The Sieve Of Words & Time

December 15, 2021


Our constructs of time allow us to chronologically chronicle events. Indeed, histories and historic records are anchored in this. We can pinpoint and sequence exact dates. It’s all very neat and tidy. And for our Irish ancestors, it would have been a wholly inadequate chronicling. That’s why they had bards. 

For the ancient Irish, life and events happened in relationship with the natural world, this world and other worlds, the real and unreal, the sacred and profane. Their language was rich with terms that reflected this fundamental interrelatedness. Through their language came the stories. And through the stories people knew all they needed to know about events in the cosmic flow of their lives. Stories carried the essential wisdom and it was the bards who were revered and responsible for carrying the stories. It was a sacred trust in an oral tradition. 

Of this oral tradition, Manchán Magan writes the following in his new book, Thirty-Two Words for Field. A brilliant book, by the way.

The key is to bear in mind that words in Irish were not just composed of an arrangement of symbolic letters from an alphabet on paper. In fact they never existed in this form within the oral tradition. They were pure sound, more like an embodied medium, and they could be communicated only by vocalising them into the surrounding air from within the cavity of a physical body. in this way words were embedded in the human body and the physical senses to an extent that is legions away from these digitally processed words on the page that now enter your mind with virtually no physical transference. The dissociation and disembodiment of writing and reading are an apt metaphor for our increasing alienation from the sensual, natural world. 

The measure of the modern and written word, like the measure of time, is totally inadequate to hold the rich complexity of life that flows within those ancient and cosmological traditions. Those measures are just too small. They can hold and chronicle that flow no better than a sieve can hold water. 

Judith –