Values and Virtues
So what are the kind of values and virtues that we see being promoted in the sources? Looking to the oldest of our sources – Audacht Morainn ('The Testament of Morann') – we see that it advises the king to be merciful, righteous, proper, conscientious, firm, generous, hospitable, of noble mien, steadfast, beneficent, able, honest, well-spoken, steady, and true-judging.1 Tecosca Cormaic ('The Instructions of Cormac') lists similar qualities, also advising “taking care of ancient lore”,2 being keen, persevering, and patient.3 Similarly, Briatharthecosc Con Chulainn ('The Word-Teachings of Cú Chulainn') advises, “Be vigilant [to observe] regulations of [your] fathers,” and also lists generosity, respect, being mindful of others, humility, being gracious, and good judgement as desirable qualities,4 while Aipgitir Chrábaid ('The Alphabet of Piety') emphasises truth, moderation and wisdom.5 Bríartha Flann Fhína ('The Sayings of Flann Fína'), meanwhile, encourages moderation and considerate behaviour towards others, as well as a respect for wisdom and learning, and promotes training and education.6
In general, we can reduce all of these things as encompassing virtues aimed at maintaining and upholding honour, truth, generosity, good judgement, and the proper observance of traditions and duties. As we will see in the following discussion, all of these things are intertwined in one way or another.
Enech - Honour
Tosach ordain eneclann.
Honour-price is the basis of dignity.7
It's often easy to give simple definitions when translating a word from one language to another, but these definitions often help us forget that words have many different subtle meanings and connotations when used in different contexts.8
As we've seen, enech literally translates as “face, front,” but it appears that the word originally referred to the cheeks and brow specifically. It came to refer to honour in the sense that emotions are often shown in the face – the reddening of the cheeks with embarrassment, anger, or humiliation; the furrowing of the brow; the pale visage of fear; hanging one's head in shame, and so on. An individual 'loses face' when they are shamed or embarrassed, and so it is a potential threat to honour. Failure to defend oneself from insult or injury, accusations of dishonourable acts or actions unbecoming of one's status all have the potential to leave a stain on one's honour.9 In Críth Gablach, this is described as leaving “cacc fora enech” - “excrement on his face.”10
In short, a face that is reluctant to show itself, knowing that might be judged negatively, is not a particularly honourable face. And since we often associate a face with a name, your face, your honour, reflect on your name and – in early Irish society – that of your family. As such, the word enech embodies not just honour, but also carries with it a sense of dignity, reputation, and status.11 In this sense, honour relates to one's respectability and standing in society; it is an ideal that informs society's attitudes and behaviour, and ultimately, it is a positive value that aims to provide social cohesion. In theory, if everyone is on the same page, and holds the same values and outlooks, then society can run smoothly.12
In the sagas, however, the opposite is often seen to be true. The lengths an individual might have to go to in order to preserve or defend their honour can prompt actions that might be considered to be quite extreme, resulting in an apparent contradiction between the ideal and the reality.13 This is understandable when we consider the fact that if someone loses face, honour, they lose their legal status, and with it all of the rights and privileges associated with their position,14 which would effectively make them fair game. Sometimes extreme lengths were necessary to preserve one's honour, and as the sagas show – often in critical ways – this could sometimes put pressure on the individual to act in such a way that seemingly defies common sense.
There is plenty in the literature that explores the ideals surrounding honour in a variety of ways, and perhaps the most obvious and well-known examples deal with that of the warrior's honour. Cú Chulainn and his colleagues, in particular, exemplify these kinds of ideals; in these terms, heroism and honour are intertwined. One tale in particular in which honour is called into question – and exemplifies the potential conflict between upholding honour and maintaining social stability – is Aided Óenfir Aífe ('The Death of Aífe's Only Son'). Here, Cú Chulainn is forced to kill his own son for the sake of upholding his honour as the champion of the Ulaid, but all because of the gessi – prohibitions – that he has put his own son under.
These gessi are meant to help maintain the honour of the individual (and indirectly their community), but here in this story, the gessi of the two warriors – father and son – put them directly in conflict. The consequences are heartbreaking; Cú Chulainn ends up killing his own son, while Cú Chulainn's wife Emer begs him not to fight. Cú Chulainn ignores his wife's words and sticks to his code of ethics as a warrior – never to show weakness, never to back down from a fight – while Emer beseeches her husband to uphold the law. The conflict here is that Cú Chulainn is being forced to fight his son in order to uphold his honour and status as champion, as well as the honour of his people, but in doing so either Cú Chulainn will end up killing his own son, or vice versa. Legally, that is fingal, 'kin-slaying.' Either way, the consequences here will be very serious. Dishonoured, Cú Chulainn's status and reputation as a warrior and champion will take a dent, but otherwise, he will have killed his own son.
As such the tale explores the themes of conflict between the concepts of honour, law, stability, and society. The consequences are tragic, and it is only Emer who sees the true depth of what will happen; but her words ultimately carry no weight because her status, her honour, and thus her power to act within the bounds of her society, are limited by her sex.15
In many ways this tale is unlike any other. It gives Emer an otherwise unprecedented freedom to speak, and has her placed on the side of defending the law against her own husband. Technically speaking, she also also speaking against herself, since as a married woman Emer's status is at least partly dependent on that of her husband. It's a brave move on her part, and her words reveal the conflict that can occur between heroism and honour, and between concepts like power and glory.16 The son in question is not hers, but she defends Connla as if he were her own, taking the place of his mother; but ultimately it is all for nothing. Cú Chulainn is victorious in the fight; the honour of the Ulaid is defended. But Cú Chulainn himself then finds himself without an heir, and his own honour dented by his own son's failure.17
Usually, however, the fruits of the hero are many. It is the champion of the people – he who embodies heroism, honour, and all that is contained within the warrior code – who is proclaimed champion, the best warrior amongst his peers.18 As such, the 'champion's portion' (curadmír) is his due; the best bit of meat in the feast, recognising and honouring his skill and position as the best of the best.19 As such, Tecosca Cormaic claims: “The sweetest part of a meal is the honorific portion.”20
Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó ('The Tale of Mac Dathó's Pig') deals with the concept of the champion's portion, and is an example of the conflict between honour and the hero's due. Like Aided Óenfir Aífe ('The Death of Aífe's Only Son') it treads a fine line between telling a story and satirising the ideals it deals with, and here we see the warriors assembled for the feast, being forced to claim their bit. They do this through boasting contests – proclaiming their feats that give them honour, in order to determine who is the most honourable. When all else fails, the 'heroes' assembled resort to physical feats.21
Fled Bricrend ('The Feast of Bricriu')22 also deals with these issues, juxtaposing the scuffling between the men, the warriors fighting for recognition of their honour, and the scuffling between their women. As Cú Chulainn shows himself to be worthy of the champion's portion,23 so his wife proves herself to be the biggest and best amongst the wives. The men champion themselves in martial terms, while the women champion themselves in thoroughly feminine terms – they argue their case in poetic form, with Emer being clearly the most articulate. The women's words describe the terms in which they are valued the most. Emer champions herself thusly:
“There has not been found beauty or grace or bearing,
there has not been found wisdom or honour or chastity,
there has not been found movement of love in a noble sexual union
nor intelligence to equal mine.”24
Basically, aside from claiming the height of form, beauty, and grace, along with being an intellect that matches that of a man, Emer declares that she is – put simply and crudely – a damn good shag. In this, she goes to a place that no other woman involved in this war of words does, and aside from the sly dig at the other women – all of your men are looking at me and know I'm better than you –she proves that she is also daring and courageous for saying something that others dare not. She proves that she is not only a paragon of virtue – for she makes sure to point out that in spite of the many offers open to her, she would never dream of giving herself to anyone but her husband – she shows that she has what it takes to make her man happy, and distinguishes herself from others in terms of looks, intelligence, and how articulate she can be as well.25
These are the kinds of virtues that define 'a good woman', and are seen to make her honourable, according to the tale. The Triads of Ireland echo these kinds of virtues, adding 'housewifery' to the list, along with a steady tongue and good virtue.26 In a society that expected women to primarily be the carers and child-bearers, these were the qualities that defined her role in a positive sense. These qualities provided stability, giving assurance of a marriage without bickering, strife, and unfaithfulness, but instead a marriage with good communication, faithfulness, and an orderly home. There were certainly women who forged their way independently, having professions of their own, but these were a minority. In general, however, it seems that in these cases such women were primarily accepted and judged on the merits of their skill in their profession rather than their sex, just like men.27
Febas – Excellence
This discussion of honour and virtue in relation to women, in particular, leads us onto the subject of febas nicely. We have already touched on the concept of febas, which encompasses concepts such as dignity, worth, and behaviour fitting one's social position and status, but here we will look into it in more detail.
There were certain qualities that everyone was expected to demonstrate in order to demonstrate febas, but some of these qualities defined certain stations in society more than any other. As women were – first and foremost – expected to become good housewives, be virtuous in order to protect inheritance rights, and so on, different qualities defined other positions.
The primary qualities of a briugu – hospitaller – was of course that he should be generous and welcoming at all times. In order to be able to provide such unlimited hospitality as was expected of the briugu, it was necessary for them to be wealthy (feb), generous and hospitable (gart), and skilled in property-management (to ensure an abundance of everything necessary to provide adequate and fulfilling hospitality, of course).
For the warrior (láech), valour (gal) was the main quality expected. Bearing arms (gaisced) and showing great strength and force (nert) were also priorities of the warrior, and nert is a word that can describe both physical and moral strength. By extension, the warrior must therefore pick their fights wisely and justly. The briugu was exempt from military service so these qualities weren't necessary for the hospitaller, but were still desirable as an ideal in general, just as the primary qualities that defined the ideal of the áes dáno were as well. The áes dáno – 'people of an art' – such as poets, blacksmiths, musicians, physicians and judges etc. were expected to demonstrate first and foremost wisdom (gaís), judgement (breth), knowledge (éolus) and discernment (mes).28
For the king, of course, he was supposed to be all of the these things, all in good measure. Audacht Morainn lists many of the qualities of the king, and says that he must be a good judge, generous, wise, merciful, discerning, hospitable, honourable, steady, well-spoken, impartial and firm, for example.29 Tecosca Cormaic also advises that he should decorous and sociable, and mindful of good,30 while Cú Chulainn advises the soon-to-be king Lugaid not to be thought ill of anyone, or arrogant, violent, churlish, or “a seeker of fierce, ignobly rough strife.”31 The king must also be physically perfect – unblemished, in fine form.32 Elsewhere we are told:
“There are seven things out of which a person is estimated – form, and race, land, and tillage, profession, and property, and worthiness.”33
Race here might be better stated as 'birth-right', since an individual's status relied at least partly upon his heritage. It was especially important for those of nemed 'privileged' ranks – the kings, lords, clerics (and formerly, druids), and poets34 – since these ranks could only enjoy full privileges of their rank and status if their father and grand-father had held the same status. In this sense, anyone could become a poet, for example, but only your grand-children could enjoy the full benefits of such a status and profession if your children took up the profession and passed it on to their children.35 The idea of 'race' might also be considered in a wider context – which tuath you came from, which might affect how you were judged in wider company, amongst an assembly of several tuatha.
All in all, then, an individual must demonstrate the qualities and behaviours fitting of their station. Without it, they could not be considered worthy, and therefore they could not be considered to be honourable, but this was only one aspect that contributed to whether or not one was considered to be worthy of honour. Some things were beyond the individual's control, and had to rely on their family and community; everybody was in it together.
Continue to Part Three
1 This list refers to the 'B-version' of Audacht Morainn. McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p136.
8 Unless otherwise stated, most definitions in the remainder of this article will be from the Dictionary of the Irish Language. Words can be searched for at eDIL.
10 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p124.
14 Gray, 'Cath Maige Tuired: Myth and Structure (24-120),' in Éigse Volume XIX(I), 1982, p6.
15 Findon, A Woman's Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle, 1997, p103.
16 Findon, A Woman's Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle, 1997, p138; Findon, 'A Woman's Words: Emer versus Cú Chulainn in Aided Óenfir Aífe,' Ulidia, 1994, p147.
17 Findon, 'A Woman's Words: Emer versus Cú Chulainn in Aided Óenfir Aífe,' Ulidia, 1994, p145; p146.
18 I say 'he' and 'his' etc, but there are – of course – examples of female warriors as well. However, women are rarely represented in this context, in this kind of literature. They are not unheard of, but neither are they common, and the tales discussed here all relate to men. Rather than labouring pronouns for the sake of being inclusive, I'm choosing to be exclusive on the basis of the tales discussed.
19 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p399.
23 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p400.
24 Findon, A Woman's Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle, 1997, p75.
25 Findon, A Woman's Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle, 1997, p135.
26 Ní Bhrolcháin, 'Re Tóin Mná: In Pursuit of Troublesome Women,' in Ulidia, 1994, p115.
27 Though this is an area that is still very much not yet fully understood. Clancy's 'Women Poets in Early Medieval Ireland: Stating the Case,' in “The Fragility of her Sex?” Medieval Irish Women in their European Context, by Meek and Simms (ed.) is a good place to start. Findon's A Woman's Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle is also a good discussion of the role of women in Irish society.
28 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p127.
32 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p127.
34 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p9.