In traditional Indo-European societies poetry was not a diversion to be taken up by anyone who happened to be visited by the lyrical impulse. Knowledge of the poetic language and technical command of the verbal arts were the province of specialists. These specialists were of more than one kind, for they performed a variety of functions, as priests, seers, eulogists, and so forth. Accordingly there was, so far as we can see, no single Indo-European word for 'poet', but different words corresponding to the different roles that poets played. It is difficult to reconstruct specific terms, because requirements and designations changed over time in different societies. It is nevertheless possible to discern elements of vocabulary that link separated peoples and point back to the terminology of remote eras.
It is convenient to start from the Celtic world, where a remarkable conservatism of tradition is observable in regard to poetic institutions for well over a thousand years from the time of the earliest records.
Classical sources, going back to Posidonius in the early first century bce, report that the continental Celts had poet-singers called Bards (bardoi), philosopher-priests called Druids (dryidai or drouidai), and diviners called vates. The Bards sang songs of praise or blame, accompanying themselves on instruments resembling lyres; in particular they celebrated the brave deeds of warriors in 'heroic verses'. The Druids were venerated for their wisdom and holiness, presiding over sacrifices, performing judicial functions, and checking immoderate behaviour. According to Caesar they educated many of the young men and made them learn a large quantity of oral verse. The Vates foretold the future from augury and sacrifical omens.2
All three terms reappear in insular Celtic, as Old Irish bard (Welsh bardd), drui (Welsh derwydd), and faith. The bard was a reciter and a composer of lower sorts of poetry. The drui, having lost his sacerdotal functions with the advent of Christianity, was no more than a sorcerer; his role as a learned poet had been taken over by the fili, of whom more below. The faith was concerned with spells and divination (fath).
The word bard, proto-Celtic *bardos, is analysed as an old compound going back to *^rh2-dhhi-o- and meaning 'praise-maker'. The first element is related to Vedic gir 'praise-song', jaritar- 'singer', and the verb gr 'sing, praise',
2 Strabo 4. 4. 4; Diodorus 5. 31. 2-5; Athenaeus 246cd (Posidonius F 34. 4, 169. 31, 172 Theiler); Timagenes (FGrHist 88 F 2) ap. Amm. Marc. 15. 9. 8 (where the vates are replaced by euhages following a corruption in the Greek source: OYATEIC > EYArEIC); Caesar, Bell. Gall.. 6. 13-14; Lucan 1. 447-58; Festus p. 31. 13 L.
Lithuanian girti 'praise'. The second element is the very common verbal root meaning 'set in place, create', as in Greek rid^^i. What is particularly significant is that the same two roots are combined phrasally in Indo-Iranian, in Vedic giras .. . dha and Avestan garo ... da 'offer praises'.3 This phrase at least, if not the compound noun designating the eulogist, can be assumed to go back to (Mature) Indo-European, and so can the idea that it expresses of conferring praise through poetry, whether on god or man.
The other Gaulish and Irish terms do not take us so far back, but they do point to connections extending beyond the Celtic sphere. Dru-(w)id- should mean 'oak-seer': it is reported that a tall oak served the Celts as an image of 'Jupiter', and we cannot help but recall the ancient mantic oak of Zeus at Dodona in Thesprotia (an Illyrian rather than a Greek institution).4 If druidai had been recorded as the name of the priest-prophets of Dodona, nothing would have seemed more apt.
The fili (plural filid) who inherited the druid's role in Ireland also has a title to do with the seer's function. It is related to Welsh gweled 'see' (cf. telewele 'television'), and perhaps to Latin voltus 'visage'. It reappears in the name of the German prophetess Veleda, who enjoyed immense esteem in the time of Vespasian.5 For the semantic nexus we may compare the Vedic kavi- 'sage, seer, priest-poet', Avestan kavi-, Lydian kaves (a priest), Samothracian koies, all related to a root *keu- 'see, behold'.6
The term vatis, Irish faith, appears in Latin as uätes 'seer, prophet, inspired poet', which, however, is under strong suspicion of being a Celtic loan-word.7 Related forms occur in Welsh gwawd 'cause, theme, poem, prophecy', and outside Celtic in Old Church Slavonic vetiji 'orator' and in a set of Germanic words that link the ideas of poetry and possession: Gothic wops 'possessed', Old High German wuot'frenzied', Old English wäd 'frenzied', wöö 'song', Old Norse oör 'possessed, inspired; mind, poetry'.8
3 RV 8. 96. 10; Y. 41. 1, cf. 45. 8; E. Campanile, SSL 20 (1980), 183-8; Watkins (1995), 117; J. Uhlich, TPhS 100 (2002), 414.
4 The Celtic oak: Val. Flacc. 6. 90; Max. Tyr. 2. 8. Dodona: Od. 14. 327; [Aesch.] Prom. 830-2. For Celtic and other sacred groves cf. Chapter 7.
5 Tac. Hist. 4. 61, 65; Germ. 8. 2; Stat. Silv. 1. 4. 90.
6 Greek xoeoj, Latin caueo; IEW 587; cf. R. Gusmani in Studi Triestini di Antichita in onore di Luigia Achillea Stella (Trieste 1975), 255 f.; Watkins (1995), 88; Gamkrelidze-Ivanov (1995), 734 f.
7 If the underlying form is *wä-ti-, this must be the case, as the change [o] > [a] is Celtic, not Italic. E. Hamp in Papers from the Thirteenth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society (1977), 149, offers a different account.
8 Hence the god Woden or Odin has his name (p. 137). See further K. von See, GRM 14 (1964), 2; H. Wagner, ZCP 31 (1970), 46-57 = Studies in the Origins of the Celts and Early Celtic Civilisation (Belfast-Tübingen 1971), 46-58; Meid (1991), 25 f.; Watkins (1995), 118; Gamkrelidze-Ivanov (1995), 734; EIEC 493b.
A similar linkage of ideas, with different vocabulary, can be found in Graeco-Aryan tradition.9 The hymns of the Rigveda were the work of priest-poets called Rishis (fsi-); Zarathushtra uses the corresponding Avestan word orosi- of himself (Y. 31. 5). It is related to Armenian her 'anger', Lithuanian arsus 'violent', and German rasen 'to rage', so its basic meaning will have been 'one who goes into a frenzy'. Another Vedic word for a poet or singer is vipra-, which means 'inwardly stirred, inspired, wise'. The Greek word for a seer, mantis, is derived from the verbal root man- 'make/be mad, frenzied'.
In his role as eulogist the Vedic poet is a stotf; the Avestan equivalent is staotar, and the verb to which these are the agent nouns appears in Homeric Greek as arevrat, 'he claims, boasts'. Another Vedic term for a praise-poet is ka.ru-, and this too has a Greek cognate in the shape of K^pv£ 'herald'. '(Travelling) poet' is presumably the older meaning, and the concepts remained close enough for Pindar to declare that 'the Muse raised me up as her chosen Kapv£ of skilful verses for Hellas'.10
We see that while terminology diverged in different parts of the Indo-European world, two specific roles in which poets appeared can be identified in both east and west. They functioned on the one hand as bestowers of praise, whether on men or gods, and on the other as prophets or seers, gifted with special knowledge, perhaps through an altered state of consciousness. Both of these solemn offices naturally called for a heightened form of utterance, that is, for 'poetic' diction. Both roles could be combined in the service of the gods: Zarathushtra designates himself both as an orosi and as Ahura Mazda's staotar, his praise-singer, and the Vedic Rishis likewise use stotr of themselves in appropriate contexts. t
Was this article helpful?