Geez. If you can’t believe Carmina Gadelica….
It’s been a long time since I looked at Carmina Gadelica, a book of hymns, prayers, and sayings from the (Catholic) Scottish highlands and the (Protestant and Catholic) Hebrides. I’m reasonably sure that none of the reprints I’ve seen have included the Scottish Gaelic. Apparently the original edition (now handily digitized on books.google.com) did. This makes it a lot more useful, but it also reveals certain… interesting… translation choices.
For example, our dear Mr. Carmichael likes to call things “rune”. “Rune Before Prayer”, for example. But what word here is being translated as “rune”?
Rann. Which is not only a lot older word than those punk Viking settlements, but also simply means “stave, stanza” or “quatrain”.
Then we have “Rune of the Muthairn”. What word is he translating as “rune” now?
Duan. Which is another perfectly normal word for “poem”, although the connotation is a more lyric one than just “rann”.
You get other interesting choices, too. In “Bless, O Chief of Generous Chiefs”, the prayer for protection includes every “brownie” in the English. In the Gaelic it’s “gruagach”, a very interesting word. Literally it means something like “hairy” or “long-haired”. Depending on the circumstances, it can mean a beautiful longhaired girl, a powerful longhaired old wizard, or a really big and bad-tempered brownie type. The prayer is not against happy little housefairies, in other words. 🙂 The prayer also asks for assistance against other Scottish monsters probably better known today: the glaistig, bean-nighe, fuath, and other bonechilling critters. (“Greann”, translated as “siren” here, apparently means “grim and surly” by connotation, though it’s literally something more like “bristly and hairy”. This is highly ironic, as in modern Irish, the word spelled “greann” means “fun”. “Uruisg” is another word for a brownie, although it usually has a more friendly connotation than here.) There’s nothing wrong about the translation, but it’s a lot more interesting (for those of us who like monster lore, anyway) to know the specifics.
The other rather unamusing thing is that, now that I know more about general European Catholic customs, these straaaaange exotic sayings seem even less exotic and weird than they did in comparison to normal Old English healing prayers and poems. The Rune… er… Verse Before Prayer, for instance, is just a folk version of the invitatory psalm/prayer said before praying the Hours, which has bled onto praying the Rosary and other popular prayers in many countries. It’s a bit more complicated than “Lord, open my lips”, but… *roll eyes* …ooh, biggie dealie. There is also a very elaborate explanation that some people sing it, some people say it; just as some people like to pray in a quiet small room, and some people like to pray out loud outside, where nobody can hear them. Ah, soooooo different from the way ordinary mortals everywhere pray!
There’s a fine line between talking up your subject with enthusiasm and making it sound special, and talking about your subject as if it has no connection to normal human beings and near-universal European customs. I do sympathize with the love of purple prose, but…. this is exactly the sort of thing which leads to people deciding that the Scottish country people were all secretly pagans, or Gnostics, or what-have-you. This has been aided, of course, by people circulating versions without all those nasty hymns to Jesus. *roll eyes again*
So yes, this book is full of litanies and prayers and hymns and poems. Some sayings and prayers probably cross the line to superstition, and some are difficult to understand; they may represent customs or genres that don’t really exist anymore. But on the whole, it shows us the very sane, lively, and simple Christian faith life of the Hebrides people, as displayed in their oral literature.
Carmina Gadelica is a fascinating collection. But clearly, it’s important to have the side-by-side translation version if you want to do any serious thinking about it.