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Teachings From the Ancient Celts: Celtic Honor

Teachings From the Celts: Celtic Honor

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the attribute of honor among the ancient Irish Celts. What is honor? Where is it in today’s world? How did Celtic honor compare to the Romans’?

What is Honor?

In today’s world, we don’t talk much about honor. It seems absent from the public discourse. We might start by defining what it is. My paper copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary, which I trust more than the online versions, defines honor as: “1 high regard or great respect given, received, or enjoyed; esp., a) glory; fame; renown b) good reputation; credit 2 a keen sense of right and wrong; adherence to action or principles considered right; integrity [to conduct oneself with honor].”  There are more definitions, but I think we can stop there.

Where is Honor Today?

In today’s world, what institutions conduct themselves with a keen sense of right and wrong, adhering to right principles with integrity? I submit mostly the military and the church—if you don’t count certain high-profile moral failures not representative of the church as a whole. What about politics?—sadly, no. Business?—sometimes. Government?—not lately, but maybe there’s hope.

Celtic Honor

Which definition best applies to the Celts? Probably the first two. Some may disagree, but I believe the Celts would have most valued glory, fame, and respect. And adhering to right principles with integrity and right conduct.

Many of the other attributes which the Irish Celts held dear—bravery, loyalty, and strength—are also linked in some way to honor. To be brave in the face of the enemy and to uphold one’s convictions is honorable. To be loyal to one’s clan, one’s allies, and one’s friends is necessarily honorable. To be strong and not weak in battle also shows honor.

Their Honor Maligned, the Senones Occupy Rome

The Senones Tribe Defeats Rome

In my post of September 18, 2016, I wrote about the Celtic Senones tribe who tried, peacefully, to negotiate lands for themselves near the Etruscan city of Clusium. The city’s elders, fearing the newcomers, pleaded to Rome for help. Rome then sent the arrogant, but powerful, Fabbii brothers to the negotiations.

But the brothers’ haughty, contemptuous manner offended the Celts and immediately ended negotiations. Assuming the worst, the Etruscans marched out with an army. Then the Roman brothers, who were sent as ambassadors, not battle participants, couldn’t help themselves. They joined the fray, violating the unwritten law of neutrality for the role of ambassador.

Stunned by this unheard of breech of protocol, the Celts sent a diplomatic mission before the Roman senate. The Roman people were with them. But the Fabii brothers, dishonorable to the core, overruled both the Senate and the will of the people. In response, the Celts marched on Rome, conquered it, and for seven months occupied the city. Why? Because their honor was maligned. After receiving an apology and a ransom of gold, the Celts withdrew.

Led by the powerful Fabii brothers, the Romans showed nothing but dishonor, treachery, and deceit. And the Celts? They were upholding their code of right conduct, holding to a keen sense of right and wrong, having been offended by a lack of Roman integrity.

Roman Treachery Versus Celtic Honor

On other occasions when the Romans and Celts met on the battlefield, the Celtic tradition of deciding certain matters of honor was for a leader to challenge the offending army’s leader to single combat. The two armies, armed and ready for battle, would watch while their leaders fought it out, man-to-man. Whichever army’s leader lost would withdraw their forces from the field and cede the day. A more civilized method of handling grievances, no?

But what happened when Roman armies met the Celtic armies in such a situation?  Honorable to the end, if the Celtic leader lost the duel, the Celtic army would withdraw in defeat. But if the Roman army’s leader lost, the Empire’s vaunted legions would simply ignore the Celtic code and attack their adversaries with redoubled force. Instead of honor, the Romans displayed treachery, double-dealing, and deceit.

In the next post, we’ll tackle the Celtic value of bravery.

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. Patick. To learn more about his book, click on the link.