Rebirth Among the Celts

[This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]


The rebirth Doctrine of the Celts, like most beliefs bound up with the Fairy-Faith, still survives; thus further proving that Celtic tradition is an unbroken thing from times prehistoric until today. We shall therefore proceed to bring forward the following original material, collected by ourselves, as evidence on this point :-

In Ireland

In Ireland I found two districts where the rebirth Doctrine has not been wholly forgotten. The first one is in the country round Knock Ma, near Tuam. After Mrs. - had told me about fairies, I led up to the subject of rebirth, and the most valuable of all my Irish finds concerning the belief was the result. For this woman of Belclare told me that it was believed by many of the old people, when she was a girl living a few miles west of Knock Ma, that they had lived on this earth before as men and women; but, she added, ‘You could hardly get them to talk about their belief. It was a sort of secret which they who held it discussed freely only among themselves.’ They believed, too, that disease and misfortune in old age come as a penalty for sins committed in a former life.  This expiatory or purgatorial aspect of the rebirth Doctrine seems to have been more widespread than the doctrine in its bare outlines; for the Belclare woman in speaking of it was able to recall from memories of forty-five or fifty years ago what was then a popular story about a disease-worn man and an eel-fisherman :-

The diseased man as he watches the eel-fisherman taking up his baskets, contrasts his own wretched physical condition with the vigour and good health of the latter, and attributes the misfortune which is upon himself to bad actions in a life prior to the one he is then living. And here is the unhappy man’s lamentation :-

Fliuch, fuar at mo leabaidh;
At fearthinn agus geur-ghaoith;
Atim ag ioc na h-uaille,
A’s tusa ag faire do chliaibhin.

(Wet, cold is my bed;
There is rain and sharp wind;
I am paying for pride,
And you watching your [eel-] basket.)

 A curious parallel to this Irish doctrine that through rebirth one suffers for the sins committed in a previous earth-life is found in the Christian scriptures, where in asking Jesus about a man born blind, ‘ Rabbi, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind?’ the disciple exhibits what must have been a popular Jewish belief in rebirth quite like the Celtic one. See St. John ix. 1 - 2. Though the Rabbis admitted the possibility of ante-natal sin in thought, this passage seems to point un mistakably to a Jewish rebirth doctrine.

The teller of the story insisted on giving me these verses in Irish, for she said they have much less meaning in English, and I took them down; and to verify them and the story in which they find a place, I went to the cottage a second time. There is no doubt, therefore, that the legend is a genuine echo of the religion of pre-Christian Ireland, in which reincarnation appears to have been clearly inculcated and was probably the common belief.

I once asked Steven Ruan, the Gaiway piper, if he had ever heard of such a thing as people being born more than once here on this earth, seeing that I was seeking for traces of the old Irish Doctrine of rebirth. The answer he gave me was this :- ‘ I have often heard it said that people born and dead come into this world again. I have heard the old people say that we have lived on this earth before; and I have often met old men and women who believed they had lived before. The idea passed from one old person to another, and was a common belief, though you do not hear much about it now.’

A highly educated Irishman now living in California tells me of his own knowledge that there was a popular and sincere belief among many of the Irish people throughout Ireland that Charles Parnell, their great champion in modern times, was the reincarnation of one of the old Gaelic heroes. This shows how the ancient doctrine is still practically applied. There is also an opinion held by certain very prominent Irishmen now living in Ireland, with whom I have been privileged to discuss the rebirth doctrine, that both Patrick and Columba are likewise to be regarded as ancient Gaelic heroes, who were reincarnated to work for the uplifting of the Gael.

 It is interesting to note in connexion with these two complementary ideas what has been written by Mr. Standish O’Grady concerning strange phenomena witnessed at the time of Charles Parndlls funeral :- ‘ While his followers were committing Charles Parnell’s remains to the earth, the sky was bright with strange lights and flames. Only a coincidence possibly; and yet persons not superstitious have maintained that there is some mysterious sympathy between the human soul and the elements · Those strange flames recalled to my memory what is told of similar phenomena said to have been witnessed when tidings of the death of the great Christian Saint, Columba, overran the north-west of Europe, as perhaps truer than I had imagined .’ -Ireland: Her Story, pp. 211 - 12.

A legend concerning Lough Gur, County Limerick, indicates that the sleeping-hero type of tale is a curious aspect of an ancient rebirth doctrine. In such tales, heroes and their warrior companions are held under enchantment, awaiting the mystic hour to strike for them to issue forth and free their native land from the rule of the Saxon. Usually they are so held within a mysterious cavern, as is the case of. Arthur and his men, according to differently localized Welsh stories; or they are in the depths of magic hills and mountains like most Irish heroes. The heroes under enchantment with their companions are to be considered as resident in the Otherworld, and their return to human action as a return to the human plane of life. The Lough Gur legend is about Garret Fitzgerald, the Earl of Desmond, who rebelled against Queen Elizabeth. Modern folk-tradition regards him as the guardian deity of the Lough, and as dwelling in an enchanted palace situated beneath its waters. As Count John de Sails, whose ancestral home is the Lough Gur estate, assures me, the peasants of the region declare themselves convinced that the’ earl once in seven years appears riding across the lake surface on a phantom white horse shod with shoes of silver; and they believe that when the horse’s silver shoes are worn out the enchantment will end. Then, like Arthur when his stay in Avalon ends, Garret Fitzgerald will return to the world of human life again to lead the Irish hosts to victory.

In Scotland

Dr. Alexander Carmichael, author of Carmina Gadelica, who as a folk-lorist has examined modern peasant beliefs throughout the Highlands and Islands more thoroughly than any other living Scotsman, informs me that apparently there was at one time in the Highlands a definite belief in the ancient Celtic Rebirth Doctrine, because he has found traces of it there, though these traces were only in the vaguest and barest outline.

In the Isle of Man

Mr. William Cashen, keeper of Peel Castle, reported as follows with respect to a rebirth doctrine in the Isle of Man: - ‘ Here in the Island among old Manx people I have heard it said, but only in a joking way, that we will come back to this earth again after some thousands of years. The idea wasn’t very popular nor often discussed, and there is no belief in it now to my knowledge. It seems to have come down from the Druids.’

This is Mr. William Oates’ testimony, given at Ballasalla :- ‘ Some held a belief in the coming back (rebirth) of spirits. I can’t explain it. A certain Manxman I knew used to talk about the transmigration of spirits; but I shall not give his name, since many of his family still live here on the Island.’

Mr. Thomas Kelley, of Glen Meay, had no clear idea about the ancient Celtic Doctrine of rebirth, though he said : - ‘My grandfather had a notion that he would be back here again at the Resurrection to claim his land.’ This undoubtedly shows how the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection and the Celtic one of rebirth may have blended, both being based on the common idea of a physical post-existence.

In Wales

In the Pentre Evan country where I discovered such rich folk-lore, I found my chief witness from there not unfamiliar with the ancient Celtic belief in rebirth. One day I asked her if she had ever heard the old folk say that they had lived before on this earth as men and women. Somewhat surprised at the question, for to answer it would reveal half secret thoughts of which, as it proved, not even her own nephew or niece had knowledge, she hesitated a moment, and, then, looking at me intently, said with great earnestness, ‘Yes; and I often believe myself that I have lived before.’ And because of the unusual question, which seemed to reveal on my part familiarity with the belief, she added, ‘And I think you must be of the same opinion as to yourself.’ She explained then that the belief was a rare one now, and held by only a few of the oldest of her old acquaintances in that region, and they seldom talk about it to their children for fear of being laughed at.

Mr. J. Ceredig Davies, the well-known folk-lorist of. Llanilar, near Aberystwyth, speaking of the Welsh rebirth Doctrine, said he remembers, while in Patagonia, having discussed Druidism with a friend there, the late John Jones, originally of Bala, North Wales, and hearing him remark, ‘Indeed, I have a half-belief that I have been in this world before.’

Mr. Jones, our witness from Pontrhydfendigaid, offers testimony of the highest value concerning Druidism and the doctrine of rebirth in Central Wales, as follows ‘Taliessin believed in rebirth, and he was the first to interpret the Druidic laws. He believed that from age to age he had been in many human bodies. He believed that he possessed the same soul as Enoch and Eli, that he had been a judge sitting on the case of Jesus Christ - “ I was a judge at the Crucifixion,” he is reported as saying - and that he had been a prisoner in bonds at the Court of Cynfelyn, not far from Aberystwyth, for a year and a day. Two hundred years ago, belief in rebirth was common. Many still held it when I was a boy. And even yet here in this region some people are imbued with the ancient faith of the Druids, and firmly believe that the spirit migrates from one body to another. It is said, too, that a pregnant woman is able to determine what kind of a child she will give birth to.’

Mr. Jones’s use of the phrase ‘migrate from one body to another’ led us to suspect that it might refer to transmigration, i.e. rebirth into animal bodies, which Dr. Tylor in Primitive Culture (ii. 6 - 11, 17, &c.) shows is a distorted or corrupted interpretation of what he calls the reasonable and straightforward doctrine of rebirth into human bodies only. But when we questioned Mr. Jones further about the matter he said :- ‘ The belief I refer to is rebirth into human bodies. I have heard of witches being able to change their own body into the body of an animal or demon, but never heard of men transmigrating into the bodies of animals. Some people have said that the Druids taught migration of this sort, but I do not think they did - though Welsh poets seem to have made use of such a doctrine for the sake of poetry.’

In order to gain evidence concerning the rebirth Doctrine as concrete as possible from so important a witness as Mr. Jones, we asked him further if he could recall the names of one or two of his old acquaintances who believed in it; paid he said :- ‘ One old character named Thomas Williams, a dyer by trade, nearly believed in it, and Shon Evan Rolant firmly believed in it. Rolant was the owner of Old Abbey Farm on the Cross-Wood Estate, and originally was a well-to-do and respectable farmer, but in consequence of mortgages on the estate he lost his property. After being dispossessed and badly treated, he used to recite the one hundred and ninth Psalm, to bring curses upon those who worked against him in the dispossession process; and it was thought that he succeeded in bringing curses upon them.’

The Rev. T. M. Morgan, Vicar of Newchurch parish, near Carmarthen, who has already offered valuable evidence concerning the Tylwyth Teg (see pp.149 - 51) contributes additional material about the Doctrine of rebirth in South Wales :- ‘My father said there used to be expressed in Cardiganshire before his time, a belief in rebirth. This was in accord with Druidism, namely, that all human beings formerly existed on the moon, the world of middle light, and the queen of heaven; that those who there lived a righteous life were thence born on the sun, and thence onward to the highest heaven; and that those whose moon life had been unrighteous were born on this earth of suffering and sin. Through right-living on earth souls are able to return to the moon, and then evolve to the sun and highest heaven; or, through wrong. living on earth, souls are born in the third condition, which is one of utter darkness and of still greater suffering and sin than our world offers. But even from this lowest condition souls can work upwards to the highest glory if they strive successfully against evil. The Goddess of Heaven o Mother of all human beings was known as Brenhines-y-nef. I am unable to tell if she is the moon itself or lived in the moon. On the other hand, the sun was considered the father of all human beings. According to the old belief, every new moon brings the souls who were unfit to be born on the sun, to deposit them here on our earth. Sometimes there are more souls seeking embodiment on earth than there are infant bodies to contain them. Hence souls fight among themselves to occupy a body. Occasionally one soul tries to drive out from a body the soul already in possession of it, in order to possess it for itself. In consequence of such struggling of soul against soul, men in this world manifest-madness and tear themselves. Whenever such a condition showed itself, the person exhibiting it was called a Lloerig or “one who is moon-torn “ - Lloer meaning moon, and rhigo to notch or tear; and in the English word lunatic, meaning “ moon-struck “, we have a similar idea.’

Mr. David Williams, J.P., of Carmarthen, who has already. told us much about Welsh fairies (see pp. 151 - 3), offers equally valuable information about the ‘Three Circles of Existence’ and the Druidic scheme of soul-evolution, as follows :- ‘ According to the Druids, there are three Circles through which souls must pass. The first is Cylch y Ceugant, the second Cylch Abred, the third Cylch y Gwynfyd. The name of each circle refers to a special kind of spiritual training, and if in reaching the second circle you do not gain its perfection by completing all its provisions [probably in due  order and time], you must begin again in Circle One; but if you reach the perfection of Circle Two you go on to Circle Three. In Circle One, which is unlocated, the soul has no condition of bodily existence as in Circle Two. The second Circle appears to be a state something like the one we are in now - a mixture of good and evil. The third Circle is a state of perfection and blessedness. In it the soul’s environments correspond to all its wishes and desires, and there is contact with God.’ At this point I asked if there was loss of individuality in Circle Three, and Mr. Williams replied :- ‘ No, there is not loss of individuality.’ Hence, as we suggest, Cylch y Gwynfyd is the Druidic parallel to the Nirvana of Indian metaphysics - being like it, a state of perfect and unlimited self-consciousness which man never knows in earth-life. And, finally, Mr. Williams said in relation to rebirth - ‘ About the years 1780 - 1820 there lived an old bard in Glamorganshire who was actually a Druid, though he professed to be a Christian as well, and he believed fully in rebirth. His common name was Edward Williams (Iola Morganwg); and he [with Owen Jones and William O. Pughe] edited the famous Archaiology of Wales.’

In Cornwall

Mr. Henry Maddern, F.I.A.S., our very important witness from Penzance, testifies as follows concerning a rebirth doctrine in Cornwall :- ‘ Belief in reincarnation was very common among the old Cornish peoples. For example, it was believed when an incantation had been pronounced in the proper way at the Newlyn Tolcarne, that the Troll who inhabited it could embody the person who called him up in any state in which that person had existed during a former age. You had only to name the age or period, and you could live your past life therein over again. My nurse, Betty Grancan, and an old miner named William Edwards, both believed in rebirth, and told me about it. I have heard them relate stories to one another to the effect that a person can go back into the memory of past lives. They said that the sex always remains the same from life to life.

In Brittany

M. Z. Le Rouzic, keeper of the Miln Museum at Carnac, says that there is now among his Breton countrymen round Carnac a general and profound belief that spirits incarnate as men and women; and he has told me that this belief exists also in other regions of the Morbihan. And I myself found there in this Carnac country of which M. Le Rouzic speaks, that the doctrine of the reincarnation of ancestors, which, as he agrees, is the same thing as the incarnation of spirits, is quite common, though as a rule only talked about among the Bretons themselves.

M. Le Rouzic restated the belief as he knows it round Carnac, as follows :- ‘ It is incontestable that the belief in the reincarnation of spirits is general in our country; and it is believed that the spirits embodied now are the spirits of the people of former times.’

After Louis Guezel, of the village of St. Columban, a mile from Carnac, had related to me certain legends of the dead, I asked him if he had ever heard that the dead may be born again as men and women here on this earth. Contrary to my expectations, the question caused no surprise whatever; and I was at once given the impression that the ancient Celtic Doctrine of rebirth is a thoroughly familiar one to him and to many Bretons about the Carnac district. As we conversed about the doctrine, he said emphatically, ‘C’est La virite’ (It is the truth); and in illustration told the following anecdotes :- ‘ A woman in a cemetery one evening saw the spirits of many dead children begging of her life, and reincarnation. A son of my son resembles my grandfather, especially in his mental traits and general character, and the family believe that this son is my grandfather reincarnated.’ (Recorded at St. Columban, Brittany, August 1909.)

Professor Anatole Le Braz, in a letter-preface to Carnac, Legendes, Traditions, Coutumes et Contes du Pays (Nantes, 1909), by M. Z. Le Rouzic, makes this poetical reference to his friend, its author, and thereby admirably echoes the ancient Breton Doctrine of rebirth :- ‘ You, your eyes, your ears are elsewhere: you are a seer and a hearer of the lower regions; you perceive the floating images and you discern the hollow sounds of the people of the manes; on live, literally, among them. What am I saying? Under the form and appearance of a man of to-day, you are in reality one of them, ascended to the day and reincarnated.’ Again speaking of the Alignements of Menec, Professor Le Braz adds concerning his friend :- ‘ You have been one of the priest-builders who worked at its erection; you have officiated among its myriads of columns, presided amid the pomp of great funerals in its cyclopean caverns, sprinkled its sepulchral mounds, shaped like tents, with the blood of oxen and of heifers now dear to St. Comely. And this also you confess to me yourself: these unfathomable epochs remain for you actual and present.’


In considering briefly what non-Celtic doctrines could conceivably have shaped the Celtic Doctrine of Rebirth, two chief streams of influence are open to examination. One stream has its source in rebirth doctrines like those set forth by Orphic, Pythagorean, Platonic, and similar orientally-derived philosophies; while the other arises out of primitive Christianity, wherein, as literary and historical evidence suggests, rebirth may have been an equally important doctrine; or, at all events, there was a decided tendency, later condemned as heretical, to synthesize the Alexandrian philosophy and the Jewish (which to some extent influenced the Alexandrian) with early Church doctrines. This tendency is clearly shown by Origen, and by Clemens Alexandrinus, another eminent Father.

We have a better check on the second stream than on the first, because Christianity has a later and more definite origin than any of the orientally-derived philosophies. Some of the Druids, chiefly of Scotland and Wales, who are known to have held the rebirth doctrine before conversion, and probably after conversion, as was the case with a modern Druid, an editor of the Archaiology of Wales (see p. 391, above), accepted the New Faith as a purer form of Druidism and Jesus Christ as the Greatest of Druids. This ready and full acceptance would most likely not have been possible had their cardinal rebirth doctrine been thereby condemned. It would seem, therefore, that a primitive Christian rebirth doctrine may have been openly held by certain of the early Celtic missionaries. These latter, during the centuries when Ireland was the university for all Europe, had good opportunities for knowing much about the earliest traditions of Christianity, and they, with their own half-pagan instincts, would have given approval to such a doctrine without consulting Rome, just as Church Fathers like. Tertullian condemned it on their own personal authority and Origen believed it. Further, if we hold in mind that the doctrine of the Incarnation even now inculcates that the Son pre-existed and united Himself with a human soul in the act of conception, and that it may originally and by some Irish saints have been thought of as applying to all mankind in a more humble and less divine way, we seem to see in the Mongan rebirth story, which Christian transcribers have glossed, evidently with such ideas in mind, a proof that on this doctrinal point Christian and Celtic beliefs coalesced.  But the Christian beliefs did not originate the Celtic, for scholars have shown that the germ of the Mongan rebirth story, as well as that of the Cuchulainn rebirth episode, is pre-Christian, and that the Etain birth-story dates from a time when Irish myth and history were entirely free from Christian influence.  The same original pagan character is shown in the rebirth episodes existing in Brythonic literature.  And, finally, from the testimony of several ancient authorities, e.g. Julius Caesar, Diodorus Siculus, Pomponius Mela, and Lucan, who wrote, respectively, about 50 B.C., 40 B.C., A. D. 44, and A. D. 60 to 65, that the Celts already held the rebirth doctrine, it is certain that any possible influence from the Christian stream instead of originating the Celtic Doctrine of rebirth could merely have modified it.

The question remaining, Would the classical or oriental doctrines of rebirth have originated or fundamentally shaped the Celtic rebirth doctrine? is a very difficult one. At present it cannot be answered with certainty either negatively or positively. We may suppose, however, as we did in the case of the parallel Christian rebirth doctrine, a possible contact and amalgamation, brought about in various ways, e. g. through Oriental merchants like the Phoenicians, and travellers who visited Britain in pre-Christian times, but chiefly through the continental Celts, who had direct knowledge of Greek and Roman culture, meeting their insular brethren beyond the Channel and Irish Sea. All such ancient contracts push the problem further and further back in time; and our easiest and safest course is to state - as we may of the similar problem of the origin of the Celtic Otherworld belief - that available facts of comparative religion, philosophy, and myth, indicate clearly a prehistoric epoch when there was a common ancestral stock for the Mediterranean and pan-Celtic cultures. This may have had its beginnings in the Danube country, or in North Europe, as many authorities in ethnology now hold, or, as others are beginning to hold, in the lost Atlantis - the ,ost probable home of the dark pre-Celtic peoples of Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland, Britain, Southern and Western Europe, and North Africa, who with the Aryans are the joint ancestors of the modern Celts. Both branches of this common Celtic ancestral stock held the rebirth doctrine. And at last from their Aryan ancestors it seems to have been inherited by the Celts of or that race, Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, or Celtic, as the case may be, is alone the originator of this or any other particular belief is as useless and as absurd as to attempt proof that the Gael has no racial affinity with the Brython. One of the greatest services now being performed by scientific inquiry into human problems is the demonstration of the unreasonableness of assuming artificial social barriers separating race from race, religion from religion, and institution from institution, and the declaration that the unity and the brotherhood of man is a fact inherent in man’s own nature, and not a sentimental ideal. But there is specialization and differentiation everywhere in nature; and while Celtic traditions and beliefs are not fundamentally unlike those found in every age, race, and cultural stage, the treatment of this common stock of prehistoric lore and mystical religion is in some respects unique, and hence Celtic. Beyond this statement we cannot go.





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