Cuchullain carrying Ferdia's body after their battle. Sculpture.

Sculpture in Ardee, County Lough, of Cuchullain carrying Ferdia's body.

Celtic culture was ever a warrior culture, no matter where and when they resided, and as such were part of the virtually global tradition of warrior lovers.

Celtic language, culture and traditions once spanned most of the continent of Europe, bringing it into contact with the classical societies of Greece and Rome for hundreds of years.  Celts at their widest expansion, that is, by 275 BC, ranged from the Ukraine west to Spain, France and, of course, the British Isles.  Rome sought to incorporate these peoples as they conquered their lands, but Germanic migration forced the contraction of Celtic language and cultures until they occupied only parts of the British Isles and Brittany.

Celts themselves relied entirely on oral tradition for perpetuating their way of life; so Classical scholars and military leaders recorded much of what we know about these peoples.  It is remarkable that coming from a culture that recognized and honored same sex relationships, the Greek teacher Aristotle comments in his Politics (II 1269b) on the greater enshrinement of warrior lovers among the Celts.  Coincidental with this was a sometimes-disputed tradition of warlike women, or at least greater liberty for women in and out of matrimony.  Brehon law, which governed Irish tribes, for example, permitted divorce initiated by wives.

In ancient Irish mythology, male warriors paired off much as the great male lovers of ancient Greece, such as Achilles and Patroclus and Alexander and Hephaestion.  They shared a bed and fought as a team.   Perhaps best known of these couples is Cuchullain and Ferdia.  Cuchullain was semi-divine, almost invincible and able to turn into a ravening beast in battle.    In the legend, the two lovers are forced to meet in battle to the death.  At the end of each day of hand to hand combat, they met in the middle of a ford to embrace and kiss three times.  When Cuchullain finally kills his friend, he mourns, singing over his body,

Dear to me thy noble blush,
Dear thy comely, perfect form;
Dear thine eye, blue-grey and clear,
Dear thy wisdom and thy speech.

(Quoted in “A Coming Out Ritua“l)

Even after the Christianization of Ireland the record in regards to acceptance of same sex relationships is ambiguous.  According to Brian Lacey’s new history of homosexuality in Ireland, Terrible Queer Creatures: A History of Homosexuality in Ireland,  St. Patrick traveled with a lifelong companion his that he is recorded as having great affection for and sleeping with.  In the famous illuminated gospel, The Book of Kells, there are numerous illustrations of men embracing.  In typical Christian revisionist manner, the Church has interpreted these illustrations as calling for the eradication of sodomy. 

One person in a chieftain’s household, the poet/bard called the ollamh was afforded great access to his lord physically, sharing his bed and demonstrating affection with him in public.  In songs or poems the ollamh  often referred to the chieftain as a beloved or even a spouse.  It is interesting in Dorothy Dunnett’s sexually ambiguous Lymond Chronicles the protagonist in the second volume, Queen’s Play, masquerades not as any other sort of bard but as an ollamh.  The tradition continued well into the Middle Ages. 

Ireland’s homophobia is now being confronted in its courts where it is likely the prohibition against same sex marriage will go the way of the ban on contraception.

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