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The Song of Amergin

The White Goddess


Robert Graves provided several different interpretations of the Song of Amergin, partly because "...
Unfortunately, the version which survives is only a translation into colloquial Irish from Old
Goidelic ...", and partly because of the calendar symbolism within the poem, to which Graves applied
considerable analysis. Here are the main Graves interpretations, within which you will see several
themes closely matching the ones found in Do not Stand at My Grave and Weep:
Graves explained that the Song of Amergin is also known as the Song of Amorgen, and that the poem
is "... said to have been chanted by the chief bard of the Milesian invaders, as he set foot on the soil of
Ireland, in the year of the world 2736 (1268 BC) ..."
Graves also refers to the observations of historian, Dr R S Macalister, that the same piece (i.e., the
Song of Amergin) is 'in garbled form' put into the mouth of the Child-bard Taliesin in telling of his
transformational prior existence. This gives rise to a further variation of Graves interpretation of the
poem.
Incidentally the Milesians were, according to Irish mythology, the last invaders of Ireland, arriving in
Ireland in the 1st or 2nd century BC, descended from Mil Espaine or Milesius, meaning 'soldier of
Hispania', because that's what he was. Hispania equates to the Spanish/Portuguese peninsula territory
of the Roman Empire. Milesius was said have dreamed that his descendents would colonise Ireland,
and legend tells that some of his sons did so. Goidelic equates to Gaelic in referring to the family of
languages including Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx (Isle of Man). Taliesin (also known as
Taliessin) was a Welsh poet of the 6th century, who according to legend entertained Celtic Kings of the
time, including King Arthur. Taliesin used the Brythonic language, an old native British language family
including Breton, Cornish and Welsh of that period. The Celtic language families Goidelic/Gaelic and
Brythonic predated the imported Germanic and French-based languages, and therefore feature
significantly in old British legend and poetry such as the Song of Amergin. Robert Graves specialised in
interpreting and translating this sort of very old British poetry, and if that interests you then you'd
probably find his book The White Goddess very enjoyable.
The first of Graves' translated versions of the poem is shown below with Graves' accompanying notes.
Of enormous significance, in my view, is the age of the Song of Amergin. The poem is translated from
folklore dating back at least a thousand years, and the meanings and style of the poem can be linked
closely with ancient Irish civilisation pre-dating the Bible, the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. In
this respect, the Song of Amergin is perhaps the earliest meaningful example of the use of the 'I
am ...' imagery which we can connect to the poetic technique found in 'Do not Stand at My Grave and
Weep'.
The Song of Amergin (literal translation - Graves)
God speaks and says:

Gloss [Graves uses 'gloss' to refer to


the meaning of each line.]

I
I
I
I
I
I
I
I
I
I
I
I

for depth
for weight
for strength
for deftness
a dew-drop - for clearness
[no note]
for valour
'the pools of knowledge'
for extent
'and knowledge'
[no note]
(i.e. 'gives inspiration': Macalister)

am
am
am
am
am
am
am
am
am
am
am
am

a wind of the sea,


a wave of the sea,
an ox of seven fights, (or) I am a stag of seven tines,
a griffon on a cliff, (or) I am a hawk on a cliff,
a tear of the sun,
fair among flowers,
a boar,
a salmon in a pool,
a lake on a a plain,
a hill of poetry,
a battle-waging spear,
a god who forms fire for a head.

or I am a god who forms sacred fire for a head.


***
1. Who makes clear the ruggedness of the mountains?

2.
3.
4.
5.

'Who but myself will resolve every


question?'

or Who but myself knows the assemblies of the


dolmen-house on the mountain of Slieve Mis?
Who but myself knows where the sun shall set?
Who fortells the ages of the moon?
Who brings the cattle from the House of Tethra and
segragates them?
On whom do the cattle of Thethra smile?
or For whom but me will the fish of the laughing
ocean be making welcome?

(i.e. 'the fish, Macalister, i.e. 'the stars',


MacNeill)

6. Who shapes weapons from hill to hill?

wave to wave, letter to letter, point to


point'
***

Invoke, People of the Sea, invoke the poet, that he may


compose a spell for you.
For I, the Druid, who set out letters in Ogham,
I, who part combatants,
I will approach the rath of the Sidhe to seek a cunning poet
that together we may concoct incantations.
I am the wind of the sea.
Robert Graves Copyright Trust, 1948, 1952, 1997.
The above is the full and relatively literal translation by Robert Graves of the ancient Irish folklore
poem, the Song of Amergin. It is reproduced here including Graves' poem line notes, from The White
Goddess (1948, by Robert Graves, edited by Grevel Lindop), under licensed permission from A P Watt
Ltd on behalf of the Trustees of the Robert Graves Copyright Trust. Publication of the Song of Amergin
is not allowed without permission from A P Watt Ltd.
Additional notes for the Song of Amergin version above
These notes are interesting in their own right, but additionally some of what follows provides clues as
to how certain words, language and imagery can give rise to powerful human responses, such as
occurs in relation to 'Do not Stand at My Grave and Weep', as if at an instinctive, primeval or even
genetic level.
Thethra (according to ancient Briton/Celtic folklore), Graves explained was "... the king of the
undersea land from which the People of the Sea were supposed to have originated."
The Sidhe are (at time of Grave's writing) regarded as fairies, but in early Irish poetry were a 'highly
cultured and dwindling' nation of warriors and poets living in raths (hill forts), notably New Grange on
the Boyne. Graves alludes to parallels between the Sidhe warriors and other mythical tribes. The Sidhe
apparently had blue eyes, long curly yellow hair, and pale faces, tattoos, carried white shields, and
were sexually promiscous but 'without blame or shame'. Seemingly, Graves informs us, the
Mosynoechians ('wooden-castle-dwellers') of the Black Sea coast were also tattooed, carried white
shields, and 'performed the sex act in public', presumably also 'without blame or shame'. It was a
man's world back then for sure.
For me, the comparison between the Irish Sidhe and the Mosynoechians of the Black Sea coast helps
the appreciation that the significant meaning of mythological and spiritual imagery is fundamental in
human existence - then as now - and somehow might be inherited genetically, aside from through the
spoken and written word.

The ancient history of the Boyne makes the 1690 Battle of the Boyne seem comparatively very recent.
Boyne is in the county of Meath, north of Dublin, on the north-east coast of Ireland. Boyne is the site
of Br na Binne, also known as Brugh na Binne, meaning 'palace or dwelling place of the Boyne'.
Br na Binne is a settlement and ceremonial area more than 5,000 years old, which to put in
perspective existed at least 3,000 years before the baby Jesus was an an eye in God's twinkle, if you
will forgive the blasphemy.
Slieve Mis is a mountain range in Kerry. In Irish - Sliabh Mish - is named after a mythological Celtic
princess noted for her cruelty.
A 'tine' is an antler. Graves suggests that seven tines might refer to seven points on an antler, on the
basis that a stag having six or more points on each antler and being at least seven years old, was
regarded as a 'royal stag', although he does not explain further the meaning of a 'royal stag'.
More interestingly, Graves then explains that the poem in its original form (or as close to the original
form as Graves was able to determine) would most likely have been 'pied' - that is to say, its 'esoteric'
(subtle, purist) meaning would have been disguised. In other words, the meaning was intentionally
made difficult to decipher, 'for reasons of security'.
The weaving of hidden meanings into poetry is widely practised, although in more modern times this is
for artistic or sensual or subliminal appreciation purposes. Graves suggests that the hidden meanings
in the old Celtic poetry, of which the Song of Amergin is an example, held more strategic, perhaps
even sinister, implications: as if the poetry were an instrument of leadership or control, and its hidden
meanings empowered the chosen few who knew the code.
Graves decoded the Song of Amergin as follows, rearranging the statements of the first main verse
according to the thirteen-month calendar and his ideas about the Druid system of lettering, which (for
reasons too complex to explain here) linked trees with letters and months of the year:
The Song of Amergin (transitionary rearranged version - Graves)
Graves says, "There can be little doubt as to the appropriateness of this arrangement ..." on which
basis we might regard this to be Graves' definitive version.
God speaks and says:
I am a stag of seven tines,
(or) I am an ox of seven fights,
I am a wide flood on a plain,
I am a wind on the deep waters,
I am a shining tear of the sun,
I am a hawk on a cliff,
I am fair among flowers,
I am a god who sets the head afire with smoke,
I am a battle-waging spear,
I am a salmon in a pool,
I am a hill of poetry,
I am a ruthless boar,
I am a threatening noise,
I am a wave of the sea,
Who but I knows the secrets of the unhewen
dolmen?

Trees of the month


B Dec 24-Jan 20
L
N
F
S
H
D
T
C
M
G
NG
R

Jan 21-Feb 17
Feb 18-Mar 17
Mar 18-Apr 14
Apr 15- May 12
May 13-June 9
June 10-Jul 7
Jul 8-Aug 4
Aug 5-Sep 1
Sep 2- Sep 29
Sep 30-Oct 27
Oct 28-Nov 24
Nov 25-Dec 22
Dec 23

Birch

Beth

Quick-beam (Rowan)
Ash
Alder
Willow
Hawthorn
Oak
Holly
Hazel
Vine
Ivy
Reed
Elder

Luis
Nion
Fearn
Saille
Uath
Duir
Tinne
Colle
Muin
Gort
Ngetal
Ruis

Robert Graves Copyright Trust, 1948, 1952, 1997. Reproduced from The White Goddess (1948, by
Robert Graves, edited by Grevel Lindop), under licensed permission from A P Watt Ltd on behalf of the
Trustees of the Robert Graves Copyright Trust. Publication of the Song of Amergin is not allowed
without permission from A P Watt Ltd.

The Song of Amergin (popular modernised version - Graves)


Graves says that the poem can be expanded as follows, according to further analysis and overlay of
the alphabetical coding within the writings.
God speaks and says:
I am a stag of seven tines,
Over the flooded world,
I am borne by the wind,
I descend in tears like dew, I lie glittering.
I fly aloft like a griffon to my nest on the cliff,
I bloom among the loveliest flowers,
I am both the oak and the lightning that blasts it,
I embolden the spearsman,
I teach the councillors their wisdom,
I inspire the poets,
I rove the hills like a conquering boar,
I roar like the winter sea,
I return like the receding wave,
Who but I can unfold the secrets of the unhewen
dolmen?
I
I
I
I
I

am
am
am
am
am

the
the
the
the
the

womb of every holt,


blaze on every hill,
queen of every hive,
shield to every head,
tomb to every hope.

A
O
U
E
I

Graves suggested this five-line pendant,


which features in copies of the work.

Robert Graves Copyright Trust, 1948, 1952, 1997. Reproduced from The White Goddess (1948, by
Robert Graves, edited by Grevel Lindop), under licensed permission from A P Watt Ltd on behalf of the
Trustees of the Robert Graves Copyright Trust. Publication of the Song of Amergin is not allowed
without permission from A P Watt Ltd.
Central to Graves rationale is the
dolmen arch, which in ancient Irish
history was symbolic of the seasons,
the calendar, letters linked with trees,
and at least one legendary journey of
lovers who bedded each night beside a
fresh dolmen. The 'alphabet' dolmen
arch was arranged thus, says Graves,
the posts representing Spring and
Autumn, the lintel Summer and the
threshold New Year's Day. Don't ask
me what happened to Winter. It's
extremely complicated, and if you
want to explore it further I recommend
you get the White Goddess book.

S-H-T-D-C
F

NG

R
A-O-U-E-I