman Emperor, and later the Pope): Rigotamos (Riothamos) = “kingmost”, Vortigern = “overking”, and Vortimer = “kingmost”. {[21]} Instead of dating from the *birth* of Christ, an earlier method created by a churchman named Victorius was based upon the *death* of Christ, placing it in 28CE (784AUC).  And, unlike current practice, there was no consistent nomenclature used which might otherwise distinguish between the several variations.  When combined with other inaccuracies, and even some proven blatant distortions of the written record, ….


In the dawn of civilized history, tribes were small: it was a time when everyone could sing the oldest or the latest songs or tell any of the great tales with amazing accuracy.  “In the old days, pretty much everybody did a little bit of everything, and that included music‑making.” [Bookbinder, pp60‑75] “Songs and spoken tales were the way the great mythological stories were carried from generation to generation.” [Bookbinder pg 51] The archaeological record shows the use of buttons in Ireland at least as early as 1900bce; a rapier dated reliably to 1200BCE rests now in the National Museum of Ireland; torcs of twisted gold have been found which are at least as ancient as this blade. {[22]}

Even well into the modern age, traditions about the makers of poetry and music as holding supernatural power (along with related beliefs), survived among aboriginal peoples around the globe.  A few examples from the New World may be particularly illustrative of some ways that proto‑bardic manners and methods influence tribal life ‑‑ and the importance of “bards” to that life, when they are present:

In several tribes, one measure of the passage into adulthood was the creation of a personal song by the candidate.  Particularly among the Plains tribes in North America, the concept of the death-song was also strongly embedded in the warrior mystique.

The medicine-man or shaman was responsible in most tribes for educating the young people through story, song, and parable.  His (or her!) apprentices were required to pass through a long course of memorization of lore, history, and genealogy.

Healing ceremonies typically include the use of chants, drums, rattles, clappers, and herbal medicines.  Divine intervention is invoked by song and action.

Signal drummers in eastern Ecuador and Peru use both “male” and “female” drums to reach more than twelve kilometers.

In much the same way that Celtic bards used satire, among the Eskimo “…  conflicts here are not settled by fighting, but in a drumming contest by the persuasive power of the songs with which the opponents mock each other and reveal their mutual weaknesses and shortcomings.” {[23]}

It is well known in our time that Europeans treated in-period information returning from the Americas by European standards, and ignored “the magical and ritualistic function of Indian music and the special way it was bound up with their religion and their whole way of looking at the universe”. {[24]} Much was made of the fact that natives of the America trained in the Spanish musical style were considered creators of compositions that were indistinct from the Europeans’ work (an observation noted in a manuscript attributed to Juan de Torquemada, Seville, 1615ce).

Today, late in the 20th century CE, we realize that for the natives of the Americas, the so-called “Indians”, as for most so-called “primitive” cultures:

[…] music is not an art, but an expression or manifestation of life.  Generally speaking, he would hardly describe it as “beautiful”, but rather as “powerful” or “effective”.

Music for the individual represents a source of power and for the tribal association a means of reaching an understanding with the supernatural beings from whom they ask for all good things.

The music of the Indians is essentially religious and is functionally bound up with worship […] His music is an expression of his beliefs and hopes and his fear of the gods. {[25]}

In illustration, it should be noted that Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spanish had an “Academy of Fine Arts” at least in function, a school where singers, dancers, and musicians all met to receive training and trade information; the Lenni Lenape maintained a tribal chronicle in pictographs carved on wood said to trace back to the Flood; in Tierra del Fuego “The harsh austerity of their environment greatly developed a strong inclination toward magic and religious conceptions.  They had a rich store of myths”. {[26]} At least some Native American oral traditions speak of ancient inter-tribal training centers attended by the medicine people of the tribe, both to give and to receive knowledge.

Bards in Historical Record & Belief

In the particular context of this study, a good many people today believe that TRUE bards were and have always been at least in some way a part of the “Druidic” and other related religions, especially those practiced by the pre‑Christian Celtic tribes and clans. {[27]} Particularly, bards are identified as possessing magical powers and a history of at least partial accuracy as predictors of the future.

We have records, by way of the Greeks and Romans in particular, of Celtic beliefs before the advent of the Christian faith: Celts sacked Rome itself in 370bce, Delphi in 273BCE; they were allies of the Etruscans in the Third Samnite War and later friendly with Alexander of Macedonia (his agreements with the Celts maintained his northern border during the great campaigns into Asia Minor and other places); and the gathered tribes delivered one of the most stunning Roman defeats in pre-Imperial times. {[28]} Herodotus knew of the Celts in Spain, Aristotle knew that they “set great store by war-like power”; Ephorus noted them as using “the same customs as the Greeks” & being on friendliest terms with those who established guest-friendship; and the Celtic oath-formula as recorded by ancient sources remained unchanged for a thousand years.  (In paraphrase: If we fail, may the sky fall on us, may the earth gape and swallow us, may the sea burst out and drown us. {[29]}) Celtic place-names survive all across Europe.  Celtic dialect even survived among the “natives” of Galatia in Asia Minor until the 4th century CE.

Practically all of the ancient European tribal peoples, Norse & Cymri & Scotii & Angles & Saxons & Celts most especially included, had no widespread written language before the spread of the Greek alphabet BUT all had a mythological way of looking at the world and “…  an accompanying system of songs, tales, and rituals”.  These became codified as the great epics, which were the particular province of the bard.  The labor of memorization and maintaining this information was considered essential to the life of the tribe, clan, village, or other similar social unit.  This led in turn to many of the other privileges and more importantly the responsibilities associated with bards.  Diodorus Siculus “mentions the great reverence paid to the bards”. {[30]}

Bards as Literate & Non-Literate

Although much effort has been expended by scholars through the ages in reducing the oral tradition bard to an unlettered class, we must note that the Celtic Ogham and the Norse Runes were both closely related with bards, druids, priests, and skalds.  For the Celtic Druid and bards raised up in that tradition, there were in fact extreme prohibitions AGAINST recording of certain parts of the “secret knowledge” in written form.  Even so, we know that learning in the “classical” pen&paper sense was not only done, but was actively encouraged.  Gaius Julius Caesar, speaking of the Druids and their doctrine, tells us: “They are said there to get by heart a great number of verses; some continue twenty years in their education; neither is it held lawful to commit these things to writing, though in almost all public transactions and private accounts they use the Greek characters.” Caesar also commented upon the Druids as being general teachers of the young, and the Celtic day starting at sunset (phrased as “the coming of night”).  Strabo, the geographer and traveller, noted the Celts of Gaul to be eager for culture, with public education in the towns and the spread of Grecian learning outward from Marsillia (Marseilles) being encouraged.

Druidic & Celtic Origins of Bardic Tradition (and Tales)

The Druidic “sacerdotal” (priestly) authority controlled and restricted both religious and secular learning according to some sources.  Professional poets, the “fili”, are noted in the same source: they “were a branch of the Druidic order”.  No reliable record of the ancient Celtic creation myth is believed to exist, the earliest manuscript directly describing and attempting to explain the Creation is the _Barddas_ (detailed later).  Otherwise, the *surviving* tale cycles start with the Invasions of Ireland.  There are five invasions noted in what is also known as the Myth Cycle (or Cycle of the Invasions): Partholan, Nemed, Firbolg, Tuatha de Danaan, and the first purely human, the Milesian.  (The preceding four groups are all accorded status as supernatural in some manner, particularly as gods, goddesses, and monsters.  The other two cycles agreed upon by most antiquarians studying Irish mythology, legends, manuscripts, and poetry are:

the Ulster or Ultonian (Conorian), best known for the “Tain Bo Cuilgne” with the great hero Cuchulain,

and the

Ossianic (Fenian), which dealt primarily with the Fianna (a “King’s Guard” originally intended to deal with external invaders), whose chief captain was Finn mac Cumhal and which served King Cormac mac Art and later Cormac’s son Cairbry.  Finn’s son Oisin (Ossian, pronounced Oooo-sheen) was acclaimed as the “greatest poet of the Gael.  “The Maxims of the Fianna” read like the Rule of a chivalric order of knights, although the membership was decidedly less genteel even than the band associated with King Arthur…

In addition there is a great wealth of material which is largely unconnected to any cycle other than by reference to the Tuatha and other non-human powers or legendary heroes appearing as ancestors, or spirits returned to impart knowledge to those still living.  The most consistent and best-known of the “non-aligned” tales are those concerning miraculous voyages; by far, the most widely known of the voyage tales that survive were typically associated with Christian themes.  St. Brendan is often cited as a possible pre-Columbus discovery of North America, although other evidence indicates that the record is much more that of a spiritual rather than a physical odyssey.  _The Book of the Dun Cow_ and other early sources give us such entertainments as the tale of the “Voyage of Maeldun”, attributed to Aed Finn “chief sage of Ireland” (who is unfortunately not otherwise recorded in modern records).

It was not until the two-volume _Barddas_ was compiled by Llewellyn Sion of Glamorgan toward the end of the 16th century CE that it is thought anywhere near a relatively full record of the material previously prohibited from being taken down in writing was made in manuscript form. {[31]} The attacks upon this work by modern scholars do call it into question, and the work itself makes no pretense of being PURELY Druidic/bardic, containing much Christian history and biography.  An independent strain of earlier, non-Christian thought is still very evident and recognizable, however.

The Requirements of Acknowledgement

Among the Welsh (at least as we are told things in these later times) the word “Bard” denoted a master‑poet, and there were very definite requirements which had to be met before the title was granted.  What is now considered the first major school, that of Rheged “the Cumbrian kingdom”, included the legendary bards Taliesin and Aneirin (who are known to have been present at the fall of Catraeth in 598ce).  Welsh court feasts certainly included musical accompaniment, but the bards in attendance served additional functions:

In times of peace the kings drew moral support from their court bards.  The bards were prominent figures — entertainers certainly, but a great deal more than that, inheriting some of the Druid’s functions.  They were the authorities on customs, precedents, pedigrees.  Their poems, sung to music, extolled their royal patrons and had what would today be called public relations value, projecting the King’s “image” as a man of august descent, martial renown, bounty, and so forth.  Praise of the same sort was extended to his forebears and followers. {[32]}

The Bardic Triads

It is also noted that “Through the bards’ poetry, their oral storytelling and popularization, the Arthur of the Welsh took shape.” It is a humorous relic of the Welsh “Triads” (sets of three, and sometimes more, related tales addressing a certain virtue or failing) that Arthur of Britain is recorded as being one of the Three Frivolous Bards.  This appellation was earned when “he annoyed Cai by extemporizing a verse about him”. {[33]}

Another of the great bardic traditions described in Triad form is specific to the harpist: to be acclaimed a master of the harp, the harpist was expected to have full command of the “Three Noble Strains”, Lament, Laughter, and Lullaby (or Slumber).

Welsh vs. Irish Distinctions

If we follow the arguments of Rolleston, we see that the objective of the Welsh bard, who had his duties fleshed out later than the Irish, was less the preservation of sacred “text” (orally transmitted, of course) and more the entertainment of the princely court.  Continental influences, particularly chivalric romance, enter the Welsh tales early and “eventually […] govern them completely”.  The tales of the Mabinogion as we know them today derive mainly from a 14th century CE manuscript known as _The Red Book of Hergest_, the earliest four segments having possibly been composed in the 10th or 11th centuries CE.

The romance of Taliesin (a different Taliesin than that associated with the primary bardic school at Rhedeg, possibly) was not placed in manuscript form until the very late 16th or perhaps the 17th century CE.  Another manuscript known as the “Hanes Taliesin” may have been recorded in part from material *created* as much as 800 years earlier, but still not reduced to written form until much later.

By comparison, the oldest extant Irish forms date to the 7th or 8th century CE (“Etain and Midir”, “Death of Conary”).

Arthur the King: Latter-day Bardic Material

The Arthurian tale cycle, although fed in part by the Welsh and Breton sources as well as presumably older material from Britain itself, were driven much more by the romances of the European continent than by bardic sources generated before the conquest of the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans.  The earliest extant manuscript reference to Arthur which the modern world is aware of dates to 800ce {Nennius, _Historia Britonum_}, wherein he is accounted a “dux bellorum” or “duke of war”, less noble than many who answered to him.  By the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the legend had grown and Arthur was king by right of birth AND also right of arms.  And Modred was only a nephew….  and more and more material was being integrated from a variety of oral sources, notably from Breton France and Wales.

Note well that “the Matter of Britain” is no less an important topic for bards both ancient and modern.  However, just how much of the whole is used in performance and which variation upon the given story is presented can vary widely depending upon the origins and nature of the specific bard who is performing.

Irish Bards: Students on the Road, Princes of the Land

For the Irish, “bard” was used to name poets who were not yet advanced to the status of an Ollave, folk who were not fully trained in the formalities (having not yet completed the full twelve year course of studies and memorizations).  These lower‑status Irish Bards seem to have been at least on the same general level of competence as those given the full title amongst the Welsh, at least on the basis of their education in poetry and other knowledge.  The title appears to have generally been accredited to their efforts after a seven year course of study, in which they would have learned approximately one-half of the required volume of material required to attain the full rank of Ollave.  These are the people sometimes referred to as “hedge‑bards”, a term popular for its imagery at least among some modern students (Ioseph of Locksley, “ye Whyte Bard”, has particularly defined and attempted to popularize this term for the SCA audience.)

Ollave were given status equal to the kings and queens of the land, and along with them were the only folk allowed to wear more than five colors at the same time. {[34]} Filidh, “seer”, was a title that was parallel to that of the Ollave and generally more associated with spiritual matters, particularly those of the pre-Christian religion.

The Ollave were doctors and lawyers, diplomats, and otherwise counselors in worldly matters.  In fact, perhaps the most distinguished of all Ollave was Ollav Fola, named in the traditional lineages as 18th king of Ireland after the arrival of the Milesians (living approximately 1000bce).  He was responsible for the codification of law, allotment of territory, and otherwise delineating the rights and responsibilities of the provincial chiefs, and also instituted the great triennial Fair at Tara “where the sub-kings and chiefs, bards, historians, and musicians” all gathered to compile genealogy, enact law, argue disputes, and decide succession.  It became an inviolate tradition that no one could attack another or even begin legal proceedings while the Assembly at Tara was in session.

Bards as Conservators of the Old Paths; Irish Influence on the Church

“We know that certain chiefs and bards offered a long resistance to the new [Christian] faith…” One result was a great battle at Moyrath in the sixth century CE.  Another was the modified form that the Church took in the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland, including some customs and superstitions that eventually were adopted or re-integrated into worship throughout the Christian world.  Consider the particularly the far more visible role of women within the Church, the form of the ritual fast, and the importance accorded Mary the Mother after the Irish were brought into the fold…


Passage of the Old Way

In roughly 800ce, the ascetic Aenghus recorded that almost all of the most famous forts and cities from the great and storied past were gone (only Armagh survived in a form recognizable from the epics):

Tara’s mighty burgh perished at the death of her princess; with a multitude of venerable champions, the great height of Machae abides

Rathcroghan, it has vanished with Ailill, offspring of victory; fair the sovranty over princes that there is in the monastery of Clonmacnois.

Ailenn’s proud burgh has perished with its warlike host; great is victorious Brigit, fair is her multitudinous cemetery.

Emhain’s burgh it hath vanished, save that the stones remain; the cemetery of the west of the world is multitudinous Glendalough. {[35]}




The scop, the skald, and the bard originated at least in part as an outgrowth of the epic tales, or the closely‑related Norse sagas.  It required special training to be able to repeat the many thousands of lines which made up the great epic without error, and in an entertaining fashion.  Later, as the written word became more important throughout society and an expanding body of work was available in manuscript, sagas sung across several days fell out of favor.  At least one very important factor was also the rise of Christianity as the dominant religion, remembering that most of the oldest sagas and epic poems served also to preserve the former religions.  Epics especially were considered sacred, stories preserving the tribal and cultural world‑view from generation to generation by word‑of‑mouth.  Both saga and epic were often tied closely with particular ceremonies: between hunts, before or after battle, during the depths of the winter‑time, at the spring fairs and harvest feasts, and whenever else.  Life speeded up, the old festivals fell into disuse, and the saga‑singers’ tales passed out of fashion in favor of the new form: the ballad.


The earliest ballads (let us _loosely_ define the ballads to be “songs which tell self‑contained stories”) not only date far back into feudal times, but also preserved smaller episodes drawn from the great long‑winded epics.  They could be performed in minutes, not hours.  Over the course of time, they became more realistic, more personal, and covered a greater variety of subjects.  As the ballad became more and more the most often requested style, it was also to drive the new generations and developing “schools” that followed which were in some way related to the ancient bardic traditions.  The Troubadours, Trouve`re, and general minstrels were but some of these.


The Troubdour: As Historically Acknowledged

It is generally accounted that there were but 400 acknowledged troubadours across a time‑span of approximately two centuries.  (The last person considered a troubadour in all ways, Guiraut Riquier, died in 1294CE at the age of 64.) Just as the Welsh are notorious for the strictures of “The Four‑and‑Twenty”, so were the troubadours particularly associated with a limited number of formal verse forms (albeit they were less restricted overall in their structures).  The “joc partit”, “partimen”, and “tenson” were all conversational lyrics: some number of persons discussing general matters of love or even religious and satirical themes.  The “canzo” was the most common form and consisted of five or six stanzas and an envoy (“coblas” & “tornada”).  The “sirventes” was a canzo with satirical or political overtones (sometimes sirvente are spoken of as a precursor of the “filk song”).  “Balada”, “pastorela”, “alba”, “dansa” (associated closely with the balada, and both being dance tunes including a chorus), and “serena” were the other primary forms.


The *RECOGNIZED* troubadours, and their close cousins the trouve`re were all apparently of noble rank, or at least generally accepted as such within their lifetimes.  (At least one appears to have begun his career in a kitchen scullery, but seems to have been a partially acknowledged nobleman’s bastard and was accorded rank to match his achievements, as an accomplished poet within the formal styles and also within other areas, later on.)


The Trouvere: Love As All

Trouve`re seem to have originated in the court of Louis the VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  There was really only one subject to which they devoted themselves, and that was some variety of Love.  Eleanor happened to be the granddaughter of one of the best‑known of the troubadours, lending credence to the timing and source of the initial influences of the tradition.  Just as with the troubadour, these rhymers were particularly associated with a limited number of verse forms: “estrabot” (a relation of the Italian “strambotto”), “rotruenge”, and “serventois” (MUCH more ribald than the sirventes from the troubadour repertois).  The great centers of trouve`res writing and performance were Champagne, Paris, Blois, and at the last Arras.  The system seems to have disappeared for all practical purposes before 1281ce.


Beyond Chivalric France: Germany

German Minnesinger also grew out of the troubadour / trouve`re tradition, and were succeeded in the course of time by the Meistersingers.  There are some authorities who consider this to have been a stifling fossilization, and others that seem to treat the transition as providing a continuity sorely lacking in previous times.


Minstrels: Poor Cousins & Peasants

Minstrels we have already considered at some length.  It is reasonable in some ways to ignore them if we are trying to trace the “true” bardic tradition, but it is most unwise not to consider their impact upon their more formally‑developed cousins.  The minstrel had no great store of tribal lore to preserve, seldom was entrusted with special privilege other than the making of music, and answered to no particular secular authority other than the ruling nobility where he happened to be at the time.  Few held positions for any great length of time & many were relatively limited in their endeavors to a single instrument or vocal repertory.


Some pedantic views maintain that it is precisely this new‑fangled insistence upon specialization which keeps us from considering minstrels as bards in the “old sense”.  The oral tradition was not there, and the sense of responsibility was seldom recognizable in any but the most conscientious.  Naetheless, the minstrel presence in ways did continue a general awareness of at least some of the most important bardic customs and methods, even if it tended to the informal.  Minstrels also were more influential in their communities than is generally apparent (note again the place of wandering performers in beginning / inciting rebellion — and the dangerous official view connecting them with the spread of plague…).


Ending the Road: Printing as the Death of Wandering Minstrels

Printed broadside ballads date to the beginning of the 16th century of the Common Era, and mark yet another decline in the fortunes of wandering minstrels and struggling bards.  Combined with the rapid spread of the presses that produced them and the flood of histories, commentaries, news‑sheets, and other printed materials, the audience for orally‑transmitted news and history began to disappear rapidly.  The circle had spun again, and it was once more a time when everyone had access to and could sing the latest songs, or tell the latest tale with relatively great accuracy. {[36]}


Survivals and Revivals

Bardic tradition also survived in some ways in the form of the sea chanteys.  A Venetian friar recorded information about these working-songs of the seafarer in the fifteenth century CE, but the examples best known today date mostly to the period between 1830 and 1870CE — the time of the “tall ships”, the Brito-American packets and clippers — or are even more recent creations.


One “last bastion” of the bardic style, and songs, may also be found in the folksong revivals and Neo-Pagan movements of the mid-20th century CE.




A number of stereotypical attributes have been developed around the image of the bard over the millennia which, taken all together, might paint a rather un-moraled picture of the bard as a womanizing, booze-hugging, ne’er-do-well, as likely to make off with the daughter and silverwork of his host as to provide relief from the tedium of a winter evening.  Ever-reliable Frank Muir tells us in his book:


The Ancients were, as usual, suspicious of something as pleasant as music.  A Greek historian warned:

Music was invented to deceive and delude mankind.

Ephorus (4th cent. BC) Preface to the _History_


And a distinguished Roman physician wrote:

Much musike marreth mennes maners.

Galen (c. AD129-199)


Women as Bards: Conjecture and Acknowledgement

Following the original presentations of this material, one lady in particular commented upon the implication that the only bards who were important historically were male.  She did so in the most appropriate of manners, through poetry, much to the enjoyment of many and my own chagrin.  There are several rationale upon which she was able to build a case to the contrary, that there must have been women who were bard, that in fairness should be noted and expanded upon here.[37]


Church decree wiped out much of the “custom” and imposed patriarchal values upon the whole of Europe.  As the written records were almost invariably preserved only at the sufferance of the Church, it is expected that many manuscripts were lost utterly.


Bards were charged with maintaining the genealogies, and in some cultures the children of bards were entitled to follow afterward.  As some of these societies were also matrilinear in determining the line of descent, and it was well-known that the only absolute means of tracing heritage was through the mother, bard-right would by necessity have passed in likewise.


Surviving tales and poems that can be traced reliably through manuscripts and other evidence to the bards of old are invariably concerned with topics primarily of concern to men.   Are we to believe that in Celtic societies that were so rich in oral tradition, that accorded women so many other equalities, that gloried in every expression of talent, that the women would not have insisted upon their own tellings, and preservation of their own versions of the truth?


The great epics that have come down to us deal in sweeping, world-changing panorama.  Surely there must have been those who dealt in the intimacies and torments of everyday life, the joys of hearth & home as well as the bitter tears and lamentations of smaller losses like the untimely passing of a child.


Especially, it is impossible to believe that all the great wealth of folk music preserved in the memories of the remote areas in the British Isles could have come only from the voices and talents of men.   For what is folk music in this sense if it is NOT the truest survival of the bardic gift of preserving knowledge?


Ill-said: Bad Press for the Bard

Many of the more negative general images come down to following all the corruptions of the ages, and the inaccuracies of equating all wandering entertainers with “BARD”.


Considering the most notorious traits each in their own turn:

womanizing / promiscuous: in earliest times, bards would have been expected to participate FULLY in the fertility rites.  The promiscuity of the Beltane fires, the ritualized mating of the Great Rite, and other practices associated with the magick of ritual would all have involved sexual components.  Garbled remembrances of these events were later made the basis of attacks upon “pagan” ways by the developing Christian cult.

Beyond that time when Goddess-worship and bardcraft were inextricably entwined, consider also the late medieval existence in the time of the most notorious wandering minstrels.  Young women of the castle or village were even more subject to boredom than their male counterparts, and more likely to have “free time” that could be spent with the wanderer from afar.  In his turn, the wandering entertainer would generally be more gently spoken, more attentive to the young woman’s spoken *and* unspoken words, and also cleaner of body and clothing than some smelly squire just returned from practice at arms or caring for horses, hawks, and hounds.  In pre-Christian cultures where bastardy was not so great a stigma, it was also often the custom that travellers were willingly “entertained” as a portion of the hospitality offered by any hearth or hall — and, naturally, as bards were among the most regular way-farers of all…  There is some reason to believe that the male children born of such encounters were encouraged in their turn to become bards as well.  (In addition to all the speculation above, it should be noted that many bard-trained men were faithful beyond all expectations of the time — and even more lived near-celibate existences.)


drunken rowdiness: “Singing is thirsty work, m’lord!” Another legacy of the less-principled wandering entertainer instead of the trained and disciplined bard.  Although it should be noted for completeness that in his role as priest, the bard would have regularly ingested intoxicating and hallucinatory substances.


“fly-by-night” / untrustworthy: in this area in particular, the vagabond minstrels of England and similar unsavory types on the Continent did much harm to the bardic image.  As examined earlier, bards were responsible for “keeping the Custom” — meaning Customary Law, which I believe a definite pre-cursor of Common Law — and served often as arbiters and judges.  The “true bards” held guarantees of patronage in many cases, and would be foolish indeed to run away from comfortable position (although actions of a patron *could* make it safer and happier to do so after certain provocations).




As we advance into the modern age, what difference does the seeming loss of the “true” bard hold for our society and civilization? Robert Graves asked, by quotation, “‘What is the use or function of poetry nowadays?'”, then answered:


[the] question [is] not the less poignant for being defiantly asked by so many stupid people or apologetically answered by so many silly people.   The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites.  But ‘nowadays’?  Function and use remain the same: only the application has changed.   This was once a warning to man that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments [. . ..]  ‘Nowadays’ is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonoured.  In which serpent, lion, and eagle belong to the circus-tent; ox, salmon, an boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill. (The White Goddess, pg. 14)


Modern scholars in other disciplines continue to both pay homage to and denigrate the old oral traditions.  Peter Harbison, writing as an archeologist studying pre-Christian Ireland, and as with so many other archaeologists who discount orally transmitted history, states:  “But despite the strength of oral tradition in Ireland, the work of the synthesizing historians who composed the Book [of Invasions] need not be taken too literally, for the events they purported to describe are alleged to have taken place 1000 years or more before they were written down.” {[38]} (Note that the quoted, single sentence both acknowledges AND dismisses the importance of non-written records among the Irish…)


Harbison provides us with other interesting information as well.  Admitting the limits of physical archaeology: “…we try in vain to fill out the political and social history in the 600 years from, say, 1400 to 1800 B.C.”. {[39]} Considering the Ulster cycle of tales, which deal in large part with the great hero Cu Chulainn (seen often spelled Cuchulain), the archaeologist notes:

[the Ulster cycle] not written down before the seventh century A.D. […] mirroring a bygone heroic society […] in which the blacksmith, maker of weapons, was someone held in high esteem, a world in which druids played a part as prophets and soothsayers, and where an aristocracy of champions […] spent their time fighting one another in single combat.[…]

Such is the picture painted for us in the old Irish heroic tales.  But an astonishingly similar state of affairs among the […] Celts of Gaul around or shortly after 100 B.C. has been transmitted to us through [Posidonius, Athenaeus, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Gaius Julius Caesar]

Here we find the bards, the soothsayers and the druid philosophers, the decapitated heads of the enemy serving as a trophy, and the champions portion being claimed at the feast. {[40]}


In other instances, the debt acknowledged to bardic tradition is more completely admitted.  Nowhere is this more true than in the field of study arising out of consideration of “the Matter of Britain” as embodied in Arthur and all his court and Age.

The long delay in running Arthur to earth has been due to the nature of the problem he poses. […] Arthur’s legend itself must be brought back into the investigation and taken seriously. […] If we line up the legend side by side with history, as we know it today, the problem can be solved.  It almost solves itself. {[41]}


This is not a recent development in the field, either:

… I have not been able to discover anything at all on the kings who lived here before the Incarnation of Christ, or indeed about Arthur and all the others who followed on after the Incarnation.  Yet the deeds of these men were such that they deserve to be praised for all time.  What is more, these deeds were handed joyfully down in oral tradition, just as if they had been committed to writing, by many peoples who had only their memory to rely on.  (Geoffrey of Monmouth, _History of the Kings of Britain_ {[42]})


Ashe states the premise in another way as well: “I shall not apologize for the attention given to legends.  Quite apart from their own interest, they are a reflex and a reminder of the state of Britain throughout the period [covering Brutus the Trojan through Alfred the Great].” {[43]}


The modern academic sources for views of the bard-as-priest & bard-as-magician include particularly Frazer’s seminal work _The Golden Bough_, and _The White Goddess_ by Robert Graves.  Although Graves’ primary thesis insists upon the title of “poet” in that position which we are referring to as “bard” instead (e.g., “Originally, the poet was the leader of a totem-society of religious dancers.” pg. 422, 1966 edition), his conclusions we can nonetheless adapt, if not necessarily adopt, as well.


Graves proposes something else certainly less-accepted even than this origin-myth for the definition of poet.  Namely, his view about where to begin: “English poetic education should, really, begin [. . .] with the _Song of Amergin_…” (pp. 12-13).  Amergin mac Miled is generally accepted within the manuscripts transferred from oral history as being the traditional “first” bard to set foot on Irish soil, and the song is often considered a riddle to which the answer *is* “Bard” — if not God-the-Creator.  (And, within this narrow context, is there really a difference? Bards traditionally are given or at least accorded “the powers of making and unmaking”, after all.)



The View From the Hillsides: Non-Academic Modern Sources & Thoughts


As much as anything else, bards are defined by their audiences and their societies.  This is as true today as it was to the north of the Macedonians or at Emain Macha or Rathcroghan or on the slopes of Snowdon.  And still, it is most often the bard who records and gives voice to some of the most objective views as to just what that definition may be.


There are bards, or those who certainly seem to carry the mantle, even in these modern days.  O’Carolan has been thought of for many years as the last of the completely traditional Irish harpers, and he was gone long before recording equipment could preserve his style with accuracy.  Commercial music artists with widespread fame and current within our lifetimes *may* approach the strength and power of the ancients.  Think perhaps of flautist Ian Anderson (“Jethro Tull”), balladeer Woody Guthrie (and his son Arlo), and figures from the “folk song revival” such as Bob Dylan & banjo-playing Pete Seeger; even — in some ways — educators and social commentators like Tom Lehrer, Mark Russell, and, yes, EVEN Shel Silverstein & “Weird Al” Yankovic.


What of the lesser known performers, and their audiences? What of the Neo-Pagan bard? The amateur entertainers within the SCA? The following quotes were derived in response to a general request made upon a computer-based “echo” (FidoNet FILK echo).


* * * * *


Well-known modern filk singer, and occasional SCA participant (under the somewhat appropriate name “Leslie the Bard”), Leslie Fish had the following to say on the topic we are considering here:


─ Area: FILK Echo Area

Msg#:84 03Feb94 23:59 From:Leslie Fish To:Kihe Blackeagle

Subj: REQUEST: What *is* a Bard?

Well, I can’t quote any authority but my own experience.  Here goes, anyway.  A Bard is more than just a singer, or performer, or songwriter;  there’s a psychic component to really effective poetry, whether written or sung,and a Bard traditionally is master of that aspect too.  A Bard is part musician and part magician, which is why Bards were held sacred in ancient Celtic Europe.


The simplest answer is that a Bard is someone who can use music to make magic.  Exactly how that’s done is difficult to explain if you haven’t experienced it.  Perhaps you could get clearer explanations on the Pagan echo.  Robert Graves’ THE WHITE GODDESS explains it in long and intricate detail ‑‑ which is likewise difficult to understand if you haven’t read James Frazier’s THE GOLDEN BOUGH first.  *Sigh*  I warned you, this isn’t easy.


Other responses, including additional indirect quotes from Leslie:

19Feb94 11:37 From:Maryanne Bartlett To:Leslie Fish

Subj:REQUEST: What *is* a Bard?

‑=> Quoting Leslie Fish to Maryanne Bartlett <=‑

LF> I think the problem is lack of general/common experience; you

LF> can’t properly name a phenomenon unless enough people have

LF> experienced it to know what you mean when you describe it.

LF> First comes the experience,

LF> then the description, then the short‑sweet‑one‑word name.


That’s a good rendering of the sequence.  Can I quote that, properly i.d.’d, in a paper that I’m writing?


LF> Not that many people have enough properly excercised psychic

LF> talent to recognize the “magic” in music,


“Recognize” they do, but they don’t know what it is.  They attribute it to all kinds of things *other* than magic.  The bad part is that media hype can create a kind of hysteria that then is recognized as the “magic”.

However, park one of those people who’ve been “hysteria‑ized” (sorry, dunno what else to call it, “hyped” maybe?) in front of a real bard and they are vaccinated against it’s happening again.  I had a college friend cuss me out with tears in her eyes after I had dragged her to a circle where there were two bards, a working pair who were going to lead a ritual of all music.

She’s a pagan, just hadn’t ever been in a circle with a bard.  Their rituals were always a real treat.  She went and then the next night went to a concert of her favourite music group.  The concert was a flop for her and she figured it for my fault! I’ve gotta admit, I’ve been careful [in making recommendations] since.


LF> and despite the wealth of recorded music

LF> in our culture most people don’t often encounter live singing


LF> so how likely is it that a lot of people will have the

LF> experience of “music/magic” often enough to be able to describe

LF>  it, let alone name it.

It’s a problem, yes, but I believe that for those who *have* experienced it, it is forever after a part of them.



[continuing in another message from Maryanne Bartlett: Maryanne cites a source in contemporary fiction which I have not yet found inconsistent with the image of bard-as-magician, although Lackey has obviously exaggerated for story purposes]


Date:12Feb94  11:54 From:Maryanne Bartlett To:Kihe Blackeagle

Subj: REQUEST: What *is* a Bard?

I’ve been re‑reading some of Mercedes Lackey’s books recently, and the Bards of her “Magic’s Pawn” series are required to have “the Gift, the ability to perform and the creative talent to compose”.* (or anyway 2 out of 3) The Gift is the part that is impossible to define except by analogy, what Leslie calls “the magic”, but the part that is unmistakeable once you have heard a real bard.  Granted, that universe is not ours, but I think that this is a good statement of what you’re looking for.

I’ve only heard a couple of real bards, but a lot of “wannabe’s”.  When a bard performs, unless you’ve got a pressing physical reason (bathroom call, somebody talking in your ear) you can’t help but listen.  You get caught up in what s/he is doing.  You feel things more deeply than otherwise.  You get stars in your eyes, or tears.  It feels a lot like being in love for the first time.  You are transported to heaven and don’t want to come home and it hurts when you do.  See what I mean by you can’t define it except by analogy?


(Robert Osman is, within the SCA context, one of the early participants in The Great Dark Horde; regrettably, he passed from this world himself in the short years since he contributed his grandmother’s wisdom to the current work:)

Date: 07Feb94 18:46 From:Robert Osman To:Leslie Fish

Subj: REQUEST: What *is* a Bard

[quote of Leslie Fish’s definition removed]

As my grandmother taught me ‘a Bard works magic with his music and

music with his magic.’                        Ozzie   #8‑)##


[in response to an inquiry as to Mr. Osman’s grandmother’s identity]

Date:21Feb94 07:34 From:Robert Osman To:Kihe Blackeagle

Subj:Re:REQUEST: What *is* a Bard

Her name was Jane Evans, born in Inniskillin, Ireland 18??, died

Youngstown, Ohio in 1978.                     Ozzie   #8‑)##

* * * * * *


from an electronic message sent to a potential student by “Kihe Blackeagle (the DreamSinger Bard)”:


Instruction in the CRAFT of the bard is at once relatively straightforward and yet again amazingly complex.  Desire to *BE* and live as even a part‑time bard is harder to find.


Willingness to study and to learn is the first requirement of the student.  Heart‑deep desire is harder to gauge, and ultimately is only resolved by the student themself.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


  1. W. Rolleston, writing early in the 20th century:


The Past may be forgotten, but it never dies.  The elements which in the most remote times have entered into a nation’s composition endure through all its history, and help to mould that history, and to stamp the character and the genius of the people. {[44]}


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *




It is my belief that now, in this modern age, we who choose to call ourselves Bards seek to re‑gain at least a part of what was generally considered “lost” to the vagaries of an indifferent civilization and the on‑rushing flood of history.  Our success in fulfilling our role(s) is (are) a variable thing, measured not in the hearts or minds of others so much as in our own innermost selves.


In the final analysis, a bard TODAY must be whatever he or she believes is required to live as a bard.  Bards may be born, it is possible that they may be trained, it is even probable that they just happen.  But they do have in common that undeniable pull at the strings of their own hearts when they hear someone say, at least in some variation:


“Uncle, tell us a *story*…”


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *



APPENDIX A: “On Bards”




(Excerpted and annotated from LOCKSLEY’S E‑Z HARP METHOD)

‑Ioseph of Locksley, OL, Pel, &c.

(c) 1989, 1990 W. J. Bethancourt III

[reformatted slightly for printing,

Amr ibn Majid al‑Bakri al‑Amra]


In the SCA, in written Fantasy, in too many instances the word “bard” seems to be bandied about in a rather loose manner, being applied indiscriminately to true Bards, trouveres, troubadours, jongleurs, poets, playwrights, actors…in short, anyone who entertains.

I hope to clear up this misconception, though to hope that the usage of the word will be corrected may be a forlorn hope….




Bards are found in Celtic cultures (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Manx and Brittany) and a rough equivalent can be found in Norse culture, too, where they were known as “scops.”

There is no real equivalent to the Celtic Bard in Anglo‑Saxon England, however.

In Ireland and Scotland, the use of the word “Bard” apparently fell into some disrepute, as the records we have show that the Bard was simply a minor poet, while the “filidh” (seer) or the “ollave” (master poet) occupied the former status and functions of the Bard.

In Wales, the Bard was not so lucky.  There, the traditions ossified, and the Bards, after the advent of Christianity, became Court Poets, known as “Gogynfeirdd,” or “Prydydd,” limited in subject matter and form, and with rigidly structured rules.

The word that corresponds with the irish “filidh,” in Welsh, would be “derwydd,” (oak‑seer) the word from which “druid” is derived.

The “hedge‑Bards” were the ones that carried on the real

traditions of the Bard.  These are the people that gave us the “Cad Goddeu” and the “Hanes Taliesin,” and who ‑may‑ have passed the “Matter of Britain” on to the French troubadours and trouveres, thus giving us Arthur and Camelot.

The word “Bard,” in Wales, denoted a master‑poet.  In Ireland it meant a poet who was not an Ollave, one who had not taken all the formal training.  Apparently even the lower‑status Irish Bard was on a level with the Welsh Bard in knowledge and poetic education, however, and these were what I have termed “hedge‑bards,” above.

In the Celtic cultures, the Bard/Filidh/Ollave was inviolate.  He could travel anywhere, say anything, and perform when and where he pleased.  The reason for this was, of course, that he was the bearer of news and the carrier of messages, and, if he was harmed, then nobody found out what was happening over the next hill.  In addition, he carried the Custom of the country as memorized verses…he could be consulted in cases of Customary (Common) Law.  He was, therefore, quite a valuable repository of cultural information, news, and entertainment.


Bards were part of the Druidic hierarchy, though this may or may not (depending on who you talk to!) be period for the SCA.

A true Bard must know the following: music (and the playing of a period instrument, preferably Harp), poetry (original, and other people’s), song (original and other people’s), the History, Law and Custom of his/her Kingdom and of the SCA, as much knowledge of mundane medieval history, Law, and custom as they can possibly learn, and at least a very basic knowledge of linguistics and alphabet/cyphers.  Some training in Folklore, and in the arts of Sociology and Semantics would help, too.  A reasonable amount of heraldic knowledge would not be out of place, either.  See the list of suggested College courses at the end of this article.

The Bard should investigate the “Matter of Britain” very thoroughly, paying special attention to Sir Gawain, and to Arthur’s Queen.  Do a little reading in the Robin Hood cycle, too, with special attention to the village festivals in Britain that mention him.

Bards do ‑not‑ just sing songs! They recite, and write poetry, stories, tell myths (both historical and SCA…), but the operative word here is that they ‑speak‑.  Just playing music does not entitle you to be called a Bard.

Some Bards are “titled,” that is, someone, be it another Bard, or whoever, or sometimes (very seldom) the Bard himself, has given them a bardic “name” or “title,” that serves to identify them.  Thusly, I am known as “y bardd Gwyn,” “Bard Ban,” or “the Whyte Bard.” Another was known as “Derwydd Prydain,” while even another has no title at all, and does not want one.  Be wary of taking such a title yourself.  Allow the giving of such to happen on its own, and do NOT take it from a King of any kind, unless you wish to be the “King’s Bard” in the Welsh sense of the word.

Each individual Bard will have certain perogatives that they have developed over the years.  I, myself, tend to interrupt a Coronation court, or other Courts, at any time with a poem, or a song, relating to the event.  Other Bards will have other perogatives.  Don’t try to set yourself up with these; let them happen naturally.

A Bard should remain as neutral as possible in matters of SCA politics, though the expressing of his/her opinion ‑in verse‑ about such things is quite acceptable, and is traditionally “non‑challengeable,” but may be answered ‑in verse,‑ and ONLY in verse.

The other classes of period musical entertainers include

Minstrels, Troubadours, Trouveres, Jongleurs….and, believe it or not, Heralds!




Every so often, one hears a self‑important “scholar” say

something along the lines of: “Well, you have only written new words, or parodied the words, to a common tune….this is NOT real songwriting, but simply “filk” (as termed in the Science Fiction sub‑culture) songs.”

Tell them to sit on it.  This is, and was, an accepted thing to do, is quite legitimate, and very authentic.  The period name for this technique is called the “siervente.”

Just try to keep the general “sound” as Medieval/Renaissance as possible…admittedly a bit difficult when you are stealing ** er ** adapting a rock and roll melody, but it CAN be done….and please encourage others to do the same.

If you ‑must‑ use a familiar mundane tune that is blatantly out‑of‑period, be ‑clever‑ with your adaptation.  Otherwise, the song becomes just another boring “filk.” About the cleverest I have heard is the use of the “Agincourt Carole” to the tune of “The Banana Boat Song….” This is one of the most God‑awful, and funniest, things I have heard in years.




A Bardic Circle, at least in an SCA context, is simply a setting for the listeners to entertain each other.  This can be with poetry, song, and stories.  All should participate, though it is not necessary for all to contribute to make it a fun thing to do.  What IS necessary is that the number of things done by each person at any one time be limited, to keep the inevitable “stage‑hog” from monopolizing the evening, and to keep the “Awful No‑Talent Stage Hog” from running everyone off.

I recommend that each person be limited to TWO songs, poems or whatever at a time, and then pass on to the next singer.  This keeps it varigated, and interesting, and gives EVERYONE a chance to contribute.

Try to keep discussion to a minimum, but, should it be interesting, let it go on for a while, as a break in the music.  In any event, try to do something different about every hour or so, to allow your listeners to stretch, use the bathroom, get refreshments, and gossip for a while.  This will keep them there longer, and add more fun to the occasion.



Basic and Advanced Folklore of the Appalachian

and Ozark mountains of the USA

Basic and Advanced Folklore of the British Isles

Music History (100 and 200 levels)

Anything else in the Music curriculum that relates to Medieval music

Basic Sociology (100 and 200 levels at least) (watch out here!

This is an “art,” not a “science!”)

Medieval History (100 thru Graduate levels)

Medieval Law (100 thru 400 levels)

The Literature of England (Ireland, Wales, Britanny, Scotland etc.)

English Writing               Poetry

Theater                       Fencing or other formal Martial Art

Linguistics/Semantics         Comparative Religions

And ANYTHING else that might possibly relate and/or help.


Reading list:

OGHAM: THE POET’S SECRET Sean O Boyle; Gilbert Dalton, Dublin, 1980



Francis James Child;  (five volumes) Dover, 1965



Bertrand Harris Bronson; Princeton University Press 1976



Albert B. Friedman; Viking, 1956, 1982



Tsvia bas Tamara v’Amberview (pseud.);

Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc, 1984



William Cole; Cornerstone, 1961, 1969


FOLKSINGER’S WORDBOOK   Fred and Irwin Silber; Oak, 1973


101 SCOTTISH SONGS   Norman Buchan; Collins, 1974


RISE UP SINGING   Peter Blood‑Patterson; Sing Out! 1988



Leah di Estera (pseud.) Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc, 1989


CAIDAN BARDIC CIRCLE SONGBOOK (5 Vols.) Caidan Bardic Consortium, 1988


THE WHITE GODDESS Robert Graves; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY

1966 (LCCCN: 48‑8257)


THE GOLDEN BOUGH James G. Frazer; Avenel Books, 1981


CONTRARYWISE Zohra Greenhalgh, Ace (paperback) April 1989



Permission is given for this paper to be used in publications of the SCA or related groups. If you use it, send a copy of the publication to:    Joe Bethancourt ‑ PO Box 35190 ‑ Phoenix, AZ ‑ 85069



“Appendix B is one version of such a list.”


(extracted from “The Duties of a Bard”, by Kihe Blackeagle: this material originally appeared on the FidoNet NEW_AGE_ECHO, in slightly different form, 14 Jan 94.  It will also be found as part of THE HOUSE‑BOOKE OF DREAMWIND.)


A part of the charge I was given when I accepted a bard‑name was to take on the responsibilities associated since ancient times with the “true” Bards.  It is one part of my place and responsibility to tell / sing these to others.


SOME of the attendant responsibilities of a Bard are:


to act as a go‑between in disputes, and even serve at times as judge / arbitrator (see below as concerns the preservation of the Laws).  Bards were expected to remain as neutral as possible in all disputes, and were expected / encouraged to depart from the court of any noble who did not keep the Law or was found to willingly violate the unwritten rules of Courtesy.  (The bardic Right of Satire depends in part upon these responsibilities …)


to recite the Laws (In ancient days particularly, to be a “full” Bard required perfect memory of many THOUSANDS of lines of poetry & other material, at least in Celtic‑related cultures.)


to entertain with song, story, and instrument (even w/other arts) whenever and wherever asked ‑‑ except when this would place an untoward burden upon the Bard, and (almost) always with the expectation of reasonable recompense, food, drink, and comfortable lodgings.


to maintain high standards of personal cleanliness


to relay the news as it is received from far‑off places, and help the Bard’s audience to understand what that news might mean for them personally


to transmit messages of more friendly nature, both confidentially and accurately


to teach any who might ask it (Particularly the traditions and skills associated with musical bard‑craft but also any other knowledge known to the Bard that will be of service to the questioner *at least as understood by the Bard being questioned*.  If the questioner holds no particular beliefs in the Powers of a particular Path, the Bard often will try to attempt & help them find an appropriate relationship with the Divine through a query & response process.)


Appendix B, Duties of a Bard, continued…


to maintain the greatest possible accuracy in information as it is passed to others through song & story


to always study and expand personal knowledge of bard‑craft, “Craft”, handicraft, war‑craft, language, and religion

(Knowledge of ALL kinds and origins, so long as it is accurate, or if false has been plainly labelled as such: even in false stories there may be important lessons which can be more readily learned due to the improbability of the tale.)


(“True” Bards are in some ways the prototypical “Renaissance Man”, and most would generally agree with Heinlein’s Observation ‑‑ in the words given Lazarus Long to speak:

“Specialization is for insects.”)


If Bards as described here sound much like either the common public image maintained by the more civilized of the medieval orders of Knighthood or perhaps even the modern Boy Scouts, think  about it: where do you think the Knights got some of their ideas?

(And Baden‑Powell was always very straightforward in admitting the relationship between the tenets of Scouting and the knightly Codes.)


There is much else which is also considered to be in the province of the Bard.  Indeed, there is very little which is *not* to be expected of a true Bard, in either lesser or greater degree, at some time within his or her life on this plane.


Kihe Blackeagle, the DreamSinger Bard


APPENDIX C: Bibliographic Data



(Not all references shown here were actually used in creation of the current paper, but all are related in *some* way to the subject at hand or are cited in sources that WERE used.  Attributions are in no particular order!)


rec.arts.sca (Internet “newsgroup” better known by a nickname: “the Rialto”, so called after the bridge in Italy where folk gathered to hear the latest news and trade opinions, or discuss whatever other matter came to mind.)


FidoNet “FILK” Echo


_The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles_ (several excellent translations exist; there are 7 manuscripts and 2 fragments which have been preserved into the modern era)


Chambers, E. K. _The Mediaeval Stage_


Jusserand, J.   _English Wayfaring Life_


Gies, Joseph & Frances _Life in a Medieval Castle_


_Encyclopedia Britannica_, particularly the entries for “Bard”; “Minstrel”; “Troubadours”, “Trouve`re”


_Music of the Americas: An Illustrated Music Ethnology of the Eskimo and American Indian Peoples_ [ed. Paul Collaer, English Translation by Irene R. Gibbons (c) 1970 London England: Curzon Press Ltd.]


Bookbinder, David _What is Folk Music All About_ (c) 1979


Poole, R.L. _Medieval Reckonings of Time_


“Some Medieval and Renaissance Defenses of Poetry”, Rosario di Palermo,

copyright 1992 by Jeff Verona. (found in prior Proceedings of the Collegium Gradium, originally presented 23 March AS XXVI)


Stapleton, Michael _The Illustrated Dictionary of Greek & Roman Mythology_ (c) 1978


Harbison, Peter _Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts_, (c) 1988


Ashe, Geoffrey _The Discovery of King Arthur_, (c) 1985


Ashe, Geoffrey _Kings and Queens of Early Britain_ (c) 1985


Lackey, Mercedes _Magic’s Price_, DAW books, Inc.  New York, 1990


Rolleston, T.W. _Celtic_ (Myths and Legends Series) Bracken Books, London England (c) 1986, 1992 reprint [probable facsimile edition of an earlier work, prior to 1920ce based upon internal evidence]


Rolleston, T.W. _High Deeds of Finn and Other Bardic Romances_, Harrap & Company


Hull, Eleanor _Cuchulain_, Harrap & Co.


Nikolai Tolstoy, _The Quest for Merlin_, (c) 1985


Gustave Reese _Music in the Middle Ages_ (c) 1940


Jones, Edward _Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards_ (the 4th edition was produced in 1825)


O’Curry, Eugene _On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish_ edited by W. K. O’Sullivan in 1873


  1. Gwynn Jones _Welsh National Music and Dance_, 1933


  1. Gwynn Jones “Bardism & Romance”, _Transactions of the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorion_, 1913-14, pg 205 (?)


Richard H. Hoppin, _Medieval Music_, (c) 1978


Frank Muir _An Irreverent and Thoroughly Incomplete Social History of Almost Everything_, (c) 1976


  1. Winwood Reade _The Veil of Isis, or Mysteries of the Druids_, Newcastle Publishing reprint, 1992


* * * * *


For possible further research, consider particularly “Dewey Decimal” classifications 809.1, 780.902 / 780.903 and the documents / class materials referenced in Master Ioseph’s article (Appendix A).


Appendix D: So You Wish To Be A Bard



By Rathflaed DuToutNoir

The Black Bard of Meridies

mka: Stephen R Melvin


So you wish to be a bard young one, well listen to my tale,

A tale that’s riddled with success,

and yet the times that I have failed.

A storyteller tells his tales until the morning light,

Each line and verse the one that you’ll remember through the night.

A troubadour will sing and play to make the people laugh or weep,

And feel the feelings he does feel, until they go to sleep.

A musician has the talent to make music with his art,

And let his songs reverberate to touch the mind and heart.

A minstrel must do all these things and do them very well,

But a bard must also do them, and between, tis hard to tell.

For a minstrel and bard could be the same in word and voice,

But the difference between the two is a matter of their choice.

A minstrel’s job to entertain, a bard’s to educate,

To urge the men on for honour and love, and not for malice or hate.

A minstrel will sing only songs to please his audience well,

A bard must choose most carefully, the tales that he will tell.

For in your words you have the pow’r, to make or break a man,

And all his good and evil deeds are yours to praise or damn.

So use your power carefully, and wisely use your art,

For though they might prefer a minstrel’s voice,

tis you must touch their heart.

And if the talent is not yours, to move the souls of men,

Then call yourself a minstrel, and no dishonor do intend.

For when a bard does sing a song, the story they do hear,

And yet the choice is for a minstrel when the song must please the ear.

So entertain, young minstrel, or educate, young bard,

But either path of either life, you’ll find may be too hard.

For when the storm is blowing and the rain comes down in sheets,

Tis ten more leagues that you must go to sing for bread and meat.

And when the road is lonely, and you have no place called home,

Remember that it was your choice to travel and to roam,

And when you think of lady loves and all the things you lack,

Remember sir, the one you always carry on your back,

And remember too, this one last thing, when your journey you begin,

A minstrel does not scream or shout to carry o’er the din,

A bard is not a storyteller or harper playing long,

A minstrel’s job it is to sing, a bard’s to be the song.


30 Jul 92

    [1] “The Four-and-Twenty”, Black Star A&S issue, A.S.XXVII

    [2] _The Discovery of King Arthur_, pg. 27

    [3] The separate fields of inspiration for each Muse are a Roman invention. The Romans enumerate the Nine and assign their charges as: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (History), Euterpe (flute playing), Erato (lyric poetry & hymns), Terpsichore (dance), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy), Polyhymnia (mime), and Urania (astronomy, or more anciently astrology).

They are thought by the Greeks to be daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory).

    [4] Note that “Greek” is a name imposed by the later Roman conquerors, derived from “Graicia”.

    [5] In this paper, where a date qualifier is used and is shown in lowercase, that date is only an approximation. Uppercase indicates a “solid”, documentable and verifiable date citation.

    [6] Nikolai Tolstoy, _The Quest for Merlin_, (c) 1985

    [7] It _should_ be noted that King Gruffyd was educated in Ireland and may in fact have been making revisions intended to either bring the practices of the Welsh college more into line with what he had experienced, or (and this is certainly the less likely premise) to have been attempting to avoid perceived pitfalls of the Irish system. Failing written documentation of the actual details of the structure of training and recognition in Ireland, no reliable decision can be made.

    [8] Muir, pg. 17, as well as other sources

    [9] pp 16-17, _An Irreverent and Thoroughly Incomplete Social History of Almost Everything_, (c) 1976

    [10] pg. 81, W. Winwood Reade _The Veil of Isis, or Mysteries of the Druids_, Newcastle Publishing reprint, 1992

    [11]  consider also the last lines of, if not the full text of, “So you wish to be a bard” by Rathflaed DuToutNoir, the Black Bard of Meridies [mka Stephen R. Melvin], attached here as Appendix D {PERMISSION FOR WIDER PUBLICATION PENDING}

    [12] Some sources make the title of gleeman out to be actually wandering scops, not attached to a single patron, which would return them to the company of “true bards” and equivalents.

    [13] Gustave Reese _Music in the Middle Ages_ (c) 1940. Chapter 7, “Secular Monody”. The goliards primarily wrote songs in Latin. As a group, their influence declined in the first half of the 13th century, with the rise of the great permanent universities and the growth of residential student life. In some ways, the “Animal House” image of college fraternity life is a descendant of the goliard life-style.

The mythical patron of the goliards was the “Bishop Golias”. Their disreputable conduct and satires against the Church led to the denial of clergy privilege in the end. Goliards are considered the primary source of most of that body of work we know today as “Carmina burana”.

    [14] Reese notes: “After the Norman Conquest, gleeman and scop gave place to minstrels (the name changing more than the function), both resident in the court of the feudal lord and travelling on the highways.” Chapter Eight.

    [15] The bard in question had been given sub-standard lodging, bad food, and not even a mug of good ale. There are *reasons* why the Irish believe in providing hospitality…

    [16] It is now known that the same effect can be reproduced through modern hypnosis…

    [17] Tolstoy, pg. 142

    [18] Reade, pg.83

    [19] Reade, pg. 83

    [20] The vast bulk of evidence indicates that the “historical” True Bard not only believed in reincarnation of some type, but also believed himself one of the culminations of the cycle.

    [21] It also appears that Midas was a title in ancient Phrygia and not on the whole a personal name.

    [22] See Harbison, _Pre-Christian Ireland_, for additional related information.

    [23] _Music of the Americas_, through pg. 30

    [24] _Music of the Americas_, introductory material.

    [25] _Music of the Americas_, pg. 31

    [26] _Music of the Americas_

    [27] I know from personal experience the reverence for Bards which is evidenced by those who perform their worships in the modern survivals of the Wiccan and compatible Pagan ‑‑ or, if you prefer, “neo‑Pagan” ‑‑ religious systems. And among those Native Americans who still revere tribal ways.

    [28] This was “dies Aliensis”, July 18, 390BCE: in response to Roman treachery the previous year at Clusium, the Celts attacked into Italy and were met at the River Allia. The Roman defenders were annihilated in one tremendous Celtic charge.

    [29] This oath was sworn to Alexander two centuries BCE, and was recorded in the 1100’s CE in the _Book of Leinster_ as part of the Tain Bo Cuilgne {pronounced approximately as “tawn bow kwelgney”, known better to most English-speaking audiences as “The Cattle-Raid of Cooley”}, which is believed to have been formalized in its oral structure approximately 800CE.

    [30] quoted in _Celtic_, Rolleston, pg. 42

    [31] My tertiary source named J.A. Williams ap Ithel from the Welsh Manuscript Society as editor and translator of _Barddas_. I have not yet managed to inspect a copy for myself and thus only pass along the reports of others. The quoted portions which I have seen have left me anxious to make a deeper inspection, though!

    [32] Ashe, _The Discovery of King Arthur_, pg. 136ff

    [33] Ashe, _The Discovery of King Arthur_, pg. 141

    [34] A practice introduced by the fifth Milesian king, Tiernmas, was control of “variegated colours in the clothings”. Slaves were allowed one color, peasants two, soldiers three, wealthy landowners four, and provincial chiefs five. “It is a characteristic trait that the Ollav is endowed with a distinction equal to that of a king.” Rolleston, _Celtic_, pg. 149.

    [35] Harbison, pg. 194

    [36] … or at least what was PERCEIVED as accuracy. There is room for a large presentation upon the changing attitudes of society to the written and the spoken word over the years….

    [37] Llereth Wyddfa an Myrddin, untitled poem, 30 April ASXXVIII. Lady Llereth has been known to perform the piece regularly in Ansteorra, but has not authorized publication.

    [38] _Pre-Christian Ireland…_, pp. 10-11

    [39] Ibid, pg. 133

    [40] Harbison, pg. 166

    [41] _The Discovery of King Arthur_, Geoffrey Ashe, Introduction: pg. x

    [42] quoted in Ashe, pp 63-64. G. of Mon. goes on to claim “a certain very ancient book written in the British language” as one of his sources. It is to be further noted that _History of the Kings of Britain_ has long been faulted for inaccuracies by more recent scholars. How many were introduced by the missing source manuscript, how many by Geoffrey himself, and how many from his oral source(s) is not known….

    [43] _Kings and Queens of Early Britain_, Geoffrey Ashe, pp. 7-8, (c) 1982, 1990

    [44] _Celtic_, Preface

copyright 1994, 1995 by Mike C. Baker

Revised 2003

Contact Information Updated June, 2004

This paper was originally prepared for a presentation to the Collegium Gradium, which meets in the Barony of the Steppes, and a number of related audiences within the context of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  It will also be used as a resource in introducing students to the materials when I am teaching in other forums.  Occasional revisions are expected to be made.

I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Ioseph of Locksley (MKA W. J. “Joe” Bethancourt III) for his essay “ON BARDS, AND BARDIC CIRCLES”.  I have appended the full text of his article as Appendix A of the current work: please note the conditions under which Ioseph’s article is permitted to be reprinted or used elsewhere.  I also used the expanded documentation Ioseph prepared for a customized, delightful computer program (distributed as 2DAYSCA.ZIP) as one of the general resources for the brief discussion of historical dating and the importance of oral‑tradition genealogy.


In the current document, I have taken the unusual approach in some places of quoting myself “speaking” as Kihe Blackeagle, the DreamSinger Bard (which is the name by which I am best known within the NeoPagan and on-line “alternative religion” communities, originally via FidoNet / PODS ‑‑ see esp. Appendix B).


Ioseph’s article includes one list of resources.  Additional print and electronic sources have also been noted in the attached Bibliographical List (Appendix C.) Note that a fair portion of what is presented in the main text here derives at least in part from oral sources over many years of experience as a performer, as a student, and as just a human being.


Date references are made primarily in reference to the Common Era (CE), an increasingly popular yet somewhat controversial practice in the historical community which is intended to preserve consistency with the majority of the available sources with a minimal dependence upon any specific culture.  In general, year dates CE are the same as Anno Domini, BCE equate with Before Christ.  The system is predicated upon placing the Christian Nativity in December of the Roman year 754 AUC (Anno Urbis Conditiae):  754 years after the founding of Rome.  More about dating systems will be seen within the body of this work….  Where the date reference has been shown in lower case within this manuscript, i.e. ce or bce, consider the date shown as an APPROXIMATE date.  A capitalized date reference has been verified in some fashion, or is “generally accepted” as accurate for the condition or event being described.  (This usage has been adopted after the model used by Peter Harbison in his book on pre-Christian Irish archaeological investigations; the original was applied more to variations between radiocarbon and other dating methods such as tree-ring comparison within the archaeological community, but hopefully the parallels to oral history and tradition are somewhat obvious….)


This document may be used in periodicals and other publications of the SCA and its various branches without monetary cost.  I do request a copy of any publication where it might appear.  I reserve the right of withdrawing this permission at a future time.


In Service to the Ideals of the Society,   referred to often as “the Dream”,

  • Amr ibn Majid al‑Bakri al‑Amra (formerly Amra M’Chib Bakerian)
  •      House Dreamwind of the Shadowed Moon,
  •      c/o Mike C. Baker
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  •          Plano TX 75094
  •          Cel  (214) 402-8243
  •          Email: KiheBard@hotmail.com
  •              OR kihe@rocketmail.com
  •              OR MCBaker216@cs.com