Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Celts and the Hindus: the cognate cultures of Ireland and India

Am gaeth i mmuir
Am tond trethan
Am fuaim mara
Am dan secht ndrenn
Am séig i n-aill
Am dér gréne.
Song of Amhairghin.

I am the self established
In the heart of all contingent beings;
Also, I am the beginning, middle and end
Of all contingent beings.

The Poet WB Yeats once remarked that up until the battle of the Boyne Ireland belonged to Asia. A nineteenth century scholar by the name of Charles Mackay wrote an etymological dictionary of Gaelic in which he surmised that the origin of the word Asia itself could be derived from the old Irish ais meaning back and ia meaning country or land, Asia being the ‘back land’, the land from which we are derived. I do not wish to go into the relative merits or validity of Mackay’s linguistic hypotheses regarding the word Asia, but rather to draw attention to the Zeitgeist of late nineteenth century linguistic and cultural scholarship, and to the general truth adumbrated in the notion of Asia as being our spiritual homeland, the place from whence we came. It was an exiting time to be studying languages. In 1796 the British scholar Sir William Jones had discovered that the origins of Greek and Latin words were to be found in India’s ancient language Sanskrit, leading him to suppose that Sanskrit is the mother tongue of European languages. This pioneering work was developed further by the German linguist Paul Kretschmer, who showed that Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit and Persian), on the one hand, and Italo-Celtic (Latin and Irish) on the other had a surprisingly close set of words in common. Many of these words were religious or political in nature. The most striking being the word for king. The Sanskrit word is raja, Latin rex, Irish rí similar to the German Reich, whose basic meaning is ‘to reach’. I shall come back to this point later on. Here are some standard examples: Sanskrit- arya‘freeman’;Irish- aire- ‘noble’;Old Persian- naib ‘good’; Old Irish noeb ‘ holy’; Sanskrit sraddadhati ‘believe’; Latin credo, Old Irish cretid; Sanskrit badhira ‘deaf’; Old Irish bodar; Sanskrit pibati ‘drink’; Old Irish ibid; Sanskrit minda, ‘physical defect’; Latin, mendum, menda, Irish mend ‘stammering’.

This comparative linguistics was given further shape by Adolphe Pictet in his ground-breaking book ‘De l’affinite de langues celtiques avec le Sanscrit’(1815) It was in the spirit of such existing linguistic discoveries that Dr. Murray, Late Professor of Oriental Languages in the University of Edinburgh declared: ‘without a considerable knowledge of Gaelic, no person can make any proficiency whatever in philology.’ The same could be said, a fortiori, of Sanskrit.

Scholars such as Myles Dillon, Windisch, Bergin and others have examined the grammar and syntax of the Old Irish and Sanskrit languages and have found striking similarities of structure, the details of which, though fascinating for the philologist, are too complicated to be explored here.

There are, however, many more examples of vocabulary, some of which we shall encounter anon. But this list should suffice to show that Old Irish and Sanskrit are astonishingly close, that the language and culture of ‘this scraggy isthmus of Europe minor’ as Joyce called it, Ireland, Europe’s westernmost Island, bears traces that stretch across the European peninsula as far as India in the east. We Irish are in a unique position with respect to Indo-European scholarship; we have a language and a mythology which is as old and probably older than that of Greece and Rome, a cultural heritage which links us like an umbilical cord with a pre-historic world. I should say at this point that Ireland’s Sanskrit heritage is deep and expansive in content, almost infinite in suggestion. What follows, then, is rather an attempt to explore or to come to terms with some aspects of Irish and Indian culture and to tease out some of the philosophical implications for our world today; in other words, to see how they might enable us to think in a different way about ourselves and this world in which we live.
Mythological Connections
The Goddess Danu
Let us start with myth. The word mythos comes from the Greek and means ‘story’ or ‘narrative’; but it is a grand narrative that explains our origins and delineates the forces of good and evil. Mythology is not only about the origins of this world but that of another world that exists alongside it, the world of the gods. But one should be careful not to confuse mythology with the popular use of the word to denote something that is necessarily false. One cannot prove or disprove the existence of gods or the supernatural; they are an indelible part of the history of the human mind. As some critic once put it, every mythology is someone else’s religion. Therefore, in studying myth, we are not concerned about whether the gods actually existed, rather, the form of consciousness which believed in or posited the existence of such supernatural beings and the understanding of mankind that underpinned it. We are exploring the world of symbolism, from the Greek symbalein meaning ‘to throw together’; a symbol is suggestive of something beyond itself and intimates another world, a mysterious world more intuited than understood. The word mystery comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to close the eyes and mouth’. Such practices are a long way from the cold light of scientific rationality.

It is said that in the beginning there was darkness upon the reddening volcanic earth until a drop of water trickled furtively from the barren soil. This trickle gathered pace becoming Danu, the goddess of the divine waters pouring herself over the earth. Soon the volcanoes were cooled and hardened into mountains, the darkness was lifted from the sky and the earth’s crust began to breath. Then a tree sprang from the animated soil, an oak tree. Primeval men named it Bile. When Danu and Bile mated two acorns fell to the ground bringing forth Dagda, ‘The Good God’ and Brigantu or Brigit, breos-saighit meaning ‘fiery arrow’ or ‘The Exalted One’. And thus, we are told, a great and steady migration of mankind began under the guidance of the meandering waters of Danubius, today’s Donau or Danube, Don, and also the Rhone (ro Dhanu, ‘Great Danu’). The story as we have it in Ireland says that Danu’s destination was an island on the western fringes of Europe, Inis Fáil, the isle of destiny and her children became known as the Tuatha De Danann, the ‘Children of Danu’.
This is the Celtic creation myth that has been handed down to us and it is a good place to start in our exploration of Irish-Indian relations as Danu also appears a mother goddess in the Rig-Veda of India. She is sometimes known as Anu or Ana; in Vedic mythology she is associated with the forces of evil, giving birth to the seven Danavas, ‘the dark beings of the ocean’. However, the notion of the evil ones being creatures of the ocean is also in Irish mythology in the form of the Fomorii ( fo-mhuir meaning ‘below the ocean).

The Fomorii are said to have fought the Tuatha De Danann in the Cath Maghtuireadh or the Battle of Moytur celebrated in the festival of Samhain 30th of October, the end of the Celtic year, and they were born of a goddess named Domnu, who is the evil counterpart of Danu. In the battle the leader of the Fomorii Balor of the Evil Eye is defeated by Lugh the god of light and wisdom when he flings a stone into Balor’s eye; we shall come back to Lugh later on.

Indian mythology recounts the struggle between the children of the Adityas, the children of the goddess Aditi, and the Danavas, the children of the Goddess Danu. Here the Danavas represent the forces of darkness. The Rig-Veda saga tells of the cosmic struggle of the sky-god Indra with the Danavan dragon Vrtra, who has caused a deadly drought. However, Indra’s thunderbolt releases the seven waters. In both myths the basic meaning is that of light conquering darkness. Lugh the sun-god conquers the dark forces of the children of Domnu while Indra the sun-god conquers the dark forces of the Danavas, releasing the divine waters once more. In both myths we have the notion of the primordial waters existing before creation and the triumph of life or light over darkness or death.

Some scholars have argued that the reason for the discrepancy of meaning between the Irish and Indian Danu is probably due to internal fighting between different Indo-European tribes. This is plausible when one considers the history of religion but Professor David Frawley has tried to explain the opposite meanings of the Irish and Indian Danus by drawing attention to a group of wind gods in the Rig Veda known as the Maruts. The Maruts, he claims, are often referred to as ‘sudanavas’, meaning ‘good Danus’. They are also associated with lightening and power and come in the form of ‘good’ serpents helping Indra to slay the dragon Vrtra. Their leader is Vishnu and they are the sons of Rudra (Shiva) and Prishni (Shakti). He writes:
‘ perhaps these Sudanavas or good Danus are the Maruts, who in their travels guided and led many peoples including the Celts and other European followers of Danu. As sons of Rudra, we not various Rudra like figures such as Cernunos among the Celts, who like Rudra is the lord of the animals and is portrayed in a yoga posture, as on the Gundestrop Cauldron in Copenhagen’
The seal in the National Musuem in Denmark ( Danemark meaning the mark or place of Danu), shows the Gaulish god Cernunnos surrounded by animals seated in the yoga position. In Hindu mythology the god Shiva is known by the epithet pasupati meaning ‘ lord of the animals’. Excavations in Mohenjo-Daro in northern India by Sir John Marshall revealed seals dedicated to the Pasupati suggesting worship of this god. However, we know that the civilizations of Mojenjo-Daro and Harappa are pre-Aryan or pre-Indo-European. What this suggests again is that the Indo-Europeans incorporated and subsumed previous cults making them part of their own; it is as though new mythologies take shape out of the fragments of the previous culture.Professor Myles Dillon makes the astonishing suggestion that the Sanskrit pasupati comes from peku-poti- ‘which in Irish would become Echoid, the name of many Irish kings, one of the names of the Dagda himself’.

The Sanskrit root da connotes the semantics of giving and is manifested in various forms in Indo-European languages as dare in Latin and Italian, dar in Spanish and Portuguese and mutates to tabhairt in Modern Irish. The notion of Danu of the divine waters conveys the sense of generosity, bountifulness, expansion, a primordial giving. However, in the Vedic myth, Danu becomes associated with the dragon as the representation of evil and has the opposite sense of contraction and drought.

Lug and Indra

There is also a similarity between Lugh and Indra. Both gods are associated with the Sun and light and neither of them were the leaders of their warring tribes. Lugh becomes the leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann for just thirteen days when he takes over from Nuada of the Silver Hand, while Indra only proves himself in the eyes of his peers when he defeats the dragon Vrtra. In the Vedic myth Indra is associated with the bull symbol reminiscent of the famous Irish epic ‘An Táin Bó Cuailgne’ The Cattle Raid Of Cooley, from which today’s Brú na Bóinne or Boyne Valley gets its name. The symbolism of the bull in terms of the sun and moon is common to most Indo-European and Hebraic cultures, but it is at this point that one can begin to detect the significant of Yeats’ mention of the Boyne Valley in the context of the orient. The Irish bó meaning cow or bull is cognate with Latin ‘bos’ and Greek bous. Linguists claim that the root of this word approximates to the Sanskrit gauh which mutated into ‘cow’, Kuh and krowa in Germanic and Slavic languages, while the Sanskrit ga was replaced by ‘bó’ in the Celtic and Italic tongues. However, in both instances what we have is a pre-Indo-European symbol appearing in both the Celtic and Vedic cultures, showing how they both incorporated and subsumed symbols of a previous culture. Bóand was also an Irish goddess of fertility represented in the form of a cow.

A peculiar feature of Indo-European languages is the fact that there the word for hand is different in all the various linguistic groups, for example, manus, cheir,hasta, hand and lám account for the Latin, Greek, Slavonic, Germanic and Celtic branches of Indo-European
respectively. From this anomaly some scholars such as Hermann Gǘntert
concluded that this was due to the cult of the god with the long hand. There
are Bronze-age rock-carvings in Sweden of such a fertility god with a long hand. This god also appears in the Caucasus and in Southern Russia. The Irish god Lugh is sometimes referred to as Lugh Samildánach ‘possessing many crafts’ but he is normally called Lug an Lámhfhada, Lug Of The Long Hand or arm. I have already mentioned the Indian word raj (king) which is cognate with the Irish rí and the German ‘Reich’. The notion of a king’s reach expressed in the image of the long hand is best revealed if we look at the German ‘Reich’. The German verb reichen or ereichen is cognate with the English reach and means the same. In this instance the German brings us back to Lug, but the Rig-Veda also tells us about the Indian god Savitar, who is described as stretching out his arms and as ‘having a large hand’(prthupani). So, here we have two sun-gods, the Celtic Lug and the Indian Savitar, whose accession across the firmament and cosmic power was likened in both instances to the stretching out of long hand or arm.

Although some discrepancies and variations occur with respect to the meaning some of the gods in the Celtic-Vedic pantheon, the similarties point incontrovertibly to a common origin. But what about the particular culture that arose out of these myths? How was this religion practised and who were the practicioners?

Druids and Brahmans

The word Vedas in Sanskrit means ‘ knowledge, wisdom, insight’, from the root vid meaning ‘to see’, hence the Latin ‘video’. The priests who practised this from of religion in Europe were called Druids. The word druid is composed of two words, dru meaning oak, like the Classical Greek drus and vid as in the aforementioned Sanskrit. So, a druid was literally an oak-seer. The oak tree was sacred to most European cultures, though not necessarily to India; this is probably due to the obvious geographical and topographical differences, for the tree plays a central role in Indian culture also, right up to Buddism of today.

The druids were the sacerdotal class of Celtic society. The Roman writer Strabo (40BCE) wrote, ‘ among all the tribes, generally speaking, there are three classes of men held in special honour: the Bards, the Vates and the Druids’.But Caesar more accurately describes the three classes as druides, equites, and plebs. These three classes correspond to a similar threefold structure in Vedic society, that of Brahmin; kshatriya and vaishya, meaning ‘priest’, ‘warrior’ and ‘husbandsman’ respectively. In more recent Irish history, that is to say, up until the 12th century, Irish society showed a threefold structure of fili, flaith and aitheach. The fili were poets, historians and lawyers and were the equivalent to the pagan druids. The flaith was a warrior or nobleman corresponding to the equites, while the aitheach was a labourer of the land.

Like the Brahmins of India, the Irish Druids were held in very high esteem by their people. The image of the druid in white robes practising divination under the oak trees come from the writings of the Roman author Pliny the Elder (1BCE). The Druids took twenty years to learn their craft while the Brahmins are said to have studied for 12 years.

Ancient Ireland and Ancient India show remarkable similarities of law and custom. The laws of India are called the Laws of Manu while the Irish system is known as the Fenchas Mór or more popularly the Brehon Laws, from the Irish breitheamh meaning ‘ to judge’. There are ten forms of marriage under Brehon law. There are eight under the Laws of Manu. Comparisons also come to the fore in the procedure for legal redress. In both sets of laws fasting is mandatory. The Sanskrit of this is prayopavesana ‘waiting for death’. This involved the creditor fasting outside his debtor’s house until a solution had been reached. In the Fenchas Mór the procedure requires the guilty party to fast aswell, but here the debtor is also required to fast until a pledge is given to submit to arbitration.

Regarding the cosmologies of the Celts and Vedics, there are also a number of parallels. The Celts believed in four interrelating realms of existence; the netherworld, the earth world, the heavenly world of the dead and the white realm of supreme deities. The Vedic cosmology also has four different interrelating worlds: the astral world of the dead, world of deities, supreme being and primal energy aswell as a fourth nertherworld. In both instances the worlds are divided up into different realms inhabited by spirits.
The Celtic word for the realm of earth is bitus, giving the Modern Irish ‘bith’; this word is cognate with the Sanskrit bhu which is the word used by the Brahmins for the earth world. Both the Celtic and Vedic cultures had a similar word for the divine, devos in Celtic, deva in Sanskrit, both meaning ‘shinning one’. Metempsychosis or the doctrine of the transmigration of souls was central to the Druidic religion; in spite of its centrality to Hinduism there is no clear reference to this in the Vedic texts but in book 4 of the Rig-Veda it reads:
‘ for thou at first producest for the holy Gods the noblest of all portions, immortality: thereafter as a gift to men, o Savitar, thou openest existence, life succeeding life.’
The word for soul in Sanskrit is atmen, the Irish is anam . We are told that both Brahmin and Druid practised a form of meditative breathing that generated body heat and produced ecstasy; they also performed sacrifices over fire. The Vedic fire-god Agni and the Celtic Aedh are unmistakably close, as are the sun-gods Sulios in Celtic and Surya in Sanskrit. Even the putative words of invocation in both cultures suggest a common origin, gutuater in Celtic and hotar in Sanskrit.

One of the most intriguing discoveries in Celtic scholarship was the Coligny manuscript, whose astral calculations show that they were made about 1100 BCE, and again show startling similarities to Vedic cosmology.
In a gloss on a manuscript in Wurzburg the word budh is used to denote a ‘point of fire’ or the ‘planet Mercury’. Budh is also the word used in the Vedas to name the planet Mercury. In the Sanas Chormaic, a tenth century Irish dictionary, the word budh/bott is given as ‘Áine’s fire. Áine is a Celtic deity often associated with the moon. We find boudi and budh in all Celtic languages. It is the root of the Modern Irish word buachaint ‘to win’ and bua ‘victory’; its basic meaning is to be victorious, elevated, exulted, enlightened ;it actually appears as boud, the verb ‘to be’ in Breton. It is the meaning of the British warrior queen, Boadicea, who revolted again Roman rule in AD 60. This would suggest that Buddhists everywhere have at least some knowledge of Irish!

The ancient Bardic poetry of Ireland and the poems of praise in the Vedic tradition show a common source. These were called danastuti ‘praise of generosity’ or narasamsi ‘praise of a warrior’ in the Rig-Veda. They often eulogized a king’s prowess or at the opening of a horse-sacrifice. Horse sacrifices continued in Ireland until the middle ages. We know that the horse was associated with the sun. The Sanskrit word for horse harat also means ‘bright’, ‘replendent’ or ‘light of the morning’. There is another Sanskrit word which links our two traditions asvamedha ‘horse drunk’; it refers to the banquet in which a horse was sacrificed. Medhu in Sanskrit; meduos in Gaulish, methys in Greek; medus in Old Church Slavonic; mead in English and the Modern Irish meisce all mean ‘drunk’. A tribe in Zagarros in modern day Iran around 830 BCE were called Medes, presumably due to their dipsomania!

Celtic-Vedic and Indo-Irish philosophies

There is one more aspect of our two cultural traditions which leads us to the heart of philosophical enquiry and that is the Celtic and Vedic conception of truth. Truth as a form of cosmic order is called rta in the Vedic texts. It is conceived as the fons et origo (source and origin) of the universe beyond gods and men. The term Brahman, ‘holy power’, from the root brh, ‘to grow, to increase, to roar’. The power of the hymns is in the chanting or the roar itself. The god Brihaspati, is the lord (pati) of the roaring power (brh), the patron of the Brahmans. The texts speak of rivers flowing with truth, the sun spreading out from truth etc:
‘By means of Truth the sun is warm, by means of Truth the sun shines, by means of Truth the wind blows, by means of Truth the earth endures.’

This notion of truth as an all-pervasive and originary force is also common in Irish literature. In ‘The Testament of Morann’, an early Irish text, a prince is instructed in the noble virtues:
‘ Let him magnify truth, it will magnify him
Let him strengthen truth, it will strengthen him.
Let him guard truth, it will guard him.
Let him exalt truth, it will exalt him.’

Druidic priests refused to write down their knowledge; they believed that the recitation of their verses had magical power. Some theorists claim that this is the origin of the word Celt; in Modern Irish ceilt means ‘to hide’. But the Proto-Indo-European root kel ‘to hit’ is more likely. Truth for the Druids became actual in its verbal invocation. The word had magical significance. We can hear echoes of this in John’s Gospel where it says that in the beginning was the word (logos) and the word was with God and the word was God. Certainly, this notion of divine pronunciation through sacred texts is still the basis of the world’s great religions.

The 18th German philosopher Immanuel Kant posed what has to be the central problem of Modern Philosophy, namely, how the thinking subject or human being can know the object of experience. What is the basis of my knowledge? Who am I? Is there such as thing as a unified self rather than just a bundle of sensations which gives the illusion of being a self? Kant concluded that we can only know objects as they appear to us but not as they are in themselves. One of his successors Arthur Schopenhaur, who read Indian philosophy, concluded that the world and the being who perceives it are illusory; the world is merely my representation with no basis in reality. For Schopenhaur, suffering is the basic form of human existence and this is caused by what he calls the Wille-Zum-Leben, the will-to-life, the infinite desires that characterize the life of man. For Schopenhauer there were two possibilities of release: death and the contemplation of art.This idea is taken straight from his readings of Vedantic and Buddhist philosophy and it is the notion of maya or illusion. For the Vedic philosopher brahman is the ultimate reality. In the Upanishads the realization of the equation of the soul (atmen) with brahmen the divine creative power of the universe is the ultimate goal. The escape from the vicissitudes of the empirical world is the aim; for the basic state of being is suffering (duhkha) and this world is illusion, maya. Reunion with Brahmin can only come about through release, moksha. The selflessness, stoicism and asceticism of this philosophy appealed to Schopenhaur. Another German philolgist, philosopher and vigorous polemicist Frederich Nietzche also sees the problems of European philosophy as having been anticipated and overcome in the Vedantic thought of India.( Vedantic means that philosophy arising out of the Vedas, the goal of the Vedas) Speaking of Kant’s attempt to reconcile the thinking subject with objective reality, Nietzsche exclaims:

‘the possibility of an apparent existence of the subject and therefore of the ‘soul’, may not always have been strange to him- the thought which once had an immense power on earth as the Vedanta philosophy’.

In the context of European culture Ireland has produced little in the field of philosophy; this is partly due to the anti-intellectual influence of the Roman Catholic Church after the 12th century Norman Invasion of Ireland and again in the early years of Independence. One of the difficulties in identifying a uniquely Irish way of seeing the world is probably due to consequences of the druidic aversion to writing. It was the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century CE which introduced mass literacy to Ireland. This did lead to a glowing period of intellectual activity with the foundation of monasteries in Ireland and on the European continent, but the predominant textual influences were Greek and Latin. However, if we accept that these Vedic texts in some sense constitute our own intellectual heritage, then it follows that Christianity in Ireland was grafted onto a similar philosophical soil. With this in mind we could read some Vedic ideas into the 9th century Irish philosopher Johannes Scotus Eriugena’s conception of nature, which some commentators have understood to be a form of pantheism. Pantheism is the idea that nature and God are one, nature being a manifestation of the divine being. Though certainly influenced by mystic Greek writers such as Plato,Plotinus and Proclus, it is by no means inconceivable that Eriugena would have drawn upon a particularly Celtic-Vedic Weltanschauung or world view. Eriugena had a major influence on German Idealist philosophers such as Georg Frederich Hegel, who declared in one of his lectures that Eriugena was where true philosophy begins. Put simply, Idealism is the view that the external world, the world in which we live is somehow mind-dependent. But his Eriugena’s ideas did not find favour with the Church and Pope Honorius III promptly burned his great work Periphyseon in 1225! Our seventeenth century philosopher, Bishop Berkeley, though certainly no Gael, went so far as to claim that all our knowledge of this world is based on ideas or illusions and that the origin of these ideas was God. Since it was impossible to know how we formed ideas through the senses, the ecclesiastical Berkeley induced a divine Being as the source. Both of these Irish philosophers formulated theories which are in some respects not unlike the philosophies of India. WB Yeats had a life-long friendship with the Indian writer Rabindrath Tagore, who introduced him to Vedantic philosophy. There are certainly traces of Indian thought in some of Yeats’s mature work. Yeats wrote “ it was my first meeting with a philosophy that confirmed my vague speculations and seemed at once logical and bounless”.
More recently, another Irish philosopher the late John Moriarty has written philosophical books drawing on Celtic and Vedic ideas. Moriarty extols the serenity and sense of wonder of the Indian ‘sage who comes back speaking Upanishads amongst us.’

Language/ Civilisation/Nature

‘Then the gods said to Indra: “O thou Worshipful One, find out what that specter is.” “Yes” he answered; and he ran toward it, but it vanished before him. In that very place he came upon a woman of great beauty, Uma Haimavati, the Daughter of the Snowy Mountain. He asked her: “What was that spectre?” She answered: “Brahman. Through the victory of that Brahman you attained the glory in which you take such pride.” From this Indra learned of Brahman.’

Apart from these abstruse speculations, one of the features of mythology that interest me is the way in which aspects and motifs of conquered cultures are subsumed into the narratives of their conquerors. Sometimes these motifs and symbols are distorted to reflect the ideology of the new hegemonic culture. The Aryan tribes who invaded the ancient Indian civilizations of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were patriarchal and showed contempt for what they perceived as the phallic-worship of the previous culture; the male sky-gods Indra and Vishnu are extolled and a male-dominated society takes shape. And yet the Maha Kali, the primordial mother goddess who is pre-Aryan, pre-Indo-European, asserts herself. It is through his encounter with a woman of great beauty that Indra is initiated into Vedic wisdom. As Heinrich Zimmer writes:
‘ In this episode of the Kena Upanishad, where the mother goddess appears for the first time in the orthodox religious and philosophical tradition of India, she- womanhood incarnate- becomes the guru of the male gods. She is represented as their mystagogue, their initiator into the most profound and elementary secret of the universe, which is, in fact, her own essence’

What is interesting is the way in which the warlike, masculine ideology of the Indo-Europeans is infiltrated or even absorbed by what appears to be a pre-existent cult of the goddess. This veneration of woman as a symbol of fertility and the cycles of the seasons is still a feature of Hinduism today with people speaking of ‘mother India’.

One could argue that the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family was less inimical to women than that of the Vedic; there were apparently women druids and women play a prominent role in the mythology. Ireland itself is called after a triple goddess known as Éirú, Banbha and Fodhla, and it is Eiriú which has stayed with us, from the Sanskrit arya ‘noble’, which is also the origin of the word Iran. It is almost impossible to tell if the veneration of women is Celtic is due to the culture of pre-Indo-European Ireland, but the arrival of patriarchal Christianity in the fifth century CE put an end to the role of the goddess. We mentioned Brigit earlier. Although worshiped as both a warrior goddess (her Indo-European name sometimes derived from briga ‘strife) and as a fertility deity, she becomes a docile saint under the new patriarchal Christian order. We also see covert manifestations of this primordial goddess worship in Ireland’s worship of the Virgin Mother Mary. Though Mary is de-sexualised and therefore de-naturalised in Christian culture, her mass devotion in Ireland certainly has its roots in our pagan past; as in India, it may even precede the arrival of the Aryan Celts, but it was like the Maha Kali of India, subsumed by the new culture, and like the spectre which Indra saw, it haunts the new warlike order, reminding it of its origins and, at the same time, its lack of wisdom. The Kali of India also haunts Irish Christian culture in the form of the Sheela na Gig, a vulva opening goddess depicted in some Irish churches. Her origin is obscure but the Irish word for witch is cailleach and she resembles the Indian Kali.

Some theorists claim that early Irish goddess associations with war, as in the case of the Goddess Macha and Morrigan but also Brigit, reflect a patriarchal interpretation of pre-Indo-European culture. It is a strange phenomenon that all the great religions of the world have been patriarchal in structure, leading inevitably to the denigration of the female role in society, when one considers that for thousands of years before the advent of all these religions goddess worship reigned supreme. This is reflected in the circular designs in Brú na Bóinne and in the many sculptures of goddesses around 25000 years ago. It is a cyclical view of the universe. In this world-view the serpent who sheds its skin every year represents the cyclical nature of the seasons becoming a symbol of life. In such a culture black becomes a symbol of fertile soil while white becomes representative of death, the opposite view of our Indo-European heritage. There is also a striking absence of warfare symbols in pre-Indo-European culture.

The development of our Indo-European heritage began in tandem with the taming of the horse; the invention of the chariot , the creation of new weapons such as the bow and arrow and the spear, as well as the ascendancy of the male gods and their concomitant ideology of war and conquest. Scholars have identified these as being an essential factor in the Indo-European expansion. Professor Marja Gimbutas amasses an extraordinary amount of evidence to argue that the pre-Indo-European cultures of Europe were matri-focal, and that their interpretation of time was circular in accordance with the seasons. She also interprets the goddess figurines of the Neolithic period as portraying a pacifist ideology. She writes,
‘ The Goddess-centered art with it striking absence of images of warfare and male domination, reflects a social order in which women as heads of clans or queen-priestesses played a central part. Old Europe and Anatolia, as well as Minoan Crete, were a gylany’.
Gylany is a neologism from the Greek gy for woman and andros for man.If this is the case, could it also account for the ideologies of the civilizations of Mohejo-Daro and Harappa? Could this have been the dragon that Indra slayed, Vrtra the son of Danu, the primordial earth goddess? These are possibilities which require further study.
In Paleolithic times when reproduction was understood as an act of magic, part of a woman’s body were given macrocosmic significance. This accounts for the many symbols of breasts, buttocks, vulva etc which have been excavated from this time. If we look again at the myths in Irish and Vedic texts of the primordial waters which precede creation and their association with the goddess, the association with the pre-natal amniotic fluid becomes plausible. Similar structures to our Megalithic dolmens are to be found in India where they are known as Sarasvati. It is possible that our connections even precede our Indo-European cultures.
This idea of pre-Indo-European cultures being a gylany, a society where men and women were equal, has been vigorously disputed by other anthropologists who have presented some evidence to the contrary. But the very fundamental tension between the sky-cult of the male gods and the earth-cult of the female manifests itself throughout Indo-European culture. It is not only a binary opposition that reflects the difference of the sexes; on a more fundamental level it reflects the opposition of nature and civilization.

Our realization today that the temperature of the earth and the ecological order are being adversely affected by the activities of man suggests that this conflict is approaching its historical apogee. In spite of our scientific progress the world is still mired in war and barbaric destruction. The invention of new technologies has always produced new and more lethal weapons, new and more efficacious ways of killing. The invention of the chariot was decisive for the expansion of our Indo-European ancestors, but the very word itself contains its nefarious darker side. Ca in Celtic means ‘together or both’ as in the Latin co. Riot means a ‘wheel’; so the chariot is the two-wheeled machine. However, the Indo-European root ratha is the word for wheel. In Old Church Slavonic rati means war or battle. Modern Serbian has rat for war. The Old Irish word is rátha while Modern Irish has ruathar meaning ‘ to attack’; this is cognate with the Greek aritmos for riding and the Greek verb rhaein ‘to destroy’; it gives us the English riot, the Latin rota and the German ritter -‘knight’ and ausrotten meaning ‘ to extinguish or annihilate. The later example should serve as a note of caution; Hitler’s barbarians used the verb ausrotten a lot when they believed they were the heirs of Ancient Aryan supremacy. The taming of the horse and the chariot enabled man to conquer nature but it also enabled him to conquer his fellow human beings. The chariot became synonymous with war and destruction just as the airplane was and still is used to drop bombs. The advancement of knowledge has also meant the exhaustion of the planet’s resources and the destruction of nature’s equilibrium.The poet Horace once remarked ‘Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret-Even though you drive her out with a pitch-fork, nature always returns. In his insatiable desire to control and exact profit from the resources of the earth, homo sapiens has become homo rapiens, rapacity has replaced sagacity. Now with the threat of ecological disaster upon us, it is about time we took nature seriously, and it is in this context that our ancient mythological and linguistic heritage can provide continuous intellectual and spiritual nourishment, for it is only by tracing historical paths of introspection that we can come to terms with our world today. If a certain form of thinking has brought about these circumstances, a form of reason that has alienated us from ourselves and our environment, then it is clear that a new intellectual paradigm is needed. I am not talking about an ou-topia a ‘non-place’, but an eu-topia, simply a ‘good place’, a better world. One should not allow the cynical ideology of our times to confuse the former with the later.
When speaking with the Persian King Xerxes, the Greek leader Themistocles remarked that

“the speech of man is like rich carpets, the patterns of which can only be shown by spreading them out; when the carpets are folded up the patterns are obscured and lost”

Modern Irish and Hindi, Sanskrit and Old Irish, these languages and the rich mythologies they created reveal, when they are unfolded and spread out, the unique and brilliant tapestry of our common heritage, the fathomless depths and soaring heights of the Indo-European mind. As the Eastern and Western tributaries of Danu, our two cultures echo in unison across the Eurasian continent.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

An gréasán agus éabhlóid na hintinne

Ag breathnú siar ó réamhstair an duine daonna, dealraíonn sé go síolraíonn comhfhios nó meabhar an duine daonna ón dteanga. Is é sin le rá, nuair a thosaigh daoine nathanna a chur le chéile, d’éirigh siad comhfhiosach don chéad uair. Is cuid amhrais é an teóiric sin, áfach. Nílim ag iarriadh a áiteamh go raibh smaointe sodhéanta roimh theacht an fhocail. Thiocfadh dó go raibh. Au contraire, déarfainn go bhfuil rud éigin eile fíor-thábhachtach nár thugadh faoi deara anseo, agus is é sin, eachtra na scríobhneoirachta. Le cur chun cinn na scríobhneoireachta, d’athraigh alán rudaí. Ar an gcéad dul síos, d’athraigh sí ár gcleithúnas ar chuimhne. Cuireann sé iontas orainn inniu nuair a léimid go raibh filí mar Homéar in ann dánta a aithris gan aon téasc aige. Go deimhin, ní raibh aon rogha ag Homéar toisc go raibh sé dallóg! Ach níor gá dó an Illiad nó an Odyssea a léamh. Bhí córas intleachtúil aige a chabhraigh leis nathanna fileata a chimhniú agus eachtraí éagsúla a roímh gan teacht ar leabhar. Ní raibh sé sin neamhchoitinne ag an am. Bhí cuimhne bhuan, chumasach riachtanach i ré an fhile ghréigigh. Le dul chun cinn na scríobhneoireachta, áfach, bhí ár gcumas a léamh níos tábhachtaí ná scéalta , dánta, nó heachtraí stairiúla a aithris nó a ríomh. Sá lá atá inniu ann, táimid ar léibhéil nua eile. Braithimid níos mó ar an ríomhaire agus ar an bhfón póca chun ár shaol laethúil a stuireadh. An rud atá tábhachtach anois ná ár gcumas firicí a léamh agus corais chasta leictreoneacha a oibriú. Le huileláithreacht an mhéain chumarsáide leictreonaigh, éiríonn ár gcumas oibrúil níos tábhachtaí ná ár gcumas cuimhnúil. Nuair a theastaíonn uaim eolas, téim ar an ghréasán. Má tá uair nó dáta uaim féachaim ar mó fhón póca. Is é sin le rá go bhfuil m’intinne, m’intleacht, mó mheabhar féin ós mo chomhar. Seo é mo ríomhaire, seo í m’intinn. Is cuid m’eagna chinn, m’éirim fhéin é mó ríomhaire.Is éabhlóid intinnúil a tá i gceist anseo, éabhlóid nach bhfuilimid in ann a thuiscint go ceart go fóill. Tugann an modus operandi áit an modus pensandi, táimid tar éis éibhlóid a dhéanamh ó homo sapiens go homo technicus, mar a dhearfá. Mar sin, is féidir a tuar an dushlán atá in ndán dúinn sa todhchaí: comhleá an duine daonna le measíní, an comhleá idir teicneolaíocht agus bitheolaíocht. An gciallaíonn sé sin go bhfuilimid ag éirí níos bománta? Nó go bhfuil meath nó creimeadh ag tarlú d’ár gcumas intleachtúil? Ní chaithfidh sé go bhfuil. B’fhéidir go gcaillaíonn sé sin go bhfuilimid ag éirí níos cliste. Ós rud é go bhfuil flúirse eolais ar fáil dúinn, ní foláir dúinn a bheith in ann an t-iomlán eolais chomhghaolmhar nó measctha a fheicimid ar an idirlíon a mhíniú agus ciall a bhaint as. Ní foláir dúinn a bheith éirimúil chun é sin a dhéanamh go maith. Ach is éirim fhíordhifrúil í sin, éirim atá go páirteach lasmuigh ár gcloigeann, éirim dhomhanda gan tús gan chríoch, éirim atá fite fuaite leis an ngréasán domhanda. Is ar bhonn sin gur féidir linn a áiteamh go bhfuil bunús an meabhair iad na meáin chumarsáide.

Friday, November 14, 2008

From audacity of hope to audacity of action?

From audacity of hope to audacity of action? Perhaps it is fair to say that never in the history of the world have so many people followed the political career of one man with so much anticipation. Barack Obama’s election to the presidential office of the United States of America is in this sense a world historical event. One would be tempted to say that it is in fact revolutionary. But it is important to use such words carefully. It is only by virtue of Obama’s race and its particular historical significance that one can such a loaded term as revolution. Perhaps in this sense the word evolution would be more appropriate here. America has evolved from a racist to a post-racist society and Obama is the very incarnation of this evolution. Obama is not a revolutionary nor is he likely to be one. He is in fact the product of a complex set of circumstances, America’s geo-political and economic crisis to name but two. He is the prophet, if you like, of a nation that has lost faith in its own mythology.

As President Obama is a disciple of the Chicago School of Economics, whose founding member, Milton Friedman, fanatically defended the neo-liberal model of laissez-faire economics, it would be naive to expect any substantial change. Obama did after all appoint Jason Furman to head his economic team. Furman is a fervent supporter of one of the world’s most disreputable corporations Walmart. Obama had previously accused Hillary Clinton of sitting on the Walmart board. Now, the head of his economic team is someone who feels that efforts to force Waltmart to increase its wages are creating “collateral damage”. Collateral damage indeed, to the Walmart board, that is. Obama has talked alot about change. Average American wages have stagnated since the second world war in a country where over a quarter of the wealth is owned by 14,000 people. Will Obama change this? Unlikely. So, why all this euphoria. Perhaps, it’s because we want to believe in America; seeing as the decisions taken by the US government directly or indirectly affect the rest of the world, a rational America still leaves us with some hope. In this election God was eerily absent and perhaps, ipso facto, so was war. Moving American political discourse away from theology and belicosity was perhaps Obama’s most impressive contribution. Obama’s intellectual brilliance and Ciceronian oratory were key factors in his global appeal. One feels that a man of such qualities has the ability to negotiate complex diplomatic and economic issues. Obama’s unique blend of race and culture has enabled him to transcend the stagnant dichotomies and divisions that have paralysed American society for centuries. But the danger is that the euphoria one feels about his historic victory could serve as an obfuscation of the real hopes and concerns of the vast majority of people, both in America and more importantly, in the wider world,that is to say an end to famine, war, poverty and oppression. Is this the change that Obama heralds? Of course not, as such a change would involve a revolution and as the vast majority of Americans still desperately cling to the illusion that a privatised capitalist world is the only possible form of civilisation, such radical change is a priori impossible. If Obama had espoused such real change he would have remained a non-entity, as corporate America would have snuffed out his campaign from the very start.
The problem with advanced capitalist societies such as the USA is their ability to absorb all opposition by appropriating it to serve that which it opposes. In such a society Che Guevara becomes a lucrative T-shirt industry for diasaffected youth, or the icon for a ‘revolutionary’ private health insurance add, as we recently saw in an Irish TV commercial.Everything is absorbed and neutralised by the capitalist machine. The German philosopher Herbert Marcuse put it thus : ‘The unification of opposites which characterizes the commercial and political style is one of the many ways in which discourse and communication make themselves immune against the expression of protest and refusal’. The vast majority of Americans believe that they live in a democracy, even though they realise that the corporations control everything.The reality is that the United States is run by an oligarchy,one which controls a vast media empire, ensuring that any change of the social order can only remain cosmetic. Obama is precisely this cosmetic make-over. Real change will require more than the audacity of hope, it will require the audacity of action through strikes, grass-roots organisation and demonstrations. On a symbolic level, the American election has brought an end to official racial inequality. The challenge now is to tackle the problem of social inequality. Let’s have the audacity to hope, then, that I am wrong about the revolutionary potential of Obama’s election, soberly bearing in mind John Dewey the American philosopher’s warning that ‘government is the shadow cast on society by big business’.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gallo-Gaelic connections

Just as the Scandinavians and the Germans differed less in the seventh and eighth centuries than they do today, so also must the Irish Celts and the Gallic Celts have originally resembled each other more than present-day Irishmen and Frenchmen
Frederich Engels History of Ireland 1870

It is a machine which has more than any other come to epitomize the essence of Celtic Tiger opulence: the motor car. The motor car is the preferred mode of transport in Ireland . No other object serves to display one’s economic status more blatantly than the automobile. But rather than launching into an ebullient tirade against our fatuous love affair with the motor car,( a critique which would not be inappropriate considering the environmental cost) I want you to take a drive with me through several millennia of European history. Our point of departure is Ireland , our destination is France and our mode of transport is words, ancient lexia strewn upon the highways of linguistic history. Let us consider the word ‘car’. Car is the most common word in the Anglophone world to denote the automobile. This word is in fact derived from Irish, and its cognate equivalent can be found in the ancient pre-Roman language of France : Gaulish.

The Gaulish word for car is carros, which of course, denoted a chariot. The proto-Indo European root of this word is kers meaning ‘to run’. If the above quoted conjecture of Frederich Engels is correct, then the Gaulish language, or what remains of it, offers a fascinating insight into France ’s Gaelic origins. All we have of the Gaulish language is contained in a few remaining wordlists, but the similarities with Irish are unmistakable.

Take for example the following words: aballo-apple, aesus- age, allos- other,second, ardus-high, are-before, at, on, arganto- silver, bagaudas-guerrila-fighter, bardos-poet, benn-summit or head, benna-a carriage, bitu- world, life, bratu- to judge, catu-battle, crodio-hard, drungus-crowd, dub- black, dumno-world, doro-door, giam-winter, gobo-mouth, gutus-voice, landa-land, mat-kind,good,trougo-sad. To an Irish speaker the connection with old Irish and indeed Modern Irish is obvious. Here are the Irish equivalents: uball, aois, aile, ard, ar, airgead, bagaim- I fight, bard, beann, bith, breith, cath, crua, drong, dubh, domhan, doras, geimhreadh, gob, guth, math, trua. I left out the word ‘land’ which is unusual. One would have thought this word to be distinctly Germanic; but it is actually Gaulish and Old Irish. This would give further credence to an article I wrote some time ago on the origin of the word England, meaning An Gael land, the land of the Gaels. This interpretation is by no means definitive, but the gael or gal root could, nevertheless, be the origin of the word Angle.Now there’s a topic for post-prandial conversation in Buckingham Palace!

When one contemplates the unfathomable antiquity of the Irish language and its ubiquity throughout Europe, it is disappointing to think that there is no university in Ireland specializing in the study of Indo-European philology. The appreciation of the importance of Irish for the study of philology and ethnologyy was highlighted by many German scholars and poets. Frederich Engels, a ferocious polyglot, studied Irish and the poet Goethe is said to have sought instruction in the language after reading a book by the philosopher Herder. But interest in the Irish language has always germinated outside of Ireland. Without the meticulous research of German scholars such as Johann Casper Zeuss and Kuno Meyer, to name just two, rigorous scholarship of our ancestral language would have been enormously compromised. Recently, while perambulating the glorious streets of Paris, I came across a notice in Irish at the Centre Culturel Irlandais. It was written by a French Gaelgeoir who was looking for an language partner to hone his linguistic skills. It has become easier to speak Irish in France than in Ireland! No doubt, my French friend is fully aware of the Gallic-Gaelic connection and the hauntingly beautiful fact that An Ghaeilge is as much his at it is mine.
On the importance of Gaulish for an understanding of European history see Die gallische Sprache und ihre Brauchbarkeit für die Geschichte by Franz Josef Mone(1851).The map above is taken from the following site on the gaulish language.

Welcome to Bunkum Country

The airwaves pulsate with it; TV stations live on it and most people indulge in it to a certain extent, and it is of course because of this that there is a word in the English language to denote it: bunkum- an almost onomatopoeic term to describe meaningless, empty, ridiculous conversation peppered with lies and invention, or if you permit the bombast, it encapsulates what one might be tempted to call mendacious confabulation. If you are a tad puzzled by this beautifully expressive word confabulation, here are some synonyms: conversation, interlocution; collocution, colloquy, converse, confabulation, talk, discourse, verbal intercourse; oral communication, commerce; dialogue, duologue, trialogue. So now you get the picture, you are tempted to say “more matter with less art”, get to the point! Well, you might be surprised to learn that bunkum is derived from our dear old Gaeilge: buan cumadh. Buan means long-lasting, enduring, and cumadh denotes something made up, invented, a tale or unlikely story. According to the standard etymology of this word, it refers to a congress man in Buncombe county USA, who spoke endlessly on a particular bill while his fellow congressmen waited impatiently to vote. But Daniel Cassidy-whose book ‘How the Irish invented Slang’, I have already written about- gives an interesting dissection of bunkum. According to Cassidy, Buncombe county and North Carolina in general, had a strong, historic Scots-Gaelic and Irish-speaking community, which lasted until the 20th century. I was intrigued to read that the Jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie’s family were African-American Gaelic speakers from North Carolina and Alabama . Apparently, the racial mix of Irish and African-Americans was quite substantial, particularly in New York . The Irish-American playwright Eugene O’ Neill uses the term ‘bunk’ in some of his plays, which is an abbreviated version of the word in question. What fascinates me about Cassidy’s audacious interpretation is the untold history of these Irish and African-American communities, where Gaelic, due to the preponderance of Irish immigration, became the lingua franca.

I’m still not sure if Cassidy’s explanation is cogent, however. Could it be due to the fact that the infamous gift of the gab associated with the Irish, influenced the local nomenclature? Unlikely. Unless, of course, someone of stature in the locality, himself a Gaelgeoir, decided that as there was so much chatter and nonsense proliferating in the area, it should be called just that! I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate term for modern Ireland, where thousands of vacuous people converse daily about their petty concerns: houses at home and abroad; new cars, shopping, reality TV, soap operas, celebrities, holidays in the sun or the astonishing effectiveness of fake tan. The kind of people who listen to Red FM or Today FM, sending texts about nothing, polluting the airwaves with their silly chatter, a nation of idiotic talkers with nothing to say. Yes indeed, fáilte roimh Éireann or Bunkum Country.

Introducing the much-needed neologism: philotyflia

Women are complicated. Most men know this. But in spite of this bland statement of the obvious, there are women out there who are more complicated. I am referring to what I call European woman. European woman has wants and needs. This too seems like a platitude, but it goes deeper than this. European woman is not even so sure what those wants and needs are. She has issues. The issues are often mysterious, undefined, inscrutable, intractable, impossible to untangle, in short; complicated. European woman loves romance. She loves the thrill of meeting for the first time and the dreams and hope that germinate from those initial days filled with the ineffable joy of tenderness and excitement. But this initial happiness is always tinged with sense of fatality. What if the flame were to die out? What if my partner finds me too familiar, lapses into a boring routine and leaves me. She believes that the course of love should be replete with joyous moments, infinite pleasure, exquisite passion. In short, European woman is a philophile: she is in love with love; that is to say she is in love with unreality. This excess of illusion is what sustains her in a sense of faintly-disguised anxiety. The archetypal European woman of whom I speak is educated and ambitious, and her career often serves as a substitute for her personal longings. She throws herself into her work. As she has the misfortune to exist in a world still government predominantly by the opposite sex, she is forced to contrive a suitable modus vivendi, a way of dealing with people, and in this case, men. European woman is no novice in the science of love. If she finds herself single in her mid-twenties, she has already experienced the best and the worst of men. If she has experienced rejection in the past, the next partner will suffer the consequences. She will begin a relationship passionately, but before long, the partner will receive the covert message. An honest European woman with issues, who is genuinely smitten with her new found lover, with usually emit the covert message early on.

The problem with men in love is that they usually discard the covert message, as they them selves are so overcome with desire for the woman, their emotions being considerably overtaken by the ebullience of their reproductive urges. But this can be fatal, as they may underestimate the extent of their emotional involvement and become blinded by the illusion, that is to say, they may develop chronic symptoms of what I call philotyflia. This is a neologism which I have coined myself. Seeing as the malady is common, it is surprising that it has been left to me to invent it. Philos is the Ancient Greek for love. Tyflos means blindness. Philotyflia, then, is the condition of losing one’s perspicacity and sense of good vision through finding oneself helpless in the perilous condition called ‘being in love’. This of course is fatal for the man. He enters into a vortex of desire and wild imaginings, willfully discarding the carefully written letter he has received in his love-infected heart which contains the inscrutably covert message.
The covert message is often something like this: “I don’t want to feel trapped” “I want to maintain my freedom”. “I just have a fear that the flame will die out”. “I want you to be open-minded”. “I fear getting bored” The covert message is always ambiguous and rarely resolvable, a bit like Oscar Wilde’s definition of truth, rarely pure and never simple. European woman wants a faithful lover but not a boyfriend or a husband. She wants to be both in and out of the relationship. The condition of philotyflia is conducive to despair among sensitive men, as it inevitable leads to what old Plato himself called ‘tyflos exein pros to ophelimon’- being blind towards one’s own interests. Sounds more profound in Greek, doesn’t it! To conclude, I will leave you with an analogy. European woman is like the timid Europa herself, enraptured by the amorous bull with whom she will passionately copulate, she looks wistfully back towards the shores of her previous existence, as if in mortal dread of the reality, the inevitable end of all life’s dreams.

Why I was compelled to hug a horse

Let’s face it. Summer is over. That is to say, the idea of summer is over. We have arrived unclothed in flip-flops and shorts at the lugubrious shores of eternal winter. We are in a dark place right now and the dull, grey skies rain symphonies of sorrows upon our drooping heads. What now? Where now? Is there any reason for going on? Of course not, which is why we must be resourceful and invent one? Why should start by trying to be positive. There are many people in the world dying of heat, sweating and writhing under the sun’s inclement gaze, they starve, wither and shrivel to death. We could well say, then, that sub specie exterminates, or if you like, on a general level, we are lucky. We are a nation of daoine báistí, soggy sufferers, wet men and, no pun intended, wet women.

I shambled down Plunckett Street in Cork on a dank, wet day recently, when I was accosted by a Polish girl trying to convince me that I should sign up for an educational project in Africa. He chided me for looking so melancholy; reminding me of how lucky I was to be living here in wonderful old Eireann. I said that the substance of luck depended on one’s perspective. One is always relatively lucky, yet the fact that one exists is usually enough reason to be unhappy. She asked me why I carried a satchel around with me. I said it was because I liked to dip into the morose world of the Greek dramatist Sophocles, while running my health on cigarettes and coffee. Looking a tad puzzled by my uncompromising pessimism, she turned swiftly to the matter at hand: education for poor children in that part of the world which has been raped and plundered by the infinite decadence of Western man. I need not mention its name. I explained to her that, although I am very much in favour of universal access to education and sympathise profoundly with the plight of the world’s poor, my own bank account is heavily in deficit, and finding myself in such an impecunious state, I could not sign up. She, being Polish, had I need hardly mention, a university education in psychology. In a moment of emphatic warmth, she embraced me and told me to smile. I politely faked a wry grin before resuming my melancholy perambulations. Strangely enough, this bizarre and utterly pointless injection of absurd optimism reminded me of that famous anecdote told of the German philosopher Nietzsche one sultry evening in Turin. Overcome with emotion for the suffering of the world, the great thinker crossed the street and hugged a horse. It was the end of his career and his final eleven years would be spent in hopeless mental disintegration. “But what’s so mad about hugging horses” I thought to myself. “ Are they not animals like us, do they not suffer and sigh, carrying as they often do, the burden of our fatuous desires, gasping and panting in the wind and the rain in order to inflate the egos of punters, hunters and brainless millionaires? Yes, all those millionaires without whom the world would have enough resources to educate every child. Is there anything more touching, more uncannily melancholy than the long face of a horse?” “Nietzsche was right”, I pondered and I resolved forthwith to hug the next horse I came across. But as luck would have it, there were none. But how did I gallop from meteorological despair to matters equestrian? That’s it. I was going to suggest that we should be resolved to gallop in the rain. Let us embrace our rainy lives. Let us jump and frolic in our puddles of woe, sousing ourselves in its aqueous depths. Let us wallow in it defiantly or as Beckett put it, ‘face to the open sky the passing deluge’. And in the meantime, if you see a horse, hug it. For as Greek myth tells us, the light and warmth of Apollo is drawn by galloping horses

On the cases of Occitan and Ullans

Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman, / qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire. / Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan; / consiros vei la passada folor, / e vei jausen lo joi qu'esper, denan. / Ara vos prec, per aquella valor / que vos guida al som de l'escalina, / sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor"

So pleases me your courteous demand, / I cannot and I will not hide me from you. / I am Arnaut, who weep and singing go;/ Contrite I see the folly of the past, /And joyous see the hoped-for day before me. / Therefore do I implore you, by that power/ Which guides you to the summit of the stairs, / Be mindful to assuage my suffering

The above quotation is taken from the 26th canto of Dante's epic poem Purgatorio. Those of you familar with French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese might have seemed a bit puzzled by these sentences. The language is neither of the three; it is in fact Occitan or what is generally known as Provencal. If there is any language in Europe which deserves to be called multicultural, Occitan is certainly a notable candidate. Although it's status is often disputed, which most French people referring to it as simply a dialect of French, many scholars contend that it deserves the status of a separate langauge.

Occitan was widely spoken in the South of France up until the 14th century, and it was the principal vehicle for the poems and songs of the troubadour poets, whose influence spread to Gaelic verse after the Norman invasion in the 12th century. But its multicultural aspect becomes apparent when one realises that it was not only spoken in the territory pertaining to modern day France. It was also spoken in Spain, in the form of Aranese. This dialect is now commonly referred to as Catalan. There were also many speakers of Occitan in Northern Italy in the regions of Piedmond and Liguria as well as parts of Calabria in the south. With the standardisation of French after the foundation of the Academie Francaise in 1635 , minorities languages such as the Celtic Breton and the Romance Occitan went into terminal decline, but efforts to preserve and restore the status of Occitan resulted in the creation of bilingual schools in 1979. These schools are known as Calandreta and there are currently 26 of them in the South of France.

The status of a language and its standardisation is often the source of heated debate. Should one refer to Occitan as a dialect of French, Spanish or Italian or as a language in itself? The question is considerably complicated by the fact that there are many different versions of Occitan. These have been identified as Gascon, Northern Occitan,Lemosin, Auverhat, Vivaroalpenic, Southern Occitan, Provencal and Langadocian. But the fact that Occitan has an august literary history, must be taken into consideration. The status of a language is inextricably bound up with nationality and ethnicity.Why, for example are Swedish, Norwegian and Danish considered separate languages, when they are almost mutally intelligible. It is because these dialects of Scandinavian, if you like, have each become a standardised lingua franca of the nation-states bearing their names. Ireland has officially two languages, Gaelic and English, but the status of Ulster-Scots in the North still poses problems for linguists. The question is whether we can call it a language or a dialect of English.In a sense, all these languages are both separate entities as well as forming part of standard languages which suppressed and supplanted them; they are therefore both language and dialect, depending on how one views the cultural integrity or independence of the regions to which they belong. The fact that Ulster-Scots, for example, was willingly abandoned by Unionist Ulstermen after the formation of the United Kingdom, only to be revived recently as a sort of antidote to Sinn Fein's Gaelic project, has meant that few if any have taken it seriously as a langauge. But as they say in Ullans, E'enin orts is guid mornins' fother-what is despised today may be valued tomorrow and perhaps this could change if Ulster Unionists were to pursue the idea shared by some of making Northern Ireland an independent state. Just as in the case of Occitan in France, the formation of Ulster-Scots bilingual schools would go a long way towards the formation of a separate Ulster identity as well as encouraging more cultural appreciation, exchange and diversity throughout the region.

The road to perdition

With oil prices continuing to rise, our economy keeling over, and the obvious effects of global climate change manifesting itself on this increasingly rain-swept island of ours, this might be a good moment for Dáil Éireann to reflect. One cannot deny the necessity of our new motorways connecting key nodal points on the island, but certain projects defy rationality. The most notorious of these is the controversial M3 motorway which will dissect the Tara Valley . Apart from the irrevocable damage such a motorway will cause to the valley’s archeological heritage- much of which has yet to be excavated and studied- the motorway is itself superfluous and it is unlikely to ease congestion for motorists connecting to the M50. Since its pompous unveiling of the Transport 20 national plan, the Government has concentrated heavily on motorways, but in this case, the obvious environmentally friendly and efficient solution would be to re-open and upgrade the Dublin to Kells railway. If the Government had the prescience and competence to create a comprehensive transport system, our excessive dependence on oil and deplorable record on CO2 emissions could be reduced. Why, then, have the voices of reason calling for the re-opening of the Dublin to Kells railway been ignored, and why has the Government drawn international opprobrium upon itself in its insistent destruction of our national heritage?
According to a new press release from the Tara Watch campaign, the answer lies in the internal power-politics of Fianna Fáil. Since the inception of the M3 project in 1999, its chief proponent has been An t-Aire Iompair Noal Dempsey, and all of the compulsory purchase orders have been handled by his brother Loman. Loman Dempsey is directory of Potterton Auctioneers based in Meath. The Government has plans to invest billions of Euro in property investment schemes for the Meath area, ergo, Noel and his brother have, one might say, a personal interest in this project. As for the once vociferous, once progressive-sounding Greens? There is a rare word in the English language to describe them: obmutescence, obstinate silence. This was the party that had futuristic ideas for a twenty-first century transport system before their election to the Dáil. Does anyone remember their plans for Cork ? They proposed to construct a water-schuttle project, whereby commuters could use the River Lee to connect to the city centre. I haven’t heard a word about this plan since.

To return to the Tara project, Vincent Salafia, says in Tara Watch press release of September 4th
“"The M3 is a perfect example of Irish 'pork-barrel' spending. There is simply no need for a fifth motorway in the small county of Meath, running only five kilometres from the M2. Minister Dempsey’s local supporters will have to do with just four motorways in one county. "Tax-payers cannot afford to pay for the construction costs over the next three years and then turn around and spend another twelve euros a day to drive on it, before they even hit the M50."The M3 is sucking money from badly needed public transport projects, such as re-opening the Dublin to Kells railway, not to mention health and education projects”

Interesting phrase that, ‘pork barrel spending’. It certainly encapsulates the ruinously incompetent infrastructural planning of our present political incumbents. But personal interest and short-term gain are concerned, Fianna Fáil have always shown them selves to be determinedly inflexible. This is unlikely to change unless, of course, proposed property contracts fall through and the economy goes into free fall. In a country that relies so helplessly on volatile multi-nationals, whose bottom-line is profit, it might be prudent to think of the only indigenous industry we can rely on: tourism; and what a shame if the only way for tourists to access the Tara Valley was through a motorway which destroyed its unique ambience.

Reflections on the origins of the word Boulangerie

If one were to single out one item of food that epitomises the French way of life, the baguette would undoutedely be a contender. The French love freshly baked bread, and there is hardly a village or street in all of France which does not have a Boulangerie, where baguettes are lovingly prepared as well as various delicious cakes and pastries. That is why one will not find a French equivalent of the Anglophone expression ‘ the greatest invention since sliced bread’. Industrially packaged sliced pans never really took off in the land of haute cuisine
, where the pleasure derived from good food bears an importance of almost religious intensity.
Considering its centrality to French life, one would think that the word boulangerie would have an obvious origin in the French language, something self-evident and logical ; but, surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Most French etymological dictionaries derive the word from medieval Latin, citing the obscure word bulangarius as a possible source. But this doesn’t explain much about the literal meaning of the word. Seeing as the Latin word for bread is panis, from which we have derivations in all the Romance languages, the origin of this quintessentially French word still remains obscure. The Latin for boulangerie is infact pistrinum. French philologists contend thqt boulangerie is derived from the latin bulla, but this word, although containing the notion of something round, was only used to denote the seal of a letter, as in a papal bull. But there is no evidence of this word being used in the sense of kneeding dough to make bread. This mystery becomes more complex when one examines equivalent words in the other Latinate languages. Italian has fornajo and panateria, while Spanish gives us the obvious panaderia. So where does this puzzling word boulangerie come from ? It should contain a meaning pertaining to the baking or kneading of bread. One can safely conjecture that the medieval bulangarius is a mere latinisation of a pre-existing word, peculiar to the province of Roman Gaul.

Flicking through my Gaelic etymology dictionary by Charles Mackay recently, I stumbled on a possible solution to this problem. Mackay, equally puzzled by this word, derives it from the Gaelic builin meaning a loaf and anas, a dainty, a cake, a pastry. However, the former word rather disconcertingly means anus according to O Donaill’s Irish dictionary ! But assuming that it is an old word in Scots Gaelic, the language most familiar to the author, I have to admit the ingenious cogency of his interpretation. The Irish word denoting striking, beating or kneading is bualadh, whence builin meaning kneaded dough or bread. Putting these two words together we have bualanas, which is startlingly close to boulangerie. But if boulangerie is indeed cognate with the Irish word for loaf, perhaps we can only cite eight hundred years of British colonisation for the absence of a corresponding appreciation of bread and confectionary in Irish culture.
If one were to accept this etymology, one would have to conclude that boulangerie is an old Gaulish word which lived on in the superimposed latinate language of French.

If we contemplate the striking similarities between Gaulish and Gaelic words, the hypothesis becomes all the more convincing. It also raises questions about the ability of French philologists to find suitable derivations of non-latinate words, being for the most part ignorant of our noble Gaelic. I am reminded of the famous declaration of Dr.Murray, late professor of Oriental languages in the University of Edinburgh, who said " Without a considerable knowledge of Gaelic, no person can make any proficiency whatever in philology " The more I dig into this linguistic soil, the more convinced I am of the ineluctable veracity of this assertion

Saturday, November 08, 2008


die da oben sitzen, oben nur weil jene unten sitzen,
….those on top sit up there only because the others sit below
Bertold Brecht

Crisis, doom, gloom, panic, freefall, meltdown, catastrophe, disaster, despair, the abyss. Oh the crisis the crisis the infernal crisis ! Oh how the mighty have fallen ! By now the names have almost engender quasi- lyrical connotations of disaster on a grand scale : Northern Rock, Merril Lynch, Fanny Mae, Fanny Mac, Lehman Brothers, the great Titans of the world economy, either on the brink or consigned to the dustbin of history. For most of us, consumed as we are with the inevitable chores of daily life, the interminable labour we perform for food and raiment, the crisis is really something that doesn’t concern us. It has something to do with those guys we see on the Tele, sweating and fretting over frantically fluctuating figures on overhead monitors. Very few people understand the financial markets, the Nasdac, the Dow Jones etc, and it is precisely this pandemic ignorance which allows the traders, bankers, stock brokers and investors to clandestinely determine the fate of the planet. The bankers are the rulers of the earth and as such they could be said to have the status of gods. Just like the gods, they rarely make an appearance in public, preferring to keep a low profile. Instead, they communicate with us mere mortals through their obsequious emisseries, the angels. The angels are the governments whose duty is to communicate the messages of the gods. When I use the term gods, I am thinking more in terms of the Ancient Greek deities, who were anthropomorphic, that is to say, bearing all the qualities, characteristics and many of the weaknesses of the mortals over whom they so indifferently reign. The gods are complex creatures. They eat, drink and feast and are always hungry for more. They have nothing but contempt for the masses of the faithful who are compelled to make regular sacrifices to satiate their voracious appetites, and it is precisely this need for sacrifice which constitutes the essential weakness of these capricious deities ; they rely on the subservience and ignorant belief of the faithful to perpetuate their superiority. In other words, the greatness of the gods depends on the voluntary smallness of man.

There is one central difference between the Greek gods and the Christian deity. The Greek gods were also subject to the arbitrary and inscrutable forces of Fate; they lacked the omnipotence and omniscience of what the Christians call God, who is a bit of a bore in comparison. And so, just like their Grecian predecessors the gods of the modern world are incapable of controlling their own fate. Ergo when their excesses are punished by fate, it is the faithful who have to pay. The United States government has proposed a rescue package of 700 billion to save the American economy from ruin. This means further taxes on the working class, the faithful of capitalist theology. The faithful, too terrified to object, are well advised on this matter, by their local clergy, the economists. Economists are often hard to understand, but as many of them are bald and have glasses, they seem to know what they are talking about. So, we the ignorant faithful listen and take their advice. They often says things like ‘the market moves in mysterious ways’ or ‘It’s important to raise consumer confidence’, which is a bit like saying ‘ god is good even if nobody understands him, so be a good boy and say your prayers’. Such economists are what I call Market Catholics. For the Market Catholic there is one way and one way only. On the other hand there are also Market Protestants. The Market Protestants are usually endowed with prophetic powers ( no pun intended). They often predict when the crisis is going to come; they are harbingers of the apocalypse who exhort us to work harder and join in prayer. At the very end of the scale are the atheists. They live on the left hand side of the capitalist world. Many of them seek the overthrow of the gods and the construction of a new world order based on the principal of equality. Since the fall of the rebel angels 18 years ago,( ie, the Soviet Union ) they have been kept in the underworld. In Ancient Greek society Socrates was the first intellectual of note to question the existence of the gods. In Christian mythology Lucifer, whose name means ‘ bearer of light’, was the first angel to challenge the tyranny of God. Considering the darkness in which we currently find ourselves, perhaps these metaphors merit reflection.

What is the question?

The radio-waves of the world saturate our working-days with tidings of the latest woe. The only perceptible difference is its progessive worsening. The halcyon days of lassez-faire economics that facilitated an orgy of reckless consumption have passed abruptly into the frosty fold of winter. This is indeed the winter of our discontent, one which is likely to last beyond spring and summer, a long-term winter.

But what have we done wrong, what have we the workers, labourers, assistants, functionaries of the capitalist system done to deserve such an tornado of depression. What is the crisis about ? Who is responsible ? What can be done ? Where do we go from here ? Up until now, the daily economic question was principally one of scale. The morning business reports would tell us that the market was for the most part growing. People were getting richer. Yes, the general assumtion was that ‘people’ were gaining. But which people ? We were inundated with reports of the highest people. That is to say those who manage the banks, the new secret aristocracy of our time. So an so’s annual salary reached 3 million this year. Mr X or bank Y made 2 million on bonuses this year etc etc. Of course, all this meant that the economy was fine. The miraculous trickle-down effect would ensure that we would all benefit. Just as God functioned as a incontrovertible source of autocratic power in the middle-ages, keeping the peasants and serfs quaking with fear, today’s unquestionable authority is the market. The market loves us all and only madmen and socialists would challenge its infallibility.

In pre-renaissance or late-medieval Europe when universities were being founded throughout our backward continent, universities began to teach the liberal arts : grammar, rhetoric and theology were heavily emphasised. Through the mediation of Islamic scholars, the works of Artistotle began to circulate throughout Europe. The challenge for European thinkers was not so much to understand the works of Aristotle but to assimilate them to Christian dogma. Thomas Aquinas-an Italian scholar who received his instruction in Aristotelian philosophy from an Irishman known as Petrus de Ibernia- did his utmost to subordinate Greek philosophy to Christian theology. Since God’s existence was incontrovertible, the dictum of the times was fides querens intellectum, faith seeking understanding.
The philosophical question which would demand valid and rational reasons for belief in God was excluded from the outset, and so the aim was to work out the rationality of God’s ways as revealed to us in Christian mythology. We have come along way in Europe since then. The enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century put an end to theocracy and the tyranny of monarchy, proclaiming the rights of man and the sanctity of liberty. Today’s post-enlightenment world still cherishes these ideas, so much in fact that the sovereignty of the individual has mutated into a grotesque dogma. Having seen the excesses and failures of the Soviet Union and its sudden fall, apologists of the new dogma proclaimed the aim or end-target of history. Human beings had reached the era of liberal democracy and market capitalism was the only system that permitted the exercise of this new freedom. In this sense plutocracy or the rule of the rich, has replaced theocracy or the rule of God. So, just as Aquinas was unable to excogitate valid reasons for belief in God, today’s world is unable to imagine an alternative to capitalism. In such a quandary, the only question that can be asked is how to fix the system, how to repent and seek the remission of sins. This frantic search for an answer, a solution, a quick fix can only be an answer to an unquestionable presupposition, that the market should continue to function. In other words, that the plutocracy should remain in place. The problem , then, is as the Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has noted, not that we don’t know how to formulate an answer to the crisis, rather, we do not know how to ask the question concerning the crisis. In other words, rather than asking ‘what is the answer’, we need to have the audacity to ask ‘ what is the question ?’ What is it that we want ? Who is this ‘we’, the majority of working people, or the minority who determine our working conditions ? If we cannot ask the right questions we will only reinstate the problem, and of course this is the nature of the depression or rather the oppression that has been perpetrated upon us by the plutocracy. The questions they pose already presuppose their desired answer.