Society and the Law
Values and Virtues
Enech – Honour
Febas – Excellence
Gart – Hospitality
Ecna(e) – Wisdom
Bés – Custom
Fír – Truth
Conclusion (Finally!) – Values in Modern Gaelic Polytheism
The wisdom-texts place an extremely heavy emphasis on truth, and its importance as a value and virtue cannot be overstated. Audacht Morainn (‘The Testament of Morann’) goes to great lengths to describes the benefits of a king who rules with fír flathemon – the ‘ruler’s truth.’1 At the heart of this concept of fír flathemon was the king being able to pronounce truths – true judgements. If the king reigns justly and truly, then his reign was a good one; with fír flathemon, the king and his people prosper – it protects them from plague, lightning, and all kinds of natural disaster, and it brings peace and plenty, “tranquility, joy, ease [and] comfort.” It brings fantastic harvests, milk yields, and plenty of fish in the streams, and children thrive.2
Tecosca Cormaic (‘The Instructions of Cormac’) adds:
“Let him make make known every clear judgement
Abundance of wine and mead,
Let him utter every truth,
for it is through the truth of the ruler that God gives all that.”3
If the king failed to pronounce a true judgement, then he is seen to be a guilty of injustice and gáu flathemon, ‘the ruler’s falsehood.’4 Any plague, failure of the harvest, loss of battle, or blemish on the king himself, would have been seen a sign of the king’s gáu flathemon. In theory, this would render the king forfeit and he would lose his kingship. In practice, kings lost battles all the time and there is no mention in the annals or any other sources for a king having lost his seat as a result of such a failure. However, there is reference in the law text on bee-keeping, Becbretha (”Bee-Judgments”), of king Congal Cáech losing the seat of Tara after being blinded in one eye by a bee sting, but all other evidence points to the fact that he retained the kingship of Ulster until he died in the battle of Mag Roth in 637C.E.5
The concept of fír flathemon (and its antithesis, gáu flathemon) is frequently explored in early Irish myth. In Togail Bruidne Da Derga (‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’) it is made clear that at first Conaire ruled well as king, and demonstrated good judgement. Thus we are told:
“Now there were in his reign great bounties, to wit, seven ships in every June in every year arriving at Inver Colptha, and oakmast up to the knees in every autumn, and plenty of fish in the rivers Bush and Boyne in the June of each year, and such abundance of good will that no one slew another in Erin during his reign. And to every one in Erin his fellow’s voice seemed as sweet as the strings of lutes. From mid-spring to mid-autumn no wind disturbed a cow’s tail. His reign was neither thunderous nor stormy.”6
The description notably follows all the motifs of the ruler’s truth described in Audacht Morainn. But then his foster-brothers take to brigandage, and Conaire pronounces a false judgement against them. Once this happens, signs begin to appear of the gáu flathemon – battle and strife breaks out, and when Conaire wonders what is happening, he is told: “Easy to know that the king’s law has broken down therein, since the country has begun to burn.”7
Likewise in Cath Maige Mucrama (‘The Battle of Mag Mucrama’), Ailill’s reign is shown to be forfeit first by the mysterious stripping of the hill (the hill of Áine) on which he spends the night, and then by the fact that the flesh from his ear is stripped away by Áine, whom he has raped. Later, he pronounces a false judgement in a dispute between two men. “…justice is not usual on your lips,” says one, on hearing Ailill’s decision.8
Conversely, there are tales that show the benefits of good judgement. Niall of the Nine Hostages wins the kingship of Ireland by showing good judgement; out in the wilderness, searching for water, each of his brothers finds a well guarded by a hideous-looking hag. She demands a kiss in exchange for the water, and each brother is repulsed at the notion and refuses. Only Niall agrees to her demands – in fact, he goes one further. “Not only will I kiss thee, I will lie with thee!” he cries.9 And upon doing so, she turns into the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland. She bestows the kingship of Ireland on him, and his descendants to come, and tells him to take the water to his brothers, but not give them any until they have sworn themselves to him as their king. Niall does so, and he is recognised as king by his people; in agreeing to the hag’s demands, he has shown fír flathemon, for she is really the Sovereignty herself, the goddess of the land, and it is for her to claim her king and consort.
The wisdom-texts tell us that “every falsehood is bitter,”10 and certainly we can see that consequences are for the king. It is in truth that the king’s reign begins; and it is with the lack of it that ends. It is through truth that everything else falls into place:
“Let him preserve Truth, it shall preserve him
Let him raise truth, it will raise him.”11
Without fír, truth, there can be no good judgement, and therefore there can be no justice – “Three things which justice demands: judgement, measure, conscience.”12 But, as Audacht Morainn tells us, “It is through the truth of the ruler that every man of art attains the crown of knowledge.”13 Without justice, of course, the king shows that he cannot maintain his fír flathemon, and this damages his ability to rule effectively and maintain order.14
Another concept that relates to truth is fírinne, which can be defined as ‘justice, righteousness’ and further, ‘truth, truthfulness, trustworthiness,’ and interpreted in the sense of the king’s righteous behaviour.15 Audacht Morainn (‘The Testament of Morann’) lists four different types of kings according to which principle they primarily ruled with, and the first and best kind is the fírfhlath, ‘the true lord’, who rules according to his righteousness (fírinne).16
Behaviour that does not accord with the concept of fírinne would potentially damage the king’s honour or demonstrate that he no longer possesses fír flathemon.Therefore the king is expected to behave in an appropriate manner and demonstrate certain qualities that uphold his honour, and therefore status, and therefore – in theory – his qualifications to maintain his seat. The legal tract on status, Críth Gablach, for example, tells us that if the king is found doing manual work with a mallet, spade or axe – the work of a commoner – his honour-price must be reduced to that of a commoner.17 Many of these behaviours were bound in the form of gessi – prohibitions that carried with them terrible consequences if broken (and potentially supernatural consequences at that) – in order to protect the king and his honour. It is likely, from what the literature tells us, that breaking a geis indicates that the king has violated the principle of fír flathemon.18
From what we’ve seen here, it seems that we are looking at a cyclical and reciprocal process. The king must uphold truth in his reign, and he demonstrates this through his behaviour and his good judgement, and the provision of hospitality and demonstrations of generosity which shows his understanding of the ties that bind him and his people. Without the people, the king is nothing, and so he needs their support; but the people will only support him if they deem him worthy of support. In practical terms, he might gain support through martial power, shrewd alliances, wealth and status, but he also must demonstrate that he has the ability to determine truth, and be true-judging. He can only gain this through right-living – demonstrating all of the qualities necessary in a king, and, according to Aipgitir Chrábaid (‘The Alphabet of Piety’):
“If there be anyone who desires the truth [fírinni], it is meet for him that he may know properly what conceals it…Truth conceals itself from everyone who spurns it…Moderation and wisdom and true holiness, together it is that a man attains them. When does a man attain them? When his truth is faultless. When is his truth faultless? When his heart is in his proper condition, then truth is therein as if he had not been born of man.”19
This text dates to around 600C.E. and its influence on other texts – particularly Bríatharthecosc Con Culainn (‘The Word Teachings of Cú Chulainn’) – is clear.20 Aipgitir Chrábaid focuses on how to live a Christian life, and like Audacht Morainn it stresses that divine favour is as important as truth and righteousness.21 In a pagan context, this divine favour comes from the Sovereignty, the goddess of the land, who bestows her favour by bestowing the kingship on those who recognise her. Without her favour, the king’s reign cannot be a success, and the Otherworldly figures who often involve themselves in the downfall of the king once he has shown gáu flathemon (false judgement), shows this. The hag who demands entrance to the hostel in Togail Bruidne Da Derga (‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’), and forces Conaire to break a geis is one example of this.22
When a person fails to live by these virtues and laws, the problems caused can be major or minor, depending on the seriousness of transgression. What was considered appropriate behaviour or conduct was a matter of public concern, with honour and dignity at stake if one failed to live up to the standards set by society as a whole.23
People were therefore often judged and dealt with publicly, and since one’s own conduct reflected on your kin and community as a whole there might be a lot at stake. Keeping everyone in line wasn’t just a matter of law and legal repercussions, but also more subtle peer pressures governing behaviour. There was also the option of publicly denouncing or cursing someone who acted dishonourably – even cursing the wrongdoer. Whatever the case, anyone who failed to defend themselves from having been wronged in some way was no better than if they had actually done the thing they were being accused of.
Cursing and satire were not things to be taken lightly, or thrown about freely. Satire is both a form of magic, and a way of regulating the social order, but it is only at its most effective when it is ‘true’ or ‘just’. Such was the power of the curse that it might kill the subject, as we have seen; but as fearsome as the consequences might be on the one satirised, the consequences of unjust satire were also fearsome. It might just be the satirist who suffers the consequences…24
Satire offers immediate recourse and action, but it is not always appropriate. In early Irish society, payment of compensation was usually the first resort in order to make amends and repair any injury to honour that might have been caused. Sometimes, however, things didn’t work out quite so simply; either payment wasn’t made, or the offence was too great for compensation to suffice (such as murder, or kin-slaying). In these cases swift retaliation – like for like – might be resorted to, but this was discouraged in the law texts because of the fact that retaliation often escalated into a constant back and forth, tit for tat, between two factions.
Flogging, mutilation, death by hanging, or being set adrift – being put out to sea a certain distance from the shore, and left for God to judge them – might otherwise be resorted to. In the latter case, if the boat came back ashore the criminal would be taken into service as punishment. Or else they might float out to sea. Many of these options appear to have been introduced by Christianity, or certainly emphasised more strongly in the Canonical laws compared with the secular laws.25
Another option was outlawry. Tecosca Cormaic (‘The Instructions of Cormac’) tells us, “Everyone is an aurrad (law-abiding freeman’) until he is proclaimed.”26 Thus, if the offence warrants it, a person might be publicly declared deorad ‘outsider’.27 A person who is declared deorad is declared esinraic (‘inhonestus’ – dishonourable, disgraced)28 and stripped of their honour-price, and effectively exiled. Without an honour-price they are basically fair game since they have no recourse to claim compensation, and neither does their kin on the individual’s behalf.29 They also have no rights in terms of owning land, doing business, and no voice as a member of the tuath, and so they would struggle to make a living as well. As such, their best bet is to leave their territory and try to find work and shelter elsewhere, although sometimes the literature refers to members being specifically banished over-seas.
Offences that might result in being declared an outlaw include harbouring a fugitive, a woman who leaves a marriage without due cause, a person who fails to look after an elderly parent, or a person who abandons their kin.30 Over time, of course, the outlawed person might be able to atone for their crimes and recover their rights within their people, but this was not always guaranteed.31
In being outlawed, the individual is cut off from their kin, and so it protects their kin from being held responsible (legally or morally) for the individual’s actions. From this, we see that it is extremely important to consider who we associate with: “Bad association is the beginning of lowly status.”32 In other words, if we associate with those who do not hold themselves to such values, then our own association with the dishonourable makes us dishonourable too. Those without honour should be avoided.
The kind of values we have looked at during the course of this article include:
Enech – honour, maintaining face
Febas – excellence, in terms of behaviour; fitting behaviour that brings dignity, worth
Gart – generosity, hospitality Gal – valour
Nert – strength, might, force; this can refer to physcial or moral strength Gaís – wisdom
Breth – judgement
Éolus – knowledge
Mes – discernment
Ecna(e) – wisdom, enlightenment
Bés – custom; observing, maintaining and upholding custom
Fír – truth
Ordan – dignity
These are all things that, we might argue, Gaelic Polytheists should aspire to. Other words that can be considered as being relevant are:
Tairisiu – loyalty, faithfulness (also tairise – fitting, suitable, faithful, constant, and in Mid/Modern Irish, also denoting an adherent, follower, friend)
Indracus – worthiness, honour, integrity, innocence (guiltless)
Córae – correctness, propriety, which can be used both a personal and moral sense Súan – moral, mannerly
Subaltaige – virtue (in a moral sense) Cert – that which is correct, right, proper, fitting; the correct way of doing something
Díaninim – spotless, unblemished, again in either a physical or moral sense
And, as the wisdom-texts espouse, eloquence, steadfastness, moderation, patience and learning are all things to be encouraged as well. While honour might be seen is the outward expression of upholding all of these values, we might see truth as being at the heart of it all.
Truth itself is an ephemeral thing; we can only experience it subjectively. It is through wisdom that ‘universal truths’ can be articulated, but is not just universal truths that we must deal with, it is the subjective truth as well. For this we need judgement, and discernment. In society as a whole, justice is deemed to be ‘true’ when it accords with the principles and values of the society that must judge it, and this is why there must be an emphasis on custom and tradition, for it is in these things that we find stability and order; continuity. Justice cannot be heard, of course, unless it is spoken with authority, and this is why the speaker must be honourable as well as knowledgeable or wise, and eloquent.
It is in all of these things that we must rely on to find truth, but it is also from truth that all of these things are sustained. This is why fír might be seen as the heart of Gaelic Polytheism; we must be true to ourselves, but also to our community, and to our gods. Without truth, what are we?
The values espoused in the wisdom-texts are ones that must be internalised and demonstrated by the individual, but honour is nothing without regard from other people within the community. We must have honour, and show honour, to our gods, but also to the community as a whole. Without being part of a community, we can have no real standing, and those without honour should be avoided. In modern terms, finding a community can be difficult, especially when reconstructionist communities exist mainly online rather than physically. An online community is better than none if a physical, local community can’t be found, but it can take time to find the right one.
A community should be a support and a guide, and it can only really work if we all uphold the principles and values of that community. As well as the values we have explored here, from what we have seen in the wisdom-texts, the literature and laws, we must also consider the values that the Gaelic Polytheist community holds in common that we might see as being thoroughly modern – both in terms of our community being modern, and in reference to the living Gaelic cultures.
As a movement, Gaelic Polytheism emerged (at least partly) as a reaction against the rampant eclecticism and cultural appropriation common in many neo-pagan communities; as such, we should be true to these principles in what we do. After all, if bés, custom, is to be seen as a core part of our values then we should look to Gaelic custom and tradition to inform what we do. As reconstructionists, our approach should be rooted first and foremost with the gods, and the cultural expressions that honour those gods, as well as upholding our values at all times. In doing so, we might argue that it is as important to honour the living cultures as well as the past – such as learning and supporting the Gaelic languages, participating in campaigns to help preserve and protect ancient monuments and sacred sites, as well as supporting traditional arts, sports and music.
Racism, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination based on sex or gender are also things that cannot be considered to be desirable in these modern times, and certainly not within the Celtic Reconstructionist community as a whole.33 We live in a very different society today than the pre-Christian Gaels did. As roles were generally strictly defined within such a society, there was always certain amount of flexibility; for example, while women were usually expected to marry and have children, spending their life raising their children and tending to the home and family, this was not always what happened, and we find women warriors, women poets, women who devoted themselves to a religious life. It can be argued that traditional gender roles are encouraged because they are seen to produce stability within a community and so they are seen as desirable. As society, medicine and technology advances, however, people are afforded greater flexibility in terms of the roles and other pressures that might be expected of them. It is no longer necessary for women or men to conform to such expectations because our survival is generally much less precarious than it used to be.
Our values define us; we are judged on how we conduct ourselves. The company we keep reflects on us as well. From what we have seen here, we might say that we must be discerning in our associations, truthful and honourable in our actions, and ultimately remember that we are answerable not just to our gods but to our community as well. Those who show themselves to be serious lacking in the values that we might deem to be the most important should be avoided.
These are high ideals that are being discussed here, and in doing so it might seem that matters are a lot more simple than reality tends to have in mind for us. We all make mistakes. While we might not always succeed in holding ourselves to such values, we can but try. Ultimately, what we do, how we act, must be for the good of the whole, not just ourselves. There is no room for selfishness.
Darkness yields to light
Sorrow yields to joy
An oaf yields to a sage
A fool yields to a wise man
A serf yields to a free man
Inhospitality yields to hospitality
Niggardliness yields to generosity
Meanness yields to liberality
Impetuosity yields to composure
Turbulence yields to submission
A usurper yields to a true lord
Conflict yields to peace
Falsehood yields to truth.34
1 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p129.
2 Audacht Morainn, 12-21. See also Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p18-19; McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p129.
3 Meyer, ‘The Instructions of Cormac mac Airt,’ in Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series Volume XV, 1909, p5.
4 Bray, ‘Sacral Elements of Irish Kingship,’ in This Immense Panorama: Studies in Honour of Eric J Sharpe, p111.
5 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p19.
6 Togail Bruidne Da Derga.
7 Togail Bruidne Da Derga.
8 O’Daly, ‘Cath Maige Mucrama: The Battle of Mag Mucrama,’ ITS Volume 50, 1975, para 3; 9.
9 Stokes, ‘Echtra Mac nEchach Muigmedóin: The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid’, in Revue Celtique Volume 24, 1903, p199.
10 Meyer, ‘The Instructions of Cormac mac Airt,’ in Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series Volume XV, 1909, p23.
11 Audacht Morainn, 6-7.
12 Meyer, ‘The Triads of Ireland,’ in Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series Volume XIII, 1906, p11.
13 Audacht Morainn, 24.
14 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p127.
15 Bondarenko, ‘Conn Céthathach and the Image of Ideal Kingship in Early Medieval Ireland,’ in Studia Celtica Fennica IV, 2007, p22.
16 Audacht Morainn, 59. Fomin, ‘Classifications of Kings in Early Ireland and India,’ in Studia Celtica Fennica IV, 2007, p34.
17 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p19.
18 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p20.
19 Fomin, ‘Bríatharthecosc Con Chulainn in the Context of Early Irish Wisdom-literature,’ in Ulidia 2, 2005, p106.
20 Fomin, ‘Bríatharthecosc Con Chulainn in the Context of Early Irish Wisdom-literature,’ in Ulidia 2, 2005, p105.
21 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p232; McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p140-141.
22 Discussed in Gessi and Buada.
23 Ireland, Old Irish Wisdom Attributed to Aldfrith of Northumbria: An Edition of Bríathra Flainn Fhína maic Ossu, 1999, p14.
24 Gray, ‘Cath Maige Tuired: Myth and Structure (24-120),’ in Éigse XIX(1), 1982, p15.
25 See Chapter nine of Kelly’s A Guide to Early Irish Law.
26 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p222-223.
27 This is not to be confused with the ambue, ‘stranger, outlaw.’ This can simply refer to someone who does not come from the tuath, or a tuath that is allied with another people. With no rights or standing in a túath, one cannot hold any property. Ambue comes from the Celtic *am-bowyos, meaning ‘cowless’. Thus it denotes someone who has no right to own land within the territory (and therefore any cattle, since they have nowhere to graze them, and no rights to arrange grazing on someone else’s land). As McCone points out: “The world of the ambue bordered on that of the fían or association of propertyless and predominantly young, unmarried warrior-hunters on the fringes of settled society.” (p162) The fíanna themselves had something of a reputation as outlaws and brigands, and the tales of Fionn show them in a heavily romanticised light compared to earlier attitudes towards them. The fían groups were mainly comprised of young men between the age of fourteen and twenty-one – too old for fosterage, but too young to inherit any land. For many young men, they joined these bands and lived as hunters and swords for hire until they inherited property. At that point, they re-entered settled society and took up their place within their túath. See McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p205, or Joseph Falaky Nagy’s The Wisdom of the Outlaw.
28 Gray, ‘Cath Maige Tuired: Myth and Structure (24-120),’ in Éigse XIX(1), 1982, p6.
29 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p6.
30 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p222-223.
31 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p223-224.
32 Ireland, Old Irish Wisdom Attributed to Aldfrith of Northumbria: An Edition of Bríathra Flainn Fhína maic Ossu, 1999, p79 (5.16).
33 See, for example, The CR FAQ, The CR Essay, and CAORANN.
34 Audacht Morainn, (54).