Similes, Metaphors & Kennings

Dia·fagbainn-se bróin úachtair...

Dia·fagbainn-se bróin úachtair, do·géntae bró íochtair dím.

(if I were to find * millstone * upper * would be made * millstone * lower * of me)

If I found an upper millstone, I would be the lower millstone.

Ailbe says this to Finn during the verbal sparring and word play of their courtship in "Tochmarc Ailbe", letting him know that she'd gladly join in marriage with a man who was suited to her. The image of the wife as the lower millstone, also called an "inneóin" or "anvil", is found in Fíthal's advice to his son on choosing a wife. Their exchange begins:

Cid imma ngabthar trebad? ol a mac fri Fíthal.
Ní hansa. Im indeóin cothaigthe, ol Fíthal.
Ceist. Caide an indeóin threbtha? ol in mac.
Ní hansa. Ben maith, ol Fíthal. (ed. Meyer, ZCP viii 112)

Around what is a household established? said his son to Fíthal.
That's easy. Around a steady lower millstone, said Fíthal.
Tell me, what is the lower millstone of a household? said the son.
That's easy. A good woman, said Fíthal.

"Cá ben dobér?", also in this collection, is from later on in this father-son exchange.

Isat craebsa nar craithead fa cnomheas.

Isat craebsa nar craithead fa cnomheas.

(you are * branch * that not * was shaken * for its * nut-mast)

You are a branch that has not been shaken for its nut crop.

When Congal says this to Maelduin in "Cath Muighe Rath" (FDG, p. 294), he means that Maelduin is an untested warrior, unhardened by battle.

Boí coire féile la Laigniu, Buchat a ainm.

Boí coire féile la Laigniu, Buchat a ainm.

(was * cauldron * of generosity * with * Leinstermen * Buchat * his * name)

The men of Leinster had a cauldron of generosity, and his name was Buchat.

These are the opening words of the tale "Esnada Tige Buchet", edited by David Greene. The centerpiece of any guesthouse (tech n-oíged) or hostel (bruiden) was always one or more cauldrons, a reliable source of comfort and sustenance for all comers. The fires beneath the cauldrons of Buchat's house were never extinguished, according to the tale. Thus it is not surprising that a generous man would be metaphorically called a "coire féile" or a "coire don t-sochaide". The latter expression is found in FDG (p. 58). The text says "is e in senfhocal ó chein mair, .i. in coire don t-sochaide" (it is a proverb in longstanding, 'the cauldron for the multitude'). The application of the proverb here is slightly muddled, but the reference is to Suibne, a man celebrated for his hospitality.

Guirmithir aigred a rosc...

Guirmithir aigred a rosc,
dergithir nua-partaing a bél,
gilithir frasa némann a dét,
áillithir snechta n-oenaidche a chorp

(as blue * as ice * his * eye
as red * as new Parthian leather * his * mouth
as bright * as showers * of pearls * his * teeth
as beautiful * as snow * of one night * his * body)

His eye as blue as ice, his mouth as red as new Parthian leather, his teeth as bright as showers of pearls, his body as beautiful as freshly fallen snow.

This run of similes, whose spelling I've normalized, is found in FDG (p. 64). All four images are clichés found repeatedly in early Irish tales. The only mystery in all this is the exact identity of "partaing", which seems to refer to red-dyed leather. The term, although frequently used, is largely restricted to descriptions such as this. Compare "In folt amal in fíach" and "Ba fras de némannaib boí ina bélaib" in this collection.

Ingelt súile sochaide.

Ingelt súile sochaide.

(grazing * of eyes * of multitude)

He is a grazing for the eyes of a multitude.
He is a feast for the eyes.

Ingcél resorts to this expression in the midst of his description of a splendidly handsome and elegantly dressed young warrior in "Togail Bruidne Da Derga".

Deog a topur éca itib...

Deog a topur éca itib
i cath Detna la Lagnib.

(draught * from * well * of death * he drank /
in * battle * of Detna * with * Leinstermen)

He took a drink from the well of death
in the Battle of Detna against Leinster.

This half-stanza is from the poem "Mide magen clainne Cuind" by Flann Mainistreach. It is found in the Metrical Dindshenchas in LL (23881-2).

ith ocus blicht

ith ocus blicht
(grain * and * milk)

grain and milk

This pairing is found repeatedly in Early Irish literature, usually in this Middle Irish form, but also in the Old Irish form "ith ocus mlicht". It is a metonym for "food and drink" in general, and a metaphor very similar to the biblical "milk and honey" ("a land flowing with milk and honey" Ex. 3:8). The core "ith ocus blicht" may be expanded with mention of "mess" (mast, wild tree fruit and nuts), "torud" (fruit), or "íasc" (fish). The "Carmun" poem in the Metrical Dindshenchas describes a happy, prosperous Ireland blessed with "ith, blicht, síth, sáma sona / lína lána, lerthola" (grain, milk, peace, happy ease / full nets, ocean-plenty). In the Early Irish worldview, it was primarily the honesty and generosity of the ruler that assured abundant "ith ocus blicht", and conversely his dishonesty or niggardliness that could cause the land to withhold its bounty. An early poem tells how the "aithechthúatha" or "vassal tribes" of Ireland extirpated the ruling tribes, only to find that the earth itself objected to their massacre of the nobility, holding back from them it produce (ZCP xi.57):

Do·rónsat comairli cain
athig Érenn in tan sin,
uair tallad forro as cach mud,
ith blicht mes ocus torud.

The vassals of Ireland
took good counsel then,
since grain, milk, mast and fruit
had been taken from them in every way.

Robudh aíbhnes gan eocha dam-sa sin...

Robudh aíbhnes gan eocha dam-sa sin,
7 robudh chuirm gan chorna,
7 robudh chonách gan cheól,
7 robudh thigernas gan taithighe ,
7 robudh iasacht gan indlacad dam-sa.

(would be * festivity * without * horses * for me * that /
& would be * feast * without * drinking horns /
& would be * wealth * without * music /
& would be * lordship * without * visiting /
& would be * loan * without * repayment * for me)

That would be like a festival without horses for me,
and a feast without drinking horns,
and having wealth without music,
and being a lord without receiving guests,
and a loan without its return.

In the tale "Cath Maighe Léna", Conn offers Eógan Mór the greater part of Ireland in order to avoid a costly battle. Conn withholds Temair, however. Eógan refuses the offer, which he considers incomplete, in these metaphorical terms.

Is én immon·iada sás...

Is én immon·iada sás,
is nau tholl diant éslinn gúas,
is lestar fás is crann crín,
nad·déni thoil ind ríg thúas.

(is * bird * around which closes * snare /
is * boat * perforated * to which is * dangerous * jeopardy /
is * vessel * empty * is * tree * withered /
that does not * will * of the * king * above)

He is a bird around which the trap closes,
he is a leaky ship that is unsafe in perilous waters,
he is a an empty vessel, a withered tree,
whoever does not do the will of the king above.

This stanza, attributed to Saint Moling, is collected in the "Thesaurus", vol. 2, page 294.

méitithir muldorn míled

méitithir muldorn míled

(as big * (as) rounded-fist * of soldier)

as big as the balled-up fist of a fighter

A simile used in the Táin to characterize the knotted muscles of Cú Chulainn's calves. A similar alliterative simile says that his neck muscles were "méitithir cend maicc mís" (as big as the head of month-old child).

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