Recorded in a medieval text called The Triads of Britain are the primary activities of a bard.
The three principal endeavors of a Bard: to learn and collect knowledge; to teach others; to make peace and put an end to all injury. To do contrary to these things is not usual or becoming to a Bard.
Since bardic and druidic trainings were closely interwoven, and since we can recognize in these two roles the activities that today we would call shamanism, we might consider how these three admonitions can shape our own spiritual and shamanic practices.
Learn and Collect Knowledge
When we hear that druids studied for twenty years, our modern ears can be misled into thinking “books.” But the ancient continental Celts did not have a literary culture; druids did not commit their knowledge or wisdom to the written page. Learning meant listening to elders and observing the world around you both visible and invisible. Druidic and bardic knowledge came from direct participation in nature, human nature, and the Other. Druid schools were located in forests, sacred groves, caves, and remote hermitages. All are places where the novice would be immersed in the seasonal rhythms of the earth, the healing properties of trees and plants, animal wisdom, star lore, and the magic of the elements.
In stories, poems, and songs the young bard heard and memorized tribal history, ancestral wisdom, the lessons of human folly, and the impact that human passions such as love, hate, revenge, joy, compassion, and grief have on the souls of men and women. If training lasted twenty years, druids would also have some personal life experiences under their belts so their knowledge would not have been merely second-hand. In these same tales and poems, and through personal visionary experiences both spontaneous and structured, the young men and women training as poets learned how the world of nature and humanity intersected with the mysterious Other, the world of spirit. Through sensory deprivation, night vigils, fasting in isolated places, and the vision-stirring drink of mead, poets came to know the landscape and people of the Otherworld as well as they knew their own physical world.
The ancient Celtic poet and druid went out into the world with more knowledge than average men and women. They were allowed to travel freely from village to village and tribe to tribe, observing, listening, remembering, and sharing. In a society without books, magazines, newspapers, television, telephones, radio, movies, and internet connections, the poet functioned as an information and entertainment media-center. The men and women of poetry spoke words that carried dual power: information and enchantment.
Make Peace and Put an End to All Injury
Druids and poets were commissioned to heal pain, alleviate suffering, resolve conflict, assuage grief, and encourage others to find the happiness that lies beyond the woes of their everyday lives. No wonder the poet was a much-welcomed guest at hearths and homesteads. By singing or harping the three healing strains of music – sorrow, joy, sleep – poets healed the mind and body and comforted the human spirit. Tales of champions and heroic struggles encouraged the downtrodden to not give up hope. Creating a vision of that other realm of youth, beauty, joy, and truth lifted depressed spirits, brought a smile or a laugh, and gave men and women a reason to keep on living.
The modern poet, shaman, or druid can take these three admonitions to heart. Immerse yourself in nature, observe the seasons, live consciously beneath the night sky, study the habits of birds and animals. Explore your dreams and take them seriously. Find places and ways to see and enter the Other, and remember what you find and do there. And, when you have done these things, if there is time, read books.
Share what you know and, more importantly, what you imagine with others. Lead them to discover their own truths as well as the Truth of the Elements. The way you live your life is as powerful a teaching for others as what you say to them. So live what you know, and let it shine forth with the power of the Shining Ones who are always involved in human activity: Brigid the goddess of transformation and Lugh the god of skillful means.
Do not run from conflict and suffering. The Romano-Celtic poet Virgil wrote, Sunt lacrimae rerum, et acta mortalia tangunt. “There are tears of things, and the human condition touches us deeply.” To be a shaman means to share and transform the tears and sadness of human life. To be a poet means to speak to and about this sadness with boldness and courage. To be a druid means to sacrifice your life – part of it? all of it? – to heal the suffering of others.
You can, of course, do otherwise. You can, of course, live contrary to these things.
But if you are a poet, a druid, or a shaman, it will not become you.