Thinking Shall Replace Killing: A Short Look at a Pagan Model of Ethics

Reason brings Righteousness, and Reason is a power that works among all minds alike. When once Reason is established, all the minds of all mankind will be in a state of Health and Peace. It will be as if there were but a single person.

Finally, here is a Celtic example. In Irish Celtic mythology, there is a series of stories that together are called The Cycle of the Invasions. They detail how Ireland was populated by a series of colonists, and describe the various problems they encountered. Most had to do with diseases, but some had to do with warfare against a tribe of monsters known as the Fomhoire. The second-to-last tribe to colonize Ireland was called the Tuatha de Dannan, and they are the only people whom the storytellers refer to as a race of gods. They fought two battles against the Fomhoire, which are known as the First and Second Battles of Maigh Tuireadh, named after the field in Ireland where the battle took place. The first one ended in a stalemate and resulted in a short-lived peace, and the second one decisively defeated the Fomhoire and routed them into the sea.

The story is surprisingly similar to the stories of other battles between the gods and a race of predecessor creatures, such as the battles between the Olympian gods of Greece and the Titans, or between the Devas and the Asuras. In the Irish story, when the second and final battle is over, the peace is proclaimed by a goddess who is a central deity in the Irish pantheon, and yet she is still very mysterious to us. Her name is An Mhorrigán, which in English means The Great Queen, or else The Queen of Phantoms, depending on where you put the accent. It's curious that she is the one to proclaim the peace because as a goddess she specializes in warfare, and she is very capable of bloodthirsty violence, like any of the men of a tribal warrior society like the pre-Christian Celts. During the preparations for the battle, she promises, "I have stood fast; I shall pursue what was watched; I will be able to kill; I will be able to destroy those who might be subdued." Yet after the battle is over, she doesn't glorify in the victory, nor does she take delight in the conquest. Instead, she proclaims peace. Here are her own words:

Peace to (as high as) the sky
sky to the earth

earth beneath sky

strength in everyone

a cup very full
a fullness of honey

honor enough

summer in winter
spear supported by shield
shields supported by forts
forts fierce eager for battle
"sod" (fleece) from sheep

woods grown with antler-tips (full of stags)
forever destructions have departed
mast (nuts) on trees
a branch drooping-down
drooping from growth . . .

This is only part of the poem, but you have the general impression. I think this is a very interesting moment in the mythology of the Celtic people. The goddess who, until that moment, had been responsible for warfare, now also becomes responsible for peace. The poem has come to be known as the Peace of the Morrígan. It refers to several culturally significant symbols that have little to do with war fighting and more to do with the maintenance of a flourishing and cultured human society. We see, for example, the salmon, representing wisdom; the river Boyne and the monument of Newgrange, representing time and eternity; the woods full of stags, symbolizing kingship. The poem also refers to organic fertility: the fleece of the sheep, the wood from the forest, the growth of animals and plants. The warrior culture is not forgotten, since she does mention a few military things, like the building of forts. But otherwise, this poem describes a society that also delights in purposes other than warfare.

In this change, I'm sure that the Celtic people did not cease to be a warrior people. But I think they also began to recognize other values, such as art, justice, and peace. Such values also appear in the Celtic wisdom texts, which were written in the 9th to the 11th centuries. Civilization is exactly this process by which a society transforms its priorities, from violence to intelligence, from conquest to culture. Furthermore, when a society makes this transition, the gods make a transition of their own too. Morrígan, the Great Queen of the Celts, begins as a goddess of battle, because success in battle was all that was expected of the old Celtic chieftains. But then there was an outbreak of peace, and the chieftains were expected to act as judges and lawmakers and material providers. So the goddess changed too. She was still responsible for warfare, but she also became responsible for other things, like the fertility of animals and plants, and the inauguration of kings, and the foretelling of fate and destiny, and also of death. I think this movement from a society organized primarily for war, to a society organized primarily for culture, represents what the word ‘civilization' is all about.

2/7/2011 5:00:00 AM
  • Pagan
  • Civilization
  • Peace
  • Philosophy
  • War
  • Paganism
  • About