speaking in tongues of fire
Updated: Aug 5
According to legend, the Danann poet Cairpre mac Edaine composed the first satire in Ireland. You’re probably thinking, ‘So what?’ Let me tell you, it was actually a big deal. A HUGE deal. It led to a High King being deposed, and a huge battle in which the fortunes of a race of people were forever altered.
In modern terms, satire refers to biting, snarky incendiary sarcasm, often humorous, generally aimed at politicians and people of power.
But back in the day of the ancient Irish, when society was founded on a code of honour, satire had a much darker, and more practical purpose. To compose a satire against someone was to challenge their authority and to threaten their status in the community. It called their honour into question, and caused them to publicly ‘lose face’. There could be no greater shame.
In fact, a poet was expected to be able to raise a satire so powerful, it would cause blemishes, ie boils to appear on the face of the accused, or other deformities. Should the accused be a chieftain, or King, he was thus made unfit for rule, and could be removed and replaced.
As you can see, the power of the poet could work on behalf of the common man, who might not otherwise have had a voice when it came to bringing a grievance against a superior.
In fact, the poet, known as Fílí in Irish, was held in very high regard himself. In his highest rank, that of Chief Ollamh, he was just as powerful as the High King. Powerful people often keep their own secret agendas, however, making this ability to depose Kings mighty handy.
As high ranking as he was, however, the poet didn’t have free rein to do as he wished. As with most aspects of ancient Irish society, the satire, like just about everything else, was governed by the Brehon Laws.
In legal terms, the satire was considered an assault, and so could not be tossed about lightly on a whim. If a satire was found to be unjust and insulting, ie, it called someone names, or if it mocked their physical appearance, the poet had to pay compensation in the form of an honour price, or eric. And of course, the higher the accused’s status, the higher the fine. Legally, a satire had to be based on truth.
Mind you, we know how elusive truth can be. And sometimes, a poet’s satire back-fired. But I’m rambling again… more of that later.
The Uraicecht Becc is an ancient legal text which goes into great detail on the status of all members of early Irish society. It lists, for example, the seven grades of poet, their honour prices, and what they can expect to earn per poem. It also mentions the three qualities required of a poet; the Imbas Forosnai (knowledge which illuminates), the Teinm Láeda (‘breaking open’ ie the analysis of poetry), and the Dichetal Do Chennaib (extempore chanting).
You could strip away the mystique and claim these skills as mere inspiration, technical expertise on the art of creating poetry, and improvisation, if you like, but that would be rather short-sighted.
read my post Imbas Forosnai Poetic Inspiration of the Irish Filidh to find out why.
According to Cormac’s Glossary, another ancient text, these techniques actually involve much preparation and ritual, which reinforces the poet’s magical and supernatural abilities.
Believe it or not, the satire fell into ten categories, the most scalding of which was known as the Glám Dicenn. You want boils on the face of your wicked evil King? Then, this is the satire for you.
The glám dicenn, when raised by a powerful poet, could cause ‘the Three Blisters of Satire’ to appear on the face of the victim, thus marking his shame and dishonour for all to see.
No doubt you’re chortling away to yourself as you read this. How can a poem give someone blisters and boils? Ridiculous, right? It’s just a poem.
And yet, it’s not. To be able to physically affect someone, it’s more than just a poem, it’s a spell. These poets were a class of druid. They could enter the Otherworld and communicate with its inhabitants to seek knowledge and prophecies. They knew the secrets of the mysteries, denied to the ordinary folk. They had long, long years of learning. The history of Ireland and her people was contained in their heads. If anyone could cast a spell, use magic, it would be them.
Magic is just energy, after all.
So people, especially those who had a lot to lose, feared the fire of a poet’s magic. If it was said a poet could raise boils with his blistering satire, everyone believed it, and no one wanted to risk their honour.
So it is not at all surprising, then, that Ferdia reluctantly agreed to fight against his foster-brother, Cuchullain, in single combat, rather than be shamed by the poets and satirists that sneaky Queen Medb threatened him with during the long, drawn out campaign of the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
So what did the Three Blisters of Satire look like? According to the Cauldron of the Gods: A Manual of Celtic Magick by Jan Fries, the three boils were black, red and white and represented ‘disgrace, blemish and ugliness’. They were raised on the face of a woman by a poet named Aithirne Ailgesach, who was a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and travelled around Ireland making preposterous demands under threat of glám dicenn.
And the woman’s great crime? She refused to sleep with the evil poet and his two sons because she was promised in marriage to King Conchobar of Ulster. Well, I for one don’t blame her. However, she was so ashamed of the three boils which appeared on her face, that she died there and then. Women seem to have a habit of dying on the spot in Irish mythology, particularly when shamed.
The glám dicenn often resulted in death. In another story, which appears in Cormac’s Glossary, Nede is the greatest fili in all the land, and adopted son of the King, Caear. Nede composes a glám dicenn against Caear in the hope of deposing him, marrying his Queen and usurping his position.
Caear was so ashamed of his three blisters, which were red, green and white, representing shame, stain and ugliness, that he assumed a new name, ran away and went into hiding, leaving Nede to fulfill his dastardly plan.
After a year, Nede began to feel guilty about what he had done. He went in search of Caear, and found him hiding in a cleft in a rock. As the poet tried to apologise, the old King fell down dead, and the rock heated up and burst open. A splinter of rock shot out and pierced Nede through the eye, thus killing him.
Dramatic stuff, and a fine example of a wrongful satire backfiring and killing the poet who composed it. I imagine such stories served as a warning to poets not to fall too much in love with their own power and authority.
By the way, after causing a heap of mayhem up and down the country, Aithirne got his just reward… the men of Ulster rose up against him and killed him. Slowly and painfully, I hope.
And now back to Bres. The story goes that Cairpre was travelling through Ireland and stopped off at Bres’s place. Bres was High King at the time, and Cairpre being an important poet, it was expected that he would be received with the finest hospitality. Hospitality was a matter of honour in ancient Ireland.
You can read more about that in my post, 6 Founding Principles of Ancient Irish Society
However, Cairpre was not treated well, and shot his King down in flames with his fiery little verse. According to Shee-Eire, this is what happened:
“Cairpre, poet of the Tuatha Dé Danann, came in his travels to the house of Bres. He entered a narrow, black, dark little house, with neither fire nor chair nor bed in it. Three small cakes he was given, and they were dry. On the morrow he arose, and he was not thankful. As he crossed the threshold he made this magical curse:
‘Without food quickly on a dish, Without cow’s milk for a calf to grow on, Without a man’s abode under the dark of night, Without pay for a company of storytellers – Let that be Bres’s condition.”
Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Cairpre was merely wishing for Bres to be on the receiving end of some of his own treatment, not to kill him. The people of Ireland were already dissatisfied with their King, though, because he favoured his Fomori heritage, and forced the Danann to work like slaves and pay high tribute to them.
“All this time that Bres held the kingship, there was murmuring against him among the Tuatha Dé Danann, for their knives were not greased by him, and however often they visited him their breaths did not smell of ale. And there was no entertainment in the household from either poet or bard or satirist or harper or piper or hornblower or juggler or jester. They saw no races, no sporting contest.”
Again, hospitality and honour seems to be called into question here. But Cairpre’s satire gave the Danann the ammunition they needed. Bres was rapidly deposed, Nuada with his new silver arm was reinstated as King, and war declared on the Fomori. The Danann were victorious. And the rest is history. Um… well, mythology, at least.
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