Celtic Doctrine of Rebirth

By W.Y. Evans Wentz.


‘It seems as if Ossian’s was a premature return. Today he might find comrades come back from Tir-na-nog for the uplifting of their race. Perhaps to many a young spirit standing up among us Cailte might speak as to Mongan, saying: “I was with thee, with Finn.” ‘
- A. E.

Re-birth and Otherworld - As a Christian doctrine - General historical survey - According to the Barddas MSS.; according to ancient and modern authorities - Reincarnation of the Tuatha De Danann - King Mongan’s re-birth - Etain’s birth - Derinot’s pre-existence - Tuan’s rebirth - Rebirth among Brythons - Arthur as a reincarnate hero - Non-Celtic parallels - Re-birth among modern Celts: in Ireland; in Scotland; in the Isle of Man; in Wales; in Cornwall; in Brittany - Origin and evolution of Celtic Rebirth Doctrine.



HOWEVER much the conception of the Otherworld among the ancient Greeks may have differed from that among the Celts, it was to both peoples alike inseparably connected with their belief in rebirth. Alfred Nutt, who studied this intimate relation more carefully perhaps than any other Celtic folklorist, has said of it :- ‘ In Greek mythology as in Irish, the conception of re-birth proves to be a dominant factor of the same religious system in which Elysium is likewise an essential feature.’ Death, as many initiates have proclaimed in their mystical writings, is but a going to that Otherworld from this world, and Birth acoming back again;  and Buddha announced it as his mission to teach men the way to be delivered out of this eternal Circle of Existence.


Among ourselves the doctrine may seem a strange one, though among the great nations of antiquity - the Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, and Celts - it was taught in the Mysteries and Priest-Schools, and formed the corner-stone of the most important philosophical systems like those of Buddha, Pythagoras, Plato, the Neo-Platonists, and the Druids. The Alexandrian Jews, also, were familiar with the doctrine, as implied in the Wisdom of Solomon (viii. 19, 20), and in the writings of Philo. It was one of the teachings in the Schools of Alexandria, and thus directly shaped the thoughts of some of the early Church Fathers - for example, Tertullian of Carthage (circa A. D. 160 - 240), and Origen of Alexandria (circa A. D. 185 - 254). It is of considerable historical importance for us at this point to consider at some length if Christians in the first centuries held or were greatly influenced by the rebirth doctrine, because, as we shall presently observe, the probable influence of Christian on pagan Celtic beliefs may have been at a certain period very deep and even the most important reshaping influence.

As an examination of Origen’s De Principiis proves, Origen himself believed in the doctrine.  But the theologians who created the Greek canons of the Fifth Council disagreed with Origen’s views, and condemned Origen for believing, among other things called by them heresies, that Jesus Christ will be reincarnated and suffer on earth a second time to save the daemons,  an order of spiritual beings regarded by some ancient philosophers as destined to evolve into human souls. Tertullian, contemporary with Origen, in his De Anima considers whether or not the doctrine of rebirth can be regarded as Christian in view of the declaration by Jesus Christ that John the Baptist was Elias (or Elijah), the old Jewish prophet, come again :- ‘ And if ye are willing to receive it (or him), this (John the Baptist) is Elijah, which is to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.’  Tertullian concludes, and modern Christian theologians frequently echo him (upon comparing Malachi iv. 5), that all the New Testament writers mean to convey is that John the Baptist possessed or acted in ‘the spirit and power’ of Elias, but was not actually a reincarnation of Elias, since he did not possess ‘the soul and body’ of Elias.  Had Tertullian been a mystic and not merely a theologian with a personal bias against the mystery teachings, which bias he shows throughout his De Anima, it is quite evident that he would have been on this doctrinal matter in agreement with Origen, who was both a mystic and a theologian, and, then, probably with such an agreement of these two eminent Church Fathers on record before the time when Christian councils met to determine canonical and orthodox beliefs, the doctrine of rebirth would never have been expurgated from Christianity.

In the Pistis Sophia,  an ancient Gnostic-Christian work, which contains what are alleged to be some of Jesus Christ’s esoteric teachings to his disciples, it is clearly stated (contrary to Tertullian’s argument, but in accord with what we may assume Origen’s view would have been) that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elias. The same work further expounds the doctrine of re-birth as a teaching of Jesus Christ which applies not to particular personages only, like Elias, but as a universal law governing the lives of all mankind.

As our discussion has made evident, during the first centuries the rebirth doctrine was undoubtedly well known to Alexandrian Christians. Among other early Christian theologians and philosophers who held some form of a rebirth doctrine, were Synesius, Bishop of Ptolemais (circa 375 - 414), Boethius, a Roman (circa 475 - 525), and Psellus, a native of Andros (second half of ninth century). In addition to the many Gnostic-Christian sects, the Manichaeans, who comprised more than seventy sects connected with the primitive Church, also promulgated the re-birth doctrine.  Along with the condemnation of the Gnostics and Manichaeans as heretical, the doctrine of re-birth was likewise condemned by various ecclesiastical bodies and councils. This was the declaration by the Council of Constantinople in 553 :- ‘ Whosoever shall support the mythical doctrine of the pre-existence of the Soul, and the consequent wonderful opinion of its return, let him be anathema,’ And so, after centuries of controversy, the ancient doctrine ceased to be regarded as Christian.  It is very likely, however, as will be shown in due order, that a few of the early Celtic missionaries, always famous for their Celtic independence even in questions touching Christian theology and government, did not feel themselves bound by the decisions of continental Church Councils with respect to this particular doctrine.

During the mediaeval period in Europe, the re-birth doctrine continued to live on in secret among many of the alchemists and mystical philosophers, and among such Druids as survived religious persecution; and it has come down from that period to this through Orders like the Rosicrucian Order - an Order which seems to have had an unbroken existence from the Middle Ages or earlier - and likewise through the unbroken traditions of modern Druidism. In our own times there is what may be called a renaissance of the ancient doctrine in Europe and America - especially in England, Germany, France, and the United States - through various philosophical or religious societies; some of them founding their teachings and literature on the ancient and mediaeval mystical philosophers, while others stand as the representatives in the West of the mystical schools of modem India, which, like modern Druidism, claim to have existed from what we call prehistoric times.  To-day in the Roman Church eminent theologians have called the doctrine of Purgatory the Christian counterpart of the philosophical doctrine of re-birth;  and the real significance of this opinion will appear in our later study of St. Patrick’s Purgatory which, as we hold, is connected more or less definitely with the pagan-Irish doctrines of the underworld of the Sidhe-folk and spirits, as well as shades of the dead, and with the Celtic-Druidic Doctrine of Reincarnation.

Scientifically speaking, as shown in the Welsh Triads of Bardism, the ancient Celtic Doctrine of Re-birth represented for the priestly and bardic initiates an exposition of the complete cycle of human evolution; that is to say, it included what we now call Darwinism - which explains only the purely physical evolution of the body which man inhabits as an inheritance from the brute kingdom - and also besides Darwinism, a comprehensive theory of man’s own evolution as a spiritual being both apart from and in a physical body, on his road to the perfection which comes from knowing completely the earth-plane of existence. And in time, judging from the rapid advance of the present age, our own science through psychical research may work back to the old mystery teachings and declare them scientific.


With this preliminary survey of the subject we may now proceed to show how in the Celtic scheme of evolution the Otherworld with all its gods, fairies, and invisible beings, and this world with all its visible beings, form the two poles of life or conscious existence. Let us begin with purely philosophical conceptions, going first to the Welsh Barddas,  where it is said ‘ There are three circles of existence: the circle of Ceugant (the circle of Infinity), where there is neither animate nor inanimate save God, and God only can traverse it ; the circle of Abred (the circle of Re-birth), where the dead is stronger than the living, and where every principal existence is derived from the dead, and man has traversed it; and the circle of Gwynvyd (the circle of the white, i. e. the circle of Perfection), where the living is stronger than the dead, and where every principal existence is derived from the living and life, that is, from God, and man shall traverse it; nor will man attain to perfect knowledge, until he shall have fully traversed the circle of Gwynvyd, for no absolute knowledge can be obtained but by the experience of the senses, from having borne and suffered every condition and incident ‘.  . . . ‘The three stabilities of knowledge: to have traversed every state of life; to remember every state and its incidents; and to be able to traverse every state, as one would wish, for the sake of experience and judgement; and this will be obtained in the circle of Gwynvyd.’

Thus Barddas expounds. the complete Bardic scheme of evolution as one in which the monad or soul, as a knowledge of physical existence is gradually unfolded to it, passes through every phase of material embodiment before it enters the human kingdom, where, for the first time exercising freewill in a physical body, it becomes responsible for all its acts, The Bardic doctrine as otherwise stated is ‘that the soul commenced its course in the lowest water-animalcule, and passed at death to other bodies of a superior order, successively, and in regular gradation, until it entered that of man. Humanity is a state of liberty, where man can attach himself to either good or evil, as he pleases ‘.  Once in the human kingdom the soul begins a second period of growth altogether different from that preceding-a period of growth toward divinity; and with this, in our study, we are chiefly concerned. It seems clear that the circle of Gwynvyd finds its parallel in the Nirvana of Buddhism, being, like it, a state of absolute knowledge and felicity in which man becomes a divine being, a veritable god.  We see in all this the intimate relation which there was thought to be between what we call the state of life and the state of death, between the world of men and the world of gods, fairies, demons, spirits, and shades. Our next step must be to show, first, what some other authorities have had to say about this relation, and then, second, and fundamentally, that gods or fairy-folk like the Sidhe or Tuatha De Danann could come to this world not only as we have been seeing them come as fairy women, fairy men, and gods, at will visible or invisible to mortals, but also through submitting to human birth.


First, therefore, for opinions; and we may go to the ancients and then to the moderns. Here are a few from Julius Caesar :- ‘ In particular they (the Druids) wish to inculcate this idea, that souls do not die, but pass from one body to another.’ ‘The Gauls declare that they have all sprung from their father Dis (or Pluto), and this they say was delivered to them by the Druids.’  And the testimony of Caesar is confirmed by Diodorus Siculus,  and by Pomponius Mela.  Lucan, in the Pharsalia,  addressing the Druids on their doctrine of rebirth says :- ‘ If you know what you sing, death is the centre of a long life.’ And again in the same passage he observes :- ‘ Happy the folk upon whom the Bear looks down, happy in this error, whom of fears the greatest moves not, the dread of death. Hence their warrior’s heart hurls them against the steel, hence their ready welcome of death, and the thought that it, were a coward’s part to grudge a life sure of its return.’  Dr. Douglas Hyde, in his Literary History of Ireland (p. 95), ‘· speaking for the Irish people, says of the re-birth doctrine :- ‘ · the idea of rebirth which forms part of half a dozen existing Irish sagas, was perfectly familiar to the Irish Gael. . . .’ According to another modern Celtic authority, D’Arbois de Jubainvile, two chief Celtic doctrines or beliefs were the return of the ghosts of the dead and the re-birth of the same individuality in a new human body here on this planet.


We proceed now directly to show that there was also a belief, probably widespread, among the ancient Irish that divine personages, national heroes who are members of the Tuatha De Danann or Sidhe race, and great men, can be reincarnated, that is to say, can descend to this plane of existence and be as mortals more than once. This aspect of the Celtic Doctrine of Rebirth has been clearly set forth by the publications of such eminent Celtic folk-lorists as Alfred Nutt and Miss Eleanor Hull. Miss Hull, in her study of Old Irish Tabus, or Gesa,  referring to the Cuchulainn Cycle of Irish literature and mythology, writes thus :- ‘ There is no doubt that all the chief personages of this cycle were regarded as the direct descendants, or it would be more correct to say, as avatars or reincarnations of the early gods. Not only are their pedigrees traced up to the Tuatha De Danann, but there are indications in the birth-stories of nearly all the principal personages that they are looked upon simply as divine beings reborn on the human plane of life. These indications are mysterious, and most of the tales which deal with them show signs of having been altered, perhaps intentionally, by the Christian transcribers. The doctrine of re-birth was naturally not one acceptable to them. . . . The goddess Etain becomes the mortal wife of a king of Ireland. . . . Conchobhar, moreover, is spoken of as a terrestrial god;  and Dechtire, his sister, and the other of Cuchulainn, is called a goddess.  In the case of Cuchulainn himself, it is distinctly noted that he is the avatar of Lugh lamhfada (long-hand), the sun-deity  of the earliest cycle. Lugh appears ‘to Dechtire, the mother of Cuchulainn, and tells her that he himself is her little child, i.e. that the child is a reincarnation of himself; and Cuchulainn when inquired of as to his birth, points proudly to his descent from Lugh. When, too, it is proposed to find a wife for the hero, the reason assigned is, that they knew “that this re-birth would be of himself” (i. e. that only from himself could another such as he have origin).’  We have in this last a clue to the popular Irish belief regarding the re-birth of beings of a god-like nature. D’Arbois de Jubainville has shown,  also, that the grandfather of Cuchulainn, son of Sualtaim, was from the country of the Sidhe, and so was Ethne Ingube, the sister of Sualtaim. And Dechtire, the mother of Cuchulainn, was the daughter of the Druid Cathba and the brother of King Conchobhar. Thus the ancestry of the great hero of the Red Branch Knights of Ulster is both royal and divine. And Conall Cernach, Cuchulainn’s comrade and avenger, apparently from a tale in the Coir Anmann (Fitness of Names), composed probably during the twelfth century, was also a reincarnated Tuatha De Danann hero.

Practically all the extant manuscripts dealing with the ancient literature and mythology of the Gaels were written by Christian scribes or else copied by them from old manuscripts, so that, as Miss Hull points out, what few Irish re-birth stories have come down to us - and they probably but remnants of an extensive re-birth literature like that of India - have been more or less altered. Yet to these scholarly scribes of the early monastic schools, who kept alive the sacred fire of learning while their own country was being plundered by foreign invaders and the rest of mediaeval Europe plunged in warfare, the world owes a debt of gratitude; for to their efforts alone, in spite of a reshaping of matter naturally to be expected, is due almost everything recorded on parchments concerning pagan Ireland.


We have preserved to us a remarkable re-birth story in which the characters are known to be historical.’ It concerns a quarrel between the king of Ulster, Mongan, son of Fiachna - who, according to the Annals of Ireland by The Four Masters (i. 245), was killed in A. D. 620 by Arthur, son of Bicor - and Forgoll, the poet of Mongan.  The dispute between them was as to the place of the death of Fothad Airgdech, a king of Ireland who was killed by Cailte, one of the warriors of Find, in a battle whose date is fixed by the Four Masters in A. D. 285. Forgoll pretended that Fothad had been killed at Duffry, in Leinster, and Mongan asserted that it was on the river Larne (anciently Ollarba) in County Antrim. Enraged at being contradicted, even though it were by the king, Forgoll threatened Mongan with terrible incantations; and it was agreed that unless Mongan proved his assertion within three days, his queen should pass under the control of Forgoll. Mongan, however, had spoken truly and with certain secret knowledge, and felt sure of winning.

When the third day was almost expired and Forgoll had presented himself ready to claim the wager, there was heard coming in the distance the one whom Mongan awaited. It was Cailte himself, come from the Otherworld to bear testimony to the truthfulness of the king and to confound the audacious presumptions of the poet Forgoll. It was evening when he reached the palace. The king Mongan was seated on his throne, and the queen at his right full of fear about the outcome, and in front stood the poet Forgoll claiming the wager. No one knew the strange warrior as he entered the court, save the king.

Cailte, when fully informed of the quarrel and the wager, quickly announced so that all heard him distinctly, ‘The poet has lied!’ ‘You will regret those words,’ replied the poet. ‘What you say does not well become you,’ responded Cailte in turn, ‘for I will prove what I say.’ And straightway Cailte revealed this strange secret : that he had been one of the companions in arms under the great warrior Find, who was also his teacher, and that Mongan, the king before whom he spoke, was the reincarnation of Find :-

‘We were with thee,’ said Cailte, addressing the king. ‘We were with Find.’ ‘Know, however,’ replied Mongan, ‘that you do wrong in revealing a secret.’ But the warrior continued: ‘We were therefore with Find. We came from Scotland. We encountered Fothad Airgdech near here, on the shores of the Ollarba. We gave him furious battle. I cast my spear at him in such a manner that it passed through his body, and the iron point, detaching itself from the staff, became fixed in the earth on the other side of Fothad. Behold here [in my hand] the shaft of that spear. There will be found the bare rock from the top of which I let fly my weapon. There will be found a little further to the east the iron point sunken in the earth. There will be found again a little further, always to the east, the tomb of Fothad Airgdech. A coffin of stone covers his body; his two bracelets of silver, his two arm-rings, and his neck-torque of silver are in the coffin. Above the tomb rises a pillar-stone, and on the upper extremity of that stone which is planted in the earth one may read an inscription in ogam: Here reposes Fothad A irgdech; he was fighting against Find when Cailte slew him.’

And to the consternation of Forgoll, what this warrior who came from the Otherworld declared was true, for there were found the place indicated by him, the rock, the spear-head, the pillar-stone, the inscription, the coffin of stone, the body in it, and the jewellery. Thus Mongan gained the wager; and the secret of his life which he alone had known was revealed - he was Find reborn ; and Cailte, his old pupil and warrior-companion, had come from the land of the dead to aid him :- ‘ It was Cailte, Find’s foster-son, that had come to them. Mongan, however, was Find, though he would not let it be told.’  But not only was Mongan an Irish king, he was also a god, the son of the Tuatha De Danann Manannan Mac Lir: ‘this Mongan is a son of Manannan Mac Lir, though he is called Mongan, son of Fiachna.’  And so it is that long after their conquest the People of the Goddess Dana ruled their conquerors, for they took upon themselves human bodies, being born as the children of the kings of Mil’s Sons.

There are other episodes which show very clearly the relationship between Mongan incarnated in a human body and his divine father Manannan. Thus, ‘When Mongan was three nights old, Manannan came for him and took him with him to bring up in the Land of Promise, and vowed that he would not let him back into Ireland before he were twelve years of age.’ And after Mongan has become Ulster’s high king, Manannan comes to him to rouse him out of human slothfulness to a consciousness of his divine nature and mission, and of the need of action: Mongan and his wife were frittering away their time playing a game, when they beheld a dark black-tufted little cleric standing at the door-post, who said : - ‘ “This inactivity in which thou art, O Mongan, is not an inactivity becoming a king of Ulster, not to go to avenge thy father on Fiachna the Black, son of Deman, though Dubh-Lacha may think it wrong to tell thee so. · “ Mongan seized the kingship of Ulster, and the little cleric who had done the reason was Manannan the great and mighty.’

In the ancient tale of the Voyage of Bran - probably composed in its present form during the eighth, possibly the seventh, century A. D. - there is another version of the Mongan Re-birth Story, which, being later in origin and composition than the Voyage itself, was undoubtedly clumsily inserted into the manuscript, as scholars think.  Therein, Mongan as the offspring of Manannan by the woman of Line-mag - quite after the theory of the Christian Incarnation - is described as’ a fair man in a body of white clay’. This and what follows in the introductory quatrain show how early Celtic doctrines correspond to or else were originated by those of the Christians. And the transcriber seeing the parallels, glossed and altered the text which he copied by introducing Christian phraseology so as to fit it in with his own idea - altogether improbable - that the references are to the coming of Jesus Christ. The references are to Manannan and to the woman of Line-mag, who by him was to be the mother of Mongan - as Mary the wife of Joseph was the mother of Jesus Christ by God the Father :-

A noble salvation will come
From the King who has created us,
A white law will come over seas,
Besides being God, He will be man.

This shape, he on whom thou lookest,
I Will come to thy parts;
’Tis mine to journey to her house,
To the woman in Line-mag.

For it is Moninnan, the son of Ler,
From the chariot in the shape of a man,

He will delight the company of every fairy-knoll,
He will be the darling of every goodly land,
He will make known secrets - a course of wisdom -
In the world, without being feared.

To him is attributed the power of shape-shifting, which is not transmigration into animal forms, but a magical power exercised by him in a human body.

He will be throughout long ages
An hundred years in fair kingship

Moninnan, the son of Ler
Will be his father, his tutor.

At his death
The white host (the angels or fairies) will take him under a wheel (chariot) of clouds
To the gathering where there is no sorrow.



Another clear example of one of the Tuatha De Danann being born as a mortal is recorded in the famous saga of the Wooing of Etain. Three fragments of this story exist in the Book of the Dun Cow. The first tells how Etain Echraide, daughter of Aiill and wife of Midir (a great king among the Sidhe people) was driven out of Fairyland by the jealousy of her husband’s other wife, and how after being wafted about on the winds of this world she fell invisibly into the drinking-cup of the wife of Etar of Inber Cichmaine, who was an Ulster chieftain. The chieftain’s wife swallowed her; and, in due time, gave birth to a girl :-

‘It was one thousand and twelve years from the first begetting of Etain by Ailill to the last begetting by Etar.’ Etain, retaining her own name, grew up thence as an Irish princess.

One day an unknown man of very stately aspect suddenly appeared to Etain the princess; and as suddenly disappeared, after he had sung to her a wonderful song designed to arouse in her the subconscious memories of her past existence among the Sidhe :-

So is Etain here today.
Among little children is her lot.
It is she was gulped in the drink
By Etar’s wife in a heavy draught.

The scribe ends this part of the story by letting it be known that Midir has struck off the head of his other wife, Fuamnach, the cause of all Etain’s trouble.

The second section of the tale introduces Etain as queen of Eochaid Airem, high king of Ireland, and the most curious and important part of it shows how she was loved by Ailill Aenguba. Ailill,so far as blood kinship went, was the brother of Eochaid, though apparently either an incarnation of Midir or else possessed by him: Etain acceded to his love, but he was under a strange love-weakness; and on two occasions when he attempted to advance his desires an over-powering sleep fell on him, and each time Etain met a man in Ailill’s shape - as though it were his ‘double ‘ - bemoaning his weakness. On a third occasion she asked who the man was, and he declared himself to be Midir, and besought her to return with him to the Otherworld. But her worldly or human memory clouded her subconscious memory, and she did not recognize Midir, yet promised to go with him on gaining Eochaid’s permission. After this event, curiously enough, Ailill was healed of his strange love-malady.

In the third part of the story, Midir and Eochaid are playing games. Midir loses the first two and with them great riches, but winning the third claims the right to place his arms about Etain and kiss her. Eochaid asked a month’s delay. The last day of the month had passed. It was night. Eochaid in his palace at Tara awaited the coming of his rival, Midir; and though all the doors of the palace had been firmly closed for the occasion, and armed soldiers surrounded the queen, Midir like a spirit suddenly stood in the centre of the court and claimed the wager. Then, grasping and kissing Etain, he mounted in the air with her and very quickly passed out through the opening of the great chimney. In consternation, King Eochaid and his warriors hurried without the palace; and there, on looking up, they saw two white swans flying over Tara, bound together by a golden chain.


With a difficult task before him, Dermot - as was the case with Mongan - is reminded of his pre-existence as a hero in the Otherworld with Manannan Mac Lir and Angus Oge :- ‘Now spoke Fergus Truelips, Finn’s ollave, and said: “Cowardly and punily thou shrinkest, Dermot; for with most potent Manannan, son of Lir, thou studiedst and wast brought up, in the Land of Promise and in the bay-indented coasts; with Angus Oge, too, the Daghda’s son, wast most accurately taught; and it is not just that now thou lackest even a moderate portion of their skill and daring, such as might serve to convey Finn and his party up this rock or bastion.” At these words Dermot’s face grew red; he laid hold on Manannan’s magic staves that he had, and, as once again he redly blushed, by dint of skill in martial feats he with a leap rose on his javelin’s shafts and so gained his two soles’ breadth of the solid glebe that overhung the water’s edge.’


Tuan, as the son of Starn, lived one hundred years as the brother of Partholon, the first man to reach Ireland; and then, after two hundred and twenty years, was re-born as the son of Cairell. This story in its oldest form is preserved in the Book of the Dun Cow, and seems to have been composed during the late ninth or early tenth century.

In later times, especially among non-bardic poets, there has been a similar tendency to misinterpret this primitive mystical Celtic pantheism into the corrupt form of the re-birth doctrine, namely transmigration of the human soul into animal bodies. Dr. Douglas Hyde has sent to me the following evidence :- ‘ I have a poem, consisting of nearly one hundred stanzas, about a pig who ate an Irish manuscript, and who by eating it recovered human speech for twenty-four hours and gave his master an account of his previous embodiments. He had been a right-hand man of Cromwell, a weaver in France, a subject of the Grand Signor, &c. The poem might be about one hundred or one hundred and fifty years old.’ it is probable that the poet who composed this poem intended to add a touch of modern Irish humour by making use of the pig. We should, nevertheless, bear in mind that the pig (or, as is more commonly the rule, the wild boar) holds a very curious and prominent position in the ancient mythology of Ireland, and of Wales as well. It was regarded as a magical animal; and, apparently, was also a Druid symbol, whose meaning we have lost. Possibly the poet may have been aware of this. If so, he does not necessarily imply transmigration of the human soul into animal bodies; but is merely employing symbolism.



Such then are the re-birth stories of the Gaels. Among the Brythons the same ancient doctrine prevailed, though we have fewer clear records of it. Of the Brythonic Rebirth Doctrine as philosophically expounded in Barddas, mention has already been made.

In the ancient Welsh story about Taliessin, Gwion after many transformations, magical in their nature, is re-born as that great poet of Wales, his mother being a goddess, Caridwen, who dwells beneath the waters of Lake Tegid. In its present mystical form this tale cannot be traced further than the end of the sixteenth century, though the transformation incidents are presupposed in the Book of Taliessin, a thirteenth-century manuscript.  Besides being the re-birth of Gwion, Taliessin may be regarded as a bardic initiate high in degree, who is possessed of all magical and druidical powers.  He made a voyage to the Otherworld, Caer Sidi; and this seems to indicate some close connexion between ancient rites of initiation and his occult knowledge of all things.  Like the Irish re-birth and Otherworld tales, it also suggests the relation between the world of death or Faerie and the world of human embodiment.

From his harrying of Hades, the Brythonic Gwydion secured the Head of Hades’ Cauldron of Regeneration or Re-birth; and when corpses of slain warriors are thrown into it they arise next day as excellent as ever, except that they are unable to speak; which circumstance may be equal to saying that the ordinary uninitiated man when re-born is unable to speak of his previous incarnation, because he has no memory of it. This Cauldron of Re-birth, like so many objects mentioned in the ancient bardic literature, is evidently a mystic symbol: it suggests the same correspondences, as propounded in the modern Barddas, between the dead and the living, between death and re-birth; and Gwydion having been a great culture hero of Wales probably promulgated a doctrine of re-birth, and hence is described as being able to resuscitate the dead.


Judging from substantial evidence set forth above in chapter v, the most famous of all Welsh heroes, Arthur, equally with Cuchulainn his Irish counterpart, can safely be considered both as a god apart from the human plane of existence, and thus like the Tuatha De Danann or Fairy-Folk, and also like a great national hero and king (such as Mongan was) incarnated in a physical body. The taking of Arthur to Avalon by his life-guardian, the Lady of the Lake, and by his own sister, and by two other fairy women who live in that Otherworld of Sacred Apple-Groves, is sufficient in itself, we believe, to prove him of a descent more divine than that of ordinary men. And the belief in his return from that Otherworld - a return so confidently looked for by the Brythonic peoples - seems to be a belief (whether recognized as such or not) that the Great Hero will be reincarnated as a Messiah destined to set them free. In Avalon, Arthur lives now, and ‘It is from there that the Britons of England and of France have for a long time awaited his coming ‘.  And Malory expressing the sentiment in his age writes  :- ‘ Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life.’ If we consider Arthur’s passing an expected return, as many do, in a purely mythological aspect, we must think of him for the time as a sun-god, and yet even then cannot escape altogether from the re-birth idea; for, as a study of ancient Egyptian mythology shows, there is still the same set of relations.  There are the sun-symbols always made use of to set forth the doctrine of rebirth, be it Egyptian, Indian, Mexican, or Celtic:- the death of a mortal like the passing of Arthur is represented by the sunset on the horizon between the visible world here and the invisible world beyond the Western Ocean, and the re-birth is the sunrise of a new day.


As a non-Celtic parallel to what has preceded concerning the Otherworld of the Celts and their Doctrine of Re-birth, we offer the second of the Stories of the High-priests of Memphis, as published by Mr. F. L. Griffith from ancient manuscripts.  It is a history of Si-Osiri (the son of Osiris), whose father was Setme Khamuas. This wonderful divine son when still a child took his human father on a journey to see Amenti, the Otherworld of the Dead; and when twelve years of age he was wiser than the wisest of the scribes and unequalled in magic. At this period in his life there arrived in Egypt an Ethiopian magician who came with the object of humbling the kingdom; but Si-Osiri read what was in the unopened letter of the stranger, and knew that its bearer was the reincarnation of ‘Hor the son of the Negress’, the most formidable of the three Ethiopian magicians who fifteen hundred years before had waged war with the magicians of Egypt. At that time the Egyptian Hor, the son of Pa-neshe, had defeated the great magician of Ethiopia in the final struggle between White and Black Magic which took place in the presence of the Pharaoh.  And ‘Hor the son of the Negress’ had agreed not to return to Egypt again for fifteen hundred years. But now the time was elapsed, and, unmasking the character of the messenger, Si-Osiri destroyed him with magical fire. After this, Si-Osiri revealed himself as the reincarnation of Hor the son of Pa-neshe, and declared that Osiris had permitted him to return to earth to destroy the powerful hereditary enemy of Egypt. When the revelation was made, Si-Osiri ‘passed away as a shade’, going back again, even as the Celtic Arthur, into the realm invisible from which he came.

As in ancient Ireland, where many kings or great heroes were regarded as direct incarnations or reincarnations of gods or divine beings from the Otherworld, so in Egypt the Pharaohs were thought to be gods in human bodies, sent by Osiris to rule the Children of the Sun.  In Mexico and Peru there was a similar belief.  In the Indian Mah‰bh‡rata, Rama and Krishna are at once gods and men.  The celebrated philosophical poem known as the Bhagavadgita also asserts Krishna’s descent from the gods; and the same view is again enforced and extended in the Hari-vansa and especially in the Bhagavata Pur‡na.  The Indian Laws of Manu say that ‘even an infant king must not be despised from an idea that he is a mere mortal; for he is a great deity in human form ‘.  In ancient Greece it was a common opinion that Zeus was reincarnated from age to age in the great national heroes. ‘Alexander the Great was regarded not merely as the son of Zeus, but as Zeus himself.’ And other great Greeks were regarded as gods while living on earth, like Lycurgus the Spartan law-giver, who after his death was worshipped as one of the divine ones.

Among the great philosophers, the ancient doctrine of rebirth was a personal conviction: Buddha related very many of his previous reincarnations, according to the Gatakamala; Pythagoras is said to have gone to the temple of Here and recognized there an ancient shield which he had carried in a previous life when he was Euphorbus, a Homeric hero.  From what Plato, in his Meno, quoted from an old poet, it seems very probable that there may be some sort of relationship between legends mentioning the Rites of Proserpine, like the legend of Aeneas in Virgil, and certain of the Irish Otherworld and Re-birth legends among the Gaels, as we have already suggested :- ‘ For from whomsoever Persephone hath accepted the atonement of ancient woe, their souls she sendeth up once more to the upper sun in the ninth year. From these grow up glorious kings and men of swift strength, and men surpassing in poetical skill; and for all future time they are called holy heroes among men.’ Among modern philosophers and poets in Europe and America the same ideas find their echo: Wordsworth in his Ode to Immortality definitely inculcates pre-existence; Emerson in his Threnody, and Tennyson in his De Profundis, seem committed to the re-birth doctrine, and Walt Whitman in his Leaves of Grass without doubt accepted it as true. Certain German philosophers, too, appear to hold views in harmony with what is also the Celtic Doctrine of Rebirth, e.g. Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Idea, J. G. Fichte, in The Destiny of Man, and Herder, in Dialogues on Metempsychosis.

The Emperor of Japan is still the Divine Child of the Sun, the head of the Order of the Rising Sun, and is always regarded by his subjects as the incarnation of a great being. The Great Lama of Thibet is believed to reincarnate immediately after death.  William II of Germany seems to echo, perhaps unconsciously, the same doctrine when he claims to be ruling by divine right. 

That the Celtic Doctrine of Rebirth is a direct and complete confirmation of the Psychological Theory of the nature and origin of the belief in fairies is self-evident. Could it be shown to be scientifically plausible in itself, as well-educated Celts consider it to be - and much evidence to be derived from a study of states of consciousness, e. g. dreams, somnambulism, trance, crystal-gazing, changed personality, subconsciousness, and so forth, indicates that it might be shown to be so - it would effectively prove the theory. Fairies would then be beings of the Otherworld who can enter the human plane of life by submitting to the natural process of birth in a physical body, and would correspond to the Alcheringa ancestors of the Arunta.


This is taken from The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.





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