We're delighted to present an extract from Thirty-Two Words for Field, the new book by Manchán Magan, published by Gill Books.
The Irish language has thirty-two words for field. Among them are:
Geamhar - a field of corn-grass
Tuar - a field for cattle at night
Reidhlean - a field for games or dancing
Cathairin - a field with a fairy-dwelling in it
The richness of a language closely tied to the natural landscape offered our ancestors a more magical way of seeing the world. Before we cast old words aside, let us consider the sublime beauty and profound oddness of the ancient tongue that has been spoken on this island for almost 3,000 years. In Thirty-Two Words for Field, Manchan Magan meditates on these words - and the nuances of a way of life that is disappearing with them.
The Irish word for 'inspiration' is inspioráid, which is hardly inspiring. It is functional and easy to remember, but it doesn’t sound like Irish, and would be rarely used in the Gaeltacht. People there would approach the idea from a different angle. They might reach for the word gríosadh, which refers to being excited or sparked by something, as gríos means ‘hot embers’. (It can also mean to blush, or something glowing or smouldering, so as a verb it can be used for both toasting bread and inspiring the soul.) Or they could choose spreag, which means to incite or arouse, although two generations ago it meant ‘rebuke’ or ‘admonish’.
Old Irish has a far more compelling word, which goes beyond anything inspioráid can summon. It has the nuances you’d expect from a culture that was immersed in taking direction from, and communicating with, the natural and spirit worlds. That word is imbas (Modern Irish iomas). It derives either from im-fiuss (with fiuss being an early form of the Modern Irish feas, meaning ‘knowledge’, thus ‘into knowledge’) or from im-bas, which means ‘into the palms of your hands’, with bos being the modern word for ‘palms’, as in bualadh bos, which means ‘applause’, and bulla bó báisín, which refers to how cows stroll back satiated from the milking-parlour in a wandering and dispersed manner, as opposed to a streoilín (‘stripleen’), which is how cows approach a milking-parlour, in a purposeful ordered line. This word can also mean the Pleiades, but that’s another matter.
The palms of your hands are not the first thing you think of when considering inspiration, but it makes more sense when you know that imbas was most commonly used in the phrase imbas forosnai, with forosnai meaning ‘that which illuminates’. So the idea is inspiration that illuminates, and it refers specifically to the act of looking into the future and chanting or reciting prophecy in the form of poetry. Often this practice involved the use of sensory deprivation in order to pass into a trancelike state. Terms like these are perhaps too intense for our pragmatic world, which is why they fell out of use; but I still haven’t explained the reference to the palm of the hand.
For that we need to turn to a 10th-century glossary written by a bishop and king of Munster who was beheaded in AD 908. His bleeding skull was given to the King of Mide, who kissed it, saying, ‘It was an evil deed to cut off the holy bishop’s head; I shall honour it, and not crush it,’ while he paraded it around his fort three times as a mark of respect.
The beheaded bishop was Cormac mac Cuileannáin, and he gave a full account of imbas forosnai in his glossary Sanas Cormaic (‘Cormac’s Narrative’), which describes it as a means for a poet to access inspiration by first chewing the raw flesh of a pig, dog or cat and then placing it on a flagstone behind a door. That’s the first part of the ritual, after which the poet then chants an incantation to his ‘idol gods’ for a day or two and places his palms over his face and eyes to enter a trance state, which lasts for a nómad – meaning either three days and nights or nine days – from the protoCeltic naumetos, meaning a ninth. (Nowadays a nómad, spelled nóiméad, means a ‘minute’, but that’s presumably because the old word got mixed up with the new term nóimeint, or neomat, which was a gaelicisation of ‘moment’.)
In his description Cormac suggests this shamanic process was intense and emphasises the importance of having a facilitator on hand to protect initiates from doing harm to themselves or others or from being yanked out of a trance at a particularly inopportune moment. His was
an early version of the buddy system that some people adopt when taking LSD or mushrooms, with someone on hand to look out for their partner in case of a bad trip.
This idea of placing the palms over the face is also used in the alternative therapy Reiki to enhance the power of the Third Eye when receiving divine knowledge and visions. And the practice of accessing wisdom by imbibing something and then entering a state of sensory deprivation in a darkened room (while uttering incantations) is common to many cultures. The initiate enters a state of heightened awareness and then the door is thrown open, or the covers are suddenly removed, and it is this sudden and instant transition from darkness to light that apparently triggers the visions.
As regards chewing the raw flesh, this is possibly an exaggeration by Cormac to denigrate the pagan practice, knowing that people loved their dogs and cats and regarded pigs as unclean. Yet the notion of eating raw meat as a way of entering another world was familiar to the Irish people, as it was a common ploy for fairies to feed you uncooked food as a means of luring you into the Otherworld – just as Eve did with her apple. In an 11th-century poem the mythological hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill, scolds a giant who is trying to get him to eat the uncooked flesh of his own horse, saying: ‘beir lett, a athig, do béad, uair né dúadus biad om riam’, (‘take away, O giant, your food, for I’ve never eaten raw food’).
Thirty-Two Words for Field by Manchán Magan is published by Gill Books.