Druidic Beliefs on Death

[This is taken from J. A. MacCulloch's Religion of the Ancient Celts.]

Among all the problems with which man has busied himself, none so appeals to his hopes and fears as that of the future life. Is there a farther shore, and if so, shall we reach it? Few races, if any, have doubted the existence of a future state, but their conceptions of it have differed greatly. But of all the races of antiquity, outside Egypt, the Celts seem to have cherished the most ardent belief in the world beyond the grave, and to have been preoccupied with its joys. Their belief, so far as we know it, was extremely vivid, and its chief characteristic was life in the body after death, in another region.[1154] This, coupled with the fact that it was taught as a doctrine by the Druids, made it the admiration of classical onlookers.  But besides this belief there was another, derived from the ideas of a distant past, that the dead lived on in the grave—the two conceptions being connected. And there may also have been a certain degree of belief in transmigration. Although the Celts believed that the soul could exist apart from the body, there seems to be no evidence that they believed in a future existence of the soul as a shade. This belief is certainly found in some late Welsh poems, where the ghosts are described as wandering in the Caledonian forest, but these can hardly be made use of as evidence for the old pagan doctrine. The evidence for the latter may be gathered from classical observers, from archaeology and from Irish texts.

Caesar writes: “The Druids in particular wish to impress this on them that souls do not perish, but pass from one to another (ab aliis ... ad alios) after death, and by this chiefly they think to incite men to valour, the fear of death being overlooked.” Later he adds, that at funerals all things which had been dear to the dead man, even living creatures, were thrown on the funeral pyre, and shortly before his time slaves and beloved clients were also consumed.[1155] Diodorus says:

“Among them the doctrine of Pythagoras prevailed that the souls of men were immortal, and after completing their term of existence they live again, the soul passing into another body. Hence at the burial of the dead some threw letters addressed to dead relatives on the funeral pile, believing that the dead would read them in the next world.”[1156] Valerius Maximus writes: “They would fain make us believe that the souls of men are immortal. I would be tempted to call these breeches-wearing folk fools, if their doctrine were not the same as that of the mantle-clad Pythagoras.” He also speaks of money lent which would be repaid in the next world, because men’s souls are immortal.[1157] These passages are generally taken to mean that the Celts believed simply in transmigration of the Pythagorean type. Possibly all these writers cite one common original, but Caesar makes no reference to Pythagoras. A comparison with the Pythagorean doctrine shows that the Celtic belief differed materially from it. According to the former, men’s souls entered new bodies, even those of animals, in this world, and as an expiation. There is nothing of this in the Celtic doctrine. The new body is not a prison-house of the soul in which it must expiate its former sins, and the soul receives it not in this world but in another. The real point of connection was the insistence of both upon immortality, the Druids teaching that it was bodily immortality. Their doctrine no more taught transmigration than does the Christian doctrine of the resurrection. Roman writers, aware that Pythagoras taught immortality via a series of transmigrations, and that the Druids taught a doctrine of bodily immortality, may have thought that the receiving of a new body meant transmigration. Themselves sceptical of a future life or believing in a traditional gloomy Hades, they were bound to be struck with the vigour of the Celtic doctrine and its effects upon conduct. The only thing like it of which they knew was the Pythagorean doctrine. Looked at in this light, Caesar’s words need not convey the idea of transmigration, and it is possible that he mistranslated some Greek original. Had these writers meant that the Druids taught transmigration, they could hardly have added the passages regarding debts being paid in the other world, or letters conveyed there by the dead, or human sacrifices to benefit the dead there. These also preclude the idea of a mere immortality of the soul. The dead Celt continued to be the person he had been, and it may have been that not a new body, but the old body glorified, was tenanted by his soul beyond the grave. This bodily immortality in a region where life went on as on this earth, but under happier conditions, would then be like the Vedic teaching that the soul, after the burning of the body, went to the heaven of Yama, and there received its body complete and glorified. The two conceptions, Hindu and Celtic, may have sprung from early “Aryan” belief.

This Celtic doctrine appears more clearly from what Lucan says of the Druidic teaching. “From you we learn that the bourne of man’s existence is not the silent halls of Erebus, in another world (or region, in orbe alio) the spirit animates the members. Death, if your lore be true, is but the centre of a long life.” For this reason, he adds, the Celtic warrior had no fear of death.[1158] Thus Lucan conceived the Druidic doctrine to be one of bodily immortality in another region. That region was not a gloomy state; rather it resembled the Egyptian Aalu with its rich and varied existence. Classical writers, of course, may have known of what appears to have been a sporadic Celtic idea, derived from old beliefs, that the soul might take the form of an animal, but this was not the Druidic teaching. Again, if the Gauls, like the Irish, had myths telling of the rebirth of gods or semi-divine beings, these may have been misinterpreted by those writers and regarded as eschatological. But such myths do not concern mortals. Other writers, Timagenes, Strabo, and Mela,[1159] speak only of the immortality of the soul, but their testimony is probably not at variance with that of Lucan, since Mela appears to copy Caesar, and speaks of accounts and debts being passed on to the next world.

This theory of a bodily immortality is supported by the Irish sagas, in which ghosts, in our sense of the word, do not exist. The dead who return are not spectres, but are fully clothed upon with a body. Thus, when Cuchulainn returns at the command of S. Patrick, he is described exactly as if he were still in the flesh. “His hair was thick and black ... in his head his eye gleamed swift and grey.... Blacker than the side of a cooking spit each of his two brows, redder than ruby his lips.” His clothes and weapons are fully described, while his chariot and horses are equally corporeal.[1160] Similar descriptions of the dead who return are not infrequent, e.g. that of Caoilte in the story of Mongan, whom every one believes to be a living warrior, and that of Fergus mac Roich, who reappeared in a beautiful form, adorned with brown hair and clad in his former splendour, and recited the lost story of the Tain.[1161] Thus the Irish Celts believed that in another world the spirit animated the members. This bodily existence is also suggested in Celtic versions of the “Dead Debtor” folk-tale cycle. Generally an animal in whose shape a dead man helps his benefactor is found in other European versions, but in the Celtic stories not an animal but the dead man himself appears as a living person in corporeal form.[1162] Equally substantial and corporeal, eating, drinking, lovemaking, and fighting are the divine folk of the sid or of Elysium, or the gods as they are represented in the texts. To the Celts, gods, side, and the dead, all alike had a bodily form, which, however, might become invisible, and in other ways differed from the earthly body.

The archaeological evidence of burial customs among the Celts also bears witness to this belief. Over the whole Celtic area a rich profusion of grave-goods has been found, consisting of weapons, armour, chariots, utensils, ornaments, and coins.[1163] Some of the interments undoubtedly point to sacrifice of wife, children, or slaves at the grave. Male and female skeletons are often in close proximity, in one case the arm of the male encircling the neck of the female. In other cases the remains of children are found with these. Or while the lower interment is richly provided with grave-goods, above it lie irregularly several skeletons, without grave-goods, and often with head separated from the body, pointing to decapitation, while in one case the arms had been tied behind the back.[1164] All this suggests, taken in connection with classical evidence regarding burial customs, that the future life was life in the body, and that it was a replica of this life, with the same affections, needs, and energies. Certain passages in Irish texts also describe burials, and tell how the dead were interred with ornaments and weapons, while it was a common custom to bury the dead warrior in his armour, fully armed, and facing the region whence enemies might be expected. Thus he was a perpetual menace to them and prevented their attack.[1165] Possibly this belief may account for the elevated position of many tumuli. Animals were also sacrificed. Hostages were buried alive with Fiachra, according to one text, and the wives of heroes sometimes express their desire to be buried along with their dead husbands.[1166]

The idea that the body as well as the soul was immortal was probably linked on to a very primitive belief regarding the dead, and one shared by many peoples, that they lived on in the grave. This conception was never forgotten, even in regions where the theory of a distant land of the dead was evolved, or where the body was consumed by fire before burial. It appears from such practices as binding the dead with cords, or laying heavy stones or a mound of earth on the grave, probably to prevent their egress, or feeding the dead with sacrificial food at the grave, or from the belief that the dead come forth not as spirits, but in the body from the grave. This primitive conception, of which the belief in a subterranean world of the dead is an extension, long survived among various races, e.g. the Scandinavians, who believed in the barrow as the abiding place of the dead, while they also had their conception of Hel and Valhalla, or among the Slavs, side by side with Christian conceptions.[1167] It also survived among the Celts, though another belief in the orbis alius had arisen. This can be shown from modern and ancient folk-belief and custom.

In numerous Celtic folk-tales the dead rise in the body, not as ghosts, from the grave, which is sometimes described as a house in which they live. They perform their ordinary occupations in house or field; they eat with the living, or avenge themselves upon them; if scourged, blood is drawn from their bodies; and, in one curious Breton tale, a dead husband visits his wife in bed and she then has a child by him, because, as he said, “sa compte d’enfants” was not yet complete.[1168] In other stories a corpse becomes animated and speaks or acts in presence of the living, or from the tomb itself when it is disturbed.[1169] The earliest literary example of such a tale is the tenth century “Adventures of Nera,” based on older sources. In this Nera goes to tie a withy to the foot of a man who has been hung. The corpse begs a drink, and then forces Nera to carry him to a house, where he kills two sleepers.[1170] All such stories, showing as they do that a corpse is really living, must in essence be of great antiquity. Another common belief, found over the Celtic area, is that the dead rise from the grave, not as ghosts, when they will, and that they appear en masse on the night of All Saints, and join the living.[1171]

As a result of such beliefs, various customs are found in use, apparently to permit of the corpse having freedom of movement, contrary to the older custom of preventing its egress from the grave. In the west of Ireland the feet of the corpse are left free, and the nails are drawn from the coffin at the grave. In the Hebrides the threads of the shroud are cut or the bindings of feet, hands, and face are raised when the body is placed in the coffin, and in Brittany the arms and feet are left free when the corpse is dressed.[1172] The reason is said to be that the spirit may have less trouble in getting to the spirit world, but it is obvious that a more material view preceded and still underlies this later gloss. Many stories are told illustrating these customs, and the earlier belief, Christianised, appears in the tale of a woman who haunted her friends because they had made her grave-clothes so short that the fires of Purgatory burnt her knees.[1173]

Earlier customs recorded among the Celts also point to the existence of this primitive belief influencing actual custom. Nicander says that the Celts went by night to the tombs of great men to obtain oracles, so much did they believe that they were still living there.[1174] In Ireland, oracles were also sought by sleeping on funeral cairns, and it was to the grave of Fergus that two bards resorted in order to obtain from him the lost story of the Tain. We have also seen how, in Ireland, armed heroes exerted a sinister influence upon enemies from their graves, which may thus have been regarded as their homes—a belief also underlying the Welsh story of Bran’s head.

Where was the world of the dead situated? M. Reinach has shown, by a careful comparison of the different uses of the word orbis, that Lucan’s words do not necessarily mean “another world,” but “another region,” i.e. of this world.[1175] If the Celts cherished so firmly the belief that the dead lived on in the grave, a belief in an underworld of the dead was bound in course of time to have been evolved as part of their creed. To it all graves and tumuli would give access. Classical observers apparently held that the Celtic future state was like their own in being an underworld region, since they speak of the dead Celts as inferi, or as going ad Manes, and Plutarch makes Camma speak of descending to her dead husband.[1176] What differentiated it from their own gloomy underworld was its exuberant life and immortality. This aspect of a subterranean land presented no difficulty to the Celt, who had many tales of an underworld or under-water region more beautiful and blissful than anything on earth. Such a subterranean world must have been that of the Celtic Dispater, a god of fertility and growth, the roots of things being nourished from his kingdom. From him men had descended,[1177] probably a myth of their coming forth from his subterranean kingdom, and to him they returned after death to a blissful life.

Several writers, notably M. D’Arbois, assume that the orbis alius of the dead was the Celtic island Elysium. But that Elysium never appears in the tales as a land of the dead. It is a land of gods and deathless folk who are not those who have passed from this world by death. Mortals may reach it by favour, but only while still in life. It might be argued that Elysium was regarded in pagan times as the land of the dead, but after Christian eschatological views prevailed, it became a kind of fairyland. But the existing tales give no hint of this, and, after being carefully examined, they show that Elysium had always been a place distinct from that of the departed, though there may have arisen a tendency to confuse the two.

If there was a genuine Celtic belief in an island of the dead, it could have been no more than a local one, else Caesar would not have spoken as he does of the Celtic Dispater. Such a local belief now exists on the Breton coast, but it is mainly concerned with the souls of the drowned.[1178] A similar local belief may explain the story told by Procopius, who says that Brittia (Britain), an island lying off the mouth of the Rhine, is divided from north to south by a wall beyond which is a noxious region. This is a distorted reminiscence of the Roman wall, which would appear to run in this direction if Ptolemy’s map, in which Scotland lies at right angles to England, had been consulted.  Thither fishermen from the opposite coast are compelled to ferry over at dead of night the shades of the dead, unseen to them, but marshalled by a mysterious leader.[1179] Procopius may have mingled some local belief with the current tradition that Ulysses’ island of the shades lay in the north, or in the west.[1180] In any case his story makes of the gloomy land of the shades a very different region from the blissful Elysium of the Celts and from their joyous orbis alius, nor is it certain that he is referring to a Celtic people.

Traces of the idea of an underworld of the dead exist in Breton folk-belief. The dead must travel across a subterranean ocean, and though there is scarcely any tradition regarding what happens on landing, M. Sebillot thinks that formerly “there existed in the subterranean world a sort of centralisation of the different states of the dead.” If so, this must have been founded on pagan belief. The interior of the earth is also believed to be the abode of fabulous beings, of giants, and of fantastic animals, and there is also a subterranean fairy world. In all this we may see a survival of the older belief, modified by Christian teaching, since the Bretons suppose that purgatory and hell are beneath the earth and accessible from its surface.[1181]

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.[1183] In Elysium there is 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.[1184] 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 Maerchen, 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 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 mediaeval 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 region the spirit animates the members; death, if your lore be true, is but the passage to enduring life.”

There is no decisive evidence pointing to any theory of moral retribution beyond the grave among the pagan Celts. Perhaps, since the hope of immortality made warriors face death without a tremor, it may have been held, as many other races have believed, that cowards would miss the bliss of the future state. Again, in some of the Irish Christian visions of the other-world and in existing folk-belief, certain characteristics of hell may not be derived from Christian eschatology, e.g. the sufferings of the dead from cold.[1189] 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 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.


[1154] Skene, i. 370.

[1155] Caesar, vi. 14, 19.

[1156] Diod. Sic. v, 28.

[1157] Val. Max. vi. 6. 10.

[1158] Phars. i. 455 f.

[1159] Amm. Marc. xv. 9; Strabo, iv. 4; Mela, iii. 2.

[1160] Miss Hull, 275.

[1161] Nutt-Meyer, i. 49; Miss Hull, 293.

[1162] Larminie, 155; Hyde, Beside the Fire, 21, 153; CM xiii. 21;

Campbell, WHT, ii. 21; Le Braz{2}, i. p. xii.

[1163] Von Sacken, Das Grabfeld von Hallstatt; Greenwell, British Barrows; RC x. 234; Antiquary, xxxvii. 125; Blanchet, ii. 528 f.; Anderson, Scotland in Pagan Times.

[1164] L’Anthropologie, vi. 586; Greenwell, op. cit. 119.

[1165] 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).

[1166] LU 130a; RC xxiv. 185; O’Curry, MC i. p. cccxxx; Campbell, WHT iii. 62; Leahy, i. 105.

[1167] Vigfusson-Powell, Corpus Poet. Boreale, i. 167, 417-418, 420; and see my Childhood of Fiction, 103 f.

[1168] Larminie, 31; Le Braz{2}, ii. 146, 159, 161, 184, 257 (the role of the dead husband is usually taken by a lutin or follet, Luzel, Veillees Bretons, 79); Rev. des Trad. Pop. ii. 267; Ann. de Bretagne, viii. 514.

[1169] Le Braz{2}, i. 313. Cf. also an incident in the Voyage of Maelduin.

[1170] RC x. 214f. Cf. Kennedy, 162; Le Braz{2}, i. 217, for variants.

[1171] Curtin, Tales, 156; see p. 170, supra.

[1172] Curtin, Tales, 156; Campbell, Superstitions, 241; Folk-Lore, xiii. 60; Le Braz{2}, i. 213.

[1173] Folk-Lore, ii. 26; Yeats, Celtic Twilight, 166.

[1174] Tertullian, de Anima, 21.

[1175] Reinach, RC xxii. 447.

[1176] Val. Max. vi. 6; Mela, iii. 2. 19; Plut. Virt. mul 20.

[1177] See p. 229, supra.

[1178] Le Braz{2}, i. p. xxxix. This is only one out of many local beliefs (cf. Sebillot, ii. 149).

[1179] Procop. De Bello Goth. vi. 20.

[1180] Claudian, In Rufin. i. 123.

[1181] Sebillot, i. 418 f.

[1182] 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).

[1183] de Facie Lun[oe], 26.

[1184] See Hartland, Science of Fairy Tales, 209; Macdougall, Folk and Hero Tales, 73, 263; Le Braz{2}, 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.

[1185] Le Braz{2}, i. p. xl, ii. 4; Curtin, 10; MacPhail, Folk-Lore, vi. 170.

[1186] See p. 338, supra, and Logan, Scottish Gael, ii. 374; Folk-Lore, viii. 208, 253.

[1187] Le Braz{2}, i. 96, 127, 136f., and Intro, xlv.

[1188] Philostratus, Apoll. of Tyana, v. 4; Val. Max. ii. 6. 12.

[1189] Le Braz{1}, 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.

[1190] RC xxvi. 153.

[1191] Bk. iv. ch. 36.

[1192] 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).





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