In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at druidic justice in early, medieval Ireland.
Druidic Justice in Ancient, Celtic Ireland
The society of ancient, Celtic Ireland was so much different from ours. The tuath, or clan, was the basic social group. And a number of fines, extended family groups, made up the clan. Each fine lived together in their own roundhouse. In a society so firmly grounded in community, how were disputes and crimes handled? And who decided the penalty a violator must pay?
Who Kept the Celtic Laws?
Before Patrick’s arrival in AD 432 brought about their gradual decline, the druids were the most important, if not the only, voices in judgment. One of the druids’ main roles was as lore-keepers and judges of disputes. But the flaith, or nobility of the tuath, most likely formed ruling councils that were heavily influenced, if not actually controlled by, the druids. The druids were the lore-keepers, the ones who remembered the law traditions of old. They passed down their knowledge of prior judgments orally to each other, often in the form of verse. As in so many areas, this role would have given them great power. When the king’s subjects came to him with minor disputes, even the clan’s Rí Tuath (the clan’s king) might have depended heavily on his druids before rendering a judgment.
What about the regional kings, the Rí Cóicids? What authority did they possess in matters of justice? His word would likely have been law. Such a king held many debts and allegiances from the weaker Rí Tuatha. And he could back up his judgments and decrees by calling men to arms from many tuatha. But he, too, would have relied upon his druids for counsel.
Early Celtic justice also differed from one clan to another. Gradually, the clans borrowed or learned common practices from other clans. Eventually, a kind of Celtic law system developed, which was codified between AD 600-900 into something called the Brehon Laws.
One common feature of Celtic “law’—there were no “crimes against the state”. The offending party paid compensation directly to the victim or his fine. There were, of course, crimes against the tuath.
What Were the Penalties?
For wrongs committed against another person or fine, the offender or his fine would probably have paid compensation in property. This might include cumala (women slaves), cattle (highly prized), sheep, or pigs. But if the person’s crime was indebtedness, and he was unable to pay, the debtor might have to go into bondage as a slave to pay off his debts. Here is a smattering of penalties from the Brehon Laws, taken from “Irish Central“:
- If a poet overcharges for a poem, he shall be stripped of half his rank in society.
- If a pregnant woman craves some morsel of food, and through stinginess or neglect, her husband fails to provide it, he must pay a fine.
- The creditor who holds your brooch, your necklet, or your earrings as a pledge against your loan must return them so you may wear them at the great assembly. Or he will be fined for your humiliation.
For offenses against the clan itself, the offender might be barred temporarily from sacrificial or group ceremonies.
Banishment or Sacrifice
In the worst cases, the criminal himself might be sacrificed in a public ceremony to the gods. Or the druids might banish the criminal from the tuath. In a world where the individual depended heavily on the clan for survival, this sentence would have been severe. It’s possible the person so banished might find another tuath to join. But once separated from your clan’s protection, another clan might just as well decide its laws didn’t apply to you at all. Wanderers were often subject to arbitrary capture, slavery, or death without appeal.
In my upcoming novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, the main character, Taran, begins his adventure by being banished from the clan for rebellion against the druids’ practice of sacrificing children on the altar of Crom Cruach, the dread sun god.
(Sources for this post: The Celts by Peter Beresford Ellis; Land, Sea and Sky, Chapter 15, by Francine Nicholson; and Wikipedia.)
Next time we’ll look at the mystery of ancient, Irish ringforts.