Honor Our Pagan Bards
by Bronwynn Forrest Torgerson
I never felt the lack of a bard until the day a circle died. Across a room, 75 people clasped hands and stared at one another, uncertain how to end the wobbling, awkward affair. A roomful of pagan strangers had assembled to celebrate community diversity and had drawn lots to see which factions would write the circle casting, energy raising and declaration of intent.
No one knows what happened to the group who fumbled the ball at the end, but after a century’s pause, one lone voice reverted to the old “Isis, Astarte, Diana” chant. Somewhere in a distant glade, I heard the Goddess groan, “Oh for Persephone’s sake — reruns again!” She snatched up the remote and promptly changed the channel. A bard could have saved the day and fixed that fiasco with one chord.
When Leslie Fish, famous at pagan gatherings and filking cons (where old songs are given new lyrics), left the price tag of California and came to call the desert home, I had no idea what a jewel had landed in Arizona’s lap. The lady bard and her guitar graced many a circle, asking naught but applause and a drop to wet the whistle in exchange for her magick. Not ungratefully, but unthinkingly, few offered more. Only in my later Midwest and Northwest times, when I spoke her name and was treated to dropped jaws and intakes of awestruck breath, did I begin to have a clue.
Upon researching the role of bards throughout the ages, it becomes clear that this is a hallowed guest. The Celtic bardic tradition dates to ancient times but was most prominent in medieval and postmedieval Wales and Ireland. Many bards were resident in wealthy homes; others were itinerant. They were particularly important in Wales, where bards were often noble, and where bardic guilds were formed to set standards for writing and reciting. Repeatedly outlawed by the English, as politically inciting, the institution gradually died out.
In Ireland, the training of a bard lasted 12 years, with students undergoing a rigorous curriculum. In the initial years, the student progressed from “principle beginner” to “poet’s attendant.” By his eleventh year, he was termed “a noble stream,” because “a stream of pleasing praise issues from him, and a stream of wealth to him.” Once a bard had mastered 350 stories, he was considered a master and entitled to receive a gold branch with bells attached. When the bard strode into the hall, all were alerted to become silent and summon the help of the inner realms to inspire his poem, song or story.
The body of a bard was inviolate, even in history’s most treacherous times. As the bearer of news, bards roamed at will throughout the far reaches of the kingdom with reports of invasions and death, births and coronations, scandal, triumph and deceit. Bards were deemed to be prophets and emissaries of the Divine, able to bless and curse with a stanza of three lines. Because of the level of autonomy and impunity granted to bards, they often became the voice of the people, whose tongues had to remain silent to keep lives, lands and families together.
Do we as pagans perceive them as filling those same roles today? Yes, indeed! Leslie Fish’s most famous magickal trilogy of songs, formulated specifically to end a prolonged drought, brought down a deluge from the skies. Beginning with a tune called “Out on Thunderbird Road,” which acknowledged the dry, parched ground, she then shifted into a more up-tempo, beseeching number which musically pleaded, “More, more, more… we need more!” Her rousing finale is a hymn to Thor, entitled “White Man’s Rain Chant,” which exhorts the god to “draw the drops of the sky together, break the back of burning wither.” Works like the weather charm it is! Yet, the lady bard can curse as well as cure. No one has ever heard Leslie, an impressive, steely eyed figure with coal-black hair and a knife in her boot, launch into a chorus of “The Oathbreaker Song” without a shuddered sigh of relief that the words weren’t intended for them!
As for historians, we are fortunate as pagans to have such standards to incorporate into our rituals as “The Burning Times,” best arranged by Todd Alan and The Quest. The changing values and chafing repression of our society is brought to the musical fore by Gaia Consort, whose anthem, “Cry Freedom” on their new CD Silent Voices is a reaction to the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative. Hence the razor-edged line, “They try to hold us back with reins of holy smoke, but I am here to say we will not bear the yoke!” In his CD liner notes, Gaia Consort member Christopher Bingham writes that he feels many pagans are in a state of complacency, with their noses stuck too far into their Tarot cards to perceive what is happening in the world around them. Someone needs to sound the wake-up call; enter the bard.
At those circles blessed with a bard, rituals flow, segues are apparent, and some kick-butt energy gets raised. Bards have an innate knack for weaving people together. At a Yule celebration in Bellingham, Washington, I fretted as the talking stick was passed and the full spectrum from serious believers to scoffers and gawkers became apparent. Then our friend Dougal picked up his guitar and passed out lyrics to a Dar Williams song, “The Christians and the Pagans,” about “finding peace and common ground the best that they were able.” Suddenly his strings were not the only thing in tune. As one body, hands reached for red taper candles and lit the wishing wreath. Common good and camaraderie prevailed.
Is there a blessing for a guesting bard? None that I have ever come across; therefore, one needs to be created. One might propose the following festive inclusion. Prior to the bard’s entry into the hall, two garlanded, gaily adorned sweepers come with sprigs of laurel, rosemary and pine (honor, remembrance and renewal) signaling the people that “Music comes! The heart string hums! The good bard comes!”
Enter a third attendant with sistrum or cluster of bells, who announces, “Hark, they ring! Rejoice and sing! Each shining thing the good bard brings! He/She comes!”
A low, draped table should be set aside, near the comfortable seat of honor to which the bard is led. As the preliminary feast begins, food is brought to the bard first by one who says, “Play for us, and touch our souls. Be sustenance, uplift, console. As your music feeds our spirits, may this meal lend strength to your body, good bard.”
Drink is next poured for the bard, with this blessing: “We bless each note that from you pours. Your tales are ours, our love is yours.”
As the last song is sung and the music fades, a purse is given to the bard that each in attendance has had occasion to grace with what monetary gifts may be made. The gifting words spoken are “With gold and silver and precious things, an offering for your blessed strings. As every chord rang bold and true, good bard, we praise and honor you!”
Let us, as pagans, restore our bards to the esteemed position that from antiquity has been theirs. No longer an ill-paid afterthought, but our voice, our magick and our hearts.