Similes, Metaphors & Kennings

Ar is usci loch aelta…

Ar is usci loch aelta .i. ni maith do dig, ní maith do indlut.

(for * tis * water * of-lake* limey * i.e. * is-not * good * for * drink * not-good * for * bathing)

For it is an alkaline lake: not good to drink and not good for bathing.

In other words, it is a useless thing, person, or situation. In this case, Saint Brigit is telling a clerical student that a person without a spiritual guide is of no use. Her full statement, which is found in a short anecdote in the Book of Leinster (MS folio 283b28), is:

"Air is coland cen chend duine cen anmcharait. Ar is usci loch aelta .i. ni maith do dig ní maith do indlut. is cumma & duine cen anmcharait."

"For a a person without an soul-friend (anamchara) is a body without a head. For he is an alkaline lake, not good for drinking and not good for bathing, like a person without a soul-friend."

Is loimm de romuir.

Is loimm de romuir.

(tis * mouthful * of * great-sea)

It's a (mere) mouthful of the great sea.

In other words, it is just a tiny sample of what is out there. This image, which appears in stanza 41 of the Epilogue of Félire Óengussa, was apparently popular in Early Irish literature. It also shows up in "The poems of Blathmac, son of Cú Brettan", as edited and translated by David Stifter in installments on Twitter:

Ní mó bith loim de lir lán
nó do balcbúain barrgabál.

It is no more than a draught from a full sea
or taking a handful from a strong harvest.

nemed mbled

nemed mbled

(sanctuary * of whales)

the sanctuary of the whales = the sea

This kenning is found in the exquisite 7th century poem "Fo réir Choluimb" by Bécán mac Luigdech, in the line "cechaing noïb nemed mbled" (he crossed in ships the sanctuary of the whales).

Compare "adba rón", another kenning for the sea, in this collection.

adba rón

adba rón

(abode * of seals)

the abode of seals = the sea

This kenning, essentially a two-word poem, is found in a short, finely wrought poem. This is James Carney's edition and translation found in "Medieval Irish Lyrics":

Fégaib úaib
sair fo thúaid
in muir múaid
adba rón
rebach, rán,
ro-gab lán

Look you out
over mighty ocean
teaming with sea-life.
home of seals
sporting, splendid,
its tide has reached

Liridir fri gainem mara...

Liridir fri gainem mara,
nó fri drithlenna tened
nó fri drúcht i mmatain chétamain
nó fri renna nime

(as numerous * as * sand * of sea
or * as * sparks * of fire
or * as * dew * in * morning * of May Day
or * as * stars * of sky)

As numerous as the sand of the sea
or as the sparks of a fire
or as the dew on a May morning
or as the stars of the sky

This run of similes is found in Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (lines 133-34). What exactly was so numerous in this case were "míla 7 dergnatta ic guilbniugud a choss" (lice and fleas nibbling at his leg)!

Maidi ibair i cúail crínaig.

Maidi ibair i cúail crínaig.

(stick * of yew * in * bundle * of dried branches)

A yew stick in a bundle of withered branches.

"The phrase occurs in the section of Echtra mac nEchadh Mugmedóin where Niall Nóigiallach and his brothers go into a burning forge and rescue whatever implements they can, and what they have saved from the fire is then to be understood as a reflection of their own strength, intelligence and, therefore, qualification for succession to the kingship. So whereas Niall comes out on top, having saved the anvil and its block (the most important and heaviest tool in the forge), and three other brothers rescue tools and other articles in descending order, poor Fergus can only manage to bring the bundle of withered branches with the single branch of yew in the middle. The text then explains: the single branch of yew represents the only descendant of Fergus worthy of note (the saint, Cairech Dergán of Cluain Bairenn) and the rest of the dead wood represents the rest of his otherwise ineffectual family." (My thanks to Clodagh Downey for providing that explanation!)

The image of a single item of value in a worthless collection -- a pearl among the dregs -- has its exact opposite in the metaphor "Cúaille feda i feilm n-airgit" (A wooden stake in a fence of silver), also found in this collection.

Félithir dubén.

Félithir dubén.

(as generous * (as) blackbird)

As generous as a raven.

This simile is quoted in O’Mulconry’s Glossary (§310, Archiv i 248) in the entry for "díbech" (niggardly, stingy), where it is used to support a fanciful etymology of that word:

"Aliter dibech .i. ni in fiach, ar in fiach dia fagba sasad congair a cele cuige, unde dicitur: is felithir duben: non sic in dibech."

= Another explanation: díbech, that is "un-raven", because when he finds food, the raven calls his companion (to come) to him, from which is it said: "he is as generous as a black bird"; not thus the niggardly one.

The idea of the generous raven is also encountered in Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" (ii.3):

"Some say that ravens foster forlorn children,
The whilst their own birds famish in their nests."

My thanks to Neil McLeod and David Stifter for their assistance.

lúaithidir roth mbúaile

lúaithidir roth mbúaile

(as swift * wheel * water)

as fast as a water wheel

This simile is found twice in "Togail Bruidne Da Derga", both times describing the swiftness of the "dáilemain" (table servants, servers, waiters) present in the hostel on that fatal night.

rothmol corcra ó mulluch co talmain

rothmol corcra ó mulluch co talmain

(mill-wheel * crimson * from * crown * to * ground)

a (whirling) crimson mill-wheel from head to toe

We find this stereotyped image of great energy or frenzy first in the Táin (LU 6356-7) where it is used to describe Cú Chulainn:

"Atracht Cu Chulaind iar sin asa chotlud 7 dobeirt láim dara agid 7 dorigni rothmúal corcra o mullach co talmain." (Then Cú Chulainn arose from his sleep and passed a hand across his face and made [= became] a crimson mill-wheel from head to toe.)

The "rothmol" is a technical term for the entire turbine and drive shaft assembly as found in horizontal water-mills. The expression continued to be used with variations down into the Early Modern Irish period, although the original sense of "rothmol" was apparently lost as the word was transformed into "rothnúall", a compound of words meaning "wheel" and "loud noise". The meaning of the expression also shifted from describing being filled with great excitement to flying into a rage. A late example from "Beatha Lasrach" (edited by Gwynn in "Ériu" 5.76) is:

"Doronadh rothnúall corcra óa bhonn góa bherradh dhe." (A 'thundering crimson wheel' was made of him from his soles to his tonsure.)

The modern form given in Ó Dónaill's dictionary is "rinneadh rothmhol corcra de".

This collection includes a few other metaphors based on the workings of the medieval water-mill:

· Dia·fagbainn-se bróin úachtair...

· Noco modmar cach n-óenbró.

· Tuc bleith mulind tuathbil forthu.

· lúaithidir roth mbúaile

Tuc bleith mulind tuathbil forthu.

Tuc bleith mulind tuathbil forthu. Tuc a n-airthiur fora n-iarthur 7 a ndesciurt fora tuasciurt.

(put * grinding * of mill * widdershins * on-them . put * their * east * on their * west * & * their * south * on their * north)

He reversed the grinding of their mill. He put their east on their west and their south on their north.

In other words, he utterly confused them. The "he" in this case is Féic mac Follomuin. In the tale "Cath Ruis na Ríg" he volunteers to scope out the enemy forces for Conchobor. Then he impetuously decides, for the sake of his only glory, to cross the ford and confront the opposing army all by himself. Feic's unexpected foray sows confusion among them. Unfortunately for the would-be hero, the enemy quickly recovers and moves to surround him. His bravado fails him and tries to flee back across the river, but miscalculates his jump and
is drowned.

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