Am Geath i m-Muir
I am wind on Sea
So begins the Song of Amairgen, the ancient mystical poem uttered by Amairgen Glanglun, the legendary bard, as he first stepped foot upon thelandofIreland, on the shores ofKenmareBay.
And while this blog is intended to cover wide and varied topics from contemporary Spiritual Care (chaplaincy), modern paganisms, and Celtic religion generally, I will – time and again – be returning to this beautiful, syntactically dense, mysterious poem as a source of connection, reflection and meaning making.
In case you’re asking yourself WTF – which is, of course, “Why the fuss?” right? – Here is a beautiful rendition of The Song, recited by Lisa Gerrard, of Dead Can Dance.
|Am gaeth i m-muir,|
Am tond trethan,
Am fuaim mara,
Am dam secht ndirend,
Am séig i n-aill,
Am dér gréne,
Am cain lubai,
Am torc ar gail,
Am he i l-lind,
Am loch i m-maig,
Am brí a ndai,
Am bri danae,
Am bri i fodb fras feochtu,Am dé delbas do chind codnu,
Coiche nod gleith clochur slébe?Cia on co tagair aesa éscai?
Cia du i l-laig fuiniud gréne?Cia beir buar o thig tethrach?
Cia buar tethrach tibi?
Cia dám, cia dé delbas faebru a ndind ailsiu?
Cáinte im gai, cainte gaithe.
|I am Wind on Sea,|
I am Ocean-wave,
I am Roar of Sea,
I am Stag of Seven Tines,
I am a Hawk on a Cliff,
I am shining tear of the Sun,
I am Fairest among Herbs,
I am Boar for Boldness,
I am Salmon in Pool,
I am a Lake on a Plain,
I am a Hill of Poetry,
I am a Word of Skill,
I am the Point of a Weapon (that pours forth
I am God who fashions Fire for a Head.
Who knows the secrets of the
Who (but I) announces the Ages of the Moon?
Who (but I) know the place where falleth
Who calls the Cattle from the House of Tethra?
On whom do the cattle of Tethra smile?
Who is the troop, the god who fashions edges
in a fortress of gangrene?
(I am) a Song on a Spear,
an Enchantments of Wind.
From early in the 20th century, there are scholars who have suggested that the poem has spiritual and cosmological meaning, connecting the nature of the world to the nature of the soul. Likewise, from the same period there have been scholars (usually without formal training in the nature of Indo-European religions) who have contested this notion.
As an example of the later, Marie-Louise Sjoestedt in Celtic Gods and Heroes (19) says, “It has been suggested that this poem, which is a tissue of obscure formulas that puzzled even the mediaeval commentators, echoes the druidic doctrine of metempsychosis; but it simply expressed the pride of the sorcerer, whose art has just brought him triumph over his enemies, and who now parades his talents and declares his power. For we know that one of the gifts which all primitive peoples attribute to their sorcerers is that of shape-shifting.” (p. 23-24)
Sjoestedt’s explanation makes clear that she could not possibly imagine deeply spiritual thought, or complex multivalent thought, among so called ‘primitive peoples’ – a bias which has repeatedly been proven incorrect the world over.
Personally, I don’t see this poem as just the swaggering of a simple and arrogant magician-priest, and I’m not alone in that opinion. Well versed in at least one other Indo-European religion, Alwyn and Brinley Rees, in Celtic Heritage offer a far deeper explanation, and one that seems to speak directly to Sjoestedt while at the same time remembers that we are reading medieval text, not unadulterated ancient myth: “The Celtic substratum of our story is particularly evident in the obscure poem which Amairgen utters as he first sets his right foot upon Ireland, a poem which gives the coming of the Sons of Míl a significance beyond that of a mere historical invasion.” p.98 “Potentially, the whole creation is bound up in Amairgen, and Indian parallels preclude the dismissal of his speech as simply an expression of ‘the pride of the sorcerer’. Thus Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita declares himself to be the divine seed without which nothing animate or inanimate exists. He is the Atman, he is Vishnu, Shiva, Brahman, and all the gods, the beginning, the life-span, and the end: ‘I am the radiant sun among the light-givers… among the stars of night, I am the moon … I am Meru among mountain peaks … I am the ocean among waters … Of water-beings I am Varuna: Aryaman among the Fathers: I am Death … I am the Wind…’ He is pre-eminent among hymns, poetic metres, the letters of the alphabet, the months and the seasons: ‘I am the dice-play of the cunning, I am the strength of the strong …I am the silence of things secret: I am the knowledge of the knower … What I have described to you are only a few of my countless forms.’ Vishnu, dormant during the interval of non-manifestation between the dissolution and recreation of the universe delivers himself of a similar series of ‘I am’ utterances. … Similarly Amairgen on the ocean of non-existence embodies the primeval unity of all things. As such he has the power to bring a new world into being, and his poems are in the nature of creation incantations.” (p.99-100)
In addition to connecting the Song and its utterance to, not only the whole of existence, but the act of creation, as a corollary to that, Rees and Rees connect it to transmigration of the soul: “Amairgen…is everything, and it is a fair inference that among the Celts, as in India and other lands, there existed alongside the belief in individual reincarnation a doctrine that there is essentially only One Transmigrant. As Ovid expressed it: ‘The spirit wanders, comes now here, now there, and occupies whatever frame it pleases. From beasts it passes into human bodies, and from our bodies into beasts, but never perishes.’” (p.230)
The Rees brothers draw this conclusion, not from the Song of Amairgen alone, but from a look at the tradition as whole, through the material we have left. The book, Celtic Heritage, practically culminates with the notion that Celtic religion depicts, “in the concepts of the boundary, the centre, intercalary time, ‘to-day’, betwixts-and-betweens…multiple names, multiple skills, puns and, we may add, metaphors, an ambiguity, or a multiplication or concentration of meaning which makes them fitting symbols of the unmanifest, which is itself the world of chaos and at the same time the ground of all being.” (p.348-9)
This would later be reflected in the words of Alexei Kondratiev, in The Apple Branch (1998), saying that in “Celtic religion… everything interpenetrates everything else, and nothing is only itself” (p.156)
In this light, the Song of Amairgen is not unique, but simply one beautiful instantiation of the Celtic understanding of the interplay between self and totality, and between unity and multiplicity. In this sense, any such hard distinctions are dependent more on how one approaches existence and at what resolution, than any absolute privileging of one paradigm over the other.
Kondratiev, A. The Apple Branch: a path to Celtic Ritual (Cork: The Collins Press, 1998)
Sjoestedt, M-L (trans. Myles Dillon), Gods and Heroes of the Celts (Berkley: Turtle Island, 1982 (originally 1948))
Rees, A & B, Celtic Heritage (London: Thames and Hudson, 1961)