The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 159

must have been based on pagan myths of a similar kind, involving successive transformations and a final rebirth. Such a myth may have been told of Taliesin, recounting his transformations and his final rebirth, the former being replaced at a later time by the episode of the Transformation Combat, involving no great lapse of time. Such a series of successive shapes—of every beast, a dragon, a wolf, a stag, a salmon, a seal, a swan—were ascribed to Mongan and foretold by Manannan, and Mongan refers to some of them in his colloquy with S. Columba—"when I was a deer ... a salmon ... a seal ... a roving wolf ... a man."1223 Perhaps the complete story was that of a fabulous hero in human form, who assumed different shapes, and was finally reborn. But the transformation of an old man, or an old animal, into new youthful and vigorous forms might be regarded as a kind of transmigration—an extension of the transformation idea, but involving no metempsychosis, no passing of the soul into another body by rebirth. Actual transmigration or rebirth occurs only at the end of the series, and, as in the case of Etain, Lug, etc., the pre-existent person is born of a woman after being swallowed by her. Possibly the transformation belief has reacted on the other, and {359} obscured a belief in actual metempsychosis as a result of the soul of an ancestor passing into a woman and being reborn as her next child. Add to this that the soul is often thought of as a tiny animal, and we see how a point d'appui for the more materialistic belief was afforded. The insect or worms of the rebirth stories may have been once forms of the soul. It is easy also to see how, a theory of conception by swallowing various objects being already in existence, it might be thought possible that eating a salmon—a transformed man—would cause his rebirth from the eater.

The Celts may have had no consistent belief on this subject, the general idea of the future life being of a different kind. Or perhaps the various beliefs in transformation, transmigration, rebirth, and conception by unusual means, are too inextricably mingled to be separated. The nucleus of the tales seems to be the possibility of rebirth, and the belief that the soul was still clad in a bodily form after death and was itself a material thing. But otherwise some of them are not distinctively Celtic, and have been influenced by old Märchen formulæ of successive changes adopted by or forced upon some person, who is finally reborn. This formulæ is already old in the fourteenth century B.C. Egyptian story of the Two Brothers.

Such Celtic stories as these may have been known to classical authors, and have influenced their statements regarding eschatology. Yet it can hardly be said that the tales themselves bear witness to a general transmigration doctrine current among the Celts, since the stories concern divine or heroic personages. Still the belief may have had a certain currency among them, based on primitive theories of soul life. Evidence that it existed side by side with the more general doctrines of the future life may be found in old or existing folk-belief. In some cases the dead have an animal form, as in the Voyage of Maelduin, where birds on an island are said to {360} be souls, or in the legend of S. Maelsuthain, whose pupils appear to him after death as birds.1224 The bird form of the soul after death is still a current belief in the Hebrides. Butterflies in Ireland, and moths in Cornwall, and in France bats or butterflies, are believed to be souls of the dead. King Arthur is thought by Cornishmen to have died and to have been changed into the form of a raven, and in mediæval Wales souls of the wicked appear as ravens, in Brittany as black dogs, petrels, or hares, or serve their term of penitence as cows or bulls, or remain as crows till the day of judgment.1226 Unbaptized infants become birds; drowned sailors appear as beasts or birds; and the souls of girls deceived by lovers haunt them as hares.1227

These show that the idea of transmigration may not have been foreign to the Celtic mind, and it may have arisen from the idea that men assumed their totem animal's shape at death. Some tales of shape-shifting are probably due to totemism, and it is to be noted that in Kerry peasants will not eat hares because they contain the souls of their grandmothers. On the other hand, some of these survivals may mean no more than that the soul itself has already an animal form, in which it would naturally be seen after death. In Celtic folk-belief the soul is seen leaving the body in sleep as a bee, butterfly, gnat, mouse, or mannikin. Such a belief is found among most savage races, and might easily be mistaken for transmigration, or also assist the formation of the idea of transmigration. Though the folk-survivals show that transmigration was not {361} necessarily alleged of all the dead, it may have been a sufficiently vital belief to colour the mythology, as we see from the existing tales, adulterated though these may have been.

The general belief has its roots in primitive ideas regarding life and its propagation—ideas which some hold to be un-Celtic and un-Aryan. But Aryans were "primitive" at some period of their history, and it would be curious if, while still in a barbarous condition, they had forgotten their old beliefs. In any case, if they adopted similar beliefs from non-Aryan people, this points to no great superiority on their part. Such beliefs originated the idea of rebirth and transmigration.1230 Nevertheless this was not a characteristically Celtic eschatological belief; that we find in the theory that the dead lived on in the body or assumed a body in another region, probably underground.

Footnote 1193:(return)

For textual details see Zimmer, Zeit. für Vergl. Sprach. xxviii. 585 f. The tale is obviously archaic. For a translation see Leahy, i. 8 f.

Footnote 1194:(return)

IT i. 134 f.; D'Arbois, v. 22. There is a suggestion in one of the versions of another story, in which Setanta is child of Conchobar and his sister Dechtire.

Footnote 1195:(return)

IT iii. 245; RC xv. 465; Nutt-Meyer, ii. 69.

Footnote 1196:(return)

Stowe MS. 992, RC vi. 174; IT ii. 210; D'Arbois, v. 3f.

Footnote 1197:(return)

IT iii. 393. Cf. the story of the wife of Cormac, who was barren till her mother gave her pottage. Then she had a daughter (RC xxii. 18).

Footnote 1198:(return)

Nutt-Meyer, i. 45 f., text and translation.

Footnote 1199:(return)

Ibid. 42 f.

Footnote 1200:(return)

Ibid. 58. The simultaneous birth formula occurs in many Märchen, though that of the future wife is not common.

Footnote 1201:(return)

Nutt-Meyer, i. 52, 57, 85, 87.

Footnote 1202:(return)

ZCP ii. 316 f. Here Mongan comes directly from Elysium, as does Oisin before meeting S. Patrick.

Footnote 1203:(return)

IT iii. 345; O'Grady, ii. 88. Cf. Rees, 331.

Footnote 1204:(return)

Guest, iii. 356 f.; see p. 116, supra.

Footnote 1205:(return)

In some of the tales the small animal still exists independently after the birth, but this is probably not their primitive form.

Footnote 1206:(return)

See my Religion: Its Origin and Forms, 76-77.

Footnote 1207:(return)

Skene, i. 532. After relating various shapes in which he has been, the poet adds that he has been a grain which a hen received, and that he rested in her womb as a child. The reference in this early poem from a fourteenth century MS. shows that the fusion of the Märchen formula with a myth of rebirth was already well known. See also Guest, iii. 362, for verses in which the transformations during the combat are exaggerated.

Footnote 1208:(return)

Skene, i. 276, 532.

Footnote 1209:(return)

Miss Hull, 67; D'Arbois, v. 331.

Footnote 1210:(return)

For various forms of geno-, see Holder, i. 2002; Stokes, US 110.

Footnote 1211:(return)

For all these names see Holder, s.v.

Footnote 1212:(return)

S. Aug. de Civ. Dei, xv. 23; Isidore, Orat. viii. 2. 103. Dusios may be connected with Lithuanian dvaese, "spirit," and perhaps with [Greek: Thehos] (Holder, s.v.). D'Arbois sees in the dusii water-spirits, and compares river-names like Dhuys, Duseva, Dusius (vi. 182; RC xix. 251). The word may be connected with Irish duis, glossed "noble" (Stokes, TIG 76). The Bretons still believe in fairies called duz, and our word dizzy may be connected with dusios, and would then have once signified the madness following on the amour, like Greek [Greek: nympholeptos], or "the inconvenience of their succubi," described by Kirk in his Secret Commonwealth of the Elves.

Footnote 1213:(return)

LL 12b; TOS v. 234.

Footnote 1214:(return)

Rh[^y]s, HL 549.

Footnote 1215:(return)

Skene, i. 276, 309, etc.

Footnote 1216:(return)

Sigerson, Bards of the Gael, 379.

Footnote 1217:(return)

Miss Hull, 288; Hyde, Lit. Hist. of Ireland, 300.

Footnote 1218:(return)

RC xxvi. 21.

Footnote 1219:(return)

Skene, ii. 506.

Footnote 1220:(return)

D'Arbois, ii. 246, where he also derives Erigena's pantheism from Celtic beliefs, such as he supposes to be exemplified by these poems.

Footnote 1221:(return)

LU 15a; D'Arbois, ii. 47 f.; Nutt-Meyer, ii. 294 f.

Footnote 1222:(return)

Another method of accounting for this knowledge was to imagine a long-lived personage like Fintan who survived for 5000 years. D'Arbois, ii. ch. 4. Here there was no transformation or rebirth.

Footnote 1223:(return)

Nutt-Meyer, i. 24; ZCP ii. 316.

Footnote 1224:(return)

O'Curry, MS. Mat. 78.

Footnote 1225:(return)

Wood-Martin, Pagan Ireland, 140; Choice Notes, 61; Monnier, 143; Maury, 272.

Footnote 1226:(return)

Choice Notes, 69; Rees, 92; Le Braz2, ii. 82, 86, 307; Rev. des Trad. Pop. xii. 394.

Footnote 1227:(return)

Le Braz2, ii. 80; Folk-lore Jour. v. 189.

Footnote 1228:(return)

Folk-Lore, iv. 352.

Footnote 1229:(return)

Carmichael, Carm. Gadel. ii. 334; Rh[^y]s, CFL 602; Le Braz2, i. 179, 191, 200.

Footnote 1230:(return)

Mr. Nutt, Voyage of Bran, derived the origin of the rebirth conception from orgiastic cults.




The Celtic conception of Elysium, the product at once of religion, mythology, and romantic imagination, is found in a series of Irish and Welsh tales. We do not know that a similar conception existed among the continental Celts, but, considering the likeness of their beliefs in other matters to those of the insular Celts, there is a strong probability that it did. There are four typical presentations of the Elysium conception. In Ireland, while the gods were believed to have retired within the hills or síd, it is not unlikely that some of them had always been supposed to live in these or in a subterranean world, and it is therefore possible that what may be called the subterranean or síd type of Elysium is old. But other types also appear—that of a western island Elysium, of a world below the waters, and of a world co-extensive with this and entered by a mist.

The names of the Irish Elysium are sometimes of a general character—Mag Mór, "the Great Plain"; Mag Mell, "the Pleasant Plain"; Tír n'Aill, "the Other-world"; Tir na m-Beo, "the Land of the Living"; Tír na n-Og, "the Land of Youth"; and Tír Tairngiri, "the Land of Promise"—possibly of Christian origin. Local names are Tír fa Tonn, "Land under Waves"; I-Bresail and the Land of Falga, names of the island Elysium. The last denotes the Isle of Man as Elysium, and it may have been so regarded by Goidels in Britain at an {363} early time. To this period may belong the tales of Cúchulainn's raid on Falga, carried at a later time to Ireland. Tír Tairngiri is also identified with the Isle of Man.1232