I can trace my own interest in all this to my graduation from grammar school, in Brooklyn. I was sitting on the steps of one of the school buildings. Someone had a transistor radio playing “Rock around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. I listened with a sense of great surprise, with the feeling that something deeply new was happening. It was way beyond just a new kind of music. Something about everything was changing. This was June, 1955.
I don't remember telling anyone about this. I would have had a hard time describing it - I'm having a hard time now - but the shift in time found voice in the 60's, with Bob Dylan's “The Times They Are a-Changin” in 1963, and at the end of that decade, the anthem, “The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” Something was happening, all right.
Some 35 years after first hearing Bill Haley, I came across the Maya calendars, and found that one of them, the one sometimes called the long count, predicted the end of a 5200 year period in the early 21st century. I have rarely been as energized and motivated as I was by this. I read all I could about the Maya calendars - I memorized the day glyphs of the 260 day sacred calendar, and started keeping the Maya days. I read what the academic scholars of the Maya had to say, and the new age prophets - at that point, mostly José Argüelles and his associates. I found that though the academics were more apt to be trustworthy about the mechanics of the calendar, Arqüelles and other new agers were right in realizing that the really interesting question was what the calendar meant. But their interpretation of the calendar was, at least as far as I could tell, no more than their own interpretation. If I was going to learn what the Maya calendars meant, I was going to have to find a Maya who knew them, and was willing to teach me.
Like most indigenous peoples of this hemisphere, the Maya underwent the horror - the disease, the Inquisition, the dispossession - that marked the arrival of Europeans here. The Maya were luckier than some. They do still exist, and have retained their culture. The very disadvantages they have suffered under the lingering racist effects of colonialism have helped to preserve that culture. In Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America and southern Mexico, there are estimated to be over 6 million Maya, and there are priests and priestesses who carry on the tradition: who are trained up in the old ways, and who minister to their people and conduct ceremonies on feasts in the traditional calendars.
I came across Ancient voices: Current affairs (1992), a book Stephen McFadden had written about contemporary indigenous elders, including some from the Maya. I wrote Stephen and asked if there were any Maya priests who accepted non-Maya students. He gave me two names, one of which was Don (Tata) Alejandro Cirilo Perez Oxlaj, of Guatemala. So I decided to go down to Guatemala and see if he would take me on. I found San Francisco del Alto - the nearest town to Tata Alejandro's village - on a map. I signed up for an immersion course in Spanish in Quetzaltenango, the nearest city. I packed a suitcase, and went down to Guatemala. I did find Tata Alejandro, who very graciously received this white woman who showed up on his doorstep. But despite his welcome over several visits, I never did become his student. Instead he told me I needed to study the tradition of my own people.
I was born in the United States, and my parents were born in the United States, but my four grandparents were born in Ireland. Like many Irish Americans, the spiritual tradition I grew up in was Catholic, and as a child, I never heard of rituals or philosophies like those of the Maya. But I now think that the enthusiasm I felt for the Maya calendar came from my own lineage, that before Christianity, there was a wisdom tradition in Ireland comparable to what still exists among the Maya, and as with theirs, it had a primary focus on time. Tata Alejandro himself made a striking comment about this. At one point, I showed him a couple of books of Irish culture, first a copy of selections from the Book of Kells (Trinity College Dublin, 1974). He looked through that politely, and pointed to a symbol similar to one the Maya use. Then I showed him Muiris O'Sullivan and John Scarry's Megalithic Art in Ireland (1993) and at an image of one of the tri-spirals at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange)1, he got genuinely excited. He said, this is the understanding of - he groped for a word and settled on “development” - as it has been given to your people. It's different from what has been given to my people. And it should be your university2.
I have taken his advice. Here is some of what I have learned so far.
I'll start with a story.
Here begins the Wooing of Étaín
1. There was a famous king of Ireland of the race of the Tuatha Dé, Eochaid Ollathair his name. He was also named the Dagda [i.e. good god], for it was he that used to work wonders for them and control the weather and the crops. Wherefore men said he was called the Dagda. Elcmar of the Brug had a wife whose name was Eithne and another name for her was Boand. The Dagda desired her in carnal union. The woman would have yielded to the Dagda had it not been for fear of Elcmar, so great was his power. Thereupon the Dagda sent Elcmar away on a journey to Bres son of Elatha in Mag nInis, and the Dagda worked great spells upon Elcmar as he set out, that he might not return betimes (that is, early) and he dispelled the darkness of night for him, and he kept hunger and thirst from him. He sent him on long errands, so that nine months went by as one day, for he had said that he would return home again between day and night. Meanwhile the Dagda went in upon Elcmar's wife, and she bore him a son, even Aengus, and the woman was whole of her sickness when Elcmar returned, and he perceived not her offence, that is, that she had lain with the Dagda.
2. The Dagda meanwhile brought his son to Midir's house in Brí Léith in Tethba, to be fostered. There Aengus was reared for the space of nine years. Midir had a great playing-field in Brí Léith. Thrice fifty lads of the young nobles of Ireland were there and thrice fifty maidens of the land of Ireland. Aengus was the leader of them all, because of Midir's great love for him, and the beauty of his form and the nobility of his race. He was also called in Mac Óc (the Young Son), for his mother said: “Young is the son who was begotten at the break of day and born betwixt it and evening.”
3. Now Aengus quarreled with Triath son of Febal (or Gobor) of the Fir Bolg, who was one of the two leaders in the game, and a fosterling of Midir. It was no matter of pride with Aengus that Triath should speak to him, and he said: “It irks me that the son of a serf should hold speech with me,” for Aengus had believed until then that Midir was his father, and the kingship of Brí Léith his heritage, and he knew not of his kinship with the Dagda.
4. Triath made answer and said: “I take it no less ill that a hireling whose mother and father are unknown should hold speech with me.” Thereupon Aengus went to Midir weeping and sorrowful at having been put to shame by Triath. "What is this?" said Midir. “Triath has defamed me and cast in my face that I have neither mother nor father.” “Tis false,” said Midir. “Who is my mother, from whence is my father” “No hard matter. Thy father is Eochaid Ollathair,” said Midir, “and Eithne, wife of Elcmar of the Brug, is thy mother. It is I that have reared thee unknown to Elcmar, lest it should cause him pain that thou wast begotten in his despite.” “Come thou with me,” said Aengus, “that my father may acknowledge me, and that I may no longer be kept hidden away under the insults of the Fir Bolg.”
5. Then Midir set out with his fosterling to have speech with Eochaid, and they came to Uisnech of Meath in the center of Ireland, for 'tis there that was Eochaid's house, Ireland stretching equally far from it on every side, south and north, to east and west. Before them in the assembly they found Eochaid. Midir called the king aside to have speech with the lad. “What does he desire, this youth who has not come until now?” “His desire is to be acknowledged by his father, and for land to be given to him,” said Midir, “for it is not meet that thy son should be landless while thou art king of Ireland.” “He is welcome,” said Eochaid, “he is my son. But the land I wish him to have is not yet vacant.” “What land is that?’ said Midir. “The Brug, to the north of the Boyne,” said Eochaid. “Who is there?” said Midir. “Elcmar,” said Eochaid, “is the man who is there. I have no wish to annoy him further.”
6. “Pray, what counsel dost thou give this lad?” said Midir. “I have this for him,’” said Eochaid. “On the day of Samain let him go into the Brug, and let him go armed. That is a day of peace and amity among the men of Ireland, on which none is at enmity with his fellow. And Elcmar will be in Cnoc Síde in Broga unarmed save for a fork of white hazel in his hand, his cloak folded around him and a gold brooch in his cloak, and three fifties playing before him in the playing-field; and let Aengus go to him and threaten to kill him. But it is meet that he slay him not, provided he promise him his will. And let this be the will of Aengus, that he be king for a day and a night in the Brug; and see that thou not yield the land to Elcmar till he submit himself (?) to my decision; and when he comes let Aengus' plea be that the land has fallen to him in fee simple for sparing Elcmar and not slaying him, and that what he had asked for is kingship of day and night, and” said he, “it is in days and nights that the world is spent.” (Bergin & Best, 1938, pp. 143-147)
This story is the beginning of an ancient Irish saga called “Tochmarc Étaíne,” (“The Wooing of Étaín”). Étaín is a symbol of the living presence of the land, one of a centuries-long line of female figures who represent individual places in Ireland, or the island as a whole. The story presents a world in which, through their chieftain, the people and the land come to belong to one another, in a relationship that is essentially a love affair and holy marriage, and that bears fruit in bountiful harvests and a peaceful reign3. The saga tells of different wooings of Étaín over several lifetimes. The story told above forms a kind of prequel to the wooings proper in that it establishes the relationship between Midir, Étaín's first lover, and Aengus. The story tells how Aengus was conceived and born at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) by his mother, Boand, and her lover, the Dagda (also Eochaid Ollothair), chief of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. To hide Aengus from Elcmar, Boand's husband, he is sent away to be raised by Midir. Eventually, Midir brings Aengus back to his father who helps him win ownership of his birthplace by a kind of trick involving a statement about day and night. The story of Aengus's conception and birth at Brú na Bóinne is itself rich in meaning, but that's for another time. My interest here is on the way he wins the Brú by the cryptic statement about day and night.
That plot is described in paragraph 6 above. The plan is to get Elcmar to agree to let Aengus have the Brú for a day and a night. Then, after a day and night have passed, when Elcmar tries to get the Brú back, he will be sent to Eochaid for a judgement, and Eochaid will say: “what [Aengus] had asked for is kingship of day and night and … it is in days and nights that the world is spent.” (Bergin & Best, p. 147)
So Aengus wins the Brú by a kind of trick or riddle involving two meanings of day and night: the ordinary meaning - in modern terms, one twenty-four hour period - and the second meaning which somehow includes all the time in the world. Elcmar doesn’t see that deeper meaning, and so he loses his home.
It may seem puzzling that this riddle or trick works. I think this is a clue that something important is going on. Further evidence of its importance is the number of times the riddle appears in medieval Irish manuscripts. Table 1 lays out the manuscripts and the individual stories or poems where the riddle is found.
|Date and Place of MS
|Story Title in MS (Source of English Translation)b
|Hero (Name in Story)
|Way Riddle appears
|Book of Glendalough
|Around 1126; Likely, Glendalough, County Wicklow
|“Echtra Mac Echdach Mugmedóin” (Joynt, 1910)
|Book of Leinster
|1152-1161; Terryglass, County Tipperary
|“De Gabáil in tSída in so sic” (Hull, 1931)
|Aengus (in Mac Oac)
|“Cuan Hua Lothchain cecinit”c
|“Cináed Úa Hartacáin cecenit” (Gwynn, 1914)d
|Aengus (Óengus Mac Óc)
|Book of Ballymote
|1390-1400; Ballymote, County Sligo
|“Echtra mac Echach Muigmedoin” (O'Grady, 1892b)e
|Riddle referred to
|Yellow Book of Lecan
|Most, 1391-1420; Lecan, County Sligo
|“Incipit do Thochmarc Edaine” (Bergin & Best, 1938)
|“Echtra mac Echach Muigmedoin” (Stokes, 1903)
|Riddle referred to
|Royal Irish Academy MS D iv 2
|15th century; Kilcormac, County Offaly
|“Do Ghabáil in t-Shighdha” (Hull, 1931)
|Book of Fermoy
|Most, 15th century; Fermoy, County Cork
|“Altram Tige Dá Medar” (Duncan, 1932)
|Aengus (Aengus Óg)
|Riddle referred to
|Trinity College MS 1337
|15th-16th century; Could not determine where MS was written
|“Tochmarc Étáine sisina” (Stern, 1905)
aExcept where noted, the manuscript names, dates and place of composition are from Slavin, 2005.
The riddle is in two of the three books from the 12th century, the oldest books in the Irish language that remain to us. It's possible it also appeared in the third, Leabhar na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow). The “Wooing of Étaín” saga itself is there, but the front leaves are missing and that's where this story would have been (Bergin & Best). It also appears, or is referred to, in five manuscripts from the 14th to 16th centuries. And the riddle appears in different ways. It is in stories about mythical characters, like the one above. In such stories, the property at stake is always Brú na Bóinne, and the person who gains it is always Aengus4, although the person who is tricked out of the Brú varies, as does the person who advises Aengus to use the trick, and in some cases, there is no advisor. There are four stories about Aengus and the Brú: 1) “Tochmarc Étaíne,” from the 14th - 15th century Yellow Book of Lecan, the primary source of the story told above, and from the other source of that story, a 15th or 16th century fragmentary manuscript known by its catalog number in Trinity College Dublin: MS 1337; 2) a poem from the 12th century Book of Leinster attributed there to the 10th century poet Cináed Úa Hartacáin; 3) “De Gabáil in t-Shída”, a version of which is in the 12th century Book of Leinster and another is in the manuscript from the 15th-16th centuries known by its catalog number in the Royal Irish Academy: MS D iv 2, and 4) “Altram Tige Dá Medar”, in the mainly 15th century Book of Fermoy.
In addition to these stories about the mythical Aengus, the riddle also appears in works about Niall Nóigíallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages). Most historians agree that Niall is a real person, a chieftain who lived in the 4th-5th centuries, and the clans named as his descendants, the northern and southern Uí Neill, were among the most powerful and long-lived political dynasties in Ireland. A praise poem about Niall of the Nine Hostages was composed in the 11th century, and a copy is in the 12th century Book of Leinster. There are prose versions of the story, evidently based on the poem. One is in another 12th century manuscript, which some scholars believe is the Book of Glendalough (Rawlinson B 502, second part), and two are in manuscripts from the 14th and 15th centuries, the Yellow Book of Lecan and the Book of Ballymote. The author of the 11th century poem, Cúán úa Lothcháin, is identified in many annals as chief poet of Ireland during the reign of high king Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill of the southern Uí Neill.
Ua Lothcáin's poem talks about the birth and childhood of Niall, and how he wrested power from his older half-brothers. Niall's father, Eochaid Mugmedón, high king of Tara, had captured fair Cairenn on a raid in Alba5. Eochaid is taken by her great beauty, and, in due course, she gives birth to Niall. Eochaid already had four sons by first wife, Mongfind, and she has the infant Niall exposed and Cairenn made a slave. Risking Mongfind's displeasure, the poet Torna rescues the child and raises him in his own home. When he is nine years old, Niall returns to Tara, and, as he rides sunwise around the hill, he draws all eyes to himself, to the beauty that foretells kingly strength and wisdom. His father immediately recognizes him as his son. Niall's first request is that his mother be freed. Though Mongfind protests, she fears what Niall might do, and acquiesces. Some time after, Eochaid's five sons leave for a circuit around Erin. When they reach Loch Erne, they kill a boar, and Brian, the oldest brother, asks that one of his brothers bring back a drink of water for them. The first brother leaves, armed, and with a drinking cup, and goes to a waterfall which is guarded by an ugly and frightening woman6. She tells him she will let him fill his cup if he gives her a kiss. Terrified, he runs away. Two other brothers are sent on the same errand and fail in the same way. The oldest brother then goes. He gives the woman a hasty kiss for which she promises him a “hasty visit to Tara,” but no water. Finally Niall goes after the water. The weird woman has, if anything, grown even more terrifying. Despite that, Niall accepts her invitation to share her couch. And in the midst of their love-making, he sees that she has become a beautiful woman. She tells him that in wooing her, he has won Tara - the rulership of Ireland - and she promises him not just the water he came for, but mead, honey and strong ale . And she tells him how to overcome his brothers: he is to ask them to let him speak first in the great assembly at Tara for a day and a night. But after a day and night has passed, when they come to re-claim their right of first speech in the assembly, he is to tell them that it is by day and night that the world passes. In other words, following the advice of the shape-shifting woman by the waterfall, Niall tricks his brothers into yielding the sovereignty of Ireland using the same riddle that Aengus uses to gain the Brú (Joynt, 1910).
Clearly, this poem is an exercise in politics, propaganda even - the chief poet recounting the clan's origin story and its right to rule. One can imagine it being declaimed with great dignity and pomp at an important assembly of the leaders of Ireland. The poet paints Niall as a mythic hero. After a perilous childhood - what hero has an ordinary childhood? - the nine-year old Niall returns in triumph to Tara, and, later, in a ritual circuit around Ireland, performs great deeds that show him to be the rightful heir to the rulership of Ireland. The medieval audience might be reminded of young Cú Chullain's great feats the day he got his arms. But Niall's great deeds aren't displays of arms. His first crucial act is accepting the sexual invitation of the otherworldly woman at the waterfall7. His second is following her advice and asking for first place in the assembly for a day and a night. The affair with the woman at the waterfall would make sense to the medieval audience. It was traditional Irish political theory that the land herself chooses the chieftain, and that the relationship between the land and the people is ratified by a sacred marriage between the chieftain, or king, and the land. This is the same understanding of the relationship between the land, the people and their leader found in “Tochmarc Étaíne”, the saga from which I quoted earlier. And just as this understanding of the meaning and source of the right of kingship would have been familiar to the medieval audience, we have to assume that the riddle of day and night was also familiar, and would make sense to them as a strategem that was sufficient to lead his better-born half-brothers to yield the kingship of Ireland to Niall and his descendants.
One of the final appearances of the riddle that I've been able to find in the old manuscripts has its own interest. It is in the Book of Fermoy, mainly from the 15th century, in the story “Altram Tige Dá Medar” (“The Nurturing of the House of the Two Milk Pails”) (Duncan, 1932). In this story, the hero is Aengus, and he wins the Brú from Elcmar, who is also Aengus's foster father in this version of the story. But it is Manannán who gives Aengus the riddle to use. The story is essentially the same as the others in which Aengus takes the Brú, but there are some very interesting differences. Unlike the other versions, this author stops to analyze the power of the riddle. He describes it as a powerful charm or spell. Though this is implicit in all versions of the story, the other story-tellers leave it to their audience to make that inference. Interestingly, this story-teller declines to speak the riddle itself. You have to wonder why. Is he afraid of it? Would it be disrespectful? But the key innovation of this story-teller is his attribution of the riddle's power to the Christian god.
[G]o thou to Ealcmar and bid him to depart, for that would be a good charm and omen for you, and it would be a loss and grief for him, and it would be expulsion for him, i.e. the charm by which angels came from the King of Heaven, and from the Ruler of the universe, and the charm by which we took away the kingship of Fodla from the Fir Bolg, and the charm by which the sons of Mil took away the sovereignty of Ireland from ourselves again (Duncan, p. 209).
To drive home the source of the riddle's power, the author interrupts the flow of the story to have Aengus ask Manannán, “Is there a god over our gods?'' To which Manannán replies:
There is, indeed,… the one God Almighty who is able to condemn our gods, and whom they are not able to despoil, i.e. the powerful Lord, who made heaven and earth and the sea with (its) wonders, and who made the four elements in entirety (Duncan, p. 210).
Manannán proceeds with this catechism for another several lines.
This, the only version of the stories that has any Christian content, casts an interesting light on the world of the scribes who created these books. How come the other scribes didn't feel the need to “baptize” the story? So far as we know, they were all Christian; the books written in the 12th century were written in monasteries. But preserving knowledge did not begin in the monasteries. According to many scholars, except for commercial matters, writing wasn't used in Ireland before the arrival of Christianity, but a love of learning, and an oral system for preserving it did exist before then. From time immemorial there were hereditary families who were responsible for keeping the people's wisdom tradition. Michael Slavin (2005), commenting on the Mac Fir Bisigh family of Lecan, whose school produced the Yellow Book of Lecan and the Great Book of Lecan in the 14th and 15th centuries, said:
Families like the Mac Fir Bisigh were more than historians, for they carried in their genes a deep and precious strain of wisdom and learning that had its roots back in Druidic times. Their aura of sacredness came not from ordination in the Christian Church but from an inheritance, a conviction and a reputation for knowing that had its origin back in pre-Christian Ireland. After the coming of Patrick they transformed themselves into Christian men of learning and found refuge within the monastic structures of the Celtic Church. But after the great reform of St. Malachy in the twelfth century, there was no longer room for them within Cistercian and Benedictine walls. Herein lay the foundation of new bardic Brehon Law and the historical schools like those of the O'Duignans, Mac Egans, O'Dalys and Mac Fir Bisigh. (p. 33)
Eugene O'Curry, working more than a century earlier, had a similarly deep interest in the ancient Irish wisdom tradition and its place in Irish society. In the first of his lectures collected in the Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, he said:
Even a limited acquaintance with our manuscript records will suffice to show us how the national poet, the historian, and the musician, as well as the man of excellence in any other of the arts or sciences, were cherished and honoured. We find them indeed from a very early period placed in a position not merely of independence, but even of elevated rank; and their persons and property declared inviolate, and protected specially by the law. Thus, an Ollamh, or Doctor in Filidecht8 when ordained by the king or chief, - for such is the expression used on the occasion, - was entitled to rank next in precedence to the monarch himself at table. He was not permitted to lodge, or accept refection when on his travels, at the house of any one  below the rank of a Flaith9. He, that was the Ollamh, was allowed a standing income of “twenty-one cows and their grass” in the chieftain's territory, besides ample refections for himself and for his attendants, to the number of twenty-four; including his subordinate tutors, his advanced pupils, and his retinue of servants. He was entitled to have two hounds and six horses. He was, besides, entitled to a singular privilege within his territory: that of conferring a temporary sanctuary from injury or arrest, by carrying his wand, or having it carried around or over the person or place to be protected. His wife also enjoyed certain other valuable privileges; and similar privileges were accorded to all the degrees of the legal, historical, musical and poetic art below him, according to their rank.
Similar rank and emoluments, again, were awarded to the Seanchaidhe10, or Historian; so that in this very brief reference you will already obtain some idea of the honour and respect which were paid to the national literature and traditions, in the persons of those who were in ancient times looked on as their guardians from age to age (O'Curry, 1861, pp. 2-3).
A very fine picture of the wisdom tradition in Ireland, how strong and deeply rooted in the indigenous culture it is. And this, perhaps, explains why only one of the scribes who wrote the story of Aengus and the Brú felt obliged to give it a Christian cast.
And what was the wisdom that these guardians preserved from age to age? O'Curry lists: “law, history, and philosophy properly so called, as well as … languages, … music, … druidism, and … poetry in all its departments, and the practice of recitation in prose and verse” (1861, p. 2n). What's interesting here is the position of philosophy so high in that list. I have yet to find a treatise in the ancient Irish manuscripts that we would recognize as “philosophical” - plenty of law, plenty of history, plenty of stories, but no philosophy. But O'Curry speaks of “philosophy properly so called”, and suggests as the best translation for file, which he considers the most comprehensive term for guardian of wisdom, “philosopher in the Greek sense of the word” (p. 2n). So he's directing us away from philosophy as it was in his day back to the way it was in ancient Greece. The word philosophy itself is Greek and means love of wisdom. Plato (5th to 4th centuries BCE, from Athens) wrote a magnificent piece in which leading Athenians entertained one another after a banquet by discussing the meaning of love, a conversation which climaxes with Socrates' description of the love of wisdom - philosophy - as the highest form of love (Symposium). Almost all of Plato's works are in this dialogue form, much more like plays than philosophical tracts. Many of Plato's predecessors wrote - more likely, first spoke - in poems. Take a look at the opening lines of the poem by one of the most celebrated of these men, Parmenides (6th to 5th centuries BCE, from the Greek colony of Elea on the west Italian coast):
The mares which carry me as far as my spirit ever aspired
were escorting me, when they brought me and proceeded along the renowned road
of the goddess, which [or, who] brings a knowing mortal to all cities one by one.
On this path I was being brought, on it wise mares were bringing me,
straining the chariot, and maidens were guiding the way.
The axle in the center of the wheel was shrilling forth the bright sound of a musical pipe,
ablaze, for it was being driven forward by two rounded
wheels at either end, as the daughters of the Sun
were hastening to escort [me] after leaving the house of Night
for the light, having pushed back the veils from their heads with their hands.
There are the gates of the roads of Night and Day,
and a lintel and a stone threshold contain them.
High in the sky they are filled by huge doors
of which avenging Justice holds the keys that fit them.
The maidens beguiled her with soft words
and skillfully persuaded her to push back the bar for them quickly from the gates. They made
a gaping gap of the doors when they opened them,
swinging in turn in their sockets the bronze posts
fastened with bolts and rivets. There, straight through them then,
the maidens held the chariot and horses on the broad road.
And the goddess received me kindly, took my
right hand in hers, and addressed me in these words:
Young man, accompanied by immortal charioteers,
who reach my house by the horses which bring you,
welcome - since it was not an evil destiny that sent you forth to travel
this road (for indeed it is far from the beaten path of humans),
but Right and Justice. There is need for you to learn all things -
both the unshaken heart of persuasive [or well-rounded] Truth
and the opinions of mortals, in which there is no true reliance.
But nevertheless you will learn these too - that the things that appear
must genuinely be, being always, indeed, all things(DK 28B1 in McKirahan, 1994, pp. 151-152).
We're very far here from the world of philosophical tracts. This is the world of visions, of journeys to otherworldly places where the pilgrim receives wisdom from otherworldly beings. In no way is the philosopher the source of his teaching. Later in this poem, Parmenides tells us that it is the goddess who imparts the truth to him, his only task to “bring away my story safely when [he has] heard it” (DK 28B2 in McKirahan, 1994, p. 152). In the same spirit, in the Symposium, Socrates presents his theory of love not as his own, but as something taught to him by the priestess / seer Diotima of Mantineia (Symposium 201d).
It may be argued, and it is traditional among commentators on Greek philosophy to argue - to take for granted, really - that saying that a teaching comes from a goddess or a seer is simply a poetic convention. It's just something poets say and nothing factual is being conveyed. There are some opposing voices, not surprisingly frequently women's voices, who think Plato should be taken at his word, that Diotima the seer was a real person and one of Socrates' teachers (See, e.g., Wider, 1986; Waithe, 1987). But even if we take the traditional view that in the Symposium, Plato is using Diotima simply as a dramatic device, and if we agree that Parmenides used the journey to the goddess simply as a conventional way of opening his poem, a way of signaling that what he is about to say is important, this just pushes the issue back. A poetic convention works only if it evokes something familiar to the audience. What is evoked here is that there is important knowledge that comes only from the otherworld. A familiar example from Greece of this time is the Oracle at Delphi, whose otherworldly guidance was sought by people throughout the ancient Mediterranean world for over a thousand years.
What was true of Greece two millennia ago was true well into modern times in Ireland. Particularly in Irish speaking areas, it was understood that filí received the gift of poetry and music from the sí, the otherworld, and people recognized that their poems had prophetic and druidic power (Ó hÓgáin, 1982). Consistent with this, in early writings the very meaning of the word, file (poet, or philosopher) is seer or diviner, and implies occult powers or knowledge (Royal Irish Academy, columns 132-133).
Of course, it’s not just ancient Greeks and indigenous Irish who benefitted from otherworldly knowledge. If you go back far enough, just about every culture nurtured and relied on people who had more than ordinary ability to contact the spirit world. Such people might anticipate what was coming – the good or the bad that was coming – useful for helping the community prepare. Or they might bring back energy that could heal a sick person. Diviners, shamans, medicine men and women, doctors, soothsayers (and since sooth is a Middle English word for truth, literally, truthsayer), these people provided their communities with a bridge to spirit, extending ordinary life out into the mystery. This didn't survive well in the west – what has been called “the west”, the civilizations arising out of the Middle East and Europe - but it did in other civilizations - the civilizations of the Americas: Maya, Inca, Aztec and so on; the civilizations of Asia: India, China, Indonesia, and so on. But even here in the west, it's coming back. There is a hunger for spirit, for connection with the otherworld, and to me, that yearning is one of the important signs of the shift we’re currently going through, and it hints at the nature of the shift – what we’re shifting to.
According to the Maya, this shift marks the end of a 5,200 year cycle. 5,200 years ago in Ireland, they were building Brú na Bóinne and similar places. And Brú na Bóinne is always the setting - and the prize - of the riddle in the Aengus stories. A coincidence? Maybe. But maybe the riddle incorporates a teaching about the nature of the universe that was taught by the filí (philosophers, diviners) at the university (monastery, ashram) that was Brú na Bóinne; that was carried, wrapped in story, down through the centuries by hereditary wisdom keepers; that when writing became acceptable for sacred matters, those stories with their cunningly-hidden treasures were recorded on the skins of cows, some of which survived the vicissitudes of Irish history, and are now cossetted in libraries where they can be seen by privileged scholars; and that exist in image, in transcription, in translation, on the world wide web where they can be seen by everyone.
For this to have happened, the teaching has to have survived without any written record - any record that we have yet to recognize - for about 4,000 years. A very long time, to be sure. A lot to ask of those hereditary wisdom keepers. But maybe they were up to it.
Let's get back to the riddle. The most striking version of it is also likely the oldest we have. It's in a prose story, “De Gabáil in t-Shída” (“On the Taking of the Fairy Hill”) that is one of the three works containing the riddle in the 12th century Book of Leinster. Based on its language, Irish scholars believe this story older than that, perhaps dating from the ninth century (Hull, 1931, p. 54).
In this version, it is the Dagda who is tricked out of the Brú (Síd In Broga in this story); Aengus's birth and conception aren't mentioned. I've reproduced below the 1931 translation by Vernam Hull. Words in parenthesis were added by him. Mac Ooc or Mac Oac, modern Irish, Mac Óg, Young Son, is another name for Aengus. That's a story in itself, but it will have to keep.
Here follows the Seizure of the Fairy Hill.
There was a famous king over the Túatha Dé in Ireland. His name (was) Dagda. Great, then, was his power, even though it belonged to the Mac Miled after the conquest of the country, for the Túatha Dé destroyed the corn and the milk round about the Mac Miled until they made the friendship of the Dagda. Afterwards, he saved their corn and milk.
Now when he was king at first, his might was vast, and it was he who apportioned out the fairy mounds to the men ot the Tuatha Dé, namely Lug Mac Ethnend in Síd Rodrubán (and) Ogma in Síd Aircelltrai, but for the Dagda himself Síd Leithet Lachtmaiga, Oi Asíd, Cnocc Báine, and Brú Ruair. As, however, they say, he had Síd In Broga from the beginning.
Then Mac Oac came to the Dagda in order to petition for land after it had been distributed to each one. He was, moreover, a fosterling to Midir of Brí Léith and to Nindid, the seer.
"I have none for thee", said the Dagda. "I have completed the division".
"Therefore let it be granted to me", said the Mac Ooc, "even a day and a night in thy own dwelling".
That then was given to him.
"Go now to thy following", said the Dagda, "since thou hast consumed thy (alloted) time".
"It is clear", said he, "that night and day are (the length of) the whole world, and it is that which has been given to me".
Thereupon the Dagda went out, and the Mac Ooc remained in his Síd.
Wonderful, moreover, (is) that land. Three trees with fruit are there always, and a pig eternally alive, and a roasted swine, and a vessel with marvellous liquor, and never do they all decrease (Hull, 1931, p. 56-58).
The language here is much sparer than in the 14th century version, and the solution to the riddle is much more starkly put.
night and day are (the length of) the whole world
The translator added the text in parenthesis, and reversed the order of night and day. The Old Irish is:
is laa 7 adaig in bith uile
Literally translated (and that 7 is an early ampersand, so, and), that's:
day and night is the entire bith
I want to stop with the word, bith. Hull translated it world, which is accurate, but it's useful to see what other meanings that word suggested to people of the time. Fortunately, there's a very good dictionary - The Royal Irish Academy Dictionary Based Mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials - a cooperative work by scholars of Irish that has been in progress since 1913. A searchable version of this invaluable resource is available online at eDil - the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language. If you look there for bith, you first notice that there are two headwords for the word. Under the first, there are several definitions, organized into two general categories. In the first category, there are three meanings: (a) the world, (b) land, territory or soil, and (c) existence or life. The second major category has to do with time, and meanings include age or period, and compound temporal expressions where bith indicates perpetual or eternal (Royal Irish Academy, columns 106-108). The second headword for bith refers the reader to buith, for which bith is a variant spelling. Buith is the verbal noun of atta, the substantive verb to be. Thus buith in English is being or existing (Royal Irish Academy, column 239).
So a medieval Irish person hearing bith heard a rich complex of ideas, including the world, the land, being or existence, life, and also continual or perpetual time, and, taken as a verb, the most general activity of all: being or existing. These concepts are basic and vast - everything is included; nothing is left out. What might sound strange to our ears is the presence of life in that list. Is life as broad a category as existence? What about non-living things? That life is one meaning of bith suggests that, in the understanding of the people who used that word, to be and to live were the same thing. They experienced the world as alive. And maybe this isn't so strange after all - important, but not strange. Indigenous people generally experience the world as alive. I was surprised recently to learn that, according to some scholars, ancient Greek philosophers down through Plato, whom I would have thought were fairly far removed from indigenous thinking, also experienced the universe as alive. (See, for example, McDonough, “Plato's Organicism,” particularly sections 1.b and 2.) But our culture has so deeply absorbed the classification schema of Plato's student, Aristotle, in which living beings are sharply distinguished from non-living things, that it has become obvious to us that only some beings are alive. To understand the Irish teaching, we are going to have to find our way back to an earlier sensibility about being. Since it's a sensibility that has existed for most of humanity's 200 thousand year history, it mightn't be that difficult11.
Time is also included in the meaning of bith. So it's interesting that the heart of the riddle, the fundamental teaching, focuses on the way in which the world exists in time:
Day and night is the whole of existence
This doesn't mean simply that time passes in a succession of days and nights. Time also passes in a succession of nows or moments or hours, but those units don't suggest the nature of time in the way day and night do. “Day and night” encompasses the entire universe because the transition of day and night periods is the essential pattern of time, and thus of the world which exists in time. It is the pattern of life - being - itself. Being happens in the endless succession of two irreducible temporal modes: a day like period and a night like period. Having experienced one complete cycle – one day and one night – you have experienced the pattern of all time. This pattern exists in small extents - the day and night of the first level of meaning in the stories we have been looking at. The lesson of the riddle is that it exists in larger extents as well. A familiar example is the year, in which summer is followed by winter. According to the teaching, it exists in still larger extents as well, and in each, a day-like period is followed by a night-like period. And just as the cycle of the year includes cycles of the day, it is reasonable to think that at least some of these successively larger periods include one another, like the layers of an onion, though there may also be cycles that are related to one another in different ways. Interestingly the most familiar cycles reflect movements of our earth in its relation to the sun. Day and night result from the rotation of our earth around its axis, a rotation in which a given place on earth moves from facing towards the sun to facing away from it. Summer and winter result from the earth's revolution around the sun, and the fact that the earth's axis of rotation is tilted with respect to its orbit. It is reasonable to think that larger cycles affecting us also correspond to physical movements of ourselves and our earth in successively larger systems - solar system, galaxy, up to the unimaginably vast universe itself.
When I first wrote the previous paragraph, I used the words, light and dark to generalize the two halves of the time pattern (day and night). It's a natural enough thing to do. Clearly, light and dark are associated with day and night . Other polarities - for instance, male and female – suggest themselves as well. But while I believe polarities like these can flesh out the meaning of day and night in useful ways, if we want to be well guided as we dig into this Irish teaching, we need to follow the text, and maintain our focus on time12.
This understanding of time is broadly astrological, in the sense that time is not felt to be uniform, but rather to have a character which changes and which helps shape events. The German word, zeitgeist - spirit of the time - captures this idea well. It also has in common with astrology a sense that the character of a specific time-period is related to the changing relationships of large bodies in the universe, beginning with our own earth and sun. The notion that time has this nature is at odds with the prevailing western view of time, which, since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, has seen time, along with space, as a neutral framework in which matter plays out its nature. Further, to western scientists, there is no spirit at all, much less a spirit of the time. Spirit has been exiled from our understanding, a fact that may itself be in keeping with the spirit of the time13. To be sure, astrology continues to be practiced, sometimes in surprisingly high places, but it is not considered scientifically respectable, and, more to my point here, it is rare to find people exploring the theory behind the practice, who explore the nature of being, the cosmos, in a way that would ground the practice of astrology. As noted earlier, this abandonment of spirit is more true in the west than in other cultures. We're all aware these days of the Maya calendars, products of the explorations their astronomer priests and priestesses made into the nature of time. Contemporary Maya priests and priestesses apply this understanding to divination (astrology), and to the timing of rituals. Similarly, the wisdom tradition of India, the Vedas, has as one of its branches Jyotish, which is both a guide to the timing of rituals, and a system of astrology. Many westerners, myself included, have turned to these cultures looking for something that's currently missing in our own. It's a great blessing that these traditions still exist, and that there are practitioners willing to share their learning with outsiders. But in keeping with Tata Alejandro's advice to me to study my own tradition, I believe it's also important for us westerners to take on what might be called spiritual archaeology, to dig for what our ancestors taught about these matters, if only because it's apt to be a way of thinking that's more natural to us, a way in which we're more likely to be able to pull our own weight in the great work we humans have ahead of us.
I recently had a surprising realization, an almost eerie confirmation of the centrality of day and night in Irish thinking about the nature of being. Over his long working life, the Irish writer James Joyce wrote just three novels, one a coming of age story, then two much more substantial works, his master works, one set in a single day, the other in a single night - or perhaps a day and a night - a day and a night that, together, include all that is.
The above image is of the entrance stone at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange). It is based on a rubbing that Martin Byrne very kindly gave me. In the last few years, Martin has been adding color to stone age and early Christian art, and when I first saw some of them, I was blown away. I had to try it myself.
The colors were inspired by the Irish Common Blue butterfly (Gormán Coiteann; Polyomattus icarus).