The Instructions of King Cormac

Below I’ve copied in a remarkable ancient Irish text, “The Instructions of King Cormac“, taken from the Book of Ballymote, which dates to about 1390. The “Instructions” themselves are certainly much older — probably they date to pre-Christian times, since they fail to mention God anywhere. Ellen Hopman drew attention to it on the Druid mailing list I belong to.

definingPaganism1The thing that strikes me most forcefully about the text is its similarity to Asian philosophies, particularly Taoism. It’s a similarity that many others have remarked on. The juxtaposition of opposites, common in the East, seems to kick the logical mind into neutral, giving the spirit a chance to reach its own understanding.

Reading the text is not like reading a textbook or a law code or even a myth. Instead, reading it is a meditation. The words do not convey meaning; they set your feet on an inward path and gently give you a push.

To my mind, no answers are offered here. The solution to, say, homelessness or war is not laid out in black and white in the text. Instead, reading it puts your head into a state where the questions can be considered most fruitfully.

See what you think:

The Instructions of King Cormac

O Cormac, grandson of Conn”, said Carbery, “what are the dues of a chief and of an ale-house?”
“Not hard to tell”, said Cormac
Good behaviour around a good chief,
Lights to lamps
Exerting oneself for the company
A proper settlement of seats
Liberality of dispensers,
A nimble hand at distributing
Attentive service
Music in moderation
Short story-telling
A joyous countenance
Welcome to guests
Silence during recitals
Harmonious choruses

“O Cormac, grandson of Conn”, said Carbery, “What were your habits when you were a lad?”
“Not hard to tell”, said Cormac.
I was a listener in woods
I was a gazer at stars
I was blind where secrets were concerned
I was silent in a wilderness
I was talkative among many
I was mild in the mead-hall
I was stern in battle
I was gentle towards allies
I was a physician of the sick
I was weak towards the feeble
I was strong towards the powerful
I was not close lest I should be burdensome
I was not arrogant though I was wise
I was not given to promising though I was strong
I was not venturesome though I was swift
I did not deride the old though I was young
I was not boastful though I was a good fighter
I would not speak about any one in his absence
I would not reproach, but I would praise
I would not ask, but I would give
For it is through these habits that the young become old and kingly warriors.”

“O Cormac, grandson of Conn”, said Carbery, “What is the worst thing you have seen?”
“Not hard to tell”, said Cormac, “Faces of foes in the rout of battle”.
“O Cormac, grandson of Conn”, said Carbery, “What is the sweetest thing you have heared?”
“Not hard to tell”, said Cormac, “The shout of triumph after victory, Praise after wages, A lady’s invitation to her pillow.”

“O Cormac, grandson of Conn”, said Carbery, “What is worst for the body of man?”
“Not hard to tell”, said Cormac. “Sitting too long, lying too long, exerting oneself beyod one’s strength, running too much, leaping too much, frequent falls, sleeping with one’s leg over the bed rail, gazing at glowing embers, wax, biestings, new ale, bull-flesh, curdles, dry food, bog-water, rising too early, cold, sun, hunger, drinking too much, eating too much, sleeping too much, sinning too much, grief, running up to a height, shouting against the wind, drying oneself by a fire, summer-dew, winter-dew, beating ashes, swimming on a full stomach, sleeping on one’s back, foolish romping.”

“O Cormac, grandson of Conn”, said Carbery, “What is the worst pleading and arguing?”
“Not hard to tell”, said Cormac.
Contending against knowledge,
contending without proofs
taking refuge in bad language
a stiff delivery
a muttering speech
uncertain proofs,
despising books
turning against custom
shifting one’s pleading
inciting the mob
blowing one’s own trumpet
shouting at the top of one’s voice.

“O Cormac, grandson of Conn”, said Carbery, “Who are the worst for whom you have a comparison?”
“Not hard to tell”, said Cormac.
A man with the impudence of a satirist,
with the pugnacity of a slave-woman
with the carelessness of a dog
with the conscience of a hound
with a robber’s hand
with a bull’s strength
with the dignity of a judge
with keen ingenous wisdom
with the speech of a stately man
with the memory of an historian
with the behavoir of an abbot
with the swearing of a horse-thief
and he wise, lying, grey-haired, violent, swearing, garrulous, when he says ‘the matter is settled, I swear, you shall swear’.

“O Cormac, grandson of Conn”, said Carbery, “I desire to know how I shall behave among the wise and the foolish, among friends and strangers, among the old and the young, among the innocent and the wicked.”
“Not hard to tell”, said Cormac.
Be not too wise, be not too foolish
be not too conceited, nor too diffident
be not too haughty, nor too humble
be not too talkative, nor too silent
be not too hard, nor too feeble
If you be too wise, one will expect too much of you
If you be foolish, you will be deceived
If you be too conceited, you will be thought vexatious
If you be too humble, you will be without honour
If you be too talkative, you will not be heeded
If you be too silent, you will not be regarded
If you be too hard, you will be broken
If you be too feeble, you will be crushed.
Translated by Kuno Meyer

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