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In a previous life, I had a blog called The Bard Of Boston where I wrote about New England history, Boston-Irish culture, and Celtic music (amongst other topics). At the time, I had sort of fancied myself a modern-day bard. I was a writer, a singer-songwriter, a guitar- and Irish bouzouki-player. Certainly, if I had been around in the time of the ancient Celts, I would have qualified for “bard” status, right?
Turns out bards are more than just writer-musicians, just as druids are more than just pagan priests and vates are more than just fortune-tellers. What we’re dealing with in all three cases—druids, bards, and vates—are cultural elites. To quote Strabo, the original authority on ancient Gaulish Celtic (re: “Gallic”) culture:
“Among all the Gallic peoples, generally speaking, there are three sets of men who are held in exceptional honour; the Bards, the Vates and the Druids.”source: Geographica
Now, back to our original question: what, exactly, are the differences between these three groups of men of “exceptional honor”?
Bards vs. Vates vs. Druids: the Strabo Definitions
Here’s how Strabo defined bards, vates, and druids in his seminal work, Geographica, first published in 7 BCE:
• The Bards are singers and poets;
• the Vates, diviners and natural philosophers;
• while the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy.
Yes, I added the bullet points, but otherwise the punctuation and word-order are exactly as they appear in the Loeb Classical Library edition of Geographica.
Another translation of Strabo’s text—the one Barry Cunliffe quotes in his book Druids: A Very Short Introduction—offers slightly different definitions of bards, vates, and druids.
• The Bards are singers and poets;
• the Vates the interpreters of sacrifice and the natural philosophers;
• while the Druids, in addition to the science of nature, study also moral philosophy.
This latter translation emphasizes the vates’ role in conducting sacrifices while also highlighting the role of druids as natural scientists (indeed, they were expert astronomers.)
But rather than rely on Strabo alone for distinguishing between the three noble classes of ancient Celts, let us consider other Classical sources as well as the opinions of modern experts. And for the sake of organization, I’ll tackle each class—bards, vates, and druids—one at a time.
First up, the bards.
1) What Are Bards? / Who Were the Bards?
” … the Bards[‘]…power lay in strengthening individuals through eulogy and destroying others through satire.”-Barry Cunliffe, Druids: A Very Short Introduction
I’ll admit it: this is something I hadn’t been fully aware of before doing research for this article—that first and foremost, bards were eulogists and satirists.
Yes, they sang and wrote poetry. But specifically, bards wrote and performed in service of praising—or criticizing—battlefield heroes and other powerful figures.
To quote genealogist John O’Hart:
“The office of the Bard was chiefly to compose war songs and poems in praise of men distinguished for their valour, patriotism, hospitality, and other virtues; and to satirize bad men, and denounce their vices.”source: Irish Pedigrees; or the Origin and Stem of the Irish Nation 1892)
O’Hart goes on to quote Roman poet Lucan, author of Pharsalia, who described the office of the bard thusly:
What, you don’t speak Latin? Fine, here’s a translation:
Yes, parallels can be (and are) drawn between bards and medieval minstrels, no thanks in small part to classical sources (like the one I just quoted) that emphasize the praise-giving and cheerleading function of bards while de-emphasizing their satirical function. One classical writer who succeeded in highlighting both functions was Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who published his famed Bibliotheca historica in several volumes between 60 and 21 BCE. To quote Diodorus:
“And there are among them composers of verses whom they call Bards; these singing to instruments similar to a lyre, applaud some, while they vituperate others.”source: Bibliotheca historica V, 31, 3
Satire and vituperation were the true “superpowers” of the bards. With the right words, the bards could topple kings.
Nowhere is this bardic power more prominently on display than in Irish mythology.
Take, for example, Cairbre, the official bard of the Tuatha Dé Danann and, fittingly, the son of Ogma, the Irish god of eloquence. After the half-Fomorrian god Bres becomes king of the Tuatha Dé Danann—following Nuada of the Silver Hand’s untimely de-handing—Cairbre takes umbrage with Bres’s hospitality (or lack thereof). Not being one to keep his opinions to himself, the bard ruthlessly satirizes the new king. As a direct result of Cairbre’s words, popular opinion turns against Bres and he’s usurped.
While the bardic tradition would eventually die out in Gaul, it would go on to thrive in Ireland (as well as in Scotland and Wales). And no, we’re not just talking about mythology here. The Irish bards, and their rigorous, twelve-year training regimen, are well-attested in historic literature.
Specifically, the Brehon laws, the ancient laws of Ireland first written down in the 7th century C.E., detail the hundreds of stories and poems aspiring filí (Irish bards) had to learn in order to climb the ranks and achieve Ollamh status, the highest level of bard—a “doctor of poetry.”
Ollamhs were entitled to golden branches, while those in the level below Ollamh carried silver branches, and those in the level below that carried bronze branches. In all cases, the branches were trimmed with bells, which the bards shook in order to get people’s attention and compel them to listen silently.
Sort of like the “please turn off your phones” announcement that plays right before a movie starts.
2) What Are Vates? / Who Were the Vates?
“…the Vates…conducted the sacrifices and foretold the future…”-Barry Cunliffe, Druids: A Very Short Introduction
Also known as augurs and, later, ovates, the vates were ancient Celtic religious figures who specialized in divination and the interpretation of animal (and human) sacrifices.
Basically, the vates killed living things, then they observed the deaths of those living things (and their resulting remains) in order to make predictions about the future.
Here, I’ll let Diodorus explain:
“They [the Gauls] have also soothsayers, who are held in high estimation; and these, by auguries and the sacrifice of victims, foretell future events…When enquiring into matters of great import they have a strange and incredible custom; they devote to death a human being and stab him with a dagger in the region above the diaphragm, and when he has fallen they foretell the future from his fall and from the convulsions of his limbs and, moreover from the spurting of the blood, placing their trust in some ancient and long-continued observation of these practices.”source: Bibliotheca historica
Yea, the implication here is that Gaulish Celts practiced ritual human sacrifice, and the Vates were the ring-leaders of that ceremonial violence. Priests of death.
Or were the vates merely executioners?
According to Diodorus, vates were expressly prohibited from making sacrifices without a druid being present. And according to Julius Caesar, in his account of the Gallic Wars, druids were the true officiants of those sacrifices.
Granted, Caesar didn’t actually distinguish between bards, vates, and druids in his writing. He instead distinguished between two noble classes: knights and druids.
“…of these two orders, one is that of the Druids, the other that of the knights. The former are engaged in things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, and interpret all matters of religion. To these a large number of the young men resort for the purpose of instruction, and they [the Druids] are in great honor among them. For they determine respecting almost all controversies, public and private; and if any crime has been perpetrated, if murder has been committed, if there be any dispute about an inheritance, if any about boundaries, these same persons decide it; they decree rewards and punishments; if any one, either in a private or public capacity, has not submitted to their decision, they interdict him from the sacrifices. This among them is the most heavy punishment.”source: Commentarii de Bello Gallico VI.13
It’s likely that Caesar, either out of ignorance or convenience, lumped vates (and bards) into a broader category of intellectual-spiritual-cultural-political elites that he called “Druids.” Hence, it’s possible that the “Druids” Caesar described as prohibiting people from taking part in sacrifices were actually vates.
Putting Caesar aside like a side Caesar salad (I’m so sorry), it’s clear that the vates, regardless of their exact degree of authority, were part of the same religious order as the druids. And some historians—and organizations, like the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids—interpret the structure of that ancient pagan order as having been hierarchical, with bards at the bottom, vates in the middle, and druids at the top.
3) What Are Druids? / Who Were the Druids?
“…Druids played an essential part [in the ritual and religious world of the Celts] as wise philosophers, revered for their justice, the keepers of natural and celestial knowledge, and the intermediaries between the gods and humankind. They were essentially specialists in a far more widespread system of beliefs and practices which involved other specialists – the Vates…and the Bards…”-Barry Cunliffe, Druids: A Very Short Introduction
For those of you who’ve been following along with my folkloric and mythological ramblings here at IrishMyths.com, you’ll know that I recently published an article explaining who the druids were. So rather than rehash old material, I’ll answer the question in a different way: who were the druids in relation to the vates and the bards?
The druids were the bosses. Both literally and figuratively. They reported to no one, save an arch druid or the gods themselves. In Irish mythology, no one spoke before a king—except the king’s druid. And it was the druids who decided if kings should take their troops into battle.
Ollamhs, the highest ranking of bards, studied for twelve years?
Druids studied for twenty.
Although it’s possible that Ollamhs—and more broadly, filí—were actually the successors to the ancient druids, as argued by historian Peter Berresford Ellis.
“The Filidh was both honoured and feared in ancient Irish society and seems something akin to a Brahmin. In pre-Christian times the Filidh was obviously a druid but during the Christian era he retained all the prestige that had been given to the druids.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
That be the case, one could interpret the bronze branch, silver branch, and gold branch (Ollamh) tiers of the filí order as having replicated the ancient Gaulish hierarchy of bard, vate, and druid.
The hierarchy thing actually makes a lot of sense as I look back at the Irish myths I’ve read about druids. Many of those mythological druids, like Amergin, were not only master diplomats and advisors, but also renowned poets and prophets.
We’ve already discovered a potential explanation for this interconnectedness, or fluidity, if you will, between bards, vates, and druids: they were all part of the same ancient Celtic order. So, by definition, a druid would be expected to possess the knowledge and skills of the vates and the bards.
Memorizing hundreds of stories and poems and learning how to interpret sacrifices and predict the future might have merely been prerequisites for becoming a druid.
Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish by Morgan Llywelyn
From the Cauldron Born: Exploring the Magic of Welsh Legend & Lore by Kristoffer Hughes
The World of the Druids by Miranda J. Green
The Druid Animal Oracle by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm
The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm
Want to learn about modern druidry/druidism?
I recommend the audiobook The Path of Druidry: Walking the Ancient Green Way by Penny Billington (narrated by Jennifer M. Dixon). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 15-hour audiobook for free.
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