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Subject: Re: Snakes
From: Dennis King <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Scholars and students of Old Irish <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Tue, 26 Aug 2003 09:26:56 -0700
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Tom Smith scríbas:

> > the road of a snake on stone."
>
> Why would the expression "a snake on stone" have been
> used when a snake would have no visual meaning for
> Irish people except the few who travelled outside
> Ireland?  Perhaps it means lizard?

Perhaps the riddle came from abroad.  Starting with the
serpent in Genesis ("ba glice an nathair nimhe ná aon
ainmhí allta"), Irish culture was certainly well exposed
to literary snakes, including such proverbial expressions
as "ba lám i nét nathrach" (= it would be putting your
hand into a nest of snakes = it would be v. dangerous)
and "nathair i cris" (= a snake in the belt = a treacherous
intimate) -- not to be confused with a trouser snake? ;-)

The oddest appearance of the "nathair i cris" is in the tale
"Táin Bó Fraích", where a snake that is supposed to protect
a fortress instead cosies up to one of the attackers:

   Focheirdd ind naithir bedg i criss Conaill Cernaig, 7
   orgait in dún fo chétóir.  Tessairgit íarum in mnai 7
   na tri maccu, 7 doberat a n-as dech sét in dúine, 7
   léicid Conall in nathir assa chriss, 7 ní dergéni
   nechtar de olc fria chéile.

   The snake jumps into Conall Cernach's belt.  They
   overcome the fortress immediately.  Then they free
   the woman and the three sons, and they take the best
   of the treasures of the fortress, and Conall Cernach
   lets the snake out of his belt, and neither one did
   any harm to the other.

Dennis

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