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Imbas Forosnai

Imbas Forosnai

Nora K. Chadwick

Scottish Gaelic Studies, vol 4, part 2, pp. 97-135
Oxford University Press (1935)

Imbas forosnai is the subject of an entry in Cormac’s Glossary. This entry is of special interest for two reasons. In the first place, it purports to give us a recipe of the means employed by the ancient Irish poets (filid) to obtain inspiration. In the second place, in an interesting colophon,(1) it claims to tell us something specific of Saint Patrick’s attitude to thefilid and to poetry. This attitude is represented as highly judicial. Certain elements in the file’s art and practice are commended, others are condemned. In the following brief study and attempt is made to interpret this interesting entry in the light of some allusions to similar mantic practices contained in other early Irish texts. It is hoped that it may be possible by this method to come to a clearer understanding of the sources or the milieu from which the author of the entry derives his material. In saying this, however, I am well aware that I cannot hope to solve more than a modicum of the obscurities of the entry by this method. But where so much is veiled perhaps any effort to penetrate the obscurity may not be wholly unwelcome.

It need hardly be stated at the outset that the entry is both difficult and obscure. Indeed, the following translation by Stokes is offered rather as a basis to work from–a kind of schedule of our terms of reference–than an authoritative interpretation of the text. The concluding portions of the passage in particular are obscure in the extreme, and it is chiefly in the hopes of approximating more closely to an understanding of them that I have put together these brief notes on certain aspects of Irish mantic tradition. In doing so I am aware that any results which we may obtain can have only a partial value since I am not qualified to deal with the philological evidence, and must therefore leave this to others. In the following brief study it is proposed, first of all, to note some of the occurrences of these same difficult phrases in other contexts, more especially in the Irish technical treatises on learned and mantic literature published by Professor Thurneyson, to and refer to one or two actual examples of the types of poetry which are cited under these names in such treatises. We will then turn to the sagas to see how Irish tradition represents the mantic practice in actual operation. And, finally, we will consider the results of this examination in relation to some parallel evidence relating to similar phenomena in Celtic Britain.

The passage on Imbas forosnai in Cormac’s Glossary (Sanas Cormaic) was edited and translated by the late Whitley Stokes several times. First we may mention the text and translation of Laud 610, fol.79A, in his edition and translation of the Tripartite Life of St Patrick, Part II. (Rolls Series, 1887), p. 568f. Before this he had given a translation of the first part of the passage from the Lebor Brecc and the Book of Leinster in his introduction to Three Irish Glossaries(London, 1862), p. xxxvi. Finally, in 1894, he published the text and translation of the fragment of Cormac’s Glossary in the Bodleian Library at Oxford in the Transactions of the Philological Society (1891-4). The translation of our passage occurs on p. 156f. As this series is not easily accessible to the general reader, I will give Stokes rendering of our passage from the Bodleian fragment in full.

Imbas forosna, ‘Manifestation that enlightens’: (it) discovers what thing soever the poet likes and which he desires to reveal.(2) Thus then is that done. The poet chews a piece of the red flesh of a pig, or a dog, or a cat, and puts it then on a flagstone behind the door-valve, and chants an incantation over it, and offers it to idol gods, and calls them to him, and leaves them not on the morrow, and then chants over his two palms, and calls again idol gods to him, that his sleep may not be disturbed. Then he puts his two palms on his two cheeks and sleeps. And men are watching him that he may not turn over and that no one may disturb him. And then it is revealed to him that for which he was (engaged) till the end of a nómad (three days and nights), or two or three for the long or the short (time?) that he may judge himself (to be) at the offering. And therefore it is called Imm-bas, to wit, a palm (bas) on this side and a palm on that around his head. Patrick banished that and the Tenm láida ‘illumination of song,’ and declared that no one who shall do that shall belong to heaven or earth, for it is a denial of baptism.

Dichetal do chennaib, extempore incantation, however, that was left, in right of art, for it is science that causes it, and no offering to devils is necessary, but a declaration from the ends of his bones at once.

A translation of the first part of the entry was also made by K. Meyer, and published in the Archaeological Review, Vol. I, 1888, p. 303, footnote.(3) As this translation differs in some details from Stokes’s, and as it is also somewhat inaccessible, I quote it below for purposes of comparison.

The Imbas Forosnai sets forth whatever seems good to the seer (file) and what he desires to make known. It is done thus. The seer chews a piece of the red flesh of a pig, or a dog, or a cat, and then places it on a flagstone behind the door. He sings an incantation over it, offers it to the false gods, and then calls them to him. And he leaves them not on the next day, and chants then on his two hands, and again calls his false gods to him, lest they should disturb his sleep. And he puts his two hands over his two cheeks till he falls asleep. And they watch by him lest no one overturn him and disturb him till everything he wants to know is revealed to him, to the end of nine days, or of twice or thrice that time, or, however long he was judged at the offering.

Stokes’s rendering of the latter part of our passage is not altogether happy, and, indeed, Stokes himself remarked (p. 156) in a note on the entry, ‘my translation of this difficult article is merely tentative.’ Meyer does not venture to translate this latter portion. In regard to the main portion of the entry, however, Stokes and Meyer appear to be in substantial agreement, the only important differences being (1) that the passage in which, according to Stokes’s translation of the Bodleian text, the seer ‘calls the idol gods to him that his sleep may not be disturbed’ (i.e. presumably by others) is rendered by Meyer, ‘he calls his false gods to him lest they should disturb his sleep’ (i.e., presumably the gods themselves); and (2) that according to Stokes’s translation of the Bodleian text the seer is watched in order to prevent him from turning over (i.e., by his own volition); whereas Meyer’s translation seems to imply that it is the false gods who watch by him lest someone overturn him. Minor divergences between the various texts also occur; but the general sense of the passage appears to remain fairly constant.

Starting, then, with these renderings by Stokes and Meyer as a basis, we may ask: What is the nature of the imbas which St Patrick is said to have condemned, and what is the difference between the imbas and the sous? The latter seems generally to have reference to scientific, overt art and knowledge, as opposed to the occult art of manticism.Sous is acquired by legitimate means, generally by Christian learning, but Christian revelation is not excluded. Imbas is clearly opposed to sous, and seems to have reference, if we may judge from the text before us, to occult art and knowledge, acquired through mantic revelation.

The etymology of the words has been discussed recently by Professor Thurneysen,(4) who cites an early gloss in the Introduction to the Senchas Mor, where it is stated that the word imbas is a compositional form with fius(s), ‘knowledge,’ or with the neuter fess, just as so-usso-as, literally, ‘good knowledge,’ often with reference to poetry. The words of the gloss are as follows:

.i. in sui fili dafursannand no dafáillsigend imad a sofesa (.i. dofuarascaib a soas).(5)

In this derivation- Thurneysen points out–the glossator is right, imbas being derived from *imb-fiuss or *imb-fess. The gloss is interesting, so Thurneyson holds,(6) in that it is quite independent of the influence of the passage in Cormac’sGlossary ; cf. however p. 129 below.

Thurneysen emphasises the absurdity of the derivation of the term imbas in the passage in Cormac, and in a later gloss to the Introduction to the Senchas Mor, reference to which will be made later. He argues further that the whole entry in the Glossary is a fabric of the author’s imagination, built up on this spurious etymology, and points to several instances in which the expression imbas forosnai occurs in sagas without an accompanying description of the mantic technique. He casts doubt on the value of the reference to St Patrick, regarding the statement that the saint banished certain mantic practices as a conjecture of the author of Cormac’s Glossary, who was, perhaps, influenced by the fact that the examples of imbas forosnai and tenm laida cited in the sagas all relate to pre-Christian times.

Of the absurdity of the derivation of imbas, as given in Cormac’s Glossary there can be no doubt, though it is not impossible that it may have been suggested to the author by the habit of the filid or sages–as described in the sagas–of covering their faces or otherwise seeking darkness and privacy before giving mantic utterances. We shall see later that there is some ground for suspecting that such was the traditional practice. There can be no doubt, also, that Thurneysen is right in regarding the prohibition ascribed to Saint Patrick as a conjecture or deduction on the part of the author of the Glossary. We may be equally certain that Thurneysen is right in supposing that in no part of the entry is the author drawing on his own experience or his personal knowledge of contemporary practice. On the other hand, it is difficult to accept Thurneysen’s conclusion that the picture which the author of the entry gives us of the practice of thefili is wholly imaginary or based entirely on a spurious etymology. The evidence which leads Thurneysen to this conclusion appears to be largely negative in character. He points out that in the instances which he cites from the sagas where reference is made to imbas forosnai, no reference is made to mantic sleep, or to elaborate technique, such as that described in our entry. In addition he refers to the nuts of imbas (Cuill Crimaind) which occur in certain texts, and which suggest quite a different process for the acquisition of imbas.

Yet when we consider the amount of variation existing between one version of an Irish saga and another, and the summary form in which much of the narrative has been committed to writing, we may well ask the question: Can one safely assume that any of the texts give us a full description of the procedure of Fedelm and Scathach? Had the redactor of the passages in which they figure given us an account of their technique, and has this technique differed from that described by the author of our entry, Thurneysen’s argument would have been greatly strengthened; but this is not the case. It is true that when Finn’s finger or thumb has been trapped in the door of the sid-mound, and he proceeds to suck it, his imbas enlightens him. But is it clear exactly how this comes about? We shall see presently that the saga in which this incident occurs is a difficult and obscure one, notwithstanding the fact that we possess several versions of it. We shall also see that several possible explanations offer themselves as to how Finn’s enlightenment comes about by this action. I do not think that these alternative explanations are all at variance with the entry in Cormac’s Glossary. It is true that the nuts of imbas, e.g. the Cuill Crimaind cited by Professor Thurneysen, suggest quite a different procedure by which imbas is acquired. This will be referred to later.

Turning now to the text of the entry in the Glossary itself, we may note that several of the phrases occurring in the difficult portion of our entry have the appearance of technical terms. Imbas forosnai and tenm laida are well known to be such. But what are dichetal di chennaib and aisneis di chennaib (a)chnaime?

To determine more fully the nature of these technical terms, it may be of interest to notice some occurrences of identical and similar terms in the metrical tractates preserved in the Book of Ballymote and elsewhere, and also preserved in certain other technical treatises of a similar character. Here we find these technical terms figuring largely in the course of education prescribed for the filid. In a gloss to a passage on the seven poetical grades contained in theUraicecht Becc,(7) or ‘Small Primer’, we are told that there are three things required of the ollam-poet, viz., the ‘teinm laegda,’ and the ‘imus forosnad‘ and ‘ dichetal do chennaib,’ as the Nemed-Judgments say: “three things which dignify the dignities of a poet, ‘tenm laegda,’ ‘imus forosnad,’ ‘dichedul do cennaib.'”(8)

According to the second of the Metrical Tractates published by Thurneysen from the Book of Ballymote, the Book of Leinster, etc., the fili had to learn in the eighth year of his training, among other things, three songs, viz., imbas forosnaitenm laida and dichetal do chennaib na tuaithe.(9) In the same tractate we are told that in the 12th year of his training, a fili is expected to know 12 rochetla, of which nine are enumerated, the second being cetal do chennaib, with which Thurneysen associates dichetal do chennaib na tuaithe of the eighth year.(10) In the third of the Metrical Tractates published by Thurneysen we again find in close association the tenm laida, the imbas forosnai, and thedichetal,(11) and in a passage in LL. (30d) we find it stated that tenm laida belongs to the fourteen streams of poetry (srotha eicsi).(12) There can be no doubt, therefore, that imbas forosnaitenm laida and dichetal do chennaib are three technical terms, which are closely and constantly associated together in relation to the art of the filid. It may be added here that the three expressions, tenm laidaimbas forosnai, and dichetal di chennaib, translated by Meyer as ‘illumination of song,’ ‘knowledge which illuminates,’ and ‘extempore incantation’ respectively, are associated together also in the Macgnimartha Find, (?)19, to which fuller reference will be made below.

With these is associated in Cormac’s Glossary what appears to be a fourth technical spell term, the aisneis di chennaib a chname. This close association is found also in the second of the Metrical Tractates,(13) where in the examples of various metres cited, No. 123 is cetal do(14) chennaib, while No. 125 is cetal na haisnese. It is possibly worth noting that in the example immediately following the cetal na haisnese(15) the words mo carusa cnaimine(16) are found in all three texts. We have already seen that Thurneysen associates this cetal do chenaib characteristic of the twelfth year of training with the dicetal do chennaib na tuaithe of the eighth. We may therefore compare the construction of the aisneis do chennaib a chnamae with dichetal do chennaib na tuaithe, and with imbass forosnai dia foirciunn which occurs in several MSS. of the account of the Verba Scathaige, and to which further reference will be made later.

These expressions are all obscure. They appear to represent something in the nature of rubrics,(17) i.e., phrases extracted from texts of spells or of mantic processes; but it is clear that they have now come to serve in many cases, as titles of the spells themselves. The variation in the number of words given, e.g., in dichetal di chennaib, etc., rather suggests this. If this surmise is correct, it is manifest that it would be absurd to attempt to translate them in any syntactical relation to the rest of our text, though we may still hope to interpret them. Meyer and others translate do (di) chennaib as ‘extempore,’ though O’Davoran glossed it ‘continuo.’ The meaning ‘extempore’ hardly fits the context in the Preface to the Amra Choluib Chille, in which the saint is represented as reproving Dallan Forgall for reciting a poem to him during his life which was only suitable for a dead man, ‘(?) is do chennaib dano do trial Dallán a dudin do denam.’ The expression dia foirciunn, to which we have referred above, is translated by Thurneysen as ‘um ihn zu vollenden.’(18)

With the expression dichetal do chennaib we may compare do cendaib colla (? for collan) in the Gloss to the Introduction to the Senchas Mor;(19) dicetal di cennaib collin Laud 610, 57 b; and dicetul do chollaib cend in Rawl. B. 512, 114 b.(20) If we accept Thurneysen’s translation the word cenn in these expressions would be translated in the sense of ‘the future,’ and dicetal do chennaib in the sense of ‘to chant in prophetic strains,’ and this must, I think, be the sense which it has come to bear in many of the passages where it is found, though there can be little doubt that it was originally used in another and more literal sense, as we shall see later. The phrase cited from Rawl. B 512, 114 b may then mean ‘chanting by means of the hazels of prophecy.’ To the hazels of prophecy also we shall return later. We may , however, compare a passage in the gloss in the ‘Small Primer,’ which enumerates the privileges of poets, dicedul dichendaib .i. dul do a cend adana focoir in cenda i act am adb asnedat gumradud.(21) We may refer also to the phrase dicetal do ceandaibh cnoc no cnatarbarc which occurs as a part of a gloss(22) to the poem ascribed in theLeabhar na Gabhala to the fili Amargin as he landed in Ireland, and which is translated by Macalister and MacNeill: ‘incantation from the tops of mountains or of ships.’

We are fortunate in possessing examples of the art of the filid which bear as their titles all the rubrics or technical terms which occur in the closing lines of the passage from Cormac’s Glossary which we have been considering. One of the fullest examples of a verse sung ‘through imbas forosnai‘ <i(>triasa n-imbas forosnai) is the poem attributed to Finn when he tracks Ferchess and avenges on him the death of Mac Con. The text will be found in the story of Ailill Aulom, Mac Con, and Find Ua Baisene,(23) to which fuller reference will be made below. A tentative translation is given by Meyer as follows: –

‘Here is the abode of Ferchess, at Ess Mage ….swiftly after great deeds; a great heroic champion has fallen swiftly after great deeds. To my lordly god I swear the oath of everyone in the world a … deed will be avenged, Mac Con was slain here.’


Another example of a poem (dicetal) chanted through imbas forosnai occurs in the story of Finn and the Man in the Tree.(25) Here we are told that when Finn finds his servant disguised in the tree he puts his thumb into his mouth, and when he takes it out again his imbas illumines him (fortnosna a imbus) and he chants the following rhetorics:

‘Con fri lon leth cno contethain cotith indithraib Dercc Corra comol fri hich ni ba filliud fobaill a uball fin mblais cona fricarbaith mac ui co dedail Daigre.’

Whereupon he recognises his servant and declares his identity.

As a further example of imbas forosnai (here, immus forosnudh) we may refer to the following brief passage which is quoted in Tractate III. (no. 187) of the Metrical Tractates.’

Fegaid uaib sair fothuiadinmuir muad milach adba ron rebach rán rogab lan linad.

The same passage is quoted also in ‘Tractate’ II. (No. 24), where in the text from the Book of Leinster, the poem is attributed to Finn.

An example of the tenm laida (here, tedmleoda) is given in ‘Tractate’ III. immediately before the passage just cited relating to imbas forosnai. The passage is as follows:

Amhairbthese mongthigi mhinchuile asalchide
sinnchaidhe salachluim
imarith galaidhe imcleacaire abrataire
imarith galaidhe imcleacaire abrataire
inbecuidhe ingataile
incetaile rigataile
nichetaile inlataile
indleacaile apaidhe acaite anachlaim

As an example of cetal do chennaib, reference may be made to the poem contained in the first of the ‘Metrical Tractates’ (No. 123), published by Thurneysen. Here it is actually cited as an example of cetal do chennaib; but the same poem is also quoted in the Leabhar na Gabhala, where it is attributed to the fili Amargin, and where it is said to have been recited by him when he first set foot on Irish soil.

The poem is too long to quote here in full, and a few lines will suffice to give an idea of its form and content. –

Amm goeth i muir
Amm tonn trethain,
Am fuaim mara
Am dam setir . . .
Coiche notglen clochar slebe?
Cia seacht siecht sith gan eccla?
Cis ( sic ) non dogar eassa uiscci?
Cia ber a buar a tigh Teathra? . . .
Cainte gaeth.

which Macalister and MacNeill translate(26) as follows:

I am wind on the sea.
I am a wave of the ocean,
I am the roar of the sea.
I am a powerful ox . . .
Who clears the stone-place of the mountain?
What the place in which the setting of the sun lies?
Who has sought peace without fear seven times?
Who names the waterfalls?
Who brought his cattle from the house of Tethra? . . .
A wise satirist.

In the second of the ‘Metrical Tractates,’ where examples of various metres are cited, the following passage is given as an example of cetal na haisnese :

Adruid adoini dia huas domun dindnisnech ruithre adaitfrifebru fuilged forta bith lalaile ifailsid lasuba lam dia dilgedach rodaelb imniulu nemthech.


This text, as has been pointed out by Stokes, is identical with a laid or song which occurs in the story of Morann contained in the Echtra Cormaic, etc. (The Irish Ordeals and Cormac’s Adventures in the Land of Promise).(28) Here we are told that when Morann was born, a membrane covered his head, which was subsequently removed by immersion in the sea. As the ninth wave washed over him the membrane separated, releasing his head, whereupon he sang the laid which Stokes translates as follows:

‘Worship, ye mortals,
God over the beautiful world!
. . . wherein is a festival with joyance
With my forgiving God,
Who formed about clouds a heavenly house.’


Morann, whose laid is identical with the example of cetal na haisnese in the ‘Metrical Tractates,’ afterwards became a great sage.(30) It is interesting to note that in this particular text of the ‘Metrical Tractates,’ the example of cetal na haisnese occurs as No. 125 of the examples of metres cited. The example of the metre cited as No. 123 is cetal do chendaib. The aisneis, or cetal na haisnese and the cetal do chendaib are therefore closely associated together in the traditional répertoire of the filid, and may be presumed to be connected in some way with one another.

Why, then, is the dicetal di chennaib allowed to remain ‘in the order of art,’ and what is its association with the aisneis dichennaib a chname? The example of the aisneis just referred to appears to be, in its present form, a Christian hymn. If this interpretation given by Stokes is correct, it is easy to see why St. Patrick is said to have permitted it to remain in the ‘order of art,’ since it served as a declaration or testification to the Christian faith. In other words, it has been transformed from a heathen spell to a Christian hymn–a process for which analogies may be traced in Anglo-Saxon poetry. From the context in which it occurs, and from its close association with dicetal di chennaib it is possible that the latter form of incantation may have undergone a similar transformation.

It is not necessary, however, to assume such a transformation for the latter in order to account for St. Patrick’s tolerance. The primary meaning of the words cetal and dicetal, is simply ‘chanting.’ Because the chanting of the filidwas believed to be potent the words came to be used commonly with the sense of ‘incantation,’ as in the dicetul in druad in the Tripartite Life of St Patrick.(31) That its use was not restricted to magical songs is proved, however, by the use of the word cetal in the curriculum of the filid in Text II. of the ‘Metrical Tractates’ (p. 63), where among the rochetal, we read of the ‘cetal na haisnese,’ a poetical summons to the adoration of God (cf. p. 12 above), and two cetal of the ‘glorification’ (noud) including Fiac’s Hymn to St Patrick and Broccan’s Hymn to St. Bridget.

From the examples cited it is clear that the rubrics or technical terms which we are considering are associated especially with the filid and other mantic persons. Moreover, they all appear to be closely bound up with the art of poetry. It would seem, indeed, from the ‘Metrical Tractates’ that they are here treated as titles of distinctive poetical forms or metres, though we may suspect that this development is due in some measure to the schematisation of Christian antiquarian learning. It is probably due to their inclusion in the list of metres and in the curriculum of the filidthat the terms have sometimes been spoken of by scholars as if they were themselves the title of actual charms. It would seem, indeed, in certain cases that our terms were so used. But that this was not so in every case is clear from the text in Cormac’s Glossary under discussion, where imbas forosnai is described, not as a charm, but as a process of revelation brought on by a mantic sleep. That the other terms which occur at the close of the text also had originally a practical bearing, and relate to various phases of the mantic experience, would seem to be indicated by the prose sagas in which they occur, and which we will consider as briefly as possible.

We will first take examples of imbas forosnai. One of the most interesting and important occurs in Tain Bo Cuailnge, in connection with Fedelm the banfaid of Connact. According to LU and YBL Fedelm(32) tells Medb that she has been in Alba learning filidecht. Medh asks her if she has learnt imbas forosnai, and on hearing that she has, asks her to ‘look’ (deca) how her own (Medb’s) undertaking will prosper. Fedelm ‘looks,’ and then proceeds to chant in strophic form and at considerable length the result of her vision.(33)

In the account of Scathach’s prophecies to CuChulainn,(34) which is found in LU.fo. 125b9, and which almost certainly comes from the Book of Druim Snechta and was written down as early as the eighth century,(35) we read:

‘Asbert iarom Scathach friss iar sin ani arid bói diaforciund ocus arcáchain dó tria imbas forosnai,’


which Thurneysen translates ‘um ihn zu Vollenden.’(37)

According to the earliest texts of the Wooing of Emer, Scathach dwelt among the ‘Alps’ (Alpi), which appears in the latest version as Albu (Albion, Scotland, or perhaps Britain).(38) From this story, therefore, and from the passage in theTain already cited, it would seem that according to Irish tradition the imbas forosnai was introduced into Ireland from outside, doubtless from Britain(39), and that in the milieu represented in the CuChulainn Cycle it was the special métier of women. The early period to which the origin and the personnel of the CuChulainn Cycle are generally ascribed invests these references with considerable interest.

Turning next to the Finn Cycle, we find that in the story of Finn and the Man in the Tree,(40) which is believed to date from the late eighth or early ninth century,(41) the imbas forosnai is practised by Finn on two occasions. The story is given in the version of the Senchas Mór contained in H. 3. 18, where it is quoted as an example of the practice ofimbas forosnai. According to this story, when the fian are on the brink of the Suir, Culdub comes out of a sid or ‘elf-mound,’ and steals their food three times in succession as it is being cooked. On the third occasion Finn ua Baiscne gives chase and catches up with him, and lays hold of him as he goes into the sid. At this point a woman seems to meet him as she is coming out of the sid, with a dripping vessel in her hand, having just distributed drink, and she jams the door against the sid! Finn squeezes his finger (mer) between the door of the sid and the post, and then sticks it into his mouth. When he takes it out again he begins to chant (dicetal). The imbas enlightens him (fortnosmen an imbas) and he recites a series of rhetorics.

Later in the same story, when he finds a man hiding in a tree, he and his followers fail to recognise him as his fugitive servant till ‘Finn puts his thumb into his mouth’. When he takes it out again, his imbas illumines him and he chants an incantation and says: ‘(rhetorics follow, cf, p. 11 above). (Is de dobert Finn a hordain ina beolo. Addonich as eisib afrithisi fortnosna a imbus – dichan dichetal co n-eipert).(42)

A variant version of the story of the death of Culdub, dating, as is believed, from the ninth century(43), is also published and translated by Meyer with the title, ‘How Finn obtained Knowledge, and the Slaying of Cul Dub.’(44) The concluding lines of the story relate that after Finn had trapped his thumb (ordain) in the door he could hear and understand the language of the Side or Sid-folk. It is clear that in this way he acquired his supernatural knowledge–his imbas–and was enabled to chant his poem, which is here referred to as dichetal. It appears that yet another version of this story is contained in MS. H. 3. 18, a summary of which is given by O’Curry.(45)

Reference may be made to a story(46) which is believed also to date from the ninth century, and which relates to Finn, Ailill Aulom and MacCon. In this story Finn appears as a member of Lugaid Mac Con’s fian. During the hostilities between Ailill and Mac Con, Ailill sends Ferchess, an old Fian warrior and an aged member of his household, on the track of Mac COn’s wandering host for the purpose of slaying Mac Con himself. As Ferchess comes on the track, Finn says, using the incantation called imbas forosnai (triasa n-imbas forosnai): ‘A man on the track.’ Mac Con replies that they will be the more delighted by the addition to their number. ‘A man on the track,’ Finn repeats: ‘One man is always good sport’ says Mac Con. Meanwhile, however, Ferchess chants a spell upon his spear, saying, “Rincne,” etc., and casts it at Mac Con and slays him. Ultimately Ferchess is slain by Finn in vengeance for Mac Con. Finn again recites ‘triasa n-imbas forosnai,’ the poem already cited (p.106 above). The incident suggests that it is by means of this incantation that he has succeeded in tracking Ferchess to his abode. In this story it is clear that imbas forosnai gives to Finn the power of supernatural vision, and enables him to see the spirit world.(47) A brief summary of the same story is given also in Cormac’s Glossary s.v. Rincne. Stokes translates from the text of the Bodleian fragment as follows:

Rincne, quasi quinque. Hence said Ferches, son of Mo Sechess, when Finn, grandson of Baiscne, was counting every five in turn of the host of Lugaid, the son of Mac-neit, to seek the champion Ferches. With that Ferches gave . . . past Finn, and cast the spear on Lugaid and killed him, and said thereat, Rincne cairincne ris (leg. rus?) rig, for that is what Finn used to say when he was numbering, every pentad in turn,Rincne, quasi quinque.’


It will be seen that the words triasa n-imbas forosnai, which are found in the version of the story referred to above, are absent from this version; but it is interesting to note that the words which Stokes has not translated are tren foachn-amai, (cf. ‘Imbas forosnai ‘), which arefound also in the text from Y.B.L. 289a(49) and elsewhere.(50) The reason why Stokes does not translate them are obvious: they do not stand in any syntactical relation to the sentence in which they occur. They are, in fact, a rubric or title of the charm recited by Ferchess over his spear before he casts it at Mac Con.

From the two versions of the story of Finn and Culdub it is clear that Finn obtained his imbas forosnai by means of uncooked or partially cooked food which became the property of the side, and by some part of his person (thumb or finger) entering the sid-mound, and after its withdrawal being placed by Finn in his mouth. The text of the story from theSenchas Mor suggests that the reason why Finn put his finger (mer) into his mouth was because some of the liquid from the dripping vessel had been spilt on to it. But it is not clear whether it was because he tasted this (presumably)sid liquid, or because his finger had been in the sid-mound, or because his finger was grazed and he sucked it (i.e. as raw-red-flesh) that he acquired his revelation. It is, however, clear from this story and from the slaying of Ferchess that it was by his imbas forosnai that Finn was enabled not only to see what was invisible to physical vision-i.e., he obtained second sight, but also to hear and understand the spirits as they conversed with one another.

It will be seen that many of the elements contained in these sagas, and more especially the Slaying of Culdub, correspond to features of the Imbas forosnai as set forth for us in Cormac’s Glossary. In both the uncooked or partially cooked flesh of a pig or some other animal is passed from the possession of the owner through (i.e. behind) some door (comla). It is a curious fact that in the passage in Cormac’s Glossary the fili chews a mir,(51) while in the sagas Finn chews a mer, or in later versions, ordainMir seems to mean a piece or morsel, but I know of no parallel in Irish literature for the eating of the flesh of cat or dog(52), and the passage is unconvincing. Again, it is curious that in both our passages and the stories of Finn, some object (mirmer) is inserted in the doorway. Both Cormac’s fili and Finn then proceed to chant incantations (díchetal), and the phrase in Cormac – ‘chanted on his two palms’ – is not remote from Finn chanting over his finger or thumb. In both our passage and the stories of Finn, these motifs precede a revelation of occult knowledge. These resemblances may lead one to suspect that the ‘gods of the idols’ referred to in Cormac are the side (sid-folk), and that the phrase at opair do deib idol means “take it to (from) the side,” with reference to Finn’s retrieving his meat. This is mere conjecture, however, and in any case the resemblance ends there. The sagas which we have considered tell us nothing of the mantic sleep, or of those who watch over him lest he should turn over or be disturbed.

Several of these elements of the imbas forosnai in Cormac’s Glossary which are not found in the sagas already considered are to be found in the story of Finn and the Phantoms,(53) which, perhaps, also dates from the ninth century.(54) Here Finn and his companions arrive at night at a house inhabited by misshapen phantom beings with a giant at their head. The giant slays Finn’s horse, and makes pretence of cooking its flesh, which he then offers to Finn and Cailte. It is emphatically stated, both here and elsewhere in the story, that the flesh was not cooked at all–quite raw. For this reason Finn indignantly refused it. The later poem(55) on the same subject contained in the Book of Leinster, and believed to date from the eleventh century,(56) is more explicit. –

Str. 165

Take away thy food, O giant!
For I have never devoured raw food.
I will never eat it from to-day till Doom.
(beir lett, a athig, do béad,
uair né dúadus biad om riam,
ni chathiub ondiu co bráth) :

Then a curious thing happens. According to Stern’s translation of the prose version, –

‘Alors, tout d’un coup tous partirent. Aussitôt le feu cessa de brûler ; Finn seul fut serré dans un coin pour être secoué et battu (par les fantômes). Comme des autres ne se séparient pas de Finn, ils étaient dans cette situation toute la nuit en jetant des cris. Enfin, ils tombèrent et restèrent faibles en défaillance complète. C’est ainsi qu’ils étaient comme des cadavres jusqu’au matin.

L’orsqu’ils se levèrent le lendemain de leur assoupissement, ils ne voyaient ni maison ni gens dans la pate campagne autour d’eux. Finn s’éveilla et trouva son cheval attaché à la houssine sans tache et sans défaut et sans dégât. Ils tinrent conseil ensuite pour savoir qui leur aurait fait cet outrage. Finn chanta unteinm laida et mit son pouce sur sa dent de savoir, alors le chose lui fut révélée. “Vraiment,” dit-il, “les trois fantômes de Hibar-glend (la vallée des ifs) sont tombés sur nous ; ce sont eux qui nous ont fait cet outrage pour se venger sur nous de leur soeur Cuichlend au muscau large que nous avons tuée.’

At the close of the prose version of Finn and the Phantoms we are told that Finn had a vision –

‘Il vit un massacre d’hommes vilandois sur las colline à droite, mais il ne vit bataille ni ordre de bataille y rangé. Puis, il apercut une flamme de feu descendant du ciel jusqu’à la terre. Enfin, il y vit une foule en costume inconnu . . . Alors Finn se réeilla du sommeil et raconta son songe à ses druides, Morna Mungairit et Ercoil Sainarma. Puis il mit son pouce sur sa dent de savoir et chants un teinm laida, et la chose lui fut découverte. “Vraiment,” dit-il, “le fils de la Vie viendra ici, duquel l’Irlande sera pleine.” Finn s’énonca ensuite en ces termes, en prédisant l’arrivée de Saint Ciaron, fils de Charpentier.’

From this it would seem that, as in folk-tales commonly, (1) The food of the side is uncooked; (2) To eat the food of theside involves permanent detention among them. Finn’s phantoms and their house leave him because he has not eaten the raw flesh. We may, perhaps, suppose, therefore, that in Cormac’s glossary, when the fili eats the raw flesh (of pig, dog, or cat), the implication is that this is an unhallowed diet which immediately puts him into touch with heathen spirits. It may be added that this version of Finn and the Phantoms is late and considerably affected by Christianity. At the close of the story Finn has a Christian aislinge (vision). We may suspect that in the original version of the story Finn’s vision was quite different, and, in view of other stories in which Finn is represented as tasting the food of the side, we may also suspect that in the original version of Finn and the Phantoms Finn did not refuse the meat.

The story throws yet further light on a passage in Cormac’s entry. In Finn and the Phantoms the scene is laid in the sid. Finn refuses to eat the raw (horse) flesh of the side. In the first of the two paragraphs just quoted there is an obscure sentence to the effect that Finn is hustled into a corner to be shaken and beaten. Stern adds the words, ‘by the phantoms,’ by way of explanation ; but these words are not in the text, and I am not sure that the shaking and beating is not done on Finn by his own followers to bring him out of his trance. We shall see later that there is evidence for such a practice in Welsh tradition. In any case, if I am right in thinking that the passage in Cormac has a direct relation to some version of this story, the words, however we interpret them, may well have a bearing on the obscure phrase which Stokes translates as ‘people are watching over him in order that he may not turn over and in order that no one may disturb him.’(57) We may note, also, that, like the fili, Finn (and perhaps, also his followers) are plunged in a deep sleep or trance. It is, perhaps, worth noting that it is after this trance or sleep in the house of the ‘phantoms’ that Finn is enabled to chant a tenm laida, and to place his thumb on his ‘tooth of knowledge’ and obtain revelation of the occult.

An example of the tenm laida is also quoted in another story relating to Finn hua Baiscne, which is found in Cormac’s glossary s.v. orc treith. Here we are told that during Finn’s absence his fool (druth), Lomna(58) the Coward by name, is slain at the instigation of Finn’s wife, and his head is taken away, while his body is left. When Finn and his followers return they are unable to identify the body, and Finn is asked to make known who the dead man is. ‘Then Finn put his thumb into his mouth, and he chants by tenm laido, ‘illumination of song,’ and he says : ‘not . . . from Lomna’s head. This is Lomna’s body,’ says Finn. ‘His enemies have taken the head from him.’(59)

A further example of the tenm laida is found also in Cormac’s Glossary s.v. mugh-éme. In this story Connla, son of Tadg, son of Cian, son of Ailill Aulom, finds the skull of the first lap-dog which has come to Ireland, and takes it to the filiMoen, son of Etna, to be identified. The fili identifies the head tre tenm laido, ‘by the tenm laida.’ It is curious that in both these instances the tenm laida is used as a means of identifying a head–absent in the first story, present in the second. It is no doubt the circumstance which led O’Curry to regard the tenm laida as a ‘rite for the identification of dead persons.’(60) Its occurrence in the story of Finn and the Phantoms is against this ; but its association in these two entries in Cormac’s Glossary and elsewhere with severed heads and its constant association with Finn, are worth noting.

Finally, reference may be made to the story known as the Macgnimartha Find,(61) which is assigned by Meyer to the twelfth century(62). Here we are told that Finn cooked and ate the salmon of Fec’s pool in the Boyne, which are manifestly the salmon of wisdom associated with the Boyne in the Dinnsenchas of Boand. ‘It is that which gave knowledge to Finn, to wit, whenever he put his thumb into his mouth and sang through tenm laida, then whatever he had been ignorant of would be revealed to him. He learnt three things that constitute a poet, to wit, tenm laida (which Meyer translates ‘illumination (?) of song’), and imbas forosna (‘knowledge which illumines,’ Meyer), and dichetal dichennaib (‘extempore incantation,’ Meyer). It is interesting to note that the song which Finn composed ‘to prove his poetry’ is the ‘Song of Summer,’ beginning

‘May-day, season surpassing,’


which belongs to a class of poetry on the seasons of which Irish literature offers several examples.

This brief survey of some of the instances in which imbas forosnai and tenm laida figure in the sagas may serve to give some idea of the circumstances under which the art was practised. When we seek for a third rubric – dicetal di chennaibaisneis di channaib a chname – we meet with disappointment. It has, however, been possible to gather certain data which may be briefly recapitulated here. We have seen that in the Leabhar na Gabhala the fili Amargin is represented as singing a cetal do chennaib–a series of mantic verses–as he lands in Ireland. We have also seen that the sage Morann sang a laid–which is elsewhere described as cetal na haisnese–as soon as his head was released from its covering. It has also been mentioned that in the Macgnimartha Find, the youthful Finn is said to have learneddichetal di chennaib along with imbas forosnai and tenm laida as a part of his training in the art of poetry and mantic lore.

He is further shown to us chanting (dican) his dicetal in order to be able to identify his fugitive servant in the story ofFinn and the Man in the Tree. We have also seen Ferchess chanting tren foachnami over his spear before casting it at Lugaid.

Referring once more to the chanting of Morann’s head after it has been uncovered, and to the two instances just cited in which the tenm laida is chanted in connection with severed heads, we may suspect that such heads are sometimes associated with magical practices, and, perhaps, with the charms with which we are primarily concerned here. It may be worth while, therefore, to recall one or two stories in which severed heads play a prominent rôle.

The first which naturally occurs to us is the story related in Cormac’s Glossary, s.v. Orc Treith, to which we have just referred. We have seen that Finn identifies the dismembered body of his ‘fool’ (druth) Lomna by chanting through tenm laida. We next hear in the same version of the story that Finn goes to seek the missing head, and finds the murderer Cairpre, in an empty house, cooking fish on a gridiron, and distributing it, and Lomna’s head on a spit beside the fire. The head is reported to have been speaking rhetorics, and the storyteller specially notes the fact that no food is offered to the head, as if the omission were something unusual. The story is told more fully in one of the extracts from the laws recently published (with translations) by Myles Dillon,(64) where the actual words spoken by the head are quoted. These words(65) make it quite clear that the severed head has the right to expect its share of the feast, and protests against its deprivation of its mír.

The story is very much like the fate of Finn’s own head, as related in a fragment of an Aided Finn story, believed by Meyer to date from the tenth century.(66) Here we are told that Finn is killed while trying to leap across the Boyne, and his body is found by four fishermen, viz., the three sons of Urgriu, and Aiclech, the son of Dubriu. Aiclech cuts off his head ; but the sons of Urgriu slay Aiclech, and take Finn’s head to an empty house, and place it before the fire, and then proceed to cut and divide their fish. A black, evil-jesting man (fer dubh docluiche) bids them give a bite (dantmír) of fish to the head. It is not explained who the black man is, but the description suggests that he is a bachlach. The sons of Urgriu, however divide the fish into two portions only. But as often as they divide the fish into two portions, three portions are found, and the head beside the fire explains to them that it is in order that it may have its portion (mír) itself that the fish have been divided into three portions.(67)

The association of these talking heads with the cooking of food is curious. And it is interesting to find the persistence with which a head is said to have its right to a mír, or portion. The head is evidently habitually placed beside the fire, perhaps for the purpose of smoking and drying it for preservation. Can its proximity to the fire have anything to do with the term, tenm loida, which is usually given to the songs chanted by such heads? The word tenm is generally regarded as derived from a root, tep -, ‘heat.’ Is it possible that in the first instance a tenm loida was the chant of a severed head beside the fire at a feast?

It is, of course, possible that the stories of the severed heads of Lomna and of Finn are not independent of one another. It is more probable,however, that the two stories are only single instances of a whole series of such stories associated with the severed heads of mantic persons which were preserved for purposes of divination. In this connection we may refer to other stories in which reference is clearly made to the presence of such heads at feasts. One of these again has reference to Finn himself, and is known as the Brudan Atha.(68) In this story we are told that after Finn has made peace with Fothad Canainne, with whom he has been at feud, he invites him to an ale-feast. Fothad, however, replies that it is ‘ geis to him to drink ale without dead heads in his presence ‘ (Fa geis inmorro do Fothad Canainne ól corma cin chinn marbu ina fhiadnaise).

The most interesting instance of a talking head occurs in the story of the Battle of Allen,(69) which is found in Y.B.L. and elsewhere. The story relates to a battle which took place during a raid made by Fergal, son of Maelduin, high King of Ireland, against Murchad Mac Briain, King of Leinster. In this battle was slain DonnBo, an excellent reciter of poetry and saga (as uadh budh ferr ra(i)nn espa ocus rigscela for an domhon.) It may be suspected that DonnBo possesses second-hand sight, and is aware of the impending disaster to Fergal’s party, for though the story emphasisesthe excellence of his skill and of his répertoire, and the extent to which Fergal’s men depend on him to amuse and distract their thoughts, yet when Fergal asks him to make minstrelsy for them on the night before the battle, he replies that he is unable to utter a word on this night, and someone else must amuse them–to-morrow evening he will make minstrelsy. In the battle which follows both Fergal and DonnBo are killed. In the feast which the victorious Leinstermen hold that night, one of their party is told to go the battlefield to fetch a man’s head. Baethgalach, a valiant Munsterman, volunteers, and as he comes near to where Fergal’s body lies, he hears a voice and sweet music (apparently resembling that of an orchestra). He learns that a head in a clump of rushes is addressing him: “I am DonnBo,” says the head ; “I have been pledged to make music tonight for Fergal.” The head consents to allow itself to be taken on condition that it is afterwards brought back to its body. Baethgalach promises, and returns to the feast with the head, which is then placed on a pillar in their midst. Baethgalach orders the head to make music for them, as it has been wont to for Fergal. But DonnBo “turns his face to the wall of the house, so that it might be dark to him;”(70) and he sings a sweet melody, but so plaintive that the Leinstermen weep bitter tears, and presently the same warrior takes back the head of DonnBo to his body, and fits it to its trunk.

At a later stage in the same story we are told that the Leinstermen also carry Fergal’s head to Cathal mac Findguini, king of Munster, as a trophy. Cathal has it washed, and plaited, and combed smooth, and a cloth of velvet put round it, and a great feast brought and placed before it (ar belaib cind Fergail).(71) The men of Munster then ‘see red’ round about the head, which opens its eyes to render thanks to God for the honour and respect which has been shown to it. Then Cathal distributes the food to the poor and the neighbouring churches. The phrase ro himdergad iarsin imon ceand a feadnaisi fer Muman uili, which I understand to mean that the men of Munster see red round about the head, is translated by Stokes : ‘The head blushed in the presence of all the men of Munster.’ The expression derg or fordergis, however, commonly used of mantic visions, and it is to be suspected that himdergad has a similar significance here also – ‘Red was revealed,’ i.e., a mantic vision was revealed to the men of Munster by means of the head. For the association of derg with such visions we may refer to the phrase atciu forderg used by Fedelm of her mantic vision in the Tain, when, through Imbas forosnai, she looks (deca) by Medb’s request, and reports her mantic vision of the future of the host. Again, in the Togail Bruidne Da Derga Conaire Mor has a supernatural vision of three beings in the form of three horsemen in red riding before him.

The presence of the two talking heads at the two feasts is a striking picture.(72) The head of DonnBo, like those of Lomna in Orc Treith, and of Finn in the fragment cited above, is manifestly the head of a mantic person. Lomna is called a druth.(73) DonnBo is a person of not very dissimilar character himself, for when he refuses to amuse Fergal’s host on the night before the battle, he suggests that Hua-Maiglinni, the rig-druth Erenn, ‘the cheif druth of Ireland,’ should amuse them in his stead.(74) DunnBo, Hua-Maiglinni, Finn and Lomna all appear to practice an art which the author of our passage in the Glossary would have included i corus cherddae, ‘under the heading of art.’

With the incident of the replacing of the severed head on its trunk, and the mournful strain chanted by the head itself, we may compare the closing lines of the story introducing the Reicne Fothaid Canainne,(75) attributed by Meyer to the close of the ninth, or the beginning of the tenth century. The poem (reicne), which is quoted at length, is said to be chanted by the severed head of Fothad Canainne to the wife of Ailill Flann Bec mac Eogain, with whom he has made a tryst, and by whose husband he has been killed ; and the mournful lay is said to be chanted to the woman as she comes to fufill her tryst in death, carrying the head to the grave where the body lies. Reference may also be made to the lament chanted by the severed head of Sualtam, CuChulainn’s father, in the Tain Bo Cualinge.(76)

All these people, then, are represented as performing after death an artistic feat which may be described as ‘singing from the head.’(77) This art, however, is not confined in the stories as we have them to heathen mantic sages. The head of Fergal, when taken from its covering at a feast (exactly like the one at which DonnBo chants his dirge) performs a Christian dicetal or asneis. The head of the sage Morann is said to have performed a Christian dicetal orasneis when its covering falls off. It is not stated that his head was severed. The whole story is, indeed, very obscure ; but it is clear that the sage was virtually headless so long as his head was covered with its ‘hood’ (con-aices rop æn pait uili o dib guaillibh suas, 7 ‘ni facas bel fair no sineistri etir).(78)

We may suspect that it is because these utterances from heads were clearly capable of transformation into Christian hymns and testifyings (dicetalasneis) at the hands of Christian redactors that they are said by the author of Cormac’sGlossary to be left i corus cherddae–though whether he intends to ascribe this tolerant attitude to Saint Patrick, or whether the statement is an afterthought, a kind of colophon of his own, is not clear. That the old mantic art was sometimes well-known to Christian clerics we have clear testimony.The title Mac da Cherddae (‘Boy of two arts’), borne by the famous cleric and scholar of Armagh, who is mentioned in Cormac’s Glossary (s.v. ana) and elsewhere,(79)appears to have reference to his proficiency in both mantic (imbas?) and Christian (i.e., Latin) learning ( sous?). The author of the Aislinge meic Conglinne, albeit his devoutness has been questioned, was clearly himself a man of both arts, and it is curious to observe that he is represented as a contemporary of Cathal mac Findguini, whose men brought DonnBo’s head to their feast, and who himself treats in a similar manner the head of Fergal, though a Christian colouring has been given to this narrative. It is tempting to pursue our enquiry into imbas further, and to examine the relationship of ‘nuts’ or ‘hazels’ of imbas, to which reference was made in the first part of this paper, and which are associated with the Springs of Shannon and Boyne in the Dinnsenchas and elsewhere, to the imbas and thetenmlaida(80) of the stories which we have already considered. In regard to Finn, the imbas derived from eating salmon fed on the hazel nuts of the spring at the source of the Boyne appears to represent a variant tradition from that which associates his imbas with the slaying of Culdub. But the nuts of imbas are a curious and interesting subject deserving of a fuller treatment than space permits of here, and I hope to make them the subject of a separate study.

From the evidence before us it would seem, on the whole, that the practice described under imbas forosnai in Cormac’s Glossary is most fully represented in the Finn stories, and that the technique ascribed here and elsewhere to the fili is most clearly exemplified in Finn himself. An attentive reading of the earliest stratum of Finn stories shows us Finn enacting, at one time or another–possibly all in close juxtaposition–the principal items of the procedure set forth by the author of the Glossary. Moreover, if we read the passage in the Glossary in the light of these Finn stories, though much still remains obscure to us, yet there is no doubt that many of the original obscurities become clearer–the raw meat, the ‘chewing,’ the association with the ‘stone’ and the ‘doorway,’ the heathen gods,’ or ‘idol gods’ (which we may presume to be the form of diction in which the Christian author refers to the side), the mantic sleep, the people watching over him, and the reference to the shaking or turning of the sleeper. It almost looks as if the Christian antiquarian author of the passage in the Glossary has been pursuing a line of study not very dissimilar to our own, and searching the heathen traditions for accounts of mantic practices. If so we must suppose that the picture of the practice of the fili given in the Glossary is a synthesis based, not on observation, but on deduction from literary sources, perhaps not always very clearly understood. This would be fully in accord with what we know of his practice in other passages. If this conclusion is correct, we must suppose, either that the redactor has been drawing his material from a series of traditional stories of Finn, such as those which we have been considering, or else that the passages in theGlossary and the Finn Cycle are based on a common and widespread practice of which, nevertheless, we have no satisfactory traces elsewhere. Even if we suppose that the name of Finn has been inserted into some of these stories at a comparatively late date (cf p. 144 above, foot-note 1), we need not suppose that the character of the stories has been substantially modified. The consistency of their general character would, indeed, be against such a supposition.

For many reasons the second of the alternatives suggested above is improbable. Considering the great wealth of Irish leterary evidence, it is surprising that if the stories of imbas forosnai and tenm laida were commonly associated with other known heroes or filid besides Finn so few references to them should have been preserved. Nor have we anything in the Annals or the stories of the kings to suggest that such mantic practices were common. We have seen that the terms are found frequently in the metrical tractates and schedules for the education of the filid. But these entries contain nothing which suggests the widespread practice of the process under discussion. On the contrary, these references rather suggest, on the whole, that they are, like the entry in the Glossary, the result of antiquarian speculation on metres and poems to which the names imbas forosnaitenm laida, etc., have become attached after the terms had lost their original significance. And in several cases we have seen that the examples cited are identical with others which we have found in the sagas, from which there can be little doubt they are temselves derived.

Against this it may be urged that references to the actual practice of imbas forosnai and tenm laida are to be found in the ancient Irish laws. Thus there occurs in the Commentary on the Introduction to the Senchas Mor,(81) a reference to the means employed in order to discover a name. The passage opens with the words, ‘Indiu is do cendaib colla tall‘ ; but the passage which follows is strongly reminiscent of our own and other passages in Cormac’s Glossary,(82) to which it appears to me to bear direct and close verbal relationship. The passage in the Senchas Mor tells us that when the fili sees a person or thing before him he recites an extempore verse (comracdo focetair do cendaib a cnama. ‘But this is (only) since the Conversion ; before St Patrick’s time it was performed differently. At that time the fili placed his staff on the person’s body or head (fors in colainn no fors in cend)(83) and found his name . . . and discovered every unknown thing which was put to him co de (? for cend) nomaide do dala no tri ; and this is tenm laida or imbas forosnai, for the same thing used to be revealed through them ; they, however, were performed after a different manner, for a different kind of offering was made at each of them (ar is inand ni do foillsigtea trepta ; ocus ba sain imorro amail do gnitea cectar de, .i. sain cinel nudbairt do gnitea oc cectar de).

. . . But Patrick abolished those three things from among the poets, because they were heathen rites (anidan), for neither tenm laida nor imbas forosnai could be performed without the accompaniment of heathen offerings (gin udbairt do deib idal ocaib).’

Again, in one of the ‘Stories from the Law Tracts,’ recently edited and translated by Myles Dillon, the nobles of Ireland are represented as referring to the filid, ‘so that they should try the revelation of imas as to what state Angus (i.e., an ancient King of Leinster) was in after death on account of the judgement, false through carelessness, which he had given.’ The story goes on to tell that the filid ‘tried the revelation of true imas, and he was shown to them condemned to half punishment,’ etc.(84) (ocus gu ndernsatsum faillsiugudh in fhirimais, ocus is amlaid ro faillsiged doib he iar tabairt leth-indechda.) There can be no doubt, however, that these references in the Laws are merely literary allusions, and cannot be used as evidence of historical practice.

The absence of satisfactory corrobrative evidence in early Irish literature or of traces in early Irish history of the actual practice of the type of imbas forosnai described in the Glossary and the Finn stories is rather surprising, even making allowance for its notoriously heathen character. Indeed, we may suspect that literary men of antiquarian interests had themselves observed and been struck by the absence of such evidence, and had for this reason surmised that the rite had been banished by St Patrick at the outset. It is, moreover, surprising that the poetry generally cited as recited by Finn or other filid when they sing through imbas forosnai or tenm laida appears to be for the most part absolutely untranslatable.

We have seen that the fili Amargin is also represented in the Leabhar na Gabhala as reciting a set of rhetorics immediately on landing in Ireland. Presumably, therefore, he had acquired them elsewhere. The authroity is too late to have independent value, but the rhetorics themselves resemble those ascribed to the Welsh poet, Taliesin, and those contained in the dialogue between Ferchertne and Nede in the Immacaldam in da Thuarad,(85) which is ascribed to the tenth century. In the latter work we are told that the youthful sage Nede, who is represented as defeated by the elderly sage, Ferchertne, in filidecht, has just returned from Britain, where he has been acquiring imbas. We have seen also that in the CuChulainn Cycle imbas forosnai is said to have been learnt by the banfhaid Fedelm in Britain, and to have been practised by Scathach, also in Britain. It was long ago suggested by Sir John Rhys(86) that Welsh tradition has also preserved traces of communities resembling those of Scathach and Aoife in the CuChulaunn Cycle. In particular he pointed to the Nine Witches of Gloucester, who appear to be endowed not only with skill in arms, but also with the gift of prophecy, and who are also responsible for the training of the hereo, Peredur. A careful scrutiny of this and other Medieval Welsh stories–notably that of the Cave of the Addanc, also in Peredur–would doubtless bring other instances to light. Rhys regarded both the Welsh and Irish stories of female communities where instruction was given in military and mantic art as derived from a common origin,(87) but he sought this origin in a ‘Goidelic’ community settled in the south-west of England. If he were right in this, and if the arts were pre-eminently Irish, we may, indeed, ask why the prophetess Fedelm, and many heroes, notably the popular hero CuChulainn himself, should be obliged to come over to this country to learn them?

We have seen, however, that the chief exponent in Irish legend of both the imbas forosnai and the tenm laida is Finn mac Cumail, or more correctly, Finn mac Umail, who is represented in Irish tradition as having acquired all his magic arts in Ireland, though these traditions vary considerably among themselves as to the exact manner in which he acquired these arts. Finn is, perhaps, the most gifted magician of all Irish legend. He is, in fact, more of a magician than a hero. his character and mantic experiences have more in common with those of Conn Cétchathach and his line than with those of CuChulainn, on the one hand, or the more authentic historical traditions of later kings on the other. These experiences, however, are never identical with those of Conn’s line. We search the baile literature in vain for traces of mantic experiences analogous to those of the passage in Cormac’s Glossary under imbas forosnai, or to those in the stories of Finn.

How are we to account for these individualites of Finn? And where do his closest affinities lie?

The nearest analogies of the stories associated with Finn which we have been considering are contained, not in Irish tradition,(88) but in Welsh legend. These stories of Finn are analogous especially to those of Pwyll Prince of Dyved, who, like Finn visits Annwn or the heathen spirit world. We may refer also to Rhonabwy who lies down to sleep on a yellow calf-skin, and has a mantic sleep and dream. One would like to know the relationship between Finn and Gwyn (the Welsh phonetic equivalent of Finn) ap Nudd, to whom, according to a passage in Kulhwch and Olwen,(89) ‘God gave control over the devils in Annwn’ – the Welsh equivalent of the side of Irish saga, and of the ‘idol gods’ of Cormac’s entry.(90)

Giraldus Cambrensis (c. 1147- c. 1223) mentions in his Description of Wales a class of people whom he callsAwenithion, and who appear to practise an art closely resembling that described by Cormac as imbas forosnai.

‘Sunt et in hoc Kambriae populo quod alibi non reperies, viri nonnulli, quos Awennithion vocant, quasi mente ductos. Hi super aliquo consulti ambiguo stsim frementes spiritu quasi extra se rapiuntur, et tanquam arrepti fiunt. Nec incontinenti tamen quod desideratur edisserunt ; sed per ambages multas, inter varios quibus effuunt sermones nugatorios magis et vanos quam sibi coherentes, sed omnes tamenornatos, in aliquo demum verbi diverticulo qui responsumsolerter, observat quod petit accipiet enucleatum. Et sic denique de hac extasi tanquam a somno gravi ab aliisexciantur, et quasi per violentiam quandam ad se reverticompelluntur. Ubi et duo notanda reperies ; quia post responsum, nisi violenter excitati et revocati, ab hujuscemondi quasi furore reverti non solent, et quod in se reversi, nihil horum omnium, qua ab his interim prolata sunt, ad memoriam revocabunt. (unde et, si forte super hoc iterum vel alio consulti dicere debeant, aliis omnino verbis et alienis enantiabunt ; )(91) forsan sicut per phanaticos et emergumenos spiritus interdum loquuntur, quanuam ignaros. Solent autem eis haec dona plerumque in somnis per visiones infundi. Quibusdam enim videtur, quod eis schedula inscripta ori imponatur. Et statim a somno erecti et conori effecti, se gratiam hanc suscepisse publice profitentur.’


[‘There are certain persons in Cambria…called Awenyddion, or people inspired; when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it where, possessed by a spirit. They do not deliver the answer to what is required in a coherent manner; but the person who skilfully observes them will find, after many preambles… The desired explanation conveyed in some turn of a word: They are then roused from their ecstasy, as from a deep sleep, and, as it where, by violence compelled to return to their proper senses. After having answered the questions, they do not recover until violently shaken by other people; nor can they remember the replies they have given…These gifts are usually conferred upon them in dreams: some seem to have sweet milk or honey poured on their lips; others fancy that a written schedule is applied to their lips, and on awakening they publicly declare that they have received this gift.’

The Journey Through Wales / the Description of Wales, Geraldus Cambrensis, Trans. L. Thorpe 1978 Book 1 Ch 16 (translation citation courtesy of Ken Waldron) Translation added by Molly Ní Dana]

It will be seen that the phenomenon of the Awenithion (or, more properly, Awenyddion) resembles that of the imbas forosnai as described for us in the Glossary, and as illustrated by the stories of Finn. The name is derived from the word awen or poetic (mantic) inspiration, and is generally conferred on a person in a mantic sleep. These people become rapt in an ecstasy (cf. ‘imbas forosnai’) in which they deliver themselves of speech which is not easily intelligible because the utterances are veiled (cf. the Irish rhetorics), and apparently contradictory and highly figurative. Often such people have to be shaken violently before they can recover their normal condition. We do not know the exact source of Giraldus’ account. It may have been based on contemporary custom, as he himself avers ; or it may, as I suspect, be derived from literary (oral) tradition, like the entry in the Glossary. But whatever the source, there can be little doubt that in the time of Giraldus a practice similar to that of imbas forosnai was known in Wales, either as a living practice or a literary motif.

Talhaern, a poet of the Britons who is mentioned in the Historia Brittonum, as living in the time of Maelgwn, King of Gwynedd (548), is said to have been called Tataguen,(93) i.e., ‘father of awen or poetic (mantic) inspiration,’ and to have been a contemporary of the poet Taliesin, who almost certainly lived in the middle of the sixth century. The similarity of the poetry traditionally ascribed to Taliesin, to that ascribed – also by tradition – to the poet Nede and to thefili Amargin has already been commented on. There can, indeed, be little doubt that early traditions in this country imply the existence at an early date of a phenomenon similar to imbas forosnai. We have seen that Irish tradition suggests that the art was in a more advanced condition in this country, since it was from this country that, according to the same tradition, the earliest exponents known to Irish legend derived their art.

The result of our study suggests the following conclusions. The passage on Imbas forosnai in Cormac’s Glossary is a piece of antiquarian learning, based on literary evidence. It contains several technical terms, derived ultimately from mantic texts, but now extra-syntactical, and therefore not intended to be understood literally. The author of the passage was a Christian with no direct acquaintance with the phenomenon which he is describing, and which he apprehends imperfectly, whether through ignorance of the details of the traditions which he is following, or from the difficulty of reconciling variant versions. He gives us to believe that the imbas forosnai and the tenm laida are no longer practised, while certain other mantic phenomena, originally heathen, have been transmogrified under Christian influence. In this he appears to be right.

The phenomenon of imbas forosnai itself is well known in Irish tradition, alongside other mantic phenomena, some of which are also commented on in the Glossary. The imbas forosnai, in particular, is known to the earliest cycle of Irish saga, where we find an example of the mantic poetry associated with it. In these, the earliest cited examples, imbas forosnai appears to be a specifically female accomplishment, though later it is especially ascribed to Finn, and the malefilid. The earliest Irish traditions represent it as acquired in this country. British tradition also knows the art in this country, apparently at an early date. On the whole, it would seem to be not improbable that Britain was a centre of prophetic poetry in the early centuries of our era, and we may suspect that it was in this country that the early Irish mantic poets acquired their imbas.

I am well aware that I have not succeeded in ascertaining the exact milieu to which the author of the colophon refers in his remarks on dicetal and aisneis di chennaib. It is impossible to avoid a suspicion that these expressions somehow contain a veiled allusion to the baile literature, such as the Baile in Scail and the Echtra Cormaic, though so far as I am aware, ‘heads’ are not actually mentioned as playing a part in these stories. The redactor of the Echtra Cormaic is at pains in his colophon to bring the baile literature, and these two stories in particular, into the circle of Christian orthodoxy, and he tells us, in words which sound like an echo of the colophon to Imbas forosnai, that these experiences were brought about by divine means, and were not connected with ‘demons.’

We need not suppose that the author of the colophon to Imbas forosnai is necessarily the same person as the author of the main entry. Indeed, the change of tense in itself would render it improbable that such was the case. The use of the present tense in the main entry is striking and unusual, most of the entries which embody individual stories being in the narrative (past) tense. The use of the present tense in our entry tends to confirm my suggestion that the entry itself has been composed as a synthesis. It is, however, by no means impossible that it represents a single version of a lost saga. If so, we must suppose that such a saga would have much in common with the stories of Finn referred to above. But whatever its precise origin, there can, I think, be little doubt that the material contained in the main portion of the entry is derived neither from contemporary custom nor from etymological speculation, but from oral narrative saga.

-end of text-
-Nora K. Chadwick


1. The striking similarity of this colophon to the one found at the conclusion of the Echtra Cormaic (ed. and transl. by W. Stokes, Irische Texte, Series III, p. 185 ff.) deserves careful consideration, and can hardly be accidental.
2. Do foillsiugud, the words generally used of the revealing of knowledge to the Druids and the filid. See the ‘Adventures of Art, Son of Conn’ (ed. and transl. R. I. Best, Ériu, Vol. III, p. 155, § 8); cf. also ‘Stories from the Law Tracts,’ (ed. and transl. Myles Dillon, ib., Vol. XI, p. 46)
3. In 1912 Meyer also edited the text of the Sanas Cormaic, contained in the Yellow Book of Lecan, and published it inAnecdota from Irish Manuscripts, Vol. IV. (Halle, 1912)
4. Zeit. f. celt. Philol., Vol. XIX. (1932), p. 164
5. Ancient Laws and Institutes of Ireland, Vol. I. ed. and transl. by W. Neilson Hancock (Dublin, 1865), p. 42
6. Zeit. f. celt. Philol., Vol. XVI, (1929), p. 186
7. Edited and translated by R. Atkinson, in Ancient Laws of Ireland, Vol. V (Dublin, 1901), p. 56 ff.
8. ‘Tredi dlegar dun olllamain filead .i. tenm loegda ocus imus forosnad, ocus dicetal do cennaib, amail adbeir breta nemd, “a tre nemtigter nemtusa filed, tenm legda, imus forosnad, dicedul du cennaib.”‘
9. Mittelirische Verslehren, Irishce Texte III., p. 117 (tenmlaida, immas forosnai, dichetal do chennaib na tuaithe).
10. ib., p. 119
11. ib., p. 102 (tedmleoda, Imus forosnudh, Delinlaide la dicetal).
12. See L. C. Stern, Revue Celtique, XIII, p. 16, footnote 2
13. Ed. cit., p. 61
14. In this and several parallel phrases obviously used for di. (See K. Meyer, Contributions to Irish Lexicography, s.v.do)
15. Ed. cit., p. 63
16. Is it worth mentioning that Cend-Cnáma is a proper name? Meyer, Contrib, s.v.
17. We may, perhaps, compare the expression, co cnamaib cind, Thurn. Metr. Tr., p. 102, no. 192, words which, curiously enough, are lacking from the parallel text from the LL and BB, ib, p. 48, no. 89. Can they be a rubric which has been incorporated into the text? Cf. p. 99, rubric to no. 167
18. Irische Heidensage, (Halle, 1921), p. 377
19. Ed. W. N. Hancock, Ancient Laws and Institutes of Ireland, Vol. I. (London, 1865), p. 44
20. See Meyer, Contrib., s.v. Coll (2); Meyer closses as ‘head’; but should it not rather come under his coll (1), ‘hazel’?
21. BB. 341. b. 34; cf. Ancient Laws and Institutes of Ireland, Vol. V., p. 58
22. The Book of the conquests of Ireland, ed. and transl. by Macalister and Macneill (Dublin, 1916), p. 264
23. Ed. and transl. by K. Meyer, Fianaigecht (Dublin, 1910), p. 28 ff.
24. ibid, p. 39
25. Ed. and transl. K. Meyer, Revue Celtique, Vol. XXV, p. 345 ff; see especially p. 347
26. Lebhar Gabhala, The Book of the Conquests of Ireland, p. 262 f.
27. Ed. cit., p. 63
28. See Thurneysen’s note in Irische Texte, Series III, p. 169
29 Ib. pp. 189, 207
30. Ib. p. 206 f.
31. Ed. and transl. Whitley Stokes (Rolls Series, 1887), Vol. I, p. 56, 1.11
32. According to the text contained in LU, Fedelm is a mortal, but according to the text in YBL, she is a supernatural being.
33. Ériu I., Pt. II, Suppl. p. 4
34. Transl. by K. Meyer, Archaeolog. Rev. I. (1888), No. 1-4; Rev. Ce.t. XI. (1890), p. 433
35. See Thurneysen, Irische Heidensage, p. 388
36. Thurn. Ir. Heid., p. 377. Cf. Zeit f. celt. Philol., Vol. IX, p. 487
37. Thurneysen, loc. cit.
38. See Thurneysen, Ir. Heid., p. 388, footnote 1
39. It is to be suspected that here, as elsewhere–as against Thruenysen’s view (Ir. Heid., p. 376 f.)–teh name Alpi, ‘Alps,’ has been substituted for Alba, through learned or ecclesiastical influence.
40. Ed. and translated by K. Meyer, Revue Celtique, Vol. XXV, (1904), p. 344 ff.
41. K. Meyer, Fianaigecht, p. XVIII
42. Ibid., p. 348
43. Meyer, Fianaigecht, p. XIX
44. Revue Celtique, Vol. XIV. (1893), p. 246 ff. For yet other versions of the slaying of Culdub, see Revue celtique, XV (1894), p. 305; LL. fo. 191 a; E. Gwynn, Metrical Dindsenechas, Pt. II, (Dublin 1906), p. 64
45. Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, (Dublin, 1878), p. 396 f.
46. Ed. and transl. by K. Meyer, Fianaigecht, p. 29. ff. CF also ib., p. XXI
47. See Zimmer Kelt. Beitr, III, Zeilt f.d. Alt., Vol. 35, p. 115. Both Zimmer and Meyer held that there was probably no mention of Finn in the earlier versions of this story. (See Meyer, Fianaigecht, p. XXI). The incident and the words spoken recall the Echtra Nerai, ed. and transl. by K. Meyer, Rev. celt., Vol. X, p. 212 ff.
48. On the Bodleian Fragment of Cormac’s Glossary, Transactions of the Philological Society, 1891, p. 187
49. See K. Meyer, Fianaigecht, p. XX., f.
50. See Stokes, Three Irish Glossaries (Sanas Cormaic), s.v. rincne, p. 38 f.
51. We may refer to the dantmirmirlit. ‘tooth-morsel’ or ‘bite,’ demanded by Finn’s severed head from the fishermen as they cooked tehir fish after slaying the hero. See Meyer’s translation of the ‘Death of Finn mac Cumaill’ in Zeilt. f. celt. Philol. I., . 465. CF. also p. 121 below.
52. It is said to be geis to CuChulainn to eat dog’s flesh.
53. Ed. and transl. by L. C. Stern, Revue celtique, Vol. XIII, p. 5 ff.
54. See Meyer, Fianaigecht, p. XXIII
55. ed. and transl. Stokes’ <i?revue celtique<=”” i=””>, Vol. VII, p. 289 ff.
56. Meyer, Fianaigecht, p. XXV
57. See also Meyer’s translation of the passage, p. 99 above.
58. He is generally identified with Lomna mac Duinn Desa, who plays a prominent role on the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, and who is mentioned in the Dinnsenechas and elsewhere. See Thurneysen, Ir. Heid, Index and references there cited.
59. W. Stokes, ‘On the Bodelian Fragment of Cormac’s glossary.’ Transactions of the Philological Society, 1891-4, p. 176 f.
60. Manners and Customs, Vol. II, p. 208
61. Ed. by Kuno Meyer, Revue Celtique, Vol. V, p. 195 ff; cf. Archiv. f. celt Lexicographie, Vol. I, p. 482; transl by Meyer,Ériu, Vol. I, p. 181 ff.
62. Fianaigecht p. XXVIII
63. Transl. by K. Meyer, loc. cit.; also in Four Songs of Summer and Winter (London, 1903); and in Ancient Irish Poetry(London, 1913), p. 54 f.
64. Ériu, Vol. XI, p. 58 ff.
65. ‘Bid a drochmír dodngarba, bid leo a sealba.’
66. Zeitschr. f. cetl. Philol., Vol I, p. 462 f.
67. A variant version of this story of the Aided Finn is published and translated by O’Grady, Silva Gadelica, Vols I, p. 89 ff.; II,. P. 96 ff. the text is also published by K. Meyer, The battle of Ventry, p. 72 ff. this version relates that Aiclech cut off Finn’s head, but omits its subsequent fate, and differs also in some other details. Finn is here represented as killed in battle.
68. Ed. and transl. by K. Meyer, Revue celtique, Vol. XXIV, p. 41. ff.
69. Ed. and transl. by Stokes, Revue celtique, Vol. XXIV, p. 41 ff.
70. We may compare the action of Mac Datho in the poem (str. 2) contained in ch. 3 of the Scel Muicci Mic Datho when he is taking council with himself as to how he ought to act in his dilemma. It is possible that the action of the fili in covering his face with the palms of his hands in imbas forosnai is due to a desire for darkness. We may perhaps also note that the sage Morann chanted his laid as soon as his head was freed from its covering, and that the Welsh poet Taliesin is stated–in a late tradition–to have recited poetry as soon as he was taken out of the bag in which he had been found. Other instances might be cited. See Chadwick, Growth of Literature, Vol. I, p. 658 ff.
71. We may refer to the manner in which the ancient Gauls are said to have treated the heads of their enemies. See Strabo, IV, 4, 5; cf. Diodorus, V. 2, 9. See especially the interesting account of the Boii, Livy, XXIII, 24.
72. Reference may be made to the head of Bendigeid Vran in the Mabinogi of Branwen, hwen the severed head of Bran is always present at the feasting of its convoy during their stay in Harlech and at Gwales in Penvro, and ensures their happiness and good cheer.
73. In the version for the Law-tracts (cf. p. 121 above) he is called a drui, ‘druid’ (Dillon).
74. Mac-Con’s druth Dadera was probably a similar person. See the verse quoted in the story of Ailill Aulom, Mac-Con, and Finn Ua Baiscne, Meyer, Fianaigecht, p. 35
75. Ed. and translated by K. Meyer, Fianaigecht, p. 1 ff
76. Windisch,ed. cit., p. 676
77. With these talking (severed) heads of sages we may compare the early Norse story of Mimir’s head in the Ynglinga Saga, ch. 4. Mimir, we are told, was the wisest of the Norse gods (Æsir), and was sent by them as a hostage to their enemies, the Vanir. The Vanir, however, cut off Mimir’s head and sent it back to the Æsir. Othin smeared it with herbs to preserve it, and chanted spells over it, and bewitched it so that it spoke with him, and told him many hidden things.
78. ‘The Irish Ordeals,’ etc., ed. and transl. by Stokes, Irische Texte, Vol. III, p. 189
79. See the description of him as ardfili and oinmit in Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir, ed. and transl. by K. Meyer (London 1902), p. 12. See also Thurneysen, Ir. Heid., p. 71; K. Meyer, Aislinge Meic Conglinne, pp. 7, 131; W. Stokes,Three Irish Glossaries, pp. 6, 36, LIII.
80. Is not the expression a teinm 7 a tomoilt used with reference to the nuts of Segais sent by Maer to Finn in theDinnsenechas of Rath Cnamrossa (Revue celtique, XV, p. 333) to be taken in connection with the tenm laida?
81. Ancient Laws and Institutes of Ireland, Vol. I, p. 44
82. For a discussion of the date and relationship of this passage in the laws, and for the date and relationship of the passage relating to the suifild and imbas, already cited (p. 101) above, see Thurneysen, Zeit f. c. Philol., Vol XVI, p. 186.
83. See Cormac’s Glossary, s.v. Coire Breccain, where the blind poet, Lugaid Dall, discovers the name of Breccan’s lapdog by asking his attendants to place the end of his wand on the dog’s skull, and then reciting a verse over it in which he reveals the name and fate of the dog’s owner.
84. Ériu, Vol. XI, p. 56
85. Ed. and transl. by W. Stokes, Revue celtique, Vol. XXVI (1905), p. 4 ff.
86. ‘The Nine Witches of Gloucester,’ in Anthropological Essays presented to Edward Burnett Tylor (Oxford, 1907), p. 285 ff.
87. Loc. cit. p. 288, footnote 1
88. There is, of course, a certain amount in common between the adventures of Finn and those of the Irish hero Nera; but this does not carry us very far.
89. Loth, Les Mabinogion, Vol. I, p. 314 f.
90. There is a passage in one of the Mongan stories which seems to suggest that Finn came to Ireland from ‘Alba.’ See Meyer, Voyage of Bran, Vol. I, p. 48; cf. Fianaigecht, p. XXII.
91. Unde … enunitabunt not in MS. D.
92. Giraldus Cambrensis, Descriptio Cambriae, ed. by J. F. Dimock (Rolls Series, Geraldi Cambrensis Opera Vol. VI. 868), p. 194 f.
93. The same term is applied to at least one other person. See Chadwick, Growth of Literature (Cambridge, 1932), Vol. I, pp. 637, 664

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