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The Bard and the Shaman,
Distinction Between Bardic and Shamanic Practices
The roles of the bard and the shaman are quite different, coming from different ages and cultural backgrounds, yet they share a number of characteristics when viewed from the perspective of the world today. It may be of value to reconsider the significance these two practices once held in the world.
In “Technicians of the Sacred”, (1968, Revised and Expanded in 1985, University of California Press, Berkely) Jerome Rothenberg surveys a range of poems, chants, songs, tales, rants and dances from around the world. While many are collected from so-called ‘pre-literate’ or oral traditions, some are contemporary but with strong ties to the primal evocative power of sound. Each piece functions as a technology as it provides a medium through which the speaker interacts with or creates a sense of the sacred. The poet, seer, shaman, storyteller, chief, medicine man, priest, father, mother, all are technicians functioning in the cultural context of their individual and collective time/space. It may vary from barely more than something to pass the time while performing repetitive work, (consider the similarity in the terms entrain and entertain), to ritualistic ceremonial verses, or telling the story of the creation of the world. In this sense we see Rothenberg’s collection of poetic technologies of the sacred as in some ways both shamanic and bardic in the role they played.
But with primal societies it is important to keep in mind that everything in the world is charged with an animistic magical power. Everything is sacred, in the sense that from the simplest task of hunting, gathering, carving, building, eating, sleeping, birthing, kinship to one another and to a place, there is no separation of mind and object. Whereas in our modern society we attempt to arrange things so that we believe we exist ‘outside’ of the reality around us, that we have an objective awareness of the world around us and explain it in materialistic and reductionist concepts, such as how a company is organized and run, how a government is maintained, how a family unit is organized, how food is processed and marketed, purchased and consumed, how molecules are put together, how the brain works, there is nothing sacred to any of this for most of us today, these are simply common agreements on how we believe things are put together in a secular society, so that we may exert ‘control’ over ‘things’ rather than think of ourselves as having a communal or collective consciousness which is actually at work just beyond our threshold of awareness.
For in traditional primal societies, very little was under a person or a tribe’s direct control, the world was an awesome often terrifying place. In order to live in harmony in the world for one’s own safety and comfort, as well as that of the family or tribe, people invented their own patterns of cultural organization that made sense to them at whatever level of technology they happened to be at; stone age, hunter-gatherer, agrarian, cattle, iron-age, and so on. They devised symbols that allowed them to relate themselves to the various powers they believed were at work around them and within them, through these symbols they connected themselves to the world and sought to be in harmony with the world as best they could. The myths and legends of supernatural beings, gods and totems, animal spirits and so forth, were forces they could understand and attempt to manipulate or at least appease through sacrifice, ritual, devotion, or at least recognition and respect, etc. As their observations of the natural world around them grew in depth and understanding, astronomical cycles and seasonal changes could be incorporated into these mythico-spiritual interpretations of the world so that over time their awareness and ability to predict growing cycles, menstrual cycles, the comings and goings of the sun and moon and stars, the better and more accurate the observations became, the more power it bestowed upon the observer.
Over time it is easy to see how this trend continued to develop into the the eventual separation of sense of self as individual from the world around us, the separation of mind and nature, because through subsequent scientific and technological developments, we gained more and more power over nature, more ability to manipulate and exert control over nature, and each other. As long as the level of technology was no more than a bow and arrow, this wasn’t too dangerous for we could only do so much damage with a bow and arrow. But in the last 50 to 100 years, technological developments have rapidly increased and are picked up and used by anyone anywhere in the world, whether or not those using it would have been able to invent it or fully understand it in the first place. How many of us operate automobiles at high speeds in close proximity to one another in the millions on the highways, without having the slightest idea how to build one or even maintain it properly.
But the main thing was, it worked for the most part. Through the separation of mind and nature we have been able to explain so much and build so much and exert so much power, that we have very nearly convinced ourselves that everything can be understood in this way. But perhaps the things we have convinced ourselves are no longer relevant, god, the gods, unconscious and conscious states of mind other than normal waking states, respect for the earth and for life, and how all things are actually inter-releted, perhaps we don’t have scientific explanations for these things because the nature of our science and methods do not allow us to peer into these realms, yet.
In traditional primal cultures, the society relied on the shaman in much the same way as we regard our modern day scientists, but with a sacred aspect as well, a scientist-priest we might say. The shaman was priest/healer/poet/artist/teacher, the role Eliade calls ‘psychopomp’. The shaman’s task was to journey into the magical animistic realm and bring back useful knowledge or powers for the good of the tribe.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, (see sources; Higher Wisdom, Cleansing the Doors of Perception, Invisible Landscape, etc…) it is difficult to imagine how the role of shaman would be reintroduced in our secular modern culture today. In some ways the high priests of science and quantum physics are our modern day shamans, in some ways it could be the transpersonal psychotherapies being developed, in some ways it is the artist’s journey into the mythic realm of imaginal and symbolic representation, or the modern musical compositions of Phillip Glass or Lou Harrison or the jazz of Charlie Parker, John Coltraine, Miles Davis, or the blues of Son House or Robert Johnson. But in all these modern examples, we see the shaman has been fragmented into a variety of characters in today’s world. In traditional societies it was all wrapped up in a single figure within any given tribal society.
The term bard originally referred to a fairly limited type of troubadour musician/poet found in the older Celtic cultures dating back to druidic times (ancient Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Manx and Brittany) and a rough equivalent can be found in Norse culture, too, where they were known as “scops.” There are no doubt Arab and Asian versions of bards as well, and perhaps others, less familiar to Europeans and certainly not commonly thought of as relating to our understanding today of what the Celtic bards were, but probably performed much the same function. A true Bard in the Celtic tradition was trained in the following: music (and the playing of a period instrument, preferably Harp), poetry (original, and other people’s), song (original and other people’s), the History, Law and Custom of his/her Kingdom and as much knowledge of mundane medieval history, Law, and custom as they can possibly learn, and at least a very basic knowledge of linguistics and alphabet/ciphers/runes. Some training in Folklore, and in the arts of Sociology and Semantics as well.
In the culture of the druidic Celts, the societies were obviously larger than traditional shamanic tribal societies, covered more territory, and the role of the Bard as Master Poet and historian and local news-bringer, obviously differed markedly from that of the druid priests, so already we see the shamanic arts beginning to be split up as the societies were slowly becoming more complex. But the druid societies were still much less complex than today’s global village with satellite communications, smartphones, nuclear energy and hundreds of different ethnic and religious factions wrestling with one another for a limited number of resources on this ever-shrinking planet. So looking back from today’s vantage point we can see that for the larger network of Celtic villages, the Bard performed (along with the druid priests) many of the functions of the tribal shaman, but modified to a more urban, iron-age society on the edge of the modernization about to come. So for the Celtic society, the Bard, like the tribal shaman, embodied a specific body of knowledge and experience not commonly practiced by the rest of society, but of great value to the society as a whole and therefore respected, revered, and trusted, performing a healing practice in perhaps more of a social way than an individual way, and very much a necessary component in providing unity and common understanding throughout the territory.
Less secular than the druid priest, the Bard still held a sense of the sacred in as much as the whole of Celtic druidic culture was spiritual in nature but still a mid-point between the tribal magical animistic spirituality of shamanic culture and the institutionalized religions of the modern world yet to come.
As mentioned above, the many roles the shaman performed for his/her society have become so split up in today’s world as to not even be recognizable as anything like the original position the shaman held in ancient cultures. True, through the good works of dedicated and academically recognized efforts such as Michael Harner’s 50-some years studying and teaching shamanic drumming practices being put to effective use in many ways today in the healing arts, and similar work of others, some aspects of shamanic practice are being revived. But those works are still very focused on a narrow audience, requiring very specific education and experience.
What of the Bard in today’s world? When we consider the musical entertainments (entrainments?) of TV shows like “American Idol”, “America’s Got Talent”, “Glee”, and other trivializations of popular music married to the current fad in Reality TV, one finds oneself wondering how did we come to this from the heritage of earlier American forms like early blues and jazz, the beat movement of the 50s? the folk poets of the 60s, the political causes generated by bands in the seventies?
But before we despair, take another look… Bob Dylan has a weekly radio program on satellite radio, Folk music from syndicated and internet radio listener sponsored programs across the country are available 24 by 7 on XM 15, The Village. Leonard Cohen completed a highly successful tour in 2008, and in April, 2011 was awarded the ninth international Glenn Gould Prize. John Lennon and the Beatles influence has never waned and the entire catalog is now available for download on iTunes, even Crosby Stills and Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, all continue to lend their talents to political and social causes throughout the world to a larger audience than was ever possible before. We tend not to notice these often because there is just so much out there today that just wasn’t there 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Once again, the proliferation of technology has proven to be a mixed blessing, providing abilities, accessibilities and possibilities to more and more people, so the game has changed, it’s not tribal anymore, it’s not Celtic villages anymore, it’s not even the One Earth of the 70s environmental and peace movements anymore, it is another notch up the spiral to internet Global Villages, SmartClouds, and new interfaces like Wii, X-Box Kinect, New Music Interfaces, and so forth.
Along with all the advances on the popular music media front, there is another whole universe of exciting new work being done in neuro-psychology now and new approaches to understanding how music and language and memory function in the brain, musical tones and healing, new research into aspects of mind and altered states of consciousness, even scientific studies into deep spiritual experience not just by the popular TM meditators of Mahesh Yogi, but deep spiritual practices by a variety of spiritual practitioners east and west, and spiritual realities are beginning to be considered as more than simply belief systems and cult brainwashing.
What about bardic poetry, historical narrative and a poetic sensibility applied to current events and culture as the ancient bards provided? Even a poetic perspective to the sciences? To some hardcore materialists, this is heretical nonsense. To others it is a political and social imperative with our very survival at stake. For it is not simply enough to know how to create nuclear energy, what those same sciences that split the atom can never do for us, is prevent us from destroying ourselves and the entire planet. As soon as Einstein and Oppenheimer realized what their work had unleashed after Hiroshima, all their efforts at political lobbying and public education for the most part went unheeded and the Cold War proceeded at a dizzying rate right through the 50s and 60s until MAD (Mutally Assured Destruction) and Nuclear Winter became so palpable that finally shortly before his death, Carl Sagan working with others convinced the governments of East and West to begin the long and arduous task of taking down our ridiculously large nuclear weapons systems and find a safe place (does such a place even exist? See Deep Time by Gregory Benford) to bury nuclear material so that it will never be unleashed. We are still very far from being close to finishing that job and now we have North Korea and Pakistan and Iran and Israel to worry about! It’s time to put bardic technology back into use. Our society needs the entire skill set of the ancient bards again to successfully communicate and persuade the peoples of the world in every language, with every social media tool available, to understand our intimate relationship we have with each other and the planet.
This can be done, we have the tools, we have the resources, we simply lack the coordinated will across the land, but that too is changing. The ancient bards commanded a respect and an integrity that is sorely lacking in the popular culture today. Ours is an age of deep cynicism and apathy. But part of what bards do is inspire, and that torch of compassion can be lit again.
The challenge today is that unlike the Celtic Bards, today’s bardic technology must embrace a much wider range of experience, interdisciplinary approaches, holistic and holonomic thinking to integrate all the existing models of reality which are still valid, not to alienate anyone at any level of their own personal and cultural development, but rather to encourage promote and respect everyone at whatever level of personal and cultural development they are at. (“It’s not so much ’bout unity, it’s more about harmony”.) This is no small feat. This is where the Integral Theory of Ken Wilber and others at the Integral Institute and similar efforts can contribute. They are working seriously at integral approaches to economy, finance, education, government, corporate leadership, the arts, psychology, medicine and spirituality. Bardic technology will therefore be an integral artform, just as it was in past times, only now there is just more to integrate than ever before.
I believe that the concept of bardic technology can be understood today for it’s utilitarian and practical benefits as an effective and acceptable and eventually more respected form of social practice. Terms like ‘sacred’ and ‘spirituality’ still make many people uncomfortable. For many of us we are still too close to the atrocities carried out in the past, and even today, in the name of some god or spiritual principle. Bardic technology therefore can be seen as not a spiritual path, yet not an entirely secular path either. Rather, as in the past, before mind and nature were so severely separated that the world became truly bi-polar and neither could function rationally any longer, bardic technology was a humanistic bridge bringing together a recognition of the things of value in our societies. Bardic technology provided, and can provide again, tools for communicating and understanding what is going on in the world (the universe) around us.
A practitioner of bardic technology today might be a music therapist, a recording artist, a studio technician, a writer, a political activist, a street performer, a videographer, a computer programmer, a teacher, a sculpter, an actor, a comedian, a neuro-psychologist experimenting with effects of various kinds of music and sound on the brain/mind, all these and many more sound possibilities exist. (The James Cameron movie Avatar is a recent example of Bardic Technology, as was Disney’s original Fantasia released in 1940.) The thing they all have in common is using their art/science for the common good of all over personal gain alone. This means developing a life practice that successfully integrates their personal development with their social and cultural development, in balance, always seeking out harmony, even when it involves dissonance. Once the scales start tipping at the point where a critical mass of people are doing this, the possibilities are amazing what kind of world we could co-create.
“Heaven knows no frontiers, and I see heaven in your eyes.” – Jimmy McCarthy, songwriter, No Frontiers