Story Archaeology

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Four Cities, Four Teachers, Four Treasures

There is much curiosity surrounding the four cities and teachers named in the opening lines of Cath Maige Tuired.  The names are archaic-sounding, with their -ias endings.  The “cities” do not seem identifiable with any geographic location, ancient or modern.  And aside from this brief appearance, the “teachers” are never heard from again.

However, the four treasures or jewels (sét) of the Túatha Dé Danann is a persistant part of the tradition.  The stone, sword, spear and cauldron have been involved in much debate and discussion in terms of their relationship to Chrétien de Troyes’ Grail procession in his Arthurian romances.  Vernam Hull, in his article “The Four Jewels of the Túatha Dé Danann” (Zeitschrift fur Celtische Philologie, Vol 18, 1930), gives a detailed overview of this discussion, arguing for the relative antiquity of the Irish treasures.  In this article, he also publishes and translates a section from the Yellow Book of Lecan version of the Lebor Gabála describing the four treasures, the cities and the teachers, in prose and poetic form.  (This edition can be found on CELT, although the link to the HTML version of the text is currently broken).

The prose of this section corresponds closely to the opening sections of our Cath Maige Tuired text, with other Lebor Gabála versions matching almost word-for-word.  The language of these opening sections are Middle Irish – later than the Old Irish of much of our text.  This comparative lateness and connection to the Lebor Gabála tradition may account for some of its “strangeness”.

Let us then attempt to analyse the “antiqued” names of the cities and their teachers to get a sense of their significance.  The -ias endings seem like an attempt by scholars to give an archaic sound to these names.  We know that the study of the Ogam “alphabet” was part of the poetic syllabus for Irish scholars, forming a core part of the Auraceipt na nÉces; their first-year text-book.  Ogam stone inscriptions cover an important change in Primitive to Early Old Irish – that of apocope (loss of Indo-European endings).  So eager scholars who went around reading Ogam inscriptions would have noted that some would feature unfamiliar noun-endings such as -os, –as, -ios and -ias.  The –ias endings of Semias, Gorias etc. seem to have been chosen at random, or for aesthetic reasons, since we do not have equivalent ia-stem nouns for all these names in Old Irish.

So in order to understand the names, we must discount these artificial endings.  Below is a schematic analysis of what the cities and teachers may signify:

 

1) City = Falias; Teacher = Morfessa / Fessus: Treasure = Lia Fáil

 

Falias:

Inis Fáil is a poetic term for Ireland, probably derived from the Lia Fáil, the stone of sovereignty.  The best root meaning I can discern for fál is that of “fence” or “pallisade”. As a description of a “city”, this suggests an enclosure protected by a wooden fence.  We have discussed before (particularly in relation to Macha) the developmental importance of the enclosed space to early Irish society.  This is the core meaning of nemed, a term denoting both a space where learning and study can occur, and the learned people who come from that space.  So Fálias could be understood as another form of nemed – very appropriate for a city of learning.

 

Morfessa / Fessus:

In the prose edited by Vernam Hull (see above), the teacher at Falias is named Fessus, otherwise named Morfessa or Morfis.  This name seems simply understood as mór, “great”, and fis, “knowledge, wisdom”.  It seems that the first city and teacher listed are the most readily understood.  The associated treasure is also the most tangible.

 

Lia Fáil:

This is the stone which is supposed to cry out under kings of Ireland.  There is still a stone standing on top of the main hill at Tara, which is almost certainly not ancient.  Lía is simply a stone, and the Fáil element can be seen in terms of Ireland being known as Inis Fáil.  I realise this makes a somewhat circular argument; perhaps both Lía Fáil and Inis Fáil refer to a sense of the island of Ireland being protected, “fenced in” by the sea.

 

2) City = Goirias; Teacher = Esras; Treasure = spear / sword

 

Goirias:

Gor is an adjective with the root meaning “warm”.  It has two significant specific meanings.  The first is the warmth (goire) of affection, particularly the affectionate duty of a child toward their parents.  This is found throughout the law texts, as a mac gor, “dutiful son”, has better standing than a mac ingor, “undutiful son”.

The second specific meaning of goire, “warmth”, is the heat associated with illness and infection.  It is used to signify the “matter” that seeps from an infected wound, and may be related to the English word “gore”.

In terms of the city, I feel that Goirias is a place of physical and emotional warmth.

 

Esras:

This seems to derive from essair, an abstract noun from as-ser-n, “strewing, littering”.  As a noun, essair refers to things strewn about, particularly rushes or straw strewn on a floor or palette for bedding.  The name of this “teacher” can be understood in one of two ways: either as a teacher who “strews” or scatters knowledge about, or as one who provides a comforting bed in his warm (gor) city.

 

Spear / Sword:

There is much confusion about which cities these treasures come from, and about who holds each one.  In our Cath Maige Tuired text, the spear (sleg) comes from Goirias, and it is Lug who caries it.  In the prose section of the Four Jewels text edited by Hull, it is the sword (claideb) that comes from Goirias, and it is held by Nuada.  But in the verse section of the Four Jewels text, it is still the sword that comes from Goirias, but it is held by Lug.

The descriptions of these two treasures are also very similar.  The sword is usually described in terms of its unconquerability after being drawn from its battle-sheath, and the spear renders its bearer unconquerable.

One noteworthy element of the prose section of the Four Jewels text is the implication that the sword was rendered unconquerable “after it had wounded him” (= Nuada).

 

3) City = Findias; Teacher = Uiscias; Treasure = Sword / Spear (see above)

 

Findias:

Find is usually translated as “white” or “fair”.  It is used in similar ways to the English word “fair”, meaning “pale-coloured”, “just” and “beautiful”.  It is also a personal name, most famously attached to Find (Mod. Ir. Fionn) Mac Umal (anglicized “MacCool”).  Find is a character embodying wisdom, justice, and beauty; his wisdom originating with the salmon caught in fresh water.  As a colour-word, find is often applied to fast-flowing water (literally, “white water”) and forms an element of many river-names.

 

Uiscias:

The most likely root for this name is uisce, “water”.  It is sometimes used to indicate fresh water as opposed to sal, “salt(-water)”.  It refers primarily to the substance itself, and secondarily to bodies of water such as rivers and lakes.

It is possible that the root of Uscias (with the first -s being neutral rather than paletal) could be úsc, “fat, lard, grease”, but this seems out of keeping with the other names.

 

4) City = Murias; Teacher = Semias; Treasure = Cauldron

 

Murias:

This name could have two different but complimentary roots.  The first that suggests itself is muir, “sea”, while the second is múr, “wall, rampart”.  The combination of these two roots is suggested by a line of the Four Jewels poem, describing Muirias as dind dias, which Hull translates as “fortress of pinnacles”.  While the composer of the poem probably didn’t perform a philological analysis which would stand up to today’s academic scrutiny, the phrase may suggest an inherited sense in which Murias, with its seas and / or ramparts, suggests the kind of promontory fort found at Dún Beag on the Dingle Peninsula.

 

Semias:

The most likely root for this is se(i)m, “rivet, support”.  It fits with the notion of the supportive role of teaching and learning to the Túatha Dé Danann, as well as the sense of protection and warmth suggested by the names of the other three cities.

A possible alternative is sém, “slender”, but I only add this because it amuses me to think of Uscias as a “fat” teacher and Sémias as a “slender” one!

 

Coire in Dagda:

The treasure from Murias is the cauldron (coire) of the Dagda, from which no company would go unsatisfied.  While the stone appears as a “real” object, and the sword and spear do not make a particular appearance in the rest of our saga, the Dagda is continually associated with themes of hospitality and generosity.  This will be explored in detail in Episode 4, “Echtrae in Dagdae – The Adventures of the Dagda”.

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    1. A Cardinal Point pt.2: The Four Fabulous Cities of the Tuatha Dé Danaan | A Wise Fool

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