Aengus Óg?

Following the last post where a god or spirit of poetry was identified as a representation of Maponos, I’m following up Bo’s identification of a parallel passage in Cormac’s Glossary. The Glossary is ascribed to Cormac, King and Bishop of Cashel who was killed in battle in 908 though the linguistic evidence suggests a later date for the manuscripts that have survived. Some of the glossarial definitions contain apparently gratuitous stories linked with the words defined, and one such is a story about a Chief Bard of Ireland in the seventh century called Senchán. He is embarking from Ireland to the Isle of Man with a retinue of bards when “a foul-faced lad (gillie) called to them from the shore as if he were mad: ‘let me go with you’.” No-one much likes the look of him. He is described as having pus running out of his ears if anyone presses his forehead; as having a ‘congrus craiche’ (translation uncertain) over the crown of his head as if “the layers of his brain had broken through his skull. Rounder than a blackbird’s egg were his two eyes; blacker than death his face; swifter than a fox his glance; yellower than gold the points of his teeth; greener than holly their base; two shins bare, slender; two heels spiky, black-speckled under him. If the rag that was round him were stripped off it would not be hard for it to go on alone unless a stone were put on it, because of the abundance of its lice.” In spite of his appearance Senchán allowed him on board along the steering oar after he asserted that he would be of more use to him than all the other bards in the boat. They make room for him by all moving to the other side nearly causing the boat to capsize and tell Senchán that he has allowed a monster on board, which, it is said, explains why he was named Senchán Torpeist – ‘Senchán to whom a monster (peist) has come’.

When they reach the Isle of Man they are accosted by an old woman poet whose whereabouts have been unknown for some time. She challenges Senchán to a rhyme-matching competition but he is unable to match her rhyme so the lad does so instead. She tries again, and again the lad matches her rhyme. They take her back to Ireland with them and then see that the lad is no longer the bedraggled ‘monster’ that he was but “a young hero with golden-yellow hair curlier than the cross-trees of small harps: royal raiment he wore, and his form was the noblest that hath been seen on a human being.” At this point the Irish text changes to Latin for the following two sentences: “He went right-hand-wise round Senchán and his people and then disappeared. It is not, therefore, doubtful that he was the Spirit of Poetry.”

While there are parallels with the story from Vaughan, there are also differences. If we can make the ascription to Oengus mac Óc, the god here does not enter the young shepherd as Maponos does, but actually appears in the guise of a ‘gillie’ of horrible appearance. His true(?) appearance, when he adopts it, is of a noble hero. He is not, as in Vaughan’s story, a hunter with arrows and a hawk though (in a later manuscript version) he has a sword. If the Spirit of Poetry is manifest in Oengus in Ireland, and Maponos in Britain and Gaul, and if these seem to share some characteristics with Apollo according to the Romans, we have a lot to go on in discerning the nature of this god. But gods regarded as ‘equivalent’ by Roman commentators and by mythographers are often more elusive in the forms they take in particular locations. There is more yet to be said …


Bo said...

Yes, there certainly is: the Poematis Spiritus may well be intended to be O mac O, though: the description is extremely close to that of him in the sagas.

There's an obvious link to Taliesin too: the spirit of poetry combines in one being the ugly and radiant figures of Afagddu and Taliesin. (Pat Ford implied that the bubbling pus coming from the lad's head is a kind of parodic inversion of the fluid of inspiration! Do you know his article "The Blind, The Dumb, and The Ugly: Aspects of Poets and Their Craft in Early Ireland and Wales," in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 19 (1990), pp 27-40?

Heron said...

No I don't know that article I'll certainly have a look at it. Thanks. Yes, Taliesin too of course.

John Rhŷs thought the the Poematis Spiritus was a corpse in advanced stage of decomposition on the grounds that ancient poetry traced its origin to the world of the dead. But Stokes, who quotes this in his notes, is dismissive. And quite apart from anything else, this misses the obviously humorous relish, (reminiscent of Culhwch) in the description. I love the bit about the lice!

Bo said...

Yes!! what's funny about it is that it takes the standard colours of a beautiful person and applies them to the wrong bits: hair should be 'yellower than gold', not the points of the teeth, and brows should be 'blacker than death' (normally 'blacker than a beetle's back'), not the face; a cloak should be 'greener than holly', not the teeth-bases! Roundness is normally a quality praised in the knees, not the eyes (he's goggle-eyed!).

It's a clever playing around with a standard set of formulae for beauty.