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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12 Responses to The Instructions of Cormac, and misogyny

  1. **claps**

    Hear, hear, Brendan 🙂

    Since ‘Celtic Culture’ today has many vociferously opinionated members who freely and often disagree with each other I feel that it’s likely that Ancient Irish Wise-Guys had differing opinions about ‘Teh Troof’ as well.

    In this case it’s much like St Paul and the teachings of Jesus– just because St Paul clearly didn’t like women is no reason to think that Jesus preached it nor that every follower of Jesus will agree.

    Women’s and men’s differing cultures in pre-Modern times and the often negative and dismissive attitudes expressed by men about women is a giant subject, encompassing birth control, schooling/ education/ skills-teaching, sexual dimorphism, socio-religious groups….. thousands of factors.

    I agree with your benchmarks of integrity, humanity, and enchantment.

  2. snowcalla says:

    expressions of social values found in the source texts, like misogyny, which are entirely morally repugnant to us today.

    All of us who are reviving pre-Christian religions face this problem. Although the Delphic Maxims are not Commandments, but wise sayings, many Hellenics do look to them for ethics. And for the most part, they are still relevant. But (there’s always a “but”, isn’t there?) there are Maxims like “Intend to marry” and “Rule your wife” that upset many Hellenics. Most go the route of flat out ignoring these specific Maxims with the strong point that some of the Maxims represent a period, cultural point of view that has no current positive value and should be discarded.

    I disagree. No, I don’t think husbands should rule their wives. That wouldn’t get very far in my home. But I do think there is some value in looking at what the deeper meaning/intent of the Maxim was and then deciding if there is current value to it.

    “Rule your wife” was about maintaining harmony in the household and ensuring that the House (family and property) would thrive.

    Women did not have much power in Greek society and almost no legal standing. So it was the Husband who represented the family and thier fortunes. It was the husband who needed to be strong, make decisions, transact business, and form bonds based on respect with other males. A “hen-pecked” husband could do none of those things and his entire family could be in economic and physical danger. Now, did husbands consult wives in matters? There are indications that is so. But it had to be behind the scenes. Does that view have value in today’s society? No.

    But then you get to the other reason for the Maxim – household harmony. If everyone in the household knew their role and were willing to do it to the best of their ability for the good of the family and they were good, kind, and respectful or each other – all was well. If there was a power struggle, and there were power struggles documented in families, then the House could fall. In Greece each family member’s role was clearly defined so this was pretty clear cut. In Western countries today, our roles are not so clearly defined. This can cause problems in marriages as the husband and wife fight for dominance, usually with money as the proxy issue. Should wives place a subordinate role in the marriage to achieve harmony? No, I don’t think so. But couples should strive to clearly define what thier roles and responsibilities are to avoid conflict. (Keeping in mind that we need a bit of flexibilty and circunstances change) This is a much more difficult task, but I think it is more rewarding and beneficial in the end.

    So…should we ignore the Maxim “Rule Your Wife”? No, but in looking at the reasons behind it I think we can alter the words to “Work With Your Spouse, Not Against”* while still being true to original intent – which was to ensure that the Household thrives through clear vision, leadership, and harmonious relations.

    * Since I’m not as wise as the writers of the Maxims, I’m sure someone else could come up with something that captures the essence better than that. Also – I kept it to Spouse since one of the things that still does have value is forming permament, legal family units to ensure that the Household thrives. Even though it isn’t yet legal, I do include any committed adult romantic relationships as Spouse-equivilant. But legal would be better.

  3. erynn999 says:

    Even as a proponent of CR, I do not and have never thought we had to reproduce iron age society as a part of our spiritual practice. Societies evolve and change, with or without outside influences. One can still practice things that are authentic without accepting every word as holy writ. That kind of acceptance leads to the sort of nasty fundamentalism we see in the US today within the far right wing of Christianity.

    I don’t view change, assimilation, or syncretism done properly as “contamination.” I view it as the expected evolution of a contemporary culture in its early stages. These things are not all-or-nothing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Honestly, this portion of Cormac makes me think of Leviticus *shudder*

    Interestingly many of the negative traits that are listed are the behaviors of frustrated, bitter, powerless and uneducated women forced to lead life in a secondary or lower position, having to coax or entice the men in their life to do everything, as they are trapped at home with the bairns.


    Let us pretend that there is indeed an unbroken tradition of a Celtic faith existing today. I doubt it reflect the cultural views of a thousand years ago, indeed over the centuries and decades it would have adapted, and contributed to, modern Western Society.

    How the Ásatrúarfelagið practiced in Iceland vs how Asatru is practiced in the USA … One is not better or more right than the other, each reflects the land, the people, the culture … as any spirituality should.

    Reconstruction is a slippery slope, one that if we are not careful we find that we have become fundamentalists. EEK!

    I am hoping that I receive an ID with my new Joomla account, if not I will be a sad anonymous caller.
    boo hoo
    I have to install a modification to my website in order to make it work, so it will have to wait.



  5. alfrecht says:

    Not unlike what said above, accepting all things whole-hog from any/every ancient (or medieval, with the latter being the case more often) Celtic source has never been the aim of reconstructionism. Reconstructionism is not fundamentalism, even though some people have tried their darnedest to make it such, especially in relation to certain sources…Though I did write about this “lacuna” in the recent Cleary (popular) version of the text in my review of it in Béascna 3…

    In an academic sense, I’m not certain that this is legitimate “Celtic tradition” in this particular bit of Tecosca Cormaic, in the same way that not everything that is found in medieval Ireland, whether “secular” and with no overt traces of Christianity or otherwise, is necessarily “Celtic.” This could just be the upset rantings of (pseudo-) Cormac, who was having a bad day, but had a way with words on this subject in front of a willing and sympathetic audience that the latter decided to preserve. Oh well…It is a thread that is found in other, later, Irish sources and folklore as well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything either, other than that there was an audience for it at some points.

    But I certainly think we can admire the tradition, be true to it, research it, be respectful towards its ancient forms and the modern cultures involved, and even base modern ethics and practice on these things, while still putting a parenthesis around this bit, as well as around, for example, the basic unit of wealth being a cumal (i.e. a female slave), and so forth…

    • admin says:

      Hi Alfrecht,
      I appreciate what you and have said here, and there’s much you have both said with which I agree. CR isn’t fundamentalism. And I, too, admire the literary tradition. But I do find myself frustrated with the puritanical CR’s in our midst, who make life harder for those of us who just want to enjoy our traditions, perhaps create a few new ones, and in so doing live a good life.

      As Juniper pointed out, traditions change over time. There is a fine tradition of female-positive perspectives in the Celtic world, arguably starting with Maeve of Cruachan, and with Dierdre of the Sorrows, both of whom were willing to endure extraordinary hardships in order to make their own choices and preserve their own integrity. Perhaps it continues in people like Maude Gonne and Countess Marquewitz. I also think of the Young Girl’s speech in the Cúirt an Mheán Óiche. 🙂

    • Please see this not as a crit, but a genuine attempt to understand:

      > and even base modern ethics and practice on these things, while still putting a parenthesis around this bit

      How can one *base* a system on old texts while choosing/deciding which passages to accept and which to ignore?

      Would it not, in that case, be more correct to say that one has decided upon an ethical code, and is finding precedent in old texts?



      • alfrecht says:

        Well, not really. Here’s the difference, at least as I see it:

        I have a great respect for and interest in ancient and medieval Irish culture. Okay, fine. I see some things in that culture that I highly admire, and would like to emulate–the respect for learning and poetry, the importance of hospitality, the use of exemplary myth as opposed to moralistic statements, the importance of formalized and contractual relationships on legal as well as interpersonal and familial matters, and many other things.

        I also see some things that I don’t approve of, and don’t find particularly compatible with some important historical advances and basic concepts in the modern world, like the existence of slavery, the reckoning of all people according to honor price based on their profession’s perceived worth, a general lack of independent rights for women apart from their relationships to males (as daughters, wives, or mothers of eldest living sons if they are widowed, etc.), the basic unit of wealth being female slaves, the lack of social and legal mobility (quite literally–five miles down the road could be another legal polity, in which one would be treated as a foreigner with no rights at all), and any number of other things.

        In my own position, I’d do quite well if the ancient and medieval Irish system were still in place, because I’d be a fili and skilled senchaid; however, I’m not too keen on being tied to a king and constantly praising him for a monthly paycheck, or having to sleep with him on a nightly basis and accompany him on war campaigns either. (Not to mention all of the wonderful things that modern technology and medicine has done for humanity!)

        The idea that one must be “pure” and exclusive, and that one must fully accept one system (religious, cultural, or whatever) in its entirety in order to be authentically based on that culture is nonsensical. Syncretism and adaptation has been what kept most religions and cultures alive and vital throughout history, and it is what most people do–whether they realize it or not–in everyday life: use what works for you, and disregard the rest. The fact that some of us reconstructionists are realistic about this angers and upsets other ones, including some more moderate ones when it comes to certain issues (e.g. issues of gender equality across the board, regardless of what particular medieval texts might say).

        The issue is far more complex, and there are more dimensions to it than this, but this gives a flavor, I hope. Is that somewhat helpful?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Family Values : “family” from the Latin familus meaning “a household of servants.”

    currently reading Gerhard Herm’s book, The Celts.

    That list you quote, doesn’t have a thing on it that I haven’t seen displayed by men at one time or several-dozen others.

    One of the premises I’m trying to build into my Trad is that as human cultures (hopefully) mature, they learn and grow more egalitarian, with the intent that the trad will become a force for the growth of Partnership Culture. Unfettered Dominionism is too likely to make our planet lifeless.

    And a part of learning is understanding that the ways of our ancestors were rooted in what was known, or thought to be known, during that era of history. That we should acknowledge where our cultures have advanced, and that we now know better than to think certain ancient practices still need to be.

    Blessings, both Bright and Dark,
    Ananta Androscoggin

  7. Anonymous says:

    I am always fond of the the terms ‘projection and displacement’ when I read misogynist sayings by men whether ancient or modern. I just wonder what ‘desirous of letting go’ means and “forgetful in love”?

  8. Patrick says:

    These instructions were recorded by monks, these were people who were bullied and pushed out of the sexual market by other men and forced to lead a celibate scholarly life in order to benefit the children of the men who out-competed them for women.

    Naturally such men are going to be sore regarding women. Just look at the scale of the witch burnings in Germany led by the Catholic church. Catholic priests were calling for the extermination of witches(women) in Germany.

    This of course is connected with the rage of incels and MGTOW people today, so of course monks are going to be angry at women. And obviously this anger likely affected the way these monks wrote about women in this work.

    One of the verses says “women disdain good men”, there is some truth to that for the way some women select men. Another verse says women are silly counsellors. That’s not entirely true, women have good intuition and can alert men to things that men might have missed noticing, however there are also some things men tend to be better at noticing.

    Then in the instructions of king cormac there is another verse that says, and I quote, “women should not be coddled and that they should be beaten”. This verse obviously steps over the line of criticizing women and into the territory of hating women. Women should not be beaten. Women deserve to be treated tenderly, and men deserve to be treated tenderly as well.

    And so I would say some things could be gleaned from these passages regarding women that are of use, however much of what is said on women goes too far and a portion of it is 100% false and bad advice.

    As for priestly celibacy, I think conserving sexual energy can be useful if people want to do that, but I think ultimately most people need companions of some sort, and I don’t think making priests celibate is good. Monastic celibacy should be an option though but priests should be allowed to marry.

    With the Catholic scandals regarding child molestation, it does not surprise me. These are people who were denied wives so naturally they seek to express their sexual urges in some way. Obviously child molestation is a wrong way for them to express their sexual urges, but it is an observable result of forcing an entire social class into celibacy. It’s wrong, and so is clerical celibacy.

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