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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 149

Similar descriptions of the dead who return are not infrequent, e.g. that of Caoilte in the story of Mongan, whom every one believes to be a living warrior, and that of Fergus mac Roich, who reappeared in a beautiful form, adorned with brown hair and {337} clad in his former splendour, and recited the lost story of the Táin.1161 Thus the Irish Celts believed that in another world the spirit animated the members. This bodily existence is also suggested in Celtic versions of the "Dead Debtor" folk-tale cycle. Generally an animal in whose shape a dead man helps his benefactor is found in other European versions, but in the Celtic stories not an animal but the dead man himself appears as a living person in corporeal form. Equally substantial and corporeal, eating, drinking, lovemaking, and fighting are the divine folk of the síd or of Elysium, or the gods as they are represented in the texts. To the Celts, gods, síde, and the dead, all alike had a bodily form, which, however, might become invisible, and in other ways differed from the earthly body.

The archæological evidence of burial customs among the Celts also bears witness to this belief. Over the whole Celtic area a rich profusion of grave-goods has been found, consisting of weapons, armour, chariots, utensils, ornaments, and coins.1163 Some of the interments undoubtedly point to sacrifice of wife, children, or slaves at the grave. Male and female skeletons are often in close proximity, in one case the arm of the male encircling the neck of the female. In other cases the remains of children are found with these. Or while the lower interment is richly provided with grave-goods, above it lie irregularly several skeletons, without grave-goods, and often with head separated from the body, pointing to decapitation, while in one case the arms had been tied behind the back.1164 All this {338} suggests, taken in connection with classical evidence regarding burial customs, that the future life was life in the body, and that it was a replica of this life, with the same affections, needs, and energies. Certain passages in Irish texts also describe burials, and tell how the dead were interred with ornaments and weapons, while it was a common custom to bury the dead warrior in his armour, fully armed, and facing the region whence enemies might be expected. Thus he was a perpetual menace to them and prevented their attack. Possibly this belief may account for the elevated position of many tumuli. Animals were also sacrificed. Hostages were buried alive with Fiachra, according to one text, and the wives of heroes sometimes express their desire to be buried along with their dead husbands.

The idea that the body as well as the soul was immortal was probably linked on to a very primitive belief regarding the dead, and one shared by many peoples, that they lived on in the grave. This conception was never forgotten, even in regions where the theory of a distant land of the dead was evolved, or where the body was consumed by fire before burial. It appears from such practices as binding the dead with cords, or laying heavy stones or a mound of earth on the grave, probably to prevent their egress, or feeding the dead with sacrificial food at the grave, or from the belief that the dead come forth not as spirits, but in the body from the grave. This primitive conception, of which the belief in a subterranean world of the dead is an extension, long survived among various {339} races, e.g. the Scandinavians, who believed in the barrow as the abiding place of the dead, while they also had their conception of Hel and Valhalla, or among the Slavs, side by side with Christian conceptions.1167 It also survived among the Celts, though another belief in the orbis alius had arisen. This can be shown from modern and ancient folk-belief and custom.

In numerous Celtic folk-tales the dead rise in the body, not as ghosts, from the grave, which is sometimes described as a house in which they live. They perform their ordinary occupations in house or field; they eat with the living, or avenge themselves upon them; if scourged, blood is drawn from their bodies; and, in one curious Breton tale, a dead husband visits his wife in bed and she then has a child by him, because, as he said, "sa compte d'enfants" was not yet complete. In other stories a corpse becomes animated and speaks or acts in presence of the living, or from the tomb itself when it is disturbed. The earliest literary example of such a tale is the tenth century "Adventures of Nera," based on older sources. In this Nera goes to tie a withy to the foot of a man who has been hung. The corpse begs a drink, and then forces Nera to carry him to a house, where he kills two sleepers. All such stories, showing as they do that a corpse is really living, must in essence be of great antiquity. Another common belief, found over the Celtic area, is that the dead rise from the grave, not as ghosts, when they will, and that they appear en masse on the night of All Saints, and join the living.1171

As a result of such beliefs, various customs are found in {340} use, apparently to permit of the corpse having freedom of movement, contrary to the older custom of preventing its egress from the grave. In the west of Ireland the feet of the corpse are left free, and the nails are drawn from the coffin at the grave. In the Hebrides the threads of the shroud are cut or the bindings of feet, hands, and face are raised when the body is placed in the coffin, and in Brittany the arms and feet are left free when the corpse is dressed. The reason is said to be that the spirit may have less trouble in getting to the spirit world, but it is obvious that a more material view preceded and still underlies this later gloss. Many stories are told illustrating these customs, and the earlier belief, Christianised, appears in the tale of a woman who haunted her friends because they had made her grave-clothes so short that the fires of Purgatory burnt her knees.1173

Earlier customs recorded among the Celts also point to the existence of this primitive belief influencing actual custom. Nicander says that the Celts went by night to the tombs of great men to obtain oracles, so much did they believe that they were still living there. In Ireland, oracles were also sought by sleeping on funeral cairns, and it was to the grave of Fergus that two bards resorted in order to obtain from him the lost story of the Táin. We have also seen how, in Ireland, armed heroes exerted a sinister influence upon enemies from their graves, which may thus have been regarded as their homes—a belief also underlying the Welsh story of Bran's head.

Where was the world of the dead situated? M. Reinach has shown, by a careful comparison of the different uses of the {341} word orbis, that Lucan's words do not necessarily mean "another world," but "another region,"


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