256 rules for life: The wisdom of the ancient Irish Triads

“Three deaths that are better than life: The death of a salmon; the death of a fat pig; the death of a robber” – Triad no 92

Sometime in the 9th century, a list of mnemonic axioms were recorded by an unknown author which were titled ‘Trecheng Breth Féne’ (A Triad of Judgments of the Irish); or more simply known as ‘The Triads of Ireland’.

This anthology contained 256 sayings, taxonomically grouped into subjects such as law, geography, and custom. Each one of these nuggets of observational wisdom probed the complexity of existence, mainly by grouping associations in threes. Sometimes these were paradoxical bedfellows, sometimes just three instances of an observation that reinforces a deductive process of sense making.

Some triads come in paradoxical pairs. Triad 68 gives three sorrows better than joy, which is followed by three rejoicings worse than sorrow. It seems that every rule has exceptions and that the best way to understand the right way is through the prism of paradox.

Triad 69 : Three rejoicings that are worse than sorrow: The joy of a man who has defrauded another; the joy of a man who has perjured himself; the joy of a man who has committed parricide.

Triad 109 contrasts with Triad 110 centering on the proper way to respond to unpredictable circumstance.

Triad 109 – Three maidens that bring hatred upon misfortune: talking, laziness, insincerity.

Triad 110 – Three maidens that bring love to good fortune: silence, diligence, sincerity.

Triad 75 implies that society is a fragile and interconnected thing and perhaps that order and plenty requires constant vigilance.

Three slender things that best support the world: the slender stream of milk from the cow’s udder into the pail, the slender blade of green corn upon the ground, the slender thread over the hand of a skilled woman.

The Triads provide mnemonic aids to retention, and as we read through the list we find geographical taxonomical groupings that help arrange the geographical landscape into ordered associations.

Triad no 49 : The three highroads of Ireland: Slige Dala, Slige Asail, Slige Luachra.

 Further triads list “three ridges”, “three mountain passes” “three plains” etc.

In A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry, David Greene and Frank O Connor call these “the simplest of all mnemonics and the most rudimentary form of Irish thought,” and opine that these were an artifact of the pre-literal Celtic age, of law composition.

What prompted the 9th Century author to compile this almost catechistic list of sense-making axioms?

One theory is that the 9th Century arrival of the Norse raiders in Ireland heralded such a disorienting cultural shell shock that it must have led to epistemological reappraisals of the cultural, political, legal, and social ordering of society. Unimagined violent change was occurring which the cultured writers of the late 8th Century could not have imagined. In this atmosphere, the questioning of sense-making narratives must have been rife.

A half century before this we have a very interesting (and it must be said arrogant and naïve) perspective of progress, recorded in the poetry of one Óengus of Clonenagh. He writes of the eternal splendors of the light of Christianity:

“Ro milled in genntlecht

Ciarbo lígdae lethan;

Ro lín flaith Dé Athar

Nem, talam la trethan”

 

“Paganism has been destroyed

Though it was splendid and far flung

The kingdom of god the Father

Has filled heaven and earth and sea”

 

The faith has spread

And will live to the day of judgement

Wicked pagans are carried off

And their fortresses unoccupied

 

The fort of Emain Macha

Has melted away, all but its stones.

Thronged Glendalough

Is the sanctuary of the western world

 

Óengus was writing in an age of the flourishing of the Celtic monastic system. He wrote of the passing of the kingdoms of men, and contrasted this with what he believed was a new and permanent kingdom that would be sustained by its devotion to the eternal.

Greene and O Connor write that: “Óengus believed that he was writing about a state of affairs that would endure forever, but within a few years all the great monasteries, which were built of timber and wattle and daub, were in ash.”

If we return to the Triads, we find Bangor cited as one of “The three unlucky places of Ireland”. Bangor, it should be noted was continuously raided by the Vikings in the early 9th Century.

Another interesting Triad, number 232, comments that, in this new social and political order, strength listens not to reason.

“Three that are most difficult to talk to: A king bent on conquest; a Viking in his hauberk; a low brow man protected by patronage.”

The first two instances we can see as specifically reflective of the time, but the last example shows more deductive insight. Anyone can recognizes in a “low brow man protected by patronage” the pedantic official of a modern bureaucracy who seems adept at making life difficult for anyone who has to deal with the system. It is a character brilliantly portrayed by Dostoevsky in his novel “Notes from the underground”.

The utility of the Triads as vectors of distilled wisdom comes from the mimetic device of association. The reinforcing of association with three examples, frequently very different examples of the rule, reinforces the lesson.

As we get to the triads of custom and law we see how esoteric concepts are turned to tangible instances, with explicit readings on their implications and meaning.  This familiarization of complex fundamental ideas to specific circumstances is reminiscent of Jordan Peterson’s simple but fundamental rules of living such as “Clean up your room”. This is an axiom that has implications far beyond the simple routine of tidying the space in which you live.

Peterson correctly identified that that routine should be seen as a ritual which on a microcosmic level is reflective of the macrocosmic structure of your life.  It’s an entire philosophical guide to living encapsulated in a single embodied ritual.

Triad 65 warns of the neglect of Peterson’s advice:

“Three unfortunate things of husbandry: a dirty field, leavings of the hurdle, a house full of sparks.”

Triad 76 :

“Three hands that are best in the world” extols the virtue of diligently nurtured skills. What we might nowadays call self-development: “the hand of a good carpenter, the hand of a skilled woman, the hand of a good smith.”

Another of Peterson’s rules for life warns: “Tell the truth. Or at least don’t lie”

Triad 177, congruously succinct, cites “Three glories of speech: steadiness, wisdom, brevity.”

Triad 166 recognises the socially destructive nature of falsehood embraced by society. It says that when the institutions of society embrace falsehood –an attribute which is probably the dominant facet of contemporary cultural relativism- it brings the tribe to ruin.

 “Three ranks that ruin tribes in their falsehood: the falsehood of a king, of a historian, of a judge”.

This is similar to Triad 96 which states that a tribe, like a state, has three regulating social natures; legislative, judicial, and spiritual. The corruption of these, it says, is the ruin of the tribe. “Three ruins of a tribe: a lying chief, a false judge, a lustful priest.”

It is interesting that each of these positions represents a different “highest value” i.e. truthfulness, justness, purity.

In Triads 203 and 204 we have the insight that human behaviour is influenced by intuitions that run deep. That sometimes the behaviour we see manifest can be caused by very different motivations.

Triad 203 – Three locks that lock up secrets: shame, silence, closeness.

Triad 204 – Three keys that unlock thoughts: drunkenness, trustfulness, love.

Both drunkenness and love can have the same effect but for reasons that are not analogous.

It is the contrasts and paradoxes that make the triads an interesting analysis of human nature.  The Triads tell us that the observation of a pattern that instantiates across very different circumstances implies that the world can make sense if we only pay attention; and that it can be divined with wisdom.

The triads lay out not only a perspectival way of viewing the world; they also lay out constructions of how to respond to the world. These are patterns of behavior which take intangible intuitions and turn them into axioms. They are full of paradoxes that make sense, and many coldly rational rules of power.

For instance Triad 242 advises, “Three things that are best for a chief: justice, peace, an army.” As all historians know, the first two are desirable, but are not really possible without the third.

It is a fact which Óengus of Clonenagh may have unfortunately overlooked.

 


 

Lorcán Mac Mathúna

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