Magical Words: The Power of Speech in Old Irish Texts

[Originally posted on my old blogspot, written after I took a college course called “Age of Beowulf.”]


I am a word nerd; I love words, their meanings, and the connections between them. Therefore I have a tendency to focus on specific words rather than on the overall effect or power or meaning the collective words have. This term I took a course called “The Age of Beowulf,” and it changed the way I think about words to include how words produce an action, and how heavily actions rely on words. The relationship between words and deeds, especially the question of which causes which (i.e. chicken or egg) was a prevalent theme in most of the texts we read, but I was particularly struck by it in the Celtic texts because of the concept of geis (or plural gessa). This is essentially a taboo or spell-like order on someone else, requiring them to operate under those gessa. But words in general are very powerful from the viewpoint of the Celtic texts we read, as we see time and time again.

In the Old Irish lyric, “To Mary and Her Son,” the speaker says, “I call upon you with true words” (Carney 19) “that we may have talk together with the compassion of unblemished heart” (21). Mary, a saint in heaven, is expected to come and speak with her caller because of mere words, almost like a summoning. The speaker expects Mary to listen to him because of his words. In “The World,” another lyric, the speaker says, “Take no oath, take no oath by the sod you stand upon” (41). The implication (taken with the rest of the lyric) is that since oaths are binding but the earth won’t last, the oath will remain but it will be impotent, because its witness is gone. Oaths, statements of words, are more permanent than the earth itself. In the wisdom poetry “The Sayings of Flann Fina,” this idea is complicated by the statement, “Vain speech is the beginning of evil” (Ireland 79). Speech is very powerful; once spoken, it spreads a certain power that enables speaker, listener, or both to act on the vain speech. This emphasizes the negative influence words can impart.

These are examples of how words influence actions, but there are also many instances in Celtic texts where words are blatantly magical, affecting the weather or other people in forceful ways. In “The Irish Life of Brigit,” Brigit communicates through speech with an infant, asking it who its father was. The infant, “thought it had not yet begun to speak” (Davies 153), answered, thereby saving an innocent man from a rape accusation. Birgit also calmed a storm, “stilled the rain and wind” (154), by chanting a verse to God. Brigit’s power is drawn from her spiritual connection with God, and channeled out through words.

This is evocative to the powers druids are shown to have throughout the earlier texts “The Book of Invasions” and “The Second Battle of Mag Tured.” When the Irish druids send a wind to keep the sons of Mil away, Amergin stands up and chants a counter-spell of some sort, beginning with “I invoke the land of Ireland” (Cross 19). This suggests names are very powerful as well. The result of Amergin’s chant is that “Immediately a tranquil calm came to them on the sea” (19). Amergin is a druid, but also one of the “men of learning” (19) Donn refers to, and also a “poet” (21), showing once again how closely connected magic is to words. Words, simple sounds that these druids make, are able to influence and control nature itself.

In The Tain, the gessa that Cuchulainn and the Morrigan place on each other further illustrates the power words have over deeds. When Cuchulainn refuses her proposition, she vows to hinder him in his fights (Kinsella 133). They trade promises of pain to each other until Cuchulainn finishes with, “I’ll hurl a stone at you…and shatter your leg, and you’ll carry that mark forever unless I lift it from you with a blessing” (133). All of these pronouncements eventually happen: “Cuchulainn did to the Morrigan the three things he had sworn” (136). In this episode, their previous meeting and words dictated the actual events in the future and the outcome of what happened.

Additionally, as we saw, words can have both positive and negative results. This is humbling and makes me want to be very careful and aware how I use my words, both in speech and on paper. As an English major, my entire academic life revolves around how well or how foolishly (as is more often the case) I use words to communicate and attempt to affect others. Before this term, I had considered this solely in terms of how I can persuade other people, but now words seem much more volatile and powerful in real life, not just the abstract world of ideas.

All of these examples drawn from the texts show words as having concrete, physical consequences. The power that words can have over people and situations, and their power to create, support, and destroy ideas is amazing and terrifying, and the Celts clearly knew all about this. When ideas move history, from the mundane day to day history of one person to the nation-changing wars and treaties of global history, it shows how absurdly powerful mere words are.

I have two large goals as I move out of this term resulting from this course specifically. The first one is to handle words as I would dynamite: very, very carefully and respectfully. I may not be able to use words to raise or calm storms (although that would be awesome), but how I speak to everyone around me on a daily basis, how I write, how I use Facebook to express myself, how I speak to employers, professors, and peers, are all very powerful forms of communication and directly influence both my own actions and those of others’.

My second new goal is to learn Old Irish.

Works Cited:

Carney, James. Medieval Irish Lyrics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. Print.

Cross, Tom Peete. Ancient Irish Tales. ed. Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1936. Print.

Davies, Oliver. Celtic Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1999. Print.

Ireland, Colin A. Old Irish Wisdom Attributed to Aldfrith of Northumbria. Tempe: Arizona
Center for Medieval Renaissance Studies, 1999. Print.

Kinsella, Thomas. The Táin: From the Irish Epic Táin Bó Cuailnge. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2002. Print.


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