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General Bardic Studies 1, Requirement 2

Genres: Describe four "genres" of bardic arts, at least one of which must be poetry. For each genre, compare and contrast its appearance and/or use in two single (preferably ancient) Indo-European cultures. The two cultures need not be the same for all four genres. (300 words each)


Poetry is the primary method of transmission of stories that we retain today in both the Celtic and the Norse worlds. The best, most well-attested example from the Norse world is, of course, the Elder (or Poetic) Edda; the best examples from the Celtic world are spread throughout the various cycles of mythology passed down to us.

The Elder Edda is a collection of poems that was passed down orally for generations, and were probably collected together around the middle of the thirteenth century. (Hollander, xiv) These particular poems detail much of the mythology that surrounds pagan Iceland, and through reading and re-telling these poems, the deities come alive through action and being.

Poetry and lyric transmission of mythology is more difficult to locate in the Celtic world, but it is no far stretch to believe that nearly all the mythology we have received began as poetry. Not only are poetic fragments still extant in the stories that have come to us, but lyrical transmission is the most common method in Indo-European societies that do not write their works down on paper (as the Celts were, even though they had access to foreign writing techniques). When I call it "more difficult to locate", I refer primarily to the lack of a single body of purely verse mythological cycles and stories.

In both the Celtic world and the Norse world, poetry provided an easy way to help relay the story of the Gods and the ancestors of the people, creating examples for conduct, a way to transfer important cultural concepts, and a strong sense of tribalism and cultural unity.

Poetry's mnemonic devices and the ease of remembering verse over prose tends to lend itself to less change over time. It seems then that poetry is an obvious choice for cultures that transmit their knowledge orally.

Prose Storytelling:

When we think of stories in our modern concept, we think of prose storytelling. While stories have always been told in such a way, we find that it seems to be a function of contact with Christianity or Rome that moves the Celtic and Germanic stories into a prose paradigm. Despite that, we cannot ignore the effect that these stories had on maintaining and transmitting the myths and stories of these cultures that did not write their myths and stories down.

The Celts, it is well known, provided an amazing service to the world by studiously writing and copying texts in their monasteries after the conversion to Christianity. Most of these texts were prose, though, and the effect of moving primarily to a prose-based mode of recording seems to have influenced the entire culture, in particular the priorities of the intelligentsia. The introduction to the Tain indicates that the poets of Ireland themselves could not remember the whole of the poem. It is thus no surprise that about half of the story is written in prose, rather than poetry.

The Norse, particularly the Icelanders, found a special pleasure in texts of legal struggles, and (as one professor at Ohio State put it), "practically living in a perpetual O. J. Simpson trial." So interested in the judicial aspect of life were they that a great number of sagas, in particular Hrafenkel's Saga stands out, have come down to us that probably would not have in a culture less interested in such matters.

More key, though, to showing the mythology and culture of the Norse is the aptly named "Prose Edda" of Snorri Sturluson. It shows that poetry began to die out (it's written as a primer for poets) in the northern cultures, and was meant to fight that. But the replacing phenomenon was prose storytelling. In order to convey the information that poets needed to know, Snorri chose prose as his medium. If nothing else, there is a strong sense that this was the best medium for presentation to a culture that was forgetting its roots, and also that it was a medium that had been available in Iceland before, but not well used.

Also, both the Nibelungenlied and the Volsungasaga were written in the 13th century (or around then), and both are prose epics. The development from poetry to prose (we are certain that both these existed as poetry first) shows that prose was an acceptable form of discourse for transmitting mythology within the culture.


The bards job, centrally, is to take the chaos of inspiration, order it within his mind, and provide that order via his tongue to the world at large, thus ordering the world by his words. It is by his words that the world is re-formed and sanctioned in ritual, and in daily life it is his words that provide the basis for whether an action is correct in the world by answering the basic question: is this action legal?

In Iceland we have the culturally instituted law-giving at the Althing, where each year the speaker would stand before the assembly and recite a section of the laws. This was one of the central purposes of the Althing: the recitation and reinforcement of these laws. Changes to the law system would be discussed, and cases would be heard by the Thingmen and chiefs. All of this was watched over and monitored by the Lawspeaker, who ordered the ceremony and provided advice on the system. (Davidson, 16)

In the Celtic countries, we find speakers of the law, also. Here, they are called breitheamh, or judge, in Irish. Caesar informs us that there is a place in central Gaul, in the territory of the Carnutes, that the Druids assembled in. There, they discussed and settled conflicts and disputes for all of Gaul. Ellis provides us with an insight into law and judgment on the part of the Druids: "The Celtic peoples had developed a sophisticated law system which applied to them all wherever they were found and that the druids controlled this system." (Ellis, 191) We find the Irish assembly of Feis Temhrach as an assembly where the law was recited and examined.

We also have earlier evidence of the poets controlling law, where in The Dialogue of the Sages the responsibility for law-keeping is removed from the hands of the poets, indicating that it was, at one time, their responsibility. From this, a new class of judges arises, which we call the Brehons. These judges were required to cite a fasach, or a precedent or maxim to back up their decisions, and those who did not accept the judgment were cast out of society. (Ellis, 193-194)

Inspirative Prophecy:

Perhaps the most interesting and complicated type of bardic art (and the one we are least likely to be able to duplicate in the modern world) is that of inspirative prophecy. This is prophecy that follows from a similar path as speaking the law, but also a more esoteric path. Here, too, we find that the bard must make sense out of the fertile and unformed chaos of inspiration, but this ordering process leads to deeper mystery and potentially further chaos, even if it is an ordering process for the bard himself.

In Celtic countries, we have the bull-sacrifice as a fine example in Celtic myth and legend of divination and dream interpretation. The ritual involved the slaughter of a white bull, and the seer would wrap himself in the bull's hide and sleep for two days. When he awoke, the answer to his question (or a description of the past, present, or future) would be clear to him. The prophecy involved in this method of divination is very much one of creating order out of chaos and building reality from the depths of imagination. 

In Nordic countries, we can look at the deep meditative states of the gods themselves. In Balder's Dreams, we see that Odin enters a sort of trance (the induction journey being demonstrated by his travels) where he is able to contact a sibyl who tells him the meanings of Balder's disturbing dreams (though it is unfortunate that the dream is not related in the poem). The Voluspa also enters a trance, where she cants out the future of the world and the fate of the gods. In the Havamal, Odin hangs for nine nights on a windswept tree (Yggdrasil), finally taking up the runes (presumably seen in a vision) and ordering them for the usage of mankind.


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