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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 151

Some British folk-lore brought to Greece by Demetrius and reported by Plutarch might seem to suggest that certain persons—the mighty dead—were privileged to pass to the island Elysium. Some islands near Britain were called after gods and heroes, and the inhabitants of one of these were regarded as sacrosanct by the Britons, like the priestesses of Sena. They were visited by Demetrius, who was told that the storms which arose during his visit were caused by the passing away of some of the "mighty" or of the "great souls." It may have been meant that such mighty ones passed to the more distant islands, but this is certainly not stated. In another island, Kronos was imprisoned, watched over by Briareus, and guarded by demons.1182 Plutarch refers to these islands in another work, repeating the story of Kronos, and saying that his island is mild and fragrant, that people live there waiting on the god who sometimes appears to them and prevents their departing. Meanwhile they are happy and know no care, spending their time in sacrificing and hymn-singing or in studying legends and philosophy.

Plutarch has obviously mingled Celtic Elysium beliefs with the classical conception of the Druids. In Elysium there is {344} no care, and favoured mortals who pass there are generally prevented from returning to earth. The reference to Kronos may also be based partly on myths of Celtic gods of Elysium, partly on tales of heroes who departed to mysterious islands or to the hollow hills where they lie asleep, but whence they will one day return to benefit their people. So Arthur passed to Avalon, but in other tales he and his warriors are asleep beneath Craig-y-Ddinas, just as Fionn and his men rest within this or that hill in the Highlands. Similar legends are told of other Celtic heroes, and they witness to the belief that great men who had died would return in the hour of their people's need. In time they were thought not to have died at all, but to be merely sleeping and waiting for their hour. The belief is based on the idea that the dead are alive in grave or barrow, or in a spacious land below the earth, or that dead warriors can menace their foes from the tomb.

Thus neither in old sagas, nor in Märchen, nor in popular tradition, is the island Elysium a world of the dead. For the most part the pagan eschatology has been merged in that of Christianity, while the Elysium belief has remained intact and still survives in a whole series of beautiful tales.

The world of the dead was in all respects a replica of this world, but it was happier. In existing Breton and Irish belief—a survival of the older conception of the bodily state of the dead—they resume their tools, crafts, and occupations, and they preserve their old feelings. Hence, when they appear on earth, it is in bodily form and in their customary dress. Like {345} the pagan Gauls, the Breton remembers unpaid debts, and cannot rest till they are paid, and in Brittany, Ireland, and the Highlands the food and clothes given to the poor after a death, feed and clothe the dead in the other world.1185 If the world of the dead was subterranean,—a theory supported by current folk-belief,1186—the Earth-goddess or the Earth-god, who had been first the earth itself, then a being living below its surface and causing fertility, could not have become the divinity of the dead until the multitude of single graves or barrows, in each of which the dead lived, had become a wide subterranean region of the dead. This divinity was the source of life and growth; hence he or she was regarded as the progenitor of mankind, who had come forth from the underworld and would return there at death. It is not impossible that the Breton conception of Ankou, death personified, is a reminiscence of the Celtic Dispater. He watches over all things beyond the grave, and carries off the dead to his kingdom. But if so he has been altered for the worse by mediæval ideas of "Death the skeleton".1187 He is a grisly god of death, whereas the Celtic Dis was a beneficent god of the dead who enjoyed a happy immortality. They were not cold phantasms, but alive and endowed with corporeal form and able to enjoy the things of a better existence, and clad in the beautiful raiment and gaudy ornaments which were loved so much on earth. Hence Celtic warriors did not fear death, and suicide was extremely common, while Spanish Celts sang hymns in praise of death, and others celebrated the birth of men with mourning, but their deaths with joy.1188 Lucan's words are thus the truest expression of Celtic eschatology—"In another {346} region the spirit animates the members; death, if your lore be true, is but the passage to enduring life."


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