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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.


The Early Medieval Code of Honor

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the early medieval code of honor in ancient, Celtic Ireland. That such a code exists is one more reason why writing about the era is attractive for Christian historical fiction and Christian fantasy.

The Early Medieval Code of Honor

Celtic+high+kingA medieval code of honor prevailed among the nobility of some, but not all, medieval cultures. Especially in fifth century Celtic, Ireland—my current writing era—the qualities men admired most were honor, bravery, loyalty, hospitality, and generosity. Mind you, this is long before the age of chivalry brought about by Christianity.

We don’t pretend the medieval era was some kind of paradise. It wasn’t. But even before Christianity arrived, God’s Moral Law—the knowledge of good and evil born within each of us—shines through in our list of moral ideals. Let’s itemize them:

  • Honor: Embracing truth and rejecting falsehood, maintaining personal integrity, being a man or woman of your word—these virtues were highly prized.
  • Bravery: When death or danger approached, the brave man didn’t flinch, but joined the battle or stood his ground.
  • Loyalty: When a man pledged fidelity to a lord or friend, he stood by that person, no matter what happened.
  • Hospitality: Long before they heard about Christ, they practiced the Christian virtue of hospitality, extending welcome and kindness to strangers and foreigners. (See Hebrews 13:2)
  • Generosity: Being generous with praise and goods to guests and underlings was highly valued. A king would be dishonored if his reputation didn’t include generosity.
  • Handsomeness: Okay, this is rather superficial, but personal beauty was held in high esteem. Given that the average lifespan was less than 32 years, the population was young.


Of course, everyone in the ancient world didn’t practice these ideals. Many are the tales of perfidy, deceit, and evil doings. But those who violated these idealswere not viewed as honorable men.

For the story writer, these virtues become rich material for heroes and villains. They give the writer a solid basis for plot and character. To the extent that the best ideals of ancient culture align with Christian virtues, it also gives the story added depth.

Today—What Happened?

Now I must ask: What happened to these virtues today?  Today’s politicians and leaders, with a few notable exceptions, seem to embody the antithesis of these qualities. (We’ll set aside “handsomeness”. We’ll not hold them to that.) Today, I fear honor in public life is all but lost. I make an exception for the military, which understandably embraces only the first half of our list.  This points out another reason why writing for the medieval era is so attractive—it stands in stark contrast to the character of our time. Many readers want escape. They want to enter another world, far from the cares of today. Our list of virtues, if brought out in our heroes and heroines, provides a welcome relief from the perfidy, dishonor, disloyalty, and small mindedness on display in today’s leaders.

Christian Virtues Far Surpass the Ancient Culture’s

And here my critique of today’s world, and its leaders also provides a powerful reason why Christian fiction itself is so attractive. For the virtues of Christianity—the fruits of the Spirit—not only align with many of these, they surpass them. The Apostle Paul gave us a summary in Galatians 5:22–23 (NLT): “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!”

But the Medieval World Wasn’t All Roses

Thus far, I’ve given many reasons why writing for the medieval era is attractive. But lest I leave you with a Pollyanna view of that period, we must address reality. The ancient world was filled with violence, death, brutality, and deceit. But these, too, are reasons to write about the era. For conflict is the engine of storytelling. And here we enter a number of wide-ranging topics. When we pick up the subject again—after some intermission posts—we’ll continue looking at different aspects of the medieval world. Next week, I hope to review “Undercurrent”, by Michelle Griep.