Old Irish satire

Although Westerners have pretty well given up believing that the name is the thing, or even that there's some kind of resonance between names and things, it hasn't always been so. My ancestors were about as western as you can get in Europe, and they used names to induce malefactors to commit suicide: "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can really mess me up."

Here are a few examples of Old Irish satire, that most feared of all arts:

A satire on Bres, "the first satire made in Ireland", from the story of the Second Battle of Mag Tuireadh.

Cen cholt for crib cernini,
Without food quickly on a dish,
cen gert ferbba fora n-asa aithrinni,
without cow's milk on which a calf thrives,
cen adba fir iar ndruba disoirchi,
without a man's dwelling after the staying of darkness,
cen dil daimi rissi,
without a storyteller band's payment,
ro sain Brisse.
so be Bres.

A "poem to raise blisters" from Cormac's Glossary:

Maile baire gaire Caier
Evil, death, short life to Caier
combeodutar celtra cath Caier
May battle spears slay Caier
Caier diba Caier dira Caier foro
Caier by land, Caier by earth, Caier rejected
fomara fochara Caier.
Under mound, under rocks, Caier.

And a single line from a much longer satire; each word means "I will satirize" using three different roots:

gromfa gromfa glamfa glamfa aerfa aerfa

I suspect that these curses probably did "work" in their context: an intensely shame-oriented (as opposed to guilt-oriented) culture in which people identified extremely strongly with their public reputations, to the point where the destruction of that reputation could send them into overwhelming depression. (God knows it isn't so today: the Irish have acquired an overwhelmingly guilt-oriented culture somewhere along the way.)

I often wonder if Japan might have been able to escape the spiral of events leading to World War II if they had institutionalized public satire as an escape valve.

Go away, you silly samurai, or I will satirize you ... a second time!


Anonymous said...


You and I have spoken before about the importance of names, and it's such an impotant topic. I think a lot of modern Westerners have much to gain by learning the traditions of benediction and malediction through names among their ancestors.

And satyres are always a pleasurable read, unless you happen to be the satirised (and sometimes even then they are)


John Cowan said...

Indeed, this posting is derived from an email exchange we had.

Anonymous said...

Ah - 'ceirníní' meant 'dishes' in Old Irish! In Modern Irish it means 'records' (of the vinyl kind).

David Marjanović said...

Why are these called "satires" and not "curses"? I find no mockery, no fun at all, in these examples, just hate and contempt as an art form.

God knows it isn't so today: the Irish have acquired an overwhelmingly guilt-oriented culture somewhere along the way.

"God knows" is the point, isn't it? The obvious intermediate stage between shame and what Americans call "Catholic guilt" is shame before God who isn't fooled by how you manage your public reputation and knows the reputation you really deserve.

John Cowan said...

Well, partly because the translation 'satire' is traditional for áer, partly because Irish satire looks a lot like the satire of Archilochos, who was equally vicious. He wrote a poem slandering a man who had refused to betroth his daughter to the poet, and when it was made public, both the man and his daughter hanged themselves.

Both the Irish and the Greek tradition do indeed descend from a tradition of magical curses, but I suspect there was wit in them too, probably in the meter. Archilochos used a comedian's meter (iambic), and was considered a very great poet by the ancients despite his subject matter (which was not all satiric by any means).

Moving on from Archilochos to Aristophanes, we see something similar, now in the context of the theatre where the emotions are understood to be playful. In The Acharnians, when the hero, disguised as a beggar, says that both Athens and Sparta are responsible for the then-ongoing war (a controversial position to take at the time), the chorus of Athenians responds with this attack, in a flat Victorian prose translation:

"Oh! wretch! oh! infamous man! You are naught but a beggar and yet you dare to talk to us like this!"

But in the equally Victorian but stylistic-preserving translation by Edith Hamilton, this speech comes out as:

"Spartans not to blame, you traitor? How dare you tell such a lie?
At him, at him, all good people! Stone him, burn him, he shall die!"

Now this (in my opinion) is not merely an attack, it is also funny, and that is because of the poetic form. Unfortunately, Hamilton only translated enough fragments to make her points in The Greek Way.