Fearghal Duffy: To Woo a Goddess
In Dead Poets Society Robin Williams plays an English teacher, John Keating, who challenges his students to tell him why language was invented. None of them are quite sure how to answer the question but one student suggests that it was in order to communicate. But, this according to Keating is wrong. Language was invented, he informs them, ‘to woo women’. The language he specifically has in mind is poetry.
To woo a goddess is no different. But you need to be at the top of your game if you are going to produce poetry to charm her. It was lucky for the Gaels that they had Amairgen (‘Born of Song’) in their ranks. The roughly twelfth-century text Lebor Gabála, more commonly known as ‘The Book of Invasions’ provides a legendary account of the various peoples who inhabited Ireland. It describes six different groups who settled in Ireland starting with Cesair, followed by Partholón, Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and finally, the sons of Míl Espáne (the Gaels) from whom the people of Ireland who existed in historic times are supposed to have descended.
When the sons of Míl Espáne arrived in Ireland, it was not by warfare that they took control of Ireland but they are imagined to have brought the country over to their side by the power of language. The poet Amairgen uttered the following poem as he set his right foot upon Ireland:
Am gaeth i mmuir I am a wind in the sea
Am tond trethan I am a sea-wave upon the land
Am fuaim mara I am the roar of the sea
Am dam secht ndrenn I am a stag of seven fights
Am séig i n-aill I am a hawk on a cliff
Am dér gréne I am a tear-drop of the sun
Am cáin I am fair
Am torc ar gail I am a boar for valour
Am hé i llind I am a salmon in a pool
Am loch i mmaig I am a lake in a plain
Am brí dánae I am the excellence of arts
Am gaí I fodh feras fechtu I am a spear waging war with plunder
Am dé delbas do chind codnu I am a god who forms subjects for a ruler
Cóich é nod gleith clochor slébe? Who can explain the stone designs of the mountain?
Cia ón cotagair aesa éscai? Who can invoke the ages of the moon?
Cia dú I llaig funiud gréne? Where lies the setting of the sun?
Cia bier buar ó thigh Temrach? Who droves the cattle from the house of Tetra?
Cia buar Tethrach tibde? The jocund cattle of Tetra, who or what are they?
Cia dain, cia dé, delbas faebru? What man, what god, forges the sun-spear, forges the sword of light?
Andind; ailsiu cáinte im gaí, cáinte gaithe Then, indeed, I invoked a satirist..a satirist of wind
Continuing, Amairgen lauds the sea as a flourishing cornucopia:
Iascach muir Fish-filled sea
Mothach tir Fruitful land,
Tomaidm n-eisc Irruption of fish,
Iasca and Fishing there,
Fo thuind en birds under wave,
Lethach mil, Great sea dragon,
Parthach lag Crab burrow
Tomaidm n-eisc Irruption of fish,
Iascach muir Fish-abounding sea.
It is a fascinating poem which has not yet been fully understood by Celticists. Maybe it is all the better that they can’t reduce its meaning to a singular interpretation. The mystery of its meaning invests it with a timeless quality. It continues to capture the imagination and continues to enchant artists who have re-presented it in varying ways. Here are two quite different modern perspectives:
This is what Amairgen is imagined to have uttered whilst stepping foot onto Ireland for the first time. Moving inland, the Gaels encountered the goddess Banba on Sliabh Mis, who asked that the newcomers name the island after her and Amairgen promises her they would. Travelling further inland they encounter another goddess, this time Fódla, and she too requests that they name Ireland after her. Coming towards the centre of Ireland, they meet the goddess Ériu at the hill of Uisnech. She permits them to dwell in Ireland so long as they name Ireland after her, and Amairgen assures her that Éire shall be its primary name.
However, when the Gaels encounter the Tuatha Dé Danann, the old gods of Ireland, at the hill of Tara, they tell the Gaels to get back in their boats and to go out beyond the ninth wave, this being a symbolic distance which indicated the division between land and international waters, so to speak, and then try to come ashore again. But whilst they are out at sea, the Túatha Dé Danann’s wizards conjured a magical storm to prevent the sons of Míl from re-entering Ireland. But Amairgen, seeing through this wizardry, chants a poem which woos Ireland over to their side:
Áiliu iath n-hÉrend I invoke the land of Ireland
hÉrmach hérmach muir Shining shining sea
Mothach mothach sliab Fertile fertile mountain
Srathach srathach caill Plentiful plentiful river
Essach essach loch Fish-rish, fish-rich lake
By praising the land in terms of beauty and abundance, Amairgen is essentially wooing the goddess. The land and goddess are one. After he finishes this poem, the magical storm conjured by the Túatha Dé Danann’s wizards ceased. Amairgen had done it. He charmed the goddess with his words. His poetry gained the Gaels admittance into Ireland. Rather than trying to seize Ireland by force, the poet had the visionary sense to commune with the land, to see it as more than a trophy, or as an opportunity for economic exploitation or building development, but as a living and flourishing source of inspiration.
In Dead Poets Society John Keating, in describing why we read and write poetry, quotes a verse from Walt Whitman before asking the students “What will your verse be?” Reflecting on how large tracts of the Irish environment has been exploited and destroyed in recent years by property developers and their political cronies, it seems that we need to re-invoke Ireland in the spirit of Amairgen, and to ask of ourselves what our verse will be if we are to improve our relationship with our environment.
Fearghal Duffy Metamorphosis Collaborator