Rebirth and Transmigration in Irish Myth

By J. A. MacCulloch.

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 Cuchulainn’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 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 Cuchulainn. Cuchulainn, 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 Tain. 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 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]

The personality of Fionn is also connected with the rebirth idea. In one story, Mongan, a seventh-century king, had a dispute with his poet regarding the death of the hero Fothad. The Fian Caoilte returns from the dead to prove Mongan right, and he says, “We were with thee, with Fionn.” Mongan bids him be silent, because he did not wish his identity with Fionn to be made known. “Mongan, however, was Fionn, though he would not let it be told.”[1198] In another story Mongan is son of Manannan, who had prophesied of this event. Manannan appeared to the wife of Fiachna when he was fighting the Saxons, and told her that unless she yielded herself to him her husband would be slain. On hearing this she agreed, and next day the god appeared fighting with Fiachna’s forces and routed the slain. “So that this Mongan is a son of Manannan mac Lir, though he is called Mongan son of Fiachna.”[1199] In a third version Manannan makes the bargain with Fiachna, and in his form sleeps with the woman. Simultaneously with Mongan’s birth, Fiachna’s attendant had a son who became Mongan’s servant, and a warrior’s wife bears a daughter who became his wife. Manannan took Mongan to the Land of Promise and kept him there until he was sixteen.[1200] Many magical powers and the faculty of shape-shifting are attributed to Mongan, and in some stories he is brought into connection with the sid.[1201] Probably a myth told how he went to Elysium instead of dying, for he comes from “the Land of Living Heart” to speak with S. Columba, who took him to see heaven. But he would not satisfy the saints’ curiosity regarding Elysium, and suddenly vanished, probably returning there.[1202]

This twofold account of Mongan’s birth is curious. Perhaps the idea that he was a rebirth of Fionn may have been suggested by the fact that his father was called Fiachna Finn, while it is probable that some old myth of a son of Manannan’s called Mongan was attached to the personality of the historic Mongan.

About the era of Mongan, King Diarmaid had two wives, one of whom was barren. S. Finnen gave her holy water to drink, and she brought forth a lamb; then, after a second draught, a trout, and finally, after a third, Aed Slane, who became high king of Ireland in 594. This is a Christianised version of the story of Conall Cernach’s birth.[1203]

In Welsh mythology the story of Taliesin affords an example of rebirth.  After the transformation combat of the goddess Cerridwen and Gwion, resembling that of the swine-herds, Gwion becomes a grain of wheat, which Cerridwen in the form of a hen swallows, with the result that he is reborn of her as Taliesin.[1204]

Most of these stories no longer exist in their primitive form, and various ideas are found in them—conception by magical means, divine descent through the amour of a divinity and a mortal, and rebirth.

As to the first, the help of magician or priest is often invoked in savage society and even in European folk-custom in case of barrenness.  Prayers, charms, potions, or food are the means used to induce conception, but perhaps at one time these were thought to cause it of themselves. In many tales the swallowing of a seed, fruit, insect, etc., results in the birth of a hero or heroine, and it is probable that these stories embody actual belief in such a possibility. If the stories of Conall Cernach and Aed Slane are not attenuated instances of rebirth, say, of the divinity of a well, they are examples of this belief. The gift of fruitfulness is bestowed by Druid and saint, but in the story of Conall it is rather the swallowing of the worm than the Druid’s incantation that causes conception, and is the real motif of the tale.

Where the rebirth of a divinity occurs as the result of the swallowing of a small animal, it is evident that the god has first taken this form.  The Celt, believing in conception by swallowing some object, and in shape-shifting, combined his information, and so produced a third idea, that a god could take the form of a small animal, which, when swallowed, became his rebirth.[1205] If, as the visits of barren women to dolmens and megalithic monuments suggest, the Celts believed in the possibility of the spirit of a dead man entering a woman and being born of her or at least aiding conception,--a belief held by other races,[1206]--this may have given rise to myths regarding the rebirth of gods by human mothers.  At all events this latter Celtic belief is paralleled by the American Indian myths, e.g. of the Thlinkeet god Yehl who transformed himself now into a pebble, now into a blade of grass, and, being thus swallowed by women, was reborn.

In the stories of Etain and of Lud, reborn as Setanta, this idea of divine transformation and rebirth occurs. A similar idea may underlie the tale of Fionn and Mongan. As to the tales of Gwion and the Swineherds, the latter the servants of gods, and perhaps themselves regarded once as divinities, who in their rebirth as bulls are certainly divine animals, they present some features which require further consideration. The previous transformations in both cases belong to the Transformation Combat formula of many Maerchen, and obviously were not part of the original form of the myths. In all such Maerchen the antagonists are males, hence the rebirth incident could not form part of them. In the Welsh tale of Gwion and in the corresponding Taliesin poem, the ingenious fusion of the Maerchen formula with an existing myth of rebirth must have taken place at an early date.[1207] This is also true of The Two Swineherds, but in this case, since the myth told how two gods took the form of worms and were reborn of cows, the formula had to be altered. Both remain alive at the end of the combat, contrary to the usual formula, because both were males and both were reborn. The fusion is skilful, because the reborn personages preserve a remembrance of their former transformations,[1208] just as Mongan knows of his former existence as Fionn. In other cases there is no such remembrance. Etain had forgotten her former existence, and Cuchulainn does not appear to know that he is a rebirth of Lug.

The relation of Lug to Cuchulainn deserves further inquiry. While the god is reborn he is also existing as Lug, just as having been swallowed as a worm by Dechtire, he appears in his divine form and tells her he will be born of her. In the Tain he appears fighting for Cuchulainn, whom he there calls his son. There are thus two aspects of the hero’s relationship to Lug; in one he is a rebirth of the god, in the other he is his son, as indeed he seems to represent himself in The Wooing of Emer, and as he is called by Laborcham just before his death.[1209] In one of the birth-stories he is clearly Lug’s son by Dechtire. But both versions may simply be different aspects of one belief, namely, that a god could be reborn as a mortal and yet continue his divine existence, because all birth is a kind of rebirth. The men of Ulster sought a wife for Cuchulainn, “knowing that his rebirth would be of himself,” i.e. his son would be himself even while he continued to exist as his father.  Examples of such a belief occur elsewhere, e.g. in the Laws of Manu, where the husband is said to be reborn of his wife, and in ancient Egypt, where the gods were called “self-begotten,” because each was father to the son who was his true image or himself. Likeness implied identity, in primitive belief. Thus the belief in mortal descent from the gods among the Celts may have involved the theory of a divine avatar. The god became father of a mortal by a woman, and part of himself passed over to the child, who was thus the god himself.

Conchobar was also a rebirth of a god, but he was named from the river whence his mother had drawn water containing the worms which she swallowed. This may point to a lost version in which he was the son of a river-god by Nessa. This was quite in accordance with Celtic belief, as is shown by such names as Dubrogenos, from dubron, “water,” and genos, “born of”; Divogenos, Divogena, “son or daughter of a god,” possibly a river-god, since deivos is a frequent river name; and Rhenogenus, “son of the Rhine.”[1210] The persons who first bore these names were believed to have been begotten by divinities. Mongan’s descent from Manannan, god of the sea, is made perfectly clear, and the Welsh name Morgen = Morigenos, “son of the sea,” probably points to a similar tale now lost. Other Celtic names are frequently pregnant with meaning, and tell of a once-existing rich mythology of divine amours with mortals. They show descent from deities—Camulogenus (son of Camulos), Esugenos (son of Esus), Boduogenus (son of Bodva); or from tree-spirits—Dergen (son of the oak), Vernogenus (son of the alder); or from divine animals—Arthgen (son of the bear), Urogenus (son of the urus).[1211] What was once an epithet describing divine filiation became later a personal name. So in Greece names like Apollogenes, Diogenes, and Hermogenes, had once been epithets of heroes born of Apollo, Zeus, and Hermes.

Thus it was a vital Celtic belief that divinities might unite with mortals and beget children. Heroes enticed away to Elysium enjoyed the love of its goddesses—Cuchulainn that of Fand; Connla, Bran, and Oisin that of unnamed divinities. So, too, the goddess Morrigan offered herself to Cuchulainn. The Christian Celts of the fifth century retained this belief, though in a somewhat altered form. S. Augustine and others describe the shaggy demons called dusii by the Gauls, who sought the couches of women in order to gratify their desires.[1212] The dusii are akin to the incubi and fauni, and do not appear to represent the higher gods reduced to the form of demons by Christianity, but rather a species of lesser divinities, once the object of popular devotion.

These beliefs are also connected with the Celtic notions of transformation and transmigration—the one signifying the assuming of another shape for a time, the other the passing over of the soul or the personality into another body, perhaps one actually existing, but more usually by actual rebirth. As has been seen, this power of transformation was claimed by the Druids and by other persons, or attributed to them, and they were not likely to minimise their powers, and would probably boast of them on all occasions. Such boasts are put into the mouths of the Irish Amairgen and the Welsh Taliesin. As the Milesians were approaching Ireland, Amairgen sang verses which were perhaps part of a ritual chant:

“I am the wind which blows over the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the bull of seven battles,
I am the eagle on the rock...
I am a boar for courage,
I am a salmon in the water, etc.”[1213]


Professor Rhys points out that some of these verses need not mean actual transformation, but mere likeness, through “a primitive formation of predicate without the aid of a particle corresponding to such a word as ‘like.’”[1214] Enough, however, remains to show the claim of the magician. Taliesin, in many poems, makes similar claims, and says, “I have been in a multitude of shapes before I assumed a consistent form”—that of a sword, a tear, a star, an eagle, etc. Then he was created, without father or mother.[1215] Similar pretensions are common to the medicine-man everywhere. But from another point of view they may be mere poetic extravagances such as are common in Celtic poetry.[1216] Thus Cuchulainn says: “I was a hound strong for combat ... their little champion ... the casket of every secret for the maidens,” or, in another place, “I am the bark buffeted from wave to wave ... the ship after the losing of its rudder ... the little apple on the top of the tree that little thought of its falling.”[1217] These are metaphoric descriptions of a comparatively simple kind. The full-blown bombast appears in the Colloquy of the Two Sages, where Nede and Fercertne exhaust language in describing themselves to each other.[1218] Other Welsh bards besides Taliesin make similar boasts to his, and Dr. Skene thinks that their claims “may have been mere bombast.”[1219] Still some current belief in shape-shifting, or even in rebirth, underlies some of these boastings and gives point to them. Amairgen’s “I am” this or that, suggests the inherent power of transformation; Taliesin’s “I have been,” the actual transformations. Such assertions do not involve “the powerful pantheistic doctrine which is at once the glory and error of Irish philosophy,” as M. D’Arbois claims,[1220] else are savage medicine-men, boastful of their shape-shifting powers, philosophic pantheists. The poems are merely highly developed forms of primitive beliefs in shape-shifting, such as are found among all savages and barbaric folk, but expressed in the boastful language in which the Celt delighted.

How were the successive shape-shiftings effected? To answer this we shall first look at the story of Tuan Mac Caraill, who survived from the days of Partholan to those of S. Finnen. He was a decrepit man at the coming of Nemed, and one night, having lain down to sleep, he awoke as a stag, and lived in this form to old age. In the same way he became a boar, a hawk, and a salmon, which was caught and eaten by Cairell’s wife, of whom he was born as Tuan, with a perfect recollection of his different forms.[1221]

This story, the invention of a ninth or tenth century Christian scribe to account for the current knowledge of the many invasions of Ireland,[1222] 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 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 Maerchen formulae of successive changes adopted by or forced upon some person, who is finally reborn. This formulae 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 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.[1225] King Arthur is thought by Cornishmen to have died and to have been changed into the form of a raven, and in mediaeval 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.[1228] 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.[1229] 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 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.


[1193] For textual details see Zimmer, Zeit. fuer Vergl. Sprach. xxviii. 585 f. The tale is obviously archaic. For a translation see Leahy, i. 8 f.

[1194] 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.

[1195] IT iii. 245; RC xv. 465; Nutt-Meyer, ii. 69.

[1196] Stowe MS. 992, RC vi. 174; IT ii. 210; D’Arbois, v. 3f.

[1197] 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).

[1198] Nutt-Meyer, i. 45 f., text and translation.

[1199] Ibid. 42 f.

[1200] Ibid. 58. The simultaneous birth formula occurs in many Maerchen, though that of the future wife is not common.

[1201] Nutt-Meyer, i. 52, 57, 85, 87.

[1202] ZCP ii. 316 f. Here Mongan comes directly from Elysium, as does Oisin before meeting S. Patrick.

[1203] IT iii. 345; O’Grady, ii. 88. Cf. Rees, 331.

[1204] Guest, iii. 356 f.; see p. 116, supra.

[1205] In some of the tales the small animal still exists independently after the birth, but this is probably not their primitive form.

[1206] See my Religion: Its Origin and Forms, 76-77.

[1207] 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 Maerchen 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.

[1208] Skene, i. 276, 532.

[1209] Miss Hull, 67; D’Arbois, v. 331.

[1210] For various forms of geno-, see Holder, i. 2002; Stokes, US 110.

[1211] For all these names see Holder, s.v.

[1212] 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.

[1213] LL 12b; TOS v. 234.

[1214] Rhys, HL 549.

[1215] Skene, i. 276, 309, etc.

[1216] Sigerson, Bards of the Gael, 379.

[1217] Miss Hull, 288; Hyde, Lit. Hist. of Ireland, 300.

[1218] RC xxvi. 21.

[1219] Skene, ii. 506.

[1220] D’Arbois, ii. 246, where he also derives Erigena’s pantheism from Celtic beliefs, such as he supposes to be exemplified by these poems.

[1221] LU 15a; D’Arbois, ii. 47 f.; Nutt-Meyer, ii. 294 f.

[1222] 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.

[1223] Nutt-Meyer, i. 24; ZCP ii. 316.

[1224] O’Curry, MS. Mat. 78.

[1225] Wood-Martin, Pagan Ireland, 140; Choice Notes, 61; Monnier, 143; Maury, 272.

[1226] Choice Notes, 69; Rees, 92; Le Braz{2}, ii. 82, 86, 307; Rev.  des Trad. Pop. xii. 394.

[1227] Le Braz{2}, ii. 80; Folk-lore Jour. v. 189.

[1228] Folk-Lore, iv. 352.

[1229] Carmichael, Carm. Gadel. ii. 334; Rhys, CFL 602; Le Braz{2}, i. 179, 191, 200.

[1230] Mr. Nutt, Voyage of Bran, derived the origin of the rebirth conception from cults.



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