Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Four Red Parts

Four Red Parts

This will only make sense if you are familiar with an essay I published on-line in a magazine called 'Junction Box'. The essay concerns the interpretation of a phrase "(in all the) four red parts of the world" which is common in 20th C Scottish Gaelic.

An essay on ‘cosmology’ of the Celts (by Gearoid MacEoin) picks up a phrase from the huge mediaeval (10th C) Irish poem Saltair na Rann: fo bith ce cethairchair gle
This is translated as “to this world foursquare bright".
This is clearly the forerunner of ‘ceithir ranna ruadh an domhain’ (four red parts of the world). The lexical choices have changed but the slots they fill have remained the same. The phrase has reproduced itself and retained its shape. As I suggested, the colour adjective belongs with world and not with parts. 'ce' means this (world), presumably in contrast to the world beyond, heaven.

It is very interesting that ‘gle’ [bright] has been replaced by ‘ruadh’. This suggests that the primary meaning is “perfect” or “magnificent” and that the ‘red’ quality is secondary. ‘bith gle’ is quite like ‘bely svet’.
The “-chair” (in ‘four-square') means “edge, border”. The square element probably means 'perfection', as in the name Petroc (= four[sided]) which has been explained as meaning "perfect". (I can't remember where I saw this gloss.) Petroc was a 6th century saint from South Wales. Square seems a virtuous quality and you have to ask why fields or houses are often square (when they could be any shape). The world should be four-sided like fields or houses.
The Welsh reference dictionary lists a number of compounds in which the element "four" also means "perfect". It also suggests that the four-sided world derives from a Bible passage about the four corners of the earth. A link to a pre-Christian concept in north-west Europe is unnecessary and speculative. The phase may have been traditional and old in the 10th century, but it probably wasn't pre-Christian.

There is so much Gaelic that I don't know. I shouldn't have started.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating linguistic critique of a very evocative expression, part of our heritage besides.