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Ethics Among Ancient Celts

     One of the most important things that defines a people as a distinct social and cultural group is how they act toward one another; what they expect from each other socially, what their rules of conduct are, and how they deal with those who step outside the boundaries of what their culture considers "proper behavior." These social rules, whether "don't stare at strangers" or "thou shalt not kill," are among the cultural guidelines to ethical behavior within any given group. Ethics govern not only these social interactions, but also what is acceptable in religious ritual, and the whys and whens of the appropriate use of magic.Without an ethical structure of some sort, religion and magic become self-serving, meaningless beyond the single individual. Magic can easily become manipulative rather than transformative, serving only the needs of this moment rather than the needs of a lifetime, or of an individual rather than a community. Religion and social interaction become a minefield where killing your neighbor because you want tomatoes from her garden is as valid a method of obtaining your dinner as trading for them.Within many public NeoPagan organizations there are no agreed upon ethics, no generally accepted rules of conduct. While individual freedoms are a good thing, and one which should be supported and striven for, it is also useful to have a groundwork upon which we can assume that one person will not lie to or about another, that oaths will not be falsely sworn, and that the organization's land fund won't be used to buy the group treasurer a new pickup truck. These things may indeed be generally deplored by individuals in the group, but without stated guidelines objections become irrelevant and the cause of the objection is often lost in the ensuing muck-throwing contest, while the group debates what actually constitutes a lie, whether or not theft is actually theft, and whether any act is ever legally or ethically actionable. Where there are no standards of behavior, it is difficult for community and trust to develop.

Without trust between individuals, there can be no tribe.Groups with known and expressed ethical guidelines seem to be spared the worst aspects of this kind of struggle. People know where they stand and what the boundaries of interpretation are. Trust develops more easily, and community becomes more than a group of people who claim they believe similar things. Known guidelines don't guarantee absolute compatibility and social cohesion, but they certainly make it easier to determine the boundaries of acceptable behavior, make it possible for minor and major breaches of those codes of conduct to be pointed out, and create a starting point for dealing with those situations when they inevitably arise. Clear group ethical models also offer something for people to build their individual ethics upon.Ethics can be based upon ancient or modern models, derived from some philosophical source or created by mutual agreement and discussion. NeoCeltic Paganism recognizes the need for a set of ethical guidelines and bases its structure upon that of the ancient Celts. This is not to say that our ethical structure is identical to that of the early Celts, or directly derived from early Irish or Welsh laws. Many things laid out in those laws and illustrated in the tales are distasteful to us as moderns, no longer either acceptable or legal within the overculture under which we must all live. Trial by ordeal, death by exposure in pits and slavery for forfeiture of contracts are some of the more blatant examples of things that our Celtic forbears did which we would find abhorrent.Knowing our ethical history allows us to intelligently modify those beliefs into modern applications for NeoCeltic Pagans.

There is a great deal of romantic folklore surrounding the Celtic peoples and their Gods. Some starry-eyed folk believe that the Celts were noble knights, others that they were a pure, matriarchal society suppressed by the Pale Patriarchal Penis People, or by the early Christian church. Richly attired faerie rides from Victorian illustrations, and billowy Celtic Revival poetry contribute to an image of an impossibly pure and upright people with sage philosophers and Arthurian kings of great moral depth and mythically perfect stature. I have even heard it asserted that the Celts were a peaceful people, and that they and their Gods never fought battles or participated in any violence. Although it may be nice to think so, none of these "noble savage" or "lost golden age" visions are accurate.In truth, the Celts were Indo-Europeans, a violent and warlike people who were related to the Norse, the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians and the Vedic Indians among others. They were a patriarchal people, part of the waves of mobile cultures that either conquered or absorbed the native Neolithic (stone age) cultures that they encountered. [Mallory, 105] They were, in fact, the very same warrior culture that the more radical feminist scholars so deplore.

Celtic society did show some signs of being matrilineal (reckoning descent through the mother's line), particularly in the islands. This matrilineality may be an aspect of their culture inherited or absorbed from the earlier inhabitants of the islands.Warriors were honored members of Celtic society, and were part of the nobility. Kings frequently came to power, as in so many other cultures around the world, through the overthrow of the previous ruler, although election seemed to have occured on a regular basis. The ancient Celts also indulged in ritual headhunting, as well as offering animal and the occasional human sacrifices to their deities and land spirits.Certainly none of this fits with an image of a particularly chivalrous or gentle people, nor with the ideal of a peaceful matriarchal society. This fantasy wishfulness has not been applied to the Celts alone; it is also commonly seen about Native American cultures, particularly among those who study New Age versions of shamanism. Both the pre-Columbian Native Americans and the Celts were societies of human beings just like us, capable of fault, cruelty, ignoble behavior and mean-spiritedness, along with their better and more noble qualities.If we wish to follow a NeoCeltic path with integrity and honesty, we must own this history, for it becomes our history. We should also attempt to understand the current state of Celtic-speaking peoples. If we choose to ignore these facts and indulge in fantasy, we do so at our own risk. Fantasy can be blinding, and this can lead us to call upon powers and deities that we do not truly understand. This, in turn, can cause great harm to individuals or groups who are suddenly confronted with an unexpected and primal energy of violence or blood-lust.

Owning this history does not mean that we, as the spiritual descendants of the Celts, must follow the ancient Celtic paths precisely, in all their ways and with all their faults. For one thing, we cannot know everything about what the Celts did and believed. But accepting it does mean that we need to understand the ethical framework of the Celts so that we can modify it intelligently and call it our own. With this understanding, we can safely call upon the Celtic deities in full knowledge of who and what we invoke. We can also live lives of honor in a modern society without a great deal of conflict with the overculture.

Among the Celtic peoples a person's word was binding through this life and into future lives. Oaths were sworn by the Gods, within the three realms of land, sea and sky, [Ellis, 131] and they were taken very seriously. When the Gods are real, their displeasure is as real as their favor, and they do not like their names being taken lightly. Calling upon them in swearing oaths brought their attention to you, and they watched to be certain that sworn oaths were not violated. Death was considered preferable to the breaking of oath, for without the honor of individuals and the trust between members of the tuath ("people, children, tribe"), the entire tribe could collapse, and who would want to be responsible for the destruction of the tribe?

Loyalty to the tuath was also important, for without this trust and cohesiveness it would be all too easy for any individual to perish, alone and without aid. The tuath depended upon mutual assistance and collective labor, for the survival tasks of herding, farming and gathering were beyond the means of any one "nuclear" family. Loyalty to one's tuath ensured a continuance of shelter, clothing, food, love, companionship, fuel, and protection from the dangers of man and beast.

Contracts were sometimes composed with provision for payment in future lives, and there was full expectation of payment, for the Celts were firm believers in reincarnation of some sort. Reincarnation as descendants in the family line seems to have been a Celtic belief, and so your grandchildren (who may well be you reborn) might pay back your neighbor's grandchildren at the completion of a contract's term of agreement. Most contracts were also sealed with a material forfeiture in the event of failure to fulfill the contract. The loyalty and trust of family was essential in the making of any contracts, because failure to fulfill a contract obligated your tuath to pay your debts if you could not. If the tuath did not trust you, you would never be able to borrow or loan property, make contracts, or advance in social status. One unfortunate side effect of forfeiture was slavery for the forfeiter, and so you obviously would only allow kin that you firmly trusted to enter into contracts. This trust follows naturally upon the ethical foundation that required honesty in swearing oaths, and which was demonstrated on a daily basis as you lived within the constraints of the oaths you had previously sworn.

Truth was of utmost importance to the Celts, and the discernment of truth is a theme that is touched upon in many of the traditional tales. In "Cormac's Cup" for instance, the object of the tale was a cup which would shatter when three lies were told and mend again when three truths were uttered. This implies that some actions are not and can not be "relative," but instead are considered absolute and have value as being true. One either has or has not put water in the bucket. It cannot be both full and empty at the same time, at least within ordinary, mundane reality. The state of the bucket is a truth. Truth is one basis of proper judgment, and offering false judgments was believed to be one of the things that destroyed a tuath.

Many modern Pagans, particularly Wiccans, follow the rede Harm None as their guiding principle. There is certainly a need for this in the modern world, but it is not, nor has it ever been a Celtic ideal. Instead, honor and "face" or social perception were very important to the Celtic peoples. Honor consists largely of the tuath's perception of each individual's level of truthfulness, right action and loyalty. Honor had to be upheld at any cost, and the tales are full of stories of warriors brought to their deaths because they had to uphold the honor of self, tuath or king. A person's honor had a specific monetary value in Celtic culture, and if one's honor was damaged, the person who had done the damage could be made to pay a price in cattle or goods equal to the amount of damage done.

Strength was also greatly valued. Games such as lifting stones or tossing the caber showed a person's physical strength, which reflected on their capability as a farmer, herd-keeper or warrior. Strength was also found in family and emotional bonds, and one's honor was a kind of strength as well. If an enemy tried to harm a Celt, they would likely lose body parts for the trouble. Should one of the tuath be killed or wounded, the person's relatives would be honor-bound to avenge the death or injury, and a severe fine would be imposed on the criminal and his family. Clan members were liable for the actions of their kin, and if an individual could not pay the fine, the family was legally bound to make payment in the criminal's stead. For committing some crimes, a person's honor price was revoked, which meant that others could kill or wound them with impunity, and the family could not ask for compensation. War was fought according to particular rules, and individual combat between heroes and champions was not uncommon. Honor kept others from interfering in battle between champions.Social status was an important aspect of life, but the status of one's birth was not the sole factor that determined a person's life path. One maxim of the Irish Celts was that every person is better than their birth. The Irish laws clearly lay out the paths that can be taken by an individual to increase personal or family status. Many of these paths involved risk and responsibility, and most of them took several generations to come to fruition. This type of far-sightedness is uncommon in our culture, but was well known among the early Celts.

Celtic society was very legalistic, and the Irish and Welsh have a stunning and complex array of law code that the society's lawgivers were expected to memorize and be able to recite. An Irish lawgiver or judge was called a brehon. These law texts take up dozens of volumes of tiny print in modern libraries. Many of the traditional Irish tales are taken from the law texts, and illustrate the way in which law operated in Celtic society. Precedent, or giving a legal ruling based on the fact that previous lawgivers had made similar decisions in similar cases, is clearly shown in the Irish tales and reflected in many of the Irish triads. A brehon was expected to be an honorable, truthful and trustworthy person, not because a false judgment would be considered "unjust," but because the honor, health and safety of the entire tribe was embodied in the accuracy of the brehon's judgment. Several of the Irish triads [Meyer, 1906] address this issue.

* Three ruins of a tribe: a lying chief, a false judge, an offending religious official.
* Three ranks that ruin tribes in their falsehood: the falsehood of a king, an historian, a judge.
* Three doors of falsehood: an angry pleading, a shifting foundation of knowledge, giving information without memory.

The importance of precedent in Celtic law is also addressed in similar style.

* The four deaths of judgment: to give it in falsehood, to give it without forfeiture, to give it without precedent, to give it without knowledge.

Irish law addresses concepts of honor and social perception through the dire fine or "honor-price." When a crime was committed against a person or against personal or tribal property, a fine would be assessed against the criminal and his tuath. This is similar to modern law, in cases where a criminal must make restitution to a victim through payment, or to society through community service sentences. The fine's size and the severity of punishment for crimes varied according to the rank and station of the victim or the person aggrieved, as well as the severity of the crime itself. Causing a bruise on a person's face would be grounds for a fine, as would a crime of property, like allowing your cattle to graze on a neighbor's pasture land. Of course, bruising the face of a noble would result in a considerably greater fine than bruising the face of a slave. Honor and face were taken so seriously that teasing someone with a nickname that stuck was considered a slight to one's honor and worth recompense.

Even serious crimes like murder were often resolved with a fine being assessed on the criminal and his family, which was then given to the family of the victim. Each life had a particular socially determined value, and although the Celts might impose a death penalty for some particularly heinous crime, under most circumstances fines were the preferred method of redress. Banishment by setting a person adrift in a boat, or outlawry and banishment from the tribal territory were some options for dealing with serious crimes. When a death penalty was mandated, one of a number of types of death sentences might be imposed. These included things like stabbing with swords or spears, exposure in a pit, or hanging, among others. Burning is one death penalty that is never mentioned, however. Even the Celts seemed to have their limits. As for the "lesser" penalties, a person set adrift for crimes could be taken into slavery by anyone who found them, and those banished from a territory could be killed without penalty, as a wolf that raids the flocks. The outlaw's family was not entitled to a fine or an honor price for their kin's death.

Along with a high value on honor, truth and orderly society, the practice of offering hospitality or a¹ocht was considered one of the cornerstones of Irish Celtic civilization. Indeed, hospitality was "the favorite virtue of the Irish," according to one French chronicler of the 18th century. It was looked upon as a sacred duty, not to be neglected by anyone. A traveler who came to the door was to be offered whatever food and drink that might be available according to their rank, even if the family was poor and had little to give. Everyone, from the king on down to the poorest peasant, was expected to practice a¹ocht. The Irish tales show that refusal of proper a¹ocht could even cause the downfall of a king. The first satire in Ireland was created to punish a king for offering a high-ranking poet only a dry crust of bread as his a¹ocht. Within weeks, the king's rule had come to an end. The Gods, too, were sometimes known to walk abroad, and one never knew if the ragged stranger at the door was human or sidhe. It was undoubtedly better to be safe, and give the stranger hospitable treatment.Poets, druids, smiths and artisans were treated with reverence and courtesy, for one of these might create good fortune for a family, or curse it to oblivion with a deadly satire or a raw bolt of magickal power.

Likewise, the land spirits were spoken of kindly, and offerings of milk, oats, mead, or other food and drink were left outside the cottage door each night by the household. In the minds of many Celts, there was but a fine line between the Gods of the s¹dhe and the human aes dýna or "people of art."

Family and fostering were an important part of Celtic social structure as well. Children were often fostered at an early age to other families to establish affectional and social links between groups. A child was the responsibility of the community, and not merely of its blood parents. The bond of fosterlings or comhaltai with foster siblings and parents was considered in many cases to be even more powerful than the link of blood. Fostering was arranged for either "affection" or for payment. Being able to afford to foster your child with a higher ranking family often brought status for the child, which then reflected on the birth family. But fostering for affection did not cost either party anything beyond the basic necessities for food and clothing, and was done to strengthen the bonds between two groups who were already friendly. Foster parents taught their charges the duties of a clan member, and their responsibilities according to their rank. The children worked in the fields and pastures, just like everyone else, to help assure the group's survival. For NeoCelts, this practice can be seen as a powerful incentive to create chosen families that are drawn together by love, mutual interest and respect, rather than the vagaries of biology and chance.

The ancient Celts were not particularly peaceful or benign in their religious practices and beliefs. Many Celtic deities were known for their ferocity and their links with war and death. Animal sacrifice was a common practice, and human sacrifice was known as well, often as a foundation sacrifice at the construction of a large building. Occasionally human sacrifices took place at the funerals of very high ranking individuals, probably of slaves or relatives intended to accompany the deceased into the Otherworld. We can only speculate on the actual purpose of animal and human sacrifices, but it is known that individual deities had their preferences for different ritual victims. In studying Celtic religion, it pays to remember that popular Celtic tales were considered a ripping success if most of the characters had died by the end of the story. Tragedies were a favorite mythic and folkloric theme.

It is apparent from Celtic texts and statuary that the Celtic peoples believed in the actual existence of their deities. The Gods were thought to have a real, worldly influence in the lives of individuals, in the workings of the tuath, and over the fate of nobles and kings. Divination was done to ascertain the will of these deities, and sacrifices were dedicated to the Gods, not to a set of internal psychological concepts or abstract archetypes. These deities could and would hold a person to their oaths, ensure victory or defeat for a warrior, or validate the sovereignty and right of the king to rule over the territory. The king's right was known by the physical fertility of the land and herds, and the prosperity of the people he ruled. If the people suffered, the king could, and often would be overthrown by someone who had a better connection with the Gods, as proved in the field of battle.

Pride and boasting were a part of Celtic philosophy as well. Most modern westerners are taught the value of humility and self-effacement, and through the less reputable branches of the Christian church, are taught that all pride is a grave sin. There was no discernible Celtic doctrine of "original sin" or any inherent evil in humanity. Rather than dwelling on their personal faults, Celts reveled in taking credit where it was due, and often boasted of their rank and abilities. Being able to back these boasts was necessary, however. The tales imply that the Celts often carried these boasts to extremes, falling into battles at the dinner table over who was the most accomplished warrior, and who would win the "champion's portion" of the feast. If these tales are to be believed, we can envision the Welsh or Irish sitting down to dinner, getting up to argue and fight, killing each other, and the survivors sitting down again as though nothing had happened. Undoubtedly, the truth was not quite so colorful.

One popular fiction that touches on the ethical practices of the Celtic people offers us a view of the Celts as a matriarchal society, peacefully ruled by women. The status of women in Celtic lands was certainly higher than that of women in Greece or Rome, or many other civilizations of the time, but the society was far from the peaceful matriarchal realm of easy equality that some feminist authors portray. Women could and did fight as warriors, but they could also be forced into battle against their will. Among the Irish Celts a female slave or cumhal was one of the standard units of trade value. A slave woman was worth three cows.

These facts should not cloud our appreciation of other realities, however. Women did have some status, and could often make their own choices in marriage. Under many circumstances they could own and transfer property, or make contracts, particularly if the husband was of a lesser social status or was from outside the tuath. Women could divorce their husbands, provided they had cause. Wealthy women owned their own herds and had their own servants, which they could take with them in most kinds of divorce. Women could be poets, druids, seers, judges, treaty negotiators, and even rulers, but these women were the exceptions rather than the rule, and this is reflected in Celtic law texts and Roman accounts. Despite the numerous problems of women in Celtic society, the Romans often commented on the respect in which women were held in Celtic countries.

Among the Celts, sexual roles were not as strictly defined as they are in modern society. Where moderns might identify as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, the Celts did not appear to have categories and classifications of sexuality. Warriors in the field slept with one another without comment. Even the Greeks, whose penchant for same-sex love was well known in the ancient world, commented on the fact that Celtic warriors slept so often with other men. We know less about the sexuality of women, as they were less often discussed by ancient authors, but we can guess that they may have had a similar range of choices in their affections. Hints in the tales show the powerful presence of female sexuality, and it was often equated with the land itself. From this it can be seen that gay, lesbian and bisexual Celts would be more than welcome as fellow mystics and worshippers.

Much is made of the ecological sensibilities of the Celts. While it is true that their tales and poetry show a sensitivity to the land around them, and the personification of the land as Goddess, it is also true that they practiced slash and burn agriculture, and that they deforested most of Ireland by early in the Christian era. They were, as we are, people who put human needs before the needs of nature. This is a mentality that we all need to break free from, in order that everyone can survive. We should let the Celts themselves tell us what they thought best, as king Cormac instructs Cairbre in this very slightly Paganized excerpt from The Instructions of King Cormac Mac Airt. [Meyer, 1909]

"'What are the proper qualities of a chief,' said Cairbre.
'Not hard to tell,' said Cormac.
'Let him have good geasa [ritual taboos],
let him be sober,
let him be an invader,
let him have good desires,
let him be affable,
let him be humble,
let him be proud,
let him be quick,
let him be steadfast,
let him be a poet,
let him be versed in legal lore,
let him be wise,
let him be generous,
let him be decorous,
let him be sociable,
let him be gentle,
let him be hard,
let him be loving,
let him be merciful,
let him be righteous,
let him be keen,
let him be persevering,
let him be abstinent,
let him raise up the weak by the strong,
let him give true judgments,
let him feed every orphan,
let him quell every wrong,
let him hate falsehood,
let him love truth,
let him be forgetful of wrong,
let him be mindful of good,
let him be attended by a host in gatherings,
let him be attended by few in secret councils,
let him be brilliant in company,
let him be the sun of the mead-hall,
let him be an entertainer of a gathering and assembly,
let him be a lover of knowledge and wisdom,
let him be a chastiser of wrong,
let him be masterful to check every one that may be
let him judge every one according to his proper right,
let him give his due to each,
let him be a judge of every one according to his rank,
let him be liberal to every one according to their degree and
let his covenants be firm,
let his levies be lenient,
let his judgments and decisions be sharp and light,
for it is by these qualities that kings and lords are
judged,' said Cormac to Cairbre."
"'O grandson of Conn, O Cormac,' said Cairbre, 'what is best
for a king?'
'Not hard to tell,' said Cormac. 'Best for him ...
Firmness without anger,
Patience without strife,
Affability without haughtiness,
Taking care of ancient lore,
Giving truth for truth,
Hostages in fetters,
Hosting with reason,
Justice without addition,
Mercifulness with consolidation of law,
Peace to tribes,
Manifold sureties,
True judgments,
Fasting upon neighboring territories
Exalting privileged persons,
Honoring poets,
Worshipping the Gods,
Fertility during his reign,
Taking cognizance of every wretch,
Many alms
Mast upon trees,
Fish in river-mouths,
Earth fruitful,
Inviting barks into harbor,
Importing treasure from over sea,
Forfeiture of sea-waifs,
Silken raiment,
A sword-smiting troop to protect every tribe,
Raids across borders,
Let him attend to the sick,
Let him benefit the strong,
Let him possess truth,
Let him chide falsehood,
Let him love righteousness,
Let him beat down fear,
Let him crush criminals,
Let him give true judgments,
Let him foster every science,
Let him consolidate every peace,
Let him buy treasures,
Let him improve his soul,
Let him make known every clear judgment,
Abundance of wine and mead,
Let him utter every truth,
for it is through the truth of a ruler that the Gods give all


Company, Grand Rapids, 1994 Ellis, Peter Berresford, The Druids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing

Kelly, Fergus, A Guide to Early Irish Law, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin 1991

Mallory, J.P., In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, Thames & Hudson, London 1989

Meyer, Kuno, The Triads of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, Todd Lecture Series vol XIII, Hodges, Figes & Co., Dublin 1906

Meyer, Kuno, The Instructions of King Cormac Mac Airt, Royal Irish Academy, Todd Lecture Series vol XV, Hodges, Figes & Co., Dublin 1909

O'Grady, Standish H., Silva Gadelica: Translations and Notes, Williams & Norgate, London, 1892

By: Erynn Rowan Laurie

Last Update: December 10, 2006

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