The Bards

Of all the roles in Celtic society we know most about the Bard. This is because Bardic schools continued in Ireland and Gaelic Scotland to the middle of the seventeenth century.

Julius Caesar mentions large schools run by druids for the youth of Celtic Gaul in the first century BCE. However, we know little or nothing about the education of poets and other men of learning in early Ireland before the eighth century CE.

Around this time, poets were graded according to their literacy levels. Before this, the ‘oral’ poets of traditions lived as travelling minstrels, with songs, poetry, accompanying harpists and legendary tales.

Higher grades of poet, the filid, used written Old Irish texts to study grammar, prose, genealogy and history. There were poets (fili), experts in Irish traditional history (senchae), and judges of customary law (brethem), who became clerics, or a teachers in church schools.

From the late tenth to the twelfth centuries, even higher levels appeared as we see from court poets, some of whose verses in praise of Irish kings still survive.

Many ancient Celtic tales have survived to this day, through patient translation by modern day Bards. It took many years of diligent study to become a Bard. However, we have schools today that teach us comprehension of literature, oral language, essays, grammar, poetry and stories.

Irish Mythology Sources

Page from book of Leinster

The three main manuscript sources for Irish mythology are: –

  • Late 11th/early 12th century Lebor na hUidre, meaning Book of the Dun Cow. Sadly only 76 pages remain
  • Book of Leinster compiled c. 1160 CE
  • Bodleian Library, also referred to as Book of Glendalough. The first part written c.1110 CE and the second compiled in the mid-12th century.

Despite the dates of these sources, examination of the language used date most of the material further back to the 8th century and may even go back to the 6th century from even earlier oral retellings. Other important sources are: –

  • The Yellow Book of Lecan (which contains the missing material from Lebor na hUidre) written in two parts in 1391 and 1401.
  • The Great Book of Lecan, written between 1397 and 1418 (which contains transcribed material from the Book of Leinster)
  • The Book of Ballymote transcribed 1390 or 1391 (a compilation of older works, loose manuscripts and valuable documents handed down from antiquity).

It has to be noted that most of the manuscripts were created by Christian monks (especially the later works), whose religious hostility to pagan beliefs resulted in some of the ancient stories being adapted and reworked to fit in with accepted Greek or Biblical genealogy (see Sean Twomey’s series of articles on Irish Pseudohistory and the Lore of the Master Poets for a more detailed study).

Welsh Mythology Sources

For most of us, Wales represents a beautiful country of mountains, hills, valleys and a majestic coastline. Ynys Môn, once connected by land, but now separated by the Menai straits, was once a holy Druid stronghold and numerous megalithic sites,
show that humans lived there since prehistory. It should be noted that the divisions of Wales, England and Scotland did not exist in early Celtic times and the earliest known title for Britain is Albion. In Scottish Gaelic Scotland still retains the name Alba.

Like Irish mythology, Welsh mythology and history was passed down orally by Bards and Druids. As invaders and settlers have arrived much of the oral record has been lost or altered. This needs to be borne in mind when looking at medieval Welsh manuscripts. However, the following still provide a treasure of Welsh Celtic legends and mythology: –

  • Llyfr Aneirin c. 1265. Believed to be a copy of an original manuscript, attributed to the late 6th century poet, Aneirin.
  • The Book of Taliesin dating from the first half of the 14th century, though many of the fifty-six poems are believed to originate in the 10th century or earlier.
  • The White Book of Rhydderch c. 1350 is the earliest collection of Welsh prose texts and poetry.
  • The Red Book of Hergest – written between 1382 and 1410 preserves a collection of Welsh prose and poetry, particularly the tales of the Mabinogion.

Other notable sources include: –

  • Historia Brittonum c. 828 – A history of the British (Brittonic) people.
  • Historia Regum Britanniae c. 1136 – A history of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Scottish Legends7

A lot of Irish mythology was imported to Scotland, and some was probably written in Scotland. The Ulster Cycle is a group of heroic stories centres around the Uliad, people from North East Ireland. The Ulaid had close links with Gaelic Scotland, where Cúchulainn is said to have learned the arts of war.

The myths and legends of Scotland reflect the nature and seasons of the land. For instance Beira, the Queen of Winter, who raises storms during January and February to delay the arrival of spring. Beira was a tough and brutal old woman who brought deep snow, overflowing rivers and created lochs and mountains. When it gets warmer, she steps aside for the Dual Lord and Lady who share equal power during the following season. Scottish deities were not glorified or widely worshipped, unlike those of other ancient cultures, but more linked with nature, being connected with specific rivers, wells and mountains, etc.

The Kelpie by Herbert James Draper 1912

Scotland, though, does have a wealth of mythical creatures such as selkies and kelpies. There are quite a few tales of Changelings, fairy folk, who stole babies from the crib and substituted them with another fairy. The Wulver, a creature with the body of a man and a wolf’s head was a benevolent creature, who enjoyed fishing. He left fish on the window-sill of the poor. In the present day Scotland is still full of legends, including the Loch Ness Monster.

The Hebrides are an isolated group of various sized (largely uninhabited) islands off the Western coast of Scotland. The surrounding sea is important to sustain the small communities on these remote islands and are abundant with stories of unusual and magical (especially sea) creatures. This is a list of the most well-known of these: –

  • Kelpies – shape-shifting water spirits that appears as a horse, but can adopt human form.
  • Blue men of the Minch (also known as Storm Kelpies) – inhabiting the sea between the Hebrides and mainland Scotland (known as the Minch). Although they are blue, they look human. They create storms and seek out unsuspecting vessels to sink. In fine weather sleep and float on the water.
  • Seonaidh (Shoney) was originally a Celtic Sea God (before Christianity relegated him to a water spirit), who took offerings of ale from the inhabitants of Lewis.
  • Merpeople – appear as human with the tale of a fish. Mermaids usually appear as unlucky omens, foretelling disaster and provoking it, even with murderous intent. Occasionally some teach humans how to cure certain diseases. Mermen are wilder creatures and ugly unlike Mermaids, but have no interest in humans.
  • Werewolves – a human that shapeshifts into a wolf. A family of werewolves occupied an island on Loch Langavat. If their graves are ever disturbed legend says they will rise from the dead.
  • Will-o’-the-wisp – strange lights that float around the sea when a local resident is about to pass. They are especially associated with Sandwick in the Shetland Islands.
  • Fairy hound – on the Isle of Harris a Cu Sith (fairy dog) leaves oversized paw prints on the sand which mysteriously vanish half way across the beach.

Cornish Legends

Cornish mythology consists partly of folk traditions developed in Cornwall and mythology shared with the Breton and Welsh peoples. Many ancient tales of the Bards, such as the Arthurian Cycle and tales from the Mabinogion take place in the ancient kingdom of Cornubia (Cornwall). The original kingdom of Dumnonia was centred in Devon and also included Cornwall and parts of Somerset. Cornubia was a sub-kingdom created around 443CE.

Legendary creatures from Cornish folklore include: –

  • The Bucca – a merman, connected with sea storms. It has suggested that originally Bucca was an ancient Celtic deity of the sea because fish food offerings were left on the beach by fisherman to appease him.
  • Piskies (Pixies) – Piskies are concentrated in the high moorland areas around Devon and Cornwall and are believed to inhabit ancient underground ancestor sites such as stone circles and barrows.
  • Giants – Many of the unusual features in Cornwall such as the granite rock on Bodmin Moor, the staggering sea cliffs seascape and St Michael’s Mount are explained as the work of Giants. Eighteenth century tales such as Jack the Giant Killer were probably based on much older oral folk tales.

King Arthur has a very strong connection with Cornwall and a lot of events associated with Arthurian legend happened in Cornwall: –

  • Tintagel – on North Cornish coast thought to be the birth place of Arthur. A ruined Norman castle on a steep, craggy hillside marks the original Celtic fortress where Uthyr’s famous son was born.
  • Dozmary Pool – thought to be the lake in which Sir Bedivere threw Excalibur to The Lady of the Lake.
  • The Tristan Stone – set beside the road leading to Fowey in Cornwall, marks the story of Arthur’s knight Tristan and his lover Iseult.

Legends of Brittany

From the third century, Celts from Wales and Cornwall began to emigrate to the area named Armorica during Roman occupation, but later named Brittany, in North East France.

Brittany was split between five Celtic tribes. Breton mythology is the collection of heroic tales originating in Brittany. The Bretons had many gods and mythical creatures associated with nature. This mythological background was accepted by Romans, but when Christianity arrived lots of grand epics were lost and pagan landmarks were either destroyed or Christianised.

However some Breton Celtic folklore has survived such as: –

  • Ankoù – a grim reaper type figure that collects the souls of the deceased. The
  • last person to die in a parish takes over the role of the Ankou. The Ankou appears as a tall, haggard skeleton with long white hair and a revolving head, enable to see in all directions, who drives a cart and stops at the house of someone who is about to die. It knocks on the door (sometimes heard by the living), before it takes away the dead in the cart with help from two ghostly companions.
  • Bugul Noz – a fairy spirit who lives in the woodlands of Brittany. He is the last of his kind, but his ugly appearance is so awful that woodland animals avoid him. He is kind and gentle, but always alone. He cries out to warn humans of his approach, so not to frighten them. In fact, some humans have instantly died on seeing him.
  • Cannard noz (“night ducks”) – three small, webbed feet washerwomen, dressed in green who go to the water’s edge at midnight to wash shrouds of those about to die.
  • Korrigan – water spirits that dance around fountains and wells. They are very beautiful at dusk or night with long flowing hair and the power to make men fall in love with them, but lure them to their death. However they avoid being seen during the day when their true appearance is as red-eyed, white-haired, wrinkled hags.

Many Arthurian legends also take place in Brittany. For example: –

  • Sir Lancelot spent his childhood in the forest of Brocéliande, Brittany.
  • Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan Le Fey, after being betrayed by her lover, put a spell on Le Val Sans Retour (“The Valley Without Return”), causing unfaithful lovers to be imprisoned in the valley.
  • Tristan married a Princess in Brittany, breaking the love enchantment put on him by Iseult.

The Bards of old would recount tales of old, in their own way. No doubt the tales varied, but the fact that the essence of the tales of legendary heroes has existed to modern times is a testimony to these ancient legends. Did these ancient heroes and deities exist or were they created?

We’re all stories in the end and we know that a lot of stories start out from actual events, that are embellished over the years. Robin Hood is a prime example of this. Godfrey of Monmouth’s Arthurian tales also differ greatly from accounts in the Book of Taliesin.

But whether we write songs poetry, or stories that entertain let us always remember the Bards of old. And remember stories work on many levels. A lot of Celtic tales were precautionary, warning of the consequences of our actions.

Bards would be skilled in the tales of old, but would also keep records of their tribes and create new tales. We have many storytellers who carry on this tradition today, transporting us into far, distant lands and times past, present and sometimes predicting the future.

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