Monday, February 26, 2007
Nine Celtic Virtues...
Wisdom is the measurement of knowledge, and the ability to exercise and balance situations, arguments, problems, and opposing differences through the use of intellect and arriving at a reasonable and effective solution, one that achieves harmony and acceptability. In the Audacht Morainn the term which describes this virtue is ‘firbrethach’ which literally means ‘giving correct judgement.’ In the Trecheng Breth Fene – 201 (the collected Irish triads) fir or truth is further explored:
‘Tri caindle forosnat cach n’dorcha: Fir, aicned, ecna.’ (Three candles that illuminate every darkness: truth, nature, and knowledge.)
Wisdom in the Gaelic tradition can therefore be seen to be diametrically opposed to darkness (or ignorance) and to possess three vital facets. Firstly truth, as a guide for ones personal ethical behavior and responsibilities, as a bond between members of a family, a tribe, a nation, and within the context of relationships with the Gods, Spirits and Ancestors. Secondly, wisdom is connected with the natural order, and nature is never deceptive or misleading, only descriptive. In this sense we seek to fairly evaluate the facts and details of any situation or problem in order to appreciate a balanced view. Thirdly, knowledge is employed in the exercise of wisdom since it draws upon past experience, the voices and exercises of the ancestors.
The exercise of wisdom therefore requires that we contemplate the totality rather than the fragmentary. To use our intellect in assessing facts, and that our behavior is aligned to an objective reality.
The technical definition of piety is; dutiful devotion to God or the Gods, the observance of commonly accepted spiritual, ethical and moral principles, and obedience to parents, superiors and elders. To be ‘pious’ is to possess or express reverence for God or Gods, to bind oneself to religious demands, laws or ethics, and by one’s nature exhibit a sense of spirituality, and consider the sacred quality of life. Piety is related to the Latin piare, which means to expiate, to atone for, or redress wrongdoing, to make amends.
The depth and breadth of spirituality amongst Gaelic people is commented on by several classical authors. Julius Caesar says (in De Bello Gallico VI 14):
Natio est omnis Gallorum admonum dedita religionibus (The whole Gaulish people are much given to religion.)
And Diogenes Laertius says:
The chief maxim (of the Druids) is that the people should worship the Gods, do no evil and exercise courage.
In a modern context the individual can express piety through an established form of ritual and traditions, to maintain equitable social relations, to possess a sense of personal and communal responsibilities, and to enact with sincerity and intention the rituals and ceremonies of the calendar year, more commonly called the eight feasts; Samhain, the Winter Solstice (Mean Geimreadh), Imbolc, the Spring Equinox (Mean Earrach), Bealtainne, the Summer Solstice (Mean Samraidh), Lughnasadh, and the Autumn Equinox (Mean Foghmar). There are two Irish proverbs which relate to the sense of individual and personal responsibility that should be assumed throughout life:
Na brise do gheasa (Break not your vows) and, Mairg chailleas a gheasa (Woe to him who fails in his obligations)
There are several reasons to practice these rituals, ceremonies and feasts, but principally to serve and honor the Gods and Goddesses, the land and ancestors, to maintain a sense of spirituality and sacred purpose, and to honor and celebrate the old ways and the holy days of the wheel of the year.
In modern times piety is so often married with the concept of sin, however this term originates from the Old English synn which was a term used in archery and indicated a missed shot, or in other words a mistake. In Irish Gaelic sin was the name given to the metal collar or neck band worn by a judge, which was reputed to tighten and strangle the wearer when a wrong judgment was given.
Vision is the pursuit of a clarified view of oneself, the world and the cosmos. I would say that vision is knowledge gained by study, work, practice and illumination and inspiration. In the Irish tradition there were a group or class of individuals called the Aes Dana, and these represented the ‘noble craft-workers’ and included poets, artists, healers and smiths, otherwise known as ‘the people of vision and knowledge.’ Through their dedication, practice and perseverance with their crafts they developed rare insight and creative processes which fueled their abilities and perspective of the world. The Aes Dana were held in high regard:
Beannocht leo a los saoire, Dronga ar nar cheisd cruadhlaoighe, Am coimhthinal dar choir seare, Doircheadhan doibh nir dhoircheacht. (Blessings upon their noble nature, To whom complex poems were no hardship, To that beloved gathering of poets, The darkest verse was daylight dawning.)
Vision and inspiration comes from hard work, study, meditation, analysis and dedication. It involves communication and interaction, both within a communal forum and with one’s craft and the world and nature.
Courage is the power to formulate and carry out an effective response to any given situation, where such a situation demands an action from an individual. In some cases such a situation may be dangerous and the response may involve risk of death, then courage is that emotion and belief in oneself which actually emboldens and preserves in the action taken. Aristotle described a mean value in virtues that exists between two extremes, which in the case of courage is the midline between recklessness and complete inertia (or cowardice), and the thought-principle behind a chosen path of action requires a correct evaluation of the situation, the possible types of action which may be taken and the actual choice of dynamic to be employed.
The actual definition of courage is the quality of facing fear, danger, or pain. It comes from the Old-French corage, from the Latin cor, meaning ‘heart.’ In essence it means to stand in defense of one’s beliefs, to have confidence and the desire to protect and preserve a particular lifestyle. The Celtic scholar Geo Trevarthan sees courage as a primal attribute of the warrior’s path, evoking both Lugh Samildanach and Cuchulainn as examples of this quality:
“The God Lugh is a great warrior God of Celtic tradition, yet he is also known as Samildánach, the All-Skilled One, because, as it's been said, "Courage is the virtue that enables us to practice all the others." The warrior virtues are versatile, encompassing effective behavior in all areas of life, because the warrior energy is our effective power — the energy that makes both actions and honor possible.”
So, we need courage as a primary ingredient in our life, to make our spiritual path strong and bold, to be justified in action, and have confidence and be effective. Within the context of a warrior society the virtue of courage was of paramount importance, and there are many terms to describe it. Perhaps the most widely used term was meisneach, which means ‘to keep one’s head’ and comes from a root meaning to measure, which in other words indicates a capacity to maintain control over ones moods. Another term, calmacht, indicates strength and endurance. In the final analysis, courage in the Celtic sense implies a heartful bravery inspired by resolve and enduring strength and spirit in adversity.
On the most basic level integrity means to be honorable, truthful to one’s word or oath and trustworthy. It also indicates a sense of wholeness, whereby the individual is emotionally stable and able to present a sense of sound equanimity, composed and orderly in conduct, manners and presentation. In traditional Gaelic society, integrity was a virtue held in high regard alongside other noble characteristics such as generosity, fairness, and patience:
• The three chief obligations of a person to their country and family; to gain possessions by diligence and integrity, to profit their country and their kindred in all they do, and to seek lawful learning wherever they go.
• Three things of less worth than all else; a woman without dignity, a man without knowledge, and a teacher without patience.
Integrity in the Celtic community meant to be an aspect of the whole, the family, the tribe, the nation. To respect and be respected, to share and be a channel for the good of all. Honesty and a sense of honorable conduct were vital ingredients to the preservation and healthy wellbeing of the community, since the Brehon laws centered mainly around a compensatory system rather than being punitive, strength of character and reliability were key characteristics.
Perseverance is the sum total of effort invoked to start, maintain and finish a task. One of the most noticeable traits of the ancient Celts was their absolute pursuit of excellence, and this is no better seen than through the eyes of numerous Irish parables regarding the nature of work:
Making the beginning is one third of the work. The person of the greatest talk is the person of the least work. Put it on your shoulders and say it is not a burden. It’s no delay to stop and sharpen the tool. It destroys the craft not to learn it. Do it as if there were a fire on your skin………
In the Celtic frame of mind perseverance is the total of patience, purpose and perfection. This is evidently seen in the Irish triad in the Trecheng Breth Féne #119:
Tréde neimthigedar liaig: dígallrae, díainme, comchissi cen ainchiss. (Three things that constitute a physician: a complete cure, leaving no blemish behind, a painless examination.)
Hospitality is perhaps the most significant and important Celtic virtue, the one which actively promotes and sustains a working sense of community. The requirements of hospitality demand that the host be gracious and generous and the guest be appreciative and thankful, for all that we possess are merely gifts in themselves and we are merely conduits of grace and benevolence. It is a common Celtic belief that to give is also to receive, the two go in unison as typified by this Irish proverb:
Ag te a thabharfas sceal chugat tabhar faidh se dha sceal uait (Whoever will bring a story for you, will take two stories from you.)
This indicates that true hospitality is a reciprocal virtue, not one sided or unbalanced. Generosity in this context can take many forms; with words of appreciation, with a contribution of ourselves as labor toward a neighbors household task, as a gift for a significant life commemoration, to provide comfort, warmth and/or food. Often the Celtic notion of hospitality went beyond normal perceptions of reason and law, as in this proverb:
Bheirrin cuid oidhche dha ged a bhiodh ceann fir fo achlais (I would give him food and lodging for the night, even if he had a man’s head under his arm.)
In this context I believe that we should behave with curteous manners, and to be the best we can be; a veritable model of a human and present the ideal characteristics that we desire in others. We can never know the true sequence of events in a person’s misfortune and current state, and therefore never judge or condemn. Even if we can never offer anything material, a kind word or a smile may be enough to bolster the confidence of a person who is down.
Moderation is a virtue cultivated by the restraint of appetite and desire. It engenders a sense of knowing when enough is plenty, and avoids excess which in the Gaelic mind is injurious to the content of mind, body and soul. Moderation extends to all aspects of a person’s life, as exemplified by these Irish proverbs:
Eat well, drink in moderation and sleep sound, in these three good health abound. And, The virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.
Moderation is a form of self-training, to recognize one’s own passions, and the limits and boundaries of those desires. Ultimately it is a sure way of cultivating the refinement of the spirit, and building self-respect. This is seen as a form of wisdom, as outlined in the triad # 251 in the Trecheng Breth Fene:
Cetheora aipgitre gaise: ainme, somnathe, sobraidh, sothnges; ar is gaeth cach ainmnetach sai cach somnath, fairsing cach sobraid, sochoisc cach sothengtha. (Four elements of wisdom: patience, docility, sobriety, well-spokenness; for every patient person is wise, and every docile person is a sage, every sober person is generous, every well-spoken person is tractable.)
To follow one’s hunger without thought makes one into a slave, a glutton, an idiot. Eating to excess is the cause of many serious medical conditions, and in the Gaelic view leads to an ill-fitting and tight grave. The intoxicating and indulgent excesses of Queen Maeve in the Tain bo Cualigne present a good example of the disasterous and lethal results of unmoderated desire, on a symbolic level she presents an example of the danger of alcohol and its misuse, in excess it leads an individual to complete and utter disaster, disrespect and destitution.
In the widest possible sense fertility includes the growth and activity of mind, body and spirit, the creation of art and crafts, poetry, foods, and nurturing intellect and inspiration. Also training the senses to appreciate the world around us, our community and life. Celtic festivals such as Beltaine are a reminder of our role and participation in a greater fertile cycle, that of the earth and nature. In this particular ritual the key role of fertility is given special status in an agricultural sense, traditionally a time when the shoots of the first planting would be coming forth from the soil, and the ‘light-half’ of the year is increasing in its strength.
Another interesting fertility figure in Gaelic tradition is the ‘Sheela na Gig.’ The Sheela is a carved stone female figurine with open legs, exposed and showing her clutching her vulva with both hands. Most scholars associate her with the ‘cailleach’ or Old-Hag, and many examples are found inserted into the masonry of churches, cathedrals or monasteries. One community in Ireland has been reported as using the figurine as a power object for woman during the process of childbirth and to ensure a easy delivery. Kathryn Price NicDhana sees the figure as one primal aspect of the changing year of traditional Celtic seasons:
In much of the Scottish lore the year is ruled alternately by the Hag of Winter and the Maiden Queen of Summer.(6) Yet I see Síla as another, lesser known, third face of this well-known duality: the manifestation of the usually-hidden doorway that emerges when these forces are balanced or in flux. She holds the doorway which opens in the liminal-times: the days of Bealtaine and Samhain, the twilight of sunrise or sunset, and when the mists arise where the land and the sky meet the waters.(7) She is both and neither, an Otherworldly force that refuses to fit into either/or categories.
Many animals in Celtic mythology are representative of fertility, vitality and virility. In particular boars and pigs, horses, cows, bulls, are all indicative of tribal prosperity and increased regeneration. It was a customary ritual for an elected king in Ireland to mate with a pure white mare (as a representative of the earth goddess) to ensure the fertility of the land, and to enter into a covenant as a protector. At Beltaine cows were usually driven between two fires as both purification ritual and to ensure prospective fertility for the tribe.
In a modern context we can ensure our own fertility by pursuing creative and rewarding activities, stimulating the mind, body and soul with nourishing tasks: learning and knowledge, exercise and fresh nutritional foods, and the cultivation of a sacred and spiritual path to culture our soul. A deeper involvement with nature and the environment can be rewarding, also building and maintaining meaningful relationships can drive away the deserts of depression and loneliness.
It is sad that all too often fertility is seen today solely as the capacity to breed in an already overpopulated world.
Posted by David John Drew at 8:48 PM