The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 153

This might point to an old belief in a cold region whither some of the dead were banished. In the Adventures of S. Columba's Clerics, hell is reached by a bridge over a glen of fire,1190 and a narrow bridge leading to the other world is a common feature in most mythologies. But here it may be borrowed from Scandinavian sources, or from such Christian writings as the Dialogues of S. Gregory the Great.1191 It might be contended that the Christian doctrine of hell has absorbed an earlier pagan theory of retribution, but of this there is now no trace in the sagas or in classical references to the Celtic belief in the future life. Nor is there any reference to a day of judgment, for the passage in which Loegaire speaks of the dead buried with their weapons till "the day of Erdathe," though glossed "the day of judgment of the Lord," does not refer to such a judgment.1192 If an ethical blindness be attributed to the Celts for their apparent lack of any theory of retribution, it should {347} be remembered that we must not judge a people's ethics wholly by their views of future punishment. Scandinavians, Greeks, and Semites up to a certain stage were as unethical as the Celts in this respect, and the Christian hell, as conceived by many theologians, is far from suggesting an ethical Deity.

Footnote 1154:(return)

Skene, i. 370.

Footnote 1155:(return)

Cæsar, vi. 14, 19.

Footnote 1156:(return)

Diod. Sic. v, 28.

Footnote 1157:(return)

Val. Max. vi. 6. 10.

Footnote 1158:(return)

Phars. i. 455 f.

Footnote 1159:(return)

Amm. Marc. xv. 9; Strabo, iv. 4; Mela, iii. 2.

Footnote 1160:(return)

Miss Hull, 275.

Footnote 1161:(return)

Nutt-Meyer, i. 49; Miss Hull, 293.

Footnote 1162:(return)

Larminie, 155; Hyde, Beside the Fire, 21, 153; CM xiii. 21; Campbell, WHT, ii. 21; Le Braz2, i. p. xii.

Footnote 1163:(return)

Von Sacken, Das Grabfeld von Hallstatt; Greenwell, British Barrows; RC x. 234; Antiquary, xxxvii. 125; Blanchet, ii. 528 f.; Anderson, Scotland in Pagan Times.

Footnote 1164:(return)

L'Anthropologie, vi. 586; Greenwell, op. cit. 119.

Footnote 1165:(return)

Nutt-Meyer, i. 52; O'Donovan, Annals, i. 145, 180; RC xv. 28. In one case the enemy disinter the body of the king of Connaught, and rebury it face downwards, and then obtain a victory. This nearly coincides with the dire results following the disinterment of Bran's head (O'Donovan, i. 145; cf. p. 242, supra).

Footnote 1166:(return)

LU 130a; RC xxiv. 185; O'Curry, MC i. p. cccxxx; Campbell, WHT iii. 62; Leahy, i. 105.

Footnote 1167:(return)

Vigfusson-Powell, Corpus Poet. Boreale, i. 167, 417-418, 420; and see my Childhood of Fiction, 103 f.

Footnote 1168:(return)

Larminie, 31; Le Braz2, ii. 146, 159, 161, 184, 257 (the rôle of the dead husband is usually taken by a lutin or follet, Luzel, Veillées Bretons, 79); Rev. des Trad. Pop. ii. 267; Ann. de Bretagne, viii. 514.

Footnote 1169:(return)

Le Braz2, i. 313. Cf. also an incident in the Voyage of Maelduin.

Footnote 1170:(return)

RC x. 214f. Cf. Kennedy, 162; Le Braz2, i. 217, for variants.

Footnote 1171:(return)

Curtin, Tales, 156; see p. 170, supra.

Footnote 1172:(return)

Curtin, Tales, 156; Campbell, Superstitions, 241; Folk-Lore, xiii. 60; Le Braz2, i. 213.

Footnote 1173:(return)

Folk-Lore, ii. 26; Yeats, Celtic Twilight, 166.

Footnote 1174:(return)

Tertullian, de Anima, 21.

Footnote 1175:(return)

Reinach, RC xxii. 447.

Footnote 1176:(return)

Val. Max. vi. 6; Mela, iii. 2. 19; Plut. Virt. mul 20.

Footnote 1177:(return)

See p. 229, supra.

Footnote 1178:(return)

Le Braz2, i. p. xxxix. This is only one out of many local beliefs (cf. Sébillot, ii. 149).

Footnote 1179:(return)

Procop. De Bello Goth. vi. 20.

Footnote 1180:(return)

Claudian, In Rufin. i. 123.

Footnote 1181:(return)

Sébillot, i. 418 f.

Footnote 1182:(return)

de Defectu Orac. 18. An occasional name for Britain in the Mabinogion is "the island of the Mighty" (Loth, i. 69, et passim). To the storm incident and the passing of the mighty, there is a curious parallel in Fijian belief. A clap of thunder was explained as "the noise of a spirit, we being near the place in which spirits plunge to enter the other world, and a chief in the neighbourhood having just died" (Williams, Fiji, i. 204).

Footnote 1183:(return)

de Facie Lun[oe], 26.

Footnote 1184:(return)

See Hartland, Science of Fairy Tales, 209; Macdougall, Folk and Hero Tales, 73, 263; Le Braz2, i. p. xxx. Mortals sometimes penetrated to the presence of these heroes, who awoke. If the visitor had the courage to tell them that the hour had not yet come, they fell asleep again, and he escaped. In Brittany, rocky clefts are believed to be the entrance to the world of the dead, like the cave of Lough Dearg. Similar stories were probably told of these in pagan times, though they are now adapted to Christian beliefs in purgatory or hell.

Footnote 1185:(return)

Le Braz2, i. p. xl, ii. 4; Curtin, 10; MacPhail, Folk-Lore, vi. 170.

Footnote 1186:(return)

See p. 338, supra, and Logan, Scottish Gael, ii. 374; Folk-Lore, viii. 208, 253.

Footnote 1187:(return)

Le Braz2, i. 96, 127, 136f., and Intro, xlv.

Footnote 1188:(return)

Philostratus, Apoll. of Tyana, v. 4; Val. Max. ii. 6. 12.

Footnote 1189:(return)

Le Braz1, ii. 91; Curtin, Tales, 146. The punishment of suffering from ice and snow appears in the Apocalypse of Paul and in later Christian accounts of hell.

Footnote 1190:(return)

RC xxvi. 153.

Footnote 1191:(return)

Bk. iv. ch. 36.

Footnote 1192:(return)

Erdathe, according to D'Arbois, means (1) "the day in which the dead will resume his colour," from dath, "colour"; (2) "the agreeable day," from data, "agreeable" (D'Arbois, i. 185; cf. Les Druides, 135).




In Irish sagas, rebirth is asserted only of divinities or heroes, and, probably because this belief was obnoxious to Christian scribes, while some MSS. tell of it in the case of certain heroic personages, in others these same heroes are said to have been born naturally. There is no textual evidence that it was attributed to ordinary mortals, and it is possible that, if classical observers did not misunderstand the Celtic doctrine of the future life, their references to rebirth may be based on mythical tales regarding gods or heroes. We shall study these tales as they are found in Irish texts.

In the mythological cycle, as has been seen, Etain, in insect form, fell into a cup of wine. She was swallowed by Etar, and in due time was reborn as a child, who was eventually married by Eochaid Airem, but recognized and carried off by her divine spouse Mider. Etain, however, had quite forgotten her former existence as a goddess.1193

In one version of Cúchulainn's birth story Dechtire and her women fly away as birds, but are discovered at last by her brother Conchobar in a strange house, where Dechtire gives birth to a child, of whom the god Lug is apparently the father. In another version the birds are not Dechtire and her women, for she accompanies Conchobar as his charioteer. They arrive at the house, the mistress of {349} which gives birth to a child, which Dechtire brings up. It dies, and on her return from the burial Dechtire swallows a small animal when drinking. Lug appears to her by night, and tells her that he was the child, and that now she was with child by him (i.e. he was the animal swallowed by her). When he was born he would be called Setanta, who was later named Cúchulainn. Cúchulainn, in this version, is thus a rebirth of Lug, as well as his father.1194

In the Tale of the Two Swineherds, Friuch and Rucht are herds of the gods Ochall and Bodb. They quarrel, and their fighting in various animal shapes is fully described. Finally they become two worms, which are swallowed by two cows; these then give birth to the Whitehorn and to the Black Bull of Cuailgne, the animals which were the cause of the Táin. The swineherds were probably themselves gods in the older versions of this tale.1195

Other stories relate the rebirth of heroes. Conchobar is variously said to be son of Nessa by her husband Cathbad, or by her lover Fachtna. But in the latter version an incident is found which points to a third account. Nessa brings Cathbad a draught from a river, but in it are two worms which he forces her to swallow. She gives birth to a son, in each of whose hands is a worm, and he is called Conchobar, after the name of the river into which he fell soon after his birth. The incident closes with the words, "It was from these worms that she became pregnant, say some."1196 Possibly the divinity of the river had taken the form of the worms and was reborn as Conchobar. We may compare the story of the birth of Conall Cernach. His mother was childless, until a {350} Druid sang spells over a well in which she bathed, and drank of its waters. With the draught she swallowed a worm, "and the worm was in the hand of the boy as he lay in his mother's womb; and he pierced the hand and consumed it."1197