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Imbás: Poetry, Knowledge and Inspiration

The “filid”, poets, of early Irish society were not poorly paid struggling artists: they were held in the highest esteem and a crucial part of culture.  Indeed, the word “fili”, poet, more literally means seer, and the “ollamh”, great poet, chief poet, had equal status with the king of the “túath”, petty kingdom, and the bishop in Christian times.

A “fili” had to undergo years of formal training: twelve years according to a text edited as Mittleirische Verslehren” by Rudolf Thurneysen.  Each year of study included a set of poetic metres and techniques, a collection of tales and parts of grammar and law texts.  As a student progressed through these years of training, their status and “lóg n-enech”, honour-price, would increase accordingly.  Status texts also make it clear that the bards were untrained poets, whose status was only half that of their trained counterparts.

“Imbas” is a gift or technique central to the poets of ancient Ireland.  Its literal meaning is “imb-fhes”, great knowledge.  It is perhaps best understood as inspiration.  In many texts, it is associated with rivers and wells, especially the wells of Segais and Connla, the mythical sources of the Shannon and the Boyne.  O’Davoran’s Glossary includes a description of “imbas greine”, imspiration from the river Graney, by which a poet gains (i.e. creates) a poem.  There is also a poetic technique called “sretha imbas”, stream of inspiration, where every word in a line of poetry alliterates; and a metre called “imbas forosna”.

“Imbas” on its own is often taken to stand for “imbas forosna”, great knowledge which illuminates.  As well as the name of a metre, it is also described as a technique associated with the highest grades of poets.  “Imbas forosna” is often listed alongside “teinm laída”, breaking open of poems, and “dichetail di chennaib”, reciting from heads, as three special accomplishments of poets.  All three of these appear in a section of The Book of Leinster (lines 3895 – 3905)  called “Cethri srotha déc éicsi”, Fourteen streams of scholarship:

1. Fele & innruccus.

Science and integrity

2. Comgne & genelach.

History and genealogy

3. Immas & dichetal.

Great knowledge and chanting

4. Anamain & brethugud.

Anamain (metre used by top poets) and judgement (legal)

5. Teinm laeda & ler forcetail.

Breaking open of poems and dilligent teaching

6. Idna láme & lanamnais.

Purity of the hand [i.e. deeds] and partnership [marriage, but can also be partnership of teacher and student]

7. Idna beoil & foglomma.

Purity of the mouth [i.e. speech] and learning

It isn’t terribly clear what teinm laeda might be; medieval glossators fixed on “teinm” as chewing, and tried to make sense of it by describing ritual slaughter of an animal and eating its innards to gain some kind of knowledge.  It may simply be a technique of poetic analysis.  “Dichetal di chennaib” is a bit easier; this seems to be the technique of creating metric poetry ex tempore; literally “off the top of the head”!  Given the complexities and subtleties of Irish metric poetry, creating a perfect poem off the top of one’s  head is no mean feat.  This can only be accomplished after those intensive years of training.

The “Cethri srothat déc éicsi” listing also includes some of the other specialties of the “filid” such as judgements, marriages and genealogies; alongside advanced metres such as “anamain”, which has a linguistic root of breath, and therefore with literal in-spiration.

The significance of “imbas forosna” is the “forosna”, illuminating, part of the term.  It is referred to in many saga texts as a technique for foretelling the future.  One of the best-known examples of this is in the Táin Bó Cullaigne, where Medb asks the woman poet, Fedelm, to use this technique to foretell the outcome of the battle.  Fedelm turns out to be tragically accurate in her repeated visions of bloodshed.

An extract from a law text describes how a poet will lose the powers of “teinm laeda” and “imbas forosna” if he passes false judgements.  This shows us the importance of the “filid” in establishing and maintaining truth.  It may even indicate how it is that a poet can foretell the future.  If the words of a poet must be true, then a statement they make about the future must also be true.  This is the special kind of truth that poets both create and protect for the túath.  In a world not dependent on the written word, all social and legal contracts exist only in the spoken word.  If a poet does not speak the truth, then all contracts become null and void, and the entire structure of society breaks down.  This is the underlying source of the power and importance of the “fili”.

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