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Ancient Celts: Celtic Marriage

This article is not just for those interested in the traditions of Celtic Marriage, it is also a look into the complex body of law that governed the ancient Celts. Sources I used for this article as well as a 'related topics' book list are at listed at the end of this article.

For the ancient Celts, marriage was a very different thing than what we conceive of as "marriage" today. For them, marriage or handfasting as some know it was a form of contract that had several purposes. These included the protection of property rights, the care of progeny (children), and the rights of the individuals involved in the relationships themselves.

There was more than one recognized form of marriage, and some of these would probably be repugnant to us today, as most of us were born and raised in a society that honors the nuclear family, marriage based on love and not on contract, and the idea of monogamy. (However, the lawyer reading this may smile, for this ancient form of marriage contract sounds an awful lot like today's "pre-nuptial agreement," doesn't it?)

Though some historical sources differ slightly as to the number and exact relationships described in the various Celtic marriage forms, the intent is the same. The main purposes of each form of marriage was the protection and care of children (regardless of whose children they were; illegitimacy was a concept unknown to the ancient Celt), clear understanding of roles, relationships and expectations of those entering the contract, and the protection of property rights of each of the parties involved in the marriage. What the Celtic Pagan today may gain from understanding the ancient laws of the Celts is perhaps not in the exact content of any particular form of marriage, but in the clear intent of the marriage laws as outlines for the expectations and protection of the rights of those who enter into marriage contracts. These marriage contracts assured the rights of the individual were protected.

Many reading this may have heard that Brehon marriages were only temporary trial marriages lasting a "year and a day," but in studying the Brehon law, it becomes clear that recognized forms of marriage were much more complicated than simple trial marriages. Trial marriages were simply the coming together of two people for a specified time (not always a year and a day) at the end of which the partnership dissolved, or a more formal marriage contract was entered into.

Many historical sources seem to make a separation between the terms "marriage" and "handfasting," handfasting being more of a betrothal (engagement) or a "trial marriage" than a true marriage. In some parts of the Ancient Celtic world it seems that during such a handfasting or engagement, if a couple had sex before the end of the handfasting period, they automatically were considered married in the more finite (and legal) sense.

In historical sources we can find several versions of marriage forms which list nine or ten forms of marriage. I have included two such lists, which represent fairly well the ancient Brehon marriage contracts. I am not sure of the Gaelic terms however; though listed in a few sources, when I looked them up in an Irish Gaelic dictionary they were not to be found.

Lanamnas comthinchuir - union of joint property in which both partners contribute moveable goods into the union. The woman in such a union is called a wife of joint authority.

Lanamnas mna for ferthinchur - union of a woman on man's property into which the woman contributes little or nothing.

Lanamnas fir for bantinchur - union of a man on woman's property into which the man contributes little or nothing.

Lanamnas fir thathigtheo - union of a man visiting which signifies a less formal union in which the man visits the woman in her home with her kin's consent.

Lanamnas foxail - union in which a woman goes away openly with a man without the consent of her kin.

Lanamnas taidi - union in which a woman is secretly visited without knowledge of her kin.

Lanamnas eicne no sleithe - a union or mating by forcible rape or stealth.

Lanamnas fir mir - the union of two insane persons.

This second list of marriage forms has them sorted by degrees (and closely parallels the above list):

* A first degree union takes place between partners of equal rank and property.

* A second degree union in which a woman has less property than the man and is supported by him.

* A third degree union in which a man has less property than the woman and has to agree to management of the woman's cattle and fields.

* A fourth degree union is the marriage of the loved one in which no property rights changed hands, though children's rights are safeguarded.

* A fifth degree union is the mutual consent of the man and woman to share their bodies, but live under separate roofs.

* A sixth degree union in which a defeated enemy's wife is abducted. This marriage is valid only as long as the man can keep the woman with him.

* A seventh degree union is called a soldier's marriage and is a temporary and primary sexual union (a one night stand).

* An eighth degree union occurs when a man seduces a woman through lying, deception or taking advantage of her intoxication (equivalent to the modern definition of "date rape").

* A ninth degree union is a union by rape (forcible rape).

* A tenth degree union occurs between feeble-minded or insane people.

We see that the ancient forms of marriage can be roughly placed in three categories. The first are marriages where property was taken into consideration and a prenuptial agreement was necessary. The second group were less formal marriages where no property was involved and thus no formal agreement was necessary, while the third category consisted of marriages that are not thought of as marriage by moderns or that may be considered in this day and age to be of a criminal nature.

The issue is clouded further by the fact that polygamy (more than one wife) was permitted and probably widespread. Homosexual unions were not regarded as marriages, no doubt because without the assistance of modern medicine, no progeny was possible, but such unions were not forbidden. It is to be noted that all of these forms of marriage were considered legal if there was a child born as a result of the union, thus we can see that it was the right and protection of the child that was the primary consideration, not the status of the man or woman involved.

The fact that there are various forms of marriage and that plural marriages were not forbidden makes for interesting family and kinship ties, thus the strict law regarding care of progeny and inheritance of property. It is also clear that though marriages were often arranged between families, a woman had the right legally to choose her own husband. She could not be forced to marry.

Rearing of children was generally the equal responsibility of both parents and their families. However, if a child resulted from a union in which there was wrongdoing by the father, such as rape, seduction or even in cases of impregnation of a free woman without her family's consent, the father alone was responsible for the rearing of the child. Sole responsibility for child rearing fell on the father if the mother was ill or disabled, insane, or outcast from her kin.

It is interesting to note that satirists, both women and men, were considered unfit to raise a child. The father also was responsible for the child if the mother was deceased. The mother had the sole responsibility for the rearing of the child if the father was an alien, a slave, a satirist or a man expelled by his kin. If a woman allowed herself to be impregnated by a dependent son against the wishes of his father, she was responsible for the rearing of the child. A prostitute was responsible for rearing her children. When there were children resulting from the marriage of two insane or feeble-minded people, the responsibility for child-rearing fell on the person who was responsible for the marriage.

Property was also a clear consideration in the different types of marriages. It is speculated that the more formal types of marriages were arranged between families and the betrothal was a contract guaranteed by sureties from both families. A bride in such a marriage was purchased from her family and a bride price was given to the bride's father of which a portion was due to the bride herself. If the marriage broke up through the fault of the husband, the wife retained this, but if the marriage break up was through her fault, it was forfeit to her husband. There seems to be no Old Irish term that corresponds to dowry, but the first degree of marriage stipulates that there was contribution from both sides.

Sources indicate that in the formal types of marriage, equality of social class was an important factor. Financial burdens of a marriage of two of divergent classes fell heavily of the lower class partner. Two thirds of the cattle had to be provided by the family of the lower class partner. This tended to discourage such unions.

Inheritance also was influenced by the type of marriage that was contracted. A chief wife had rights to her husband's estate while a more informal contract would not stipulate any rights to care by the other partner. The interesting thing about the Old Irish law is that children had the same rights of inheritance regardless of the status of their mothers. Thus the son of the chief wife and the son of a more informal union, if the union was recognized by the families involved, had equal right to inherit. Some sons did not have the right to inherit, however. The sons of known prostitutes, sons who were outlawed or abandoned children who had not been formally adopted fell in this category. Daughters were entitled to a share of personal property but not necessarily to land unless there were no sons or the daughter's husband was an alien with no land of his own.


There was not a social stigma to divorce. Divorce simply acknowledged that the terms of the marriage contract had been violated by one party of the other. In fact, women who had been married previously and had children were often sought after as their fertility had been proven. Much of the Cain Lanamna deals with divisions of property necessitated by divorce. Though much of the information is corrupted by later additions, we can deduct from these provisions that divorce was not forbidden. There were also situations where there could be separations that did not penalize either partner. Divisions of property depended on the original marriage contract, the situation of the divorce, the amount of property brought into the union by each party and the amount of work done by each of the parties.

There are reasons listed that allow a wife to divorce her husband and retain her bride price, including the husband repudiating her for another woman, the husband failing to support her, the husband telling lies or satirizing her or seducing her into marriage by trickery or sorcery. If a husband struck his wife and his blow caused a blemish, she could also divorce him. There are sexual reasons listed for divorce as well including impotence, gross obesity that prevents sexual intercourse, the husband spurning the marriage bed to exclusively practice homosexuality (presumably if he did not spurn the marriage bed, homosexuality was not a grounds for divorce), sterility (though how this was proven, I don't know unless the woman had children already from a previous relationship). A woman could divorce a man if he was indiscreet enough to tell tales about their love life. Later additions from the Christian era note that a woman might divorce a man who is in holy orders because his obligation to the Church would make it difficult for him to meet his obligations to her.

A man could divorce his wife for several reasons as well, including unfaithfulness, persistent thievery, inducing an abortion on herself, bringing shame to his honor, and smothering her child. One somewhat interesting reason listed is "being without milk through illness." Though it is not clearly understood by most scholars what this meant, it most likely had something to do with when a woman could not produce milk to suckle her children. Most agree though that this would not make much sense as the practice of using a wet-nurse was known among the Celts, especially among the noble classes or in cases where the woman may have conceived in a nonplanned manner and was needed to carry out her other duties rather than tend to a baby.

The reasons for "no-fault" separation included death, leaving to enter the priesthood (a later addition) and more temporary separations which included leaving to go on a pilgrimage, to seek a friend who lives over the boundary of the land, to go somewhere by ship, or to take part in Digal or vengeance slaying. Either partner could be away due to sick maintenance. Two interesting points of legal temporary separation were the right for the husband of a barren woman to leave for a while to impregnate a woman in a more informal form of marriage and the right of a wife of a sterile husband who does not wish to divorce him to leave so that another man may impregnate her. The child was considered the husband's. (Early Celtic alternative insemination!)

The main lesson we as modern Celtic people can take from the laws regarding marriage, rearing of children and divorce is that there is no one simple formula that suits everyone and everyone's circumstances. The force of the law was such that two people were expected to contract openly and honestly about the terms of their marriage partnership, that children born of the union had the full force of legal protection for rearing and inheritance no matter what level of commitment to each other the contract of the two people who birthed them contained, and that there was provision for the fair division of assets should the contract be broken. People were expected to make a contract, live up to it and take proper care of any children they made together.


- The Celts by Nora Chadwick

- A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly

- Introduction to Gaelic Celtic Culture by Iain MacAnTsaoir

- Woman of the Celts by Jean Markale

Some other books related to the topic:

- Rites of Marrying: the Wedding Industry in Scotland by Simon R. Charsley

- The Road to the Aisle by James Martin, New ed. (Scottish weddings)

- The Irish Wedding Book by Kim McGuire

- Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland by Patrick C. Power.

Please visit Epona Perrys webiste at

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