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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

hair-splitting

uncertain proofs,

despising books

turning against custom

shifting one's pleading

inciting the mob

blowing one's own trumpet

shouting at the top of one's voice.

"O Cormac, grandson of Conn", said Carbery, "Who are the worst for whom you have a comparison?"

"Not hard to tell", said Cormac.

A man with the impudence of a satirist,

with the pugnacity of a slave-woman

with the carelessness of a dog

with the conscience of a hound

with a robber's hand

with a bull's strength

with the dignity of a judge

with keen ingenious wisdom

with the speech of a stately man

with the memory of an historian

with the behavior of an abbot

with the swearing of a horse-thief

and he is wise, lying, grey-haired, violent, swearing, garrulous, when he says 'the matter is settled, I swear, you shall swear'.

"O Cormac, grandson of Conn", said Carbery, "I desire to know how I shall behave among the wise and the foolish, among friends and strangers, among the old and the young, among the innocent and the wicked."

"Not hard to tell", said Cormac.

Be not too wise, be not too foolish

be not too conceited, nor too diffident

be not too haughty, nor too humble

be not too talkative, nor too silent

be not too hard, nor too feeble

If you be too wise, one will expect too much of you

If you be foolish, you will be deceived

If you be too conceited, you will be thought vexatious

If you be too humble, you will be without honour

If you be too talkative, you will not be heeded

If you be too silent, you will not be regarded

If you be too hard, you will be broken

If you be too feeble, you will be crushed.

Translated by Kuno Meyer

A pontificating Druid.

The Testament of Morann:

Here begins the Testament of Morann son of Moen to Feradach Find Fechtnach son of Craumthann Nia Nar. He was the son of the daughter of Loth son of Derelath of the Picts. His mother brought him away in her womb after the vassal tribes had destroyed the nobles of Ireland except for Feradach in his mother's womb. He came over afterwards with hosts and Morann sent this Testament to him.

Arise, set forth

O my Neire accustomed to proclaiming

The virtue of dutifulness makes you known

Dutiful the journey you undertake

Announce, increase truth.

Fair [and] lasting

My words before my death

Bring him the virtue of rectitude

Which each ruler must have

If you go past every [other] king

I measure them for the protection of my kin.

If you go to a king

Hasten to Feradach

Find Fechtnach

Good, vigorous

He will be long ruling

In the seat of full sovereignty

He will move many tribes

Of thieves to the sea

He will increase his heir

Filled with valour.

Let him keep my advice which follows here.

Tell him before every [other] word

Bring him with every word this lasting justice.

Let him preserve Truth, it shall preserve him

Let him raise truth, it will raise him.

Let him exalt mercy, it exalth him

Let him care for his tribes, they will care for him

Let him help his tribes, they will help him

Let him soothe his tribes, they will soothe him

Tell him, it is through the truth of the ruler that plagues [and] great lightnings are kept from the people

It is through the truth of the ruler that he judges great tribes [and] great riches.

It is through the truth of the ruler that he secures peace, tranquility, joy, ease, [and] comfort.

It is through the truth of the ruler that he dispatches (great) battalions to the borders of hostile neighbors.

It is through the truth of the ruler that every heir plants his house-post in his fair inheritance

It is through the truth of the ruler that abundances of great tree-fruit of the great wood are tasted.

It is through the truth of the ruler that milk-yields of great cattle are maintained.

It is through the truth of the ruler that there is abundance of every high, tall corn

It is through the truth of the ruler that an abundance of fish swim in streams.

It is through the truth of the ruler that fair children are well begotten.

Tell him, since he is young, his rule is young.

Let him observe the driver of an old chariot.

For the driver of an old wheel rim does not sleep

He looks ahead, he looks behind, in front and to the right and to the left.

He looks, he defends, he protects, so that he may not break with neglect or violence the wheel-rims which run under him.

Tell him, let him not exalt any judge unless he knows the true legal precedents.

It is through the truth of the ruler that every man of art attains the crown of knowledge. After that he will sit to teach the good rule to which he has submitted.

It is through the truth of the ruler that the borders of every true lord extend so that each cow reaches the end of its grazing.

It is through the truth of the ruler that every garment of clothing is obtained for glances of eyes.

It is through the truth of the ruler that enclosures of protection of cattle [and] of every produce extend.

It is through the truth of the ruler that the three immunities of violence at every assembly protect every lord from the restraints of collision during the course of his noble rule.

The first immunity [is] the racing of horses at assemblies.

The second immunity of them [is] a hosting [of a military force]

The third immunity [is] the privilege of the ale-house with friends and great abundances of mead-circuit, where foolish and wise, familiars and strangers are intoxicated.

Tell him, let him not redden many fore-courts, for bloodshed is a vain destruction of all rule and of protection from one kin for the ruler.

Tell him, let him give any reciprocal service which is due from him, let him enforce any bond which he should bind, let him remove the shame of his cheeks by arms in battle against other territories, against their oath, against all their protections.

Tell him, let not rich gifts or great treasures or profits blind him to the weak in their sufferings.

Tell him, let him estimate the creations of the creator who made them as they were made; anything which he will not judge according to its profits will not give them with full increase.

Let him estimate the earth by its fruits

Let him estimate the yew by its well-made articles

Let him estimate cattle by their winter-circuit of fame

Let him estimate milk-yield by its increase

Let him estimate corn by its height

Let him estimate streams by their clean washing

Let him estimate iron by its properties at disputes of tribes.

Let him estimate copper by its firmness [and] strength [and] dense artefacts.

Let him estimate silver by its durability [and] value [and] white artefacts.

Let him estimate gold by its foregn wonderful ornaments.

Let him estimate the soil by its services where people may seek out produce.

Let him estimate sheep by their covering which is selected for the garments of the people

Let him estimate pigs by the fat side, for it is freeing from shame of every face

Let him estimate the war-bands which accompany a true lord, for the rule of his retinue belongs to every king; anything which he will not judge according to its profits will not summon them with full increase.

Let him estimate unfree persons [and] serving companies; let them serve, let them provide food-rent, let them measure [it], let them give [it] in return for the true grants of the ruler

Let him estimate old men in the seats of their ancestors with numerous benefits of respect.

Let him estimate fathers and mothers with benefits of maintenance [and] dutiful consistency.

Let him estimate the fees of every craftsman for firm articles [and] well made objects

Let him estimate the right and justice, truth and law, contract and regulation of every just ruler towards all his clients.

Let him estimate the proper honour-price of every grade of free and base named-persons.

(I have failed, I am made to blush.)

Arise, set forth,

O my Neire accustomed to proclaiming

To Feradach Find Fechtnach.

Announce to him the high points of my words

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.

Tell him, let him be merciful, just, impartial, conscientious, firm, generous, hospitable, honourable, stable, beneficent, capable, honest, well-spoken, steady, true-judging.

For there are ten things which extinguish the injustice of every ruler. (Beware that you do not do it, beware of everything, O rulers.) Announce from me the ten: rule and worth, fame and victory, progeny and kindred, peace and long life, good fortune an d tribes.

Tell him: he may die, he will die, he may depart, he will depart; how he has been, how he will be, that is what will be proclaimed. He is not a ruler unless he performs these deeds.

Tell him, there are only four rulers: the true ruler and the wily ruler, the ruler of occupation with hosts, and the bull ruler.

The true ruler, in the first place, is moved towards every good thing, he smiles on the truth when he hears it, he exalts it when he sees it. For he whom the living do not glorify with blessings is not a true ruler.

The wily ruler defends borders and tribes, they yield their valuables and dues to him.

The ruler of occupation with hosts from outside; his forces turn away, they put off his needs, for a prosperous man does not turn outside.

The bull ruler strikes [and] is struck, wards off [and] is warded off, roots out [and] is rooted out, pursues [and] is pursued. Against him there is always bellowing with horns.

Arise, set forth

O my Neire accustomed to proclaiming

To Feradach Find Fechtnach

A noble, mighty ruler

To every ruler who rules truly.

Let him keep my words,

They will bring him to victory.

I measure them for the protection of my kin.

(I am forced) Finit.

Translated by Fergus Kelly

Bardic storytelling at an Irish feast.

The Instruction-Precepts of Cu Chulainn

Do not be a seeker of fierce, ignobly rough strife.

Do not be violent, churlish, and arrogant.

Do not be timorous, touchy, hasty, and bold.

Do not be brought low by the trick of drunken ruin.

Do not be a like drunk “flesh flea” in the house of a great king.

Do not put off too much as regards invasion by foreigners.

Do not pursue infamous, powerless men.

Let prescriptive periods not be established upon a foundation of illegality.

Let memories be consulted to determine whose is the land of an heir.

Let aged historians be questioned with justice of worth in your presence.

Let judges enquire into the matters of kinship and property.

Let the branches of genealogy from which offspring are born be extended.

Let the living be summoned, let the dead be revived by means of oaths sworn where they dwelt.

Let heirs be endowed according to their proper inheritance.

Let those without kin be set out with the strength of their privilege.

Do not answer garrulously.

Do not ask vociferously.

Do not mock, do not deride, do not intimidate old men.

Do not be thought ill of by anyone.

Do not beseech in a tough way.

Do not repudiate anyone unless he serves badly.

Be gracious in offering. Be gracious in giving. Lend graciously.

Be humble to accept instruction from the wise.

Be mindful to withstand reproach from your elders.

Be vigilant to observe regulations of your fathers.

Do not be cold-hearted concerning friends.

Be vigorous concerning enemies.

Do not be an opponent of debate in assemblies.

Do not be gossipy and reproachful.

Do not press, do not hoard: it will be no profit.

Restrain your reproof in respect to entirely proper actions.

Do not trample on your righteousness at the behest of men.

Do not deliver an unnecessary blow lest you regret it.

Do not indulge in contentions lest you become odious.

Do not be sluggish lest you find your death.

Do not be too hasty lest you look ludicrous.

Reconcile yourself to the adherence to these words!

Translated by David Stifter

*** *** ***

May the beauty within our Celtic heritage bless you with inspiration, wisdom, and good fortune for an ethical and well-lived life!

Beannachtaí,

~ Reverend Erika Rivertree

The Druidess: teacher and initiator into the mysteries of Life.

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