Values – Part One

Society and the Law
The Wisdom Texts
Values and Virtues
Enech – Honour
Febas – Excellence
Gart – Hospitality
Ecna(e) – Wisdom
Bés – Custom
Fír – Truth
Conclusion (Finally!) – Values in Modern Gaelic Polytheism


Gaelic Polytheism focuses on a loosely defined set of virtues and values; positive attributes or behaviours that define what makes a person right and good as an individual, within their society and community, and with their gods.

There is no one explicit outline of these ‘virtue ethics’, as such, to be found in a particular text or manuscript – no convenient list of thou shalts or thou shalt nots; instead, we must look to a variety of sources and piece together our own idea of how we can best live our life and honour the gods, spirits and ancestors. Therefore, we will be looking in a few basic areas – the law, wisdom-texts, and the myths in particular. Of these, the most helpful sources are going to be:

Looking at the concept of gessi (sing. geis) and buada – prohibited acts often seen to have been laid on gods, kings and heroes – will also be helpful. It may also be helpful to delve into the concept of gessi and buada in more detail before continuing here.

First we’ll look at the various different areas we can look to in helping us figure out the kind of values and virtues that we can adopt into a modern context, and get an idea of how they can help us in answer our question. Then we’ll go on to look at the values and virtues themselves.

Society and the Law

Social values heavily informed the way in which early Irish law worked,2 and the law and society was heavily concerned with status. By and large, offences were dealt with in economic terms, with compensation being paid to the injured party as recompense. As the injured party, the amount of compensation you might be entitled to depended on your status within the community, and your status was generally determined by your wealth, your family’s status, as well as your own bearing. When this was all taken into consideration, your status was defined by your lóg n-enech (lit. ‘the price of his face’ – or ‘honour-price’).3

The law-tract Uraicecht Becc gives “merit, integrity and purity” as the qualities that give a person their full honour-price; merit can be interpreted in the sense of the putting wealth to good use, for worthy causes, while integrity can be seen as the proper fulfilment of duties. Purity can be taken to mean innocence – being guiltless or faultless.4 Doing wrong, bringing dishonour or shame to your name, giving false testimony, failing to defend yourself from defamation or slander, and so on, in turn, would result in both a reduction of status and therefore your lóg n-enech and potential for claiming dire – payment of fines as compensation – in the case of wrongs being committed against your person. As a result, one’s behaviour could have a huge impact on not just your social standing in society, but also your ability to act and defend oneself within that society.5

Status therefore depended not just on your position and role within the community – which was often more to do with being an accident of birth, really – but also your personal qualities. It was expected that everyone should demonstrate febas – ‘excellence’ – which encompasses concepts such as dignity, worth, behaviour fitting one’s social position and status. These are the qualities that make a person honourable.6 A lord was expected to fulfil his duties towards his clients, and vice versa, then; he should act like a lord. Likewise a king was expected to act like a king, and given that such a position was incredibly high status and involved fulfilling sacred duties towards his people, it’s no wonder that the laws and the wisdom-texts demonstrate many different kinds of restrictions and proscriptions on the king in terms of how he was expected to behave.7

What we see here, then, is a body of laws that were strongly based on the family and the community rather than the individual.8 Within the law and literature we see a society that:

“…allowed little if any scope for the exercise of individual conscience, the agent of an internalized personal code of ethics. Instead, standards of right and wrong were traditional, external, and public, determined and imposed by the society, with shame and disgrace the major sanctions and honour and glory the ultimate rewards.”9

Furthermore, an individual’s crimes and loss of honour reflected upon the whole derbfine (an extended network of kin defined by a common great-grandfather), and any legal or social repercussions against the individual had an impact on the derbfine as a whole.10

The Wisdom Texts

The wisdom-texts, like Audacht Morainn (‘The Testament of Morann’) and Tecosca Cormaic (‘The Instructions of Cormac’), detail behaviours that are said to be acceptable or unacceptable in society. Most of these wisdom-texts use certain historical or pseudo-historical figures with a reputation for being wise, or good judges, to act as the dispenser of such goodly wisdom;11 Morann, for example, was a renowned judge, known for his ability to make good and true judgements,12 while Cormac is Cormac mac Airt, said to have been a third century king renowned for his exceptionally successful and wise rule. As a result of this, Cormac was often held up as the very embodiment and ideal of the perfect king.13

Some of the best known wisdom-texts are aimed at kings, and these are called speculum principium “a mirror for princes.” They are part of a body of literature found throughout much of the medieval world, though of course the examples we are concentrating on here deal specifically in terms of Irish kings and Irish society. They are primarily concerned with advising kings and royalty in how best to run their own affairs and, since their behaviour has a direct impact on their people, how they should rule and be a good king.14

There are also some wisdom-texts that seem to have been aimed specifically at a much more lowly audience that the speculum principium type sources, and Bríathra Flainn Fhína maic Ossu (‘The Sayings of Flann Fína’) is a good example to look at here.15 Considered along with the many triads found in Trecheng Breth Féne (‘The Triads of Ireland’) we see that all of the wisdom-texts reflect similar attitudes and principles no matter who they are aimed at,16 and so on the whole, regardless of who the sources are really aimed at we can find a lot to help inform us of the kind of values and virtues that were upheld in early Irish society. In turn, this can help inform our own values and attitudes in modern Gaelic Polytheism.

Before we go on, however, it has to be stated that these texts are not without their problems. In particular, we cannot forget that we are dealing with texts from a time that had some vastly different attitudes than our own – a time when slavery was acceptable, and considered the norm, for example. It was also a time when attitudes towards things like sex, sexuality, and women were often very different as well; Tecosca Cormaic, for example, contains an extremely misogynistic section that displays an extremely negative attitude towards women that cannot be considered to be particularly wise or helpful by our own modern standards.17

Given the time in which the sources we are referring to were written, it is important to consider the factors that might affect them. While we are primarily trying to build a picture of what kind of values and virtues were upheld in a pre-Christian Gaelic society, we can’t ignore the fact that the sources were written down in the Christian period. We might assume – though we can’t conclusively prove – that at least some of the sources have their origins in pre-Christian times, or at least have influences from that kind of material, but we have to consider who was writing these sources, and the kind of personal biases and influences that might have crept into the texts.

Many of these wisdom-texts don’t have much in the way of overtly Biblical or Christian references, but secular as they may seem, it doesn’t mean that they are devoid of such influences. In Audacht Morann and Tecosca Cormaic, for example, there are many parallels to be found with the Old Testament, and much work has gone into trying to determine how much these wisdom-texts have been influenced by Christian mores. Are these parallels deliberate, or are they a happy coincidence? Do they happen to compliment the wisdom and values that were already in existence prior to the recording of the wisdom-texts, or do they seem out of place?18

Certainly these overtly Christian influences on the texts fit in smoothly with the advice being given – even in the cases where it is being aimed at the king, whose position still retained sacral, and very pagan roots; roots which informed and motivated his behaviour, and reflected upon his success, no less. As much as these sources may be a product of Christian times, they are also a product of a very conservative society that wasn’t shy of its pagan past, and didn’t suddenly change over night once Christianity arrived. We therefore have to pose the question: Would there be much difference between pre-Christian and Christian values, anyway?

Looking to a wider context, to other Indo-European pre-Christian cultures, we can say that in general: not really. The Christian Irish made no bones about disapproving of practices like ‘heathen sacrifices’,19 but they also emphasised values like fame, generosity, and hospitality that can be seen to have been central values to pre-Christian Indo-European cultures in general.20

Ultimately, all we can say is that there are values and attitudes in the sources that we have to hand that (as far as we can tell) fit with a pre-Christian outlook, as much as a modern one (to a certain extent, at least), or a Christian one. But we must also remember that there are some values and attitudes that we find in the Irish sources that don’t fit with a modern view: We cannot consider misogyny, for example, a positive value in this day and age, or consider slavery to be particularly moral or justified. Inevitably, then, we have to use a certain amount of discernment and discretion in looking at the material, especially in considering what we can still apply to our own circumstances.

Continue to Part Two


1 This is part of the tale Serglige Con Culainn, ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn,’ but not usually included in translated versions (e.g. Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas).
2 Latvio, ‘Status and Exchange in Early Irish Laws,’ in Studia Celtica Fennica II, 2005, p69-70. For more background on early Irish society and how status worked, see here.
3 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p8.
4 Latvio,‘Status and Exchange in Early Irish Laws,’ in Studia Celtica Fennica II, 2005, p81.
5 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p124; Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p1560.
6 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p124; Latvio, ‘Status and Exchange in Early Irish Laws,’ in Studia Celtica Fennica II, 2005, p81.
7 Latvio, ‘Status and Exchange in Early Irish Laws,’ in Studia Celtica Fennica II, 2005, p80-81.
8 Yocum, Wisdom Literature in Early Ireland, 2010, p21.
9 Findon (quoting Philip O’Leary), ‘A Woman’s Word: Emer versus Cú Chulainn in Aided Óenfir Aífe’, in Ulidia, 1994, p145.
10 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p12-14.
11 Yocum, Wisdom Literature in Early Ireland, 2010, p7-8.
12 Ireland, Old Irish Wisdom Attributed to Aldfrith of Northumbria: An Edition of Bríathra Flainn Fhína maic Ossu, 1999, p7-8.
13 Yocum, Wisdom Literature in Early Ireland, 2010, p27.
14 Ireland, Old Irish Wisdom Attributed to Aldfrith of Northumbria: An Edition of Bríathra Flainn Fhína maic Ossu, 1999, p6-7.
15 Ireland, Old Irish Wisdom Attributed to Aldfrith of Northumbria: An Edition of Bríathra Flainn Fhína maic Ossu, 1999, p16.
16 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p1809.
17 Meyer, ‘The Instructions of King Cormac mac Airt,’ in Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series Volume XV, 1909, p29-35.
18 See for example: McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p31; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p236.
19 MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p237.
20 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p964.