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The Song of Amergin: Modern English Translations

The "Song of Amergin" and its origins remain mysteries for the ages. The ancient poem, perhaps the oldest extant poem to originate from the British Isles, or perhaps not, was written by an unknown poet at an unknown time at an uncertain location. The unlikely date 1268 BC was furnished by Robert Graves, who translated the "Song of Amergin" in his influential book The White Goddess (1948). Graves remarked that "English poetic education should, really, begin not with Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin." Recounted in the Leabhar Gabhála (The Book of Invasions), the poem has been described as an invocation, as a mystical chant, as an affirmation of unity, as sorcery, as a creation incantation, and as the first spoken Irish poem. I have also seen it titled "The Rosc of Amergin" with a rosc being a war chant or incantation. A sort of magical affirmation to give one power over one’s enemies.

The Song of Amergin (I)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I am the sea blast
I am the tidal wave
I am the thunderous surf
I am the stag of the seven tines
I am the cliff hawk
I am the sunlit dewdrop
I am the fairest of flowers
I am the rampaging boar
I am the swift-swimming salmon
I am the placid lake
I am the summit of art
I am the vale echoing voices
I am the battle-hardened spearhead
I am the God who inflames desire
Who gives you fire
Who knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen
Who announces the ages of the moon
Who knows where the sunset settles

In my translation above, I have deliberately worded the last four lines so that they can be either affirmations, or questions, or both. There are longer versions of the poem, but this is the version that strikes me as having the strongest ending, so I'm going to stick with it as my personal favorite. I will follow this translation with a second translation, then with an original poem I wrote under the influence of the ancient song.

The original poem:

Am gaeth i m-muir,
Am tond trethan,
Am fuaim mara,
Am dam secht ndirend, [dam = ox, deer, stag?]
Am séig i n-aill, [séig = hawk, eagle or vulture?]
Am dér gréne,
Am cain lubai,
Am torc ar gail,
Am he i l-lind,
Am loch i m-maig,
Am brí a ndai,
Am bri danae,
Am bri i fodb fras feochtu,
Am dé delbas do chind codnu,
Coiche nod gleith clochur slébe?
Cia on co tagair aesa éscai?
Cia du i l-laig fuiniud gréne?

The Song of Amergin (II)
a more imaginative translation by Michael R. Burch, after Robert Bridges

I am the stag of the seven tines;
I am the bull of the seven battles;
I am the boar of the seven bristles;

I am the flood cresting plains;
I am the wind sweeping tranquil waters;
I am the swift-swimming salmon in the shallow pool;

I am the sunlit dewdrop;
I am the fairest of flowers;
I am the crystalline fountain;

I am the hawk harassing its prey;
I am the demon ablaze in the campfire; 
I am the battle-hardened spearhead;

I am the vale echoing voices;
I am the sea's roar;
I am the surging sea wave;

I am the summit of art;
I am the God who inflames desires;
I am the giver of fire;

Who knows the ages of the moon;
Who knows where the sunset settles;
Who knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen.

Translator's Notes:

I did not attempt to fully translate the longer version of the poem. I have read several other translations and none of them seem to agree. I went with my grokked impression of the poem: that the "I am" lines refer to God and his "all in all" nature, a belief common to the mystics of many religions. I stopped with the last line that I felt I understood and will leave the remainder of the poem to others. Amergin's ancient poem reminds me of the Biblical god Yahweh/Jehovah revealing himself to Moses as "I am that I am" and to Job as a mystery beyond human comprehension. If that's what the author intended, I tip my hat to him or her, because despite all the intervening centuries the message still comes through splendidly. If I'm wrong, I have no idea what the poem is about, but I still like it.

The Song of Amergin
an original poem by Michael R. Burch

He was our first bard
and we feel in his dim-remembered words
the moment when Time blurs . . .

and he and the Sons of Mil
heave oars as the breakers mill
till at last Ierne—green, brooding—nears,

while Some implore seas cold, fell, dark
to climb and swamp their flimsy bark
. . . and Time here also spumes, careers . . .

while the Ban Shee shriek in awed dismay
to see him still the sea, this day,
then seek the dolmen and the gloam.

Who wrote the poem? That's a good question and all "answers" seem speculative to me. Amergin has been said to be a Milesian: one of the sons of Mil who allegedly invaded and conquered Ireland sometime in the island's deep, dark, mysterious past. The Milesians were (at least theoretically) Spanish Gaels. According to the Wikipedia page:

Amergin Glúingel ("white knees"), also spelled Amhairghin Glúngheal or Glúnmar ("big knee"), was a bard, druid and judge for the Milesians in the Irish Mythological Cycle. He was appointed Chief Ollam of Ireland by his two brothers the kings of Ireland. A number of poems attributed to Amergin are part of the Milesian mythology. One of the seven sons of Míl Espáine, he took part in the Milesian conquest of Ireland from the Tuatha Dé Danann, in revenge for their great-uncle Íth, who had been treacherously killed by the three kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann: Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine. They landed at the estuary of Inber Scéne, named after Amergin's wife Scéne, who had died at sea. The three queens of the Tuatha Dé Danann, (Banba, Ériu and Fódla), gave, in turn, permission for Amergin and his people to settle in Ireland. Each of the sisters required Amergin to name the island after each of them, which he did: Ériu is the origin of the modern name Éire, while Banba and Fódla are used as poetic names for Ireland, much as Albion is for Great Britain. The Milesians had to win the island by engaging in battle with the three kings, their druids and warriors. Amergin acted as an impartial judge for the parties, setting the rules of engagement. The Milesians agreed to leave the island and retreat a short distance back into the ocean beyond the ninth wave, a magical boundary. Upon a signal, they moved toward the beach, but the druids of the Tuatha Dé Danann raised a magical storm to keep them from reaching land. However, Amergin sang an invocation calling upon the spirit of Ireland that has come to be known as The Song of Amergin, and he was able to part the storm and bring the ship safely to land. There were heavy losses on all sides, with more than one major battle, but the Milesians carried the day. The three kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann were each killed in single combat by three of the surviving sons of Míl, Eber Finn, Érimón and Amergin.

It has been suggested that the poem may have been "adapted" by Christian copyists, perhaps monks. An analogy might be the ancient Celtic myths that were "christianized" into tales of King Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad and the Holy Grail.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
The Best Poetry Translations of Michael R. Burch
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Tegner's Drapa
Whoso List to Hunt
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

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