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So far, the only definition I've managed to get is "a member of an ancient Athenian court that tried certain murder cases" (Merriam-Webster), but since the poem is about traveling to the Gaeltacht to rediscover the Irish language, this definition doesn't really make sense. By context, I assume it means something like "talk!/say!/speak!", but I would like to know the exact meaning and what language it comes from. I suspect it could be Irish, but given the religious undertones it could also be Classical Greek.

On my first night in the Gaeltacht the old woman
spoke to me in English: 'You will be all right.' I sat on a
twilit bedside listening through the wall to fluent
Irish, homesick for a speech I was to extirpate.
I had come west to inhale the absolute weather. The
visionaries breathed on my face a smell of soup-
kitchens, they mixed the dust of croppies' graves with
the fasting spittle of our creed and anointed my lips.
Ephete, they urged. I blushed but only managed a few
words.
Neither did any gift of tongues descend in my days
in that upper room when all around me seemed to
prophesy. But still I would recall the stations of the
west, white sand, hard rock, light ascending like its
definition over Rannafast and Errigal, Annaghry and
Kincasslagh: names portable as altar stones,
unleavened elements.

Heaney, Seamus. "The Stations of the West." 1975. New Selected Poems 1966–1987. London: Faber, 1990. Accessed at archive.org 22 March 2024. p. 47.

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  • One dictionary says that it means "to command, impose." Another equates it to "magistrate, authority." Are either of those plausible?
    – CDR
    Mar 23 at 14:28
  • @CDR Thanks for the information. I'm not sure if they fit. The imagery of being "anointed" with the ash of past Irish rebels ("croppies"), would imply he is a kind of recruit or newcomer, so it doesn't make much sense to me for the higher-ups to urge him to "command" or act with authority etc. But maybe there's something about the context (literary or historical) that I'm missing.
    – bocwulf
    Mar 24 at 3:19
  • 3
    I'm going to guess that it's a homonym of "Ephpheta", meaning "be opened", used during the baptism ceremony, and related to the curing of a deaf-mute in Mark 7:31-37 (catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/…) So they are urging him to be cured of his muteness in Gaelic.
    – tgdavies
    Mar 24 at 4:34
  • 1
    The anointing is also a baptism reference -- as that link says the lips are anointed during baptism.
    – tgdavies
    Mar 24 at 4:38
  • 1
    @tgdavies Thanks! I think that solves it. It seems what I had thought of as a religious undertone is in fact a central element of the poem.
    – bocwulf
    Mar 24 at 12:33

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