The Spirit of Poetry and the Gods

From the manuscript of Cormac's Glossary
From the manuscript of Cormac’s Glossary

Turning from the Brythonic to the Goidelic, the analogue to the awenydd would be the fili. Such analogues are always in need of qualification and never exact. The Welsh term ‘bard’ covers some aspects of ‘awenydd’ in medieval usage, but is also a more general term that can simply be translated as ‘poet’. So too ‘fili‘. But if the medieval Welsh bards can be seen as descendants of the druids in terms of their function, the process of transition and the change in emphasis of their role is by no means clear and in some senses involves a considerable displacement of context and status. This to some extent explains the need to create a protean identity for the bard as sage and prophet such as was embodied in the figure of Taliesin as indicated in other posts here.

It may seem that in Ireland the process of transition from druid to fili is clearer and the overlap in function between the two better documented. But most scholars are of the opinion that the process, as seen through christian eyes and then re-mythologised in literature and commentary, makes it very difficult to see through the layers of interpretation to an authentic picture of the pagan past. Such early texts as the ‘Cauldron of Poesy’ and the references to the role of the fili in Cormac’s Glossary suggest that they practised visionary and prophetic arts in much the same way as the awenyddion as recorded by Gerald of Wales.

Cormac’s Glossary identifies three essential attributes of a fili:

(a) teinm laedo (illumination of song) which is the mastery of the craft, the realisation of the vision or, possibly simply the knowledge required to be a fili.
(b) imbas forosnai (the manifestation which enlightens) which is inspiration, visionary abilities, divination and prophecy such as attributed to the awenyddion in Wales.
(c) dichetal di chennaib (chanting or incantation) involved with the ability to give voice eloquently and fluently to what is divined. Later simply presentational skill.

The Glossary asserts that St Patrick abolished two of these but left the third in the repertoire of the fili because as it did not involve offerings to demons or the adoption of divine power. Such ascriptions of the attributes of the fili and the objections to them from christian orthodoxy are repeated with variations throughout the medieval period. The effect is both to define a magical and a prophetic practice and at the same time to assert that it has been superseded by the rites of the church. It both describes what is forbidden and salaciously sensationalises it for added effect. In Wales the role was typically shifted onto a poetic alter-ego such as Taliesin. In Ireland it was also projected back onto the mythological hero Finn who was also credited with acquiring the three attributes of the fili after sucking his thumb when cooking the salmon of divine knowledge for his mentor, much as Gwion did with Ceridwen’s brew before he was transformed into Taliesin.

When gods become heroes, when legendary bards become prophets, when druids becomes bards or fili, all sorts of things get lost, mixed up or added in to the new identities. The parallel process of fictional portrayal and clerical excoriation also adds layers of complexity. Consider how things were closer to the end of pagan culture in the Roman Empire. Following the adoption of christianity by the emperor Constantine in 306, continued by his successor Constantius, the emperor Julian attempted to reinstate paganism. Worship of the old gods had not ceased, especially in the west, but the empire was now ruled from Constantinople in the east where christianity had become established. The effect of withdrawal of state support for the temples meant that observations had become lax and Julian, in his exhortations to the temple priests, is on record of requiring them to promote the worship of the gods rather than acting as agents for curses commissioned by individuals. Already, then, the priests of paganism were being denigrated and seen as agents of the dark arts. It is easy to see how, with the reintroduction of official christianity and the eventual suppression of paganism, this limited (but always prominent) aspect of roman paganism became the chief attributes of what were regarded as its remnant practitioners.
Later christian commentators like Gerald and the author of Cormac’s Glossary may never have actually encountered these practices. But they were already the legendary attributes of druids and described as received wisdom rather than from experience. Bards who wished to adopt the aura of such powers as part of their poetic personas, or those who re-told the exploits of Finn and Taliesin out of the remnant mythologies, could recreate the lives of the gods, heroes, sages and otherworld inhabitants either as hero tales, legendary history or in the personas of prophets, bardic oracles and inspired poets and even, in another entry in Cormac’s Glossary, as the embodiment of the Spirit of Poetry.

So do the gods live, transform and re-create themselves in our stories. Do we tell them or do they tell them through our story-telling art which is their gift to us? Whatever is the case it is clear that, however much other mythologised figures such as Patrick might forbid, banish, abolish or attempt to restrict such elements of the visionary arts, it was never effective even in his judgement of it.

Author: Greg Hill

Awenydd/Poet, Cultural Critic

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