Lucan, in the above quotation, is addressing Druids generally, but it is an appropriate quotation to open our study of the Ovates, for it was they who, to the greatest degree, were responsible for understanding the mysteries of death and rebirth, for transcending time – for divining the future, for conversing with the Ancestors – travelling beyond the grave to bring augury and counsel to those still living on earth.
If the Bards were shamans in Michael Harner’s understanding of the term because they opened doors with the power of the Word, then the Ovates deserve the term shaman even more so – for they open the doors of Time.
From a study of the classical authors, a general categorisation of the three different grades accords the arts to the bards, the skills of prophecy and divination to the Ovates and philosophical, teaching, counselling and judicial tasks to the Druid.
The Ovates, then, were seers and diviners, travellers in Time, and it seems likely that they were also healers, herbalists and midwives. The English word ‘Ovate’ comes from the various terms used by the classical writers: Vates, Uatis, Euhages, which may derive from the Indo-European root uat, ‘to be inspired or possessed’. The classical author Strabo described the Ovate as ‘an interpreter of nature’. It was the Ovates who were skilled in reading omens and divining auguries – whether from the flight of birds, the shape of clouds, or the behaviour of animals or the weather – and it was the Ovates whose task it probably was to heal, using their knowledge of herbs and spells to cure disease in humans and livestock. The Ovate seems, in many ways, to conform to the type of person most people would describe as a Witch, and it is certainly possible that when Druidry went underground with the coming of Christianity, the Ovate stream may have become a source that fed later generations of healers and followers of the Old Ways, until they came to be known as the Cunning Folk– healers who could still be found in villages in Britain up until the 1930s. And it is quite possible that these Cunning people were in fact the Witches of modern popular perception.
The Ovate as master or mistress of prophecy and divination needed, and still needs today, a reorientation in relation to Time. To travel within time – to read the Akashic Records as some would term it, requires a conception of its nature and dynamics that is radically different to post-Enlightenment thinking, and more akin to the understanding now being offered by the New Physics.
The belief in the cyclicity of life was fundamental to the world-view of the ancient Druids. In common with the Hindus, the Druids believed in reincarnation. Caesar, in De Bello Gallico says of the Druids:’The cardinal doctrine which they seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one to another; and this belief, as the fear of death is thereby cast aside, they hold to be the greatest invective to valour.’ Diodorus quotes Posidonius when he says that the Druids held that ‘the souls of men are immortal, and that after a definite number of years they live a second life when the soul passes to another body.’ And Philostratus of Tyana in the second century noted that the Celts believed that to be born in this world, we have to die in the Otherworld, and conversely, that when we die here, our birth into the Otherworld should be celebrated.
Now we can understand how the Ovates were able to conceive of time-travel. The Realm of the Ancestors was not the realm of people dead-and-gone – it was the repository of tribal wisdom – the realm in which the Ancestors lived whilst awaiting reincarnation and to which the Ovate could turn for guidance and inspiration on behalf of the tribe. The experience of the shaman is one in which they undergo some type of death but return to life – only this time knowing the inner soul-geography. In the past, this experience of returning to life from the realm of death was a rare occurrence. Today, with sophisticated techniques for reviving the body the experience is becoming more frequent. A growing academic interest in the subject means that we now have an enormous amount of data on these near-death experiences. Out of the thousands of such experiences recorded a clear pattern of experience emerges: the dying person experiences cracking, clicking, or rushing noises, or sometimes wonderfully harmonious sounds; this is followed by an experience of leaving the physical body – observing their physical body and surroundings from a distance; they then feel themselves drawn through a dark tunnel out of which they emerge into brilliant light. This light assumes an almost personal quality and frequently encounters occur with spiritual helpers or protective beings and the Ancestors – friends and relatives who have died previously. There then often follows a rapid review of their life in which they realise instantly where they acted rightly or wrongly. This experience of self-judgement is followed by an entry into a state of being in which past, present and future merge into one reality – a world filled with ecstasy, radiant colours, and immensely beautiful landscapes.
We know nothing more, with such certainty, of the post-death state for those who reach this realm of beauty are then brought to a Being who tells them that they must return to their body – their visit, this time, has been only temporary.