The Song of Amergin (a mistranslation)

Thus far I’ve tried to avoid Irish language poetry, partly because it reminds me of the shame of not speaking my indigenous tongue, and partly because such poems come a little too close to home sometimes.

That said, I’ve tackled Scatha’s warning to Cuchullain in the past, so I guess there’s not really a rule as such here. Therefore, I have added to the hilltop of poetry translations yet another version of the Song of Amergin.

Amergin, in short, was one of the Milesian invaders who displaced the Tuatha de Danaan, or Children of Danu, from Ireland. The latter later morphed in mythology to become the undying, the supernatural race of the Aos Si, or people of the Sidhe, ie the underworld.

The Milesians, or sons of Mil, were according to the same mythological history, Celts who came to Ireland from Iberia originally to invade. This history is told in Ireland’s mythological repository, the aptly named Leabhar Gabala, or Book of Invasions, for many were the invasions of Ireland.

Amergin comes to Ireland therefore as a conqueror, intending to displace the people of the land and take ownership himself. It is told that as the Milesians approached the coast of Ireland, Amergin was suddenly possessed of poetic inspiration and thus emerged his enigmatic song.

I don’t wish to comment or critique it too much. It is after all a product of ancient pagan imagination, likely filtered through layers of Christian sentiment before reaching us in its current forms. What we can safely say is that Amergin expresses the confidence of the conqueror, but a very unusually expressed confidence, in which he already seems to be merging with the flora and fauna, the geography and meteorology, of Ireland itself.

In this sense, he is declaring himself to be a suitable king and custodian of the land, for in that scapegoat primitive society, the wellbeing of the ruler was intimately braided with that of the kingdom and the land itself. Often, in times of famine, a king would be put to death to placate the land and the gods. In his song, therefore, Amergin displays an expansive kind of amor fati. He is accepting this gamble, this fate, and pledging his capacity to fulfill the role of leadership by himself becoming one with the land.

Amergin, however, did not become king, or Ri, of Ireland. He was a bard and sorcerer, a druid not a ruler. Instead the island was divided (then like now) into two kingdoms, north and south, each ruled by one of his brothers. This being Ireland, of course that led to its own difficulties later, even as Amergin became the chief poet and judge of the land.

We can perhaps accept that, in his divinely inspired song, he had at least earned that title. The song is, in a sense, the first judgement he handed down.

“The Coming of the Sons of Miled,” illustration by J. C. Leyendecker in T. W. Rolleston’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911.

The Song of Amergin

I am the air that moves the sea.

I am the sea wave moving.

I am the ocean’s bellow.

I am the seven-antlered stag.

I am the ox who fought seven times.

I am the hawk descending from the cliff.

I am the beam of sunlight in a dewdrop.

I am the most beautiful of flowers.

I am a boar in courage.

I am a salmon through water.

I am a flood on the plain.

I am a hilltop of sorcery and poems.

I am the tip of the battle spear.

I am the god who ignites fires in the mind.

Who is it who sheds light where the mountains meet?

Who knows what lies within the unhewn tomb?

Who declares the ages of the moon?

Who tells the place where the sun sleeps?

If not I?