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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 150

i.e. of this world.1175 If the Celts cherished so firmly the belief that the dead lived on in the grave, a belief in an underworld of the dead was bound in course of time to have been evolved as part of their creed. To it all graves and tumuli would give access. Classical observers apparently held that the Celtic future state was like their own in being an underworld region, since they speak of the dead Celts as inferi, or as going ad Manes, and Plutarch makes Camma speak of descending to her dead husband. What differentiated it from their own gloomy underworld was its exuberant life and immortality. This aspect of a subterranean land presented no difficulty to the Celt, who had many tales of an underworld or under-water region more beautiful and blissful than anything on earth. Such a subterranean world must have been that of the Celtic Dispater, a god of fertility and growth, the roots of things being nourished from his kingdom. From him men had descended, probably a myth of their coming forth from his subterranean kingdom, and to him they returned after death to a blissful life.

Several writers, notably M. D'Arbois, assume that the orbis alius of the dead was the Celtic island Elysium. But that Elysium never appears in the tales as a land of the dead. It is a land of gods and deathless folk who are not those who have passed from this world by death. Mortals may reach it by favour, but only while still in life. It might be argued that Elysium was regarded in pagan times as the land of the dead, but after Christian eschatological views prevailed, it became a kind of fairyland. But the existing tales give no hint of this, and, after being carefully examined, they show that Elysium {342} had always been a place distinct from that of the departed, though there may have arisen a tendency to confuse the two.

If there was a genuine Celtic belief in an island of the dead, it could have been no more than a local one, else Cæsar would not have spoken as he does of the Celtic Dispater. Such a local belief now exists on the Breton coast, but it is mainly concerned with the souls of the drowned. A similar local belief may explain the story told by Procopius, who says that Brittia (Britain), an island lying off the mouth of the Rhine, is divided from north to south by a wall beyond which is a noxious region. This is a distorted reminiscence of the Roman wall, which would appear to run in this direction if Ptolemy's map, in which Scotland lies at right angles to England, had been consulted. Thither fishermen from the opposite coast are compelled to ferry over at dead of night the shades of the dead, unseen to them, but marshalled by a mysterious leader. Procopius may have mingled some local belief with the current tradition that Ulysses' island of the shades lay in the north, or in the west. In any case his story makes of the gloomy land of the shades a very different region from the blissful Elysium of the Celts and from their joyous orbis alius, nor is it certain that he is referring to a Celtic people.

Traces of the idea of an underworld of the dead exist in Breton folk-belief. The dead must travel across a subterranean ocean, and though there is scarcely any tradition regarding what happens on landing, M. Sébillot thinks that formerly "there existed in the subterranean world a sort of centralisation of the different states of the dead." If so, this must have been founded on pagan belief. The interior of the earth is {343} also believed to be the abode of fabulous beings, of giants, and of fantastic animals, and there is also a subterranean fairy world. In all this we may see a survival of the older belief, modified by Christian teaching, since the Bretons suppose that purgatory and hell are beneath the earth and accessible from its surface.1181


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