, ,

Celtic Women in Ancient Ireland, Part II

Celtic Women in Ancient Ireland, Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher continues his look at the role of Celtic women in ancient Ireland, looking at marriage and women’s rights in a man’s world. (Click here for Part I or Part III.)

Last time we looked at the case for women living a more egalitarian existence in Celtic society than in the Roman and Greek worlds. Women could own and inherit property. Celtic legends tell us of strong women leaders, such as Macha Mong Ruadh, who supposedly founded Emain Macha, which for generations became the seat of the kings of Ulster. Until Christianity banned the practice, they even fought alongside men.

Celtic Women, Equal or Not?


A Celtic Marriage Ceremony

But again, the evidence for women’s equality in ancient Celtic society is mixed. Says Philip Freeman: “Irish law texts tell us that women were classed along with children, slaves, and insane persons as having no independent legal rights.” As in many ancient cultures a woman’s legal status was tied to whatever man had authority over them: husband, father, brother, etc… Freeman again: “Modesty, virtue, and steady, hard work were the marks of a proper wife. Sexual promiscuity and dabbling in witchcraft were the qualities a man should beware of when shopping for a mate.”

The attitudes of most ancient societies toward women can be summarized in this Roman law: “Women, even if they are full grown, shall always have a legal guardian because of their foolish minds.”

Celtic Marriage

Under Celtic laws, nine types of “marriages” were recognized in a hierarchy from highest to lowest, as follows:

  1. Both man and woman contributed property such as land or cattle. The woman here was a “wife of joint authority”.
  2. Marriage between a man of means and a woman with little or no property.
  3. A man with little or no property married a woman of means.
  4. A man spent the night occasionally with a woman, in her home with her family’s consent.
  5. Of her own volition, but without her father’s consent, a woman eloped with a man.
  6. A woman allowed herself to be abducted from her father’s home, but reluctantly, and without her family’s consent.
  7. A man visited a woman in her father’s home secretly, without her father’s consent.
  8. A man had a mentally incompetent wife. But here the laws strongly protected the woman from being exploited.
  9. An act of rape. In this case the man was assessed a heavy fine, plus was responsible for the full cost of raising any child that resulted from the union.

These definitions of “marriage” are quite loose, to say the least, encompassing nearly every type of relationship between a man and woman. Yet they do serve to protect a woman’s rights to any property she brings to what we would consider a traditional marriage. They also protect her if she becomes mentally incompetent. And they do require a man who rapes a woman to pay reparations and child support. In a world ruled by men, where the druids and the clan were the only law, these protections were, at least, something.

One Year Trial Marriages

One interesting custom is the woman’s right to abandon a marriage after the first year. At the end of one year of marriage, if a woman found her mate had abused her, did not make love to her enough, or she otherwise found she’s incompatible with her husband, she can leave the man and annul the marriage. So you Celtic guys, be on your best behavior with your new bride. Or she’ll return to papa.

Sources for this post were St. Patrick of Ireland, by Philip Freeman, and The Celts, by Peter Beresford Ellis.

We’ll continue our look at the role of women in Celtic society next week, with Part III.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.