Ethics of a Celtic Warrior
Ethics are the principles of proper behavior, and some system of ethics or morality is taught in every culture, society and religion. Those of us who are modern Celtic Reconstructionists often try to base a large portion of our personal ethics on the ethical code of our ancestors. We can examine general ethical principles and practices by study of a variety of sources, from general folktales and the mythos system to the oldest recorded laws of these people.
What we see emerging from these laws and tales is a system very concerned with the balance and maintenance of societal and spiritual contracts. Another very important aspect of this system is responsibility for ones own actions and decisions. When the balance has been upset in a social contract, the laws are used to return the situation to a state of balance rather than to punish. Unlike the legal systems of the Middle East which were often structured to seek retribution and to punish.
There is, however, at least one source in which a set of basic rules for proper ethical conduct is set forth in a clear and concise treatise designed for that purpose alone. Attributed, like so many other lessons, to the great, third century Irish king, Cormac mac Art as his instructions to his son, they are simple and easy to understand. Clear enough for a child, yet comprehensive enough for a king this one text may be the single best Celtic source for the learning of practical Pagan Celtic ethical behavior. Any person interested in following a Pagan Warrior spiritual path should spend time in regular study of this story.
Partially given here below, this tale is so clear that it has no need of theoretical explanation or long-winded moral interpretation. It only needs simple examination, for it contains a clarity that is heard even seventeen centuries removed from the speaking.
"O Cormac, grandson of Conn. What habits were with you in your youth?"
"Not hard." Said Cormac "I was a listener in a wood...a gazer at stars...unseeing among secrets...silent in the wilds...conversational among many...mild in the mead-hall ... fierce in battle ... gentle to allies ... healer to the ill ... weak toward the feeble ... strong toward the powerful. I was not close lest I become burdensome ... arrogant though I was wise...a promiser though I was with wealth ... boastful though I was with skill ... venturesome though I was with swiftness. I would not speak ill of the absent ... deride the aged in my youth ... reproach, I would praise ... ask, but I would give.
"Through these habits will the young become old and kingly warriors."
"O Cormac grandson of Conn, what is good for me?" asked Cairbre.
"Not hard." Said Cormac
"Do not deride the aged when you have youth ... the poor when you have wealth ... the lame when you are swift ... the blind though you have sight ... the ill when you have strength ... the dull when you are clever ... the foolish though you are with wisdom." "Be no too wise ... too foolish ... too conceited ... too diffident ... too haughty ... too humble ... too talkative ... too silent ... too harsh ... too feeble." "If you are too wise, they expect much ... too foolish, you will be deceived ... too conceited, you will be vexing ... too humble, you will be without honour ... too talkative, you will not be heard ... too silent, you will not be regarded ... too harsh, you will be broken ... too feeble, you will be crushed."
"O Cormac, what is the worst thing that you have seen?" said Cairbre.
"Not hard" said Cormac.
"The faces of foes in the rout of battle" "O Cormac, what is the sweetest thing that you have heard?" asked Cairbre. "Not hard" said Cormac."The shout of triumph after victory, praise after wages, the invitation to the pillow of a lady."
There is quite a bit more to this story, some of which was obviously added in later to reflect the new religion. But the above section appears to be consistent and without additions. This story has been used to train warriors in Ireland for centuries. For the sake of brevity, I have removed repetitive phrases, but the original conversation is given in a very formal form. I invite you to look at the various translations and examinations of this story that are available.
"Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry" translated by Kuno Meyer, pg.
105-6, Constable & Company, London. 1911
"The Story of the Irish Race" Seumas macManus, pg. 50-1, Devin-Adair Company, Old Greenwich