The Instructions of Cormac, and misogyny

wisewomanjudith recently drew my attention to a post in Oenach, an LJ community which discusses Celtic spirituality. In this post, one of my favourite old Irish wisdom texts, The Instructions of King Cormac Mac Airt, was discussed. There is a chapter in that text which is highly mysogynist in nature, and nobody (including me) ever quotes it. I’ve acknowledge in my own published works the existence of that chapter (which other writers normally do not do) and tried to address what its presence in the corpus of Celtic literary history might mean.

Here is a short excerpt from that notorious chapter:

‘O grandson of Conn, O Cormac,’ said Carbre, ‘how do you distinguish women?’

‘Not hard to tell,’ said Cormac. ‘I distinguish them, but I make no difference among them.’
They are crabbed as constant companions,
haughty when visited,
lewd when neglected,
sily counsellors,
greedy of increase,
they have tell-tale faces,
they are quarrelsome in company,
desirous of letting go,
greedy of gifts,
putting up with exaggeration,
hard and grasping,
steadfast in hate,
forgetful in love,
thirsting for lust,
anxious for alliance,
accustomed to slander,
dishonest in an assembly…

…and on and on like that for 122 lines. I don’t think it’s necessary to continue quoting it here.

As to whether it represents a Celtic iron-age attitude, or a new attitude that appeared in Celtic culture with the arrival of Christianity: I think that given the age of the text (early 9th century CE), and the fact that Christian references are very few and far between, and the consistency with other known early texts, it is safe to say it represents a pre-Christian Celtic point of view.

Those who find themselves drawn to a Celtic spirituality, especially to an early Celtic spirituality, are faced with an important and serious conundrum. They need to decide how to respond to expressions of social values found in the source texts, like misogyny, which are entirely morally repugnant to us today. Should we simply cherry-pick the sources for the parts we like, and ignore the parts we don’t? Well, that would be one way to do it. Christians do it of the Bible all the time: for instance, adulterers are no longer punished with stoning. But one logical result of that strategy is that the more we modify, cherry-pick, and otherwise interpret the ancient sources in order to acommodate contemporary moral values, the less right we may have to claim to be practicing an ‘authentically’ Celtic spirituality. Well, then, perhaps ‘authenticity’ should not be one of our goals. But perhaps this defeats the purpose?

I have been thinking about this conundrum for many, many years. I believe it is unresolvable, and that investigating it further often results in heaping extraordinary disrespect upon the people of living Celtic cultures in Ireland and Britain and the diaspora today: the very culture in which I grew up. For those reasons, I’m no longer interested in strict “reconstructionism”. I’m afraid I don’t care enough about America’s so-called “culture wars” to involve myself in the ugly and useless questions of whether Celtic culture is a culture, or just a language; or whether some particular practice is or is not “Celtic”, having emerged from a theoretically pure pre-Christian time, or whether it was “contaminated” by influence from other cultures or religions. Really, I just don’t care. The integrity of your character, the humanity in your relations with others, and the enchantment of your world matters more than the purity of your culture. I will never tire of repeating that simple proposition, because I think it is an honest one, and goes directly to the heart of what really matters.

For that reason, I’m happy to entirely ignore the mysogyny in texts like the Instructions of Cormac. And anyway, I’m the sort of fellow who can find philosophical insight in a recipe book, and in a technical manual on building log cabins. So I’m not at a loss for alternative inspiration.

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