Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The god that makes fire in the head

Tradition calls it the first poem written in Ireland, by a Milesian prince named Amergin, who, with his brothers Evir, Ir and Eremon, colonized the island many hundreds of years before the time of Christ. I used my own version of the poem (made with the help of Irish-speaking friends, and drawing on several published translations) in Honey From Stone:
I am the wind on the sea,
I am the ocean wave,
I am the sound of the billows,
I am the seven-horned stag,
I am the hawk on the cliff,
I am the dewdrop in sunlight,
I am the fairest of flowers,
I am the raging boar,
I am the salmon in the deep pool,
I am the lake on the plain,
I am the meaning of the poem,
I am the point of the spear,
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Who levels the mountains?
Who announces the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
Let it be said at once that any "translation" from so ancient an oral source is problematic, and even then there have been many interpretations of the poem. Still, to a boy who grew up on Catholic litanies, the form is clear. The poem is a kind of prayer, a prayer of acknowledgment and praise to whatever it is that infuses the world with meaning.

Douglas Hyde, the famous scholar of the Irish language (and first president of Ireland), made the canonical translation, and who am I to dispute him? But his version is less than poetic, and has a few quirks that strike me as wrong. Where I chose "I am the meaning of the poem," Hyde has "I am a word of science," although the very notion of science, as we understand it, would not come along for millennia. And he capitalizes the word "god," which seems to me another anachronism in the context of a polytheistic culture. Likewise, he has "God who" where I chose "god that," which seems more in keeping with the rest of the "I am"s.

The poem strikes me as pure pantheism. God or gods in and of the world -- good and bad, peace and strife, beauty and ugliness. It is part of the ancient Celtic consciousness that there is a mysterious power afoot in the landscape, sometimes called neart, that can be used for good or bad, and the gods were simply a way of giving an anthropomorphic face to a force that was otherwise beyond human knowing or control.

In Celtic thought, neart is everywhere -- in sky, Sun, Moon, earth, sea, animal, plant, stone. Even the gods were caught up in the web of this mysterious power. Neart was not so much something one thought about as felt -- sensed as one sometimes senses a presence in a dark room at night. In certain places and at certain times the felt presence is especially strong, in forest glades, perhaps, or by deep clear mountain pools.

I am willing to sing with Amergin in praise of neart. Imminent, yet mysterious. Not diminished by knowledge, but broadened. Addressed, if at all, by a kind of inarticulate awe. It is not enlightenment one feels in the presence of neart; rather, one is reminded of one's ignorance. Most of all, one feels caught up in something that reaches into (or out of) every part of one's being, not just the reason, or the will, or self-awareness, but the senses, the viscera, the lusts and longings of the human heart.