Post by on Oct 1, 2006 12:14:11 GMT -5
The Brehon Laws: Defining Ethics and Values for Modern Druidry
By: Athelia Nihtscada
By: Athelia Nihtscada
Law is probably the most important component of civilization as it provides a set of moral and ethical guidelines for people to follow in regards to a person’s status, property, life-value, etc. No matter what type of organization of people one looks at, whether it be a small children’s “club” or a whole nation, law is there and is instated almost immediately.
Who could forget childhood clubs where the first order of business was putting up the sign that read “No Boys Allowed!” or “No Girls Allowed!”? These signs usually went up about the same time as the fort did, scrawled on a piece of paper in crayon. Rules in life are needed and are essentially ingrained into us from childhood. Parents make rules to keep the kids, visitors and themselves in line. Without some form of law in a group of people, there would be chaos.
So, what does all this talk of law have to with Druidism? In this article, I hope to shed light on the Brehon Laws, the Brehons that administered them and how the laws are significant to Druids today. While Brehons are not really a part of Druidism today, they were an important part of the Druid caste in ancient Celtic society.
The laws, commonly called the “Brehon Laws”, are not available for viewing by anyone just yet, and few people have actually seen them in their entirety. However, many articles, essays and books have been written about them for us to understand what they were all about.
The Corpus of Electronic Texts or CELT, “the online resource for Irish History, Literature and Politics” (http://www.ucc.ie/celt/) is in the process of getting the appropriate funding to scan and publish the Brehon Law texts. (1)
Many practitioners of Druidism today know of the Brehon Laws. The role of the Brehon in Celtic Society and how their laws are still relevant today are what I hope to explore in this article.
Who were the Brehons?
As mentioned earlier, the Brehons were the lawyers and judges of society in Ireland. The word Brehon is the anglicized word for Brithem, which stems from breth, the Irish-Gaelic word for “judgment”. They were not very different from a lawyer or judge today. (2)
Brehons were held in high esteem by landowners and rulers for their knowledge as Irish law, which was extremely complex. The law books were much like today’s, with the laws set forth in a manner that a lay person would not be able to make much sense of the technical terminology and intricate detailing. Law then was just as intricate and complex as law today, if not more so. It has been said that Irish law was more complex and effective than law is in today’s societies as justice was valued highly.
A person training to be a Brehon could expect to endure courses similar to today’s law courses and could, upon completion of his or her training, set up practice as a judge, consultant lawyer, law-agent, etc.
The practicing Brehon had to be meticulous in his or her study and handling of legal cases as it was believed that the Gods or some Divine force would punish them if they laid a poor judgment. One of the more well-known Brehons in Irish history, Morann, son of Carbery Kinncat (1st Century King of Ireland), wore a collar that would shrink around his neck if he passed a wrongful judgment, but it would loosen when a true judgment was passed. This is similar to the story of Cormac mac Airt’s three sided cup that would break if a falsehood was uttered but would return to its original state if the truth was uttered over it.
What are the Brehon Laws?
What we know as the “Brehon Laws” are actually one of many sets of laws devised in ancient Ireland. The set or tract of laws that we know as the Brehon Laws are actually called the Fenechas, meaning “Law of the Freemen”, which is said to have been put together in 438 CE by Leghaire, King of Ireland and several Christian monks, including St. Patrick himself. This book of laws became known as the Senchus Mor. These laws mainly dealt with issues of contracts, personal rank and rights, and property issues. While these laws were re-written by Christians, it seems that many of the original Pagan laws remained intact.
Many of these laws seemed to work in accordance to a person’s rank in society, lineage, or whether the person was a member of legal standing of the Tuath (Tribe) or an outsider. There seems to have been no stones left unturned in the way the laws were set forth. Everything possible was been taken into account, including exceptions of liability for offences such accidents, ignorance, stress/necessity, or insanity.
The laws regarding liability were very detailed and they encompassed onlookers or accomplices as well as a person being liable for his or her actions after death. Since Celts believed in reincarnation (usually within the family line), debts and offences carried on even after a person’s death.
What Brehon Laws Tell Us About Celtic Culture
If many of us have never seen the laws in their entirety, nor live in the type of society that they were used in, why are they so important for us to know about today?
To deny their place in Celtic culture or to deny learning of them would indeed be denying a vital part of our heritage. Law and order set the standards for a society, and the Celts had a very complex system of standards.
Druids of the past sought to preserve knowledge through passing their traditions to their students. Unfortunately, they did not feel it prudent to write any of this knowledge down lest the knowledge fall into the wrong hands or lose power, leaving us having to piece together what little we do know from other writers through the ages.
The Brehon Laws or Fenechas, although not written down by the Pagan Celts (at least not that we know of), were preserved by their Christian successors and some of those writings are still in existence today, in the Corpus Iuris Hibernici, compiled by Professor D.A. Binchy in 1978. (3)
As well as serving to provide us with a social/cultural history of the Irish Celts, the laws also serve to provide us insight into Celtic ethics and values. Those which a society feels worthy of upholding to a strong degree are usually committed to law so that they are never violated or forgotten without due consequence.
Let us look at healthcare for instance. Healthcare is an important aspect of today’s society. In Canada, healthcare is provided for all, regardless of status in society, while in other countries, healthcare is provided to those who can afford it. How important was it to most European cultures? The Greeks and Romans, as well many other European societies, did very little to accommodate the elderly or infirm, choosing to kill them as the ultimate cure for their ailments. Hospitals were unheard of in common history, save for the medic’s tent in the battlefield, until about AD 399 when a hospice was set up for the sick and needy by St. Fabiola near Rome.
However, the Irish had hospitals by the time Christianity came to Ireland. Legend tells of Queen Macha Mong Rhuadh who set up a hospital called Broin Bherg (House of Sorrows) in Emain Macha in BC 377, which remained in operation until it was destroyed in AD 22. (4)
The Brehon Laws stated that a hospital was to be available in all tribal localities. It was to have four doors and be placed near a stream of running water and be maintained by the local assembly of people, free of taxation. Caretakers were hired to keep away stray dogs and to ensure that the patients were not disturbed by anyone who could cause any problems (including nagging women!). (5)
The Laws also detailed provisions for sick maintenance in the way of costs and who was to pay for it. There was even a form of workers’ compensation in the form of the Law of Torts, which stated that “Full sick maintenance [must be paid] to a worker injured for the sake of unnecessary profit…” (6)
Strict rules were also applied to practitioners of medicine, which are similar to the laws regarding physicians and medical professionals today. A physician was liable for any exacerbation of the patient’s condition under his care and could essentially be “sued for malpractice”. Physicians were even allowed to take occasional sabbaticals to upgrade their knowledge.
This alone tells us that the Celts had very strong values when it came to human life and life in general. The sick were treated with due care and strict laws were in place to ensure that care was optimal.
The Celts also had very strong values when it came to personal responsibility. Offences against the person carried consequence and required compensation. The compensation was calculated through a very complex classification of a person’s rank in society.
The Significance of the Brehon Laws in Modern Druidic Practice
As Druids, we are well aware of the importance of the Brehon Laws in the context of learning more about every day Celtic life. How do we incorporate these into our ethical standards? Many of the laws would not be valid in today’s society, nor could we expect anyone to comply with them if use them in our own group practices!
Would you be able to get away with paying someone an “honour price” if you killed a member of his family? You’d likely be in jail for a very long time because your nation’s own law would govern the outcome, regardless!
Could you extract an honour price from someone outside of your group for insulting you at a public ritual? Not likely without appearing the fool. There are probably protocols in place with that person’s grove, group or coven that you could invoke to have the problem dealt with if it was actually serious enough to warrant action.
Could you demand compensation according to Brehon Law from your neighbour because his dog constantly messes up your garden? No, but you could report him to your municipal bylaw officer if the dog is a constant pest to your property or person.
So, if we cannot really use the laws, what use are they to us from an ethical standpoint? From the Brehon Laws, we know about some of the basics of Celtic culture, which can be used in our practices today. Below are some examples of what we can take from the Laws into our own ethical standards, based on some common features I have seen within Pagan communities around the world:
• Every action has a consequence that must be observed and you must be prepared to compensate for your actions if required. If you are a Druid who does not follow the Wiccan Rede or the Threefold Law, you are still required to think about your actions before undertaking them. In ancient Celtic Society, you would be morally and financially liable for all of your actions, whether it be in the workplace or in your own house. Think before you act!
• All life is sacred. As well as the examples I have given regarding healthcare, there are laws regarding stripping the bark off of an oak tree (payment of a cow-hide as well as covering up the stripped part with a paste made of cow dung, new milk and new clay), or not saving a horse who is straying near a body of water or a pit in the dark. (7) All life is sacred and all are responsible for seeing that this standard is upheld.
• You do still live in society and are bound by its rules. I’m not sure why this happens, but some folks seem to think that their Pagan religion makes them exempt from society. How many cases have we seen of underage sexual assault, concealing bladed weapons or other illegal activities where the perpetrator claims it is part of his or her religion as a Pagan or Druid? How many predators have we encountered in Pagan circles and public events?
I remember a ritual I attended in 2000 where a 16 year old girl asked me if her 29 year old male teacher was right in saying she had to have sex with him in order to be initiated, saying it was the Great Rite and it had to be done in initiation rituals (I said no, he was not right and to report him to the authorities immediately). All Celts, including the Druids were bound by society’s laws. No one, not even the ruler, was above the law of the land. Neither are we.
• Work with high standards. No one was exempt from liability in Celtic society: doctors, lawyers, millwrights, smiths, etc., so high standards of work and safety were upheld by ethical folks in order to remain free of liability. Be proud of your work and work with high standards. In your faith practice, work with high standards. The benefits far outweigh anything else!
• Make an honest living. Working at all was a good thing, unless you were sick or inform in some other fashion. Laziness was penalized by the system and anyone found taking undue advantage of charity and assistance of others were punished as well. I have met my fair share of Pagans who are collecting social assistance when they could and should be working. One indignant individual even told me that he wouldn’t work because if he did, he was only supporting lazy folk and the rich! There is no shame in taking assistance if it is needed. That’s why it’s there. There is shame when it is taken for granted and used in a dishonest manner.
• Be a good host as well as a good guest. Hospitality was a very important aspect of Celtic culture and the Brehon laws are strict in its upholding. Whosoever came to the door was to be fed and cared for with no questions asked. Naturally, this practice may not literally be beneficial if whoever is at our door means to rob the house or do some other harm. However, caution does not mean we cannot receive our guests with due care in any respect.
I recently had the pleasure of a Christian pastor’s attendance at a public ritual I was hosting. Despite the differences in our faiths, he said that he had an enjoyable time and felt extremely welcome. He said that it would be nice if many Christians could show the same hospitality within their churches. I took that as a great compliment!
No matter what the tradition, religion or ideals of our guests, we must still treat them with utmost respect. As well, if we are guests at another’s house, rite of worship or event, we too must act with care and respect. Offending a person on his own property also came with a price according to Brehon aw. “Baiting” people of other faiths does not constitute being a good host or guest.
• Take care of yourself. Health was held in high esteem amongst the Celts, so much that a person could be fined for being grossly overweight due to lack of care. A person cannot be productive or happy if he is in ill health. A healthy person is one who takes care of his or her physical, mental and spiritual health.
Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, keep your mind challenged, keep stress under control and remain true to your spirituality. One cannot effectively serve Deity or community without serving his or her own vital needs.
• Serve your community. Good service to the community rarely went unrewarded in Celtic society and still is rewarding today. Do you volunteer or work with a charity? Are you lucky enough to work in a profession where you can help people or animals? Helping others is a rewarding experience that one can learn a lot from!
As well as general community service, we are responsible for serving our own faith communities. A religious leader who was negligent in his duty to the people’s spiritual development was punished just as greatly as a King who was negligent in his duty as a ruler.
Those in positions of power within the Pagan community are only there because they serve the people, not the other way around. Degrees or levels of achievement mean nothing if no one respects or recognizes them. Respect is a two way street.
Always remember whom you serve as a spiritual leader: the Gods, the Greater Community and your own people.
• Maintain a healthy balance of the spiritual and mundane. As well as being spiritual leaders in Celtic society, Druids were scholars first. They did not live in a world full of unrealistic ideals and wistful fancies; spending their days dreaming and living half in this world and half in the next, languishing in oak trees cutting mistletoe or haphazardly doing human sacrifices for fun (despite what the Romans would have us believe!).
Druids had a lot of responsibilities to the community as leaders, teachers and advisors. They had to live firmly in the present, keeping up with the political landscape of the world to keep rulers prepared for any incident and being a stable support for the people who needed them.
Ethical and self respecting Druids did nothing without being properly schooled or aware of the consequences ahead of time. They knew when it was appropriate to visit the Otherworld and immerse themselves in the spiritual as well as when it was appropriate to be fully in this world.
Know when to do ritual, visit the Otherworld, etc…and know when to be in the mundane world. (Hint: One will want to be spending the majority of his or her time in this world) While it is favourable to live a spiritually aware life, there must be balance maintained to create a healthy spirituality. There are enough examples of people who seem to want to live in both worlds at once…and not many of them are healthy.
• Uphold the Truth, starting with yourself. Fraudulence was not tolerated in Celtic society, particularly when it came to professional practice, and it is not tolerated today. Everyone had their place in society and could aspire to greater heights through hard work and common sense. Lying about one’s credentials in order to make a profit, get followers, or gain status was frowned upon. A person practicing medicine who was not a real physician, for example, was punished severely by law. A person doing the same today could land himself in jail, so the law has not changed much in that regard.
Be yourself. If you have worked hard and honestly to get where you are today as a teacher, practitioner or leader, despite having a pile of degrees under your belt, be proud of your efforts! Your skill and such will prove your skill in itself without the need to boast.
Be wary of the false gurus out there and do not be one of them. We all know who they are: they troll for students, emphasize their degrees and years of experience, and of course do more harm than good in the end. No benefit ever comes of it.
• Be sure in your convictions. Making an accusation in Celtic society involved a long process, and wrongful judgment carried a hefty price: a ruined reputation, compensation to the wronged parties and even blemishes to the false judge. If one is making an accusation against another, he or she must be absolutely sure and be able to provide sources and a full accusation. A false accuser was also punished by law.
I have seen too many instances in the general Pagan community where an accusation is made but no one can say what the accusation is, who informed the accuser of the incident (since many of these things seem to be through word of mouth from a third party) or when it happened because the accuser has to preserve some sort of secrecy.
Would a court of law today accept such an accusation? The accuser be laughed out of court, if he even got there, and charged for wasting time through his legal fees. In other words, get your facts straight and be prepared to prove your case. This applies to arguments and debates as well.
There are many more examples I could list, but the main points in Brehon Law seem to center around personal responsibility and consequence, upholding Truth, respect for all living things, hospitality, service and good common sense. These are all aspects that do well in our lives, beliefs and practices.
The Brehon Laws also give us a lot of insight, as leaders, on the effective operation of a community. It worked well for the Irish for over 1000 years and many of the principles of ethics and good community practice would teach anyone running a Pagan fellowship valuable community building skills.
Using the main points of Brehon Law, a leader can effectively facilitate a positive community:
• Personal Responsibility and Consequence: A good leader not only knows the rules and ethics, but upholds them as well. He or she looks at the consequences before taking action on any issue. Naturally, a leader is not perfect, but he or she should exercise personal responsibility and self discipline, and be prepared to make any necessary recompense.
• Uphold Truth: A good leader is truthful about his or her qualifications, even if they are few. He is honest in his actions. She gets her facts straight by going to the source when dealing with any situation.
• Respect all Life: The good leader knows that this not only means to be respectful of the well being of all creatures, but also means to be respectful to all who cross his or her path, no matter who they are. The leader also ensures that his or her own health is properly maintained.
• Be Hospitable: Being an excellent host and guest is favourable in any situation. The good leader is careful to ensure that respect is upheld by all, especially himself, to folks of other faith paths, abilities and traditions. The leader does her best to make members of the community feel welcome and important by involving them in decisions, acknowledging their good efforts and supporting their rough times. The decent leader does not use belittling or demeaning tactics to manipulate her people or exact disciplinary measures.
• Live in Service: A good leader knows that her position is one of service. More importantly, she knows who she serves. He knows his priorities when it comes to his people’s well being and spiritual growth. The people will never feel that they are taken for granted.
• Practice good common sense: The good leader delegates responsibility to others within the community to ensure all matters, mundane and spiritual, are looked after adequately. The leader lives in balance and handles situations appropriately.
While the Brehon Laws themselves cannot be read by most people, there are many great articles and books which can help you gain a good understanding of what the Brehon Laws were about. I have listed some of these in my Bibliography and notes below.
Another great source of some of the laws as well as many of the ethics held in high esteem by the Celts can be found in John F. Wright’s excellent “Compilation of Triads”, which can be found online at www.illusions.com/rowanhold/3things.htm. (8)
• Berresford-Ellis, Peter. A Brief History of the Celts. Constable & Robinson Ltd. London. 1998, 2003.
• Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Penguin Books. London, 1997
• Dillon, Myles and Chadwick, Nora. The Celtic Realms: The History and Culture of the Celtic Peoples from Pre-History to The Norman Invasion. Phoenix Press, London. 2000. (Originally published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London in 1967)
• Dowling Daley, Mary. The Little Book of Irish Law. Appletree Press Ltd. 1989.
• Green, Miranda. The World of the Druids. Thames and Hudson, Ltd. London, 1997
• Karl, Raimund. Celtic Law: A Brief Summary.
• Kelly, Fergus. A Guide to Early Irish Law. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. 1988, 1991, 1995, 1998.
• Salafia, Vincent. Law Literature and Legend: The Definitional Problem with Brehon Law. http://ua_tuathal.tripod.com/lawpref.htm . 1999
1. Law Literature and Legend: The Definitional Problem with Brehon Law by Vincent Salafia. 1999. From the Introduction. The full document can be found at the Brehon Aid: The Brehon Law Project website: http://ua_tuathal.tripod.com/lawpref.htm
2. Celtic Law: A Brief Summary by Raimund Karl. The full document can be found at: home.flash.net/~bellbook/faolcu/celtlaw02.html
3. Law Literature and Legend: The Definitional Problem with Brehon Law by Vincent Salafia. 1999.
4. A Brief History of the Celts by Peter Berresford-Ellis. Constable & Robinson Ltd. 1998, 2003. From the chapter Celtic Physicians, Pg. 111.
5. From the The Little Book of Irish Laws, compiled by Mary Dowling Daley. Appletree Press Ltd. 1989.
6. A Brief History of the Celts by Peter Berresford-Ellis. Constable & Robinson Ltd. 1998, 2003. From the chapter Celtic Physicians, Pg. 113.
7. From the The Little Book of Irish Laws, compiled by Mary Dowling Daley. Appletree Press Ltd. 1989.
8. This complete Compilation can be found on the Rowanhold Bardic Circle website: www.illusions.com/rowanhold/3things.htm
Found at: www.druidnetwork.org/ethical/articles/athelia_brehon.html