What water knows is how to adapt. How to become liquid, snow, ice or vapour, depending on what is required of you – and yet always to remain, at heart, the pure essence of what you are. (It’s always H2O.)
Water is the essence of change: it can mirror, conceal or reveal, depending on whether or how it moves.
Water is the essence of contradiction: it can soothe, and heal – but it can also kill.
Water, in many mythologies, is the primeval substance of creation, and studies of evolution suggest that life on Earth evolved out of water.
Water is fundamental to the land of Ireland – and no more so than in the West. Here in Connemara, we are immersed in it, in all its forms. I live in a land of lochs, rivers, streams, bog-pools – all of it fringed by the finger-like tidal inlets which reach deep into our boulder-strewn fields. These midwinter days are more watery than ever, with mist hanging thick over morning lochs, and rainfall creating new lochs out of what formerly were no more than large puddles.
Water is fundamental to Celtic mythology, too, and through it the Otherworld could often be reached. Think of the story of the Voices of the Wells, which formed the foundation for If Women Rose Rooted: Otherworldly maidens would come out of the wells, offering food and drink to travellers in need. Sometimes you could reach the Otherworld through lakes, as in the Welsh story of Taliesin and Cerridwen, who lived at the bottom of Lake Bala. The Irish bards believed that inspiration could be found along the banks of rivers – and that inspiration came direct from the Otherworld, the rivers’ ultimate source.
The sea too has played a great role in the mythology of Ireland, and my favourite of those sea-stories is that of Amergin Glúingel, and the ninth wave.
What Amergin knows
Amergin Glúingel was chief bard of the Sons of Mil, or Milesians (the Gaels), who invaded Ireland in revenge for the killing of their great-uncle Íth by the three kings of the resident Tuatha Dé Danann. They landed in south Kerry, and the three queens of the Tuatha Dé (Banba, Ériu and Fódla), each gave, in turn, permission for Amergin and his people to settle in Ireland – as long as they agreed to name the island after each of them, which he did (Ériu is the origin of the modern name Éire, while Banba and Fódla were used as poetic names for Ireland).
The Milesians were then required to engage in battle with the three kings, their druids and warriors. Amergin acted as a judge for both 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, which appears to have been a magical boundary between sea and land. They then moved back toward the beach, but the druids of the Tuatha Dé Danann raised a magical storm to keep them from reaching land. But Amergin sang an invocation, calling upon the spirit of Ireland – it has come to be known as The Song of Amergin – and with that, he was able to part the storm and bring the ship safely to land. There were heavy losses on all sides, but the Milesians eventually won, and the Tuatha Dé were banished to the hollow hills.
John Carey translates The Song of Amergin as follows (from The Celtic Heroic Age, 2003, p. 265)
I am a wind in the sea (for depth)
I am a sea-wave upon the land (for heaviness)
I am the sound of the sea (for fearsomeness)
I am a stag of seven combats (for strength)
I am a hawk upon a cliff (for agility)
I am a tear-drop of the sun (for purity)
I am fair (i.e. there is no plant fairer than I)
I am a boar for valour (for harshness)
I am a salmon in a pool (for swiftness)
I am a lake in a plain (for size)
I am the excellence of arts (for beauty)
I am a spear that wages battle with plunder.
I am a god who forms subjects for a ruler
Who explains the stones of the mountains?
Who invokes the ages of the moon?
Where lies the setting of the sun?
Who bears cattle from the house of Tethra?
Who are the cattle of Tethra who laugh?
What man, what god forms weapons?
I invoked a satirist …
a satirist of wind.
Celtic scholars Alwyn and Brinley Rees (Celtic Heritage) consider that Amergin on the ocean ’embodies the primeval unity of all things. As such he has the power to bring a new world into being, and his poems are in the nature of creation incantations.’ And so, in these dark days of winter, as we wait for the return of the light, I am thinking about what I am, and what I would like to bring into being.
Things to consider
What will you create out of the storm, out of the long dark? What is your creation song? What will you bring into being with the return of the light? And what spirit will you invoke, to help you do it?