Class and Law System of Ancient Celts


Celtic society was mainly separated into three classes that were fairly typical of ancient societies at the time. At the top were the kings or chieftains, nobles and owners of the land. The middle class or “nemeth” meaning “sacred; the noble class of society” were the artisans, druids, ovates and bards. People in this class with skills of almost any kind were highly prized and therefore did not have to pay taxes or join the military as other clan members had to. There were two kinds of nemeth, the dependent and independent. They were accepted and welcome without threat anywhere. At the bottom were the common people and peasants. We know very little about them other than they were considered free. The peasants would generally have been less skilled craftsmen, farmed the land or raised animals. Etc. They likely would have had some sort of productive job to do. They may have had slaves or indentured servants of which even less is known about and which was common among all cultures of the world for the time period. Although, the kings and chieftains were considered to be at the top, the Druids were much like priests in today’s society. They easily swayed the actions of their followers and were in many ways the puppeteers behind their Chieftain or King. It’s likely that each King and Chieftain would have had their own head Druid or Druidess, Bard and Seer filling the roles of judges, musicians, healers and diviners. As far as law was concerned, the Druids oversaw or were at least present for all official matters, big and small. Their decision was not to be contested or you faced the worse of all possible punishments, to be outcasted. Other clan members were not allowed to talk or reach out to the person that was outcasted as you would risk acquiring their “sickness” in not abiding what was considered a righteous judgement. This practice was still being echoed in the first recorded Irish Brehon Laws around the 7th century. It’s highly suspected these were written by some of the last Druids of any unbroken lineage, who may have become Christian monks in order to continue serving their people. While the Celtic world was very decentralized, we see many commonalities in law and customs when we compare the words of Julius Caesar who died in 44 BCE to the Brehon Laws that were not recorded until the 7th century. It’s also important to consider that Caesar was referring to the continental Celts, the Gauls and the Brehon Laws were of course, written in Ireland lifetimes later and in a place untouched by Roman influence.

800s ireland
Silver brooch from 8th century Ireland.

The smallest group in Celtic society was the kin-group. It included parents, kids, grandparents and sometimes aunts, uncles, cousins and their children. Importance was placed on the representation of the kin-group as a whole rather than the individual. If one member of the group broke the law, everyone could be held socially accountable and shamed. Equally, if one individual did something reputable, everyone was victorious and proud. In the kin-group, leadership was inherited through the father by the next male in line. If there was no male heir, the father’s wealth was split between his remaining family and they were likely advised to seek refuge where possible. Women generally married into other clans and left their families. Each member of the kin-group had an “honor price” that he or she was worth to their clan and determined by their “merit, integrity and purity”. If some ill harm should happen to them, the offending party had to pay their worth. An example would be if a woman was raped, her offender (if proven guilty) would give the family her worth in payment. Smaller offenses may have been a partial payment. The higher you were in status, the more value you had and your testimony in court was also worth more weight. Dependents, children, disabled family members and sometimes wives did not have an independent honor price, but rather were considered a fraction of the head of the household they were attached to. Despite the high probability and opportunity for corruption, truth and fairness were highly revered and a crux in Celtic society. If you were caught doing something wrong, it was a manner of honor to admit it and make proper restitution. Whatever you did, those actions were said to come back to you or your clan in one way or another, possibly in this life or the next. They believed in this so whole heartedly that even debts could still be owed or paid in the next life. Something as final as death wasn’t an escape from what was seen as your duty and responsibility.

Above the kin-group, were the individual chieftains and warriors who led their clans, also called subject kings. They controlled all the land, herds, flocks and decision making of their clan. Sometimes, if the male leader died, his wife or daughter could rule if seen as capable and fit for the position. Clans went back generations and had a rich recorded history and memory. Generally, two or more kin-groups created a clan and two or more clans created a tuath. Sometimes, if a kin-group was large enough it would be considered a clan in and of itself. Many clans would make friendly agreements or arrangements with one another, many of which included arranged and trial marriages although they could be declined if it was genuinely a bad match. Clans also became rival clans depending on how their relationship evolved. Bad blood often lasted for generations, sometimes based on only one bad offense. We see this echoed in the well known and recorded transgressions of the clan system in Scotland. Many times they sent their children to be raised by other local ally clans called a fosterage either in their own territory or possibly in another king’s territory entirely. They would live with another family for a number of years as a token of loyalty and trust. They would typically go to a particular foster parent that could offer them an alliance, training or safety. They may have gone during three different phases, birth to age seven, age seven to twelve, and age twelve to seventeen. It’s also thought they participated in a similar practice with the Romans or warring clans and tuaths except it was called keeping hostages. Each party would have kept an important member of the other group to ensure peace, lest they be harmed. The chieftains kept order and peace throughout their clan. Strabo is quoted as saying there was strict discipline expected of tribal members at assemblies. If you spoke out of turn, an official would cut off a piece of your clothing as an annoyance.

2nd century CE Parisii
2nd century Celtic coin.

At the top of the tuath or group of clans was the king or “ri” who oversaw all clans that existed within his territory. Kings were not permitted to leave the designated kingdom and the laws of that particular region and kingship did not extend past their boundaries. According to early Irish law there were five requirements to be a king. You had to be the son and grandson of a king or subject king, be free of criminal charges and to remain truthful, not be guilty of theft, be physically fit and handsome and possess three estates each with twenty cows and twenty sheep. A current king could also be overthrown if he broke one of these rules. Caesar is quoted as saying that they picked new leaders once a year and they were elected by the entire population of “free men”. The election and subsequent inauguration likely would have been a large gathering and very ritualistic. There were a few things that reoccurred in literature concerning the inauguration of kings. A bard, druid or member of the clergy would have pronounced the leader’s ancestry and put a blessing upon him and his reign and the entire ritual would likely be near a burial mound or under a sacred tree. Horses were involved which may have involved the leader’s personal horse and a special chariot. There was a footprint in stone or a special shoe that the leader ceremoniously stepped into. The leader would have drank alcohol, been anointed and presented with a rod of sovereignty, “slat tighearnais” cut from a sacred tree.

Women had a markedly better life than in other cultures and arguably in the subsequent Christian society that replaced Paganism. Romans were particularly curious and critical of the almost equal role women played in Celtic society. They were not considered men’s property as many of the women in the rest of the world were considered at that time, including for the Romans. They could own real property and enter into any profession, including politics, military and as druids. They frequently served as political ambassadors to their husbands and could conduct business endeavors at their own discretion. That’s not to say that it was easy or common for all women, only that it was possible. All rulers generally needed to also be military leaders which logically is one reason many women did not end up in leader positions, but at least this was not explicitly because they were women. Women did fight alongside their men but again, it was most likely by choice and not as common which lends to being less common as rulers. Women were equally represented in the Celtic god and goddess pantheon as well as being druids in their mythological tales and legends. Many times they were even portrayed as fierce military heroes. It was actually a woman named Scathach that was the famous Irish hero CuChulainn’s personal trainer and considered the most talented warrior in all the land as well as a prophetess. Another famous hero, Finn MacCumhail was also raised and trained by women called the “banfeinni”, female warrior hunters. The Picts were rumored to pass their kingship in a matrilineal fashion. That is not to say that women were the rulers, but simply that kingship followed the woman’s ancestral birth line. Women were highly valued in general for their ability to give birth and the high risk of death in pregnancy, labor and delivery. Women on average had a life expectancy of 8 years less than their male counterparts in the stone and bronze ages, largely due to the challenges of pregnancy and labor. We have further proof in archeology of their importance in finding women buried in rich and elaborate grave sites solidifying their role in high status positions. While they were nevertheless still subject to their male counterparts we find inspiration in both the true and fictitious legends of the warriors, druids and chieftain wives Chiomara, Camma, Boudicca, Estiu, Birog, Onomaris and Cartimandua to name a few. Conchobar Mac Nessa is named after his mother Nessa, who is described as a druid. Fingin Mac Luchta visits a Druidess every Samhain to foretell events of the coming year and in The Second Battle of Moyturra two druidesses are mentioned. Ganna was a druidess mentioned by Dio Cassiuss as traveling to the embassy of Rome to meet one of the sons of the emperor. Nine virgin priestesses are mentioned living on the private island of Sena where no men were allowed to go. In the Cattle Raid of Cooley, the great Queen Maeve consults her druidess Fidelma. It’s worth illustrating more on Queen Maeve that although she was married, it’s said that she required thirty men a day to satisfy her sexual appetite if her lover Fergus wasn’t around. Through stories like this we gain insight into the empowerment that comes with allowing women to take control of their personhood and individuality, instead of being taught to be ashamed of it. Whether women wished to remain virgins or share their bed with many, these choices were seemingly respected. Countless references in folktale to magical women, protagonists and antagonists alike have also been passed down through the generations.

glencoe-361797_1280.jpgWomen and men could enter freely into relationships and marriages and leave them as they saw fit. Trial marriages of a year and a day were common and typically began on the festival of Lughnasadh. Monetarily, the man brought an equal amount to the marriage that his wife did. If and when one of them died while they were married, the other would get the inheritance as long as there was no suspicion of fowl play. Divorce and marriage were seen as social matters, rather than religious ones and the ceremonies for both were quite simple. You were not looked down upon as any less of a catch if you had been married before or had kids in a previous marriage. People that had children were actually in some historical references more valuable. We can assume the reasoning may have been that children were put to work in some capacity around the homestead. While most people may have been in monogamous marriages emotionally, sexual fidelity was not exactly a priority. Men and women commonly slept with other people when the desire and opportunity presented itself. Polygamy and polyandry, although more rare, were both documented. There are also many references that men and women had relationships with members of the same sex as well.

“In all public and private quarrels the druids alone judge and decide. They fix punishments and rewards, where crimes or murder have been committed or boundary and inheritance disputes arise. If a private person or persons fail to respect their decision they can exclude the men involved from public worship. This is for them the worst punishment imaginable. Those thus excommunicated count as godless criminals; all men must avoid them and eschew any talk with them, lest the infection be passed on. If they try to get in touch with them, they forfeit justice and honor.” –Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“When a man marries he adds to the dowry that his wife brings with her a portion of his own property estimated to be of equal value. A joint account is kept of the whole amount and the profits which it earns are put aside. Whoever survives the other gets the whole property and the profits that were put aside.” –Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“He [Caesar] perceived that he was being put off too long, and that the day was close upon him whereon it was proper to issue the grain-ration to the troops: accordingly he summoned together the leading Aeduans, of whom he had a great number in his camp, among them Divitiacus and Liscus, who had the highest magistracy, which the Aedui call Vergobretus: the magistrate is elected annually, and has the power of life and death over his fellow-countrymen.” –Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“Since we have come to the place, it does not appear to be foreign to our subject to lay before the reader an account of the manners of Gaul and Germany, and wherein these nations differ from each other. In Gaul there are factions not only in all the states, and in all the districts and their divisions, but almost in each family, and of these factions those are the leaders who are considered according to their judgment to possess the greatest influence, upon whose will and determination the management of all affairs and measures depends. And that seems to have been instituted in ancient times with this view, that no one of the common people should be in want of support against one more powerful; for, none [of those leaders] allows his party to be oppressed and defrauded, and if he do otherwise, he has no influence among his party. This same policy exists throughout the whole of Gaul; for all the states are divided into two factions.” -Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“And having fought several successful battles and slain all the nobility of the Aedui, they [the Sequani] had so far surpassed them in power, that they brought over, from the Aedui to themselves, a large portion of their dependents and received from them the sons of their leading men as hostages, and compelled them to swear in their public character that they would enter into no design against them; and held a portion of the neighboring land, seized on by force, and possessed the sovereignty of the whole of Gaul. Divitiacus urged by this necessity, had proceeded to Rome to the senate, for the purpose of entreating assistance, and had returned without accomplishing his object.” –Julius Caesar (Roman, 100 – 44 BCE)

“The women of the Gauls are not only like men in their great stature, but they are a match for them in courage as well.” –Diodorus Siculus (Greek, 90 – 20 BCE)

“Here the women met them holding swords and axes in their hands with hideous shrieks of rage. With bare hands the women tore away the shields of the Romans or grasped their swords, enduring mutilating wounds.” -Plutarch (Greek, 46 – 120 CE)

“Arete the Druidess, high priestess, guided by her dreams, offered a sacrifice to Silvanus and the local nymphs.” -Metz Inscription (Roman territory, 1st century)

“The women of the Celtic tribes are bigger and stronger than our Roman women. This is most likely due to their natures as well as their peculiar fondness for all things martial and robust. The flaxen haired maidens of the north are trained in sports and war while our gentle ladies are content to do their womanly duties and thus are less powerful than most young girls from Gaul and the hinterlands.” -Marcus Borealis (Roman, 1st century)

“A very witty remark is reported to have been made by the wife of Argentocoxus, a Caledonian, to Julia Augusta. When the empress was jesting with her, after the treaty, about the free intercourse of her sex with men in Britain, she replied: “We fulfill the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.” Such was the retort of the British woman.” -Dio Cassiuss (Roman, 1st century)

“A whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one Gaul in a fight, if he calls in his wife, stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes; least of all when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks, like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult.” -Ammianus Marcellinus (Roman, 3rd century)

“Those who think that philosophy is an invention of the barbarians explain the systems prevailing among each people. They say that the Gymnosophists and Druids make their pronouncements by means of riddles and dark sayings, teaching that the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done, and manly behavior maintained.” -Diogenes Laertius (Greek, 3rd century)

“Seven priests were sometimes present, but a bishop was always present, with the chieftains of all the principal families and a ruler of the Isles. There was a square stone seven or eight feet long, and the tract of a man’s foot cut therein, upon which he stood, denoting that he should walk in the footsteps and uprightness of his predecessors and that he was installed by right in his possessions. He was clothed in a white habit too how his innocence and integrity of heart, that he would be a light to his people and maintain the true religion. The white apparel did afterwards belong to the poet by right. Then he had power to rule, not with tyranny and partiality, but with discretion and sincerity. Then, he received his forefather’s sword or some other sword, signifying that his duty was to protect and defend them from their enemies in peace or war, as the obligations and customs of his predecessors were. The ceremony being over, mass was said after the blessing of the Bishop and seven priests, the people pouring their prayers for the success and prosperity of their new-created lord. When they were dismissed, the Lord of the Isles feasted them for a week. Immediately after, the proclamation the chief druid or bard performed a rhetorical panegyric setting forth the ancient pedigree, velour, and liberality of the family as incentives to the young chieftain and fit for his imitation.” -Alexander Carmichael (Scottish, 1832 – 1912)

For more information check out A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly!

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Isla MacKinnon

Writer and Herbalist

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A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.


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