Story Archaeology

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The Mórrígan Speaks – Her Three Poems

From Cath Maige Tuired, “The Battle of Moytura”


At the end of the Old Irish saga of Cath Maige Tuired, there are three poems attributed to the Mórrígan; one immediately before the main battle, and the other two afterwards, ending the saga as a whole.  These three poems were the main topic of my Masters Thesis in 2005.  I have revisited the work I did on these poems, making some amendments to my translations.  The main thrust of that thesis remains, however, and here are some of the main points:

The poems are in a form called rosc or roscaid.  This is a very archaic, non-metrical, non-rhyming form of poetry which may date back further than our written record of the Irish language.  Its most consistent feature is connective alliteration, where the word or words at the end of one line alliterate with the word or words at the beginning of the next line.  This forms a kind of conceptual chain, where the image of one line is shifted to produce the image of the following line.  Rosc can be notoriously difficult to translate, as there is a scarcity of verbs, a lax attitude to syntax and many archaic and obscure words preserved in the poetic form.

When the poems are taken out of the surrounding prose text, they form a continuous text of their own.  It is my belief that the saga was originally contained entirely in this loose verse-form.  Poetry tends to preserve older forms of language, which are crystalised by the structure of the poem like insects in amber. As the language of the poems becomes more archaic and obscure, the tellers of the story need to add more and more prose to explain what the poems mean.  But they do not abandon the poetic passages, which retain their music and sonorous wholeness.

Both then and now, I am working from the edition of Cath Maige Tuired by Elizabeth Gray, published by the Irish Texts Society in 1982.  References to sections and line numbers are to this edition.

Poem A: Section 137, Lines 683 – 693

This poem is in the present tense, and almost reads like a “live commentary” of the battle itself.  There is not much more description of the actual battle in the prose text: it is largely concerned with the preparations before and ramifications after the battle.  This poem introduces the main action of the battle.

Afraigid rig don cath

Kings arise to [meet] the battle

rucatair gruaide

Cheeks are seized

aisnethir rossa

Faces [honours] are declared

ronnatair feola,

Flesh is decimated,

fennátair enech,

Faces are flayed

ethátair catha -rruba

[incomplete word] ?? of battle are seized

segatar ratha

Ramparts are sought

radatar fleda

Feasts are given

fechatar catha,

Battles are observed

canátair natha,

Poems are recited

noatair druith

Druids are celebrated

dénaitir cuaird

Circuits are made

cuimnitir arca

Bodies are recorded

alat(-) ide

Metals cut

sennat(-) deda

Teeth mark

tennat(-) braigit

Necks break

blathnuigh[i]t(-) [cét] tufer

[A hundred] cuts blossom

cluinethar eghme

Screams are heard

ailitir cuaird

Battallions are broken

cathitir lochtai

Hosts give battle


Ships are steered

snaat(-) arma

Weapons protect

scothaitir sronai.

Noses are severed

At_ci[ú] cach ro_genair

I see all who are born

ruad_cath derg_bandach

[in the] blood-zealous vigorous battle,

dremnad fiach_lergai fo_eburlai.

raging [on the] raven-battlefield [with] blade-scabbards.

Fri uabar rusmebat

They attempt our defeat

re_nar_már_srotaib sinne

over our own great torrents

fri fur fo_abad líni Fomoire

Against your attack on the full [compliment] of Fomoire

margnaich incanaigh

In the mossy margins;

copraich aigid fiach

the helpful raven drives

dorar fri_ar_solga garuh

strife to our hardy hosts

dálaig for_m_desigter rodbadh

mustered, we prepare ourselves to destroy

samlaidh derg_bandaib dam

To me, the full-blooded exploits are like

aim_critaighid conn_aechta

shaking to-and-fro of hound-kills

sameth donn_curidh dibur fercurib fristongarar.

goodly decay of muddy war-bands, your violations are renounced.

Poem B: Section 166, Lines 819 – 827

This is the penultimate section of the saga, and the poem used in the podcast (read it here).  It has a timeless quality to it, and lays out a vision of eternal peace and prosperity.  It is balanced by the last poem (below), which offers a diametrically opposed view.

Sith co nem

Peace to [the] heaven[s],

[NOTE: Síd = peace & Síd = faery – most likely same root]

Nem co doman.

Heaven to [the] world / earth

Doman fo ním,

Earth under sky / heavens

nert hi cach,

Strength in each.

án for_lann,

Cup on a plate

lan do mil,

Full of honey

mid co saith.

Mead to [one’s] satisfaction

Sam hi ngam,

Summer in winter

gai for sciath,

Spear upon a shield

sciath for durnd.

Shield upon a fist

Dunad lonn_garg;

Blade-bristling fort

longa(i)t(-) trom_foíd

Consumption of solid earth

fod di uí

Rights of [the] grandchildren [descendents]

ross for_biur

Forest on a point

benna a_bu

Horns from a cow

airbe im_etha.

Encircling fence {?}

Mess for crannaib,

Mast upon trees

craob do scis

Weary [its] bough

scis do áss

Weary from growth

saith do mac

Wealth for a boy

mac for muin,

Boy on a neck

[NOTE: “Macc for muin” is also a food-portion or ration, deemed appropriate for a free person.]

muinel tairb

Neck of a bull

tarb di arccoin

Bull from[?] a watch-dog

odhb do crann,

Knot for [on] a tree

crann do ten.

Tree for fire

Tene a nn-ail.

Fire from a stone

Ail a n-uír

Stone from earth

uích a mbuaib

[Young?] from cows

boinn a mbru.

Cows from a womb

Brú la_fefaid

[River-]Bank with birdsong

oss_glas iaer errach,

Grey deer before spring

foghamar for_asit etha.

Autumn whence grows corn

Iall do tir,

Flock [of birds, warriors, people] for [the] land

tir co trachd

Land [extending] to the shore

la feabrae.

With sharp edges

Bid_ruad rossaib síraib rith_már,

The great run {time} to the eternal woods / promintory will be fierce

‘Nach scel laut?’

“Have you any story?”

Sith co nemh,

Peace to the heavens

bid_sirnae .s[ith].’

It will be eternal peace.

Poem C: Section 167, lines 831 – 840

This finishes the saga and balances the previous poem.  It is in the future tense, and starts with the verb “at-cí” (sees), which marks it as a vision.

Ni accus bith no_mbeo:

I do not see a world of the living:

Baid sam cin blatha,

Summer will be without flowers

beti bai cin blichda,

Cows will be without milk

mna can feli,

Women without modesty [/ generosity / pudenda]

[NOTE: féle is a defining “virtue” of women; a tlás, a fos, a féile (characteristics of a good woman) = “her yielding / compassion, her perseverance / steadfastness, her modesty / generosity” (ZCP viii)  See more about “féle” in “The Poems of Sinann“.]

fir gan gail.

Men without valour [semen]

[NOTE: gal is literally “steam”; as “vigour”, it is a defining “virtue” of men, hence my reference to semen as male essence.]

Gabala can righ

Conquests without a king

rinna ulcha ilmoigi

walls of spear-points [on] every plain

beola bron,

Sad mouths

feda cin mes.

Forests without mast

Muir can toradh.

Sea without fruit

Tuir bain(b)thine /// Tuirb ain(b)thine

Tower-wall of white metal /// A multitude of storms

immat moel rátha,

around bare fortresses

fás a forgnam locha

Empty their dark buildings

di_ersitir dinn

High places cannot endure

at_rifiter linn

A lake has attempted

lines sech_ilar flaithie

to flood past a multitude of kingdoms

faoilti fria holc,

Welcome to its evil

ilach imgnath

Howling occupies

gnuse ule.

every face

Incrada docredb-

Great unbelievable torments

gluind ili,

many crimes

imairecc catha,

Battles waged everywhere

toebh fri ech delceta

Trust in spiked horses

imda dala

Many (hostile) meetings

braith mac flaithi

treacherous princelings

forbuid bron

A shroud of sorrows

sen saobretha.

on old high judgements

Brecfásach mbrithiom-

False maxims of judges

braithiomh cech fer.

Every man a betrayer

Foglaid cech mac.

Every son a brigand.

Gignitir cen_mair

[People] will be born without surviving

olc aimser

Evil time

i_mmera mac a athair,

in which the son will derange his father

i_mera ingen …

In which the daughter will derange…



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