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Celtic Ethics: An Introduction

Brian Walsh

Celtic culture is not monolithic in its beliefs, attitudes, and ethics. This should come as no surprise since Celtic culture has existed for around three thousand years, over a widely flung geographical area, interacting with variety of influences. Thus Celtic Values can mean very different things to different people depending on when and where one seeks precedent or models. Iron Age, Early Christian, post-conquest, the modern Gaeltacht (or other currently Celtic speaking regions) all provide views on how to live which have variable relevance to our current situations and the lives we would like to lead. Given our own axioms and goals, some will speak much louder than others. That said, it becomes apparent that any examples given are but snapshots of a larger evolving, and even when viewed overall, contradictory system of behaviour.

In 'The Apple Branch', Alexei Kondratiev describes a basic level of Iron-Age Celtic Values drawn from the Indo-European structure of the society itself: the division of First Function (kings and priests), Second Function (warriors), and Third Function (producers), which thus give us Piety, Courage, and Generosity.

Some related Indo-European cultures compare these three Functions to the head (1st), arms/chest (2nd), and belly (3rd) of a single being, thus representing the society as a whole. To my knowledge, Piety and Generosity don't have any tidy bodily correspondence in Celtic culture, but courage does. The bodily relation of Courage to the warrior or Second function and the chest area is made explicit in the languages themselves. The Brythonic language use the word 'heart' ('calon', 'kalon', or 'kolinn') to mean Courage, while the Irish word 'chest' ('ucht') forms the root of 'uchtach' meaning Courage or hope.

Culturally, it is fairly obvious why Piety, Courage, and Generosity are necessary values to the priestly, warrior, and producing classes respectively, but the necessity for any one individual to possess all three is also readily apparent. Underlying the expression of Piety, Courage, and Generosity is a strong implication of Honour, which incidentally has a bodily relationship to the face; 'honour' (oineach) is connected to 'face' (enech) and a spirit of social responsibility. Without social responsibility, knowledge, violence, and wealth can become just three more ways to bully, oppress, and marginalize other members of society - examples of this are as easily found in Celtic history and myth, as they are in any other culture.

Though this is hardly an extensive treatise on Celtic Values, my goal is simply to provide food for thought, in the hopes that you, the reader, will take this slender invitation to explore what 'Celtic Values' has meant in various times and places, and what it means to you right now.

We must be cautious, however, to avoid any undue simplification or romanticism of Celtic cultures, past or present. The degree of consideration given to laws, ethics, and behaviour points to the fact that such consideration was deemed needful. Just as a culture not fraught with violence would have no need for walled hill forts, and a culture without a rich tradition of cursing and other baleful magical arts would have no need for a multitude of protective orthas (spells and prayers), so too a culture with utopian moral standards would have no need for a strong litigious system to support moral and ethical behaviour. To glorify, or sanitize the culture from which we draw precedent would be a mistake.

Even though there is great beauty and value in reclaiming a Celtic spiritual tradition, we must not forget that "The yearning to find utopias in the past is - if we are honest - as likely to be disappointed as the ambition to found them in the present. The great teachers to whom we look back for guidance repeatedly complained, surely with justification, about the times in which they lived. And so I have no desire to idealise, or idolise, the early Irish. Theirs was a violent, arrogant, and in many respects parochial culture, preoccupied with status, privilege, and reputation." (Carey, 'Single Ray of the Sun', 1999, p105)

I encourage everyone interested in a living Celtic Spirituality to look at both the 'desirable' and the 'undesirable' (problematic terms, to be sure) in Celtic culture and embody the first and learn from the latter.