also: ouateis, vates, fáith, fáidh
Probably from proto-Celtic *wat- from the Indo-European wet: to blow, to be spiritually inspired.
Modern usage has since adopted the term ovate, an English adaptation of the Greek use (ouateis) of the proto-Celtic term (wat), and so that is the convention I will stick to here.
Many of the Greek historians who wrote on the Celts said that there were three classes of learned men: the first is generally given as bard, and the last (and presumably highest) is given as druid. But what of the middle class?
According to the historian Strabo, the Celts had three learned classes: the bards, "ouateis," and druids. Regarding the "ouateis" he said they were philosophers of nature and concerned with sacred rites. Diodorus Siculus mentions instead manteis, who perform sacrifices and divine auguries. However, manteis is, I believe, a Greek word for seer, and it is assumed that he is refering to the same class as Strabo. This is corroborated by the Irish word fáith (modern fáidh), which refers to a seer, and which is linguistically related to ouateis.
When we picture the druid, we think of a magician, or a group in the woods, performing some sort of sacrifice or rite. This is not exactly accurate--what we are picturing is in fact the ovate. The role of the ovate, if we are to believe the texts, was to perform sacrifices, divine the future, and be natural philosophers--that is, to study nature and attempt to interpret its workings. Scientists, if you will, to the more priest-judge druids.
It is possible that the ovate was a low-level druid, but this seems unlikely, as the role of the druid was NOT in fact to perform magic rites or divine the future (despite the confusion of later texts), but to act as impartial judges and priests, advisors to kings but not under the king's authority. It seems to only be in texts which do not mention ovates (Pliny, Lucan) that the druids take on the role of magician/seer.
The confusion comes with Caesar's designation of the entire learned class as druides, which becomes an umbrella term for all bards, ovates, and druids in all their functions. For example, Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, mentions three classes in Celtic society: druids, knights, and commoners. He calles the entire learning class "druides" and the entire free class "equitum"--while if we look at other writers and at early Irish sources, there was a large number of divisions and classes in Celtic society. This lack of distinction has colored how druidism and the role of the ovate is seen.
In some modern druidic groups, the role of ovate is used as an initiatory stage--usually after bard, but before druid. This is not necessarily based on the actual structure of Druidism in the ancient world, but on the fallacies of the Druidic Renaissance in the 18th century.
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Mary Jones © 2003