"English poetic education should, really, begin not with Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin." - Robert Graves
It is true that Lady Gregory's translation of the Song of Amergin, provided to us by Cyrus, is probably the most common version and the most widely accepted. Unfortunately, while technically accurate, her version of this beautiful lay is perhaps too literal, and leaves out many of the verse's subtleties of imagery and of meaning.
Because the original verse expressed itself largely through kennings (poetical metaphors or idioms), there is quite a bit of room for interpretation. While we can conjecture on the meaning of these devices, it is likely that there are hidden meanings which we cannot fully understand. Below follows the original Celtic text, with literal and poetic translations of each line, and some ideas as to their deeper meaning.
It is important to keep in mind throughout the reading of this verse that, while Amergin refers to himself in each line, he is only referring to himself as an individual in the most superficial sense. He is really emphasizing his role, that of poet and bard, and even beyond that, the poet in each of us. The non-rational, inspirational being in us, the part where spontaneous creation of ideas from nothing takes place, the voice of the god in everyone that makes us human.
Am gaeth i nmuiv | I am wind on the sea | I am the wind that blows over the Sea
Am tond trethan | I am an ocean wave | I am the Wave of the Ocean
Am fuaim mara | I am the roar of the sea | I am the thundering Roar of the Deep
This first triad of lines dwells on the ocean. The ocean was obviously an integral part of life for the Milesians, and had been for the entire life of their people. They sailed from land to land, and wandered on the sea for years. The sea brought them to their home in Iberia, and most importantly, to their true home of Ireland. By these lines, Amergin is saying that it is the poet that brought them to Ireland. The wind on the sea and the waves of the ocean are what physically moved their ships. The roar of the deep is the sea's voice, the inspiration for the journey. The poet's calling.
Am dam secht | I am the bull of seven | I am the Bull of seven battles
ndirend | battles |
Amergin switches now to animal metaphors, as they convey a greater sense of life, vitality and immediacy than the vast, immortal ocean. The bull or ox is a symbol of the male aspect of creation, it gives the seed which the fertile female receives and uses to make new life. It is also a symbol of stamina and endurance, which is strengthened further by seven battles. This is used to show trials which have been endured by the poet and his people, through which they have emerged victorious. The poet suffers, the poet endures, the poet triumphs.
Am seig i naill | I am a bird of prey on | I am a Hawk upon the cliffside
| the rocks |
The bird of prey, sometimes translated as hawk, eagle or vulture, waits and watches. The image is of the bird on the rocks, looking out over the ocean, patiently waiting for an opportunity. This refers partially to Ith's original vision of Ireland from a tower overlooking the sea. Here, Amergin speaks again of inspiration, claiming it as the source of their journey: Inspiration brought us here. The poet waits, the poet watches for inspiration every moment, and when it reveals itself, the poet swoops down upon it swiftly before it escapes.
Am der greine | I am a drop of the sun | I am a Tear the sun lets fall
The sun is also a giver of life. It gives life by giving light, by enlightening. The sun reveals things that would otherwise remain cloaked in darkness. So also does the poet. The poetic side of us sees things that the practical side does not, it finds beauty in the most mundane and common objects and events. This line is about vision. It tells us to listen to the poet in us, as it will show us things we would never see otherwise. The poet sees, the poet reveals, the poet enlightens.
Am cain luboi | I am a law of union | I am a Flower among a sea of grass
This is an interesting line. Taken literally, it is quite incongruous and makes very little sense. However, linguistics suggest double meanings for the words chosen here, and imply connections with plants. This is strengthened by the previous line about a drop of the sun, which uses elements of both water and light, the two primary things plants need to live. The literal translation stresses the poet's role of unifying his people, inspiring them all to believe in a shared vision. At the same time, the idiomatic translation of a flower among plants stresses individuality and sameness simultaneously. A flower is a plant, and in that sense connected or related to the plants and grasses around it, but yet it is still different and unique. Here, Amergin means to convey that, while we all have traits which set us apart, we are all the same on some level. The poet lives in each of us.
Am torc ar gail | I am a wild boar in valor | I am a Wild Boar in valor
The wild boar is the quintessential Irish symbol of life and raw power. Hunting deer was a sport, but hunting wild boar was a trial, a battle from which you were not guaranteed to return. The boar was dangerous not only because of its size and strength, but because of its sheer unpredictability. A boar which fled into the underbrush one moment might turn and charge you the next. This unpredictability was part of the poetic spirit as well. When inspiration strikes, there is no way of knowing what form it will take, or how it will manifest itself. The poet must recognize inspiration and utilize it.
Am he i llind | I am a salmon in water | I am a Salmon in the deep river
In the Irish folk tradition, the salmon represented wisdom and knowledge. Finn mac Cumhail ate of a salmon to gain his gift of foresight and prophesy. The salmon also bore the connotation of great age and ancient connections, as in the story of Tuan mac Cairill, who survived from Partholonian to Christian times by reincarnating into many forms, the last of which was a salmon. The implication in this line is not simply that the poet or bard himself was wise in his own right, but more that he was wise because of his connection to ancient wisdom and knowledge, passed down among bards from generation to generation. The poet's relationship to this communal well of knowledge is what made him wise. As people, we must ensure that the poet in each of us maintains this connection. The poet brings the past into the present.
Am loch i nmaig | I am a lake in the plain | I am a Lake in the emerald plain
This line complements the previous. While it is important to compile and remember ancient knowledge, it is equally important to continue acquiring new knowledge, making new observations, learning new things. A lake is a repository into which water flows from many sources. Rivers, streams, rain, all of these contribute to the whole of the lake. This communal pool of knowledge then nourishes a diverse community of life. So must the poet remain open to all sources of inspiration and learning, that he or she may share them with others, nourishing them and helping them to grow. The poet brings the present into the future.
Am bri a ndai | I am the word of man | I am the Craft of the artisan
The words "the word of man" in this line are sometimes interpreted as "the strength of art" or "the work of the artist". Regardless, what Amergin is saying here is that poetry isn't just about words. If you are a sculptor, or a weaponsmith, or a vintner, what you create, be it statues, swords or wine, is your own poetry, your own means of expression. We are all poets, we all have creative visions inside of us, we simply realize them in our own ways. The poet speaks through all of us in our own unique language.
Am bri danai | I am the word of creation | I am the Voice of science
When considering this line, it is important to remember that in this point in prehistory, science was still in its infancy. It was about simple machines, wheels, gears, screws, planes, levers. The forces which governed these devices were not understood. People knew they worked, but they really didn't know why. As such, science was a lot more mysterious and, in a sense, godlike. In fact, the word "danai" is very close to "Danu", the name of the Celtic mother goddess. Those who had some grasp of the forces at work, who understood them enough to find ways to apply them, were considered to be divinely inspired. Here, Amergin says that this, too, is the work of the poet, that even science is a kind of poetry. Most of the true great leaps in science are a result of inspiration rather than deduction, and as Amergin has already shown us, inspiration is the demesne of the poet in us. Respect the poet; the poet creates something from nothing.
Am gai i fodb | I am the point of a spear | I am a Spear-point in the fury of battle
feras feochtu | in battle |
Poetry can be a weapon. As the cliché states, "the pen is mightier than the sword". In Celtic society, history was preserved orally. And as events both current and historical have taught us, a person is often remembered more for his or her one big blunder than for any number of great deeds. Bardic satire was one of the most feared weapons in these times. A moment of fear in battle could have someone remembered forever as a coward, no matter how many other battles he had won. In this sense, the pen clearly does outmatch the sword, one satirized failure outweighing a dozen hard-fought victories. Respect the poet; the poet creates nothing from something.
Am De delbas do | I am the God who makes | I am the God that kindles the fire of
chind codnu | fire in the mind | thought in the minds of men
This line brings closure, binding together the rest of the ideas that have been presented. The poet is a god not in the individual sense, but in a communal sense. Poetry is divine, it is inspiration, the creation of original thought from nothing, and it speaks to each of us in its own way. It kindles the fire of thought in our minds. In today's world, we speak of AI as Artificial Intelligence, computers that can learn. While this is being achieved, there is no talk of AI as Artificial Inspiration, computers that can make the divine leap from nothing to something. A computer can compose a poem, but no computer can create poetry. This is what sets us apart from everything else in our world - not technology and deduction, but poetry and inspiration.
Unfortunately, I do not have the original Celtic version of the last three lines in the Song of Amergin. If anyone does have them, I would be delighted if you would share them with me. Nonetheless, we can examine these lines and their meaning relative to the rest of the lay.
In Lady Gregory's translation, the first line is "Who spreads light in the gathering on the hills?" Other translations express it as "Who knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen, if not I?" These are two very different lines, and they puzzled me until I came upon the translation "Who clears the stone-place of the mountain, if not I?" This version makes a connection, and basically asks what makes men gather on the hills to create the dolmens, if not poetic inspiration? This gives poetry a connection to religion as well, as dolmens were the ritual-places of the druids, the standing stones still seen across Ireland. What made the first druids think to erect these dolmens? Amergin suggests that it was their own inner poet, that religion is an expression of the same divine inspiration that creates song and art in our minds.
The next line is most often translated as "Who can tell the ages of the moon, if not I?" This is a clear reference to the bard's role as historian and preserver. Today we have written records of everything, and we don't need to rely on the oral preservation of history. However, the Celts would not begin to employ the written word for well over 1500 years after Amergin's landing. The ability to craft more memorable tales and verses from dry accounts and facts is truly an art, and one which requires poetic inspiration.
The final line returns to the poetic element in science: "Who reveals the sun's secret resting-place, if not I?" Revealing something which was once secret is learning, and thus Amergin reinforces the role of inspiration in science and learning. These three final lines reiterate what was spoken previously, and act as a sort of challenge to anyone thinking to refute his assertions. If divine inspiration is not the basis of religion, then what is? If it is not the basis of history, song and poetry (which were intimately connected in Celtic society), then what is? If it is not the basis of science and learning, then what is?
d'Arbois de Jubainville, a renowned turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is) scholar of Irish folk history, gives the following elaboration in his "Irish Mythological Cycle":
"There is a lack of order in this composition. The ideas, fundamental and subordinate, are jumbled together without method, but there is no doubt as to the meaning: the filé [poet] is the Word of Science, he is the god who gives to man the fire of thought; and as science is not distinct from its object, as God and Nature are but one, the being of the filé is mingled with the winds and the waves, with the wild animals and the warrior's arms."
In conclusion, a brief note about the end of Cyrus' previous write-up. He calls Amergin a druid and says that the poem is about what it means to be a druid. While the first is true, that Amergin was a druid, it was only true in part. The bards were an order of the druids charged with preservation of history through music and verse. These verses were also entertaining, and so bards served a dual role. However, the druidic "profession" (for lack of a better word) was much larger than this, containing a variety of other orders as well, including judges, diviners, sacrificers and more. The Song of Amergin is not really about what it means to be a druid, but rather what it means to be a poet. Since it has established that the poet lives in varying forms in all of us, it is applicable to druids, but is also applicable to everyone.
In other words, it's not about being a druid, it's about being human.