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 'clú' ("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
The other word often used for "loyal" is 'dílis' (Old Irish 'díles'),
which comes from Old Celtic 'dílestos' 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 'oígidecht' (modern
'aíocht'), derived from 'oígi' "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 'macánta' ("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 'cóir' (oldest
form 'coair'), which comes from Old Celtic 'ko-uéro-' "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
('uéron') 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 'cródacht' (modern 'crógacht'), derived from 'cródae' (modern
'cróga'), 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".
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