Something which intrigued me during my research for my latest book, Conor Kelly and The Fenian King, was Fionn mac Cumhall’s ability to call forth his magical powers and divine the future by sucking or biting on his thumb.
The story goes that, as a boy, whilst serving an apprenticeship with the Druid Finegas, he catches the Salmon of Knowledge and cooks it for his master. As he turns the fish in the pan, he scalds his thumb. Instinctively, he places his thumb in his mouth to cool the burn, thus ingesting the tiny scrap of fish skin stuck there, and acquiring the salmon’s knowledge. Afterwards, he has only to touch his thumb to his mouth to foretell the future, and seek the answers to his questions.
According to the Senshas Mor (an ancient book of Brehon law), Fionn uses this power twice in the story ‘Fionn and the Man in the Tree’. When the Sidhe steal the Fianna’s food three times in a row as the food is cooking, Fionn is enraged and chases the thief back to his Sidhe-mound. A woman slams the door behind the thief, trapping Fionn’s thumb. He pops the injured digit in his mouth, and receives some kind of divine knowledge which he recites in a poem. Later in the same story, he discovers the identity of an escaped servant by putting his thumb in his mouth and chanting an incantation.
This act of looking into the future and chanting or reciting prophecy in the form of poetry is called Imbas Forosnai (imbas meaning ‘inspiration’, in particular the sacred poetic inspiration of the ancient Filidh, and forosnai meaning ‘illuminating’ or ‘that which illuminates’). It involves the use of sensory deprivation in order to pass into a trance-like state.
I first came across this term in Cormac’s Glossary (this Cormac was a King of Munster and a Bishop, who dies in 908AD) who described the rather bizarre process in great detail. Apparently, the poet seeking knowledge must chew the red flesh (ie raw) of a pig/dog/cat and then place it on the floor behind the door. He must call on his gods, chant incantations, place his hands over his face and eyes, and sleep (enter a trance). This may last 3, or 3×3 days and nights until he has achieved the knowledge he seeks, all the while being watched over to ensure he doesn’t move and is not disturbed.
Nora Chadwick (1935, Scottish Gaelic Studies) identified two other terms closely linked with the Imbas Forosnai as tools of the poet; Dichetal do Chennaib, ‘extempore incantation’, or inpromptu, spontaneous performance/ speech without prior preparation, and Tenm Láida, which is the ‘illumination of song’. She notes that Cormac in his glossary claimed St Patrick banished Dichetal do Chennaib and Imbas Forosnai, as they both involved dangerous ritual based on supernatural contact with pagan Gods, whereas Tenm Láida was a mode of performance based purely on the study of poetry, and so allowed to continue.
Cormac’s description doesn’t quite correlate with what Fionn did. Moreover, this raw dog flesh thing doesn’t convince me. It seems more likely to be an absurd move on Cormac’s part to attempt to discredit this pagan practice in a society which greatly admired the skills, strength and bravery of its hounds. But it begs the question, what were Patrick and Cormac so afraid of?
In fact, we can find further evidence of these poetic techniques in the Fenian Cycle. In the Macgnimartha Find (the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn), Fionn is said to have learned Imbas Forosnai, Tenm Laida and Dichetal do Chennaib as part of his training, probably during his time with Finegas. Also, in a later story, when he finds the beheaded body of a man in his home, he is able to identify it as his fool, Lomna, by chanting Tenm Láida.
But Fionn wasn’t the only one to use these techniques to access a poets ‘second sight’. Ireland’s mythology is scattered with references to the use of divination and prophecy.
In the Tain Bó Cuailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), Fedelm tells Queen Medb that she has been in Alba learning the art of the Filidect. Medb asks if she has learned Imbas Forosnai, and when she is told yes, she asks Fedelm if she will look into her future to see how she will prosper. Fedelm’s imbas promptly brings her illumination, and she chants her prophecy in the form of a poem.
Scathach, the shadowy warrior-Queen of Scotland who trained Cúchullain also used Imbas Forosnai when she looked into his future and told him that she foresaw a great and glorious career for him but did not see him living any longer than thirty years of age.
So, what are these three mystical, magical techniques of the poet? Summerlands.com call them ‘The Three Illuminations of the Filidh’, and describes them in more detail;
- Teinm Láida – ‘illumination by song’. This is achieved through relaxation and clearing the mind, much like meditation as we know it today.
- Dichetal Do Chennaib – ‘extempore incantation’. This is an altered state achieved by chanting a repetitive song or phrase, leading to a deep inner focus through which communion with the Gods/ ancestors might be made.
- Imbas Forosnai – ‘knowledge which illuminates’. This is achieved through sensory deprivation in a darkened room, where incantations are said, often in the presence of the Gods/ idols/ Ogham rods, hands are placed crosswise over eyes and face, until the poet enters a state of heightened awareness. Then the door is thrown open, or the covers are suddenly removed, and it is this sudden and instant transition from dark into light which triggers the visions.
Interestingly, I have come across another interpretation of the term Dichetal Do Chennaib, in which it is explained as ‘chanting from heads’. Our ancient ancestors were a war-like people; it is well known that the Celtic warrior took the heads of enemies as trophies of war. These were often placed beside the hearth, but whether as a display of prowess, or for more practical reasons, for example to ‘cure’ and be preserved in the heat and smoke of the fire, we don’t know. Irish mythology, however, tells tales of heads beside fireplaces which continue to speak/ chant, even in the Fenian Cycle.
The Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta (the Book of Ballymote, 1390AD) also mentions these three terms as ‘the three things required of an Ollam’; they were to be learned in the 8th year of training. No wonder it took them 20 years to qualify!
In the Bretha Nemed Déidenach (‘the last Bretha Nemed’, an ancient law text concerning poets and filidh, among other subjects), Tenm Láida is not even mentioned in connection with the other two techniques. It has been replaced entirely with a new term, anamain, which is a particular type of verse. Here we have an explanation of the terms leaning less toward the supernatural and more to the practical, in that we have spontaneous composition, poetic inspiration, and ‘learned, formal metrics’; in other words, we have ‘normal’ poetry, which can be learned, and ‘inspired’ poetry, which is gifted from God/ the Gods.