The language of the Celtic imagination, in whatever form it takes, pours forth from an overwhelming sense of the Other-World and a feeling of harmony with it. Let us make no mistake about it, language – whether spoken, played or drawn – to the Celts is music. To hear the music you must reach into another world, a world where the natural and supernatural are joined together into one rhythm or consonance. If the world suffers because the Other-World and This-World have been tom asunder, as Celtic myth claims, then it is music that reunites it. The ancient Celts believed that the created universe was sustained by a single all-embracing melody. Oran M6r, The Great Melody, they called it. Not only did it hold up and sustain the created universe, the created universe was an integral part of it, neither inseparable from the other.
Language, art and music, it is said, were each a gift from divinity given to reunite the natural and supernatural creations, and when reunited, become one with the Divine. Each gift in its own way sings the same mystical lyric, and each in its own way brings about the divine union with creation. This is music, not merely notes sung, spoken, played or drawn, but a divine melody that mystically wells up in the very heart of creation and finds expression, expression powerful enough to unite that which has been tom apart.
The tension between This-World and the Other-World is told in the Gaelic legend of music. Uaithne (Harmony) is the human father of music. His wife, Boand (Melody) is of the Other-World, and together they give birth to three sons. With each birth, Uaithne plays the harp to soothe his wife’s labor. The first son, Goltriaghe, is born with mourning and weeping, giving us the music of sorrow. The second is born amidst joy and laughing and is named Giantriaghe, the music of joy. The last to be born, Suantriaghe, is born in peace and tranquility and thus the music of sleeping comes to be.1 Listen to the lilt of the spoken Gaelic, or another Celtic language, let the music into your soul, or savor the rhythm of Celtic art and you will hear the music oi Uaithne and Boand.
Tradition records that a bard had to grasp and make part of himself the three modes of music before he was allowed to claim the title of bard, for, in the Celtic scheme, to sing or play was to dispense healing powers. The sorrow mode, Goltraiges, provokes the release of lamentation after grief. Gentraiges, the joy mode, brings forth mirth after sorrow. And the sleep mode, Suantriaghe, induces sleep after trauma. In considering this, we must remember that music was not only played but also sung, and that the poem, be it epic or short, is but language “sung”, Thus language, not just the mere utterance of words, but those lyrics that spring form the heart, is very powerful indeed, powerful enough to provoke death or create life.
Traditional Celtic music is pentatonic, rather than diatonic, as is much of our music. This means that each note had its own scale with varying intervals.2 While you can certainly hear this in the spoken language and the traditional Celtic music, it can also be found in the rhythm of Celtic art. Celtic art moves as does Celtic music, never fixed. Beauty, in the Celtic mind, is. It is never transfixed into a state of non-existence, but always alive, always taking on new dimensions. It is as if it had its own life, and surely it does. The pentatonic mode is the Celtic rhythm of life, which brings us back to our starting point. Music, in all of its expressions is, according to Celtic myth, the mark of the divine in humankind, for it involves our capacity to participate in the divine intellect. Not only is music the bridge between the divine and the temporal, it is the divine and temporal melded wholly together in one mystical expression. Both This-World and the Other-World are bound together through music (which is the very nature of the divine intellect) to the extent that each world in its own distinct nature, as well as in their jointly held nature, become extensions of the divine. Man the musician, according to the Celt, may live life’ discordantly and destructively or harmoniously and creatively.
Music, in all its expressions, is a mystical way to make sense out of existence, a way to “harmonize the divine and the human with the soul” of humankind.3 However, body and soul cannot be joined together, no more than can This-World and the Other-World, without an immutable foundation. It is the mystical music of myth that subjectively forms in our soul this immutable foundation, a foundation of a caring divinity who gave music as the means to experience the Divine. This perhaps is why music, in the full Celtic sense, whatever form it takes, is able to move both the artist and the beholder from the great depths of the soul and create within our conscious thought the mystical experience that once again joins This-World to the Other-World and both to the divine Creator.
1. See Yeats, Grainne, Feile na gCruitri, Beal Feirste ,1792, Dublin: Gael-Linn, 1980, p. 63.
2. The B and F were originally omitted, but were eventually added as the “church modes” began to take over from the fourth-century onward.
3. Stephen Lawhead
Corbett, Deborah, “The Voice of the Celtic Harp,” EPIPHANY JOURNAL,(San Francisco: Epihany Press), Fall, 1984, Vol. 4, No.2, pp. 22-26.
Markale, Jean, The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture, Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions Int., 1978. Originally published in French under the title Les Celts et te ivillsation Ce’tique, Paris: Payot, 1976.
© Frank A. Mills, 1997, 2016