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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sexuality in Ancient Ireland

  This falls into the category of "frequently asked questions", because I regularly see people wondering what the ancient Irish or Celtic view of homosexuality was. The short answer seems to be that prior to Christianity it was not remarkable. Let's take a look at the long answer:
     There is very little direct mention of homosexuality in the ancient Irish mythology or stories (Power, 1976). Some people might decide this is indicative of a lack of homosexuality in general but it appears that in fact the opposite was the case, that it may have been seen as accepted and unremarkable. Partially we can draw this conclusion because we know that societies that did strongly prohibit same sex pairings for any reason tended to be very vocal about that fact and we find references to being the submissive sexual partner frequently used as an insult against men in such cultures, such as the Norse. However that is lacking in the Irish* and the Celts more generally, indicating that same sex relations were not viewed as shameful or, one may assume abnormal. We can also draw this conclusion using evidence from secondary sources, in this case Greek observers.
    One indicator of the acceptance of homosexuality in Celtic culture is a comment by Aristotle in his "Politics" where he mentions the way that the Celts openly approved of sexual relationships between men (Freeman, 2002). Similarly Diodorus also describes the open way that Celtic men had sexual relations with each other, in a way that seemed to baffle the Greeks because the Celts favored relationships between equals and were not concerned with beauty or age (Freeman, 2002). This is noteworthy because this Mediterranean culture itself engaged in forms of homosexual practice so they would not have included mention of it among the Celts as propaganda implying moral judgment; rather it was mentioned because the classical historians found the Celts lack of discernment concerning partners** and lack of concern about social order - reflected in taking partners among equals instead of younger men - to reflect barbarism. Although this evidence relates to the Gaulish Celts and not the Irish Celts it is indicative of the wider cultural views that seemed to be held within Celtic society.
   We do have some indication within Irish mythology that same sex pairings were accepted and not seen as unusual and this comes from the Tain Bo Cuiligne and the relationship of Ferdiad and Cu Chulain. During the fighting Cu Chulain has set himself up to block the attacking army and is taking on challengers one by one. Queen Medb convinces his foster brother Ferdiad to fight against him, much to Cu Chulain's dismay. When the two first meet on the battle field Cu Chulain says  to Ferdiad "We were heart-companions once; We were comrades in the woods; We were men that shared a bed"; Ferdiad responds that that time was long ago and insists on fighting (Windsch, 1905). We can further see the closeness of their relationship by looking at the mourning poem of Cu Chulain after he kills Ferdiad. He laments Ferdiad's death with these words: "I loved the noble way you blushed, and loved your fine, perfect form. I loved your blue clear eye, your way of speech, your skillfulness." (Kinsella, 1969). He goes on to praise Ferdiad's beauty further as well as his weapon's skill and lament that Feridiad was led to his death by the promise of marriage to Medb's daughter. Many people see in this passage the lament of one lover for another, something that is consistent with the practices discussed by Aristotle and Diodorus of Celtic warriors taking each other as lovers, and with Cu Chulain's own comment that they were "heart-companions" and "men who shared a bed".
   There is a post-Christian reference in the Life of Colum Cille that also mentions a homosexual relationship. In this case it occurs between an Irishman named Áed Dub and a British priest named Findchán, who were said to have a 'carnal love' for each other (O Cathasaigh, 2014). Áed Dub had killed the man who was king of Ireland and many others besides but Findchán has him ordained in the monastery, putting his own hand on Áed's head when the bishop initially refuses to. When Colum Cille finds out that Findchán had Áed ordained as a priest he curses them both, Findchán to lose his right hand and Áed to go back to his murderous ways and to die by spear, falling, and drowning (O Cathasaigh, 2014).
   There is also mention of homosexuality in the Brehon Laws. One reason that a woman may lawfully divorce her husband is if he refuses her bed in favor of a male lover (Kelly, 2005). Although this is often taken as prohibitions against homosexuality it is important to understand the passage in context and to realize that it is not homosexuality as a practice that is being spoken against but the denial of a potential child to the wife. It specifies that it is only acceptable grounds for divorce if the husband denies his wife's bed in favor of his male lover's, and this is listed along with infertility, and being too fat for intercourse, making it clear that it is not the sexual preference per se but the lack of fulfilling marriage terms - i.e. providing a child. Additionally it is worth considering that there is a story in the book of Leinster which references two woman who are lovers; one woman becomes pregnant after lying with the other who had just had sex with a male partner (Bitel, 1996). What is most important about this story is that neither woman was punished or shamed in any way for their actions, indicating that women taking female lovers was not seen in a negative way (Bitel, 1996).
    In conclusion what evidence we do have seems to make it clear that sexual preference was not noteworthy until Christian mores took over. Warriors in Celtic Gaul were noted by the Greeks to take male lovers and there are at least echos of this practice in the relationship between Cu Chulain and Ferdiad. The law texts also address this in a way that does not condemn the act itself but only the nullification of a contract as a result of denying a female partner. Looking at the evidence in its entirety, scanty as it may be, I think its safe to conclude that bisexuality was not considered remarkable nor were homosexual relationships.  Marriage was a complex contractual affair regulated by law and intended to produce heirs, but love and sexual relations did not seem to necessarily always share this focus, nor an emphasis on heterosexuality.

*rather in the Irish we see insults aimed at people's ancestry, youth/inexperience, courage, and skill at arms.
** As Diodorus puts it ""The oddest part about the whole business is that young men don't care at all about appearance and will gladly give their bodies to anyone." (Freeman, 2002).

Kinsella, T., (1969) The Tain
Freeman, P., (2002). War, Women, and Druids
Kelly, F., (2005). A Guide To Early Irish Law
Bitel, L., (1996) Land of Women
Power, P., (1976). Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland
Windisch, E., (1905). Tain Bo Cualgne
O Cathasaigh, T., (2014) Coire Sois

edited to add content Oct 2016
  Copyright Morgan Daimler


  1. Very interesting post, thank you for sharing.

    May I ask whether or not you feel that a pan-Celtic culture is fair to comment on since there is a lot of dialogue on the lament by Cuchulainn for Ferdiad as there are also stark differences between so-called "Celtic cultures". In fact many Irish Studies scholars dispute the idea that Ireland was a Celtic culture at all.

    Thanks in advance.


    1. Most of the dialogue in the lament for Ferdiad is along the same lines, mentioning their friendship, training together, and closeness, as well as Cu Chulain's praise for Ferdiad's appearance.
      I wouldn't necessarily say, myself, that many scholars dispute Ireland having a Celtic cultural period although I agree that some do, especially currently. However based solely on the academic criteria for a Celtic culture - language and art - iron age Ireland was a Celtic culture. I prefer to stay out of the "Celtic from the West" debate about whether that culture began there or spread to there, as it were, but the Iron age Irish did speak a Celtic language and archaeology has provided examples of Celtic La Tene style art.
      In any event, even without the Gaulish comparison, the ultimate point would still stand. I included it only because of the lack of overt commentary on the Irish view of homosexuality from outside sources. Even if we ignore that, the rest of the article is still I think persuasive.

  2. Hi, I just want to say thank you for making this post. There's not a lot of information readily out there on this topic for casual history fans (who don't have the time available to research secondary let alone primary sources), so I found this to be quite informative and interesting, even if the historical evidence we have is tough to draw definitive conclusions from. Thank you!

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