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I'm placing this venerable essay on the Web to forward  discussion as we pursue reconstructing the beliefs and practices of pre-Christian Celts. All errors are my own, as I typed it in by hand, and corrections should be emailed to the address below.

Imbas Forosnai


Nora K. Chadwick

Scottish Gaelic Studies, vol 4, part 2
Oxford University Press (1935)

    Imbas Forosnai is the subject of an entry in Cormac's Glossary. This entry is of special interest for two reasons. In the first place, it purports to give us a recipe of the means employed by the ancient Irish poets (filid) to obtain inspiration. In the second place, in an interesting colophon, it claims to tell us something specific of Saint Patrick's attitude to the filid and to poetry. This attitude is represented as highly judicial. Certain elements in the file's art and practice are commended, others are condemned. In the following brief study and attempt is made to interpret this interesting entry in the light of some allusions to similar mantic practices contained in other early Irish texts. It is hoped that it may be possible by this method to come to a clearer understanding of the sources or the milieu from which the author of the entry derives his material. In saying this, however, I am well aware that I cannot hope to solve more than a modicum of the obscurities of the entry by this method. But where so much is veiled perhaps any effort to penetrate the obscurity may not be wholly unwelcome.

    It need hardly be stated at the outset that the entry is both difficult and obscure. Indeed, the following translation by Stokes is offered rather as a basis to work from-a kind of schedule of our terms of reference-than an authoritative interpretation of the text. The concluding portions of the passage in particular are obscure in the extreme, and it is chiefly in the hopes of approximating more closely to an understanding of them that I have put together these brief notes on certain aspects of Irish mantic tradition. In doing so I am aware that any results which we may obtain can have only a partial value since I am not qualified to deal with the philological evidence, and must therefore leave this to others. In the following brief study it is proposed, first of all, to note some of the occurrences of these same difficult phrases in other contexts, more especially in the Irish technical treatises on learned and mantic literature published by Professor Thurneyson, to and refer to one or two actual examples of the types of poetry which are cited under these names in such treatises. We will then turn to the sagas to see how Irish tradition represents the mantic practice in actual operation. And, finally, we will consider the results of this examination in relation to some parallel evidence relating to similar phenomena in Celtic Britain.

    The passage on Imbas forosnai in Cormac's Glossary (Sanas Cormaic) was edited and translated by the late Whitley Stokes several times. First we may mention the text and translation of Laud 610, fol.79A, in his edition and translation of the Tripartite Life of St Patrick, Part II. (Rolls Series, 1887), p. 568f. Before this he had given a translation of the first part of the passage from the Lebor Brecc and the Book of Leinster in his introduction to Three Irish Glossaries (London, 1862), p. xxxvi. Finally, in 1894, he published the text and translation of the fragment of Cormac's Glossary in the Bodleian Library at Oxford in the Transactions of the Philological Society (1891-4). The translation of our passage occurs on p. 156f. As this series is not easily accessible to the general reader, I will give Stokes rendering of our passage from the Bodleian fragment in full.

"Imbas Forosna, 'Manifestation that enlightens': (it) discovers what thing soever the poet likes and which he desires to reveal. Thus then is that done. The poet chews a piece of the red flesh of a pig, or a dog, or a cat, and puts it then on a flagstone behind the door-valve, and chants an incantation over it, and offers it to idol gods, and calls them to him, and leaves them not on the morrow, and then chants over his two palms, and calls again idol gods to him, that his sleep may not be disturbed. Then he puts his two palms on his two cheeks and sleeps. And men are watching him that he may not turn over and that no one may disturb him. And then it is revealed to him that for which he was (engaged) till the end of a nómad (three days and nights), or two or three for the long or the short (time?) that he may judge himself (to be) at the offering. And therefore it is called Imm-bas, to wit, a palm (bas) on this side and a palm on that around his head. Patrick banished that and the Tenm láida 'illumination of song,' and declared that no one who shall do that shall belong to heaven or earth, for it is a denial of baptism.

"Dichetal do chennaib, extempore incantation, however, that was left, in right of art, for it is science that causes it, and no offering to devils is necessary, but a declaration from the ends of his bones at once."

    A translation of the first part of the entry was also made by K. Meyer, and published in the Archaeological Review, Vol. I, 1888, p. 303, footnote. As this translation differs in some details from Stokes's, and as it is also somewhat inaccessible, I quote it below for purposes of comparison.
"The Imbas Forosnai sets forth whatever seems good to the seer (file) and what he desires to make known. It is done thus. The seer chews a piece of the red flesh of a pig, or a dog, or a cat, and then places it on a flagstone behind the door. He sings an incantation over it, offers it to the false gods, and then calls them to him. And he leaves them not on the next day, and chants then on his two hands, and again calls his false gods to him, lest they should disturb his sleep. And he puts his two hands over his two cheeks till he falls asleep. And they watch by him lest no one overturn him and disturb him till everything he wants to know is revealed to him, to the end of nine days, or of twice or thrice that time, or, however long he was judged at the offering."
    Stoke's rendering of the latter part of our passage is not altogether happy, and, indeed, Stokes himself remarked (p. 156) in a note on the entry, 'my translation of this difficult article is merely tentative.' Meyer does not venture to translate this latter portion. In regard to the main portion of the entry, however, Stokes and Meyer appear to be in substantial agreement, the only important differences being (1) that the passage in which, according to Stokes's translation of the Bodleian text, the seer 'calls the idol gods to him that his sleep may not be disturbed' (i.e. presumably by others) is rendered by Meyer, 'he calls his false gods to him lest they should disturb his sleep' (i.e., presumably the gods themselves); and (2) that according to Stokes's translation of the Bodleian text the seer is watched in order to prevent him from turning over (i.e., by his own volition); whereas Meyer's translation seems to imply that it is the false gods who watch by him lest someone overturn him. Minor divergences between the various texts also occur; but the general sense of the passage appears to remain fairly constant.

    Starting, then, with these renderings by Stokes and Meyer as a basis, we may ask: What is the nature of the imbas which St Patrick is said to have condemned, and what is the difference between the imbas and the sous ? The latter seems generally to have reference to scientific, overt art and knowledge, as opposed to the occult art of manticism. Sous is acquired by legitimate means, generally by Christian learning, but Christian revelation is not excluded. Imbas is clearly opposed to sous, and seems to have reference, if we may judge from the text before us, to occult art and knowledge, acquired through mantic revelation.

    The etymology of the words has been discussed recently by Professor Thurneysen, who cites an early gloss in the Introduction to the Senchas Mor, where it is stated that the word imbas is a compositional form with fius(s), 'knowledge,' or with the neuter fess, just as so-us, so-as, literally, 'good knowledge,' often with reference to poetry. The words of the gloss are as follows:

.i. in sui fili dafursannand no dafáillsigend imad a sofesa (.i. dofuarascaib a soas).
    In this derivation- Thurneysen points out- the glossator is right, imbas being derived from *imb-fiuss or *imb-fess. The gloss is interesting, so Thurneyson holds, in that it is quite independent of the influence of the passage in Cormac's Glossary ; cf. however p. 129 below,

    Thurneysen emphasises the absurdity of the derivation of the term imbas in the passage in Cormac, and in a later gloss to the Introduction to the Senchas Mor, reference to which will be made later. He argues further that the whole entry in the Glossary is a fabric of the author's imagination, built up on this spurious etymology, and points to several instances in which the expression imbas forosnai occurs in sagas without an accompanying description of the mantic technique. He casts doubt on the value of the reference to St Patrick, regarding the statement that the saint banished certain mantic practices as a conjecture of the author of Cormac's Glossary, who was, perhaps, influenced by the fact that the examples of imbas forosnai and tenm laida cited in the sagas all relate to pre-Christian times.

    Of the absurdity of the derivation of imbas, as given in Cormac's Glossary there can be no doubt, though it is not impossible that it may have been suggested to the author by the habit of the filid or sages -as described in the sagas- of covering their faces or otherwise seeking darkness and privacy before giving mantic utterances. We shall see later that there is some ground for suspecting that such was the traditional practice. There can be no doubt, also, that Thurneysen is right in regarding the prohibition ascribed to Saint Patrick as a conjecture or deduction on the part of the author of the Glossary. We may be equally certain that Thurneysen is right in supposing that in no part of the entry is the author drawing on his own experience or his personal knowledge of contemporary practice. On the other hand, it is difficult to accept Thurneysen's conclusion that the picture which the author of the entry gives us of the practice of the fili is wholly imaginary or based entirely on a spurious etymology. The evidence which leads Thurneysen to this conclusion appears to be largely negative in character. He points out that in the instances which he cites from the sagas where reference is made to imbas forosnai, no reference is made to mantic sleep, or to elaborate technique, such as that described in our entry. In addition he refers to the nuts of imbas (Cuill Crimaind) which occur in certain texts, and which suggest quite a different process for the acquisition of imbas.

    Yet when we consider the amount of variation existing between one version of an Irish saga and another, and the summary form in which much of the narrative has been committed to writing, we may well ask the question: Can one safely assume that any of the texts give us a full description of the procedure of Fedelm and Scathach? Had the redactor of the passages in which they figure given us an account of their technique, and has this technique differed from that described by the author of our entry, Thurneysen's argument would have been greatly strengthened; but this is not the case. It is true that when Finn's finger or thumb has been trapped in the door of the sid-mound, and he proceeds to suck it, his imbas enlightens him. But is it clear exactly how this comes about? We shall see presently that the saga in which this incident occurs is a difficult and obscure one, notwithstanding the fact that we possess several versions of it. We shall also see that several possible explanations offer themselves as to how Finn's enlightenment comes about by this action. I do not think that these alternative explanations are all at variance with the entry in Cormac's Glossary. It is true that the nuts of imbas, e.g. the Cuill Crimaind cited by Professor Thurneysen, suggest quite a different procedure by which imbas is acquired. This will be referred to later.

    Turning now to the text of the entry in the Glossary itself, we may note that several of the phrases occurring in the difficult portion of our entry have the appearance of technical terms. Imbas forosnai and tenm laida are well known to be such. But what are dichetal di chennaib and aisneis di chennaib (a)chnaime ?

    To determine more fully the nature of these technical terms, it may be of interest to notice some occurrences of identical and similar terms in the metrical tractates preserved in the Book of Ballymote and elsewhere, and also preserved in certain other technical treatises of a similar character. Here we find these technical terms figuring largely in the course of education prescribed for the filid. In a gloss to a passage on the seven poetical grades contained in the Utraicecht Becc, or 'Small Primer', we are told that there are three things required of the ollam-poet, viz., the ' teinm laegda,' and the 'imus forosnad' and ' dichetal do chennaib,' as the Nemed-Judgments say: "three things which dignify the dignities of a poet, 'tenm laegda,' 'imus forosnad,' 'dichedul do cennaib.'"

    According to the second of the Metrical Tractates published by Thurneysen from the Book of Ballymote, the Book of Leinster, etc., the fili had to learn in the eighth year of his training, among other things, three songs, viz., imbas forosnai, tenm laida and dichetal do chennaib na tuaithe. In the same tractate we are told that in the 12th year of his training, a fili is expected to know 12 rochetla, of which nine are enumerated, the second being cetal do chennaib, with which Thurneysen associates dichetal do chennaib na tuaithe of the eighth year. In the third of the Metrical Tractates published by Thurneysen we again find in close association the tenm laida, the imbas forosnai, and the dichetal, and in a passage in LL. (30d) we find it stated that tenm laida belongs to the fourteen streams of poetry (srotha eicsi). There can be no doubt, therefore, that imbas forosnai, tenm laida and dichetal do chennaib are three technical terms, which are closely and constantly associated together in relation to the art of the filid. It may be added here that the three expressions, tenm laida, imbas forosnai, and dichetal di chennaib, translated by Meyer as 'illumination of song,' 'knowledge which illuminates,' and 'extempore incantation' respectively, are associated together also in the Macgnimartha Find, (?)19, to which fuller reference will be made below.

    With these is associated in Cormac's Glossary what appears to be a fourth technical spell term, the aisneis di chennaib a chname. This close association is found also in the second of the Metrical Tractates, where in the examples of various metres cited, No. 123 is cetal do chennaib, while No. 125 is cetal na haisnese. It is possibly worth noting that in the example immediately following the cetal na haisnese the words mo carusa cnaimine are found in all three texts. We have already seen that Thurneysen associates this cetal do chenaib characteristic of the twelfth year of training with the dicetal do chennaib na tuaithe of the eighth. We may therefore compare the construction of the aisneis do chennaib a chnamae with dichetal do chennaib na tuaithe, and with imbass forosnai dia foirciunn which occurs in several MSS. of the account of the Verba Scathaige, and to which further reference will be made later.

    These expressions are all obscure. They appear to represent something in the nature of rubrics, i.e., phrases extracted from texts of spells or of mantic processes; but it is clear that they have now come to serve in many cases, as titles of the spells themselves. The variation in the number of words given, e.g., in dichetal di chennaib, etc., rather suggests this. If this surmise is correct, it is manifest that it would be absurd to attempt to translate them in any syntactical relation to the rest of our text, though we may still hope to interpret them. Meyer and others translate do (di) chennaib as 'extempore,' though O'Davoran glossed it 'continuo.' The meaning 'extempore' hardly fits the context in the Preface to the Amra Choluib Chille, in which the saint is represented as reproving Dallan Forgall for reciting a poem to him during his life which was only suitable for a dead man, '(?) is do chennaib dano do trial Dallán a dudin do denam.' The expression dia foirciunn, to which we have referred above, is translated by Thurneysen as 'um ihn zu vollenden.'

    With the expression dichetal do chennaib we may compare do cendaib colla (? for collan) in the Gloss to the Introduction to the Senchas Mor; dicetal di cennaib coll in Laud 610, 57 b; and dicetul do chollaib cend in Rawl. B. 512, 114 b. If we accept Thurneysen's translation the word cenn in these expressions would be translated in the sense of 'the future,' and dicetal do chennaib in the sense of 'to chant in prophetic strains,' and this must, I think, be the sense which it has come to bear in many of the passages where it is found, though there can be little doubt that it was originally used in another and more literal sense, as we shall see later. The phrase cited from Rawl. B 512, 114 b may then mean 'chanting by means of the hazels of prophecy.' To the hazels of prophecy also we shall return later. We may , however, compare a passage in the gloss in the 'Small Primer,' which enumerates the privileges of poets, dicedul dichendaib .i. dul do a cend adana focoir in cenda i act am adb asnedat gumradud. We may refer also to the phrase dicetal do ceandaibh cnoc no cnatarbarc which occurs as a part of a gloss to the poem ascribed in the Leabhar na Gabhala to the fili Amargin as he landed in Ireland, and which is translated by Macalister and MacNeill: 'incantation from the tops of mountains or of ships.'

    We are fortunate in possessing examples of the art of the filid which bear as their titles all the rubrics or technical terms which occur in the closing lines of the passage from Cormac's Glossary which we have been considering. One of the fullest examples of a verse sung 'through imbas forosnai' (triasa n-imbas forosnai) is the poem attributed to Finn when he tracks Ferchess and avenges on him the death of Mac Con. The text will be found in the story of Ailill Aulom, Mac Con, and Find Ua Baisene, to which fuller reference will be made below. A tentative translation is given by Meyer as follows: -

'Here is the abode of Ferchess, at Ess Mage ....swiftly after great deeds; a great heroic champion has fallen swiftly after great deeds. To my lordly god I swear the oath of everyone in the world a ... deed will be avenged, Mac Con was slain here.'
    Another example of a poem (dicetal) chanted through imbas forosnai occurs in the story of Finn and the Man in the Tree. Here we are told that when Finn finds his servant disguised in the tree he puts his thumb into his mouth, and when he takes it out again his imbas illumines him (fortnosna a imbus) and he chants the following rhetorics:
'Con fri lon leth cno contethain cotith indithraib Dercc Corra comol fri hich ni ba filliud fobaill a uball fin mblais cona fricarbaith mac ui co dedail Daigre.'
Whereupon he recognises his servant and declares his identity.

As a further example of imbas forosnai (here, immus forosnudh) we may refer to the following brief passage which is quoted in Tractate III. (no. 187) of the Metrical Tractates.'

Fegaid uaib sair fothuiadinmuir muad milach adba ron rebach rán rogab lan linad.
The same passage is quoted also in 'Tractate' II. (No. 24), where in the text from the Book of Leinster, the poem is attributed to Finn.

An example of the tenm laida (here, tedmleoda) is given in 'Tractate' III. immediately before the passage just cited relating to imbas forosnai. The passage is as follows:

Amhairbthese mongthigi mhinchuile asalchide
sinnchaidhe salachluim
imarith galaidhe imcleacaire abrataire
imarith galaidhe imcleacaire abrataire
inbecuidhe ingataile
incetaile rigataile
nichetaile inlataile
indleacaile apaidhe acaite anachlaim
    As an example of cetal do chennaib, reference may be made to the poem contained in the first of the 'Metrical Tractates' (No. 123), published by Thurneysen. Here it is actually cited as an example of cetal do chennaib; but the same poem is also quoted in the Leabhar na Gabhala, where it is attributed to the fili Amargin, and where it is said to have been recited by him when he first set foot on Irish soil.

    The poem is too long to quote here in full, and a few lines will suffice to give an idea of its form and content. -

Amm goeth i muirAmm tonn trethain,
Am fuaim mara
Am dam setir . . .
Coiche notglen clochar slebe?
Cia seacht siecht sith gan eccla?
Cis ( sic ) non dogar eassa uiscci?
Cia ber a buar a tigh Teathra? . . .
Cainte gaeth.
which Macalister and MacNeill translate as follows:
I am wind on the sea.
I am a wave of the ocean,
I am the roar of the sea.
I am a powerful ox . . .
Who clears the stone-place of the mountain?
What the place in which the setting of the sun lies?
Who has sought peace without fear seven times?
Who names the waterfalls?
Who brought his cattle from the house of Tethra? . . .
A wise satirist.
    In the second of the 'Metrical Tractates,' where examples of various metres are cited, the following passage is given as an example of cetal na haisnese :
Adruid adoini dia huas domun dindnisnech ruithre adaitfrifebru fuilged forta bith lalaile ifailsid lasuba lam dia dilgedach rodaelb imniulu nemthech.
    This text, as has been pointed out by Stokes, is identical with a laid or song which occurs in the story of Morann contained in the Echtra Cormaic, etc. ('The Irish Ordeals and Cormac's Adventures in the Land of Promise). Here we are told that when Morann was born, a membrane covered his head, which was subsequently removed by immersion in the sea. As the ninth wave washed over him the membrane separated, releasing his head, whereupon he sang the laid which Stokes translates as follows:
'Worship, ye mortals,
God over the beautiful world!
.  .  .  wherein is a festival with joyance
With my forgiving God,
Who formed about clouds a heavenly house.'
Morann, whose laid is identical with the example of cetal na haisnese in the 'Metrical Tractates,' afterwards became a great sage. It is interesting to note that in this particular text of the 'Metrical Tractates,' the example of cetal na haisnese occurs as No. 125 of the examples of metres cited. The example of the metre cited as No. 123 is cetal do chendaib. The aisneis, or cetal na haisnese and the cetal do chendaib are therefore closely associated together in the traditional répertoire of the filid, and may be presumed to be connected in some way with one another.

    Why, then, is the dicetal di chennaib allowed to remain 'in the order of art,' and what is its association with the aisneis dichennaib a chname ? The example of the aisneis just referred to appears to be, in its present form, a Christian hymn. If this interpretation given by Stokes is correct, it is easy to see why St. Patrick is said to have permitted it to remain in the 'order of art,' since it served as a declaration or testification to the Christian faith. In other words, it has been transformed from a heathen spell to a Christian hymn - a process for which analogies may be traced in Anglo-Saxon poetry.  From the context in which it occurs, and from its close association with dicetal di chennaib it is possible that the latter form of incantation may have undergone a similar transformation.

    It is not necessary, however, to assume such a transformation for the latter in order to account for St. Patrick's tolerance. The primary meaning of the words cetal and dicetal, is simply 'chanting.' Because the chanting of the filid was believed to be potent the words came to be used commonly with the sense of 'incantation,' as in the dicel in druad in the Tripartite Life of St Patrick. That its use was not restricted to magical songs is proved, however, by the use of the word cetal in the curriculum of the filid in Text II. of the 'Metrical Tractates' (p. 63), where among the rochetal, we read of the 'cetal na haisnese,' a poetical summons to the adoration of God (cf. p. 12 above), and two cetal of the 'glorification' (noud) including Fiac's Hymn to St Patrick and Broccan's Hymn to St. Bridget .

    From the examples cited it is clear that the rubrics or technical terms which we are considering are associated especially with the filid and other mantic persons. Moreover, they all appear to be closely bound up with the art of poetry. It would seem, indeed, from the 'Metrical Tractates' that they are here treated as titles of distinctive poetical forms or metres, though we may suspect that this development is due in some measure to the schematisation of Christian antiquarian learning. It is probably due to their inclusion in the list of metres and in the curriculum of the filid that the terms have sometimes been spoken of by scholars as if they were themselves the title of actual charms. It would seem, indeed, in certain cases that our terms were so used. But that this was not so in every case is clear from the text in Cormac's Glossary under discussion, where imbas forosnai is described, not as a charm, but as a process of revelation brought on by a mantic sleep. That the other terms which occur at the close of the text also had originally a practical bearing, and relate to various phases of the mantic experience, would seem to be indicated by the prose sagas in which they occur, and which we will consider as briefly as possible.

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