Not Hard To Tell: Celtic Ethics

Na Déithe libhmo chairde,

Druidess instructing Gaulish warriors.

The mythology of a people are their sacred stories that reveal who they are and how to be in the world. Myths contain examples of a culture’s collective virtues, vices, values, and ideals. Myths teach morals and ethics through their experiential nature. Considering Celtic ethics, there are several ancient textual sources that speak to this. Such cultural wisdom is peppered throughout Celtic mythology, within which are three better known sources that touch directly upon ethics, or what is considered proper and honorable ways of being.

In the context of the stories, ethics are conveyed as instructions to kings on how to be an ideal ruler. But this can equally apply to anyone who seeks to live a life of integrity. Among the many virtues exalted and vices decried, the ideals of Truth, generosity, balance, and wisdom or discernment are the ones that stand out to me the most. In particular, it has been my experience that “generosity of spirit” and “poetry of soul” are qualities that especially color the ethics of Celtic culture.

As you read through the three selections below, what code of ethics do you perceive? What ideals, values, virtues -and vices! - seem most important?

The Instructions of King Cormac:

"O Cormac, grandson of Conn", said Carbery, "what are the dues of a chief and of an ale-house?"

"Not hard to tell", said Cormac

Good behaviour around a good chief,

Lights to lamps

Exerting oneself for the company

A proper settlement of seats

Liberality of dispensers,

A nimble hand at distributing

Attentive service

Music in moderation

Short story-telling

A joyous countenance

Welcome to guests

Silence during recitals

Harmonious choruses

"O Cormac, grandson of Conn", said Carbery, "What were your habits when you were a lad?"

"Not hard to tell", said Cormac.

I was a listener in woods

I was a gazer at stars

I was blind where secrets were concerned

I was silent in a wilderness

I was talkative among many

I was mild in the mead-hall

I was stern in battle

I was gentle towards allies

I was a physician of the sick

I was weak towards the feeble

I was strong towards the powerful

I was not close lest I should be burdensome

I was not arrogant though I was wise

I was not given to promising though I was strong

I was not venturesome though I was swift

I did not deride the old though I was young

I was not boastful though I was a good fighter

I would not speak about any one in his absence

I would not reproach, but I would praise

I would not ask, but I would give

For it is through these habits that the young become old and kingly warriors."

"O Cormac, grandson of Conn", said Carbery, "What is the worst thing you have seen?"

"Not hard to tell", said Cormac, "Faces of foes in the rout of battle".

"O Cormac, grandson of Conn", said Carbery, "What is the sweetest thing you have heared?"

"Not hard to tell", said Cormac, "The shout of triumph after victory, Praise after wages, A lady's invitation to her pillow."

"O Cormac, grandson of Conn", said Carbery, "What is worst for the body of man?"

"Not hard to tell", said Cormac. "Sitting too long, lying too long, exerting oneself beyond one's strength, running too much, leaping too much, frequent falls, sleeping with one's leg over the bed rail, gazing at glowing embers, wax, bestings, new ale, bull-flesh, curdles, dry food, bog-water, rising too early, cold, sun, hunger, drinking too much, eating too much, sleeping too much, sinning too much, grief, running up to a height, shouting against the wind, drying oneself by a fire, summer-dew, winter-dew, beating ashes, swimming on a full stomach, sleeping on one's back, foolish romping."

"O Cormac, grandson of Conn", said Carbery, "What is the worst pleading and arguing?"

"Not hard to tell", said Cormac.

Contending against knowledge,

contending without proofs

taking refuge in bad language

a stiff delivery

a muttering speech


uncertain proofs,

despising books

turning against custom

shifting one's pleading

inciting the mob