Passing Through the Middle: Death and Reincarnation Amongst the Celts
Celts in Greek and Roman Accounts
The immortality of the soul was hardly doubted in Celtic lands if Roman and Greek sources are to be believed. With respect to Celtic belief, Julius Caesar stated that souls “pass after death from some to others” (ab aliss post mortem transire ad alios). This may simply mean that the soul obtained a new corporeal vessel after it departed from its old shell. However, taken alone this quote tells us little about what the Celts truly believed regarding death and reincarnation.
Other classical authors noted that the druids believed in the idea of the transmigration of the soul. Diodorus Siculus stated that the soul “lives again after a certain number of years” in another form or body. Lucan also paid mention to the druid’s belief in reincarnation. He stated, "The spirit governs limbs in another region; if you know whereof you sing, death is in the middle of a long life.” This quote delineates the transitory nature of the soul and simply states that the body is the vessel that houses it. Yet others likened the druid’s teachings to that of Pythagoras (who also adhered to the notion that souls went through a transmigration process). From what little can be gathered of the remaining references to Pythagorean teaching, it was thought that the soul might reincarnate into either human or animal bodies. This was known as metempsychosis.
Welsh mythology has a prominent mythological figure that appears to be reborn many times. Even those not so familiar with Welsh myths might have heard of the tale of Taliesin. He is a legendary bard who possesses otherworldly knowledge, including the ability to see into the distant past, as well as the ability to see into former incarnations. In somewhat enigmatic fashion, in the tale of Cad Goddau, he states that he existed before the world began. Throughout this tale, he gives testimony to the various shapes and guises that he has taken with respects to his previous existences. It is hard to discern how much of this speech might be thought of as being a metaphor and how much might be a testimony to the genuine Celtic belief in reincarnation. However, using the classical sources as a reference, it seems logical that much of this language may simply be allegory used to impart teachings regarding reincarnation to others. In the late classical period, mystery religions dominated the Mediterranean region. It is possible, in fact quite likely that the Celts too possessed their native traditions that also fell into this type of religious tradition. Among the mystery religions, the nature and journey of the soul featured prominently. Although we don’t possess as much knowledge as we might regarding these traditions, it is likely that a type of reincarnation was advocated. What brings this possibility much closer to the Celtic world is that in one of the few remaining works on mystery religion “The Golden Ass” Epona is featured. Epona was a Gaulish goddess who might have a reflection in Welsh myth as Rhiannon. Both are deities that have close parallels with respects to their associated animals and imagery.
While the book of Taliesin is of rather late composition, this does little to invalidate the possibility that it retains genuine religious concepts of the pagan Celts. Found within this work is a tale of Taliesin being transformed into various beings. In his first form as Gwion Bach Ap Gwreang (a name likely derived from Gwyn, meaning fair/white/blessed boy, son of Gwreang), Taliesin is tasked with stirring the cauldron of transformation in order to make a potion for Cerridwen’s hideous son Morfran in order to bring him wisdom to make up for his appearance. Morfran is a name that is derived from Mor (Sea) and fran/bran (raven). In the process of stirring the brew, Gwion’s hand is burned by the bubbling potion. As he places his fingers into his mouth to cool them the essence of wisdom is imparted to him. Cerridwen immediately becomes aware that Gwion has assimilated the wisdom meant for her son. A chase ensues. In the process of chasing Gwion, Cerridwen and subsequently Gwion himself transform into a series of animals. In this series of shapeshifting it is already possible to see possible allegorical references to reincarnation. However, it does not end with that scenario, at the end of the series of transformations, Cerridwen finally transforms into a hen after Gwion transforms into a grain of wheat. Subsequently while in the form of the Hen she eats Gwion. Nine months after this encounter Cerridwen gives birth to Gwion in a new form, as Taliesin, a name that means “the radient brow”.
The Voyage of Bran
If we shift locations, in Irish lore similar stories exist that give evidentiary support for reincarnation. In the tale of Scel Tuain Meic Cairill, we find a man who lived in various forms of beasts for hundreds of years. With each incarnation as a new animal, he becomes young once again. The process that he takes in order to reincarnate is quite fascinating. He would relocate to a cave, endure a period of fasting, fall to sleep, and then resurrect in a new form. While in his sleep like state he was able to remember he previous shapes of being. This sequence of events has all of the hallmarks of either meditation or a death, metaphorical or otherwise. He was a fish in one of his later incarnations. In this form, he was caught and fed to queen Uliad. After consuming the fish, she conceived a child. Yet, the child clearly remembered all of his previous forms. Many might find this similar to the notion of remembering past lives.
In the story of Immram Brain, (The Voyage of Bran), a warrior named Caílte who returned from the dead explains how Mongan was in a previous existence known as the hero Finn Mac Cumaill. The tale also discusses how Mongan shifts through various guises over time. Possibly due to the Christian sensibilities of the scribe who wrote down the story, the character of Cailte is then forbidden to talk about this any further. The tale of Mongan (the prince of Ulster) also has overt reincarnation imagery. A child who is identified as Mogan advises Colum Cille that he can recall a time when there was a kingdom where the estuary of Loch Feabhail now stood. He also remembered his previous incarnations as a deer, salmon, seal, wolf, and then once again a man.
In The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the two cattle that are the central focus of the story have a whole host of previous incarnations as various animals. These include: Stags, Ravens, Worms, Warriors, etc.
Reincarnation of a Goddess
In The Wooing of Etain, a goddess who is of the ranks of the Tuatha De is transformed into a pond, and then from the pond, a fly is born. A queen who then eats the fly thereafter gives birth to a child. It is noteworthy that in this tale we are speaking of a member of the gods. She was given the epithet Echraide (Horse Rider), possibly indicating a connection to Epona or Rhiannon. In any event, this story suggests that even the gods and goddesses could reincarnate. Also noteworthy is that as a human she did not recall her former existence.
Yet another example can be found in Li Ban, a woman who survives a flood by taking residence in a glass chamber underneath a lake (glass fortresses and chambers are often associated with the otherworld within Celtic myth and legend), She eventually becomes a mermaid.
Math Fab Mathonwy
When we return to Welsh lore, we find that the tale of Taliesin is not the only story that hints at reincarnation or rebirth. In Math Fab Mathonwy a similar scene unfolds. Much like the transformations of Cerridwen and Gwion, Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy are punished and made to take the forms of mating deer, pigs, and wolves. Afterward, they are allowed to resume their previous forms. Later within the same work, Lleu transforms into an eagle after being wounded. However, he is eventually returned to his previous form as well. While these transformations may simply appear to be shapeshifting events, it is possible that they are allegories for transmigration of the soul. This cannot be conclusive in and of itself, yet it is hardly out of the question. It can hardly be thought that after hundreds of years of Christian dominance in Britain that old myths and legends would remain in tact and unadulterated. Reincarnation was fundamentally at odds with Christian doctrine. Thus, if these are indeed references to rebirth, it stands to reason that these stories had to be modified in order to survive within a Christian environment.