Gleus agus Cleachdadh: the Basics of the Heroic Life

Parkour or free running (I really don’t care to get into the distinctions) is a modern analogue to what the Gaelic authors of the anonymous grammars thought of as ‘running’. Agility, speed and strength combined for a unity of mind and body. Now if I could just work up the gumption to get out and do it ...

Really this is about getting back into your body. The modern, first-world lifestyle is very ecstatic or transcendent in its focus. That is to say that we spend so much time locked into our computers and televisions that we don’t really live in our bodies anymore. We tut-tut about how stressful ‘life in the fastlane’ or ‘the rat race’ might be, but we might actually be more relaxed and healthy if we actually ran a race or moved fast without the assistance of our machines. That is why I am outlining here a basic routine of movements – I won’t say exercise – that can be done anywhere. The point is to get back into moving, back into the body, and back into life. To that end it should be fun.

The early Irish grammarians (and by ‘early’ I mean in the seventh and eighth centuries) were always trying to one-up classical Latin culture. They took the Seven Liberal Arts (Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Mathematics, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy) and paralleled it with their own seven physical arts. They follow below:


Speed was vastly important to Gaelic culture. The young warriors living out in the wilds would try to literally run down deer and women were always described as prone to racing one another. This was not necessarily just jogging. This was high-impact running that would probably seem more like free-running or parkour to us. Fiann warriors were supposed to have passed a test in which they were to be chased like a deer through a forest by the rest of the band, leaping at least one branch at chest height and diving under a branch at mid-shin. Both leaps could not break the runner’s stride.


The texts actually read something like ‘practicing feats of strength’ or ‘lifting heavy objects’. For myself, I started by working on my core strength first and moved up to weights.


The art of swimming is probably more a strength and endurance exercise, but the interesting thing here is that a regimen combining these three activities will cause enough muscle confusion to bring about the maximum degree of muscle tone.


No this is not with modern firearms but with a wooden, carved, recurve bow. Again this combines strength and hand-eye coordination with a calm sense of focus – very zen.

Casting Darts or Javelins

I will let the reader think of the differences between this and the shooting of the bow. In a modern context, this could also include the Hammer Toss or just throwing rocks for accuracy, but really it’s supposed to be with short throwing spears. I would also include throwing axes in this, but throwing daggers may be stretching it a bit.


This was not the Greco-Roman style wrestling popularised by the olympic sport, but probably any style of close grappling or boxing would suffice. I myself am particularly fond of ‘Indian Wrestling’.


Ok, to be honest, I am not sure that I am remembering the text correctly, but many early Irish stories talk about people juggling as a kind of pastime, so it would make sense. Juggling hones the reflexes, coordination and agility. I also know that camanachd was not included as one of the physical arts as it was considered practice for actual fighting with swords and short spears. This was the business of heroic society and not a fun sport, while all of the above is what you do when you’re at leisure, just as in classical Roman society you talked and thought about the liberal arts in your free time (hence ‘liberal’).

These are then the basic parameters of the heroic life. This is the level of presumed activity that we need to embrace if we are to reclaim the life we want to live. Hours at a computer must be tempered with many little breaks to do mini-exercises, like min-dips on one’s chair or twenty-five spare push-ups when no one is looking. These aren’t so that we can have ‘six-packs’ or toned thighs. The aesthetic is in the life and the action, not in the static body.


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