The Four Trees of the Cross

Both Kuno Meyer (in ZCP 8, p. 107) and Whitley Stokes (in Goidelica, p. 66) published editions of a short medieval Irish poem on the ‘four trees’ – cedar, cypress, pine and birch – which were thought to have gone into the making of the cross on which Christ was crucified. The poem is preserved in the lower margin of p. 5 of Trinity College Dublin MS H. 3. 18. But when I compared the manuscript to the editions by Meyer and Stokes, I realised that both had made (different) errors in their reading of the manuscript, so I offer here a fresh reading of the poem, along with an English translation. Italics denote expansion of abbreviations and * denotes the punctum delens over the preceding letter.

 

Ceithre fedha – fath gin gheis –

i croich mic Dé dia f*egmais:

cedir, cupris is gíus gann,

bethe ban i mbúi insgribenn.

 

Cedir in cos feibh adcuas,

gíus in crann boi etarbhuas,

a tenga ba cuipris cain,

ba bethe clar a titail.

 

Reliquary_True_Cross_c800_Byzantine

Byzantine reliquary of the True Cross, c. 800 (image from Wikimedia commons)

 

Four trees – a subject without prohibition –

in the cross of the son of God if we examine it:

cedar, cypress and slender pine,

white birch in which was the writing.

 

Cedar the shaft as has been told,

pine the arm that was aloft,

its tongue was smooth cypress,

birch was the board of its title.

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