To the Celtic Culture, Courage had a social function of promote interaction between the classes and was a form of acquiring Honor and status. In a wary society based in honor value as the Celtic was, this element was of fundamental importance to any kind of social interaction. Professor Kim McCone from the Department of Old Irish of the Saint Patrick’s College explains the relations between the Early Irish classes and warfare in his article to Ériu Aided Cheltchair Maic Uthechair: Hounds, Heroes and Hospitallers in Early Irish Myth and Story.
‘This interdependence of kingship and production of fertility, the ‘first’ and ‘third’ functions respectively according to Dumezilian terminology, is of vital importance in early Irish ideology, but the aim of this paper is rather to explore the equally essential relationship between the basically productive and pacific ‘third function’ and warfare, which constitutes the martial ‘second function’ of the Dumezilian system. This brings us into a world of ‘mad dogs and Irishmen’, or rather Irish warrior-heroes.’
To the Celts, courage was not only a virtue but a fundamental part of the cultural structure, since war and raids were an element of social interaction where all the three classes participated, although the Sacerdotal class was not obligate to join, and the productive class participated mostly in the production of weapons and gear. Honor and status were gained by demonstrations of courage and were lost by demonstrations of cowardice. Katharine Simms says that ‘to accuse a king of cowardice was in effect to brand him as unfit to kingship’. A coward would be unable to be king in a Celtic community since he would be considered with no Honor and so deprived of any status. Strabo describes clearly the Celtic taste to war.
‘The whole race, which is now called Gallic or Galatic, is madly fond of war, high-spirited and quick to battle, but otherwise straightforward and not of evil character. And so when they are stirred up they assemble in their bands for battle, quite openly and without forethought, so that they are easily handled by those who desire to outwit them; for at any time or place and on whatever pretext you stir them up, you will have them ready to face danger, even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage.’
This “virtue” was of such importance to the Celtic Culture that if a noble was coward, he would never be completely involved with the community once he would exclude himself from the battlefield and from this unique moment of interaction between the individuals and the classes that the battle would provide. On the other hand, a member of the productive class could participate effectively in the battle, although he didn’t receive regular training for this, and raise his value of honor, being able to a such level of recognition that propitiate his acceptance in the warrior’s class.
The war was the opportunity to demonstrate individual valor acquiring Honor, so the bravest challenge the enemies to single combats as a form of making explicit their valor in front of all the society. Diodorus give us a good illustration about the Celtic behavior in the battlefield is very elucidate.
‘When the armies are drawn up in battle array they are wont to advance before the battle-line and to challenge the bravest of their opponents to single combat, at the same time brandishing before them their arms so as to terrify their foes.’
Other kind of campaign, although it had specific functions in the maintenance of the tribe’s wealth and prosperity, were the cattle-raids which shared the same social function as the regular war in gain of value of honor. This practice was an institutional activity promoted by kings and nobles to where the same codes of Honor established to war were observed. The cattle-raids were so important that many kings had died in this tasks, since they might be the bravest of the men and might be in the front-line to attack and in the back-line in the return to home watching for the safety of his own allied. Katharine Simms in her article to Celtica Images of Warfare in Bardic Poetry gives us a good picture of how important was the king’s conduct in a cattle-raid.
‘The commonest form of campaign was the cattle-raid, in which the bare-footed, almost unarmed footed-soldiers were chiefly employed in burning thatched houses and rounding up herds of cattle, while the bulk of the fighting fell to the armed horsemen, that is the chieftain himself, his nobles and kinsmen, ho rode first into enemy territory and last out of it, as a bardic poem boasted of the chief of Teallach Eachach: ‘The rear of the troop is the place of dark-browed Niall when living a fight, the vanguard his place during it, he always asked his companions to let him go first in to any dark house.’ Historically the Annals record many Irish kinglets as having been killed in the rear of a raiding-party while defending their prey, or in the forefront of the pursuit while reclaiming prey taken from them. It was above all the leaders, and not the rank or file, who were expected to man the gap of danger and sacrifice their lives in defense of their followers.’
In The Second Battle of Moytura we have a good example of courage in the mythological literature when Lugh, that although was part of the warrior’s class had protective’s class skills, defy Balor, and in a single precise movement strike his eye, what not only kills him but a great part of the enemy army that is the focus of the last look of Balor’s evil eye. This is an epical demonstration of courage which corroborates to our understanding of the Celtic ideal of conduct in the wary events and probably were part of their own notion of ideal conduct itself while a mythological narrative. The encounter’s description between them helps us to understand the hugeness of this combat and imagine the value of honor that would result from it.
‘Lugh and Balor of the Piercing Eye met in the battle. An evil eye had Balor. That eye was never opened save only on a battle-field. Four men used to lift up the lid of the eye with a (polished) handle which passed through its lid. If an army looked at that eye, though they were many thousands in number they could not resist a few warriors. Hence had it that poisonous power. His father’s Druids were concocting charms. He came and looked over the window, and the fume of the concoction came under it, so that the poison of the concoction afterwards came on the eye that looked. Then he and Lugh meet.’
The Celtic Society was ruled by Honor and Courage, for them these virtues were vital to social relations. Although for us they seem connected concepts, it is necessary to remember that there are crucial differences between them in the Celtic Society, for courage is a pre-requirement to the social interaction while honor is an individual “virtue”, that can even measure, gain or lost. Therefore, courage was a way of interaction between the classes, while the value of honor was a way of differentiation between them. In Pagan Celtic Ireland, Barry Raftery describes the importance of war in the social life of the Irish Celts.
‘The enduring image of the Celtic society which emerges from the written sources, both vernacular and Classical, is of a society dominated by a warrior caste which is fierce and quarrelsome, recklessly brave in battle and exceedingly prickly on points of personal honour. The Irish tales in particular present us with a culture in which warfare is endemic, where fighting is based on individual prowess, and where set-piece confrontations take place between selected champions. Among these people warfare was almost a ritualized sport with a well-defined code of conduct.
Across the European mainland, a warrior class is clearly recognizable in the archaeological record. In all areas where La Tène cemeteries occur, burials of heavily armed adult males are constantly recurring feature. The combined evidence of archaeology and the written sources enables us to envisage, without difficulty, the boast, strutting warriors engaged in their lethal pursuits.’
When we understand that courage was the intersection factor of the individual in the community we became closer of the understanding of why the war and raids were so recurrent themes in the Irish Celtic Myth, once that these had fundamental functions in the maintenance of the social structure, while promoting of the interaction between the classes and a way to determinate individual values of honor.
MCCONE, Kim. Aided Cheltchair Maic Uthechair: Hounds, Heroes and Hospitallers in Early Irish Myth and Story. Ériu, Vol. 35. Published by Royal Irish Academy. (1984), pp. 1-30
RAFTERY, Barry. Pagan Celtic Ireland: The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 1998.
SIMMS, Katharine. Images of Warfare in Bardic Poetry. Celtica 21. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1990.
STROKES, Whitley (Ed. e Trad.). The Second Battle of Moytura in Revue Celtique. Volume 12, Paris, F. Vieweg (1891) page 52-130, 306-308. http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T300011.html