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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.

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Teachings from the Ancient Celts: Community

Teachings from the Ancient Celts: Community

With this post, Christian author Mark Fisher starts looking at the mores and principles that the ancient Celts held dear. In a world where the average person didn’t live past forty, where people were often engaged in a struggle for life and death, what did people value most? How does this differ from today?

We’ll start with community.

We’ve Lost the Community of the Ancient World

Today, many of us live lives separated from the kind of community that once characterized the ancient world. We live in isolated apartments or houses, interacting with our neighbors on only rare occasions. Health clubs and coffee houses offer places to meet, but then we disperse and go back to our dwellings.

Often, we travel to jobs at great distances from our homes. There, we enter a weird kind of community ruled by a foreign institutional ethos, populated by individuals just as isolated as we. Giant corporations or governments rule from afar, handing down dictates and memorandums without regard for the denizens of their far flung enterprises. Such remote rulers know not our names. They care little or nothing for our welfare. We become simply figures on a page, and if the numbers don’t add up, with a few keystrokes, a distant caesar can upend our worlds and destroy our livelihoods, feeling no sense of loyalty or fair play to those who keep their coffers full or their papers flowing.

Oh, to live in a simpler time, where everyone knew your name and cared about your welfare. Our world today has lost its sense of community, something once taken for granted in the ancient world.

Celtic Community: An Extended Family

A Celtic Roundhouse

Imagine a world where your mother and father, your brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all live in the same house?—a roundhouse perhaps thirty to fifty feet in diameter, where twenty to forty people sleep. This was your fine, your extended family unit. You breathe in the smells of the deer and wolf skins covering the thatched walls. Mixed with this is the ever present pine smoke, the sweat of many bodies, and the savory smells from the giant cauldron that’s been simmering day and night over the central fire—a pottage of cabbage, onions, and carrots, rabbit and venison.

At night, you lay down under furs beside your brothers and sisters and listen to your grandfather’s snores, your aunt’s scolding voice as she chides your whispering cousins to be quiet, and your father as he starts another night of coughing. Later, you might hear the sounds of your oldest cousin coupling with his new wife from another fine. Before you fall asleep you remember a month ago when everyone stood around the hole laid with stones as the fine buried your grandmother. This is your family, your home, your community.

Working, Eating, Sleeping Together

Upon waking, if you are a man, your task might be take your spear on a hunt with the other men. You might track the boar who is digging up the clan’s gardens, or follow a herd of deer someone spotted. If you make a kill, tonight, the fine will have a grand feast. Or you might help raising the spiked poles for the wooden palisade that will eventually surround the clan’s two or three roundhouses and its cluster of outbuildings—long-needed protection against wolves and roving bands of marauders. Or you might be assigned to lead your fine’s cattle to better pasture, there to guard them with sword and spear and lead them home by nightfall.

If you are a woman, you might spend your day tending the garden, or watching the children—yours, your cousins, and your fine’s. Or you might help digging a hole, building a fire, and burying a pig on top of hot stones for the evening’s meal. If you are a youth, perhaps your elders have assigned you to plug holes in the thatch, daubing them all day from a mud paste—if you can keep from fighting with your sister.

Tales Around the Fire

And at night, when the day’s activities have finished, everyone gathers around a fire outside. Then, as the men pass around a bottomless horn of ale, someone begins one of the ancient tales, one you’ve heard before, but long to hear again. Ah, ’tis the one about the daughter of the clan’s king who fell in love with a prince from a neighboring clan. But the two clans are at war, and the young lovers are prohibited from seeing each other. Desperate to rendezvous, they beg a druid who turns the boy into a buck and the girl into a doe, all so they can run far into the woods and meet as lovers. But you shake your head when you hear, once again, how a hunting party from her clan shoots him dead, and an archer from his clan shoots her dead, while the druid looks on from afar with a grin. And when the tale concludes, everyone sighs, as it’s understood that all tales involving druids end badly.

Such was the community of the ancient Celts, the life of the clan, where family and community meld into one, where everyone sleeps, eats, plays, and works together. It’s a life lost forever from an age long gone.

Next time we’ll look at Celtic honor.

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. You can learn more about his book by clicking on the link.

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St. Patrick’s Easter Surprise on Beltane Eve

St. Patrick’s Easter Surprise on Beltane Eve

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher recounts St. Patrick’s Easter surprise on the Hill of Slane on Beltane eve. Thus did he break the druids’ taboo and end their reign over King Lóeghaire of Tara.

The Beltane Taboo

Many are the legends and stories of St. Patrick. Some are myth. But others are certainly true. What follows is a fictionalized account of what might have happened on Beltane eve. This retelling is through the eyes of Coll, one of Patrick’s followers. It’s based on my novel of Christian historical fiction, The Bonfires of Beltane.

Coll’s Account of the Events on Beltane Eve — An Easter Surprise, Indeed

What can I say about Beltane eve that has not already been whispered to astonished ears around cooking fires or repeated to stunned men over flagons of ale? I witnessed the events myself. I was a follower of Patrick’s. I heard him speak the inspiration that broke the druids’ taboo and ended their reign. And I was there when the chief druid, Ohran, incited the mob against us. Thus do I tell my tale.

Among Tara’s ancient traditions there was a taboo related to Beltane eve, the night on which the spirits of the Otherworld leave their dark realms and walk the earth. To celebrate that night, of course, we used to light bonfires on hilltops all across the land. But in Tara, the druids had long taught that if ever anyone in the realm lit a bonfire before the king’s, the reign would end.

Our small band of followers had only recently arrived in Tara. Patrick’s goal was to bring the gospel to yet another pagan land. Earlier on the trail, we’d met Fedelm and Eithne, King Lóeghaire’s daughters. Then and there, they converted to the Christian faith. This news greatly displeased the king, in whom ancient tradition had congealed like dried blood. The chief druid, Ohran, also met us with stony glares and harsh words. And when he realized the danger we posed to his worship of the dark spirits, he threw threats against us like daggers.

Days later, God sent Patrick a dream which saved us all from a fiery death. Patrick woke us in the middle of the night, ushering us from the hut with all haste. Later, the entire village watched as flames engulfed the thatch and lit up the night. When Ohran saw us standing alive across the yard, his tiny dark eyes bored into us as if stares alone could kill. Then we knew the arson was of his making.

The Hill of Slane

The next day, we set up camp on the Hill of Slane, a good ten miles from Tara, where Patrick proceeded to preach and gather converts.

As Beltane approached, Patrick thought it might be close to Easter. “Let us use the occasion,” he said, “to celebrate instead the death and resurrection of Christ.” This, of course, was in direct opposition to the druids’ pagan ceremony.

At Patrick’s instruction, we worked all day, chopping and mounding a great pile of timbers on the hilltop. Much to my puzzlement, we also collected a torch for each of the two hundred souls committed to the work.

Evening came with great anticipation. When night had barely blackened the land, Patrick lit flame to the pile. At the same time, we looked toward Tara. The hill was dark.  Patrick’s blaze had gone first into the night. The taboo was broken.

Ten miles separated us from the Rath na Ríogh, Tara’s Fort of Kings, and we knew it would be a while before anything happened. We waited, breathless, while Patrick prayed. What occurred next, I learned later from a believer in town.

The Bonfire That Went First Into the Night

The druids saw the bonfire first. Ohran confronted Lóeghaire, and within earshot of many, warned that our fire  must be put out that very night. “Or,” he shouted, “their flame will become a blaze that will ignite your entire kingdom.”

The king was aghast. He ordered men to collect weapons and ride to Slane. “Put out that fire!” he ordered. “Then kill every last man and woman who lit it.” But as Ohran left to gather a throng, the king said he feared his own daughters would be among the slaughtered. Later, we learned he drank himself stocious with mead in his rooms.

Ohran gave a fiery speech before a great crowd, filling them with revenge and malice. The enraged mob rode the distance to our hill and dismounted below us.

From our vantage on the hilltop, we saw the grim-faced men begin to climb, bearing swords, sickles, and knives. At Patrick’s orders, we had brought not a single weapon to the fight. “We must trust only in God,” he’d said.

The End of the Fight

We gathered for a short prayer then lit the two hundred torches we’d made earlier. We ran to the ridge overlooking the slope, held the flames high, and, as Patrick had commanded, we shouted seven times, “Halleluiah! Gloria Deo Christus!”

What happened next was astonishing. The advancing throng paused, looked up the hill, and halted. Some began dropping torches and weapons. Others began running toward the trail. Horses reared and followed. Then the whole mob broke and ran in panicked flight back to Tara.

We stared, dumbfounded. What they’d seen, of course, was not a rag-tag group of believers from the village standing with torches on the hilltop. Nay, they beheld instead a grand army of God’s angelic host, bearing swords of light, covered with blazing armor, blowing trumpets that shook the ground with thunder and drove fear into every heart. They saw a vision from God, sent to protect Patrick’s mission of converting a people lost to pagan spiritual darkness.

Aye, my friends, the  night belonged to God. And that is what happened on Easter eve in the land of Tara. And I was there to see it.

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. The preceding story comes to you condensed from that book. To learn more about his book, click on the link.