Francine N6. Power, Class, and Gender: Ancient Celtic Society


by Francine Nicholson


This chapter describes what is known about ancient Celtic society, its structure and its values.

Structure of Society

Ancient Celtic society consisted of three social levels:

· Aristocratic warriors

· Lore-keepers and ritual leaders

· Workers (laborers and entrepreneurs)

Women belonged to the class of their nearest male relative. Those outside the social classes were in some ways outside the society, though some laws specifically mentioned and applied to them.

Defense: activities by the warriors to protect the land, people, and property.

The ancient Celts lived in a world ruled by aristocratic warriors. Battle was their shining hour and feasting together afterwards their chosen reward. Storytellers told of warrior heroes, and poets sang their feats of valour. But, on an everyday basis, these warriors functioned as landlords who managed many resources, ensured the well-being of their clients, and maintained peace among constituent groups. Warrior nobles ruled the kin-groups, extended families linked by ancestry and ties of alliance and marriage.

Sacral/priestly: all functions related to religion.

This class consisted of the learned who maintained and passed on the traditions, and who led the rituals. Priests originally performed the functions of religious leaders, lore-keepers, and administrators of the law. Since authority to rule was considered divine in origin, the first function also included law. Through their knowledge of history, law and tradition, lore-keepers and ritual leaders could cite precedent and custom. Through their moral authority, they enforced the values of the society. Through their knowledge of myth and mystery, they could lead ritual and interact with the unseen powers.


This class included the farmers and artisans. Below them were those who were essentially without class: serfs, slaves and landless laborers not attached to a kin-group.

The members of the first two functions ran the society but they depended on the output of the third for daily survival. The first class was supported financially by the other classes. The members of the second class contracted client relationships with the third class. In this relationship, the lower class members agreed to give a certain percentage of their output to the protector but, in exchange, the noble protector committed to ensuring the safety of his clients' lives and property. Also, in hard times, the protector was at least theoretically responsible for ensuring that his clients had enough food to eat and a place to live. If a leader failed to provide these necessities, he risked losing his clients to someone who could. Ultimately, a chief's power rested on both his own wealth and that of his clients. Sometimes scholars place women in the "Providers" group because their traditional roles identify them as nurturers. However, in legal terms, a woman's status was determined by that of her closest male relative. So, while a woman's function in the society might be nurturer, she also had a derivative legal status. At the same time, certain legal realities applied to all women, regardless of status.

Overseeing the entire society was the king who was chosen from a pool of possible candidates, based on kin links to the previous king. He was elected as the strongest leader and the one most likely to rule successfully. His job was chiefly to mediate between the claims and needs of the kin-groups. At his inauguration, he became ritually wed to the goddess of the tribal land and territory. Through his right behavior, the king ensured the flow of energy from the patron goddess that would ensure the prosperity of land, people, and animals.

Social structures and values were an attempt to balance the needs and contributions of all these groups anto a harmonius balance that was necessary to ensure cosmic order. Conversely, the logic went, cosmic disorder would generate social chaos.

The Importance of Rightness

The cosmos and people were seen as engaged in a balancing act in which matter and energy were constantly being exchanged in a dynamic flow. If actions, especially magically significant ones like offerings and rituals, were not performed "rightly"-in the proper time, place, and manner-disease, drought, disorder, and famine would follow.

Cosmic and social order were inextricably linked. The need to maintain cosmic order by living rightly was one of the most basic beliefs of the ancient Celts and still finds expression in the customs, values, and ethics that guide their descendants today. As recently as twenty years ago, people in a rural village in County Fermanagh (Ireland) talked about "rightness": how you oriented a house on the land, how you balanced work and play in your life. Without such order in the social and personal sphere it was thought the cosmic sphere too would fall into disorder.

So, based on the same concern for balancing energies and components, Celtic society evolved an organization that corresponded in some ways to the cosmological model. The everyday reality may not always have reflected the social ideal, but the essential goal of balance among the different parts remained.

"Rightness" and Role

An appreciation of "role" in the community is crucial to understanding the ancient Celtic mindset. Today, most Westerners feel generally free to make their choices of career, life partner and residence based only on personal considerations. Factors such as geography, economics, and family responsibilities may, of course, affect one's options and choices. However, within those considerations, the choices are made by the individual who, ultimately, has the freedom to put personal preferences first.

The ancient Celts, and to some extent their descendants in the not distant past, would not have understood such focus on the individual. Had you lived then, you would have been born into your role in the community. Your class and kin-group would have automatically determined where you lived, what your economic prospects were, and how you would earn your living. Personal aptitudes and talents played a role, certainly, but not a primary one. Members of the upper classes had many more options than did those of the lower classes. Upward mobility was possible if one acquired sufficient personal wealth, but in medieval times it was restricted by law and commitment to the kin-group. One could rise only a limited number of classes in a lifetime, and any wealth accumulated had to be shared proportionately with the kin-group. Indeed, the kin-group had veto-power over many personal decisions and transactions, including marriage and sale of land and property.

On the other hand, though the kin-group restricted personal choice, it also provided social and economic support. Responsibility for housing, clothing, feeding and educating children fell as much on the kin-group as on the biological parents, and the kin-group was obliged to care for destitute families. While the kin-group shared the glory of an individual's successes, it was also held liable for failures, including violations of law. Chronic offenders could be legally disowned by the kin-group for its own protection but, until then, it was responsible for seeing that fines were paid and retribution made. However, the kin-group was just one part of the social order, a social order whose ideals mirrored those of the cosmic order.

Social Reality: Household, Kin-group, and Tuath

While the social divisions described earlier corresponded to the ideals of the society, daily life was more a matter of interacting with one's immediate household, one's extended kin-group, and one's tuath (literally "people"). The household consisted of those living together, including dependent relatives (the elderly, unmarried, or destitute), servants (retainers), and slaves. However, given the existence of polygamy and relatively easy divorce and remarriage, the degrees of kinship might be diverse. There would be a male head and female head who was, in most matters, subject to the male. She might be his mother if he were unmarried but, in most cases, she was the principal wife, the one who was wealthiest and of highest status, with the most legal and social privileges. Often arranged, marriages were based on property and the desirability of the alliance and, in most cases, the law required that such unions be approved by the kin-groups of both partners.

In a prosperous household, there might be additional wives who were considered subject to the principal wife. One of the legal terms for secondary wives suggests that, unlike the principal marriage, these were more often alliances of the heart. The children of all unions of "free" people-and those of less formal arrangements too-were considered legitimate heirs to property and the responsibility of the father or his kin-group. It is unclear, though, what status, if any, was assigned to the children fathered by nobles on their slaves.

The kin-group consisted of all the households in which the male head claimed descent by blood or adoption from the common ancestor. This ancestor might be a historical person, a pseudo-historical figure, or even a deity. The head of the kin-group was traditionally the eldest son of the ruling family. With his advisors, he mediated conflicts between households and individuals, ensured the physical well-being of all members, approved or rejected legal arrangements among members and between members and outsiders. He also made alliances with kings and leaders of other kin-groups. Within the kin-group, heads of households would make client contracts with higher-level and wealthier nobles in an exchange of property and services. The noble would give the client cows or use of land in exchange for a percentage of crops and livestock. In this trade, the noble supplied movable wealth in exchange for the food and other goods needed to support his dependents. In turn, the client gained the means to support his own household and, if the unseen forces cooperated, increase his own wealth. The noble also expected the client to render a period of military service each summer, and the client expected protection from attack by outsiders.

The tuath was a legal entity based on territory and geography more than descent. It consisted of all the kin-groups and unattached households and persons who had sworn allegiance to its king. Ideally, the king was chosen by all the kin-group leaders as the one most worthy to be leader but, in reality, he was usually a member of the most powerful kin-group. To attract the necessary support, a leader had to be perceived as adept at managing resources, creating alliances among groups, and leading people to accomplish common goals.

There were also individuals who had no status in kin-groups but were attached legally to the household of the king. These included his personal defense force and servants. Other people, including legal advisors, property managers, lore-keepers, praise-poets and musicians, were attached to the office of king. The most powerful kings often had other kings as clients. Theoretically, a man could be king of an entire province (large territory) but, in reality, allegiances fluctuated too frequently for this to be practical. Beyond the ties of wealth and dependency, kings also vied for the right to claim rulership over sacred sites, even in Christian times. In addition, kingship also had a sacral aspect beyond its political and economic duties.

Sacral Kingship

When a man became king, he became mystically connected to the land of his tuath, its people and non-human inhabitants. The word banfais is formed by compounding feis with the prefix ban, meaning "woman." Though feis is usually translated "feast" or "festival" these days, it derives from the word fo-aid meaning to "sleep with, to spend the night with." Thus, the inaugural ceremony celebrated the union of king with the land.

The ability to "see" clearly, perceive the true nature of things, and judge rightly were essential characteristics of the "true" king, the one who possessed fír flaithemon, the "ruler's truth." These abilities indicated that a man had the gift to channel the power of the Otherworld into his territory and thus bring to it all the blessings of fertility and prosperity.

Apart from his geasa, the king also had obligations such as extending gifts to certain people, traveling around his territory periodically, celebrating festivals, and behaving in a way consistent with kingly values. Finally, a king had buada, privileges or dues that were gifts rendered to him by the people in recognition of his role and status.

Many collections of proverbs that have survived from medieval times concern the behavior that was right for a king. His actions were expected to conform to those dictated by tradition. If they did not, the magic associated with his position would fail. The higher one's position in the society, the more crucial it was that one live that role rightly. The survival of the people depended on favorable conditions for farming. Since those conditions were thought to depend on the ruler's truth, this truth was the most important because most depended on it.

Examples of good and bad kings are common in Irish myths. Breas, the king too niggardly to share his beer with his nobles, is a bad king. Conaire Mór begins as a good king, making wise judgements, and the land prospers. When, however, he renders a wrong judgement he sets off a chain reaction of ever more destructive events. The inevitable spiral of destruction, described in horrific terms, brings not only painful death to Conaire but also chaos to his territory. Only Conaire's death and the inauguration of a new king can begin the restoration of order and plenty.

Lore-keepers and Ritual-leaders

Alongside the institutions of household, kin-group, tribe, and king existed the lore-keepers and ritual leaders. They maintained and taught the oral tradition of the society, and oversaw implementation of its values through administration of the law. They advised leaders on what actions were consistent with tradition, told the old stories, and recited the genealogies. They directed the rituals and customs that were believed necessary to ensure the balance of social and cosmic order, brought healing to the sick, and protection against unseen forces. They kept the tradition alive in many ways. All Celtic law was founded on the notion of there being a right time, place and way for every action, so, in this sense, all Celtic law and custom was religious.

The Celts afforded great respect to their religious leaders because they knew how to manipulate the cosmic order and ensure favorable conditions. It is not surprising that they would also highly value those who knew how to recognize the proper time and place and way to do things. As Lincoln says, "One who fully . . . comprehends the nature of matter, the various forms it takes, and the inter-relations of these forms can manipulate all things in the universe." Classical writers stated that the druids claimed they possessed the ability to create and de-create the universe through the performance of sacrifice.

There is a lot we don't know about Celtic religious leaders. Popular stereotypes, based on misinformed notions written by antiquarians from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, confuse the matter. The earliest evidence comes from classical writers with their own agendas and biases, and their accounts sometimes appear to contradict one another. However, through the smoke screen of the ages, it does seem that the religious leaders were divided into various groups, each with its own special area of study, function and title. There seems to be a general consensus among the various sources that there were at least three basic categories of lore-keeper and ritual leader: priest (druid), diviner/seer (vates in Latin, fáith in Irish), and lore-keeper (bardoi). These may not have been the precise titles and functions, and the sacral nature of the bards in particular is not clear. In this book, however, we use the term "druid" as a general reference to a class who performed the functions of priests, diviners, legal advisers, and lore-keepers.

Because the priests and lore-keepers were the ultimate arbiters of rightness, they derived their authority from their knowledge of the tradition and their ability to communicate with the unseen. As a group, their wisdom extended to areas that affected all members of the community. The wisdom they preserved and passed on prescribed the right behavior for all members of the society. Collections of sayings like Audacht Morainn, and the Irish and Welsh triads, gave the listeners guidance about how to react to various situations in life and what behavior to avoid.

Beyond this, of course, everyone in society gained and passed on traditional lore as it applied to their station in life. Over and above ethical teaching, there was knowledge about predicting weather, planting, hunting and raising animals, processing food, making tools-all the knowledge necessary to do one's job. This would also include the prayers and charms that were needed for each task.

While lore-keepers were sometimes attached to the household of the king, they existed in a class of their own. Julius Caesar said that Gaulish druids were not required to perform military service, although he probably overlooked their role in performing battle magic. Ritual leaders and lore-keepers lived on offerings from the people they served, but they were not allowed to touch or benefit from the objects offered to the deities. Such objects were ritually deposited in shafts or watery places; often the objects were deliberately broken-"killed"-so theycouldn't be used again.

The status and legal rights of druids were equal to those of nobles. Often their ritual sites existed on borderlands or land that did not belong to any kin-group. While these locations were probably chosen at least in part for their magical potency as liminal areas, their apartness also emphasized the separation of the religious leaders from the rest of society. They knew the ways and language of the deities; they could travel to the Otherworld, consult the powers, invoke inspiration, foresee the future, avert disaster or create destruction. For all these reasons, the lore-keepers were subject only to the king and to each other. Julius Caesar recorded that if any individual or group chose to disobey or challenge the authority of the priests, they would be barred from attending religious ceremonies. Everyone "shrinks from their approach or mention, not wishing to obtain trouble from contact with them. Justice is not granted to them should they seek it, nor is any honor shared with them . . . " Effectively, in the eyes of the community, excluded people ceased to exist.

The position of ritual leader was one whose moral authority and power could easily be abused, but it was also held in check by the might of the other authorities in the society. Leadership lay in the combined branches of society, not a single branch.



Leadership of the people was vested in the king, the head of the kin-group, and in the most senior religious leaders. Although some myths suggest that the king was chosen by divination, in all likelihood the kin-group leader or other figure with the widest backing was selected. Through their control of matters within their families, the leaders controlled the material wealth and military might required to support the kingship. Without the backing of the kin-group leaders, a king could not wage war.

The lore-keepers, too, had a role to play in the selection. Some sort of ritual-leader or poet presided at the inauguration of a king. The lore-keepers and judges advised kings on legal decisions and instructed people in the proper behavior for their roles. The poets could speak their minds in satire, criticizing an unworthy king. By virtue of their authority as contacts with the Otherworld, seers and ritual-leaders could exert a parallel role of leadership that could rival that of a king and might keep a king in check. Few kings would want to find themselves opposing one who claimed to speak for the deities. Also, it was believed that certain types of satire could bring injury or death. Certainly they could bring disgrace and downfall.

The interaction of these three at a typical inauguration ceremony illustrates how they balanced and complemented each other. After the king mounted the ceremonial stone or other ritual platform, the religious leader or lore-keeper handed him the wand of sovereignty. The kin-group leaders swore allegiance to the king. The king then distributed gifts to them all because he needed the support of all to be successful.

Without the backing of the tradition-keepers and the financial and military support of the kin-groups, the king could not survive for long. However, without the king, the society would descend into constant faction-fighting and lack the stability that made material prosperity possible. Without the offerings of a prosperous people, the lore-keepers could not survive; also, an unstable society made it difficult to maintain traditions. Without traditional rituals, cosmic chaos might follow. So, all three branches of the leadership needed each other, and they all depended on the providers.

The People of Skill

In Irish, they were called áes dana. The word áes means "one" or "those." Dana is less easily summarized. It derives from an Indo-European root that also gives us Latin words for gifts and giving. In that sense, dana means talent or aptitude. However, it also applies to acquired skill and the knowledge required to ply a craft. Dana also refers to the magical skills used by poets, seers, healers, and priests, not just craftspeople.

In Irish mythology, the Túatha Dé Danann defeat their opponents because of their superior skills, especially the way those skills are deployed in battle by their leader, Lugh, himself the "master of every craft." Julius Caesar claimed that the Gauls worshipped Mercury above all other deities and, from what we can tell, the Gallic deity to which he referred was probably Lugos.

Even warriors were expected to be people of skill. The myths list the various manoeuvers and feats warriors used in single combat. More than this, they were expected to have a certain knowledge of their family's history and of the law, sufficient poetic techniques to engage in courtly punning, and battle magic. The people of skill were not easily categorized into one class or another. Some skills were the province of the religious leaders, so their practicioners ranked high in the society. Other skills ranked lower. But society as a whole held the acquisition of skill in high regard, especially skills of word and music. Perhaps that is why such skills continue to be valued so highly in modern Celtic societies.

The Values of a Warrior Society

Only a very small percentage of ancient Celtic groups consisted of those trained as warriors. The largest component of the fighting forces consisted of farmers, craftspeople, and laborers who were obliged to render military service as part of their client agreements. Nevertheless, the values of Celtic society primarily reflected the concerns of the tiny minority-the warrior nobles. Fearlessness and battle skills were highly prized, as were their potential rewards. The following elegy was written by a seventh century Welsh bard about a fallen warrior:

"He had no desire for a happy little place in the world. This he sought: the acclamation of bards across the world's circuit, and gold, and great horses, and mead's intoxication . . ."

There are no domestic virtues in this or other Celtic elegies. Public interactions reinforced adulation of warrior feats. Some celebrations and rituals were attended by the entire community and served as opportunities to re-establish and affirm each person's status and role. Virtues such as eloquence and reverence towards superiors and the clan's ancestors were admired, and could be used to help establish one's position in the society.

Indeed all activities were determined to some extent by a desire to save face. A sense of honor and the need to avoid shame compelled people to act in accordance with accepted values and tradition. Irish laws prescribed penalties for dishonour. At the same time, some poets were allowed, by law and custom, to satirize their hosts. In one story their words were powerful enough to raise boils on the face of the one satirized. On the other hand, satire that proved to be untrue brought judgement against the poet.


Generosity and hospitality were hallmarks of Celtic society then and now. Classical authors wrote of how the Celts fed strangers first and only later asked their identity and business. Kings were advised to give away their wealth lest their judgements be swayed by the need to protect their treasures. Loyalty to one's kin and to any oaths made was essential. Sometimes this led to what we might call vengeance. The ancient Celts considered it obtaining justice. They were also expected to live up to their responsibilities as protectors of clients and kin: to defend and, if necessary, house, cloth, and feed their clients and kin. A strong sense of personal responsibility and a commitment to keeping promises were basic virtues.

Several of the myths portray women questioning the values and priorities of the heroic, patriarchal society, but they are argued down, derided, and ignored. In "The Death of Aife's One Son," a series of tragic circumstances set up a single combat in which, to defend the honor of Ulster, Cú Chulainn must confront a very young warrior who refuses to identify himself. Cú Chulainn's wife, Emer, is the only person present to correctly interpret the signs and recognize Connla, the son Cú Chulainn fathered with Aife during his warrior training in Alba. In this story, Emer tries to deter Cú Chulainn from fighting: "Do not go down there! It is your own son who is below. Do not commit kin-slaying against your only son!" Cú Chulainn angrily refuses her advice, labeling it "the feminine assistance of women" that does not bring about "deeds of glory." He questions her reading of the signs, and ultimately concludes, "Even if he is [who you say he is], woman, I must kill him for the honor of Ulster."

Thus Emer's concern to protect the child of her husband and ensure the survival of his bloodline is rejected. Moreover, in his statement rejecting the assistance of women, Cú Chulainn turns his back on all the women whose teaching and advice assisted him in the past, especially Scathach (titular goddess of Skye) who oversaw his training and foretold his future, and Aife the seer who bore Connla and raised the child as a warrior whose skill was sufficient to defeat the great Conall Cernach. Indeed the feat which Cú Chulainn uses to finally defeat Connla-the use of the gae bolga-was taught to him by Scathach, belying his devaluation of her teaching. But Cú Chulainn has made his choice in favor of the patriarchal system. The honor of Ulster is what he values most, and so, for the sake of the honor of Ulster, the line of Cú Chulainn dies out.

Cú Chulainn must also face that it was his own instructions that brought about the boy's death, for it was he who ordered, "Teach him to tell his name and people to no one, and to fight all comers." He also insisted that the boy never learn the feat that Cú Chulainn uses to kill him. Cú Chulainn's lack of foresight and his strict reliance on warrior virtues destroyed his own son. While Emer speaks for the values of the third function of fertility, prosperity, and stability, Cú Chulainn chooses and defends the heroic values of the second function, those which ultimately guided society. In another episode of the Táin, Cú Chulainn rejects the advances of the Morrígan, and, consequently, the creative energy needed to renew himself. Instead, he accepts the assistance of his deity father, Lugh, who assumes Cú Chulainn's form and fights in his place while the weary warrior sleeps.

Warriors and priests may have run society, but it was the energy of women and the activities of the third-function providers that made society possible. However, the nurturers were equated with the untamed forces of nature in their potential to bring discord and chaos to the world. The Celts believed that cosmic and social order depended on maintaining the heroic, patriarchal system in which the priorities and concerns of the warriors and priests form the guiding ethic. Women only rarely participated in that system's leadership.

Celtic Women

Numerous articles and books written for popular audiences have perpetuated the notion that men and women had equal rights, privileges, and power in Celtic societies. These publications paint pictures of women warriors, dominant queens, and female seers as routinely playing significant roles in running Celtic society. Unfortunately, they ignore the basic fact that ancient Celtic society was intrinsically hierarchical. Equal rights were unknown. Outside a tribe, no one had any status or rights. Within the tribe, a man's rights and privileges depended on his class, wealth, and kin/ancestry and, as a rule, a woman had little if any independent status under law. Her status depended on that of her nearest male kin and she always had fewer rights and privileges than the men in the same class. Her right to own, buy, and sell property was more restricted than that of her male counterparts. She could initiate divorce, theoretically, but in practice this may have been difficult to implement because a Celtic woman was usually not allowed in court and her testimony had no legal validity. If her rights were injured, she had to get a male relative to seek legal redress for her. So, in practice, if she was battered and wished to leave her husband, taking her property with her as was her legal right, she would still have to depend on a male relative to seek legal enforcement of her rights. If her kin were unsympathetic or unable to take her in, she might be forced to remain where she was. Women who were designated female heirs because their fathers left no male heir were allowed property rights and privileges not normally permitted to women, at least until their sons attained majority. Within those restrictions, however, women could exert influence on their male relatives. In that way, some upperclass women may have been quite influential, if only indirectly. Certainly, personality and community respect must also have played a part in allowing some women more influence than the norm in community activities.

So what of the dominant, powerful females in Irish myths? They are almost always goddesses or superhuman figures. Powerful goddesses do not automatically indicate that women in that society wielded power. Many cultures-such as the ancient Athenians-venerated powerful, warrior-type goddesses while keeping women strictly confined to subservient roles. It seems to have been the same with the ancient Celts for whom even the power of goddess figures is limited. For example, in the Second Battle of Moytura, the Morrígan ranges up and down among the forces she favors, inspiring and inflaming them with battle fury. But it is the god Lugh who evaluates the tribal assets, organizes the forces, plans the battle strategy, and directs the attack that uses the energy generated by the goddess' contact with the troops.

Similarly, Scathach and Aife, the women who train Cú Chulainn in his finest battle feats, were almost certainly goddesses and not humans, analogous to the Valkyries of Norse myth. However, the existence of warrior goddesses does not guarantee the existence of warrior women. In classical accounts of the Celts, only one woman, Boudicca, is ever depicted as a battle leader, and she inherited the role from her husband during a time of political upheaval and confusion about succession. Another classical account speaks of women guarding supply wagons at the rear when a Celtic army was on the move. If true, this may have been necessary because the community had been forced from their homes. None of this suggests that ordinary women roamed the battlefield, acting as cheerleaders or warriors. However, women may have had sufficient skill to defend their homes or children, and some women, like Boudicca, who were close to the leadership may have acquired experience in politics and developing strategy.

Boudicca's role has led some modern writers to conclude erroneously that queens were common among the ancient Celts. For one thing, the sacral kingship inauguration consisted of the land goddess imparting her energy to the king. This did not allow for female rulers. The paucity of historical Celtic female leaders shows just how rare it was for women to rule among the ancient and medieval Celts.

Some have suggested that the powerful goddesses of the Celts may be carry-overs from pre-Celtic belief. Certainly, Celtic religious belief and the sacral kingship are based on the notion of goddesses and women as the sources of creative energy. However, the basic structures of ancient Celtic religion and society were designed to acknowledge and exploit the creative power of untamed nature and femininity, while keeping it well subjected to the priorities and purposes of a patriarchal system.

Indeed, the myths depict destruction as the result of allowing the concerns of women to dominate the society. In the Ulster Cycle, Medb, Queen of Connacht, is a source of destructive discord rather than a wise, nurturing, courageous ruler. Women such as Deirdre and Grainne, who refuse to comply with the wishes of the men in their lives, are condemned as wicked women who bring tragedy to those they claim to love. Even a fairly submissive woman such as Cú Chulainn's wife, Emer, threatens the values of the warrior-based social order with her feminine concerns. Today, popular writers often attribute such literary condemnations of powerful women to the moralizings of Christian scribes determined to suppress the feminist attitudes of the pre-Christian Irish. In fact, the medieval Celts did not need Christianity to implant the idea that women and their priorities might differ from men's, and that women's sexual attractiveness might distract men from their proper duties. A belief in the power of women's energy was basic to both cosmology and anthropology. But the corollary to this was the conviction that social and cosmic chaos would ensue if women were allowed to participate directly in running the community beyond their households. And, though a woman might achieve a certain status as primary wife and female head of household, she could be evicted at any moment and without cause from that position if the husband was willing to pay her off. It is unlikely that any woman would have gathered the personal wealth to set herself up in an equally good position. In most cases, especially if she were an older woman, she probably had to get a relative to take her in. Post-menopausal women, in particular, lived a precarious existence. If fortunate in circumstances and health, they were valued for their acquired wisdom and contributions to the household work. Otherwise, they might be seen only as drains on the household resources.

Close Encounters of the Intimate Kind

"I see a sweet country. I could rest my weapon there," Cú Chulainn says while courting Emer, the woman he will marry.

Such language is typical of the puns and jokes found frequently in Irish myths and tales. In general, Celtic myths and social attitudes forthrightly regarded sex as one of the great pleasures of life and a basic human need and behavior. One startled classical author wrote of the Celtic men he met, "They frankly offer you their bodies and are surprised if you turn them down." The myths are filled with sensual descriptions of physical beauty- male and female-and sexual puns and jokes. When the seer-physician Fíngein is called in to diagnose the illness of Aengus mac ind Óc, he considers the stricken one's symptoms, listens to an account of his dreams, and then announces, "Young man, you need to get laid!"

Some encounters, like that of Cú Chulainn and Emer, led to marriage. But many were much more fleeting. Ériu, walking at the seashore, sees a man approaching in a boat and is immediately seduced by his beauty. When he rises to leave her, she does not hide her tears.

"Why do you weep?" he asks her.

"Because you are leaving and I do not even know your name," she replies.

However, the social inequalities, both between genders and classes, meant that there often was a dark, coercive side to sexual relations. Men, especially nobles, had much more freedom to choose their partners than women. The evidence suggests that women were expected to acquiesce to the choices and demands of the male nobles. Sharing one's slaves-and perhaps one's wife-with visitors was probably part of what a hospitable host offered to make guests feel welcome. One version of the Táin notes that a bondmaid was assigned to the hero, Cú Chulainn, "for his use" while he was staying with friends. Scholars debate whether the right of prima nocte-the king's option to sleep the first night with any new bride- was truly a characteristic of early Celtic societies but at least one Irish myth presents it as a social institution.

It is inappropriate to impose modern sensibilities on the actions of an earlier people, but shouldn't we wonder whether the women were really willing participants in these activities? "What have I to do with welcomes?" mourns Deirdre after she is forced to become the wife of the king who ordered the death of the man she loved. Her new husband is outraged when she refuses to play the role of queen with his guests and punishes her by giving her to the man who killed her young lover. Deirdre, unable to bear any further insult, kills herself. In another myth, Grainne falls in love with the extraordinarily attractive Diarmait after she has already married the much older Fionn. She induces Diarmait to elope with her and they escape for a while. Eventually, Diarmait is killed and Grainne returns to Fionn. The storyteller claims that Grainne later becomes reconciled to and even happy with her fate. Although these are stories, surely they embody the private pain of real Celtic women obliged to accept the choices and orders of their male kin.

Other stories tell of rape at sword-point by men such as Cú Chulainn, Cathbad, and Cú Roi whom the myths depict as heroes. Since these accounts are myths, one must be careful about drawing conclusions as to whether the incidents represent socially acceptable behavior, but the fact remains that the myths do not condemn such acts. Medieval law was more equitable, but the annals of Ireland bear witness that abductions were not uncommon.

Not all relationships in the myths end tyrannically or tragically. Some stories depict happy interludes. The Dagda stops the movement of the sun to extend the time he spends with Bóand, so that their son, Óengus, will be born before her husband returns. Others tell of lovers surmounting obstacles and challenges to come together happily at last.

Marriage and Divorce

In early Celtic societies, everyone was expected to get married and have children if they could afford it. Law and society viewed marriage as a way of providing for women and ensuring the production and care of children. At least some marriages were arranged and approved by the two families as beneficial to both sides. The laws of early Ireland and Wales focus on assigning the property brought to a marriage, and dictating the distribution of property and childcare if a marriage ended in divorce.

Money or goods exchanged hands prior to marriage. The prospective groom gave a sum of money or movable goods to her family when the contract was greed. If the woman had more moveable wealth than her husband, she also had more rights in the marriage than would a woman of lesser means. Even so, though she had legal rights, she had no legal standing to seek enforcement of her rights.

The ideal marriage in the eyes of the law took place between two people who had property of equal value, came from the same social class, and whose families wished to be allied. Marriage between families whose land abutted was encouraged. Prosperous men, having financial means and social approval, could pursue other heart-felt relationships more easily than women, either outside of marriage or by acquiring additional wives. In general, the evidence suggests that women had much less freedom to wander than men did, although the annals make it clear that women did sometimes manage to pursue their hearts' interests.

Despite this, the laws recognised the needs of of women. Husbands were expected to keep their wives satisfied and to treat them with kindness. A woman could receive a divorce without penalty if her husband neglected her for the company of servant-boys or if he told her 'bed-secrets' to others. A wife could also choose to leave if she objected to her husband's new female companions. This last situation is one where the law shows a wonderful streak of humanity in its understanding of how traumatic such break-ups could be. If a husband brought home a new companion, the current wife was not held liable for any injuries she inflicted on the new companion in the first three days and only partially liable for any that occurred during the following month. After that, the first wife was expected to control her reactions or leave.

The attitudes and issues of the times are epitomized in the dialogue between Emer and Cú Chulainn in the "Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn." When, both hurt and furious, she confronts Cú Chulain with his lover, Fand, Emer recalls the love she and Cú Chulainn shared. Cú Chulainn, not comprehending how deeply he has hurt her, asks why she objects to his trysting with a women he finds so attractive, and insists that it has nothing to do with how he feels about Emer. Neither backs down or compromises. The stand-off ends because Fand chooses to leave, unwilling to deal with the fury of Emer or the antagonism of the other Ulsterwomen who accompanied Emer to the site of the confrontation.

Besides servant-boys and hospitable offers to visitors, sexual relations between men-specifically warriors-are suggested in some of the myths. This is consistent with statements from classical authors about Celtic warriors coupling with each other while encamped. It is also consistent with what is known about other Indo-European warrior bands, that sex was part of the relationship between a trainee and the older warrior assigned to oversee his education.

The evidence for sex between ancient Celtic women is more difficult to find. One example is the medieval law case in which an Irish man attempted to avoid a paternity suit on the grounds that after lying with him, his female partner engaged in love play with a woman. He lost the case.

Despite the evidence for same-sex relationships, they occurred outside the structure of the standard household that made up most of society. Begetting and raising children, running households, and the transfer of energy were the major concerns of the social structure.

Divorce was theoretically easy to obtain if both parties agreed or if one side had a lawful case against the other. Men were expected to father children and protect, house, feed, and cloth their dependents. Failure to produce children was grounds for divorce. If a wife did not conceive by her husband and she had previously borne children to another man, she could sue for divorce without penalty. If a man had previously fathered children and his new wife did not conceive, he could sue for divorce without penalty.

If the marriage ended and the wife was held legally responsible, the bride price or a portion was returned to the man. If the husband was at fault, the bride-price went to the wife's family. Only if the marriage had lasted a number of years did a portion of the bride-price go to the wife. Also she was entitled to keep any movable property she had brought to the marriage or acquired since then. However, if she was found to be at fault, she forfeited part or all of her property.

Adultery on either side was grounds for divorce. The laws show a tension between a desire to promote marital faithfulness as a way of stabilizing the society and a recognition that the habits of the populace did not always fit into that paradigm. Society expected that men would want sex on a very regular basis, and aristocrats expected to get it pretty much on demand. The more powerful a warrior, the stronger his need was perceived to be. Indeed, the Irish and Welsh myths depict a society in which men had so much sexual freedom that the laws' concern to assign paternity and responsibility for childcare becomes readily understandable.


Slaves were part and parcel of Celtic society. An Irish monetary unit, the cumal, was equal to a female slave. If we believe the descriptions of a ninth-century document ascribed to Adomnán, abbot of Iona, the lot of women slaves, in particular, was horrendously hard and brutal.

Inheritance and Ownership

Moveable goods-clothing, jewelry, armor, livestock, weapons-could be owned outright. How land could be disposed of depended on whether or not it was kin-land. While it was farmed individually, kin-land was owned by the kin-group and allotted to individuals based on their social class and ability to make the land productive. Such land could not be sold without the permission of the leaders of the kin-group. While it might be passed down in individual families, the land reverted to the larger kin-group and was redistributed if the family died out without male issue.

Other types of land could be bought and sold by anyone with the means to do so. Some kin-land belonged to the king, though it might be assigned to members of his retinue as their compensation for services rendered. In some areas, certain types of land-such as arable acres on an island-were held by the community and allotted to the heads of families based on criteria such as need and ability to farm it. When livestock was moved to hill-tops or islands in summer, each family was allowed to bring a certain number of animals, in effect dividing the available grass.

Inheritance involved a combination of order and division. The youngest son determined how the land and property would be divided, then the eldest chose his portion, then the next oldest, and so on. Therefore, it was in the self-interest of the youngest son to divide things equitably.

Women could hold land during their lifetimes but they could not bequeath it. Generally, land was inherited by women only when there was no male heir and it was only a life-interest. When the woman died, the title reverted to her male kin.

Celtic Social Geography

The physical structures of Celtic settlements suited the specific needs of the society. Most people lived in households scattered across the landscape, called the pagus in Gaul. Where rivers joined or roads crossed, there might be a cluster of buildings that housed craftspeople and merchants. Larger settlements might house a cross-section of residents. This "town"-called an oppidum in Gaul and equivalent to the llan in Wales-was where people met to sell and buy livestock and goods. People also met there to conduct legal business and execute justice.

Markets and fairs were the appointed times for people to gather. Markets would bring together those who lived closest to the oppida or villages. Fairs were regional gatherings held only once or twice a year. Originally they formed part of the celebration of a festival such as Lughnasa. For example, while the rites for protecting the harvest might take place atop a mountain, the fair would be held at the base or the nearest village.

A few places, like Tara, Uisneach, and Tailtenn in Ireland, seem to have existed almost exclusively as ceremonial centers for such gatherings that included rituals invoking the sacred and paying the community's dues to its divine protectors.

The Pressure to Conform

Today, many Western societies value the individual's right to choose their own religious beliefs and practices. The Constitution of the United States is based on a separation of church and state. Other countries like the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland strive to find a way to ensure freedom of religion for all despite a historic association with the beliefs or structure of one church more than others. Such pluralism was not part of ancient Celtic society. In the Irish myths, heroes utter, "I swear by the gods of my tribe." Each tribe had its own deities whom everyone was expected to honor. Although there were surely some differences of opinion within a community, being a member of a kin-group meant that you had a responsibility to join in the ceremonies that ensured that group's well-being and governed its social interaction and structure. They would have felt confused and threatened by pluralism and, as mentioned earlier, objecting too strenuously to the priests' edicts might get you banned from participating in the community rituals.

Indeed, at least some of the rituals seemed to have functioned as a public way of establishing each person's role in the social group. This is most obvious in the boasting contests that took place at the warrior's feasts, when each warrior's worth was assessed and his order in the group was established.

The ways in which worldview and social structure were so thoroughly integrated legitimized the social structure and discouraged nonconformity and dissent by characterizing them as threats not simply to the local status quo but to the entire cosmic order. This reasoning had tremendous persuasive force among the ancient Celts. As Bruce Lincoln notes: "While the structure of the cosmos may be eternal, the structure of society certainly is not. Yet . . . the two were placed on the same plane . . . To challenge any part of the system was to challenge all . . ." It was on that system that cosmic balance was thought to depend.

No doubt there were individuals who in one way or another chose to challenge the system or encourage it to change in some way, and at least some of these were socially ostracized. On the other hand, we know that beliefs and practices did evolve over time, so change was possible through socially acceptable channels. Some of these changes resulted from contacts with new peoples but others surely came from within. To some extent, the system provided socially approved outlets for nonconforming individuals and thereby benefited from the creative energy these liminal people produced.


Ancient Celtic society was organized in a way that we today can recognize as typical of many Indo-European societies. Reflections of this tripartite structure of warrior protectors, sacral lore-keepers, and nurturers/providers can still be found in western civilization. But to the ancient Celts, their social structure corresponded to the structure of the cosmos on one level and to the structure of every human being on another level. The organizational structure was intended to promote balance among people; it was also based on the belief that social balance would promote cosmic balance and vice versa.

Celtic society was not egalitarian. Social classes-and the hierarchy of rights and privileges-were based on function and wealth. Rights and privileges were assigned to men according to wealth, class, and ancestry. Warriors were celebrated for their battle prowess and their abilities as generous landlords. Lore-keepers led rituals, communicated with the Otherworld, guided the aristocracy with their advice and inspiration, maintained the oral wisdom, and passed it on to the next generation. Artisans and farmers produced food, tools, and other necessities, while laborers and slaves kept everyday life going by doing the necessary servile work.

Women were thought to possess fertile energy that must be subject to and controlled by their nearest male relative from whom they derived their status. Like men, their legal rights were based on their social class, but a woman always had fewer rights than men in the same class.

Leadership lay in the hands of the king who was normally a member of the warrior nobility. Selection of a king was a combination of ancestry (which determined the pool of possible nominees) and election by the kin-group leaders. However, the king's success as a ruler-and perhaps his personal survival-depended on the support of the leaders of the kin-groups and the ritual leaders. And supporting everyone were the activities of the nurturers and providers: farmers, craftspeople, and laborers.