Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Massacre of the Innocents in Irish Sources

The Martyrology of Oengus devotes its entire entry for December 28 to the commemoration of The Massacre of the Innocents by King Herod:

28. Famous is their eternal acclamation,
beyond every loveable band,
which the little children from Bethlehem
sing above to their Father.

to which the scholiast has added a commentary:

28. Famous the lasting acclamation, i.e. famous and lasting is the shout of the children who were killed in Bethlehem by Herod pro Christo.
a loveable band, i.e. they are a dear band propter innocentiam.
who sing above to their Father, i.e. canunt laudes, etc.
A hundred and forty - bright fulfilment - and two thousands of children
were slain in Bethlehem with victory by the ruler, by Herod.
Thirty plains famous, pleasant, all about Bethlehem ;
in every plain were slain a hundred of the pleasant children of the nobles ;
a hundred and forty - sad the doom ! - in Bethlehem alone.

The Massacre of the Innocents is also commemorated in other Irish sources, appearing, for example, in the poems of Blathmac. He records in the first of his poems translated by James Carney:

20. In seeking Christ (pitiful this!) the infants of Bethlehem were slain. It was by Herod (bloodier than any prince!) that they were put to the blue sword.

21. Happy the good gentle infants! They have happiness in an eternal kingdom: Herod, miserable creature, has eternal sorrow and eternal Hell.

James Carney, ed. and trans., The poems of Blathmac, son of Cú Brettan: Together with the Irish Gospel of Thomas and a poem on the Virgin Mary (Dublin, 1964), 9.

Below is the text of another poem, found in the Leabhar Breac, which reflects the raw pain of the bereaved mothers and the sheer horror of the deed:

The Mothers’ Lament at the Slaughter of the Innocents

Then, as she plucked her son from her
breast for the executioner, one of the women said:
‘Why do you tear from me my darling son,
The fruit of my womb?
It was I who bore him, he drank my breast.
My womb carried him about, he sucked my vitals.
He filled my heart:
He was my life, ’tis death to have him taken from me.
My strength has ebbed,
My voice is stopped,
My eyes are blinded.’
Then another woman said:
‘It is my son you take from me.
I did not do the evil,
But kill me — me: don’t kill my son!
My breasts are sapless, my eyes are wet,
My hands shake,
My poor body totters.
My husband has no son,
And I no strength;
My life is worth — death.
Oh, my one son, my God!
His foster-father has lost his hire.
My birthless sicknesses with no requital until Doom.
My breasts are silent,
My heart is wrung.’
Then said another woman:
‘Ye are seeking to kill one; ye are killing many.
Infants ye slay, fathers ye wound; you kill the mothers.
Hell with your deed is full, heaven shut.
Ye have spilt the blood of guiltless innocents.’
And yet another woman said:
‘O Christ, come to me!
With my son take my soul quickly:
O Great Mary, Mother of the Son of God,
What shall I do without my son?
For Thy Son, my spirit and my sense are killed.
I am become a crazy woman for my son.
After the piteous slaughter
My heart’s a clot of blood
From this day
Till Doom comes.’

‘Anecdota from Irish MSS’ (III), ed. Kuno Meyer, The Gaelic Journal 4, no. 38 (May 1891), 90.

A powerful lament, indeed. I close by noting that the Feast of the Holy Innocents is commemorated on the Eastern Orthodox calendar on December 29, one day after the Irish and other Western calendars.

This post originally appeared here.


Anonymous said...

There is a great emotional sense in the Irish sources that we don't associate with dusty monks. Also an appeal to a personal connection between the devotee and the object of the devotion. There could be a sense in which this encourages the emotion junkies of the modern day 'celtic spirituality' movement have channelled that emotion into their own puddles of experience. Brigit does us a great service in drawing us back to this school of spirituality while standing firm against the New Age.


Brigit said...

The more I read the actual sources for the early Irish church the less I recognize the fantasy Celts. There is indeed a great emotional sense in these texts relating to the Holy Innocents, but unlike the modern day 'celtic spirituality' brigade these monastic writers did not believe their religion was 'all about me and how I feel'. The monks can express the great pathos of an event like this or make tender references to Our Blessed Lady but they were living the ascetic life, something the beautiful New Age people are apt to forget.

shane said...

Brilliant post. John O'Donoghue's stuff is really a travesty of authentic 'Celtic spirituality'.

Boy of Fairhill said...

Good one Brigit! Like it loads!

Brummer said...

I enjoyed the interesting angles that you continue to take upon subjects that are well-known. I look forward to your future posts with impatience.

Semper Eadem said...

Brigit your posts are always well presented and full of rich spiritual material. Is the Martyrology of Oengus the same as the Martyrology of Tallaght that was composed by Oengus the Culdee and Maolruain?

Brigit said...

The Martyrologies of Oengus and Tallaght are closely related but somewhat different. Tallaght is essentially an Irish version of the European Hieronymian Martyrology which arrived in Tallaght c. 828. Padraig O Riain suggests that it may have been deliberately requested following a decision at a church council in Aachen in 817 that every monastery should have a martyrology from which the daily list of the saints should be read. The Martyrology of Oengus was written as a metrical version of the text, it is composed in quatrains. O Riain argues that Saint Oengus is the author of both and that he composed them between c.829 and 833.

Vincent C said...


Is there a rate above first? You reached it with this series. I'm about to go over to your blog but, in case this foretaste is anything like the main course, I'm prepared for a culinary explosion! Good stuff!

Brigit said...

Thanks, Vincent, but I don't serve up such rich fare every day at my blog. My daily meat and potatoes are the lives of the Irish saints. When I can, however, I find it valuable to examine how our native Church participated in the great feasts of the universal Church or expressed devotion for its saints. Glad you enjoyed these posts.

Random Thinker said...

It is lovely but it really broke my heart as a mother to read. Thank you.