ar na gCúig gConara arís: More on the Five Paths

More than two years ago I wrote here about the Cúig Conara Saoithiúlachta: the Five Paths of Wisdom. In refurbishing this site, a further insight that would be worth noting occurred to me. Specifically it is that each of the five paths pertain to one another in a similar way as the Chinese Wu Xing. If you aren’t familiar, the Wu Xing is a model used in Chinese medicine that defines how different actions interact with one another. The five ‘elements’ of wood, fire, earth, metal and water are arranged around a pentangle in a circle, the circle defining a generative cycle and the pentagram defining a controlling cycle. Thus wood produces fire, which produces ash (a form of earth). Earth condenses into metal (conceived as rock), and metal condenses water through cooling the air around it, but the root system of trees (made of wood) controls earth by holding it in place, just as earth controls water by forming river banks and such. Water quenches fire, which can be used to forge metal into an axe to control the wood of a tree.

This model is very powerful in so many different ways that it is difficult to find any arena where it is not useful, and wisdom is no different. One of my readers asked about the word gaois, the usual word for wisdom in Irish, and my response was that I wanted to explore less common terms in order to define different types of wisdom, different forms of gaois. It did not take long to devise the following structure:

The Five Paths of WisdomRemember that eagnaíocht is the ability to bring all the different kinds of wisdom into a harmonious whole, while éigse is poetic inspiration — that sense of beauty and ‘rightness’ that makes wisdom such a pleasure. Eolaíocht is wisdom understood as acquired knowledge, while fuigell and críonnacht are respectively good judgment and that expert wisdom gained from experience. As I see it, poetic inspiration and the love it prompts (éigse) leads to the real knowing of something. Knowledge (eolaíocht) leads to the ability to make decisions and draw conclusions (fuigell), the continued practice of which generates lived experience and the understanding it brings (críonnach). This then contributes to an appreciation of the whole as a working organism unified by deep and wide-reaching connections (eagnaíocht): an appreciation which also allows for that divine spark of poetic inspiration (éigse again).

At the same time, fuigell must be tempered by the rhythm and beauty of divine éigse lest we devolve into manipulative and petty wretches, just as the all-embracing sense of connectedness found in eagnaíocht must be grounded by the practical rationality of fuigell. Similarly, eolaíocht (wisdom conceived as knowledge) easily gives rise to pedantic specialization unless it is tempered with eagnaíocht, that sense of how each thing relates to everything else. Finally, lived experience is only made intelligible by referencing factual knowledge, and there is a warning here as well: there must be a balance between what we experience subjectively and the knowledge we use to form an objective understanding of that experience, just as poetic knowledge (éigse) must be honed and focused by expertise gathered over a life-time’s experience lest that inspiration should collapse into shapeless emoting that has no real power behind it.

The images I’ve chosen for these different forms of gaois, while linked to traditional tales, have no direct relation to the five paths as I’ve formulated them. Four of them are, of course, na Ceithre Seoda na Tuatha Dé Danann (the Four Jewels of the Tuatha Dé Danann) described in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired:

  • The Lía Fáil that would discern the true king of Ireland
  • The Spear of Lugh which ensured victory
  • Núadu’s unstoppable sword, sometimes called the ‘Sword of Light’ (Claíomh Soluis)
  •  The Dagda’s Cauldron which could produce unlimited food

In order, I pair each of these with the qualities of discernment (for which one needs knowledge), perspective (which is necessary for good leadership), rationality (which makes an argument irresistible), and practical know-how (which is what ultimately ensures prosperity). For the fifth element I have chosen fire, because in nearly every traditional culture fire is associated with inspiration and divinity. It is the ultimate transformer, which is precisely what poetic utterance is for: transforming hearts, minds, even reality itself.

As with most of my posts, there is much more to this, but this will have to suffice for the moment.

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2 responses to “ar na gCúig gConara arís: More on the Five Paths

  1. I’m happy to read your work again in this space. Learning in your areas of expertise are difficult to achieve where I live except through self-education, so I’m grateful for your offerings.

    The symbolic model for the essential source of wisdom used by the Salish tribes here is the shield / mirror / wheel which is the world, the circle of all things, interconnected. There are similar and dissimilar variations to the forms in the diagram you provided. It’s interesting to explore further.

  2. It’s nice to hear from you again as well! Yes, I should emphasize that much of this is my own formulation using the traditional imagery used by the medieval Irish scribes. The wheel is so pervasive throughout so many cultures. In early North-European society, the wheel was a ubiquitous symbol of the world. You see dim recollections of it in the persistence of magic spinning-wheels, like in Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin. There are loads of medieval examples and they’re always tied to magical, cosmogenic forces that can offer either abundance or destruction depending. Near as I can figure, it goes back to a perception of the cosmos as a wheel spinning around the pole-star, but that’s just a supposition. Observing the rhythm of this wheel spinning and the cycles depending on it would have been the roots of wisdom, but this is again a supposition.

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