Poets Most Powerful: Celtic Satirists
In a comment to last week’s post on children in Celtic law, Cassandra Page asked what satirists are. I started to answer her, but then realized it is far too complex a subject for a comment. Hence, today’s blog post.
In the modern world, when we hear the word “satire,” we may think of a kind of humor that makes fun of politics or culture in general, ala Saturday Night Live or The Colbert Report. But in the Celtic word, satire was a much more serious matter.
Poets or bards had two major functions in Celtic society: to praise or blame. If praised, a person would be remembered as a hero or great person down through the centuries. If blamed, they would be infamous forever. It is the satirists who did the blaming. The Celts, particularly the Irish, gave these poets full sacred status. Their words were so powerful they could be considered magic. A person’s reputation could be enhanced through praise, or damaged by satire. Satire was thought to be so powerful, it could kill. Poets were known in myth to “rhyme to death” people and animals (usually rats). There was a poet’s spell called Firt Feled that could cause one’s enemies to die.
Satirists most often criticized nobility for lack of generosity or hospitality, giving bad advice or dishonorable conduct, but they could also pressure them into obeying their own laws. Satirizing someone without legal cause was a serious crime that carried with it heavy penalties, including loss of sick maintenance (a duty of the tribe to all classes of Druids due to their station) or in the case of women, loss of honor price. Women were dealt with more severely under Brehon law than men, and a vast majority of illegal female satirists appear to have used the power of their words to curse. But women were legally able to satirize under many conditions, including when a person to whom she had made a pledge rendered the pledge invalid. This was one way Celtic society made sure people kept their word.
For an example of the power of satirists, read material from the Ulster Cycle where it is clearly shown that kings sometimes acted against their natural inclinations out of fear of satire. Because Celtic kings could not rule if they were maimed or blemished, it said that all a satirist had to do to depose a king was raise a boil on his skin by means of his satirical words. (I imagine this something like giving him hives from anger or anxiety.) Because of the power of their words, originally poets and satirists were treated with much respect and their requests never refused. But toward the end of the Celtic era, they began to abuse their power, and became so hated that the role of satirist was outlawed.
Have you ever heard of satirists before? Have you read about them in legend? What do you think of the belief that people’s words can hold so much power? Do you have any additional questions about Celtic life?
Secrets of the Druids by John Matthews
Magic of the Celtic Otherworld: Irish History, Lore and Rituals by Steve Blamires
Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief by Sharon Paice Macleod