Tuesday, 5 January 2016

An Irish Poem on the Wise Men

J. R. Allen, Early Christian Symbolism in Gt Britain and Ireland (1887)
January 6 is the feast of the Epiphany, which in the western church is associated with the bringing of gifts to the infant Christ by Magi from the East. Today we take it for granted that there were three wise men, with the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, but this tradition was a long time in the making. The account of the visit in Saint Matthew's Gospel makes no mention of the number of magi, much less their names, and the idea that there were three wise men seems to be based solely on the number of gifts enumerated in the gospel. The Visit of the Magi is a popular theme in medieval European art including that of Ireland. One intriguing representation is found on the tenth-century Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice and if you look at the image above you will see that there are actually four figures approaching the newborn Christ.  The identity and significance of the 'fourth man' is still a subject of debate among scholars. The Magi also occur in Irish literary sources. In a paper delivered by the scholarly Irish Anglican Bishop, William Reeves, on the subject of an Irish manuscript held in the British Museum, he describes the contents of Folio 5 b as:

An Irish poem on the Wise Men of the East who were led by the star to Bethlehem, consisting of eleven quatrains....The poem is as follows, and the accompanying translation is from the accurate pen of Mr. Eugene Curry.

Auirilius, Humilis, the noble,
Malgalad, Nuntius, of fierce strength,
Melcho the grey-haired, without guile,
With his grey and very long beard.

A senior with a graceful yellow cloak.
With a grey frock of ample size,
Speckled and grey sandals without fault,
He approached not the King without royal gold.

Arenus, Fidelis, the munificent,
Galgalad the devout and fervent;
A red man was Caspar in his vesture
A fair, blooming, beardless youth.

A crimson cloak round the comely champion,
A yellow frock without variety,
Grey and close-fitting sandals:
Frankincense unto God he freely presented.

Damascus was the third man of them,
Misericors, without dejection,
Sincera gratia without restraint,
Patifarsat the truly-grand.

A grizzled man with a crimson, white-spotted cloak:
Crimsoned stood he, above all without competition,
With soft and yellow sandals,
Who presented myrrh to the Great Man.

These are the names of the Druids
In Hebrew, in Greek to be quickly spoken,
In Latin which runs not rapidly.
In the noble language of Arabia.

The colour of their clothes hear ye.
As spoken in each of their countries:
Selva, for the performers of heroic deeds,
Debdae, Aesae, Escidae.

Three were the Druids without gloom;
Triple were their gifts in noble fashion;
Three garments were upon each man of them;
From three worlds they came without debility.

Mary, Joseph, and noble Simeon,
Of the tribe of Judah of the noble kings,
Are in the house in which every hand is a lighted torch.
All together with the Trinity.

May we do thy will, O King,
And desire it with all our heart:
Thou art gracious to relieve us in our distress,
Since the day thou wast adored by Aurelius.

Rev W. Reeves, 'On an Irish MS. of the Four Gospels in the British Museum', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. V., (1853), 47-50.

Dr Reeves goes on to discuss the possible sources for the descriptive information relating to the Magi in his footnotes but as these are all cited in Latin I won't reproduce them here. He also later discusses the dating evidence for the Manuscript and concludes that  it was written in the twelfth century. This poem is but one aspect of the cult of the Magi in medieval Ireland and is a theme I hope to be able to return to in future posts.

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