This is a collection of short posts from the IMBAS mailing list dealing with the values that were important in Pagan Celtic cultures. These posts were written by scholar Alexei Kondratiev and explore the values using comparative linguistics. This page will be added to on a weekly basis.
The traditional Irish word that is usually translated as “honor” is ‘oineach’ which (by way of ‘ainech’) goes back to Old Irish ‘enech’ which originally means “face” (from Old Celtic ‘eniequos’) — cognates in Welsh ‘wyneb’, Cornish and Breton ‘enep’ (same meaning). Thus the idea of honor is primarily related to one’s “face” which must be saved in the eyes of the community. A closely related concept, often mentioned in the same contexts, is that of ‘clъ’ (“reputation” or “fame”), which comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to hear” and thus refers to what is being said about someone. To be honorable, then, is to maintain one’s “face” before the community and to be “heard of” in a good way. Dishonor comes from losing “face” and being “heard of” in a bad way. The term ‘enech’ also expresses the idea of personal power, since as long as one has “face” in the community one is able to influence others: thus people or things that are your responsibility or otherwise under your protection are described as being “on” or “under” your “face”. When you lose “face”, of course, you’re no longer able to extend the protection.
What emerges from this is a sense of honor and dishonor being very much defined by the community, rather than the individually chosen codes of honor that are more characteristic of our modern way of thinking.
The Irish word that best translates “loyalty” is ‘tairise’ (from Old Irish ‘tairisiu’), which literally means “steadfastness”. Originally it had both passive and active meanings: i.e. it implied a state of trust in the other as well as consistent involvement for the other’s benefit. The key notion here is consistency, sticking to one’s chosen position in relation to other people.
The other word often used for “loyal” is ‘dнlis’ (Old Irish ‘dнles’), which comes from Old Celtic ‘dнlestos’ and also appears as Welsh ‘dilys’. This is the secondary meaning of a term widely used in Brehon Law to mean “inalienable property”: the idea is something that is unquestionably the attribute of something else. Thus it also comes to refer to consistency and permanence: certain (desirable) traits and sentiments are so deeply imbedded in the person that they are unchangeable and can be depended upon. In modern Welsh usage ‘dilys’ often means “authentic”.
The general term for “hospitality” in early Irish is ‘oнgidecht’ (modern ‘aнocht’), derived from ‘oнgi’ “stranger, newcomer”, from a root that may have implied “travelling, being out of one’s home territory”. Thus the term means “dealing with strangers” – i.e. people who don’t belong to one’s household. Needless to say, rules for helping people who were not your kin were of paramount importance in ancient times, and were the one thing that made travel and trade possible.
Although the mythology suggests that unlimited hospitality was the original ideal, by the early Middle Ages the legal system clearly defined obligations and limited what those with little material means (e.g. the ‘fir midbotha’ or men who didn’t have title to their homes) had to provide. And there were professional hospitallers (‘briugu’, modern ‘brughaidh’) who took the pressure off ordinary people.
The basic term for “honesty” in Old Irish is ‘indracus’ (modern ‘ionracas’) from ‘indraic’ (modern ‘ionraic’) “honest”. This generally meant someone or something that showed integrity, that was not flawed. There is a folk etymology (accepted by some early linguists) that derives it from ‘in+reic-’ (“sellable”, as of an undamaged item — this is actually one of the contexts in which it was used). It’s more likely that the second element is the root ‘reg-’ “to put in order” (whence the English “right”). The original meaning would thus have been “right/correct inside”.
In later Irish the words ‘cneasta’ (from Old Irish ‘cnesta’ “healed, returned to its proper form”) and ‘macбnta’ (“filial, behaving like one’s son or child”) are often used to convey the meaning “honest”. The idea expressed is guilelessness, openness and friendliness in dealing with others.
In the same vein, Welsh uses ‘didwyll’ (“without deceit”) and Breton uses ‘reizh’ (“right”) to mean “honest”, although both have borrowed ‘onest’ from Norman French (as has English).
The oldest word for “just” and “justice” in Irish is probably ‘cуir’ (oldest form ‘coair’), which comes from Old Celtic ‘ko-uйro-’ “in accordance with the truth” (cf. the more transparent Welsh cognate ‘cywir’, which in modern usage means “correct’). As usual, we have the basic Celtic concept of Truth (‘uйron’) which refers to a cosmic, indisputable rightness which human behaviour must seek to imitate. Other Celtic words for justice are related to the same idea: Welsh ‘cyfiawnder’ from ‘cyfiawn’ “just” (literally “in conformity with rightness”), Breton ‘reizh’ (from Old Celtic ‘rextion’ “that which is [properly] ruled”, and cognate with English “right”).
The later Irish word for “justice” is ‘cert’ (modern ‘ceart’), which appears to be a borrowing from Latin ‘certus’ “certain, sure”.
‘Meisnech’ (modern ‘misneach’) means “courage” in the sense of being able to keep one’s head (it comes from the root ‘med-’ “to measure, to reckon”). It generally implies that one can maintain control over one’s mood. ‘Calmacht’ (derived from the adjective ‘calma’) comes from a root that means “hard” (the same as in Welsh ‘caled’ “hard”) and implies strength in endurance. The same is true of ‘crуdacht’ (modern ‘crуgacht’), derived from ‘crуdae’ (modern ‘crуga’), which originally meant something like “bloodthirsty”, the hardness that prevents one from being swayed by pity in battle; eventually this came to mean simply “bravery” in all senses. ‘Uchtach’ comes from ‘ucht’ “breast, bosom” and originally meant a breastplate, and then acquired an abstract meaning of moral defense; it was also understood as “spirit, mettle”.
All the Brythonic languages use ‘calon’ (‘kalon’/’kolonn’) “heart” to mean “courage” (notice that it’s also formed from the root that means “hard”). Welsh also uses ‘gwroldeb’ derived from ‘gwrol’ which means “male-like, typifying masculine virtues”, as well as ‘dewrder’ derived from ‘dewr’, which had similar connotations. Older Welsh also used the word ‘glew’ which basically means “bold, daring” — as in the name of King Arthur’s doorkeeper, Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr “The Bold Grey One of the Mighty Grasp”.