It appears, from written records almost 2,000 years old, that the Celts had three groups of honored professionals, what I will call for lack of a better modern term, the Celtic Clergy. These were the bards, ovates and druids. These three roles appear in the writings of the Greek historian and geographer Strabo. In his Geographica, written in the 20s CE, he stated that these three roles were the poets and singers or bardoi, the diviners and specialists in the natural world known as the o'vateis, and those who studied "moral philosophy", the druidai.
Today we think of bards as traveling minstrels. One of the last and most well loved of the traveling minstrels was the blind Irish Harpist, Turlough O'Carolan, (1670 – 25 March 1738) . It is said that he visited an old friend the day before his death. That night, still in her house, he called for his harp and composed his final piece, the Farewell to Music. As much as I honor the tradition and the musicians of yesterday and today and the Bard of Avalon, it appears that the Celtic Bards were much more than traveling musicians and storytellers.
In a society where most could not read or write the bards were the living historical record of a people. They preserved the past, brought it to the present, and thus ensured the continuity of a society. After all, where would any society be if they had no history? Irish bards were members of a professional hereditary caste of highly trained, learned poets. The bards were steeped in the history and traditions of clan and country. They were also proficient in the technical skills of verse construction that was syllabic and used assonance, half rhyme and alliteration, among other conventions. Most of us know that well-written poetry is much easier to memorize and retain than is prose. For example, how many nursery rhymes can you remember from your youth? What about paragraphs from the books you read in first and second grade. In a literate societies rhyme and poetry are still because it is easier to remember and pass on from generation-to-generation.
As court officials of a king or chieftain the bards were the resident genealogists, chroniclers and satirists. They kept the past alive. They also praised their employers and damned those who crossed them. Often times well-direct satire or sarcasm is a much more effective weapon than a sword (the tongue is sharper than a two edged sword). It was believed that a well-aimed bardic satire, glam dicenn, could raise boils on the face of its target. It is said that the only person to whom a clan cheiftan would bow was to a bard, and that to avoid becoming the target of the bards verbal slings and arrows. As an aside, it makes me feel really good inside to think of a culture where poet/musicians were assigned a specific place in a religion's priesthood.
According to the Greek writers Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Poseidonius, the vates (οὐάτεις) were one of three classes of Celtic priesthood. The Celtic word vates is continued by Irish fáith "prophet, seer,". The Vates or Oblates had the role of seers and performed sacrifices (and yes there seems to be evidence the the Celts, like many other ancient civilizations, practiced human sacrifice).
It appears that many different skills or tools were used by Oblates. These probably included simple weather-witching, the interpretation of bird flight, the observation of animal behavior, and the interpretation of planetary configurations, what we would term astrology to working with sacred animals and plants. Recall from earlier posts (way earlier) that Andean shamans cast coca leaves and use the position (right-side up or upside down) and spacial locations of the leaves in a cast to divine the future.) In addition Medieval Irish stories, such as the Tochmarc Etaine suggest that they also worked with the Ogham, the tree alphabet. Given the intercourse between the Celtic lands and the Norse land and the Norse tradition of casting Rune, I expect that the Oblates cast Ogham, probably inscribed on small pieces of wood.
If the Bards and Oblates were the priests of the Celtic religion then I suppose that it might be appropriate to call the Druids the high priests. We don't have any first-hand accounts of the roles or beliefs of the Druid because no written records penned by them have been found. What we do have are accounts written by Greek and Roman historians and officers and stories written by medieval authors. Some recurring themes emerge in a number of the Greco-Roman accounts of the druids, including that they performed sacrifice, believed in a form or reincarnation, and held a high position in Gaulish society. The only evidence we have of a specific religious practice is the ritual of oak and mistletoe (future post) as described by Pliny the Elder.
The role of Druid was not restricted to males. Irish has several words for female druids; the most common is bandruí "woman-druid" a term found in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Bodhmall and the Tlachtga. From the little that has been written about them we might conclude that the Druids, both male and female, were the organizers of and officiators at religious ceremonies and festivals, sorcerers with supernatural powers (especially as seen by early christian writers), and the lawyer/judges.
I am currently sketching out ideas for a one-year druid school with a common core for all students and tracks for those that feel an affinity or call to the specific work of either a bard, oblate or druid. If you are interested then drop me me a note and I'll keep you posted. I hope to have it designed and ready to go by Yule.
I'm Dr. Dave, a modern druid. I lived and worked in Bolivia and Peru for over six years, where I and was trained by Andean Shamans, and today practice Druidcraft and contemporary shamanism.