By Marina Storino Holderbaum
In Ancient Ireland the religious class had a complex structure of professions in which the filid, Ovates and Druids were the most prominent and has been widely described by classical authors such as Julius Caesar and Poseidonios, although there was evidence of other types of offices. These professions were divided into various degrees of learning, though probably they could choose more than one profession to learn and practice, as Sean Mac Airt explains in his article for the magazine Ériu Filidecht Coimgne.
“For early Ireland there is plenty of evidence to show that the profession of the older fili touched very closely on those of the other learned classes. Macalister is probably right in supposing that the druid, fili, etc., were merely different aspects of one and the same official. As might be expected from the accepted etymology of the term fili (‘seer’, cf. W. gweled, ‘to see’), this official was seemingly qualified to fill different offices, e.g. those of king, jurist, ‘poet’, etc., though normally he confined himself to one or two. Find Fili, mythical ancestor of some Leinster families, held the dual office of king and ‘poet’.”
All religious occupations seem to have shared the same status level, with varying degrees of personal recognition; among them was the title of Ollam, which was the most valuable. The title was given to those who had technical or exceptional talent in the performance of their profession. This reinforces the idea of the occupations of filid, Ovates and Druids as separate classes, or as Macalister says, as aspects of a single official, and not different phases of Druidic training, since we found in reports of Irish mythology cases of filid who received the title of Ollam. Padraig Breatnach article The Chief’s Poet is very enlightening about the filid training and qualifications to acquire the title of Ollam.
“There ollam signifies one who has achieved the highest of the seven stages of poetic training (‘VII gradus poematis’), the other six being, in a descending order, those of ánruth, clí, cano, dos, mac fuirmid, fochloc. In general this division is made to correspond with the course of training to be followed by the fili over a period of seven years. (Some sources make it span up to twelve years, the final five, or four, serving to qualify for the title ollam.)”
Although the term fili is translated as associated to the training of poetry, their functions and knowledge were not in any way restricted to the creation of poetry. Their connection with the jurisprudence is well documented throughout the Irish Medieval period; moreover, as stated Mac Airt, he was the receptacle of the genealogy and history of families, and their memory were even acceptable as a “historical document” such as the Ogam inscriptions. Some manuscripts also refer to them as “prophets” as quoted by Francis Byrne in Irish Kings and High Kings.
“We learn from classical authors, notably the Stoic philosopher and traveler Poseidonios of Apamea, that the Gauls had a caste of prophetic poets, bards, and druids – vates, bardoi, and druides; and Julius Caesar’s account of the teaching in druidic schools is well known. The word vates survives in lrish as fáith ‘a prophet’, but the normal word for ‘poet’ is fili (plural filid) – literally ‘seer’, and medieval sources make it clear that divination was included among the poet’s functions. In Welsh bardd means ‘poet’, but in lreland, as in ancient Gaul, the bard was an inferior grade of versifier who specialized in satire and panegyric: he normally accompanied the fili as part of the latter’s retinue.”
It is important to note that although there is some evidence which tells us the term fili was already used in the Irish Antiquity some scholars suggest that they are a late development of the literate class, which would have slowly happened due to social and cultural needs, as stated by Mac Airt. It is possible to speculate that perhaps there have been two distinct types of official recognition by the term fili, one in the Irish Antiquity and another in the Medieval Ireland, which gradually replaced the functions of the first over time and historical needs of Celtic Ireland, though it is impossible to determine with certainty the precise characteristics of fili in Antiquity.
If fili was the designation of the “poet” and also “prophet” in Celtic Ireland, as cited by Byrne, then we can assume that the concept of ‘Poetry’ for them was an art form to express other social roles that were not limited to this art, but reproduced through it, since the prophecies probably would be made in the form of rhymes. “Perception” is perhaps a good adjective to represent the social character of fili, for he was the guardian of history and stories of his people as well as responsible for constructing the narratives of his own time. As a “prophet” he could see through time, and as charge for the preservation of laws, as Byrne tells us, he had the function of maintaining traditions. Therefore, we can conclude that for the Irish Celts, the fili had the “perception” to transcend History, Time, and Social Conscience, using the ‘Poetry’ to express this revelation.
“Tradition claims that the laws were originally the preserve of the filid, and the earliest fragments, dating from the seventh and perhaps even the six century, are in archaic verse…
In some ways it could be argued that the filid wielded more power than did the kings. They moulded public opinion, which is the ultimate arbiter of acceptable forms of polity and policy.”
In the Ulster Cycle there is a meeting, reported in “The Colloquy of the Two Sages,” between two great filid, Néde and Ferchertne, discussing about the right to receive the title of Ollam, title of Master in poetry. One of the Néde responses gives us a good idea of the meaning of “poetry” in the context of Celtic priestly class.
“129. Not hard (to say): I am son of Poetry,
130. Poetry son of Scrutiny,
131. Scrutiny son of Meditation,
132. Meditation son of Lore,
133. Lore son of Enquiry,
134. Enquiry son of Investigation,
135. Investigation son of Great-Knowledge,
136. Great-Knowledge son of Great-Sense,
137. Great-Sense son of Understanding,
138. Understanding son of Wisdom,
139. Wisdom, son of the three gods of Poetry.”
Remembering that for the Irish Celts, a fili was the live memory of their culture and society, he had the historical knowledge, genealogical, mythological and cultural life of their people, and is regarded as the receptacle of a “perception” that can overcome the visible and able to distinguish right from wrong, being so the preserver of law and order in the world.
BYRNE, Francis J. Irish Kingship and High-Kingship. Four Courts History Classics, Four Courts Press, 2001.
BREATNACH, Pádraig A. The Chief’s Poet in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, vol. 83C. Royal Irish Academy, 1983.
MAC AIRT, Sean. Filidecht and Coimgne in Ériu, Vol 18, pp. 139-152. Royal Irish Academy, 1958.
STROKES, Whitley (Ed. e Trad.).The Colloquy of the Two Sages. Paris: Librairie Emile Bouillon, 1905 http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/colloquy.html.