Friday 28 December 2012

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 the eighth-century monastic writer Blathmac. He records in the first of his poems, in the translation of 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.’

A powerful lament, indeed.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lovely piece and very timely. Maybe the poem by Blathmac could be sent to some in Leinster House! Many thanks.