Tales from the MA, Part I

Deborah Guidera O’Rourke, an MA student in Medieval Irish at Maynooth University, introduces us to ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’. Deborah has just submitted her thesis – a commentary on the ‘eschatological prophecy’ section of the Colloquy – for examination:

The Irish people have a great fondness for riddles and testing each other’s knowledge and, coming from a strong agricultural background, we also have an on-going obsession with the weather, continuously trying to predict the future and what to expect! So, naturally an old Irish text such as Immacallam in Dá Thuarad or ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’ would appeal to our interest. This tenth-century text sees a young poet Néde studying in Scotland when he hears of his father’s death and he returns home to claim the position of chief poet, which has been passed to an older, wiser poet Ferchertne. Encouraged by Briccriu Poison-tongue (so named for his ability to encourage people to do wrong!), Néde, still not experienced enough to discern what he should do, puts on the poet’s cloak and a false beard and sits in the ollam or chief poet’s chair. However, he is challenged by Ferchertne, and a battle of wits ensues, each testing the other’s skill in a series of obscure riddling questions and answers; such as “from whence have you come?”, to which Néde replies “from the heels of a sage”, thus indicating his former position as a student, whereas Ferchertne’s reply “along the columns of age”, indicates his experience and learning. They continue in this manner using obscure language in the form of kennings (descriptions using one or more nouns and/or an adjective) or metaphors which illustrate different aspects of the poet’s life, stages of training, and experience employing this secret poetic language.


(Markl in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004, Studio Ghibli) adopts the guise of a bearded wizard)

Their answers reflect their ages and knowledge, with the younger poet having a youthful optimistic and idealistic outlook based on wisdom-texts such as Audacht Morainn, which gives advice on rightful rule reflected by a peaceful, prosperous kingdom, having ideal weather and plentiful harvests. Ferchertne however, is older and wiser and more learned, with the capacity to see beyond the ideal. He has the advantage of a full education, with knowledge of grammar, linguistics, philosophy, history and biblical exegesis, which he uses to interpret and explain the future. Equipped with these tools of learning, he can extend his vision further to the end of days and the final judgement, interpreting the cosmological signs as noted in the Book of Revelations. These portents or signs are prominent throughout the text and Ferchertne lists the cosmological effects upon the heavens, the earth and the seas, employing obscure phrases which, when analysed independently, allude to a variety of classical, biblical and secular literature. Therefore, not only is Néde’s knowledge put to the test, but also that of ourselves, the audience, as to the extent of our knowledge and learning, and whether we are learned enough to decipher his message.

An example is the references to the wind. As an element it can be a powerful destructive force as is noted in the annals; however it is also a tool of judgement. In the Psalms, God comes to judge on the wings of the wind. Likewise in the Hisperica Famina, it is the wings of the wind which will accuse man of guilt. The wind was also a feature of monastic riddles, Joca Monochorum, featuring in riddles such as “where does the wind come from?”, so testing cosmological knowledge. This illustrates the range of meanings which could be attached to the wind, and the poet may be referring to any or all of these. Ferchertne’s speech alludes more to familiarity with biblical exegesis and prophecies the coming of the Antichrist, which is heralded by the onset of these cosmological forces and their negative effects on nature and society which degenerates completely. Néde recognises his shortcomings and accedes to both Ferchertne and God, accepting his role as a pupil. This complex piece of literature, highlights the varied aspects of learning for the medieval Irish poet, what he aspired to in order to attain and maintain the position of chief poet, and his capacity to test his audiences learning and knowledge in both an illuminated and accomplished delivery of prophecy.

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