Tag Archives: Bardic

Call yourself a Bard

Do it. Call yourself a Bard. Or take the other names that appeal to you but seem too big to even try on. Poet, author, Druid, Priestess, healer, oracle, mystic… There are a lot of powerful words out there that can be used to describe who a person is and what they are doing.

Of course there are far too many people who take titles they don’t really deserve. You’ve probably run into that. You may well be afraid of looking like that if you claim the names for yourself. That might not just be a spiritual path issue. That might be about identifying as disabled, or queer, or neurodivergent while a little voice in your head says ‘yeah, but you’re not really queer enough, are you?’ Pick up the name or the label you need and there are reasons to fear someone else will tell you that you aren’t entitled to those words.

Try them on for size anyway. Test how they sit in your mouth. Explore the ways in which you might understand yourself on your own terms.

Too many of us are taught to make ourselves small and not to make a fuss. Too many of us experience being invalidated and not being allowed to express who we are and what’s going on for us. Some of us have family and cultural backgrounds that treat difference as shameful. We may need to reclaim the truth of who we are, and the acceptability of who we are. 

On the inside, some of us are still a small child who was told to shut up and sit down and stop being so attention seeking. Some of us were told that our aspirations were foolish and unrealistic. I see enough people around singing activities who were wounded by being told that they could not sing by people who had no idea what they were talking about.

If you’re on the bard path, call yourself a bard even if you only do that in your own head.

Call yourself a bard when you’re waiting to go out onto the stage, say it to yourself because you are the one person who needs to hear it.

You don’t have to be small. You don’t even have to be sensible. Call yourself a bard to honour the most preposterous parts of yourself. Use the word to reclaim all the not-sensible bits of you that don’t fit neatly into the demands of a dying capitalist society. Call other people bards, too. Call them heroes and goddesses and miracle workers if you can. Call the people around you visionaries and marvels, call them courageous and generous and mighty. Tell people they are powerful and remarkable. Tell them they are valid, and support the ways in which they want to express who they are.

Use your bard skills to lift people out of their feelings of ordinariness and insignificance. Tell people who they really are and tell them how greatly they matter.


Bard or Performer?

What you think it means to be a bard probably has everything to do with what you think historical bards were. I’ve seen people say that if you’re interested in your own fame and fortune and if there’s any amount of ego in it then you aren’t a bard. I guess these are people who have not considered the implications of being a court bard (Taliesin) or the kind of bombast and self promotion that figures in Welsh and Irish mythology tend to go in for. Scotland’s Thomas the Rhymer is hardly a self-effacing figure, either.

You can of course serve the gods, spirits and whomsoever else you wish to serve with secret, private bardic activity. But for anything involving people, being a bard really does involve being good at grabbing, and keeping people’s attention. 

Being larger than life, charismatic, and compelling are all good qualities to try and develop in yourself as a bard. There is magic in enchanting people, and there’s a lot to be said for having no qualms about putting yourself centre stage and demanding people pay attention. Of course if that’s all you’re doing, people will soon lose interest. Whether a performer intends to be a bard or not, they need to have something going on beyond a desire for attention.

The idea that wanting to be popular necessitates being crappy comes up a lot around ‘literature’ as well as bardic pursuits. To be serious, worthy, high brow one must also (according to some people) be elitist, obscure and write things that aren’t accessible to people who don’t already know all the things you know. I think this is by far the bigger ego issue than the natural human desire for attention. People need good art. There are a lot of people who want good art. Trying to make things for a larger audience doesn’t invalidate it. There is no conflict between trying to do something a lot of people will like, and trying to do something substantial and anyone who says otherwise is either a snob, or trying to justify why their work isn’t much appreciated.

What makes you a bard is that your work is driven by ideas, the need for beauty, principles, vision, inspiration and a desire to make the world a better place. If people pay you for that, you are no less of a bard. If you see creative work as a quick way to earn a lot of money… this is mostly not how anything works anyway. It’s surprisingly hard to have a creative career as a soulless mercenary who only cares about the bottom line.


Bardcraft – covering songs

While writing your own songs is always going to be an attractive choice for a bard, there’s also a lot to be said for singing other people’s material. It’s easier to learn existing songs than to write them. Engaging with existing songs roots you in your tradition and honours your ancestors of musical tradition. Keeping a song alive is a meaningful thing to do and can also be part of keeping culture and tradition alive.

As songwriters, most of us have habits. Few are the performers who can do a whole set of their own material without it starting to sound a bit samey. Throwing in some well chosen covers can help considerably with keeping your own material sounding fresh and interesting.

Covering a song well isn’t straightforward. You need to find a balance between making it your own, and being faithful to the original. You have to work out which aspects of the song are essential to its character, and which you can afford to do without. Traditional British songs tend to be fine if you just take the tune and words – often there are variants of those already in existence. Other cultures have traditional music where the harmonies are intrinsic and you can’t pull a single tune out and have it still work. Contemporary music from numerous genres can depend on the interplay between tune and accompaniment. 

I find it helps to listen to multiple versions of a song before I start trying to find my own way of doing it. With more famous songs, it’s usually possible to find cover versions, which help me explore possible ways of interpreting the music. When the song isn’t so well known, you might be able to find live versions from the songwriter, and these also help. It can also be helpful to find versions recorded much later – James doing ‘Sit Down’ at their final live concert defined my approach to covering the song.

There’s much more to working with existing material than just ‘doing a cover’ implies. As a bard, you’re going to be looking for a deeper relationship with the piece. You have to know it at a level that allows you to bring it to life, and to perform it with sincerity and a sense of meaning. It pays to take time forming a relationship with a song and letting it become part of your life, and part of you, before you try and take it out into the world.


On the Bard path

As River pointed out in a recent comment, the idea of the Bard path can be really intimidating. The quest for sacred inspiration and the pressure of putting that out into the world in a meaningful way can make it hard to get started. Where are you even going to find sacred inspiration? How can you possibly make anything good enough?

As far as I’m concerned, all inspiration is sacred. It’s the flow that is vital and magical, and the form it takes is irrelevant. If your inspiration takes the form of a fart joke that briefly lifts the spirits of someone who is in pain, then you’re doing all the things.

The urge to be Serious, to create things that are weighty, significant, important, worthy and so forth, isn’t reliably a good urge. It can result in work that is totally inaccessible. If all you want to do is create poetry in an ancient language to honour your Gods – go for it. But it’s not the only option. Trickster Gods are likely to be up for the fart jokes anyway. Not all Pagan Gods are literary heavyweights. Some are very much about the drink, the partying, the sex and frivolity. 

Mirth is as important as reverence and the two are not at odds with each other. Apparently trivial things can be healing and comforting. Laughter can break down barriers. Foolishness can enable others. A small, lightweight thing can transform your perspective of an issue, in a way that some massive, indigestible tome never could. 

There’s real magic in finding the enchantment inside ordinary, everyday things. Simple expressions can be far more beautiful than overworked ones. Trying too hard doesn’t always get results. Grace and flow, delight and enthusiasm all get a lot done, and these can all be part of your inspiration and part of your work. 

I know that my best animist writing to date happened when I was trying to amuse people. Some of my kindest writing has come out of my angriest feelings. Sometimes I turn out to be at my best when I feel I have least to offer. Sometimes it’s the work done with little thought and intention that turns out to be most powerful and meaningful for other people. In matters creative, what you intend and how it works out don’t always match up. The trick is to trust the flow and see where it takes you.

Real inspiration can be mucky and chaotic, unpredictable, earthy, silly and apparently trivial. Taking yourself too seriously can be a barrier to real magic. It is better to be a holy fool, and not worry about your literary legacy, or being taken seriously by anyone, and just let go and have fun with it all. When the creativity comes from your heart and soul, magic enters the world. 


Intuition on the bard path

Intuition is a really important skill for bards. First and foremost it’s about being able to read the room (or grove). Having a feel for your audience that allows you to respond to them is essential for making a connection and communicating effectively. You also have to give yourself space for that – if you’ve carefully planned out every detail of what you will say and do, you’re leaving no space to include what comes up at the time.

Stages feel pretty exposed at the best of times. If you are nervous you may feel like trying to be more open to your audience is a bad thing. This is not something a person is likely to get the hang of at the first go. It’s something to explore once you’re over the worst of the nerves caused by simply trying to perform.

It’s easier to read the room if you start before getting on to the stage. It’s important to check out the space and the audience ahead of time. Flounce up just before your set and you have no idea what you’re walking in to. It’s easier to try and read the mood of the gathering before you start performing. Some crowds respond well to bombast, some will like you more if you come in gently.

Intuition has a role to play at other times as well. Very few bards create in the moment and on the day. It takes time to learn, write, choreograph or otherwise get your creativity to the point where you can share it. What you have to learn to get there, is an issue. The decisions about what to work on happen a fair way ahead of sharing a finished piece. What will be relevant by the time you can share it?

For me, 2021 has been full of intuitive leaps in the dark. I’ve made decisions about what to do and when, creatively, that were at best informed by wild guesses. That’s been going surprisingly well, so far. It’s left me feeling more open to possibility, and perhaps a little more in tune with the tides of existence. Which sounds slightly pretentious, but I can’t think of a more grounded way of saying it!


Singing the wheel of the year

Singing the wheel of the year has been an important part of my path. I’ve done it in folk spaces, rituals and with groups I’ve been singing with. It’s a simple process of bringing along songs that are in some way seasonally relevant. I’ve got something for every month, and for some months, more than one song. It’s an important part of how I celebrate, but it’s something I’ve not done much of during the last six months or so.

I’ve decided to go back to singing the wheel of the year as something I can do for supporters on Patreon.  There will be a monthly post with a recorded song, and some notes on my history with it, where I got it and whatever else seems relevant. This will be available to anyone who supports me, regardless of level. There are other level-specific things, involving fiction, a Druid book in progress and things in the post, for anyone who is really keen.

Patreon helps me afford the time to write a blog post every day. It means I can afford to spend time on projects like Wherefore  – which I am also giving away. It means there’s a space where I can plan a project like singing the wheel of the year.

At the moment, my energy levels are really poor. I’m often only good for a few hours each day before exhaustion wipes me out. Being both economically active and creative is difficult to balance in this context and I’ve had to think hard about what I can do based on what I can currently sustain.  It helps to do something I can feel good about, that lifts me as I work on it, rather than stuff that just grinds me down.

So from next week, I’ll be singing once a month. Which means making the time to practice and polish up songs – I’ve hardly sung at all in the last six months, so my voice isn’t what it could be. I’ll have that sorted out by the time I’m recording. The prompt t do this came from asking Patreon supporters what they’d like more of, and one person saying they were mostly interested in the Druidry and another asking for more songs – I have put a few up there in the past. These two things combine rather well, and it is good to have the inspiration.

I’m very glad of Patreon as a space. If you’d like to join me over there, it’s https://www.patreon.com/NimueB


Bardic Magic

In my current re-exploration of magic I’ve also been thinking about what the bard path means to me, and how I relate to it. Bardic work is a big part of what I do – more and less subtly. I use creativity to achieve transformation and I depend on the flow of inspiration, but I’ve not let myself think of this as a magical practice.

Sometimes I write in order to know. With a pen in my hand, I can open doors to insight, intuition and become aware of things that I didn’t previous see or understand. This is something to do quietly, curled up on the sofa. There’s no ritual, no drama, and so I tend to persuade myself there’s also no magic. Those insights come most readily when I’m writing silly things, and the mirth means I have been in the habit of not taking myself seriously. I have no intention of taking myself seriously, but I need to stop seeing mirth as at odds with reverence.

Sometimes I write in order to change things, for myself and other people. Most of my poems are arguably also spells. I write them to explore the changes I want to make, to re-imagine, to commit to things. I write this blog to help other people change as well. I’ve started doing this a bit more deliberately of late.

I also sing as a way of getting things done – to change the atmosphere in places, to comfort and to uplift.

I’m writing this blog post partly to figure out what I do.

One of the things I’m very good at doing is finding reasons why what I do isn’t as valid, shiny, important as what anyone else does. I don’t have visions, I have ideas while writing stuff. The Gods do not talk to me, unless I am making up a story that pertains to them, but that’s me making up a story. I don’t do magic, except with a pen, which I have decided doesn’t count. But if I don’t claim too much for what I do, there’s nothing to take from me.  There’s no inherent invitation to knock me down.

I can’t imagine claiming any great spiritual significance for my own creative work. I’ve seen other people do it and marvelled at their confidence, and at a relationship with the world that is so very different from my own. Obviously what I do isn’t sacredly inspired, isn’t held by a relationship with a divinity… and it comes down to a sense that what I do isn’t good enough. Of course this is just the story I choose to tell. People who choose to tell stories in which they are magical and doing important work get to put that into the world. But, I have no idea what it would take to feel entitled to tell a story in which my work has weight and significance.

This all raises more questions than it answers. I suspect I’m waiting for permission, but I have no idea whose. I guess whatever the answers are, I will discover them by writing about them.


Doing it from memory

We know that the ancient Druids had an oral tradition, and that the bards of old memorised vast amounts of material. However, when it comes to the modern bard path, I think it’s really important not to be dogmatic about doing things from memory.

Firstly, not everyone can. Not all brains are good at storing great swathes of text and music. Brain injuries, cognitive differences, and learning difficulties can all make memorising impossible, or excessively difficult. No one should be excluded from bardic performance for these reasons. If you’re holding a bardic space, it is important not to discriminate and not to demand that people perform from memory. Don’t challenge people who can’t and don’t ask why they can’t – it isn’t your business.

There can also be class, life stage and economic issues around performance from memory as well. Learning takes time. That time may not be available – work, illness, family, and other pressures may mean a person does not have the luxury of time to learn content by heart. It is kinder and more inclusive not to put people under pressure or to exclude them based on how overwhelming their lives are. And again, we do not need to know the details of why a person cannot commit to learning the words.

For someone who is anxious, or inexperienced, doing it without the words can simply be too daunting the first few times. People who could be great may never get started if the entry bar is set to high. None of us benefit from that.

The quality of a performance does not depend on whether you are holding a piece of paper. Certainly a piece of paper can be a barrier between performer and audience, but it doesn’t have to be. No one complains about classical musicians reading from the sheet music. Authors are allowed to read from their books at events, too. It is entirely possible to perform very badly from memory. The best thing to do is focus on quality of performance – in your own work and when you are making space for other people.

If you need the words, or notes, to make that possible, go with whatever allows you to do the best performance you can. Don’t penalise other people for needing to rely on paper or phones for content. You can encourage excellence without making specific demands on what people do. It takes time to develop as a performer and most people start out far less able than they will be with practice. Experience of performing is part of what takes a person towards being a really great performer – most of us don’t get up for the first time at anything like the level of performance we might be capable of.

(And thank you to Clive Oseman for the prompt)


What makes some art sacred?

Fellow Moon Books author Imelda Almqvist has suggested using #SacredArt over on Twitter to talk about just that thing. So, what makes art sacred? In the bard tradition, it’s not just visual art that has spiritual significance. For bards the word, spoken or sung is primarily where its at. Modern bards tend to embrace all forms of creativity as potential bardic expressions, but that doesn’t mean all creativity is necessarily bardic.

Here are some thoughts about what separates sacred bardic creativity from regular creativity.

  • Where you get your inspiration from. If the work is inspired by spiritual experience then it’s fair to think of it as a spiritual activity.
  • If you are doing the work as an invitation for something to work through you, to receive messages and insights or otherwise open yourself to magic and inspiration, then there is a sacredness to it.
  • Who you create for – now, there may have to be a commercial aspect to this because everyone has to eat, but if your primary concern is with offering your creativity back to whatever you hold sacred, then there’s clearly a sacred art aspect to your work too. On the bard path, we also identify a spiritual aspect in using your creativity for the good of your land and tribe, so art for activism, inclusion and culture shift can also be seen as having a spiritual dimension.
  • If you create to bring spiritual ideas and feelings to people regardless of how spiritually inclined they are – there’s a sacred art aspect to your work.

Any piece of work could be driven by one of these factors, or combinations of factors. It may be the essence of the whole piece or project, or just a part of it.

In terms of that fourth point, it’s often work that isn’t overtly spiritual that has the most chance of connecting with people who are not currently feeling inspired or magical. Work that gets in under the radar can have powerful, transformative effects. It can impact on people who would actively turn away if they thought you were going to offer them something with a religious aspect. Sometimes, it’s by having that sacred aspect be one thread amongst many that you have the best chance of engaging people whose hearts might otherwise be closed to you.

To be recognised as a bard means persuading other humans that what you do is bardic. However, when it comes to the question of whether your art is sacred or not, no one else has any right to try and define that for you. If it feels sacred to you, then it is sacred.


Bardic Chairs, the final installment

As far as I know, this is the last video in the series Mark Lindsey Earley has made for Druid Life. Huge thanks for this, Mark.