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An Ancient Celtic Wedding, Part I

An Ancient, Celtic Wedding—Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher tells the story of a Celtic wedding ceremony. ’Tis the Year of our Lord five hundred and two, and Brigid and Airril are about to be married. Let us now, as quietly as we can, join the event…

celticwoman-2A Celtic Wedding Between Airril mac Earnan and Brigid nic Dubh

Earnan put hands on hips and regarded his daughter and her groom from the circle’s edge. Since anyone could remember, the forest clearing had held the clan’s weddings. Water bubbled over the rocks of a nearby stream. A great yew tree, symbol of wisdom and age, anchored one side of the clearing. Bluebells and foxglove grew thick on the glade’s perimeter. The clan, dressed in their best tunics, filled the outer circle. A smile lifted Earnan’s mustache.

In the center stood the young couple, Brigid nic Earnan and Airril mac Dubh. Barefoot on the mossy ground, they waited before a priest barely older than they.

“Dubh, is na me daughter a sight to behold?” Earnan looked to the heavy-set man on his right. The groom’s father only nodded. Hard man to engage, that one. Earnan gazed at his daughter, his lungs filling with crisp morning air—or was it pride that so lifted his chest?

The Wedding Dress

Ribbons of bright yellow streamed from her blonde hair. A wreath of daisies and eyebrights crowned her head. Rings of eyebrights bound her wrists, and a rope of tiny brass bells danced around her waist. Green and gold cloth bordered her white, flowing tunic. If only her mother could have lived to see this day. . .

The Horseshoe

Dubh had insisted that they sew the horseshoe into the dress. The priest had strongly objected, saying such superstition had no place in a ceremony of Jesu. But it meant so much to Dubh that Earnan had acquiesced. Dubh claimed the iron would keep away the spirits of the dead, the demons,  and the faery folk. Earnan didn’t hold with that view. But just in case, if the little people were about, Celtic tradition said Brigid would be particularly vulnerable on her wedding day. What could it hurt?

handfasting_ceremonyThe Handfasting

Standing beside Earnan, Dubh’s glance seemed fixed only on his son, Airril. And who could blame him? Clad in a bright plaid kilt with a wide brass torc around his neck, the young man could, someday, easily replace Dubh as Rí Tuath, leader of his clan. Brass armbands, etched with red and yellow swirls, wrapped both arms above the elbow. Leather bands braided Airril’s long, black hair. “Look,” said Earnan, “the priest is handfasting their wrists now.”

The tonsured holy man from a neighboring clan stood before them, gowned in white, as the druids once were. The young couple crossed their wrists, and the priest bound them together with a strip of colored cloth.

Airril turned to his bride with bright, eager eyes. “By the power that Christ brought from Heaven,”— his voice was clear, strong, and eager—“may you love me. As the sun follows its course, may you follow me. As light to the eye, as bread to the hungry, as joy to the heart, may your presence be with me, oh one that I love, ’til death comes to part us asunder.”

When Brigid had repeated the vow, Earnan wiped at his eyes. He shot a glance to the side, but Dubh hadn’t noticed. He was a warrior and leader of the clan, was he not? How could he weep, even at his daughter’s wedding?

The Rings

Next, the priest translated some words from the scroll he’d brought, words in the Roman tongue from a follower of Jesu named John. He fished in his tunic pocket and brought out two golden rings. Earnan, himself, had ordered their making from the clan’s smith, with interlocking swirls racing around the edges. The priest placed a ring in each of their free palms. Airril slipped his on a finger of her bound wrist. Then she slipped hers on one of his fingers. The two lovers looked deeply into each other’s eyes.

The priest placed a hand over their wrists and lifted his gaze to the clan. His voice, rising with happiness, proclaimed, “By the power of Christ, I pronounce these two man and wife.”

The young couple embraced and kissed. The clan cheered and rushed toward them. Off to the side, someone began to play a lively tune on the bone whistle, while another beat time with a bodhrán.

Earnan’s heart filled nearly to bursting. He glanced quickly to Dubh. But what was this? Did he detect a wee bit of moisture there? Earnan smiled. So this flaith, this lord of Tara, was also soft of heart?

But Earnan knew something was missing. The priest had yet to perform the Caim. After that would come the wedding feast. Even from here, he could almost smell the venison roasting over the spit since early morn.

Read More of Mark’s Stories

To read more of Mark’s stories, check out The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of ancient Celtic Ireland in the time of St. Patrick.

Next time, we’ll conclude our story of a Celtic wedding with the wedding feast.

For more Celtic wedding customs, see: http://www.celticjewelry.com/content/celtic-weddings/ancient-celtic-wedding-customs-and-traditions/

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Celtic Women in Ancient Ireland, Part IV

Celtic Women in Ancient Ireland, Part IV

In this post Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at Celtic women in ancient Ireland, with Part IV. (Click here for Part I or Part III.)

We’ve seen how Celtic women had more rights and privileges in ancient Ireland than in the rest of the ancient world—rights to property, inheritance, marriage, and choosing partners. We’ve also seen how, under the multi-tiered Celtic marriage system, they might have had to endure a second wife.

A Woman’s Daily Life

But what was daily life like for the Celtic woman? What did she do all day? Her primary task, of course, was to raise the children. And as we said last time, these might be foster children from relatives or from another clan. Her own children most likely would have been sent, for a time, to foster parents elsewhere.

Besides raising children, a Celtic woman would have spent much of her time helping with agriculture, the lifeblood of Celtic society. The men sheared the sheep. But who combed the fleece and wove the wool it into tunics, pants, and capes? The women, of course. And who went to the barn to milk the cows or goats? The women. And they turned the milk into butter and cheese. We so often take for granted our modern conveniences. Life in the ancient world often involved hard, back-breaking work.

Divorce—It Was an Option

What if a woman simply tired of a man and wanted to abandon him? Before the first year of marriage, she could just walk away. After that, she lost all marital property rights. Yet Irish law provided certain valid reasons for divorce:

  • If a man left her for another woman. In this case, she could take her property and return to her father’s home.
  • If her husband spread vicious rumors about her, or wrote a satire about her.
  • If he spilled intimate details about her without asking her permission.
  • If her husband struck her, leaving a bruise.
  • If her husband grew too fat, or became impotent, she could also leave him.
  • Oddly, if she wanted children, and her husband was unable to provide her with them, she could legally seek out another man to perform the deed, yet still remain married.

So guys, be careful with your witty poems about her. And when you’re out in the field practicing with the sword, no loose guy talk about your wife. And if you suck down too much mead or ale, like your beef too much, and grow fat, she’s got a right to leave you.


Queen Medb of Ireland

Virgins Were Valued

For a proper marriage, the Celtic woman had to be a virgin. And virgins were highly valued assets for a family.

Philip Freeman, author of St. Patrick of Ireland, says this:

“The strategic marriage of a king’s daughter could even settle border disputes, increase a tribe’s land, or end years of bloody hostility. One of the most engaging passages in Patrick’s letters tells of such a daughter:

‘One of these Irish women was of noble birth—full grown and quite beautiful really—whom I had baptized. A few days after this, she came to me with something important on her mind. She said that an angel of God had appeared to her and told her she should become a virgin of Christ if she wanted to be closer to God. Thanks be to God—six days later she joyfully and wholeheartedly chose that path which all virgins of God take.’”

Such a decision, of course, would have been a shock to a father who had arranged a marriage for her, whose plans to gain strategic advantage by the union were probably upset.

But this points out a new course for women in ancient, Celtic Ireland: They could become “virgins for Christ”, making sacrificial vows of chastity, thereby gaining control over their lives.

Chastity Was a Difficult Path

Patrick goes on to say this about such women:

“Many of them do this against the wishes of their parents. Indeed, their families sometimes punish them cruelly and make all sorts of horrible accusations against them…. The number of such virgins who have chosen this new life continues to grow so that I can’t keep track of them all.”

The idea of making a grand sacrifice through a vow of chastity was often readily accepted by the early Irish, not only by women, but also by men. Witness the rise of the monk enclaves. For women it meant withdrawing from the rest of society. But if the woman was a slave, her Christian vows might not have meant much. She was still property, and if her master was not a Christian, she was still subject to rape and abuse. The path of a woman slave who followed Christ by taking a vow of chastity was difficult, indeed.

On the whole, the Celtic woman seemed to have more rights, with more choices, than the women of similar ancient cultures. Some women became druids. Sometimes they fought in battle. And sometimes we even find a Celtic woman as a clan leader.

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

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.