(Originally published in “The Druid’s Arch”, the Official Newsletter of the Ord Draíochta Na Uisnech in the Mean Samraidh/Lughnasdh 2003 issue, Volume 1, Issue 2.)
What do we usually think of when we hear the word “Bard”? We may normally think of Taliesin, Amergin or some other famous Bard who recited poetry and created scathing satire. A studious young man who was equally adept on a harp and in song, writing reams of verse at the drop of someone’s shoe. We might think of a person who could recite thousands of lines of history or the entire Mabinogion in one sitting.
The reason for these images is simple. Our popular culture has taught us that this is what a Bard was, a songster, a musician on lute or harp, a maker of poems and scholar of history. I think that it’s time for this stereotype to die.
Why the thought that a Bard is only adept on a harp? I would imagine that with the range of instruments available to average Bard circa 100 CE, that the harp would be one of the last choices. A person who has to hike all over Ireland, England or Gaul, carrying a harp? Have you actually looked at one of these things? Generally a lap harp, with 22 to 26 strings, standing about 4 feet tall, about 2 1/2 feet wide at the largest point, and about 5 lbs is a cumbersome instrument. Not something that would be carried around in addition to all the food, water and clothing that would be necessary, as any backpacker can tell you.
By contrast, a guitar would be a better choice. At two feet wide, eight inches tall, and four feet long, and about two pounds for an acoustical guitar; it’s unwieldy, but more manageable. What about a flute? One inch by one inch by about 3 feet fully assembled, weighing two pounds IF in fantasy it were solid gold, it’s still more portable than a harp. Then there are the drum, and any number of other instruments.
Still, most of that doesn’t matter in this day of cars and airplanes, does it? Bards aren’t usually hiking to festivals with just what they can carry. Today, a bard could use a piano, cello, stand-up bass, or any other instrument is too large to carry around by hand. Let’s face it, when is the last time you saw a portable harpsichord?
It is my belief that bard should have known how to play multiple instruments. In my view, he should have been adept with many different music makers, requiring knowledge of the history and possibly the development of that instrument as well. Why do you use a hollow stick with holes in it, and how does blowing into it and covering some of the holes with your fingers make music? It is certainly in the realm of theoretical possibility that a Bard had to know these things.
To be a good bard, a talented bard, one would have normally required the ability to sing. Singing clearly, true to pitch and good vocal production would be normal as well. I feel that they probably had to know how music was made, how to memorize a newly created piece quickly for later use. The quick memorization skill would also have been needed to learn new pieces from other bards.
So, a bard should be accomplished in music, performance, vocal and instrumental music, as well as musical notation and composition. What about those poor souls like myself who can’t carry a tune in a bucket? Are the musically skilled the only Bards?
Bear with me, this is where our new definition starts. IF a Bard is defined as an accomplished performer of music, it stands to reason that other performing arts would be important to the Bards of old. For example, how much more impact does a play like Hamlet have when it’s performed rather than read? I know that when I was studying the works of Shakespeare in high school, reading Hamlet didn’t move me in the least. Years later watching Kenneth Branagh and company perform it with the sets and decorations, actually saying the words and putting their creative effort into the performance, made all those archaic speeches have meaning for the first time. Personally I would much rather see a play than read it.
If performance is another Bardic skill, then one must include dance, choreography, slapstick, Vaudeville, storytelling and public speaking. How is a Bard to pass along the latest story of Cuchulainn unless he stands in the Great Hall and speaks it out to all present? It only makes sense that previous generations of Bards would not have let stage fright stop them. To me this makes public speaking a critical skill for the Bards.
What about dance and choreography? Well, they are both performing arts; both of them can move the viewer and the performer to tears. While having to watch another poor interpretation of “Babes in Toyland” will drive me to change the channel, a good performance by someone like Mikhail Baryshnikov is enchanting, stimulating both intellectually and viscerally. Who can watch Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. dancing in “Tap” and fail to feel what those characters are going through? How can anyone watch those same gentlemen having a “dance down” at Sammy’s birthday party and not KNOW that Gregory Hines worships at the altar of Sammy’s feet?
Have you ever watched the Broadway Play “Contact“? What would that play be like without the Swing Dancing? Without the Woman in the Yellow Dress? She can dance, but what about the person who told her what steps to perform, and what order to perform them in? How about the rest of the cast who are also dancing at the same time? Would the patterns that show up in the interweaving of dancers be nearly as good without the choreographer behind the scenes directing their steps?
What about “Stomp”? Not only are there performances of dance and acrobatics, but trash cans and pickle buckets are used to create the most primal music, rhythm. Impressive. How about a group from another country, like Kodo, the Japanese Drum group? ( Kodo Homepage and Tokyo Weekender – Children of the Drum and Taiko Resource Taiko Overview and History for the drum history ) Their performances are half music half spectacle and I consider the group to be some of the best drummers out there.
I wonder how many members of the audience would consider the Cirque du Soleil to be Bards? I would. These people work 10 to 18 hours a day practicing their routines just to make you go “oooohhhhh” when they do a jump 50 feet in the air and across 40 feet of space to land on a slide precisely when they are supposed to. That would scare the heck out of me.
Slowly we have a Bard of a different sort forming, one who is not necessarily ONLY adept with musical instruments, recitation of history, song or blank verse. Bard is coming to mean one who can also dance and perform as part of their core abilities.
Let us consider the functions of poetry.
Writing lyrics to a song is a poetic exercise. Most song lyrics follow a strict rhyme scheme. But there are so many different forms of poetry now it’s dizzying. Among others, Iambic Pentameter, Free Verse, and Haiku are all valid forms of poetry and have had their adherents over time. Heck, even limericks are an interesting form of poetry, although a Bard of Taliesin’s time would probably scoff at something so simple.
Since it is agreed that poetry is one facet of being a Bard; does prose also meet the criteria? The written word, fiction or not, paints mindscapes that can enchant and divert a person for hours. Is not the author a Bard as well?
Obviously, since I’m an author, I will argue “yes, authors ARE Bards, just with different tools.” Which is true. The tools of the Bard don’t have to be the song and the poem; they can be a word processor, pad and pen, whiteface makeup, the juggling ball and other skills. Certainly the hammer and chisel or the paint palate can also be considered Bardic tool.
Art, in the form of sculpture and paintings, have the power to evoke movement, change of thought in the viewer. Think of the example of “Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone” by Rodin. For this, Jubal Harshaw (as written by Robert Heinlein) said it much better than I ever could:
“Jubal looked at the replica “Caryatid Who Has Fallen under Her Stone.” “I won’t expect you to appreciate the masses which make that figure much more than a ‘pretzel’-but you can appreciate what Rodin was saying. What do people get out of looking at a crucifix?”
“You know I don’t go to church.” [Ben said]
“Still, you must know that representations of the Crucifixion are usually atrocious-and ones in churches are the worst…blood like catsup and that ex-carpenter portrayed as if He were a pansy…which He certainly was not. He was a hearty man, muscular and healthy. But a poor portrayal is as effective as a good one for most people. They don’t see defects; they see a symbol which inspires their deepest emotions; it recalls to them the Agony and Sacrifice of God.”
“Jubal, I thought you weren’t a Christian?”
“Does that make me blind to human emotion? The crummiest plaster crucifix can evoke emotions in the human heart so strong that many have died for them. The artistry with which such a symbol is wrought is irrelevant. Here we have another emotional symbol-but wrought with exquisite artistry. Ben, for three thousand years architects designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures. At last Rodin pointed out that this was work too heavy for a girl. He didn’t say, ‘Look, you jerks, if you must do this, make it a brawny male figure.’ No, he showed it. This poor little caryatid has fallen under the load. She’s a good girl-look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, not blaming anyone, not even the gods…and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it.
“But she’s more than good art denouncing bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who ever shouldered a load too heavy. But not alone women-this symbol means every man and woman who ever sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage, Ben, and victory.”
“Victory in defeat; there is none higher. She didn’t give up, Ben; she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. She’s a father working while cancer eats away his insides, to bring home one more pay check. She’s a twelve-year old trying to mother her brothers and sisters because Mama had to go to Heaven. She’s a switchboard operator sticking to her post while smoke chokes her and fire cuts off her escape. She’s all the unsung heroes who couldn’t make it but never quit.
from Heinlein, Robert: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) Berkley Medallion Books
…all of which makes my argument for me. Looking at beautiful sculpture, a painting that moves you, hearing music that makes you weep, or even (yes, I’ll say it) seeing a commercial that you have to blow your nose after, all of these have one common thread; evocation of emotion.
Art is the evocation of an emotional response, controlled and directed, in response to what the artist has made. The instrument of that response can be writing, poetry, music, paintings or drawings, any of a number of formats and media. At the time of the Bards, the evocation of those same emotions had to be through music and poetry. There were no TV or Movies, sculpture among the Celts tended to be in relatively small personal pieces of jewelry, or the decoration of buildings and king’s homes, chapels and so on. There was not much art that was available to the common man, except through song, story and poetry.
Art is to emotion as Imbas is to intellect. They are two sides of the same coin. Because emotional manipulation is somewhat easier, the skill of Art is learned before Imbas is taught. But learning how to cause one will help you cause the other much more easily.
If a Bard’s duty were to evoke emotions in the populace with what he could carry, the means of evoking those emotions would have to be portable. In this day and age, where more and more people are able to access different forms of media, we have to expand the term to bring all artistic pursuits into the fold of “Bard”.
Here, then, is my a new definition:
- Bard: n
- 1) [archaic] referring to a song maker of olden times, generally of pre-medieval times in Europe
- 2) One who evokes emotion through any one of a variety of artistic pursuits as part of a modern Druidic order
This begs the question “What is Art?”
I will leave it to those much better qualified than I to define that, but MY definition is the process of creation.
You see, when the artist begins the process of making a new (whatever), there is nothing. The artist may have a flash of inspiration, “Write an article on what it is to be a bard” for example, yet there is still nothing until the artist starts the actual process bring his vision or idea to life. Rodin didn’t stop at the inspiration for The Caryatid. He did a lot of work and it took a lot of skill to create that statue.
An Artist can be seen as one who creates something to evoke an emotional response in the participant.
To me, this makes a Bard an Artist. This also allows the Bard to use a variety of tools to evoke that response, to create a C-Shift (Consciousness shift) in the viewer, to bring the mind from where it usually is during the day to a different place at the start of Ritual, where emotion and magick fuse into one.
Hmmm, guess that makes a Bard a Druid after all.