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Samhain Essay: Paying Respects - page 12 / 22





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A Druid Missal-Any Yule Year XLII Vol. 20 Number 8 December 23rd, 2004 c.e.

Yule Essay: Bards, Ogma and Ogham

Reprinted from A Druid Missal-Any, Yule 1985 By Emmon Bodfish

ule begins Winter, Geimredh, season of the Bard. The File and Bards, like the troubadours who followed them, practiced their art "from Samain until summer" as in the old poem of Forgoll, the Bard, who tells King Mongan a story each night from his wise repertory. And, as Keatings explains, commenting on the Old Irish, the winter practices of the File, lodging from house to house in exchange for their songs and stories, had become such a great burden for Ireland, that a king had the idea of banishing them:

"It is by Aodh son of Ainmire that a great assembly of Drom Ceat was convened where there was a gathering of the nobles and ecclesiastics(?) of Ireland. Aodh had three reasons to convene this assembly, the irst of them being to banish the File and Bards because they constituted a heavy burden and were hard to govern."

At this time, Keatings adds, almost a third of the well-born men in Ireland belonged in some way to the Bardic class. "And from Samhain to Beltaine, they lodged at the homes of the nobles of Ireland." The project failed because Conchobar, to show his Druid orthodoxy and generosity, gathers up the File and Bards and maintains them for seven years, and also sends Cuchulainn to meet them. (It is not, in the light of this, accidental that we have more verse remaining about Conchobar than about any other Pre-Christian Irish king.)

The tradition continued after the Christianization. A folklorist whom the Rees quote recalled that


"Just until recently, the Irish story tellers, heritors of the Bards, also did not exercise their art during the summer. In order to feel at ease, it had to be winter and night had to have fallen."

The patron god of Bards and storytellers is Ogmios, Champion of Strength and Eloquence. Lucian, writing in the second century, equates him with Roman Hercules, but notes these differences. First, Ogmios is portrayed as an old man, white haired, but still powerful. The Gauls, he learned through his native acquaintance, associate eloquence with the old champion, and not with Hermes, whom they see as too young and callow. On one of the temples or art works then extant, Ogmios, he says, is pictured leading a joyful band of men, attached to him by thin chains which link their ears to the tip of his tongue, a striking visual portrait of persuasive ability. The Irish god Ogma or Oghma, is clearly the same divine persona, though Prof. MacCana feels that the name may be a borrowing instead of a genuine cognate. But the figure appears, often qualified by the title "Grainainech" of-the-Sun-like-Countenance, and The Honey-Mouthed, both in Ireland and Wales as on the Continent. He is also known as "trenfher," champion, or literally the "heavy man." In insular traditions he is not only the patron of eloquent speech, but also the inventor of writing, in the old Irish system of Ogham letters. This is a system of writing made up of bars of varying lengths place above and below a central line. It is of uncertain origin, but clearly designed for carving on stone, or at the end of square pillars.

It continued in use into the Early Middle Ages. MacCana believes it probably evolved out of an earlier set of magical symbols; perhaps some of the same ones that gave rise to the Norse Runes.

As Ogham came into use after the Celts were exposed to the Latin alphabet, MacCana contends it may have evolved thus: "seeing the utility of the Sound=Letter system of Latin script, the Gauls may have let the magic symbol whose name contained the sound stand for that sound in all words." Other scholars, such as Prof. Rhys, and Charles Squire, believe Ogham was the indigenous script of Ireland. They stress that it more closely resembles a binary or trinary code, akin to the bars and lines of the I Ching, than the picture writing of sound diagrams from which Mediterranean and hence all Western systems of letters evolved.

Most Ogham inscriptions are found in Ireland and Scotland, where the Romans never came. (Druidism is full of these riddles.)

Being in this way the God of Writing, it may not be an accident that Oghma is one of the very few Celtic gods for whom we have written records of his worship, i.e. prayers. Two "defixiones," inscribed tablets, were found in France on which Ogmios is beseeched to avenge the author and wreck a curse on certain individuals. In Irish sources, he is also the Champion in

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