Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Berserks: A History of Indo-European "Mad Warriors"


Berserks--blustering, mad warriors scorning wounds and death embody the spirit of reckless attack. Though the berserk warrior tradition spans some three thousand years, its history has yet to be written. The following gives an outline of that history in five parts. The first part deals with the earliest known berserks at the end of the bronze age. The second traces berserks through the bronze, iron, and middle ages. The third part describes the berserk mind, and the fourth probes for patterns when berserks appear as attack troops alongside disciplined forces. The last, more tentative part looks at structures and functions of mad warrior styles worldwide by comparing Indo-European berserks with other similar warriors, such as Aztec quachics and India's amoks.

The new sources brought forward here widen the geographical range of the berserk tradition to include Mesopotamia. They add several centuries to the time span during which berserks are now documented and shed light upon the mentality of early warriors and their frenzies as they forged fearlessly into battle. Berserk warriordom thus emerges as a long-lived, cross-cultural phenomenon that lends color and coherence to the early millennia of recorded history.

Snorri Sturlusson in the Ynglinga saga, written shortly after A.D. 1220, defines berserks as mad fighters without body armor: "Woden's men went without hauberks and raged like dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were strong like bears or bulls. They killed men, but neither fire nor iron hurt them. This is called berserksgangr." Berserk warriors thus scorned armor, willfully foregoing body armor. They also raged uncontrollably in a trance of fury. These two qualities define berserks, although many sources mention only one or the other, even in cases where warriors were both naked and mad.

Any troops either fighting madly or showing off recklessly, but not both, may be called merely "berserk-like." The Arab Ageyl were berserk-like when in 1917, before the attack on Wejh with Lawrence of Arabia, they stripped off their cloaks, head cloths, and shirts, saying that thus they would get clean wounds if hit, and their precious clothes would not be damaged. The reasons they gave were not all, for men are also proud of showing their bodies and elated with the wind streaming over their skin--Lawrence himself was as much taken with their "half-nakedness" as were the Romans with their Celtic foes. True berserks, however, are both naked and mad at the same time. This article will show that they stand in an age-old, well-defined tradition and, though not given their due by modern scholarship, form an outstanding feature of Indo-European culture.


Babylonian-Assyrian civilization by and large followed third-millennium Sumerian tradition. In warfare this meant plodding, orderly rows of soldiers, the "phalanx" seen on the "Standard of Ur." There, helmeted, cuirassed, and heavily armed soldiers trudge one behind another, as one expects soldiers to do in disciplined city-states and city-empires. In the seventeenth century B.C. the battle-chariot revolution swept over all of West Asia, and the part-Aryan Mitanni took Assur, but we do not know how these events changed Assyria. In the late thirteenth century, however, under Tukulti-Ninurta, something altogether foreign took place in Assyria.

Early in his reign, Tukulti-Ninurta (1243-1207 B.C.) fought the Hittites and in 1228 warred against the Babylonians. Having routed and captured the Kassite king of Babylon, he commissioned an epic about his campaign to justify his uncalled-for aggression. The resulting work is unique; unlike the many royal inscriptions that survive from ancient Assyria, the epic lavishly describes and praises the fighting style and battle madness of the king's warriors. It claims not only that Tukulti-Ninurta's gods struck his foes with fear and blindness and blunted their weapons, but that his warriors turned into furious shape-changers like Anzu, the Assyrian eagle-dragon, and that they scorned armor:

They are furious, raging, taking forms strange as Anzu.
They charge forward furiously to the fray without armor,
They had stripped off their breastplates, discarded their
They tied up their hair and polished (?) their ... weapons,
The fierce heroic men danced with sharpened weapons.
They blasted at one another like struggling lions, with
eyes aflash (?),
While the fray, particles drawn in a whirlwind, swirled around
in combat.

This poem is highly revealing. Standing outside Greek and Roman literary tradition, it escapes the hackneyed argument that descriptions of foreigners--by even the most serious and knowledgeable classical authors--are not to be trusted because they repeat time-worn cliches (topoi). We thus learn from the epic that in fits of battle-madness Middle Assyrian warriors "took strange shapes," shed their armor, doffed their garments, tied up their hair, war-danced with weapons in hand, glowered fiercely, roared, and charged wildly into a raging whirlwind battle. Nowhere else are Assyrian warriors made out to be as wild or to behave as strangely.

Flashing eyes, frenzy, and swirling-storm tactics are customs natural to berserk-like warriors everywhere, including those of Mesopotamia. Yet these are also customs common among Indo-European berserks, and hence could have arisen from Indo-European tradition.

By 1500 B.C., Indo-European speakers held sway from Northern India to Western Europe: east, north, and west of Assyria. Before their dispersal, their ancestors had shared a language, a religion, a heroic poetry, and, what is less well known, some striking warrior styles. Their wolf-warriors, for example, fought with wolf hoods over their head and howled like wolves, while their horse-slashers dove beneath attacking horsemen to stab the steeds. Berserk was one of their characteristic fighting styles, hence one may indeed ask whether Tukulti-Ninurta's mad warriors were not Indo-European berserks.

Sound method demands that the bigger the gap in time and space between comparable customs, the more elaborate the shared custom must be to prove a common origin. Shedding one's armor in sight of the enemy is an elaborate, specific, and most unlikely gesture. Having no armor is one thing; throwing it off in sight of the enemy is quite another--and not just armor, but garments as well! While this is altogether unknown to Near Eastern tradition, it is, as we will see, found fairly often among ancient and medieval Celtic and Germanic warriors. If one adds to this the raging battle-madness and shape-shifting common to Tukulti-Ninurta's warriors and Indo-European berserks, it seems likely that their fighting styles share the same origin.

Tukulti-Ninurta's warriors were thus either strongly influenced by Indo-Europeans or were themselves Indo-Europeans. Neither possibility is far-fetched. Assyrians often took large numbers of prisoners into their army. Tukulti-Ninurta could have come by his mad warriors early in his reign, when he captured, as he says, "28,800 Hittites from beyond the Euphrates."Besides, he calls his berserks "bondsmen" (ardani), which could mean his sworn war band, but the meaning of the word ardani shades also into "servants" and could thus mean prisoners of war.

Perhaps the Assyrians adopted the berserk style from their northern Indo-European neighbors, the Iranians, who also fielded longhaired, naked, hence wild warriors. Even a non-Indo-European mountain people could have transmitted the custom--there is no ground to think that a warrior style is bound to speakers of only one language family. Without incoming foreigners, however, cultural and military change as radical as the appearance of berserk warriors is unlikely. Complex, disciplined societies with a stable population like that of Assyria do not turn wild again on their own: there are no examples of this in world history.A Hittite or other Indo-European presence--mercenaries or prisoners of war--is the most likely explanation for Tukulti-Ninurta's mad warriors, all the more so since Assyrians of the thirteenth century B.C. adopted much else in politics and warfare from their Hittite neighbors.

The date of Tukulti-Ninurta's battle--1228 B.C.--sets it in a very specific context: the end of the until then flourishing Egyptian, West Asian, and Greek bronze age, when waves of fighters from the north destroyed Mycenae, Troy, Hittite Hattusas, and the kingdoms in Syria. Egypt itself barely fended off the invaders. The newcomers were battle-deciding infantry. For 400 years chariots had dominated the battlefields. Now, at the end of the thirteenth century, all of a sudden infantry overcame them.

A recent well-researched study has shown how this happened. Chariotry always needed some infantry "runners" who kept up with the chariots to support them when it came to hand-to-hand fighting and to finish off the crews of disabled enemy chariots. Such runners were daring elite troops, "those who bear the hand-to-hand fighting, beautiful in appearance." They even served in the rulers' guards. By and large, they were foreigners hired for their stamina and recklessness, such as the Sardinian shardana of Ramses II (1279-1212 B.C.) and Ramses III (1186- 1155 B.C.). Over time it became apparent that these "runners," if they were many, could by themselves defeat chariotry--all they had to do was to wound with their javelins one horse of a chariot. That would stop the chariot, allowing the runners to attack the crew in a fight for which they were better trained and equipped than mail-clad charioteer archers. Hitherto the first-known campaign based on these new tactics was that in 1208 B.C. by Meryre of Libya who, to conquer Egypt, hired warriors "from all the northern lands." To fend off such invasions, established rulers likewise hired foreign infantrymen, and as the famous Mycenaean "Warrior Vase" shows, these were equipped with body armor for close combat against opposing infantry.

For Tukulti-Ninurta's warriors this means that they were among the finest, or at least most modern, warriors of the time. This may be why the king was so proud of them and had them described in such detail. Tukulti-Ninurta's campaign of 1228 becomes now the earliest known instance, for the new, battle-deciding infantry, for its body armor and its tactics, 20 years before Meryre's Egyptian campaign. Assyria thus hired foreign foot soldiers like other kingdoms of the time, and was not the exception scholars had it thought to be.It befitted the Assyrians to be the first to have berserk troops in their service--always keen to modernize their army, they soon were to pioneer cavalry.

What is more, we now see what spirit bore these infantrymen to victory: the berserk mind. Even if some of the new metal, iron, was available, it seems to have had little to do with the berserks' victory: the epic describes the men's spirit so intensely that one must believe it was the decisive factor. Certainly spirit, discipline, and training matter as much in warfare as technology. As chariot runners these elite troops wore no body armor, as infantry in close combat they did. They thus may well have known both kinds of fighting, with and without body armor, which would give them the confidence that they could win against the Kassite Babylonians even without breastplates, proudly and recklessly fighting naked.

As for tactics, Tukulti-Ninurta's men needed no better order than that of a swirling whirlwind. Of similar troops at the time one might say that "the barbarian skirmisher fights on his own; with no comrade to right or left, he depends on his own round shield. Mobility rather than solidarity was essential." No cavalry is mentioned in Tukulti-Ninurta's battle, and indeed it would not be invented for another hundred years. This gave berserks around 1200 B.C. the edge in speed and boldness that they would later have to share with cavalry. Massed, heavy-armed infantry was also only just beginning to make its appearance. This seems to be why Tukulti-Ninurta's wild men were his main force, while in later centuries berserks tended to be only a few champions, hired by a ruler.

The rise of foreign infantry in all West Asian countries of the time confirms the conclusion drawn from the fighting style of Tukulti-Ninurta's berserks, namely that they were foreigners, almost certainly Indo-Europeans. Several other features of Tukulti-Ninurta's warriors, then, may also belong to northern warrior styles. Celtic and Germanic ecstatic fighters, too, fought like lions or other grim animals. They, too, frightened their foes by flashing their eyes, by snarling or roaring, and by tying up their long hair; before going into battle at Strasbourg in A.D. 354, King Chonodomar of the Alamanni wound a round, gold-embroidered band into his hair. Thracian warriors bound their hair into a topknot.Long, well-ordered hair was a hallmark of IndoEuropean warriors, best known perhaps from Herodotus' account of the Spartans at Thermopylae.

Further reason to believe that the berserk style of Tukulti-Ninurta's warriors is Indo-European comes from their shape-shifting. When in the grip of fury, Celtic and Germanic berserks contorted their faces and bodies in frightening ways. Among Irish heroes, Cu Chulainn is famous for this. Likewise tenth-century Egil: when he came to claim the wergeld for his slain brother, he showed the king how mad he was by drooping one eyebrow down towards his cheek, raising the other up to the roots of his hair and moving his eyebrows alternately up and down. Celtic heroes, moreover, grew huge in battle. Mad shape-shifting, whether Celtic and Germanic or done by Tukulti-Ninurta's men, is a telling trait of Indo-European berserks.

Half-naked fighters appear also among the Hittite king's guard, but only Tukulti-Ninurta's epic tells us that in the second millennium B.C. such "naked" fighters fought recklessly mad, throwing off armor as well as garments, inducing trance-like battle madness by dancing and shape-changing, flaunting flowing hair, flashing eyes, and attacking like a whirlwind. Armor-scorning and mad-fighting are the essential characteristics of berserkdom, and here they appear together, while elsewhere the two are often found in isolation. The Tukulti-Ninurta epic thus confirms much that one must otherwise glean from less explicit sources in later centuries. It is a major source for the berserk warrior style.

The guardian carved in relief on a huge monolith at the King's Gate in the Hittite capital of Hattusas (Boghaz Köy, Turkey) clearly is a half-naked Indo-European bronze-age warrior. Armed with ax and sword, he wears only a short "kilt" around his loins. He flaunts a tall, elaborate comb helmet with ear and neck guards. Since wearing no body armor but a helmet was an Indo-European berserk custom, the guardian very likely was a berserk. Standing in the King's gateway, however, he no doubt ranked very highly; hence archaeologists have wondered whether he is not wearing a cuirass after all, perhaps a leather jerkin. Yet as his nipples show, he is clearly barechested. Moreover, he is also bare-footed, and other sculptures confirm that some of the Hittites' highest ranking warriors wore only a kilt.(n35) Hittite elite warriors clearly took pride in fighting "naked," even those who served in the king's guard. Such nakedness meant reckless blustering in the face of the enemy which points to the berserk fighting style. We cannot be certain about their battle madness, but the parallel of Tukulti-Ninurta's warriors makes it likely that the Hittite guard fought not only naked but also recklessly, perhaps like true berserks.

Similar helmeted and kilt-clad but otherwise naked guards, armed with swords and spears, are shown on a bronze-age fresco in the Mycenaean palace at Pylos in southwestern Greece. In reliefs at Abydos in Egypt the Indo-European Shardana "runners" of the Ramessid pharaohs have an elaborate dress when they serve as guardsmen; in battle, however, they too wear only kilt and helmet. Another berserk-like warrior comes from the bronze age of northern Europe: a tenth-century statuette, found at Orevenswaenge in Denmark, portrays a naked warrior, wearing only a helmet, a neck ring, and belt. Like the Hittite guardian, these Mycenaean, Sardinian, and Danish bronze-age warriors in their battle garb indeed look like berserks, but we do not know for certain whether they fought in a trance of madness. Here, too, however, some help comes from the Tukulti-Ninurta epic, as it speaks of reckless frenzy and thereby suggests that naked bronze-age warriors blustered and fought recklessly like berserks.

The tradition of naked warrior images continues without break through the iron age. Eighth-century, archaic Greek statuettes portray warriors naked but for helmet, neckband, and belt, sometimes with a shield flung to their back, a telling berserk gesture. When seen in the larger context of bronze- and iron-age art in Europe and West Asia, these statuettes make it likely that in archaic times some Greek warriors also fought naked, that is, as berserks.

A statue from the sixth century B.C. found at Hirschlanden in Württemberg shows a similar, fully naked Celtic warrior wearing only hat or helmet, neckband, belt, and sword (Fig. 1). With Celts we are on firmer ground when looking for the spirit of their naked warriors. Celts were famous for fighting naked. In the battle at Telamon in Italy, in 225 B.C., they wore only trousers and capes, while their Gaesati spearmen in the forefront, to bluster, threw off even these. Like the Hirschlanden warrior, the Celts at Telamon wore golden torcs to dare the enemy to come and get these neckbands. The Hirschlanden statue with its torc thus portrays a warrior not in idealized nudity, but in the actual battle gear of naked warriors.

From the bronze-age images discussed, it is quite clear that the Hirschlanden warrior stands in a long Indo-European tradition going back to the second millennium B.C., and that the nakedness of the warrior wearing only a sword belt and neckband did not only "become a characteristic of the Celts in battle in the fifth century and after." The custom was both widespread and long lived. In 189 B.C. the Celts of Asia Minor fought thus when they exposed their bare, white skin, so the blood of their wounds would show to greater effect and to their greater glory.The Romans who faced them knew how to deal with reckless foes and blind rage: they showered them with arrows, javelins, and slingshot and did not let it come to hand-to-hand fighting.

The iron age is the high point of naked fighting in western Europe. In southern Spain, in the Sierra Morena area where Celts of the interior met with Iberians from the south who had adopted archaic Greek art, bronze statuettes show naked warriors of the 5th-3rd centuries B.C. with a sword, a small round shield (caetra), a "power belt," and sometimes a helmet--all typical berserk weapons. The Celts who came to Spain in the early iron age seem to have brought the berserk fighting style along, and it flourished there down to the Roman period.

While Celtic images of naked warriors show men in their battle gear, in Greek art images of naked warriors over time came to portray the warriors' ideal bodies rather than their true battle dress. Classical Greek art from the sixth century B.C. onward thus cannot serve as evidence about berserks. Nevertheless, in classical and in Hellenistic times backward areas of Greece still fielded berserk-like troops: tribesmen such as the Aetolians fought lightly armed and barefoot.

Thracian warriors also fought recklessly "naked": a silver coin of 335-315 B.C. shows a bare-chested, kilt-clad Thracian infantryman fighting a Paionian horseman from Macedonia. The Thracian tries to dive beneath the enemy's steed. Livy describes the spirit in which such an attack unfolded. In 171 B.C., he says, "Thracians, loudly yelling, and furious like long penned-up wild animals, ran ahead of all others up to the Italic horsemen and their lances. They cut the horses' legs or stabbed them in the belly." The coin as an archaeological source attests the Thracians' nakedness, while Livy as a literary source attests their fury: together they warrant for Thracians the two defining characteristics of berserk warriors, nakedness and madness.

Fighting naked was once well known in early Rome, too. Looking back at old Italy's prowess, Vergil describes the Etruscan Herminius thus:

Great-souled, great-bodied, greatly armed warrior,
flowing blond hair on his helmless head,
bare-shouldered, unafraid of wounds
huge that he was, fighting uncovered.

Odd as this description may seem for Rome, ancient Italic tribes had in their ranks berserks or berserk-like warriors who fought naked, shouting, barefoot, flowing-haired, and often in single combat.Their get-up bespeaks a berserk-like trance of ecstatic recklessness and a thirst for fame that goaded them to awesome efforts.

Barefoot Germanic berserks appear first on Trajan's Column. Roman triumphal art often portrays half-naked northern Europeans, whose wild recklessness was meant to frighten, but whose loyal service was to show the emperor as ruler of the world who gathers, from the ends of the earth, hosts of fighters against all who stand in his way. In scene 36 of Trajan's Column, bare-chested, bare-footed young men throng behind the emperor. Higher up the Column, the youths of scene 36 appear again in scene 42 (fig. 2). In the scene shown in Figure 2, the emperor gives a speech to thank the men who won the battle at Adamklissi. No weapons are shown, though the soldiers hold shields. The legionnaires wear strip armor and carry standards, the auxiliaries wear cuirasses and helmets, but the berserks are barechested and barefooted. Having fought outstandingly well, the berserks loom large among those praised by the emperor: unlike others who are seen from the back, they halfway turn to the viewer. The one to the left, youthful, clean-shaven and ruggedly handsome, strikingly holds the middle of the scene. The one to the right is a towering figure, almost a head taller than the men next to him. This is not happenstance, for his tall build marks him as a northerner and as a berserk.

We do not know to which Roman or allied unit these men belong. Tacitus says that German cohorts in the Roman army fought in their native style, naked, hence Germanic berserks or berserk-like troops could rank as regular Roman auxilia, and the men in Figure 2 may have belonged to these cohorts or even to Trajan's guard, comparable to Ramses II's Shardana and, it seems, Tukulti-Ninurta's berserks.

Like the Gaesati spearmen in the battle at Telamon who fought naked "for love of fame and out of daring," and to whom greater nakedness betokened greater daring, so the young men of Trajan's warband will have rushed into battle not only barechested but also barefooted, outdoing other warriors of their own tribe in nakedness and showing off their utter fearlessness. Their barefootedness, like that of young Spartan warriors, steeled them against pain and strengthened their will to overcome it. It marks them as berserks, even though the relief does not show them battle-mad. To show fearlessness, says Paul the Deacon, was also the reason why Heruls wore only loincloths in the war against the Lombards in A.D. 560: "whether for speed or out of scorn for wounds." Both reasons could apply, for speed greatly mattered to the unarmored who had to run up to the enemy before being showered with spears and arrows. For Heruls as for Gaesati and Trajan's berserks, the principle is the same: the more naked the warrior, the more reckless and brave.

This was part of a broader warrior ideal, spelled out by Vergil when he called bare-shouldered Herminius "great-souled." Others called northern warriors "great-souled" for wishing to win by manhood rather than guile. That ideal of winning in a fair fight, found already in Homer, also goes back to the second millennium B.C. and was still held by Emperor Julian in the fourth century A.D. and by the East Saxons in the battle of Maldon in A.D. 991.

Woden, the name of the Germanic war god (recalled in the English "Wednesday"), meant "fury." To be berserk was to be like Woden, whose followers, among them Franks in the fourth century A.D., thought that "a life that lacked deeds was the greatest grief, while wartime offered the highest happiness." When the Franks became Christians in A.D. 496, their traditional fighting styles did not perish all at once. In 553 their army in Italy still included bare-chested fighters, men without hauberks and helmets. Many perhaps were still Woden's men: reporting their human sacrifices, Procopius says, "Though these barbarians have become Christians, they keep most of their old faith." Similarly, the historian Agathias makes Frankish warriors out to be as mad and lacking in self-control as any northerners ever were. To Frankish warriors, then, conversion to Christianity mainly meant the exchange of one battle helper for another. Some went so far as to give Christ the qualities of Woden--witness the sixth-century terracotta plaque found at Gresin depicting Christ as an elite warrior, hair bound up, wearing a necklace and strutting naked. Much later, in Nordic sagas, Christ as the Lord's bravest fighter was "God's berserk."

Among Celtic warriors the custom of fighting naked also lived on from antiquity into the middle ages where it is known from reports about Irish fighters and from Irish legends. In Eastern Europe, too, sixth-century Sklavenoi (Slav) warriors fought without shirts. Since they must have owned shirts, they very likely threw them off to fight like berserks in the traditional Indo-European style. Iranians, too, upheld the customs of battle madness into the middle ages.

In Europe during the middle ages the need for berserks to strut naked grew less. As more and more warriors wore mail, all one had to do to signal outstanding bravery was to throw off one's knee-length hauberk and, more daringly, fling one's shield on the back. Even the time-honored spear-and-sword dance could now be done fully dressed, as seen on the seventh-century helmet from Sutton Hoo.

Berserks in medieval fiction followed old customs and beliefs. Beowulf took a berserk stance when he shed his mail before the fight with Grendel. To meet the monster on its own terms, he threw off his helmet, hauberk, and sword. In the handed-down Christianized version of the epic, however, Beowulf trusts in God's favor, not in strength flowing from an altered state of mind, as did Woden's men in earlier times.

Six-hundred years after Beowulf, Saxo Grammaticus in his early thirteenth-century "Gesta Danorum" says that Asmund flung his shield on his back to fight more fiercely and daringly and hence win greater fame.Norway's King Hákon the Good in 935 and in 961 also trod the battlefield as an armor-scorning fighter:

He threw off his armor
thrust down his mail-coat
the great-hearted lord,
ere the battle began.
He laughed with his liege-men.

Hákon's laughter showed his scorn of wounds. Such berserk-gestures by individuals, often kings and other leaders of men, abound in Nordic warrior tales.

Medieval berserks were often battle lords. In the tenth-century battle on the Vín Heath in Northumbria, Thorolf, the Icelandic Viking wore a helmet but no hauberk, and when the battle went badly, he "became so berserk that he swung his shield round to his back, and took his spear in both hands. He ran forward, striking or thrusting on both sides. Men sprang away in all directions, but he killed many.... Then Thorolf drew his sword, striking out on both sides, and his men also joined the attack." Flinging one's shield to one's back as a berserk gesture is found on reliefs of the berserk-like Shardana guard of Ramses II and on archaic Greek warrior statuettes.

Icelandic sagas often tell of berserks as wild, howling fighters, sometimes as high-born champions of kings, sometimes as lowly drifters.One of the last-known berserks, however, was a woman in North America. One day in the eleventh century, the Greenlanders who under Karlsefni had come to settle in Vinland saw a huge host of Skraelings (Indians) bearing down on them. As the Skraelings flung rocks at them from slings, the Greenlanders retreated between boulders to make their stand. The woman Freydis had first stayed indoors, but then went outside to follow the men. When the Skraelings made for her, she snatched the sword of a dead Greenlander, "pulled out her breasts from under her clothes and slapped the naked sword on them, at which the Skraelings took fright, ran off to their boats and rowed away. Karlsefni's men came up to her, praising her courage." Insofar as Freydis fought bare-breasted and frightened her foes with unwonted courage, she was a berserk.

Christianity forbade berserks, but their spirit lived on. Among island Celts it survived longest. Pawns of the twelfth-century chess set from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides are portrayed as warriors who bite their shields in battle madness. Also, when in 1138 King David of Scotland met an Anglo-Norman army in the Battle of the Standard, his Galwegian and Highlander warriors claimed their right to attack ahead of his armored household knights. With lances and swords they ran into battle unarmored, full of fury and daring, only to be shot down by English bowmen. The few who reached the English line achieved nothing against the armored, dismounted knights who led the defense. When they fled, they dragged the rest of the Scottish army into a rout, just as did the naked Celtic Gaesati at Telamon 1350 years earlier.

Despite this example of the waning effectiveness of berserk tactics against "modern" forces, Irish warriors in the thirteenth century still went into battle barechested and barefooted, armed only with axes. In doing so they shared with ancient berserks the lack of armor that made them faster and more recklessly daring. Nor did the literary concept of the berserk warrior die: in late medieval sagas the word "berserk" still meant a brave, fearless warrior.

The history of Indo-European berserks shows the abidingness of their warrior style over more than two and a half thousand years, from 1300 B.C. to A.D. 1300. Unlike Greek and Roman city cultures, northern Europe's tribal culture changed little over the centuries, and with it the berserk warrior style lasted as long as the culture of the tribes north of the Roman empire stayed intact, that is, to the coming of Christianity. The berserks' social underpinning lay in their role as guards and followers of kings, their religious underpinning was belief in a war god, and their main cultural feature was an extravagant code of honor and behavior--all strongly tied to the societies in which they flourished.


As North American Indians had their distinct warrior societies, so Ancient Indo-Europeans had distinct warrior groups with their own customs and "willfulness." The Sanskrit word swadha ("inherent power, habitual state, custom") is the same word etymologically as Greek and English ethos and the Latin sodales ("men of an organization"). Berserks would have formed such groups.

To do deeds of berserk daring, one had to be raging mad. Homeric warriors fought best in a powerful rage, and Gaulish warriors could not help falling into the grip of battle madness. Shouting and singing were ways to rouse such rage. Early Greek and Roman warriors screeched like flocks of raucous birds--a mark of manhood. With a song of thunder and wind, the young Marut warriors of the Rig Veda awakened Indra's prowess. Husky Thracian, Celtic, and Germanic war songs, like crashing waves, heartened warriors.

Dance emboldened even more. Not only Tukulti-Ninurta's berserks danced on the battlefield; Vedic Indians did the same. Indra and his band of Marut warriors danced adorned with golden plates. Greek and Iranian warriors likewise danced, and to Hector battle itself was dance. Ancient Thracians danced on the battlefield, and so did naked Celtic warriors, wearing only golden neckbands and armrings. In Caesar's time Romans still danced with weapons in hand, albeit no longer as soldiers but as teams of Salian priests. Dances, though done by all early warriors, mattered particularly to berserks as they fanned their fury.

Germanic warriors, too, danced on the battlefield. Tacitus describes the dance of their young, naked warriors thus:

They have only one kind of show and it is the same at every gathering. Naked youths whose sport this is fling themselves into a dance between threatening swords and spears. Training has produced skill, and skill, grace, but they do it not for gain or pay. However daring their abandon, their only reward is the spectators' pleasure.

Both Indo-European war dances and images of early medieval war dancers bear out Tacitus' tale of naked youths dancing with weapons in hand. Naked, the youths were berserks. Assyrian berserks, Celtic Gaesati, even Aztec wild warriors all danced naked. Indeed, being barefooted and barechested as the best getup for strenuous dancing may, in itself, have been a reason for fighting naked. Woden, as god of the berserks, led the dance. A Danish bracteate gold amulet shows him dancing, wearing but a helmet, a neckband, and a hitherto overlooked belt--like the warriors from Grevenswaenge, Hirschlanden, and elsewhere.Overarmed, like a hero, he twirls shield, ax, spear, and club, all bent to show that he shakes them as he dances (Fig. 3).

Rhythmic song and dance bonded the warriors together, entranced them, and aroused their fighting madness. War dances, like war songs, however, also re-enacted mythical battles and thereby changed warriors into mythic heroes. As Mircea Eliade has put it, "The frenzied berserkir ferocious warriors realized precisely the state of the sacred fury (wut, menos, furor) of the primordial world."

Woden's wolf tail, recognizable on the Danish medallion by its bent-up tip, makes him also a wolf-warrior and shape-shifter.Changing into animal shapes, as it were, had much in common with being overcome by battle madness; this may be how bear- and wolf-warriors, too, came to be seen as wild and woundproof, in a word, berserk.

Whether all ancient naked or half-naked warriors thought themselves woundproof, as did their medieval counterparts, is an open question. The psychological and physiological state of fighting frenzy with its rise of adrenaline levels could foster such a belief, for adrenaline "dilates the airways to improve breathing and narrows blood vessels in the skin and intestine so that an increased flow of blood reaches the muscles, allowing them to cope with the demands of the exercise .... During surgery, it is injected into tissues to reduce bleeding."

Buoyed by this "adrenaline rush," frenzied fighters may well have thought themselves stronger and less vulnerable than others. Vergil says of the Latin Messapus that neither fire nor steel hurt him. Of some Italic wolf-warriors such as the Hirpi Sorani, it was said that they too were not hurt by fire.These are but scattered and vague hints for antiquity. We are on firmer ground in the Nordic middle ages. In the latter period, berserks, as followers of Woden, thought themselves safe from wounds by iron and fire, vulnerable only to wooden clubs. Half-way around the world, the Malabar amoks, discussed below, "stopped neither at fire nor sword."

Whether all half-naked warriors of antiquity roused themselves to fighting madness is unknown. It is likely, though, for Strabo says that all Celts and Germans were battle-mad, and if regular warriors were prone to battle madness, elite warriors in the first line would have raged even more. Battlefield madness was certainly a telling trait of many Indo-European warriors, for they craved the fame and "unwilting glory" praised in the Iliad and in the Rig Veda alike.

To linguists, words and concepts shared by Indo-Europeans suggest that fighting madly was a very old custom that originated perhaps in the fourth millennium B.C. The word for "mad attack," eis-, shared by Vedic, Iranian, and Germanic warriors, makes it likely that the berserk fighting style comes from the time before the dispersal of the Indo-Europeans. Dumézil put it thus:

Aesma [to Zoroastrians] is one of the worst evils, and later, in the eyes of the Mazdaeans, the most frightful demon, who bodies forth the destructive fury of society. Yet it only personifies as something bad a quality that gives the Rig Veda, from the same root, an adjective of praise for the Maruts, the followers of Indra, and for their father, the dreadful Rudra: ismin "impetuous" and no doubt "furious." These words come from the root of Greek (Greek text cannot be converted in ASCII text), Latin ira, and, it seems, from the Old Norse verb eiskra that describes the rage of the wild berserk warriors; hence we meet here a technical term of the Indo-European "warrior bands."

The mind of berserk warriors in the second millennium B.C. was much the same, it seems, as that of medieval warriors two thousand years later. In English, the word "mind," related to "mania," comes from the same root as the Sanskrit manas and Greek menos, both meaning "spirit" as well as "fury." For Homeric warriors menos meant "a temporary urge of one, many, or all bodily or mental organs to do something specific, an urge one can see but not influence." Menos came from above; heroes owed their great deeds to it, and Indo-European heroic poetry sings its praise. From it arose sundry forms of abandoning oneself to new identities such as those of wolf-warriors and berserks.

In Old Norse the word berserk at first meant a bear-shirt warrior. But when bera (bear) became björn, the word berserk was no longer understood as bear-warrior and instead came to mean "bare-shirt." Since those who fought without shirt and armor were reckless madmen, the word berserk took on its modern meaning of mad fighter. The old bear-warrior meaning is still seen, however, in the berserk custom of "biting" one's shield. The custom is known from Snorri Sturlusson's Ynglinga saga, quoted above, but also from the famous twelfth-century chess set found on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Some of the warrior pawns in that set "bite" their shields. Biting rapidly on a shield makes a sound like that of bears clacking their teeth just before they attack. Shield-biting that sounded like threatening bears further deepened the warrior's shape-shifting trance.

Berserks thus embody an abiding spirit in unbroken tradition from Vedic and Homeric times to those of the Icelandic sagas. The history of berserk warriors offers rich religious, cultural, and military detail from about 1300 B.C. to A.D. 1300 and links the bronze, iron, and middle ages, three thousand years of history seldom understood as belonging together.


Once armies became disciplined and regular, as in Mesopotamia, Egypt, classical Greece and imperial Rome, they had to hire reckless attack troops from outside--and had to watch over them. True, Tukulti-Ninurta's epic mentions no Assyrian warriors other than the king's berserks, yet the king must have had with him regular Assyrian soldiers as well, for wherever we meet berserks, we also find regular troops to keep them in check, especially when berserks serve as guards. Thus, as seen on the Abu Symbel relief, Ramses II matched his foreign Shardana guard with a native Egyptian guard. Trajan had with him barefoot berserks as well as regulars (fig. 2), and so did King Harald Fairhair of Norway in A.D. 872.

Greeks and Romans thought of themselves as civilized and of others as "barbarians." The telling characteristic of "barbarism" was wantonness, whether in bragging or whining, over-eating and overdrinking, fighting rashly, or fleeing cravenly. To Plato and Aristotle, gorging on food and drink, an ideal of Indo-European warriors, meant lack of self-control and reasonableness, while the courage of "barbarians" was little more than mindless bragging. Besides, they had little to live for and so they rushed to their death, a view also taken of American Indians by Western anthropologists. Mindlessness, in their view, was also the root of "barbarian" warrior tactics, while Greeks and Romans perfected the art of disciplined fighting.

It was not always thus. Greeks abandoned their inherited Indo-European ways but slowly. In the Iliad we see the first step on this path: Greek battle groups kept quiet, listening for orders, while the Trojans yelled and shouted.During the archaic period most Greeks laid aside their weapons to live peacefully in cities and donned simple dress instead of the gold-gleaming garb of Indo-European warriors.The well-ordered hoplite array of the classical period stood unshaken until the Athenians faced the backward Aetolians who, fighting barefoot, sent the hoplites reeling. When Athenians later needed attack troops, they hired Aetolian or Thracian tribesmen, whose speed, fierceness, and lack of armor mark them as berserklike warriors.

Early Romans, too, still shared Indo-European warrior styles. Italic tribes, kindred to Celts and Germans, brought those styles to the Italian peninsula around 1000 B.C. Over time, Romans lost those ways of fighting, recast their army into an Etruscan-type phalanx, and, as they conquered the world, their warriors became uniformed soldiers. The sundry wolf, minotaur, horse, and boar standards of the legions gave way to the eagle. Dress and weapons became simplified and uniform; soldiers had their hair cut. When attacked, they stood still and kept quiet until given the signal to fight.Their field commanders' worst faults were speed and daring. "Rome," as Dumézil put it, "lost even the memory of those bands of warriors who sought to be more than human, on whom magico-military initiation was supposed to confer supernatural powers, and whose likeness was presented, very much later, by Scandinavia with its Berserkers and by Ireland with its Fianna."

In their early centuries Greek and Romans had shared not only in the mad Indo-European berserk style but also in the mythical wolf-warrior style. Indeed, Rome is famous for having been founded by a wolf warrior with a wolf ancestor, a myth common to much of Europe and Asia, including Southeast Asia, and the Americas. Later, in their classical periods, Greece and Rome replaced these warrior styles with others, based on discipline, which allowed them stunning conquests, in part because marching in step gave soldiers the same bonding of oneness and energy that dancing gave to wild warriors. Yet it would be wrong to claim that western Europe shut itself off from the old styles, for Celts and Germans upheld them.

Greeks and Romans gaped at Celtic and Germanic warriors' madness (vesania, iracundia, furor), their fits of reckless rage, and their mindless rush into battle. They themselves trusted to reason, will, and order. That, at least, was the theory. In practice, though, Romans too had to fight with madness: steadiness alone was not enough. Even classical historians felt that the keenest fighting spirit, found in the troops of Alexander and Caesar, came from fighting "like beasts." Nevertheless, taken as a whole, Dumézil's assessment is right: Rome lost the ancient warrior styles.

In middle and northern Europe, on the other hand, ancient warrior styles and fighting spirit lived on among Sarmatians, Germans, and free island Celts, as Strabo observed with keen insight. With the Cimbri and Teutons in 120 B.C., and again with Ariovistus in 60 B.C., the old styles began to make headway against the somewhat Romanized Celts in Gaul. When Ariovistus and his warriors faced Caesar and his troops, Cassius Dio, for the occasion, puts into Caesar's mouth a speech that repeats many of the Greek and Roman cliches about northern warriors; but Dio's description is not only stereotype, it is also true: these men were indeed tall, naked, reckless, loud, unruly, and rash.

Northern warriors held their own against Rome at the peak of her power, which prompted Tacitus' quip that German freedom was deadlier for Rome than Persian despotism. After moving the Roman frontier to the Rhine, Caesar began to recruit northern warriors. Later emperors enrolled more and more of them. Many bare-chested tribal warriors served in Roman armies in the first century A.D., among them the Germanic auxiliaries whose victory at Mons Graupius in A.D. 83 established Roman rule in Scotland.

Trajan's berserks thus stood in an established tradition, and as fleet-footed attack troops such warriors were of great use to Roman armies. Under him, bare-chested berserks are seen among the emperor's escort for the first time. Thereafter, the role of unprotected, berserk-like warriors in the Roman guard grew steadily. In A.D. 296 the would-be emperor Allectus joined his Frankish guards for battle dressed as they were in shirt or coat only, and without armor.During the conquest of Italy in A.D. 311, Constantine's victorious horseguards wore, in true berserk fashion, no armor, only helmets, while Maxentius' losing guardsmen were burdened with knee-length hauberks. Wearing a helmet but no armor was, as we have seen, a berserk custom from the bronze age to the time of the Icelandic sagas. Constantine's foreign guardsmen paralleled Tukulti-Ninurta's berserks also in that both troops fought with the ruler in their midst.

Emperor Julian, like Allectus before him, wore no cuirass when he charged into the enemy during the ill-fated retreat from Ktesiphon in A.D. 363. Ammianus says that Julian "did not think of his cuirass" (oblitus loricae), which has often been understood to mean that Julian forgot his cuirass in haste or in a fit of absentmindedness. The word oblitus, however, can also mean that Julian purposely put the cuirass out of his mind. Certainly, Julian plunged recklessly into the fray to rouse his followers to fighting madness (iras sequentium excitans).It was a berserk feat by an emperor who, from first to last, relied on wild northern warriors.

Toward the end of the empire, when most Roman elite troops were Germans, Gratian (375-383) allowed his men to shed first their cuirasses, then their helmets. By this time the berserk fighting spirit of mad attack had pervaded the Roman army and changed its tactics. Thus, in A.D. 354 Constantius II won a battle against the Alamanni when three of his officers, Arintheus, Seniauchus, and Bappo, rushed the enemy in disorderly, wild lunges: "non iusto proelio sed discursionibus."Northern freedom, daring, and yearning to outdo other warriors, had replaced Roman order and drill; heroic single combat had replaced disciplined movement of units. The berserk spirit held the field.

In the battle at Adrianople in A.D. 378 this undisciplined spirit of attack sealed the fate of Emperor Valens and the Western empire. Rome lost the battle because its army was no longer Roman but consisted mainly of tribal warriors imbued with the spirit of reckless attack rather than Roman discipline. At Adrianople, these warriors charged, against orders and at the wrong time, thereby upsetting the emperor's battle plan. When they fell back--also a Germanic custom, befitting more lightly armed tribal troops--they brought on the great rout, a fact historians have overlooked, but nevertheless the proximate cause for the fall of the Roman empire. Berserks may have helped Assyria a great deal, for after Tukulti-Ninurta Assyria rose meteorlike in the wars of the time. Berserks likewise proved useful to Rome for a long time, as they did under Trajan. However, though berserks fought fearlessly, one needed to control their stormy unruliness. Tukulti-Ninurta and Trajan had their berserks well in hand, and Julian in A.D. 363 still had the power to hold back teeth-gnashing warriors until the right moment. Valens did not, and so he failed.


Having outlined the history of Indo-European berserks, we may now look for mad warriors elsewhere in world history. Fighting madness, individual and in groups, is in the nature of mankind and has often been harnessed for military purposes; witness, for example, the Aztec quachic warriors as described by Manuel Lucena Salmoral:

The [Aztec] army was centered around those veterans or professional soldiers called the quachic, who had vowed never to retreat in battle and always took up the most dangerous positions in combat. They were considered mad and likely to live short lives, though they enjoyed certain privileges, such as being allowed to dance with the courtesans at night in the cuicalli or house of song. Sahagún wrote: "They were called quaquachictin, which is the name for deranged albeit valiant men in war... also otomi otlaotzonxintin which means 'otomis shorn and reckless.'"... They were great slaughterers but held to be incapable of taking command.

As stalwarts marked by their unusual hairstyle, the quachic neatly match longhaired Indo-European warriors as well as the shorn Malabar amoks, to whom we will turn below. The quachics' madness very likely refers to their fighting in a trance-like state, which would explain why they did not reach positions of command. Their dances at night in the "House of Song" may have been not so much sexual privilege as a form of "keeping together in time," a military exercise that brings about an intense feeling of oneness and energy as well as a trance that could easily lead to fighting madness. Aztecs danced before battle, as a Spanish eyewitness reports:

That night more than a thousand knights got together in the temple, with great loud sounds of drums, shrill trumpets, comets and notched bones .... They danced nude.., in a circle, holding their hands, in rows and keeping time to the tune of the musicians and singers.

Dancing "naked" may have strengthened their frenzy, but they did not scorn the quilted cotton armor that most Aztec elite warriors wore. Nor do we know whether they blustered and bragged, or provoked their enemies by other shows of daring. Nevertheless, in their dancing frenzy and fighting madness, as well as in their decisive role in battle and resulting high status, the quachics closely resemble Indo-European berserks.

The similarities between quachics and berserks could be due to shared historical origins--there was contact between Eurasia and America across the Bering Sea, and Aztec wolf warriors look much like Indo-European wolf warriors. If not stemming from contact, such similarities must be due to human traits common to the structure and functioning of all warrior societies. The more willing a warrior is to attack recklessly, the more useful he may be in battle; hence warrior societies often fostered and rewarded such behavior, granting high rank to the reckless. To be reckless, a warrior had to be mad in some way, whether by drug, oath, belief, dance, or magic. And to strike fear into the heart of the enemy, he had to flaunt his recklessness by insignia, helmet, hairstyle, and dress, or lack thereof. Such structures and functions no doubt underpinned Indo-European berserkdom as well: without them it would not have abided so long and spread so far.

Luckily we know much about such warriors from the no-retreat societies of the North American Plains Indians. Among the Arapaho, for example, the leader and his four associates in the Dog Dance pledged never to retreat. "They went into battle with scarves trailing which at the beginning of the action they staked to the ground so that they could not flee. Even worse was the plight of the Oglala Dakota Brave Hearts, whose no-flight men went into battle with such a vow but armed only with rattles or deer dew-claws tipped with iron. With these inadequate weapons they rushed the enemy and tried to stab them before they could draw the bow." Tying themselves to these handicaps, they were as recklessly brave as berserks. They also fought nearly naked and thus differ from berserks only in that perhaps they bragged less during the fight.

The worldwide character of these warrior societies and their role in battle makes it hard to determine whether the reckless fighting style in India is of Indo-European origin or arose independently. In 1662, Johan Nieuhof, serving in the Dutch East India Company, described the amoks he observed on the Malabar coast as an elite troop among the Nayro warrior caste:

Tho' the Nayros in general are very good soldiers, yet there is a certain kind among them called Amokos, who are esteemed above all the rest, being a company of stout, bold, and desperate bravadoes. They oblige themselves by most direful imprecations against themselves and their families, calling heaven to witness, that they will revenge certain injuries done to their friends or patrons, which they certainly pursue with so much intrepidity, that they stop neither at fire nor sword to take vengeance of the death of their master, but like mad men run upon the point of their enemies swords, which makes them be generally dreaded by all and makes them to be in great esteem with their kings, who are accounted more potent, the greater the number they entertain of those Amokos .... Persons of the chiefest rank, if they will be admitted in the number of the Nayros, must have the king's peculiar leave for it, and are afterwards distinguish'd by a gold ring they wear on the right arm.

If one judges by their Sanskrit name, related to Greek aner, "man," and Roman Nero,the hairs ("heroes") were warriors of Indo-European tradition. Indeed, they share many customs with Indo-European elite warriors, such as calling down "dire imprecations" upon themselves and their families if they are not faithful to the death, wearing golden armbands,and determining, by their number, their leader's prestige. The amoks also shared with Indo-European berserklike troops revenge for their leader as a cause for their reckless attacks: at the murder of Caligula in A.D. 41, the German bodyguard went berserk to avenge the murder of their prince. In defeat, Germanic troops often stayed on the battlefield to avenge their fallen; indeed, to avenge a fallen leader or fellow warrior was one of the main duties of Anglo-Saxon warbands.

More specifically berserk is the amoks' mad run at the blades of the enemy, heedless of fire or sword. Another berserk trait is flaunting their madness by their haircut (on the eve of attack they shaved head, face, and eyebrows), and always holding their weapons drawn in their hands--like "loaded guns," says Álvaro Velho who in 1498 came with Vasco da Gama to Calecut. Like Vedic warriors, nairs (and hence amoks) furthermore shared with Nordic berserks the custom of helping themselves to other men's women and goods: neither ruler nor community kept them from doing so since they needed such men for war, much as found in Plato's Republic that would grant sexual privileges to the best fighters, or like late-Roman emperors who granted such rights to their Germanic guards.

All of this, however, is not enough to prove that the fighting styles of the Malabar amoks and the Indo-European berserks share a common origin. While amok warriors were every bit as brave and madly reckless as berserks, they seem not to have thrown off armor or garments in sight of the enemy, for they strutted about barechested as a matter of course. This robs us of an essential criterion for whether the amoks stand in the berserk tradition. Wild bands of Indo-European Vedic warriors are known, but to claim a direct historical relation between them and the Malabar amoks, one would have to find post-Vedic reckless Indian warbands between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1500. This seems possible, for the history of warfare in ancient and medieval India has been little studied, and is still largely unknown. Until it is better known, the origin of the Malabar and Malay amoks remains obscure and a promising subject for research.

The title "amok" is of little help in tracing the origin of these Malabar warriors. It may come from the Sanskrit amogha (unfailing), as in the warrior name Amogha-Vikrama (unfailing valor) and may have meant "unfailing avenger." But since among Malays amok troops were famous, the Malabar amoks may have drawn their title from them, that is, from the Austronesian word amok or hamok for "fierce attacker." If so, the word, and perhaps parts of the custom itself, were brought to the Malabar coast during early Malabar-Malay contact or by the Portuguese from Malacca.

Since warrior customs endured for thousands of years, one may even ponder a Paleo-Eurasian-American historical relationship that would include North American no-retreat societies as well as Malay amok warriors of Southeast Asia, whose Austronesian forebears came to Indonesia from China by way of Taiwan and the Philippines. Of all this we cannot be certain, but whether or not these traditions arose independently of each other, they lend themselves well to comparative studies that widen our understanding of mad warriors and their societies worldwide.


Literary and archaeological sources allow us to trace Indo-European berserks from the second millennium B.C. to the second millennium A.D., from bronze age epics to Icelandic sagas, and from West Asia to North America. We can follow their peculiar customs such as frenzied dancing and naked fighting, and probe into their ideals of reckless bravery.

Indo-European history from the iron age to the middle ages thus gains new details and perspectives. The rich evidence for berserks points to an origin--or a presence--of this warrior style in Proto-Indo-European times. However, reckless warriors like Aztec quachics and Malabar amoks occur in many other cultures as well, which holds great promise for a worldwide comparative and historical study, here only sketched and yet to be undertaken.

The berserks' role in battle greatly changed over the centuries. In the haphazard hand-to-hand fighting at the end of the bronze age, mad attackers achieved much, but later they fared badly against disciplined troops, above all those with archers in their ranks, such as the Romans or the Norman English. Berserk fighting survived longest in small-troop or single combat roles such as those described in medieval Scandinavian sources. Against modem weaponry, berserk attacks stand no chance. In World War II, for example, gallant Japanese banzai charges gained nothing.

Nevertheless, the thought of a berserk attack still arouses in us feelings of empathy. That helps us understand the history of this warrior style and the mindset that gave rise to it. It is not altogether true that, as men, ancient warriors elude us--in understanding berserks we can bridge the gap. As Northrop Frye said: "Genuine joy is in those rare moments when you feel that although we know in part, we are also part of what we know."

Michael P. Speidel


Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Excellence of Ancient Word: Druid Rhetorics from Ancient Irish Tales



While the ancient Irish tales abound with warriors and kings (not to forget Queen Medbh!), another figure at almost every turn emerges to out- rank them. Usually referred to as the “druid”, this person upon closer inspection is seen to be not any stereotypical wizard with his potions and paraphernalia, but a poet who, instead of having to memorize rote “secret spells”, produced spontaneous verse often in a deliberately archaic diction. A lengthy essay on the philosophy and practise of Irish druids is beyond the scope of this book, but given the misrepresentation of druids in the popular media, a few summary remarks are in order.

In the ancient Irish tales Irish druids are frequently depicted in detail. They bare no resemblance at all to the white-robed oak- worshippers of Julius Caesar. Irish druids wore, not white hooded robes, but rainbow capes, often feathered tunics and head-dresses (note, in the kast roscin this collection, how the druids mock the monks’ hooded robes!). The important trees were rowan, yew, and hazel, and mistletoe was not found in ancient Ireland. While they occasionally carried magic wands and stones, in the far great majority of cases druids’ only magic “tool” was their voices. They were, emphatically, not “pagan priests” and most of what we think of as priestly functions fell to the local king or tribal chief. They were sages, advisors, “wizards” - their closest modern equivalents would be scholars sometimes called upon to be government advisors, although in many cases they were unaffiliated with the rulers and conducted what we nowadays would call “private practice”.

But over all else, they were “poets”. The word is placed in quotes because above all other cultures and societies in the history of the world, ancient Ireland accorded poets what can only be termed nearly divine rank. Poets paid no taxes and were exempt from military service. They had a freedom of movement to cross political borders denied even kings, and wherever they traveled they were entitled to the best of available lodging. And woe to anyone who harmed, or even offended a poet! One can do no better than simply cite the story of Cairbre whose satire is included in the present collection: a wandering poet visits Tara in the days when the gods themselves ruled there, and is denied what he considers suitable food and a fine enough bed. The next morning he enters the throne room at Tara (which was, by the way, named not after the king but called “Réalta na bhFile”, “Star of the Poets”!), and recites five spare lines of verse, whereby the King of the Gods himself is toppled from his throne. In a second example, also included here, Ireland herself is conjured up, out of the magic mists, by a “poem”. (The word “rosc”, plural “roscanna”, is a rhetorical, usually magical, chant, and this word will be used throughout this book to distinguish a “poem” that can topple gods or conjure whole nations from the modern less potent variety.)

One of the purposes of the present collection is to make the archaic roscanna more readily available to the modern reader, in both English and Irish. With this in mind, and in contrast to many “scholarly editions”, the orthography has been modernized, within the limits of phonetic accuracy, i.e., “ben” has been rendered as “bean” because the former is simply the older orthography for the latter, and only the latter will be recognizable by the modern Irish reader; however, “túatha” has been left in the older form and not rendered as “tuatha” because the difference between the two forms is not one of spelling, but basically of pronunciation (”too-uh-thuh” versus “tueh-heh”). Without a long thesis on Old Irish phonetics, this will go some way toward making the roscanna readable by persons who know Modern Irish, provided they remember that aspirated medial consonants are pronounced (e.g. “Teamhair” is said as two syllables). In a few cases has out-right modernization been employed (e.g. “cen” is given as “gan”). Such “normalization” of spelling is not, admittedly, by any means standard practice, but no less a respected scholar than Myles Dillon (in his Stories from the Acallam, DIAS 1970) argued for its use. However, much of the archaic grammar has been retained, such as inbed initial object pronouns prefixed to verbs and dative plurals in “-ibh” because in such cases to give the modern rendering would completely destroy the phrasing and scan of the lines.

Retaining the archaic grammatic forms where they occur also serves the important purpose of high-lighting the heady “mixture” of language in the originals, where, for example, the first person singular of verbs may end in both “-u” and “-im” within the same rosc. Vocabulary is likewise left largely archaic (e.g. “fria” instead of the modern “leis”) since these often directly effect the sound-scheme and “poetic diction” of the original (while the distance between forms here is rather greater, no one attempts to put Shakespeare into “modern grammar” and much of his greatest poetry would be destroyed by the attempt). In other cases, there is only the archaic term available (e.g. “féath fiath” or “magic mists which confer invisibility”).

One additional major editorial decision has been made. Archaic Irish texts are notorious for interpolations (in keeping with the abundance of puns encountered in the roscanna, one might quip they suffer a great deal of “monkey-ing” and “monk-eye-ing”!). Thus an otherwise perfectly Irish tale will suddenly digress into asides on Alexander the Great, the Siege of Troy, or Biblical events. These are all late additions. In the present book, whose concern is not the manuscripts per se, but the actual roscanna themselves, these corruptions, where obvious, have been edited out in an attempt to restore the respective roscanna to their original forms. In most cases the additions are indeed obvious (sometimes they are even directly in Latin). A good example is the rosc from Forbuis Druim Damhghaire beginning “O God of druids…”. This rosc was uttered by a pagan wizard several centuries before Saint Patrick was born yet suddenly bursts into “O Patrick, your blood… victory of the apostles”. Even allowing for “otherworldly time” and a good deal of magical precognition, it is too much to credit that a druid would have called upon an as of yet unborn Christian saint in one of his magic incantations.

The overly pedantic too easily forget, there is no “true” text (not without a time machine), only the re-copying of a re-copying of the setting down (in a usually idiomatic spelling in an alphabet system not really suitable), often in abbreviated form, of an oral recitation itself the re-telling of a re-telling. In addition, and of even greater importance is the fact that the roscanna delight in complicated puns, and this itself makes any attempt to establish a single transcription not only impossible but inherently antagonistic to what is intended.

For example, in rosc in Forbuis Druim Damghaire we find the “text” gives “dris agarbh imtenn”. This might be reconstructed as “dris a garbh imtéinn” (”it is a rough thornbush I have gone round”, perhaps referring to some magic ritual), or “dris a garbh im’ thein” (”a rough thorn bush in my fire”, a magic fire figuring in the narrative), or “dris a garbh agaibh im’ teann” (”a thornbush they have in my strength”). In the same rosc, one finds text “draic thairpech” where the “p” is probably a miscopy for “b”, giving either “draic thairbeach” (bullish dragon) or “draic tháir beach” (dragon of an insult like bees), both of which fit the context. Similarly in another rosc in the same story, the text gives “leic ar gcul in caemmacamh” which could be either “leic ar a gcúl a chaem-mhacamh” (”stones on their backs made smooth” meaning that there are no recently carved ogham stones, i.e. no warriors have been defeated for a long time), or “leic, ár gcul an caemh-macamh” (”stones”, this word appending to the preceding “harsh hills”, then “a slaughter of chariots is the beauty of youth”) where the “an” with an “n” provides the pun. The differences between lentated and non-lentated consonants (”c” versus “ch”, etc.) and between long and short vowels is not, per se, preclusive of such puns. A similar situation can be seen in English where it is quite acceptable, for the sake of “poetic diction”, to sing the word “again”, usually pronounced “a-ghin”, as “a-gayn” when one wishes to rhyme it with a word like “rain”. In many cases such alternation is not even needed: one rosc ends with text “ir im a toctad” which can be either “irim a thochtadh” (I bestow its silence) or “iri mo thochtadh” (you bestow my silence). Given the general tendency in Irish pronunciation to attach a final consonant in one word to a initial vowel of a following word, and to drop the vowel in “mo” when it follows prepositions such as “le” or “i”, these two utterances could even be pronounced the same!

It should be stressed that the roscanna themselves were certainly originally intended to be obscure, full of puns, and often were set in deliberately “pseudo-archaic” forms intermixed with more modern idioms. They were, after all, not public proclamations but “magic”, spells and prophecy, and like all such were conceived to draw mystic power from having multiple meanings and “ancient obscure diction”. (If the English reads as artificially “stilted”, the English reader should feel reassured that the Irish also reads that way!).

This multi-faceted aspect of the language of roscanna has the same insistence on ambiguity which one finds in ancient Irish art wherein a given figure is not merely a spiral or a face or an animal or a leaf, but is all of them at once in an exquisite gestalt.

Any attempt to find a single “true” version may be admirable by modern scientific standards but such an approach is irreconcilably alien to the minds which originally produced the roscanna, and to the culture which they describe. For an equivalent modern example of the literary “mind-set” of the druidic roscanna, one need look no further than the greatest (and most “non-grammatical” masterpiece of Anglo-Irish literature - “Finnigans Wake”, whose title itself only seems to lack an apostrophe if one ignores the all important point that this lack is intentional and calls our attention to the fact that the “funeral ritual of Finnigan” is itself a pun (turning on a wayward “s”) on “Fionn Again Wakes”.

Most of the roscanna included in the present work have never been translated before. The present author is first a poet, and second a scholar (a distinction that the ancient Irish might not have accepted) and the texts have been studied and the poems translated with this in mind (e.g. “damh” has been translated by some scholars as “ox” but it also means “stag” - as the modern poet Michael Hartnett has so translated it. When one encounters a druid riding in a chariot pulled by “damha”, these are hardly oxen but must be shamanic stags; when the word is found modified by the adjectives “fierce, divinely mad” etc, such a beast amy be an ox to the lexicographer, but between the two, to the poet could be only ever a stag. The roscanna are poetry before they are grammar and vocabulary, and must correctly be approached as such.

In the translations words marked with an “*” refer to the glossary.

An index to the persons mentioned in the roscanna follow that.

1. Fáistine Teachta dTúath Dé Danann
(In the First Battle of Moy Tuireadh, the Firbolg druids interpret a dream of their king to prophesize the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann.)

Scéal duibh,
óig dar mhuir,
mile laoch líonfas ler,
barca breaga bruigfidid,
bása uile aisnedid,
áes cach dána dícheadal,
siabra dothrú saibscince,
séanfaid tráigte sithchura,
cacha treasa maidfidid.

1. The Arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann

A tale for you,
youths across ocean,
a thousand heros will fill (web) the sea,
speckled* (magic) ships will moor here,
all death declared.
A folk each of magic incantations,
a bad doom will strike false science,
good portents will ebb peaceful bindings,
all contention will be routed.

2. Aoir le Cairbre ar Bhreas
( At the beginning of The Second Battle of Moy Tuireadh, a traveling poet, Cairbre, visits the court of Bress, king of the gods, and is denied due hospitality. The next morning Cairbre rises and topples Bress from his throne with this poem. The tale is thus not only the primary myth of the duty of hospitality, but the basic myth of the power of poets.)

Gan cholt for criabh ceireine
gan geart fearbú fora n-asad aithrinni
gan adhbhai fhir iar ndrúbaí díasoirchí
gan díl daimhe reisse ropsain Breisse
Ní fil a mhaín trá Breisse

2. Cairbre’s Satire on king Bress

Without food quick on a platter
without fresh milk for a calf to grow on
without lodging for a man when night prevails
without sweetness for men of art - such is (the like) of Bress
No longer is prosperity Bress’s.

3. Fáistine Fiagoil
(The Tuatha Dé Danann Figol prophecizes the battle and its result)

Fíorfidhir níth
na bóta trí a ágh
Tithreas muir nionghlas,
nimh nád beo,
bró gall.
Bruifidh áirithe.
Dófidh Lug Lámhfhada.
Brisfidh béimeanna úathmhara Ogma ór ró-dhearg
dó íarar beo rig.
Soefidher cíosaí,
nófidher beathaí,
tiocfidher aireamh iotha,
maíghfidhir bliocht túatha.
Beidh saor gach ina flaith.
Maígh gan mairc airge.
Beidh beo as.
Beidh saor cách ní ba daor nech
A Núadha, fotichartfidh
de rinn níth,
agus fíorfidher níth.

3. Figol’s Prophecy

Battle will be verified and portended
of flame through(out) its contest of valour.
An ash-tree* grey sea has come to (us),
a poison not alive,
a millstone (crowd) of foreigners.
Surety (certainty) will break (over-turn).
Lugh of the Long-Arm will burn (rage).
Terrible blows of Ogma golden very red will break
for that demanding (the) life of kings.
tribute-taxes will be turned (transformed),
(the story of) lives will be celebrated,
the ploughman(ship) of grain will (be made to) come.
the milk of the tribe will be declared.
Be freemen each in his sovereignty.
Declare (it) without a goal of plunder.
Hither (an advantage)!
Be there life from it.
Be (they) freemen each of them not a slaves of (other) persons,
O Nuada, (you) will thrust them away by a spear-tip of battle,
and battle will be verified and portended.

4. Corrghuíneacht Lugha
(Lugh circles his own hosts. on one leg, with one eye closed, one hand behind his back (a form of ritual known as “corrguíneacht” or “crane- prayer”) and chants this rosc. (Corrguíneacht is usually associated with cursing, but in this case Lugh uses it instead as a blessing for his own troops’ victory).

Ár a thraí cath co-mhart ann.
Isin cath iar ngall ro bhris comhlonna
for sléacht slúaigh. Silster ria slúaghaibh
Síabraí, íath fir fomnaí,
cuifí ciathaí, fir gan rogain.
Léantar gala. Fordám aisid,
fordám cloisid, forandíchráighid.
fir duibh. Béic finn nointam!
Fó Fó Fé Fé Clé a m’áinsí!
Noífit mann íar néalscoth
trí a treanncheardtaibh druag
Ním’ chreadhbhadh catha fri críocha
Nísitmeata m’itge for neamairches
for lúachair loisces.
mart alt shuides, mart orainn trogais.
An comair sídh fri gach nae
go comair Ogma sáchu
go comair neamh agus talamh agus muir
go comair grian agus gealach agus réaltaí.
Dreim niadh mo dhream-se dóoibh
Mo slúagh-sa slúagh mór muireach
mochtsáileach bruithe neartóireach
ro gheanaius agus tocraí atá for róe cath.
Co-mhart a thraí. ár a thraí.

4. Lugh’s Crane Magic

Havoc its strain of battles shared death there.
In this a battle after foreigners broke (our) shared settlement
by destruction of it. They will be defeated by hosts.
O Fairy-hosts, land of men on guard,
birds of prey rain down (on them), men without choice.
Be hindered (the) foreigners. Another (the other) company fears,
another company listens, they are very terribly in torment,
dark (sad) men (are they). Roaring brightly ninefold* are we!
Hurrah and Woe! Leftward*! O you my beautiful ones!
Sacred will be the sustenance after cloud and flowers
through its powerful skills of wizards.
My battle will not dwindle until (its) end.
Not cowardly my request with (their) encountering me
with a land of rushes laid waste by fire
death’s form established, death on us given birth.
Before (the presence of) the Sídhe with each of them,
before Ogma I satisfy,
before the sky and the earth and the sea*,
before the sun and the moon and the stars*.
O Band of warriors my band here to you
My hosts here of great hosts sea-full
(of) mighty sea-spray (boiling) smelted golden powerful,
conceived, may it be sought upon the field of battle.
Joint death its strain. Havoc its strain.

5. In Dáil n-Astadha
(The Tuatha Dé Danann victorious over the Fomor, Lugh proclaims the peace. The lines on milking refers to the terms of the peace including that the Fomor supply their knowledge of dairy science.)

Gébaid foss fionnghrinne
Duine domhain,
toirce bad cach toirel
ár mbláthaibh.
Tiocfait sceo mblicht.
Mhórad an bhearadh
ar m’easaibh
m ‘arcainibh darach
i gcribchídhiu.
Cealtar brón!
Beartar failte feara fuim.
Techet grian gléasaibh
Sintar fir fleitighibh.
fo chomh-fhearga cridiu.
Cealait Fomoire farraige fionn.v Cas ró-séat!
Beatha Banba!
&Eacht;acht a guidí eachtrann
agus suthaine fearaibh,
fionnchluiche forbarseadh
ó indiu go brách.
Bíodh sídh ar Fomoire agus Éire!

5. The Convocation of the Establishment

It is established steadfast bright and accurate
(this) aftermath (of the battle).
O people of the world,
it has come that all has been made manifest
to our flowering ones.
Understanding of milkings will come.
Made great are those (who were) reduced
by my judgement/esteem
(by) my singing chants of oaks*
to (those of) youthful feats of riding
in quick (soon over) weeping.
Vanish sorrow!
Joy/welcome is bound on the men below me.
The sun* gives home to (these) arrangements
to those cherished ones who are free.
Go forth O men to the banquet-halls.
I establish the frame-work of this home
(this) binding establishment
concerning (our) mutual angers in (the) heart.
The Fomors of the bright sea do vanish.
O turn great path/way!
Life to Ireland!
Destruction to foreign petitions/chants
and long-life to men,
bright games-playing be prosperous,
from today forever
be there peace between Fomor and Ireland!

6. Fáistine leis an Mórrígu
(After the battle the Morrigu relates two alternate prophecies. the text of the second about the world’s degradation (not is destruction) is incomplete, but the first, of prosperity, runs:)

Sídh go neimh
neimh go domhan
domhan fo neimh
neart i gcách
án forlán
lán do mil
míd go sáith
sam i ngram
gae for sciath
sciath for dúnadh
dúnadh lonngharg
fód di uí
ros forbiur beanna
abú airbí imeachta
meas for chrannaibh
craobh do scís
scís do ás
saith do mhac
mac formhúin
muinréal tairbh
tarbh di arcain
odhbh do crann
crann do thine
tine a n-áil
ail a n-úir
uích a mbuaibh
Boinn a mbrú
brú le feabh faid
ásghlas iar earccah
foghamar forasit eacha
iall do tír
tír go trácht le feabh ráidh
bíodh rúad rossaibh síoraibh ríochmhór
sídh go neimh
bíodh síornoí.

6. Morrigu’s Prophecy

Peace to (as high as) the sky
sky to the earth
earth beneath sky
strength in everyone
a cup very full
a fullness of honey
honour enough
summer in winter
spear supported by shield
shields supported by forts
forts fierce eager for battle
“sod” (fleece) from sheep
woods grown with antler-tips (full of stags*)
forever destructions have departed
mast (nuts) on trees
a branch drooping-down
drooping from growth
wealth for a son
a son very learned
neck of bull (in yoke)
a bull from a song
knots in woods (i.e. scrap-wood)
wood for a fire
fire as wanted
palisades new and bright
salmon* their victory
the Boyne (i.e. Newgrange) their hostel
hostel with an excellence of length (size)
blue (new) growth after spring
(in) autumn horses increase
the land held secure
land recounted with excellence of word
Be might to the eternal much excellent woods
peace to (as high as the) sky
be (this) nine times eternal


Amhairghin, or Amergin as usually spelt in English, was one of the leaders of the “Men of Míl”, the first human arrivals in Ireland who battled the Tuatha Dé Danann or “gods” for posession of the island.

The piece here entitled Amergin’s Challenge certainly deserves to be one of the most famous of all Irish poems, for it is the first poem, according to legend, uttered by a mortal in Ireland, proclaimed by Amergin as he first set his foot on the beach. Unfortunately, the existing texts are all corrupt, greatly open to varied interpretation none of which agree among themselves! However, a basic core can be discerned - e.g. all copies mention such elements as wind, wave, stag, boar, etc and begin with statements of “I am” and go on to rhetorically ask “who (except I)?” The “poem” has sometime been claimed to be a pantheistic hymn but is in fact no such thing. It is clear from the context of the narrative that it is a self-proclamation by Amergin of superior port-hood and a challenge to the Tuatha Dé Danann. Given the extreme unreliability of the texts and the contention about them, in this one case the present author has taken a rather great liberty in his attempted to reconstruct it in a coherent form. This amounts to yet again another version but one which retains the elements and diction central to the rosc’s obvious intent.

The second piece is equally impressive in context. The Tuatha Dé Danann attempt to stop mortals from landing by hiding Ireland behind “druidic mist” and Amergin’s second rosc amounts to nothing less than a summoning invocation of Ireland itself out from behind the magic mists. Fortunately for Ireland, the texts of this poem are a great deal clearer and in greater agreement with each other than those of the first poem!

The third piece by Amergin here is often printed, but this edition differs considerably. “En” is usually taken for “én”, thus “coursing birds, flashing bright”, but the RIA Dictionary clearly indicates that “en” (without the long vowel) can mean water. Also, the salmon are here the size of whales, rather than the two being separate animals.

Thus Amergin should, by the way, not be confused with the totally different poet of the same name who figures in the Ulster Cycle. The name Amhairghin means “Birth of Song”.

7. Duan Amhairghine

Am gáeth tar na bhfarraige
Am tuile os chinn maighe
Am dord na daíthbhe
Am damh seacht mbeann
Am drúchtín rotuí ó ngréin
Am an fráich torc
Am seabhac a néad i n-aill
Am ard filidheachta
Am álaine bhláithibh
Am an t-eo fis
Cía an crann agus an theine ag tuitim faire
Cía an dhíamhairina cloch neamh shnaidhite
Am an ríáin gach uile choirceoige
Am an theine far gach uile chnoic
Am an scíath far gach uile chinn
Am an sleagh catha
Am nómá tonnag sírthintaghaív Am úagh gach uile dhóich dhíamaíní
Cía fios aige conara na gréine agus linn na éisce
Cía tionól na rinn aige, ceangladh na farraige,
cor i n-eagar na harda, na haibhne, na túatha.

7. Amergin’s Challenge

I am a wind across the sea
I am a flood across the plain
I am the roar of the tides
I am a stag* of seven (pair) tines
I am a dewdrop let fall by the sun
I am the fierceness of boars*
I am a hawk, my nest on a cliff
I am a height of poetry (magical skill)
I am the most beautiful among flowers
I am the salmon* of wisdom
Who (but I) is both the tree and the lightning strikes it
Who is the dark secret of the dolmen not yet hewn
I am the queen of every hive
I am the fire on every hill
I am the shield over every head
I am the spear of battle
I am the ninth* wave of eternal return
I am the grave of every vain hope
Who knows the path of the sun, the periods of the moon
Who gathers the divisions, enthralls the sea,
sets in order the mountains. the rivers, the peoples

8. Toghairm na hÉireann

Áiliu íath nÉireann
éarmach muir mothach
mothach sliabh screatach
screatach coill citheach
citheach ab eascach
eascach loch linnmhar
linnmhar tor tiopra
tiopra túath óenach
óemach ríg Teamhrach
Teamhair tor túathach
túathach mac Mhíleadh
Míleadh long libearn
libearn ar nÉirinn
Éireann ard díglas
dícheatal ro gáeth
ro gáeth bán Bhreise
Breise bán buaigne
Bé adhbhul Ériu
Érimon ar dtús
Ir, Éber, áileas
áiliu íath nÉireann

8. Amergin’s Invocation of Ireland

I request the land of Ireland (to come forth)
coursed is the wild sea
wild the crying mountains
crying the generous woods
generous in showers (rain/waterfalls)
showers lakes and vast pools
vast pools hosts of well-springs
well-springs of tribes in assembly
assembly of kings of Tara
Tara host of tribes
tribes of the sons of Mil
Mil of boats and ships
ships come to Ireland
Ireland high terribly blue
an incantation on the (same) wind
(which was the) wind empty of Bres
Bres of an empty cup
Ireland be mighty
Ermon at the beginning
Ir, Eber, requested
(now it is) I (who) request the land of Ireland!

9. Bríocht Baile Fharraige

Íascach muir,
mothach tír,
tomaidhm n-éisc,
íasc fo thoinn
i reathaibh eana
casar fionn
cétaibh íach
leathain míol,
portach lag
tomaidhm n-éisc,
íascach muir.

9. Amergin’s Bounty of the Ocean

Fishful the ocean,
prolific in bounty the land,
an explosion of fish,
fish beneath wave
in currents of water
flashing brightly,
(from) hundredfolds of salmon
(which are) the size of whales,
song of a harbour of fames,
an explosion of fish,
fishful the sea.


Forbuis Druim Damhghaire (”The Siege of the Ridge if the Stag’s Cry”) from the Book of Lismore is a fine source of druidic roscanna of a variety of types. Most of these had never been translated before the present author’s editions (qv Cainteanna na Luise No.19 and CnL SS-6, 1988). Sjoestedt (Revue Celtique 43-44) edited many, but not all, of the rhetorics without translation, but her work leaves, unfortunately, a great deal to be desired, and it is not closely followed here. Three examples can be given: 1) Sjoestedt gives “an-ulc”. This has no meaning, but in older Irish longhand script “c” and “t” are very similar and can easily be confused. Taking the phrase as “a n-ólt” (”their drink”) fits both the rest of the sentence and the context of the rosc. 2) Her “fasda critre ure” makes no sense, but “fásta crithre uise”, reading “s” for “r” (again two very similar letters in old Irish script) renders “grown from a humble spark”. Since a magical fire is being discussed at this point in the narrative this exactly fits the context. 3) Sjoestedt gives “damh cuana coilgdirech. gu mbeannuibh banarcait”. Allowing for the vagaries of Irish manuscript tradition, such as the omission of vowel lengths and vowel orthographic substitution, this readily can be rendered as “damh cuana coilgdireach. go (m)beannaibh banarcait”. This gives something like “Stag of dog-pack sharp as swords. To antler-points white silver”. One must, obviously drop the period, but moreover “cuana” is obviously in error and substituting “crúba” a word at least within the wide margins of error over repeated recopyings, one gets the quite sensible “stag, hooves sharp as swords to antler-points white-silver”.

The narrative of Forbuis Druim Damhghaire relates the refusal of Munster to pay a double cattle tribute to Cormac, high-king of Ireland, the subsequent invasion of Munster by Cormac with a large retinue of royal court druids and other magical allies, and the magical battle engaged against them in defence of Munster by the independent druid Mogh Ruith and his assistants. While a detailing of the development of druidism in Ireland is beyond the scope of the present book, it must be noted that the “free-lancers” easily win against the combined magic of all of the royal retainers, and that this has important implications. In the earliest sagas, powerful druids are attached to royal courts. In later tales, this is emphatically not the case and in a story set sometime before FDD, Tara itself must be saved from magical attack by the semi-outsider Fionn when the royal wizards prove impotent. In FDD, set at a yet later date, we have progressed from the “establishment” druids not merely needing to be helped by an outsider but being soundly defeated, en masse, by a “free-lancer”. Druidism is depicted as being “alive and well” but most definitely not among the sycophants at court. By the time that St.Patrick defeated the court-druids, all the “real” druids may have been “off in the woods” cheering the down-fall of the royal toadies!).

10. Suantraí d’Ardrí
(Before leaving for battle, the high king of Ireland, Cormac, is put to sleep with a magical lullaby by his court druid.)

Ard a thraí, a Chormaic chaoimh,
codail cleití.
Cíd ní fuil art’naimhdiú.
Buan t’ainm ós Éirinn.
Éirigh sunn soeid toei
frium, agus rom’ chiall.
Cia cath an dúisiú deogha suain
saigsias duidsiamh dínn,
dorcha docheat conchuadas.
Cia cath a bhaí-sin a bhean.
A Bharrfhinn, Bhlátha, Bháirce,
bí chaoimh do chomhaise.
Chuige an odh cudnód,
cuairt coímgí
a Chormaic, cuir díot do shuan.
Ard a thraí, a Chormaic.

10. A Lullaby for the High-King

High its strain, O Cormac.
Sleep as though in downy feathers.
Cry no blood on your enmity.
Enduring your name above Ireland.
Arise here, changed, silent
by means of me and my intelligence.
Although battle be the waking from the draught of sleep,
attained will be what I establish between us,
obscured the discord jointly come to us,
although battle be its shattering.
O Fair Pinnacle, Flowery One, Stronghold (Ship),
be you most precious among (your) contemporaries
(a pledge to his people’s commonweal).
Toward that, this melody of guardings,
a circle of safe-keepings (around you).
O Cormac, bind yourself to your sleep,
high its strain, O Cormac.

11. Rosc Catha le Mogh Ruithe ag Tosú

Cingthe, a Cheannmahair choscurigh,
do-chódh catha Chorb
go ro soeiter sealg
seanbhán-sidhe dearg
is delbh da éis
inne go dtaí gheall.
Go ro-dhluidhí drong
sléachta mo roisc rindamn
cía ro bat é is beacht.
Do bhear catha coilt
gan neimhe gan neart
Niamhtar mo dhaimh dhamhraighi
go lúath gáeithí
im’ ghort do Chormac mac Airt.
Éarnfaidh uath is olc
dom roich agus mo sholmae
re súigtis neartu niach,
dom roich mo coilg ndaighneimhneach,
frithálta mo sciath,
scáil mo ghoithne umhaidhí.
Oirciu-so Choinn ach go
bhfoirbreann feidhm
Fhir do-liach
go rop ceann úas, chách catha díana
dífhrecra dermára na ndroinge
dáiríne agus deargthine
Domnat for Leath Cuinn corraigh
mo chlíabh chreaphnaise,
céim fria hilar ann
damhna damh,
biadh óic fo áill.
ailmí calma. Cing,
cingtheá, a Cheannmahair.

11. Mogh Ruith Begins Battle

It is arrived (approached), O Kenmare Victorious,
a terrible vanquishing (winning) of the battle with Corb
that was a (trans)formed hunt
(by the) old and white (drained) red sidhe
transformed in its shape (troop)
(from that) of soul-mentorship (good advice)
today to secured silence.
To great diminishings of throngs
the slaughter of my starry (piercing) rosc
is that which is certain.
Engaged are battles of destructions
without poisons, without strength.
Envenomed be my stag* of stag-ragings
speedily so (as though) of winds
in my field (on my own ground) to Cormac.
A thorn-tree* which is harmful will bestow
to my reach and my readiness
by its attachment to heroic strength,
to my reach, my sword of fiery poison,
having attended to my shield,
a phantom my little bronze dart.
I slay thusly Conn, except that
it accomplishes (requires) utmost effort.
O terribly wretched man,
who would be a noble head(man), he of swift battle
incomparable and vast of the multitudes
of Petty Selfdom and of Red Fire (puns on tribal names)
(What) bursts forth upon the side of battleful Conn
(is) my swift-cutting “rib-work” (obscure meaning),
an exploit with its multitude here
a fit substance/cause for stags*,
food of youth in its beauty,
brave pine-tree*. Arrive! (Approach!),
you arrived, O Kenmare.

12. Aoir Mhogh Ruith ar an nGabháltas

Coille beaga binneacha,
ealla chuileach chorrmhíolach
comhdháil geinnte is gadaighid [goid],
gleann go n-éachtaibh ilardaibh,
adhbha fiadhmhuc noinsheascair
éanach fiadhmhíl.
Fo ró-dhúr
cuiteach léanach lánshalach
feagha loma ilotreacha.
Learg ainbtheach
rá innísi
iolar bhuidne beann.
Bebáis bás
dá mbun a ndochuibh,
beidh gan aicme noiracais,
áilnibh railgibh rún,
rotaibh ruaibh rig-leasaibh / léasaibh,
reannaibh (rionnaibh) cathráibh.
O Coille!

12. Mogh Ruith’s Satire on the Invasion

O woods small and melodious,
(now) of an unkept surprise (burst) of midges,
a meeting of birth-giving and thievery,
(in this) valley that’s of achievements of many-exaltings,
abode of wild pigs (they) made comfortable,
bird-ful of wild honeys.
(Is inflicted) on it [i.e. Munster] very grimly (stupidly)
like a snare (pitfall) deeply afflicted fully dirty
a bare (de-feathered) raven (of) many-dunghills.
On stormy mountainsides
O glorious(ly) to the south of this
(is an) eagle gainful (having troops) of the (mountain) peaks.
Those who died (their) deaths
if as a result of the founding of their
(the enemy’s) wrong-doings,
it will be without (distinction of) tribe they are angered,
(they) of beauties, of the secrets’ oaks*,
of slaughters ruddy (bloody) of royal benefits / radiances,
of the spear-points (satires) of battle-sayings.
Retreat! (you the enemy)
O woods! [this does not attach to the previous line, but is a standard formula of “locking” a rosc by
repeating the opening phrase.]

13. Beannacht Mogha Ruithe ar Mhumhan

Tír mhín ainmhéin,
tír fhluich thirim,
tír aibhinn an-anibhinn,
tír fhántach thulchach,
tír bhláitheadrocht bhráthar,
ní humfhaemú-sa an thír.
Clú chathach clonghalach,
clú eachtach urbadhach,
clú uathmhar aicsineach,
clú fhliuch lochanach,
lir a conach,
lir a húscaí,
lir a hantaic géid a hiommaire,
lir a catha,
lir a haile,
lir a heighmhe aidhbhre
a huile eile a slada
a sáruighte slighí churad clú

13. Mogh Ruith’s Homage to Munster

Land gentle of passion,
land (both) wet (and) dry,
land of very beautiful rivers,
land of (both) hollows (and) hills
land of flowery and mysterious language,
no acceptance of raw/harshness (is) this land’s.
Fame of sword-clashing battles,
fame of baneful wondrous deed-doing,
fame thick with its own singularity of vision,
fame of wet lake-fulness,
a great many its victories,
a great quantity its lard,
a great wealth its furrows of goose-fat,
a great many its battles,
a great many its other things,
a greatness its shouting, vast splendour,
that everything else is its plunder,
its exceedly (fine) woven ways bound to fame.

14. Rosc Catha le Mogh Ruith
(the High King’s druids dry up Munster’s rivers; Mogh Ruith chants:)

Buinn fria bráth
Brígh fria dloimh
ceannbheach cath.
Dígla (díglá) daigh ó bhrígh
aird saer ní cheal go bhrígh mbáin.
I ndeoin áedh ón tsruth theas
dían túar brígh go sruth thuaidh.
Slúaigh nár thib.
Cinnbhea damh
fó gach colg re a ndul amach
i ndeoin ard cinnbhea damh
fo barr scíath a ghlinn.
go háth Cliath in arbáid sin
Cíd na conn, bed fo mblog,
for mbia mairg romhuidh.
Díl rom chealt.
Ceannmahr, Muiche, Buireach, Beant,
Or nár comhbhrígh friu (go) beacht,
Dóibh bás olc.
Fía muinter, cinnbhea damh.
Toradh toinn,
ní bat gluinn faífait buinn.

14. Mogh Ruith’s Battle Cry

Torrents (great rivers) be with it (Munster) forever
(Magical) energy with its nucleus
foremost enlivened of battles.
Be it avenged (a terrible shout) ablaze from energy
of free nobility not vanished to energy made white (bloodless).
By (my) will of fire from a stream (flow) in the south
swift(ly) a portend (poet) of energy to a flow in the north.
Hosts of warriors may they not be cut back.
May a stag* strike foremost,
good every sword with their going forth
by (my) high will, may a stag* strike foremost
beneath the tip of shields guaranteed.
Be they confirmed
to the mouth of the Liffey in submergence (drowning) there.
They of the hounds, be they under (cut into) pieces,
that there will be sorrow around them.
Destruction before my visage.
Kenmare, Mochet, Buireach, Beant,
Be there no limit (to their) joint energy precisely.
To them (the enemy) a terrible death.
A deer is well-learnt, may a stag* strike foremost.
Fruit of wave,
be there no generations lamenting (the lack of) great rivers.

15. Bríocht Síothlaithe Cheannmhara

Síothal lán, síothal slán.
Luigsim féin féin ra cach mál.
Síothal shuain, síothal sámh.
Bear úr uaibh
do cheann slúaigh d’Fhiachaigh mál.
Síothal glan, síothal gart
um rígh mborb.
Síothal slán, síothal suain.
Bear úr.
Do Mhogh Chorb
síothal airgid agus óir agus cruain,
síothal shíog agus rígh agus rúain
lúthar libh agus uaibh do Mhogh Ruith
is d’fhir Coirb
is do Bhuan
lúthsat féin
feacht fo thrí
ra feacht fáth
beact for rígh.
Báidhfe tart.
Beofaidh brígh,
fóirfidh cach,
sóefidh síath. Síothal.

15. Kenmare’s Pacification Spell

Melt away (expire, soften) fully, melt away completely.
I swear this myself to every prince.
Melt into sleep, melt in tranquillity.
Be borne a bright newness
to (the) head of the hosts of Fiacha of princes.
Melt clean(ly), melt (with) generosity
(all those) around an ignorant (unjust) king.
Melt away completely, melt away into sleep.
Be borne a fresh newness.
(But) of Mogh Corb
melt away his silver and gold and enamel (jewelry),
melt away fairy (allies of the king) and king and great ones,
empowered with you and from you to Mogh Ruith
and from (the) men of Corb
and to Buan
empowered himself
a sight (seen to be done) three times
with that a sight of wisdom
the (high) king made humble.
The draught will be drowned.
(Magical) energy will enliven,
each will be healed,
will transform into peace. Melt away.

16. Millteoireacht le Mogh Ruithe ar nDaoithe an Ardrí

Soeim athshoeim
muna soeim dluma dirche
soeim bríocht, soeim breachta
soeim deachta doilbhte,
soeim ard, soeim adhbhal
soeim gach aidbhertaid,
soeim tulach do thulaigh
comhdar thubhaidh ar traigh.
Traethfat-sa cnoc ceann a ceann
comhbean-sa fria a aitheann.
Soeim gach at,
tráis i bhfíochaí eo,
i bhfíochaí sceo.
Dánaim dar,
dánaim dánaim
neimh im’ neart Ua Chuinn cur,
Colphtha agus Lurga luáth go ndíobhát san áth.
Errghi, Eng, augus Engain ná cú
ceangair gach.
Bíodh crúibleacht ar crúibh,
cré omh ann dan lot.
Bíodh fiadhlann ar cnoc.
Bíodh a ráidh ar áth féim
a chomhailfeat frium chlana Eoghain ann.
Bíodh dóibh an maith mór, biáidh,
flaith ina láimh
dá ndiúlat rem chlú ann.
Cineadh Fiachach feirt
a ndine a n-ólt
gan ríghí, gan reacht (ríocht).
Cinfeadh ó Mogh Corbh
cuaine ráth fria a rí,
a righfidis as a reacht
a seacht mba sé.
Séidim-se Druim nDamh.
Séidis gaeis líaigh gom.
Séidis gabhál ngall.
Séidis neimh úar omh.
Ní rob inann sin,
séidis bánfiadh bruth
ach rob inann súd.
Soeis ré sin an sraith
im’ racht i ndraíocht
im’ dheach-chath
im’ dheachath úadh.
comhbhlicht cnocv a soeim.

16. Mogh Ruith’s Attack on the High King’s Druids

I turn (transform), I re-turn,
not but I turn nuclei of darkness,
I turn verbal spells, I turn speckled* spells,
I turn purities of form,
I turn high, I turn mightily,
I turn each adversity,
I turn a hill to subside,
equally an onslaught on its foot.
Subjugated will be the hill, one by one
an equal blow against those who flee,
I turn each not smelled out.
I turn each tumour (in hiding),
they are disgraced in my fierce anger of a yew (prince)
in my angers raging.
I bestow (declare a poem, make it fate) by this,
I bestow, I bestow,
poison in my power, the O’Cuinns to bind.
Colptha and Lurga, may they speedily terribly-die in the ford.
Errghi, Eng, and Engain (the enemy’s magic ewes)
and not one (of my magic) hounds,
are they each chained.
Be it hooves’ grave from claws, raw dust in it, ruin.
Be a fiodhrádh piece (wild anger) cast on the hill.
Be there a piece (saying) on the ford itself,
which equally strikes (nourishes) my clann of Eoghan there.
Be there to them a great good, a blessing,
a sovereignty in their (own) hands
if they do not deny my fame among them.
Be descended of Fiacha prodigies
who will suck their drink
without a (high) king, without his rule (over them).
(But be) descended from Mogh Corbh
a pack of dogs altogether against their king,
scattered away from his kingdom
each of their seven cows* in turn.
I breath-blast indeed the Ridge of the Stags.
Breath-blasted be the sageries of the doctors of anguish.
Breath-blasted be the grasp of the foreigners.
Breath-blasted poison raw and cold.
Not a body the same just there
breath-blasted wild-white (empty) raging,
but a(nother) body the same over there.
Turnt (transformed) be that expanse of the sword
in my paroxysm of magic
in my best battle
in my perfect best battle.
Subjugated (made into stone)
yielding milk (drained dry) be the hill
which I turn (transform).

17. Lia Draíochta le Mogh Ruith
(This is the magic stone that will turn into a monster.)

Ailim mo lic laeme
Nárobh é thaidhbhsí tháidhe
Bíodh breo a bhrisfes báirí
re chath chródhe Cláire.
Mo chloch thein a thug a thinn.
Bíodh nathair dearg a dhobhair mairg
cur a bhfillfe a fhoraim.
Bíodh muireascann (reascán)
fiadh seacht gconga dée ró-dhaimh
idir thonnaibh tré-oll
Bíodh badhbh idir bhadhuibh
a scéaras corp re hanmuin.
Bíodh nathair nóis-naidmuibh
um corp Colptha ollmhór
ó dtalamin go a cheann,
anbhoig sleamhan a bhirrcheann
an rot ruibheach a reaghtainn.
Bíodh drais gharbh imtéinn (im’thein)
mairg a ticfa a thimpeall.
Mo dhraic thairbeach (dhraictháir beach) teann,
canfait uais is uagtair,
mairg co a shín
fae shurdghail
do Cholptha agus do Lurga
a laifider f’aill.
An trascradh nosthrascainn.
Is fastad nosfhastainn.
Is nascadh nosnascainn.
Mar bhís féithe im’chrann.
Coiscfider a bhfoghaill,
meathfaider a monair,
beith a gcoirp fa chonnuibh.
Ar ath olair air (a rath olair air/ara tholair air)
go mbearrbhais leo leinibh
gan troit is gan deabhaidh
a gcoscair re a gceannuibh.
Cé maith eadh budh áil,

17. Mogh Ruith’s Magic Stone

I request my stone of conflagration.
Be it no ghost of theft.
Be it a blaze that will fight/uproar victory/sages
before the valiant battle of Clare,
my fire stone which delves pain.
Be it a red serpent which sorrows
a binding his course to bend.
Be it a sea-eel / little-loquacity
eye-browed (fierce) / spindled (going round)
deer of seven-points of gods of a very-stag*
between waves triple great.
Be it a scald-crow among scald-crows
who divide a body with a nasty trick.
Be it a snake in eminent constrictions
around Colptha’s body mightily
from the earth to his head
a terrible softness slippery the tip of his head,
the daring slaughter I have overthrown.
Be it a rough thorn-bush* I go round (in my fire)
a sorrow which will come round him.
My strong dragon bullish (of insult like bees)
will sing proud and of authority,
sorrow in its storn
below its gambolling
to Colptha and Lurga,
lay them low beneath the cliff.
The casting-down, I cast it down.
And the detaining, I detain it.
And the binding, I bind it.
Like a spiral of sinew in my staff.
Prevented be their escapes,
failed be their undertakings,
both their bodies beneath hounds.
At the ford, grease (blood on it / disgusts on their wealth)
be they stripped (death cut through) to their tunics
without fight and without contention
to protect their heads.
Such good will be the request
I request.

18. Toghairm Cheannmhara do Phéist
(the jingle-jangle style of this humourous rosc with its many puns and deliberately childish grammar can only idiomatically be rendered into English)

Fós a mhuin cé acht mhaeth-romhar,
a péist,
a chael a ruadh
a lath breac
a aiteann ruadh iar-romhar
a mhalach ruadh mhidh-romhar
a chrann shúileach ruadh coilg-romhar
a theanga dearg tein-dtighti
a ghun a cheas ar comhlasadh
a anál dían duibhnéalach
a mar cheo tar garbhcnocuibh leic
ar a gcúl a chaem-macamh
(ár gcul an caemhmacamh)
ó nach comhlonn comhadais
nár thug sár ár saor-chlannuibh
óm’ Fhiachachaigh Mhóir Muilleatháin.
Dálta na draoithe
do dhrongastar.
Éirigh go cóir
ádh céad-aignidh
a luighe (loighe)
ar/ár láimh mín Mhór-Mhogha.
Ro fheadais rádh fíos, fós
(Rá feadais rádh a fhios, fós).

18. Kenmare Calls-Up a Monster

Although his back it’s only skinny-fat
it’s he who is a monster.
his little stream through the bog is ruddy (bloody)
it’s he’s a speckled* (magic) warrior
his furze ruddy fat behind him
his eye-brows rudy middle-fat (raised/bushy)
his eyed-tree (penis) ruddy sword-fat
his red tongue a fire’s fat house ablaze
it’s a wound, his mouth an equal blazing
his breath a sudden black cloud
like a fog across harsh hills of stones
on their backs made smooth [i.e. without warriors recently dead to commemorate by carving on them]
(slaughter of chariots is the beauty of youth)
from there being no violence equal, nor fitness equal to,
nor a gifting exceeding that of our free clans
of my Fiacha great Muilleathan.
Engaged are the (enemy) druids
gathered together in a big bunch.
Arise to a justice
success a hundredfold spirited
sworn (given indulgement)
by the fine (our little) hands of Big Mogh.
It has been whistled in derision
(a saying-spell of a wisdom still).

19. Duan Bhuain don Dhamh-Dia
(The first two lines are in prose.)

Is ann thug Buan an seaghdhaí sheanfhocail
ar ard ag a hinnsint agus asbert:
A Thádhbhais damh ardbassa,
a Fhir a fhéach aislingí
na hÉireann il-infris-fhéidhí,
Dhia h-eisidhí frium,
Dhaimh, crúba coilgdireach
go mbeannuibh bánargead,
muc allaidh úr úathmhar,v bó hoghearc fionn,
an triar ná thúitrann-sa,
bó agus muc mór féighe,
damh dreaman dásachtach
rá dílmain drong,
a cucainn, ró-comhluidset
go ár leapaidh lánlaidhí.
A Athar liom, ro luighesdar a daoine, go buan.
Bearat bráit, mbunathaibh forfhios
féigh, ar chanaidh
as na féathuibh faistine.
Forbeirit gúel glúinn,
fháse an torc trébhiadhnach,
traethar feirg fortanlais,
flaith chathach chonghalach
chorm chuí, chuid crota,
i ndamh dreach-leathán.
Dagh-mhac fial fionn-Eoghan Mór Muillethán
a mhúires cath cró.
Éimhne fhial ilcruthach
im’ mhaith mhóragha
mhín bhuile
mo bhean-sa an bhó,
bíodh fuí ní faífider.
Cath Cláire claífider,
bíodh rem uind ro féinfider.
Rígfit meic mna.
Bíodh curdháin chomhaigtes Cormaic
cuilti conaigfes.
Bíodh dinn a domaincheas.
Irim a thochtadh (Irí mo thochtadh).

19. Buan’s Invocation of the Stag-God

Then Buan gave the excellence of ancient word
aloud in its telling, and said:
O Spectre of stags* of great knowledge,
O Man whose sight is in visions
of Ireland of many byred calms,
God of requests beside me,
O Stag*, hooves sharp as swords
to antler-points white-silver,
pig* of the wilds fresh green terrible,
fair cow* of red-speckled* ear-points,
the trinity who do not scrutinize,
cow* and great pig* of keen sight,
fierce stag* of divine possessions,
glorious, free of the restraint of crowds,
who sing together, have advanced together
to our harbour of complete attentions.
O father of mine, pledged to his people forever,
The veils are removed,
by the source of great wisdom
keenly seen, upon song
from out of the magical mists of prophecy.
The generations of the Gael increase.
The triple-yeared wild boar* has grown,
subdued the wraths of supreme power,
sovereignty of battles pugnacious,
of a proper ale feast, of a lot of the harp,
in a wide-faced stag*.
Good son gentle fair Eoghan Great Muillethan
wages a war of inheritance.
Eimhne gentle many-beautied
in my joy much magnified
gentle handsome flower-bright,
my woman, she the cow*,
let her have no reason to lament.
The Battle of Clare will be put to the sword,
before my gaze be it soldiered.
May the sons of women reign.
The bound-givings equally guaranteed
by Cormac and in need abandoned,
let them be performed.
Let there be no belonging here for profound grief.
I bestow its silence (You bestow my silence).

20. Gáeth Luisthine le Mogh Ruith

A Dhé dhraíthe, mo dhé
tar gach ndé,
séid, séid fair, séid fáe
Foluibh luis le húr, acht
fiadhláibh luis le críon
acht lúath crithrach críne
fásta crithre uise.
Cirb, a cheo chaethainn,
caín, a cheo chaethainn.
Chearda dhraoíthe, dolbhaím.
Nirt Chormaic. cloím.
Cheachta, Chruite, Chithre
clocha daoibh dolbhaím.
De-uca gáeth dobhéineadh.
cathfhráoch, a chlich
re choir gáeth aneas
thréan gáeith a neas,
ocht bhfogháeithe, ceathre phríomhgháeithe
a chondh’fhicht
gáeth ós gháethuibh.
Sruth mór mac Gaill,
caínfider, faidh fis.
Forcha cath cáth Fiachach,
forfháinneach athcháith Cormaic.
Caín, a Bhebáis (a Bhé Bháis)
a Mhaidme be teine tréathnaigh
fé scéarta leacaithe (leiceatha) Chormaic
ó n-omáidhí mo chloichmharbh
Ní ba ruireach ríghphoirt
a ré ráis cloich.
Caín, a Chathfráoigh.
A Dhé, dhé dhraíthe.

20. Mogh Ruith’s Rowan-Fire Magic Wind

O god of druids, my god
above all (other) gods,
breath-blast, breath-blast on it, breath-blast beneath it.
By the essences of rowans* to engreen, but
by the wooden-poems (fiadhrádh*) of rowans* to wither,
yet speedily a glowing of decay
grown from a humble spark.
Cut (them) short, O fog of rowan*,
keen, O fog of rowan*.
O Skill of druids, I sorcerize you.
O Power of Cormac, I vanquish you.
Cecht, Cruit, Cithra (the enemy druids),
I sorcerize you into stones.
For that, a wind of harsh beating,
a battle frenzy which bestirs
before a justice of wind from the south,
a power of wind which wounds.
Eight lesser winds, four major winds
which equally punish,
a wind above winds.
Great torrent of sons of the foreigners.
it will be keened, an out-cry of wisdom.
A lighting-bolt hammer is the noble battle of Fiacha,
encircled is the old rubbish of Cormac.
Keen, you who have died (O Woman of Death),
blaze monsterously.
O Explosion which is a fire of triple cleansings
below the squashed shouts (battled to stone) of Cormac
in homages to my stone-giving-death.
May he recognize (this is so).
Be there no chief in the king’s camp,
its expanse said (verbally magicked) to stone.
Keen, O Battle-Frenzy.
O god, god of druids.

21. Rosc Catha Déanaigh le Mogh Ruith

Fíoraim bríocht
a neart néil cuma
braen fola ar fhear.
Bíodh fó an bíth.
Bruiter drong, go mbá crith,
ár cuain Chuinn
go mbá i n-eas,
gach neart níath.
Bíodh flaith fúach.
Fhir do-liach, go luidh brách.
Búaidnibh slógh
biáidh ós gach Eoghan Mór.
Mogh Corb cas cliti sealaig.
Bíodh ráidh, flaith nóifer.
Fíoraím bríocht.

21. Mogh Ruith’s Final Battle Spell

I fashion-and-verify a verbal spell
its power of clouds, a shape
of a rain of blood on a man.
Be good the wound.
Be goaded, the rabble to drown atrembling.
a slaughter of the dog-pack of O’Cuinn
to drown in the rapids
each a warrior’s strength.
Be there a sovereignty of stanzas (poetry).
O man very wretched, keep fleeing forever.
Of the triumphs of the hosts,
a blessing above all on Great Eoghan.
Mogh Corb is repulsed, necessarily vanquished, laid low.
Be it a proverb, sovereignty will spread
I fashion-and-verify a verbal spell.

22. Fáistine Teachta Phádraig

Tiocfa tálcheann
tar muir mercheann
a thí thollcheann
a chrann crommcheann.
Canfaid míchrábhud
a mhias (mheas) i n-airthair a thige,
fris-géarat a mhuinter uile
“amháin amháin”.

22. The Prophecy of the Coming of Patrick

Adze-head will come
across a sea craze-headed
hollow-headed his cloak
bent-headed his staff.
He will sing maledictions
his dish (judgement-giving) in the back (western) corner of his house,
all his people answering
“Only one, only one” (bilingual pun on “Amen”)


ash-tree : associated with war, conquest, also austerity.

cow : in sharp contrast to its use in English, “cow” in ancient Ireland was employed as a term of endearment, also denoting wealth and high social rank.

Earth, Sea, and Sky (the order often differs) : the earth (below), the sky (above), and the sea (around) formed the “great binding triad” which defined the world, and, while the three remained in their correct places, maintained the order and smooth functioning of the cosmos.

fiodhrádh : literally “wooden utterings”, this was the druidic “tree- alphabet” employed in divinational and other magical purposes in which each tree had symbolic associations. Its entire exact content is open to dispute (qv ó Tuathail, An Fiodhrádh, Toronto 1985) but the major trees and their associations are well established.

left : this gained its sinister associations only after the coming of Christianity; in pagan times rightward motion symbolized “opening” (growth, harvest, greeting, increase in wealth, etc), while leftward motion symbolized “closing” (binding, secrets, returning to source, protection, enclosing and thus capturing an enemy, etc).

nine : while three was the magic number of binding and establishing, nine symbolized completeness and wholeness.

oak : in ireland the “robur” oak (there were two kinds) was associated with habitation, hospitality, and law.

pig (boar) : a pig symbolized wealth and health, and, especially as a boar, heroic valour.

pine-tree : symbolic of responsibility, valour, protection of the tribe and the social order.

rowan : this was the major druidic magic tree; associations included bindings, rejuvenation, and protection. Not apparent in the translation is the fact that in Irish it has both a common “mundane” name (caorthann) and a magic-name (luis).

salmon : associated with poetic wisdom, thus magical knowledge, actually indirectly because it eats hazelnuts, the true source of this.

speckled : this adjective indicated either high magic skill or a connection with the Otherworld (a doorway to the Otherworld was referred to as a “cómhla breac” or speckled gate).

stag : stags have been shamanic animals since distant prehistoric times, and appear as such on the cave paintings of France and Spain; a “seven-point” stag was a “royal” (or top of the hierarchy) stag.

sun, moon, and stars : oaths were often sworn on these, and in effect they acted as guaranteers of promises.

thorn-tree (or bush) : this tree symbolized, among other things, in this context, trial and quest, the conquest of adversity.


Amergin - poet-leader of the Men of Mil
Beant - student of Mogh Ruith
Bres - king of the Tuatha Dé Danann
Buan - son of Mogh Ruith
Buireach - student of Mogh Ruith
Cairbre - a wandering poet of the Tuatha Dé Danann
Cecht - Cormac’s court-druid
Citach - Cormac’s court-druid
Cithmor - Cormac’s court-druid
Cithruad - Cormac’s high court-druid
Colptha - Cormac fairy-druid ally
Conn (O’Cuinn) - grandfather of Cormac
Cormac - high-king of Ireland
Crota - Cormac’s court-druid
Eber - one of the leaders of the Men of Mil (see Amergin)
Eimhne - Buan’s wife
Eng - fairy ally of Cormac changed into ewe
Engain - fairy ally of Cormac changed into ewe
Eoghan Mor - Fiacha’s father
Ermon - one of the leaders of the Men of Mil (see Amergin)
Errghi - fairy ally of Cormac changed into ewe
Fiacha muilleathan - king of Munster
Firbolgs - the older “sibling-gods” of the Tuatha Dé Danann
Fomors - the foreign rival gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann
Ir - one of the leaders of the Men of Mil (see Amergin)
Kenmare - student of Mogh Ruith
Lugh - king of the Tuatha Dé Danann
Lurge - Cormac’s fairy-druid ally
Men of Mil - the first human inhabitants of Ireland
Mogh Corb - son of Cormac
Mogh Ruith - independent druid
Morrigu - warrioress of the Tuatha Dé Danann
Nochet - student of Migh Ruith
Nuada - king of the Tuatha Dé Danann
Tuatha Dé Danann - the gods of Ireland

1: Other Irish Editions of texts (by author from main bibliograpy)

*bilingual editions, otherwise without translation
The First Battle of Moy Tuireadh: Fraser*, Travis*
The Second Battle of Moy Tuireadh: Hull*, Gray
Amergin: Travis, Henry, Macalister*, Best and Bergin, Connella*
The Siege of the Ridge of the Stag’s Cry: ó Tuathail*, Sjoestedt
The Coming of Patrick: Travis, Carney*

2: Texts and general works on druidic poetics

Best, Richard, & Bergin, Osborn. The Book of Leinster 1. Dublin 1954.
Carney, James. Medieval Irish Lyrics. Dublin 1967.
Connella, Patrick. The Poems of Amergin. Trans. Ossin.Soc.5, 1857.
Fraser, John. The First Battle of Moytura. Ériu 1, 1916.
Hull, Vernam. Cairpre Mac Edaine’s Satire Upon Bres Mac Eladain. ZCP 18, 1929.
Gray, Elizabeth. Cath Maige Tuiraed. London 1982. (prose, but not roscanna, translated).
Henry, Patrick. Saoithiúlacht na Sean-Ghaeilge. Dublin 1978.
Macalister, R. A. Stewart. Lebor Gabála 5. Dublin 1956.
ó Cathasaigh, Tomás. Curse and Satire. Éigse 21, 1986.
ó hógáin, Dáithí. An File. Dublin 1982.
ó Tuathail, Seán. Roscanna ón bhForbuis Druim Damhghaire. Cainteanna na Luise (Supplement-Separate No. 6), Ottawa 1988.
ó Tuathail, Seán. Forbiud Druim Dsmhghaire 7 Teagasca Bríochtaí. Cainteanna na Luise No.19, 1988.
Sjoestedt, Marie-Louise. Forbuis Droma Damhghaire [prose in French, roscanna not translated]. Revue Celtique 43-44, 1926-1927.
Travis, James. Early Celtic Versecraft. Ithaca 1973.

by Seán Ó Tuathail