Ancient Celtic culture is typically lauded for such things as storytelling, mysticism and warrior fierceness. Mistakenly, however it’s not been broadly known for its eroticism. Something we know to be a historical oversight at the least.
It wasn’t always like this. In ancient times, the Celts were widely renowned as much for their erotic energy and prowess, multiple love affairs/sexual liaisons and androphilic activities, as for their warlike habits. It is known that male warriors were often part of ‘sodalities’ or groups of “special friends”. They engaged freely and openly in same-sex relationships and participated in a variety of acts for pleasure and bonding. Ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and Strabo mention Celtic homosexuality as one of the few good things about what they considered a barbarian culture. Diodorus Siculus chronicled his impressions writing —
They are accustomed to sleep on the ground on animal skins and roll around with male bed-mates on both sides. Heedless of their own dignity, they abandon without qualm the bloom of their bodies to others. And the most incredible thing is that they do not think this is shameful. But when they proposition someone, they consider it dishonorable if he does not accept the offer!…
A particularly succulent example of this fluidity is perhaps exemplified in the adjunctive early Irish practice of homosocial nipple-sucking or what today can be called “sughaim sine”. This typically male act stood for many things in the pagan culture of the times. In one aspect, it was used as a way to pledge loyalty, devotion and submission for a king. Among common men, it was an expression of friendship, greeting, reconciliation, affection, fealty, protection and not surprisingly, as some sources suggest, sexual stimulation and pleasure.
While Ireland was still a pagan culture, Christianity was taking hold in Europe and North Africa. Christian philosophy increasingly taught that all sexual ways were physically harmful and that sexual abstention was the wisest course. But the tradition of “special friends” and the importance of love, physicality, affection and sexual expression did not die out. It was an essential part of the culture. An old Celtic saying holds, “A person without a soul friend is like a body without a head.”
Though Irish monasteries in the Dark Ages between the years of 600 and 1200 CE tried to control the sexuality of both the clerics and the converted, the privileges and benefits of soul friendship could not be destroyed. The delectable habit of men sucking on each other’s nipples to affirm friendship (particularly after a quarrel) seemed indelible and was slow to change.
There are a number of references or implications regarding the practice but detailed information is spare. The most notable account is in an oft omitted passage of St. Patrick’s ‘Confessions’ wherein he says —-
On the day I arrived the ship weighed anchor, I explained that I had the wherewithal to sail with them. And that day, furthermore, I refused for fear of God, to suck their nipples. (A Pagan custom of friendship) Nevertheless I hoped that some of them would come to faith in Jesus Christ (for they were heathen). This displeased the captain who answered sharply, with anger “Your wish to travel with us is quite futile”. And when I heard this, I left them in order to return to the shelter in which I had lodged, beginning to pray as I went. Before the prayer was finished, I heard one of them, who shouted out to me “Come quickly these men are calling you”. I returned to them immediately and they began to explain to me: “Come, we will accept you in good faith. Bind yourself to us in whatever way you wish” Because of this I was received among them and we set sail straight away…
Patrick was citing the prevalence of pagan practices and in doing so he was making the obvious point that the Ireland in which he had been a slave was largely un-Christianized. Since he does not explain the significance of the incident, its meaning is taken to have been evident to the readers of his day. This suggests therefore that the custom was widely accepted and well-known among Celts. By declining to participate, Patrick denies pagan practice and in turn gives us an idea of how deliciously unrestrained the Celtic/Pagan world may have been.
Archaeological bog discoveries in Ireland have corroborated the “sughaim sine” practice in another of its aspects. The subjects of ancient Irish king’s ritually and routinely demonstrated their submission by sucking on their ruler’s nipples – some believe perhaps in a nursing, group or perhaps erotically intended way. It is theorized that there may have been royal reception days when the king exposed his nipples for his “court” in order to facilitate sucking for a large group. In a potentially more macabre element, there appears to have been power games in the nipple hierarchy. Cutting off a royal descendant’s nipples made him ineligible for kingship. Not as subtle as poison, but undeniable evidence of his unsuitability for a kingly role. No nips, game over.
Perhaps the King’s nipples were most important when celebrating fertility compacts, in the festivals where the King was wedded to the Earth (Goddess). His kingly role required him to keep nature and society in equilibrium. A little nipple sucking would surely increase his self-esteem, stimulate him thereby enhancing his virility and help him on his way to essential potency. But if he failed to keep everything fertile he could be dispatched. Such is believed to possibly have been the case of the bog men.
The practice is also referenced mythologically within the tale of King Fergus mac Leite. Lore says that the King, after returning to his own land, falls asleep on the coast near the sea. Small people appear who carry the king without his sword into the water. It might be inferred that they want to abduct him to their own ‘land’ under water. This ‘foreign’ invasion threatens the king and thereby the land. When his bare feet become wet and cold, however, he awakens in time and grabs three of them. In order to save themselves they offer a pact, which is introduced by a ritualistic exchange of words and is sealed by the mutual, prolonged sucking of nipples. Thanks to this agreement, the king receives a charm with which he can survive under water – a kind of ‘passport’ to travel in the ‘foreign’ lands under the waves and is forever nipple-bonded to the small men.
Finally, the nipple motif even reappears later after the Christian era is in full swing showing again the importance of “sugere mammillas” within the culture. There is reference of holy men suckling neophytes relatively late in Irish hagiography. This seems significant in a metaphorical sense as a spiritual act of imparting the perceived grace and teaching of Christ through the symbolic acts of nursing and bonding. This information relates to the role of saints of both genders. However, it is notable in that the nipplage of male saints is cited equally in their place as nurturers of the early Irish church meaning that the “nursing” of male breasts was acceptable. This suggests the continuance of the tradition, albeit in a post-pagan, Christianized and sanitized configuration.