Some masters of Indo-European words

Etymologically speaking, in English, to talk is to tell a tale, and indeed history talks with us in large part through the telling of myths, sagas and other epic tales.  Such tales were typically composed and narrated by talented poets, bards, skalds and similar figures in the history of Indo-European literature. 

As Prof. Calvert Watkins explains –

“The Indo-European poet is the professional of the spoken word, the curator and custodian of the power of the spoken word, and on occasion its unleasher.  The power of the spoken word as an Indo-European cultural notion is attested clearly in the equation between the Hindu Act of Truth … and the early Irish institution of the Ruler’s Truth (fír flathemon).”

[How to kill a dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics, p.85]

Within the contents of Indo-European epic literature, we occasionally encounter the figures who are the masters of this literature, within the particular contexts that they seem to have occupied in their societies.  In Beowulf, we read about the scop, equivalent to the bard or skald, when there is –

“Revelry, loud in the hall,
Where there was a harp’s music,
The clear song of the scop who said what he knew,
Telling of the far first creation of humans,
Said that the almighty made the earth,
Very beautiful land, which water surrounds,
Placed in triumph sun and moon,
Shining rays for light for land-dwellers”

[Beowulf 88-95; my own translation]

The theme of the song here is cosmology, and is perhaps somewhat influenced by Christian monotheism, as is the text as a whole.  However, the idea of triumph plays on the idea of a great victory, and indeed, in older epic literature, the work of poets is often connected with the great deeds of warriors and heroes in battle.

In the Odyssey, we similarly encounter the blind bard Demodokos, the poet of the Phaeacians.   In the following lines, he is invited by King Alcinous to the feast, and we are given a detailed picture of his setting as he prepares to perform –

“… We must also invite Demodocus, the poet.  Gods inspire him, so any song he chooses to perform is wonderful to hear.”

“The house boy brought the poet, whom the Muse adored.  The wine boy brought a silver-studded chair and propped it by a pillar, in the middle of all the guests, and by a peg he hung the poet’s lyre above his head and helped him to reach it, and he set a table by him, and a bread basket and a cup of wine to drink whenever he desired.”

[The Odyssey, Book 8: 43-46, 62-71; trans. Prof. Emily Wilson]

While the audience feasts on good food and wine, Demodokos sings of the quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus, and is later praised by Odysseus as follows –

“My lord Alcinous, great king, it is a splendid thing to hear a poet as talented as this.  His voice is godlike.  I think that there can be no greater pleasure than when the whole community enjoys a banquet, as we sit inside the house, and listen to the singer, and the tables are heaped with bread and meat; the wine boy ladles drink from the bowl and pours it into cups.  To me this seems ideal, a thing of beauty.”

[The Odyssey, Book 9: 2-11; trans. Prof. Emily Wilson]

In the Mahābhārata, we also encounter poets on the battlefield, ready to memorialise the deeds of great warriors, for example in another vivid scene as follows –

“Then the Pandavas, and the Kauravas, retiring to their tents, entered the same, applauding one another … And Brahmanas performed propitiatory rites for them, and bards sang their praises. And those renowned men sported for a while in accompaniment with music both vocal and instrumental. And for a while the whole scene resembled heaven itself. And those bulls among men for a while spoke not of battle. And when both armies abounding with tired men and elephants and steeds slept there, they became, O monarch, beautiful to behold.”

[Mahābhārata Bhīṣma Parvan Section 87 (part); trans. Prof. K.M. Ganguli]

Later on in the battle, however, when things become more ominous for both armies, we witness the opposite scene, lacking such singers or any kinds of comforts.  We also read about poets who motivate warriors on their way to battle as follows –

“They set off very joyfully with a large daitya army,
With singers chanting benedictions and eulogies about victory”

[Mahābhārata Ādi Parvan Section 202 Verses 3cd-4; my own translation]

Poets may also have a role in taunting and riling an opponent.  Thus in the Táin Bó Cuailnge, we read about how Ferdiad is persuaded to come to face Cú Chulainn in battle –

“Medb sent messengers to Fer Diad.  They didn’t come back with him.  Medb sent poets and bards and satirists to flyte and mock and ridicule him; they said they would make three satires on him that would raise three blisters on his face – Shame, Stigma and Blot – so that there would be nowhere in the world where he could hold up his head, unless he came back to Ailill and Medb’s tent on the Táin.  Fer Diad came back with these emissaries, for fear of being put to shame by them.”

[The Táin; trans. Ciaran Carson; p.123]

In the Rig Veda, poets are called on to compose verses praising Indra and various gods, sometimes to get their favour in battle, or sometimes in other contexts such as ritual worship, as in the following example –

Wise poets, overcome the speech of the enemy with [your] speech.
Eulogist, make Indra stop at [this] soma [rite].
Cause Indra to be near, like a cow when being milked.
Eulogist, awaken [your] dear friend Indra.
Like a full trunk filled with wealth,
Cause the hero [Indra] to give [us] gifts

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 42 Verses 1cd-2 of Ṛṣi Kṛṣna Āṅgirasa; my own translation]

In many early societies, the greatest goal for warriors was to have their heroic deeds sung in verse, and so to have their glory and courage remembered after their lifetimes.  For ancient peoples, as for many modern peoples, it was this type of immortality, of having one’s life and deeds remembered, rather than any religious ideas of a life after death, which gave them drive and purpose in life.  It was the poets of their society who would craft such verse, and as such, the poets were accorded high status in Indo-European speaking societies. 

As Prof. David Anthony explains –

“The warrior category was regarded with considerable ambivalence, often represented in myth by a figure who alternated between a protector and a berserk murderer who killed his own father (Hercules, Indra, Thor).  Poets occupies another respected social category.  Spoken words, whether poems or oaths, were thought to have tremendous power.  The poet’s praise was a mortal’s only hope for immortality.”

[The Horse, the Wheel and Language; p.92]

The work of these and many other such historic poets has indeed served to memorialise the history of great figures from the past right up to the present day.  This article has given a small glimpse into some of the roles and settings for some of these poets, who can rightly be counted among the masters of Indo-European words.

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