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Essra the Bard

Essra the Bard

Back in the days of the Druid’s rule lived king Essrus who was a mighty chieftain of the Dumnonni tribe. His settlement was on the hillside of the lofty ‘Hill of Bards’, this was crowned by two granite masses known as the ‘Bardun tors’. Here it overlooked the ‘Wood of the Wiseman’ down in the valley of the Derte. The Wood of the Wisemen was the domain of the druids and it was here they communed with the mighty god Belinus whose guiding hand led Essarus and his people. The ‘Hill of Bards’ was also where the Dumnonni worshipped their god, it was here the dreaded bloodstained granite altar was located. On this lofty eminence the bards would gather and sing the praises of Belinus, Essrus and their ancestors.

It was also on the ‘Hill of Bards’ that Essara lived, he was the only son of Essrus and was famed for being the most knowledgeable bard of all. His skills in healing and herbal lore were renown and whenever anyone fell sick it was Essara that was sent for. The king’s son was also the most talented of harpists and he knew the ancient songs and ways of the runes, all of which had been handed down through the generations.

One morning Essara left his small granite and turf hut and sat on a rock looking down at the settlement of his father’s people. He could see the women busily grinding the days corn in the heavy granite querns. There was a party of Druids walking down to the sacred grove to perform their daily rites. 

On the edge of the village the smoke was lazily rising from the forge of the blacksmith, a musical clanging could be heard as he beat the magical metal. Some children were scampering down to the river Derte, their water pails swinging freely in their hands. A party of hunters were walking up towards Crow tor in search of deer, their spearheads glinting in the sunlight. As Essara watched the daily hustle and bustle unfold he idly plucked his harp. His heart was heavy and his soul empty, for some time now the bard had become disillusioned with his lot. As he looked down at the druids he knew deep down that they were mis-leading his fathers people, they were ruling them with fear and dread. The magical rites and ceremonies they performed seemed to hold everyone in the grip of the god Belinus. As the days past into weeks and the weeks past into months Essara would lie in his solitary hut. Huddled around the smouldering peat fire, as the winter winds howled around the granite walls he would brood and search deep into his soul for an unreachable answer to his unrest.

One evening when the moon was full all the settlement had come  the ‘Hill of Bards’ to take part in a ritual. Essarus was there as was Baliric the Arch Druid and all his acolytes. The people all gathered around the high altar as the bards sang and played their harps. As usual it was Essara that the villagers wanted to hear, his songs and music always held them spellbound as they sat cross-legged on the moorland heather. That night Essara simply went through the motions, his heart and soul were not in the performance and everyone knew it. The ceremony ended and the druids led the folk chanting back to the settlement. Essara just sat on a rock and stared into the dark moorland landscape. Finally he decided that if he was to find an answer it was going to be in the solitary depths of the high fen and so he wandered out into the night.

For many days he roamed the wilderness, up over tors and down through shady valleys, over dense mires and across grassy plains until he reached the Cleeve of the Tavy. As he climbed the steep slopes he came to Ger tor where to his amazement he found a lone hut perched amongst the rocks. An old man sat outside on a sheepskin mat. Essara walked over and greeted the old man who at first simply stared down into the valley. Then with an intake of breath the old man asked him who he was as he thought he recognised the boy. Essara told the old man that he was the son of Essarus from the settlement of the Dumnonni. The hint of a smile came across the old mans lips and he nodded. Then he inquired of Essara if he had heard mention of a man called Brai. The young bard replied that he had and related the stories of how Brai was the greatest Druid and bard of all times and that how one day he strayed from the village never to be seen again. Everyone thought that he had either been sucked into a mire or the wolves had killed him. The old man slowly replied that Brai had not been killed but that had deliberately left and never meant to return. Essara asked if anyone knew where he had gone and was told that Brai had wandered over distant lands in search of the truth. On his travels he had spoken to many priests and wisemen, none of who could give him the answer he was seeking. As time passed Brai realised that there was not a god called Belinus and that it was the druids who kept him alive. Essara’s heart began to pound in his chest, this was exactly how he felt, he told the old man that he wished he could have met Brai because they would have been kindred spirits. The hermit looked deeply into the bards eyes and slowly pointed at his own chest, “I am Brai,” he said. Essara just looked in disbelief.

Brai related how he had visited many lands and crossed many oceans and that eventually he had found the truth and inner peace. The old man also said that when he had returned to Dumnonia he was nothing like the people, his skin had turned a dark brown, his hair had been bleached white and he had trouble speaking the tongue of the Dumnonni. It was then that he decided to live high up in the cleeve of the Tavy.

Essara could not contain himself any longer, his head was bursting, “what was the truth that you found, Brai, tell me I must know,” he yelled. The old man explained that in a far off realm he had found a mighty chieftain called the ‘White Christ’ and that he was the son of a great unknown god who was mightier than Belinus, Hesus or Taranis. The ‘White Christ’ had been sent by his father to remove an evil curse from the people and to teach them to live in peace. The young bard asked how the ‘White Christ’ had removed the curse and was told he had died in order to release his people. Then Brai went on to explain the story of Christianity and what its teachings were. Essara just sat spellbound as he realised this was the answer he had been seeking for so long.

For many weeks he returned to Brai’s hut to learn more of his teachings after which he would roam the moors in deep contemplation. One fine day Essara was making his way up the cleeve when the sky suddenly darkened, without warning a terrible storm blew off the moor. The wind howled and the rain lashed and both culminated in a huge streak of lightening flashing across the sky. By the time he had reached Brai’s hut everything was calm again, the storm had vanished as quickly as it had appeared. The young man was puzzled, something was not right and then he realised that the old hermit was not sat on his sheepskin. As he approached the hut he could hear a faint low weeping coming from inside. As Essara entered the home of Brai he could just make out the figure of a woman leaning across a figure, it was her that was sobbing. As soon as he walked in the girl turned, she was the prettiest woman he had ever seen. She stood up and took him outside where she explained that Brai had died and that he had told her to wait for a young bard to come. The girl then gave Essara a message from the old hermit. He said that under no circumstance was the bard to stop believing in the ‘White Christ’ and that he must stop worshipping Belinus. The young man understood what legacy Brai had left him, the path to enlightenment. He then asked the girl who she was, she replied that she was the daughter of Brai and how she had cared for the old man and tended a flock of sheep up on the hillside. Essara tried to comfort her but there was more she had to tell. The girl described how that very morning Brai had told her he was going to die, and he said that once he was dead a peasant from the valley would come and carry him up to the grave he had built himself. With that Brai had asked for his harp and proceeded to play, the tune was enchanting, it was as if the sounds of the wind, streams and the birds had been blended together. When he had finished playing he asked her to sing the old runesongs that as a child he had taught her, which she did. Then the girl described how Brai sang a chant to the great unknown god and peacefully died. Essara suddenly realised from what the girl had told him that the mighty storm had coincided with the passing of the hermit and so must be a sign that the great unknown god really existed.

As foretold a peasant appeared with a wooden bier and so the three placed Brai’s corpse on it and carried him up to where he had prepared his kistaven. The peasant dragged the heavy lid over the chest and started to pile a cairn of stones over the top. As he did so Essara played a soulful lament on the old mans harp, the girl just silently wept. Once the cairn was finished the three parted, the peasant returned to the valley, the girl went back to the hut and Essara trudged back to the settlement.

It did not take long for the people of the settlement to realise that Essara was a changed man, all he did was sit on the ‘Hill of Bards’ composing songs, no longer would he eat the flesh of sheep or oxen, instead he lived off ewes milk, honey fruit and herbs. Essarus became concerned for his son it was as if he belonged to a different tribe because all the time now the bard questioned Baliric and his teachings. There was even a rumour that Essara had been heard to say that there was a mightier god than Belinus.

The villagers were busy preparing for the great festival of Beltane, this was the time of year when they asked Belinus for his blessing on their crops and livestock. The Druids were concerned because in recent years the harvest had been poor, there were few fish in the rivers and the animals were ‘doing’ badly. Baliric blamed Essarus because since he became leader he had forbade the sacrificing of humans in the Beltane fires, the age old tradition had been changed and only sheep or ox blood stained the high altar of Belarus.  This the Druid explained had angered the god and his retribution was the poor food stocks. Baliric also pointed out that no longer did people obey the Druidical laws and that it had to change. He related a prophecy recently foretold in the sacred grove whereby when the last oak in the ‘Wood of the Wisemen’ had rotted a new religion would replace the old ways. The Arch Druid also said that the trees were truly rotting and that how only a moon ago a fierce storm sent a bolt of lightening which struck down the holiest of the dwarf oaks. This was always a portent that a mighty bard had died and that until he returned the druids secretly thought it must have signalled the death of Essara.

Essarus gave the matter a great deal of thought and came to the conclusion that this year his people must go back to the old ways, the flames of the Beltane Fire would burn a human sacrifice, then Belarus would smile favourably on his people once more. It so happened that a few days previous a peasant had been caught stealing sheep, he was taken down to the sacred grove where Baliric consulted the ancient logan stone. He placed a hand on the huge boulder and it began to rock and log which indicated that the peasant was guilty, his sentence was that he was to be the Beltane sacrifice.

On the eve of Beltane the druids led a procession from the ‘Wood of the Wisemen’ up to the ‘Hill of Bards’. Here Essarus sat on his granite throne and the huge Beltane fire was lit. One by one the bards stepped forward and sang the songs of the ancestors, the people were entranced. The last bard to perform was Essara and as usual his harp sang sweetly. As he plucked the strings his eyes were drawn to the western skyline and he remembered Brai’s last words – “stop worshipping Belarus.” The bard ceased playing and looked at the people gathered at his feet, he then sang the songs he had composed of the new unknown god. Feet shuffled uneasily and eyes darted towards the druids. The people could not believe what they were hearing, the songs spoke of how Belarus was the servant of the unknown god and his ways were evil, of the miracles performed by the White Christ and of his sacrifice. Some people said that perhaps the tribe should worship this unknown God as well as Belarus. Baliric had heard enough, he stepped forward and stamped his staff on the ground. He pointed at Essara and demanded he stopped his blaspheming before Belarus took his revenge. Essarus leapt down from his throne and grabbed Essara, he held his dagger to his throat and asked where he had heard such teachings. The bard then explained that the greatest Druid of all time had told him of the unknown God and how Belarus was just a tool of the men of the sacred grove. Baliric angrily asked who this supposed “greatest druid of all time” was. Essara told him it was Brai and that a moon ago he had died at the time of a mighty storm. The Druid realised that the bolt of lightening that struck the holiest of oaks must have been foretelling of Brai’s death.

In the midst of this uproar another Druid ran into the circle, he was out of breath and clearly agitated. He said how someone had freed the peasant that was to be sacrificed. The tribe were beside themselves, this sacrifice would have ensured an end to their dwindling food stocks and meant they could survive the winter. The Druids demanded to know who had done such a thing, the crowd fell silent, nobody moved and the Essara walked back into the circle and calmly announced that it was he who had set the peasant free, he had gone to the hut and played a gentle lullaby on his harp which had sent the guards to sleep and how he then freed the man. He explained that the teachings of the unknown God said that the taking of any life was a sin and how the worshipping of false Gods was an abomination. He told how it was not Belarus that dined on the sacrificial flesh but the wild foxes and the ravens and how the Druids were misleading the people. Again Baliric exploded, he struck Essara down with his staff and demanded that as it was he that had set the man free then he must be the Beltane sacrifice. The people agreed and bayed for his blood, another Druid stepped forward and pointed out that Essara was the son of Essarus and being of royal blood no man may spill his blood. The Arch Druid knew of this ancient law and after a few minutes deliberation decreed this to be so. Essarus strode forward, he looked at both the druid and his son then with a heavy heart he announced that from this day on Essara was no longer his son and that he was to be banished from the lands of the Dumnonni. Baliric ceased the chance and once again pointing his staff said that Essara was now a stranger to the tribe, his hut was to be burnt, no man or woman may speak or listen to his words, his must not be given food, shelter of clothing and his songs were to be wiped from the memories of the bards. He also said that nobody may utter his name for the rest of eternity.

Never again was Essara seen again, some say he went to the Cleeve of the Tavy and married Brai’s daughter, others think he died of shame. Essarus was secretly heart broken at the loss of his son and refused to allow the memory of him to die. Without saying why, the Chieftain had a huge menhir erected by the granite outcrop know as the tor of the Devil, he named it the ‘pillar of the sweet singer of the Hill of Bards’. The people also knew who the menhir was erected for and they secretly called it ‘Essara’s Stone’.

This greatly abridged version of the story came from the same source as the fourth tale of the Grey Wethers and appears to be rather fanciful. Historically the presence of Druids would indicate the Iron Age period but they are erecting Bronze Age menhirs and living in Bronze Age settlements. The map below shows the main features of the area concerned:

Essra the Bard

As can be seen, there are many prehistoric features such as cairns, cists, stone rows and settlements all of which date to the Bronze Age. Beardown Man is a Bronze Age standing stone or menhir and is the suggested ‘Essara’s Stone’. The first mention of the place-name, ‘Hill of Bards‘ can be found in Mrs Bray’s book, p30 where she notes:

We have also a spot which you must visit – Baird-down, (pronounced Bair-down) which Mr. Bray conjectures to mean ‘the hill of bards;’ and, opposite to it, Wistman’s, or (as he also conjectures) Wiseman’s Wood,’ of which I shall presently speak in a very particular manner, as embracing some of the most remarkable points of Druid antiquity to be found throughout the whole range of the Moor.”

Page, 1895, p.156, further adds:

For Beird-dun or the Hill of Bards, was according to Mrs Bray, the original name of this hill. The rock pillar (Beardown Man), was the memorial of some Arch-Druid, and the name of the wood across the Dart valley beneath is adduced as evidence of the occupation of this part of the Moor by that extraordinary hierarchy.”

It does not take a lot more to see where the inspiration for this tale comes from, add to this a map or visit to the area and you have all the components needed. It is a bit strange as to where Tavy Cleeve fits into this but again there are many Bronze Age features to be found in this area with several cairns near to Ger tor.

Bibliography.

Bray, A. E. 1879 The Border of the Tamar and Tavy, Kent, London.

Page, J. Ll. W. 1895 An Exploration of Dartmoor, Seeley & Co., London

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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