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What is a Druid/Ovate/Bard?

What is a Druid/Ovate/Bard?



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Published by Lisa Allen MH
An Article by Philip Carr-Gomm
An Article by Philip Carr-Gomm

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Published by: Lisa Allen MH on Nov 24, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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WHAT IS A DRUID? by Philip Carr-Gomm'Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and  spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just aswild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savagebarbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses.' Diodorus Siculus Histories c.8 BCE  In ancient times a Druid was a philosopher, teacher, counsellor and magician, theword probably meaning ‘A Forest Sage’ or ‘Strong Seer’. In modern times, a Druid is someone who follows Druidry as their chosen spiritual path, or who has entered the Druid level of training in a Druid Order.The reason we tend to visualise the Druid as an old man in our imagination is partly due, perhaps, to a realisation that by the time one has undertaken thetraining of Bard and Ovate one is bound to be ancient! We cannot be sure of theexact time it took, but Caesar mentions that some spent as long as twenty years intheir education at Druid colleges. But this is really little different to the time young people now take to complete their education, and Caesar’s account is reminiscent of the situation of monastic schools in Europe and as far afield as Tibet, whereyoung people would go or be sent for a complete education: free from the burdenof taxation or military service and “instigated by such advantages, many resort totheir school even of their own accord, whilst others are sent by their parents and relations.” Commentators point out that ‘twenty years’ could have been a figure of  speech to denote a long duration of time, or that it might have actually been 19years, since the Druids almost certainly used the Metonic Cycle, a method of reckoning based on the nineteen-year eclipse cycle. If the Bard was the poet and musician, the preserver of lore, the inspirer and entertainer, and the Ovate was the doctor, detective, diviner and seer, what wasthe Druid? Their functions, simply stated, were to act as advisor to rulers, as judge, as teacher, and as an authority in matters of worship and ceremony. The picture this paints is of mature wisdom, of official position and privilege, and of roles which involved decision-making, direction and the imparting of knowledgeand wise counsel.We tend to think of the Druid as a sort of priest - but this is not borne out by theevidence. The classical texts refer to them more as philosophers than priests. At first this appears confusing since we know they presided at ceremonies, but if weunderstand that Druidry was a natural, earth religion as opposed to a revealed religion, such as Christianity or Islam, we can see that the Druids probably acted not as mediators of Divinity, but as directors of ritual, guiding and containing therites.
 In addition to this, we know that they fulfilled a number of other functions, whichwe shall now examine. Separating these out is for the sake of convenience only,for in reality the roles often merged and combined, as we realise when Caesar tells us "They have many discussions as touching the stars and their movement,the size of the universe and of the earth, the order of nature, the strength and the powers of the immortal gods, and hand down their lore to the young men." Herewe see the Druids as scientists - as astronomers and mathematicians, as philosophers discussing the powers of the gods, and as teachers passing on their wisdom.Druids as Judges'The Druids are considered the most just of men, and on this account they areentrusted with the decision, not only of the private disputes, but of the public disputes as well; so that, in former times, they even arbitrated cases of war and made the opponents stop when they were about to line up for battle, and themurder cases in particular were turned over to them for decision.' Strabo Geographica'It is they who decide in almost all disputes, public and private; and if any crimehas been committed, or murder done, or there is any dispute about succession or boundaries, they also decide it, determining rewards and penalties: if any personor people does not abide by their decision, they ban such from sacrifice, which istheir heaviest penalty.' Caesar De Bello Gallico It is natural that those people perceived as the wise elders of the community  should be turned to for judgement and arbitration in times of dispute or when acrime has been committed, and some of the most interesting information about the ancient Druids can be found in the old Irish laws, known as the Brehon laws. Irish texts tell us that in 714 BCE the High King Ollamh Fódhla formalised the legal  system by founding the Festival of Tara, at which every three years the lawsalready in existence were discussed and revised: and we know some of the namesof the more prominent Druid judges of old, including a female judge named Brigh,a male judge named Finnchaemh, and Cennfaela, the Druid of King Cormac, who inthe third century CE was said to be the most learned judge in Ireland. Peter Beresford Ellis, in his book The Druids, says: “the Irish system is the oldest  surviving complete codified legal system in Europe with its roots in ancient Indo-European custom and not in Roman law, and is therefore the oldest survivingCeltic system of jurisprudence, and one in which the Druids are still mentioned.” Fortunately for us these laws have been recorded - set down in writing as early asthe fifth century, according to some sources. Even as late as the seventeenth
century some aspects of the Brehon code survived in Ireland, despite attempts by the English to suppress it. Charles Graves, the grandfather of Robert Graveswhose book on Ogham The White Goddesswas seminal in the revival of interest inGoddess worship and Paganism, was an expert on Ogham and on Brehon law. Heinitiated a Royal Commission to transcribe and translate this treasure-trove of information, which was published in six volumes between 1865 and 1901.Reading the Brehon laws today offers us an opportunity to enter into the minds of the early Druids – and to many peoples’ surprise, rather than discovering thebeliefs of a primitive and savage people, we find a highly considered system that is mostly based upon ‘Restorative Justice’ – a concept that is found, for example,on the other side of the world amongst the Maoris of New Zealand . Restorative justice is concerned with compensation rather than revenge - the offender rather than simply being incarcerated is made to make good the damage or loss they have caused the victim. This picture was marred somewhat in Ireland by licencebeing given for vengeance killings, but these were allowed only in response to themurder of family members, and limits were exerted on retaliation. Undoubtedly we are seeing here an attempt to control situations that could so easily escalate. As we would expect from Druid lawmakers, severe penalties resulted from theunlawful cutting down of trees, with important trees such as oak and yew beingdesignated ‘Chieftain trees’ and carrying greater demands for compensation than‘Peasant trees’. And when it came to marriage and divorce the Brehon laws weremore humane than the later Christian laws. In the times of the ancient Druids, awoman could divorce a man for a number of reasons: if he was so obese he wasunable to make love, for example, or if he preferred to sleep with men, if he beat her leaving visible marks, or if he spread malicious stories about her . Under theChristian post-Druidic law in Ireland, divorce was illegal until 1995 – even if ahusband or wife was physically abusive.The Brehon laws offer us the most complete view of the kind of society that theancient Druids helped to guide and lead. We have information from Wales too, but the old Welsh laws known as the ‘Laws of Hywel Da’ were recorded much later than the Brehon laws and offer us less insight into the world of the Ancients.Druids as Teachers'A great number of young men gather about them for the sake of instruction and hold them in great honour....... Report says that in the schools of the Druids they learn by heart a great number of verses, and … they do not think it proper tocommit these utterances to writing, although in almost all other matters, and intheir public and private accounts, they make use of Greek letters.' Caesar De Bello Gallico

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