Cylch Blodeuwedd

Druidic Grove in North-West Wales

The Window of Law

by Dafydd - January 17th, 2009.
Filed under: Article Archive.

The Window of Law:
Exploring Celtic Philosophy and Beliefs Through Their Law

by J. MacCormack
to the Bangor Theosophical Lodge
June 2007

Introduction: Classical and Celtic Differences

1) From where does most of modern legislature take its inspiration? What kind of philosophy does that reflect? What kind of worldview does it encourage and propagate?

It is easy to see that the Romans and Greeks still live on todaynot just through modern day Italian and Greek citizens, but through the pervading and lingering influence of their cultures upon Western civilization. The Greeks gave us the concept of democracy which of course has swept the globe with support from media and pop culture, capitalism and western forms of imperialism. But while Grecian architecture frames our courthouses and governmental buildings, Roman law speaks volumes.

When Rome was first just a little metropolis built on seven hills, law was really just an extension of their religion, lists of restrictions and recommendations of behavior, a bit like the Judaic Decalogue or Ten Commandments. But gradually as the Roman Republic emerged, and as the high class patricians and common man plebeians vied for equality or lack thereof, a systematic, litteral (written down) framework developed concepts like citizenship, personal property, and state government, the last which led to Augustus and his Roman Empire. It was a patriarchal society that viewed women no better than a slave, and though I used to think that an exaggerated opinion, Ive gradually learned that no, the general concept of Roman patriarchalness was fact. Politics, possessions and power (the three Ps) came to the fore as Rome claimed and conquered the earth, bringing much needed change to many stagnating culturesbut also destroying and suppressing the (often) more holistic and opposing worldviews of the conquered. The Celts never took this easily, as many Roman propagandists testify, and the continental Celts inevitably were drawn under the sway of Romes long, long arm. But it was the insular or island Celts, those inhabiting the wilds of Ireland and Britain that rebuffed Romes advances. Thats all history now though.

In the same way, the Celts never could bend their necks to Roman philosophy, or Saxon or Norman, for that matter. Its no surprise that the Celtic Church defied the Roman Church for centuries. You could say it was merely for the principle of the matter, that the Celts have never gelled with the Romans, but Id say that at a deeper level, the two come from very different worldviews, which is why their religions, both pagan and Christian, have never managed to stand on the same ground.

2) What do you think are some of the differences between Celtic and Roman beliefs and philosophy? What does this illustrate?

  • Differences in the Pagan Tradition

A clear example of this in the pagan tradition is the Roman view of deity and the Celtic. Celtic deities are more mysterious and dynamic than the famous pantheons of the Romans. In the past, historians have felt frustrated and thwarted when it comes to classifying these gods and goddesses but perhaps that is because they were approaching the Celts in a spirit of the Romans. The Romans looked at all deities as the same universally, assuming that if one deity was a god of war, then he was the same as their own god of war. When the Romans conquered a place, they tried to assimilate the local pantheons into their own, just as the Roman Catholics changed the deities into either demons, fairies, or saints. As opposed to functional beings and modes of beings, Celtic deities were multi-faceted personalities, acting as ancestors, guides, and guardians of the various tribes, rather than presiding over a specific aspect of life or manifesting a particular facet of the divine. Celtic deities were also connected to genus loci–that is, the overall spirit of a place. Land is land, but each land manifests differently. Therefore to say that Mithras of the Persian tradition is the same as Lugh of the Irish tradition, or that the Morrighan is the female version of Aires, god of war, is not very respectful to each deity at large. There is no doubt that there are universal manifestations of the divine out there (like the Sun), even possibly deity archetypes a bit like Jungs concept, but still the divine truly is diverse . . . why reduce it to facets and functions?

Classical Deities:

~tidy occupation for each deity, for example, there was a god of war, god of love, god of poetry

~organized hierarchy of deities: Zeus and his wife ruled at the top, while the other deities fell in below

~the gods and goddesses dwelt separate from humans–portrayed as distant–Mt. Olympus

~distinction between humans and deity is made clear

~consisted mostly of Olympian deities (high in the sky) as opposed to Chthonic (earth) deities

Celtic Deities:

~not easily given an assigned occupation–each deity can have multiple roles and phases; similar to a human being in the fact that well-rounded

~no real organization: consisted mostly of local deities and a few deities that were shared by all

~the gods and goddesses lived right among the humans, though often as well in subterranean palaces

~the line of separation between gods/goddesses and humans is not as clear; the deity is often portrayed, not necessarily as a literal god, but rather as a Fair Folk or magical being who was very much like humans, only having a better blood-line. Also, most of the Celtic deities became ancestral deities–in other words, certain tribes could claim descent from a particular deity who would then become like the family-tribe care-taker.

~consisted mostly of Chthonic deities–for example, the Tuatha de Dannan of the Irish were forced to live in Sidhe or underground mounds by the Milesian human invaders.

  • Differences in the Christian Tradition

Another example of Roman and Celtic differences is in their respective interpretations of Christianity. Roman Christianity, under the influence of conqueror-minded converts and Roman value of power, possessions and politics, turned religion into a state affair (through Constantine and his later successors) and supported a church that grew more and more power-hungry and paranoid of attacks on its affairs and welfare. For example, the great arguments over priests marrying or being celibatefor years, the Papacy would change hands off and on by inheritance, one Popes son taking on the mantle of his father and so forth. This was even more common among priests who had children, raised to the profession of clergy like their father. But the Roman Church started noticing how inheritance laws were taking away church land privileges. Priests sons could inherit church lands by Roman law and that would never do to increase church wealth! So in the 5th century, under the sway of Saint Augustine (who despised the Celtic Church as full of the world, full of heretics, and full of paganism), a mandate from Rome declared that it was unholy for priests to marry or have children, which later was compounded with the implication of celibacy. Finally it was Pope Leo IX (AD 1049-1054) who was so incensed about clerical marriages that he ordered for the wives of all priests to be sent as slaves to the Lateran Palace. Pope Urban II, in 1189, carried out this stance on clergy marriages by ordering the nobility and upper classes to enslave the wives of priests. Its no wonder that many priests and their wives ended up committing suicide when they could not face these harsh mandates.

On the other hand, the Celtic Church allowed women to be priests and bishops (for example, St. Brighid was a female bishop over Kildare, having the personal blessing of the St. Patrick), allowed marriage between members of the clergy and priesthood (in fact, it was common for nuns and monks to be married and have children togetherthey also had monasteries where both sexes lived under the same roof), and intensely disliked the idea of confession to a priest, mortification of the body through flagellation and so forth, and any sort of emphatic dogma pertaining to Christian writings.

While Rome deliberated what books should remain in the Christian scriptures, the Celts were busy going on with life as it always had been, with or without Christianity. I would hardly say that Christianity was a seamless transition from paganism (Saint Patrick definitely was a bit over-zealous, boasting of burning as many druidic books as he could find), but as druids became monks and the elite still maintained a similar place in society, you could say that life as a whole still had the same structure and flow. During academic research and studies, one excellent resource for observing political or traditional society changes is through studying the law of those people.

Part One: Celtic Law

Celtic Law was never a topic that I had thought about, to be honest, but it grappled me from the shadows of the Caernarfon Library. I had been browsing books under the broad topic of welsh when my hand touched a green hardback entitled The Welsh Law and Women, the title jumping out at me. It was just a twinge of curiosity, but when I sat down to peek through it, I found myself engrossed in many layers of historical and philosophical points. Ive gone on to read not a few books on the subject, and gradually it dawned on me that, of course, the Celtic laws reflected the philosophy and spiritual beliefs behind them. Why wouldnt theyif not even more so because they clarify societys moral stance and world view. Law also shows societys approach to the subject of Truth.

For the rest of this talk, I will focus particularly on examples in Welsh law, but an understanding of welsh law is incomplete without one in the Irish or Brehon laws as well. Most of the laws preserved for us today were written down around the early middle ages. Brehon law was saved for us by Charles Graves (Robert Graves, author of The White Goddess, father) who convinced the British Government to preserve and protect any manuscripts found and to translate and edit them. The most famous of welsh laws are those scribed under the reign of Hwyel Dda (Hwyel the Good), a welsh monarch who managed to attain ruling over Gwynedd, Dyfed, Ceredigion, and Powysbasically three-quarters of modern day Wales. His reign ran successfully from 905 CE to his death in 950 CE, as he pursued peaceful relations with the neighboring Saxon kingdoms to the east, which were both his bane and blessing for he secured peace for his people but also their scorn. During this time of prosperity, much of welsh law was finally codified and put together by a clerk named Blegywyrd. This was quite a feat considering that much of welsh law before this had existed solely as common law, oral tradition or as various factions of squabbling law-tracts which discounted and argued with one another. The manuscripts of Hwyels Law can be found at The National Library of Wales, located in Aberystwyth.

It must be noted that the laws we have today for both the Irish and Welsh peoples give a sketchy picture of life during the early middle ages. They are not absolute artifacts of what prehistoric or very early Celtic life would have been like. But while the Laws are from a later strata, it gains to reason that the cultural perspective and philosophies behind the laws (what you could call the spirit of the law) did not alter dramatically, even if the implementation and application of it would have shifted with the evolution of the society.

Oral law and tradition was not uncommon amongst the Celts. In fact, in a tribal society, it works very well. I would first like to examine the reasoning behind oral traditions.

Part Two: Oral Traditions

3) What is the value of an oral tradition? What are its faults?

In ancient Druidism, the spiritual tradition was not written down. Some surmise that this resulted from a zealous group of power-hungry priests, who wished to keep their mystical truths to themselves. Others say that it was because the people and Celtic tribes were illiteratethat a written language did not exist, therefore written tradition was impossible. There is evidence that the Celts did have a written languageso why didn’t their Druids record in copy-able writing their beliefs? Would not that make things so much easier for those of us who seek to follow in their footsteps? Perhaps the Druids were “silent” for other reasons.

Two reasons spring to mind, both intertwined with each other. First, is the value of oral tradition, and secondly, the inadequacy of words, especially written words. Oral tradition acts as a dynamic, evolving, and personal way to pass on beliefs and values.

In ancient culture, the youth went to the elders to gain the accumulated knowledge of his people. A connection between past, present, and future formed. Giving and receiving the oral tradition was a heavy responsibility, for without that passing on, the culture would fade away and be forgotten. Oral tradition ensured that a culture could not be swallowed up into oblivion. This is why it was such a grave error for a youth to rebel against his parents and elders, for in turn, he was rejecting what they could teach him and casting off his opportunity to contribute to the community. In this sense, education was a serious matter. Also, in oral tradition, it was very personal. The listener built a relationship with the teller, making the tradition even more important to both parties, because it was something they could share, a bond of understanding and communion.

Oral tradition’s one fault was its frailty. It required there to be someone to pass on the tradition from and to. If the listener rejected it or refused to listen, the tradition was in danger of fading. In an area, if the elder failed to pass on the tradition, and died, the same disappearance would have occurred. Also, if a new ruler or government sought to repress an oral tradition, he or it could simply declare certain stories, even whole languages to be treasonous. For example, look how the Normans declared Welsh against the law, through Edward 1st who built Caernarfon Castle.

Perhaps the best reason the Druids were so silent was because they understood one truth that society overlooks. These days, we try to define and describe everything–including religion and spirituality–, stuffing them into boxes that we think they should cram into neatly. We write book after book, article after article, striving to hold the intangible in paper, ink, and bindingor in code and computer design. The truth is though, you cannot stuff a spiritual experience into words. There is no replacement. Yes, you can describe, you can come up with amazing metaphors and symbols, but the moment you put it down into written form, it becomes unchanging. Unchanging becomes dogmatic. The beauty of the oral spiritual tradition was that it changed ever so slightly from speaker to speaker. It moved on with the times, the deep truths ever present, but the perspective and perception evolving and growing, compounding. With the written word, it can be researched, studied intensely for grammar, word meaning, connotation and denotation, then again re-examined, to the point that what a person has written down becomes a firing field where scholars and thinkers live or die. In a written text, there is no space to add and evolve it. It simply is.

As the oral tradition hinged on personal relationships, a tribal society (where everyone is somehow related to each other or has a personal interest in individual affairs) was the most natural kind of social structure to utilize the oral medium.

Part Three: The Tribe

Dualism (Struggle to Survive) V Continuity (Tribal Integration and Cooperation)

Going back to the differences between Roman and Celtic beliefs, now I will answer the question I originally proposedwhat kind of worldview does the Classical or Roman society and laws support? And what kind of worldview then does the Celtic mindset support? Well, the Roman one focused on duality; the Celts focused on continuity. Its as simple as that.

Classical governments, their laws, philosophies, various manifestations of religion, and society were permeated with the bane of us versus thema mindset which still lives with us to this day in modern western culture. Its always the Gods (or God) versus Man, or the World versus Us, or Society versus the Individual. Such duality leads to illusions, the same kinds of illusions touched on in Hindu and Buddhist thought.

The spirit becomes so disillusioned about itself, that it begins to fragment then as the individual falls apart, so do the families, which leads to the societys dysfunction and downfall as well. Its a domino effect. Where-ever the mindset of duality is present, there will be imbalance. In psychology, duality in the personality is psychotic. It is what causes the inner schisms and confusion. The word confusion itself is related to the verb to con (as in, to deceive). Interestingly enough, the Latin prefix con- has multiple meanings, chiefly with the idea of negation, knowledge, and guide. The sense then of con+fusion is that the object serves to negate harmony, by misleading, by bringing in opposing or apparent opposing information. These conflicting forces or ideas thus create a dualism.

Dualism looks at two opposites and declares them irreconcilable. It focuses on the duelism, literally, the duel or fight between these conflicts. Dualism enables the thinking man to hurl his I am against the object world, thus to persuade himself that he is his own obedient to himself. (Shoaf, 5). Greek and Roman dualism focused on what can the world give self. Dualism is the thinking mans way out of this misery [of internal conflict] (4), for by having this eternal duelism or fight, man can blame-shift and abstain self-responsibility. There is no second party to work with together; instead there remains the me and themnever us Within the mind-frame of dichotomy, there can only be confusion, which results in despair.

Like confusion, the word despair holds an even further glimpse into the ultimate result of dualism. Despair can be thought of in two levels. Des- as a prefix in Latin means without, loss. Thus, despair first is an isolation, when there is a loss of pair or decay of relationship. The basic need of humanity is connection and communication; to be displaced may be discomforting, but to be utterly isolated remains perhaps the greatest fear in the human psyche. This is what frightens most people about death, especially in the modern worldthat after death, to float in a void, meaningless nothingness. This kind of isolation can only lead to the other meaning of despair, that of, desperare, to be without hope, a futile desperation (another word with the same etymology) that is confusion, a loss of fusion. It is no wonder that the Greeks, with their dualism, were the great authors of tragedy.

Dualism and despair are against the very nature of Celtic worldview. They stand for the flowing cycle of life and a respect for all aspects of it, which manifests in their folk tales, laws and triads. Their value of continuity (which is different from immortalitya word that implies static or changeless qualitiesa word also highly loved by Greek and Roman writers) shows why oral traditions made sense to them. Humor is a well known characteristic of the Celts, who have always enjoyed poking fun of others, including themselves. Even the Celtic Christians still focused on the resurrection of Christ as opposed to the Roman emphasis of his death (forever sealed in their Eucharist communions and crucifixes).

  • Celtic Kinship

With a society that respects all forms of life and its cycles, a tribal or extended family community is the most appropriate extension of familial ties. Kinship cannot be over-emphasized in ancient Celtic culture. Not necessarily everyone was blood-kin, but often the smaller agricultural communities would be based around four or five families who were cousins of first and second degree. Even petty lords were somehow distantly related to the freemen under them. For example, in Ireland where the rath or enclosed fort was in use, often a lord or very wealthy farmer lived in the enclosure and the cattle (which was the most important livestock to the Gaels) would be brought into its protection when necessary. Then located like a shield wall beyond the enclosure would be hamlets of the lord or farmers younger and less significant kinsmen, often of warrior or fighting ability. This was an effective barrier against cattle raiders who had to penetrate this ring first before getting anywhere close to the cattle. The tribe acted as one whole organized unit, divided into classes based on function and worth more so than blood and wealth. Wealth did count for something though because it was the wealthy who could afford to help the poor man out when he ran into trouble. This meant though that the poor man was under obligation to the wealthys protection and aid, creating a client-lord relationship.

Tribes were really like petty kingdoms, which acted as a large political and ecologically inter-dependent community or unit. And a tribe really would have then consisted of several family clansa clan being based on its members believing that they all came from the same founding ancestor. In this instance, here is where Celtic deities were important because clans often elevated their ancestors to the role of deity or visa versa, the deity was ancestor. Whatever the truth or reasoning behind this, there is no doubt that it ensured family pride and individual sense of human divinity. It was at this level of clanship that blood kin was based, not at a tribal level.

Older Celtic scholars were adamant (or culturally biased?) that the Celts were without a doubt, a patriarchal society. They reasoned that in keeping with the theorized Proto-Indo-European peoples, the Celts would have treated women as chattel and that men were the main force of society. But this does not stand in reasoning, because bloodlines and genealogy was traced through both the father and mother lines. And in full marriage, husband and wife were equal. Wives were given in marriage often with money but this was not like a payment for her as we shall see later. A home was counted on its ability to provide a fighter, which meant that the value was on personal prowess and skill. Warriors led the home, because it was they who defended it and it was they who decided the rest of the familys loyalties and tributes. There are some occasions where there were women warriors and they were as highly respected and valued as their male counterparts. In fact, I would say that the greatest catalyst for a shift from co-equal standing to the later Middle Ages patriarchal standing would have been the final usurpation of the Roman Church over the Celtic Church. If anything the Church aggravated societal tensions, froze into place the serf-lord relationship which previously had not been the norm through Ireland and Britain (thus resulting in the typical idea of medieval life), and drove out older pagan customs with what they would have considered more civilized ideologies (ironically, today, these civilized ideologies seem barbaric and crude).

On the other hand, the older Celtic ideasthat were much different from the Churchsharked back to images of Bronze and Iron Age horse and cattle lords who lived on the values of honor, generosity, and valor (not dis-similar to the Germanic and Nordic idea of liege-lords who held the mythic place of gift-giver and protector). Some examples of these long lasting native institutions were things like competitive succession (where the next tribal leader was chosen in a competitive setting from amongst a group of suitable persons), polygamous marriage and temporary marriage (which was not well-liked as it created inheritance issues but was allowable), acceptance of children born out of wedlock (there was no such thing as a bastard, per seall children were legal), collective kin-liability (which will be discussed later), reparation instead of capital punishment, and clientship relationships that involved payment in the rendering of services or in the tithing of harvest (Patterson, 57). These paint a picture of a much more open yet structured society than was before previously thought. And to add to it that there was a general code of law customs to sustain this supports the idea of a well-ordered people group which even used chaos and political upheaval to keep its balance and structure.

  • A Pastoral People

In the end though, because the Celts were such a pastoral people (particularly the Irish), politics and power for them revolved around who had control of pasture and grazing lands. The rest of society fell into place below that line. Everyone had to work together and respect one anothers turf in order for there to be enough to go around. Farmers often shared fields, each having an equal amount of rows in it in order to keep interests to that of his neighbor as well as his own. By law there were high fees and reparations to be made when someones animals or livestock ruined anothers food-stores and produce. In fact, the tribal community was so involved in each others lives that when someone committed a crime, if he could not repay the damage, his close kin were responsible for the debtand if they couldnt pay, the extended family had to pay. If there was no one to repay the debt, that person lost his honor-price in society until he could work off the repayment. The idea was that everyone kept an eye on each other to ensure that things went as smoothly and peacefully as possible. It was much more effective and efficient than any police force. Thus, continuity was the focus, instead of singling the individual out and driving him into opposition with the rest of his community and world. Dualism serves no purpose in the end except destruction and strife.

The other thing that kept communities together was their festivals and feasts, times which allowed them to celebrate the very bonds they held together, as well as to mark the passage between auspicious times. The idea that the Celts based their festivals on the agriculture and seasons is only partly true. More so than that, it was a pastoral thing. Beltaine or Calan Mai was the beginning of marriages and summer, as well as the beginning of driving the cattle and herds up to summer grazing, whilst Samhain or Gwŷl y Meirw was the beginning of winter and of the new year when the family group was reunited, the livestock brought back to the community base, and preparation for the spring began. Imbolc or Gwŷl Forwyn was the Celtic beginning of spring, planting and cleansingand more importantly, calving, whilst Lughnasadh or Gwŷl Aŵst was the time of harvest, contracts, oaths and competitions. It was also a time of cattle slaughter. Each of the festivals provided a time for some part of the cattlemans lifebetween calving, fattening, slaughtering and mating. Even milk and cheese was called the white meat of the people. Agricultural foodstuffs was secondary. The Celts only had four festivals in total (not the neo-pagan eight). If they had been primarily agriculturalists, it would stand to reason that they would have based their festivals around the solstices and equinoxes, like the rest of Europe.

  • Balance and Continuity at Work

Fire was the center of each of these festivals (once again, a cattle connection, because driving the herds between two fires was a way to destroy pests and disease). It is interesting to note that at the center of each community was a beli treea tree that represented the heart of the group. It comes from an early Celtic myth (presumably Welsh, as well as Irish, though the Irish myth is all we have) that the goddess Danu or Don, the Eternal Mother and Life-Waters nourished Bel, the oak tree of life, and from his acorns sprang the gods and goddesses of the Celts. These same gods and goddesses became ancestors to each of the tribes and clans, attaining the position of patron and protector of the people. And so the connection comes full circle as each community reminds itself of their origins, like the World Tree, through the beli tree. Bel is thought to be the god connected to Beltaine as well and he appears in both Irish and Welsh mythology, same as Danu or Don does. Bel can mean fire or have such connotations. So its no wonder that the bonfire bel and the tree beli were hearts of the tribe. At a more personalized level, at the heart of each family was the hearth, which was usually open and in the center of the home structure. And to the Celts, spirit was fire, a flame that emblazoned the heart and head, it was the personal fire. In this way, fire was the transmutable, transforming power that brought life to the empty structure of a body, a family and a tribe, just as it was the element of spirit that enlivened the Celtic triple elements of earth, sea and sky.

The Celts knew that they were part of creation and that every action and thought has a repercussion (the karmic principle found in Hindu and Buddhist traditions)just look at their tribal and legal systems for evidence of that! Thus everything in Celtic philosophy and life aimed towards cooperation and integration of the community with themselves, with other communities and with nature. It was a delicate balance and in the ideal, law-prescribed situation, it was a balance perfectly struck. One need only enjoy the beauty and delicate finesse of Celtic art and design to see their world viewa swirling dance of beauty, balance and interaction. If you take a look at modern society (and its resulting arts, which are like fingers on the pulse of the people), its aims are all towards self-individualization, separation and disintegration. Its no wonder that post-modern literature is a wasteland and existential and nihilistic theories abound. I can hardly say that it is wrong for humanity to work towards individualization. That is obviously the direction Western society has needed to gobut things are out of balance now. We could learn a thing or two from the ancestors, from the Celtsjust as they could have learned more than a thing or two from us (and are doing, through those of us who are their descendents and future lives).

The one thing that Celtic society so delicately balanced on though was an observance of many of their unwritten (and latterly written) laws based around personal honor and value. They ensured that everyone was cared for, that everyone participated (or had a function) and that everyone had a value. For example, the Irish had the first hospital system in Europe, one that they maintained at a high level of efficiency throughout the various blunders of European superstitions and dirtiness. And though the Celts did not widely practice slavery, unless they were captives of war, slaves too had value and rights.

Part Four: Shame, Honor and Reparation

4) How could a code of honor amongst the Celtic peoples provide a stable and secure society? How could it ensure change (hopefully for the better) as well?

  • Wynebwerth (Honour and Reputation)

This idea of value was intrinsic to the Celtic tribal system. It is found in all branches of the Celtic peoples. (I will focus specifically on the Welsh customs and law because that is the area we/I live in.) Thus in Wales, each person had a wynebwerth that determined his or her galanas (life price) and sarhaed (insult price). Wynebwerth literally means face value. To understand this strange idiom, it is necessary to first understand a bit about Celtic society. A persons face stood as a metaphor for his reputation. If he or someone else did anything to harm that reputation, it became a blemish. What a succinct word blemish is because here it can imply social impediment and shame, personal pain and discomfort, character ugliness, exile, and so forth. A clear example of this is that the Celtic Bards possessed the ability to blemish any man with their powerful words. The bardic tongue could ruin reputation and maim ones fitness for leadership and integrity. This was a very powerful skillfor it elevated bards from role of entertainers to political forces to be reckoned with!

Wynebwerth was determined not only by blood and birth, but also by skills. This was most evident with skilled labor like blacksmithy and metallurgy. Bards, druids, and judges all had special values that added onto whatever wynebwerth they were born with. In fact, wynebwerth through skill was more highly valued than by blood, because often fees and compensation was calculated based in favor of the skill price, instead of based on blood relationships.

  • Shame and Sarhaed

If a persons wynebwerth was damaged, he was shamed. Shame for the Celts is a bit different from the modern day sense. It does not necessarily imply a feeling of sinfulness or wrong-doing, but rather a feeling of being insulted or injured. Shame meant that you had been wronged by someone else and could not be free from shame (or blemish) until that wrong was redressed. Thus, the Welsh had something called sarhaed, or insult price. To commit sarhaed, someone had to show insult, contempt or violate you in a disrespectful or obnoxious manner. Spreading false rumors or giving false witness in a judges court were serious offenses of sarhaed, and were actually more expensive in some cases than if you had physically injured or even killed someone. If someone was spreading lies about you or did not give respect to your station in society, an insult was given and they would then owe you money or services to clear that shame. Of course, insult needed to be an intentionally committed act, and was most vicious when it involved premeditation. Accidents had to be compensated as well but a sarhaed price was not added to the injury price. As Hwyels Law says For every injury committed unwittingly (or wittingly) there must be redress wittinglyunless warning had been given. (paraphrase of various laws on Sarhaed) Striking someone unlawfully was shaming and had to be compensated. But lawful anger was allowable without any repercussion (self defense, fair open fighting, worthy vengeance, and correcting a child with one slap). If a husband was found with another woman, the wife could claim sarhaed from her husbandand if he continually had affairs with the mistress, the wife was legally allowed to physically injure or kill the woman without any legal retribution, as the woman was seen as an offense to the marriage bed and a personal shame on the wifes honor. Being a mistress was quite a risky business amongst the Celts! These are only some examples of the different types of sarhaed. The law tracts of Hwyel went into very specific cases and variations of such, in order to give the judge or brawdwr a wide range of counsel before he proclaimed his decision.

  • The Judge or Brawdwr

Having mentioned the brawdwr (judges had other titles too; I use brawdwr for sake of simplicity even though it specifically refers to circuit justices), they held a position akin to that of the Gaelic brehon. Brawdwrs were much freer than our modern day judges are, because they could interpret and apply the law to a situation as they saw best. This did not mean that they were without fault, and if they judged poorly on too many cases, they could bring sarhaed down upon their own heads and lose their positions as well as the fees paid to them for judging. Thus consequences were serious enough to threaten the judges position in society and his reputation and demand the best service to people as possible. The Irish had a saying that “When the brehons deviated from the truth, there appeared blotches upon their cheeks.” This reminds us of the honor blemish mentioned before in association with wynebwerth.

It was a great responsibility to sit in judgment, which is why it could take years of hard study at various Druidic and later Christian colleges. The Irish had a considerable center of learning at Tara, where the High Kings seat was situated. The Welsh equivalent was most likely to be found on the Isle of Môn or Anglesey, which was reputed to have been such a famous druidic training center that even the Irish sent their trainees there.

Common law was known throughout the land though and it was best if the parties involved could settle matters privately and without a hearing. In fact, I suspect that this was much more common, and that judicial sittings were not the norm.

  • Galanas (Homicide)

Galanas was the fine for homicide, paid by the murderer to the nearest of kin. Its nearest equivalent was in Germanic societys wergild which demanded reparation on the result of death as well. For the Celts (both Welsh and Irish) if the murderer could not pay, he lost his own honor price (in other words, was shamed) until galanas could be repaid. If the murderer was unable to provide the fee after a given period of time, the institution of collective kin-liability was invoked, which meant that his family had to pay the life-price in order to redeem him and remove the shame from them and the offended party. This involvement of the kin could extend all the way to the 5th degree of relationin other words, all the way to 5th cousins, in the case of murder. The entire local clan or cenedl became responsible for the actions of one of their members, which not only was a wise measure of preventing offenses but also a means of keeping justice at work.

As a rule, galanas was not necessarily the only option available to the family of the murdered victim. They had two choiceseither to seek galanas or to seek revenge, as in a life for a life. Revenge was not well looked upon in Celtic law, but it was allowed, in so much as that it was not carried out by the lords or legal system but by the kin. If the victims kin decided to exact revenge, they obviously could not also claim galanas.

  • Reparation and Restoration

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Celts laws was in this way of dealing with crime, because their system supported justice for all involved, whilst protecting the various parties as well. Reparation was the rule for any injury, instead of the other patterns of justice in the rest of Europe such as capital punishment and bodily member loss. Once the offender had repaired his relationship and reputation with society, he was restored back into the community. Exile was not really a common happening as it was in Germanic and Nordic societies. Exile could happen though if you were utterly unredeemable by familial and self efforts. But even then, you could join various mercenary war bands and regain your honor that way (though it wasnt necessarily the most respected place in society)which meant that eventually you could pay the fines back.

Part Five: Women as the Reflection of Celtic Attitudes towards Life

5) How can a societys attitudes towards its women reflect its activities, morals and social norms?

  • The Celtic Attitude

The Celts showed a remarkable value and temperance towards the feminine members of their society. Although it was not fully equal positions, women retained a position of relative freedom and personal choice, as opposed to the Roman and other Indo-European women-folks. The Roman philosopher famed for his reasoning, Seneca (4 BCE65 CE ) declared that women were innately inferior to men, whilst Philo, a Jewish philosopher of the Stoical flavor, declared that women should serve men as a slave. I could cite many more sources and quotations of Roman, Jewish, Greek and other European opinions on women which all say much the same thingthat a woman was of inferior rank, the rank of a slave and her only purpose was to look after the family and provide the vehicle for reproduction.

The Celtic laws put boundaries into place to ensure that women were protected from rape and sexual or gender harassment or discrimination, and that she was not abused or shamed in a marriage relationship. She could choose divorce and re-marriage if her causes were reasonable, and if she was in the right, she could demand compensation or part of the household value from her husband. Women could also own property and inherit, and had the right to health benefits in hospitals and compensation for such. Women could also go to battle and fight if they wanted to, as is told in the account of the battle of Mona against the Romans in AD 43, where women were ready to fight and making a ghastly noise (most likely a type of war cry or banshee cry). The only real difference between men and women was in the jural sphere, where women had to act through male members of her family (or her husband) if she wanted legal action.

  • Morwyn or Maiden

Before she wed, the female was called a morwyn which really equates with girl or virgin. Girls were allowed relative freedom to travel or be in fosterage (a Celtic custom where families could send their children away to other families, to either learn a trade like an apprenticeship or to show solidarity and friendship between the families), until they started showing signs of womanhood (ie growth of hips and breasts, pubic hair and menstruation), which meant she had to remain with noe y thadbeside her fathers plate. The idea was that once she was of sexual age, she had to be under her fathers roof to ensure that a close watch was kept on her male interactions. Girls were then allowed to marry and bear children once past the age of 14, though some cases showed at the age of 12 in some law tracts. While she was a virgin, the girl was under the kings protection. If someone harmed her in any way, they were personally accountable to the king, because they had shamed the king in his responsibility to protect the maiden and her virginity. When a maiden lost her virginity, the person who took it from her had to pay both her lord a fee or amobr for having protected her whilst she was a virgin and also had to pay her a cowyll or virginity prize, which was like a form of sarhaed to repair whatever pain, shame or discomfort the girl had gone through whilst giving up her virginity. Fathers also gave their daughters a gift or dowry, known as gwaddol, if he had given her in marriage. This was because it was considered shaming to a girl when her father betrothed her, especially if she was not consulted on the matter first. Gwaddol was another form of sarhaed, as a reparation for the maids lost innocence and childhood. It was a way of acknowledging her feelings and that she had moved from puberty into womanhood.

  • Gwraig or Woman

Once a morwyn was married or had had sexual intercourse, she was no longer a virgin but a gwraig, which today is the Modern Welsh word for wife but in Middle Welsh meant a sexually matured woman, who had experienced sex and was able to bear children. She had y teithi oedran gwraigthe characteristics of womanhood and was decidedly a non-virgin. If a woman didnt wed but lived with a man, she was having a caradas, or affairthough this was by no means a crime amongst the Celts and most likely was a fairly common occurrence.

When a woman wed, as she was generally expected to do (though not always), her role was three-fold:

1) to provide a link between kins, as a peace-maker

2) to cement the link through child-bearing

3) to guard the kins reputation (wynebwerth) and that of her husbands by being respectable, hospitable, generous and fastidious.

· Cynyweddi: The Nine Levels of Sexual Unions

Marriage was much more complicated than you would imagine though. In fact, the Celts did not really look at marriage in their law texts so much as sexual unions. There were nine levels of sexual unions and these hold parallels throughout all the Celtic peoples and interestingly enough, with the Indian law texts recording Hindu custom.

I will briefly run through these nine levels and expand on the most important and pertinent ones.

1) Priodas: this was the first and highest level and was a union of any sort that had lasted longer than seven years. It was only after seven years that a marriage was fully and legally in place. At that time, all goods and interests were split half and half between the partners and the woman had a say in financial and property matters, had her own honor-price that was not necessarily connected to her husband, could own her own property and have business ventures, all the mean while increases her own personal wealth. Divorce was allowable if the husband was abusive, infertile, impotent, had bad hygiene or gross habits, and bad breath.

2) Agweddi: this was a sexual union that was brought about through gift of kin, in other words, the girl was given her dowry by her father and the husband paid the father and king or lord for his care of the girl. There would be a feast for all the kin, specifically to the set of 4th degree kinbecause it was to this level that kin had to be consulted about a girls wedding. Under agweddi, a woman did not have all the rights that a woman in priodas had. She could not divorce him unless she was harmed, nor could the man divorce her unless he was injured. Agweddi provided a stable marriage relationship for at least seven years. If the woman withdrew from the marriage for legal reasons, she was allowed to take her agweddi which was all the assets and money or possessions she had taken into the relationshipas long as she hadnt sold any of them off.

The next three levels were unions without a dowry or agweddi, but were given with the kin and womans consent:

3) Caradas: here the woman does not leave her home but is publicly visited by a man. In some cases, it also means cohabitation between a couple, especially if the woman is older in years.

4) Deu Lysuab: this would be marriage between step-siblings, which could never reach proper marital status until after seven years.

5) Llathlut Goleu: this was an open elopement to any home other than the womans home, where her family does not make an attempt to retrieve her, thus showing through their inaction that they condone the union (though they might not necessarily approve of it).

Then the next two unions occurred when the woman gave her consent to the union but her kin did not:

6) Llathlut Twyll: a secret elopement, with the womans family being actively against the union

7) Beichogi twyll gwreic llwyn a pherth: this was a secret sexual union that did not involve cohabitation and occurred all out of doors. It literally means by bush and brakeand the image is of a couple having a good session beneath the gorse and heather!

The last two unions are the lowest and worst forms, occurring without the kin OR womans consentessentially rape.

8) Kynnwedi ar liw ac ar oleu: this was when a woman was abducted and raped or when a woman was taken as a captured wife, which was common during inter-tribal warfare.

9) Twyll Morwyn: this occurs when a virgin specifically but also any woman is deceived or is unable to resist intercourse either because she is unconscious, sleeping, drunk, or insane.

To conclude, the Celts fine eye for detail in society and people groups is much to be admired, considering that most people consider (or consideredI hope public opinion is changing with the use of the internet and increase of communication) the Celts to be a barbaric peoples. I think that the diversity and equanimity of the various Irish and Welsh law tracts proves otherwise. Any people group that holds their women in high regard will be life-affirming and kin-oriented. It is the kind of mindset that nurtures a worldview of relationship with all thingsan animistic worldview, a caring worldview. The people who can mistreat their women are also more likelyin fact, are historically provento disregard and trample Mother Earth with as many means of exploiting and subjugating her as possible. Materialism, dog eat dog takes overand that to me is far more barbaric than anything the Celts and pre-Celts ever could have done. This is why I point to Western Civilizations roots in the Roman and Greek mindset. There are many other civilizations out there that do not agree with the lifestyle and ways of doing things. The Celts, ironically, are one of them. But we can also gain insight into the larger world through the Orient and Indian cultures, the Native American and Siberian peoples, as well as any other indigenous peoples such as the Aborigines in Australia.

Conclusion: Lessons

The Celtic Peoples show us that it is possible to have advanced civilizational development and still maintain a respect for life, an awe at lifes beauty and movement, and a sense of continuity and interconnection between everything in the universe that is. They are a good example of how a warrior culture can still hold integrity and honor as their code. It also means that the Celts value of Truth and Justice would have a great impact on their religious orders, stretching as far back as to the Druids and whatever shamanic or priesthood leaders would have been there before the Druids. Truth and wisdom were combined as the focus of druidic and mystic Celtic Christian contemplation and action. It was a path to enlightenment, to personal transformation and spiritual freedom. Nature was key to this path, and inner journeying and day-to-day observances of Self and Life were the tools.

The Celtic Tribal or Kinship system was much more integrative and nurturing of the individual as well, looking out for everyones benefit and maintaining a balance between personal and kinship honor. If families today could just learn to work together a bit more, to be there for each other, and to focus the family efforts on growth and learning, instead of monetary status and educational certificationthen society as a whole would see wide-spread benefits. Crime would decrease, without a doubt, and if all wrong-doers were made to repair whatever damage they created, it also would ensure that less people would premeditate such actions. Its one thing to be sentenced to death or a life in prison. Its another thing to be shamed continuously before your peers until your crime is repaid.

I can only wonder where the Celts would be now if they had not come under the Roman Churchs dominance and if the Norman way of life had not been forced upon them. But it is up to us, to make a personal decision in our lives, today, right now, about how we are going to live. We can make changes in our ways of thinking. It is possible. It is more than possible. The Celts were a passionate and fiery people who knew how to get what they wanted. It simply takes you wanting to change (clearly defining your intent) and fully focusing your energies and spiritual efforts upon enacting that change. Change is inevitableyoull be much happier if you consciously choose to change and can mold that change to fit your benefits. In Celtic society, everyone was individually responsible for his or her own honor. Can you live with your honor if you know you need to change your mindset?

We can be aware, we can live from the center of our truth, in a life of compassion, integrity, integration and harmony. There is no excuse why we cannot. Excuses died years ago. All that is left is the space between I can and I am.

References, Bibliography and Sources

  • Shoaf, R. A. Milton, Poet of Duality. New Haven. Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Jenkins, Dafydd; Owen, Morfydd E. The Welsh Law and Women. Cardiff. University of Wales Press, 1980.
  • Patterson, Nerys. Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland. Notre Dame, Indiana. University of Notre Dame Press,1994.

© 2007 J MacCormack

Leave a Reply

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.