Celts, Karma and Reincarnation
|Recent discussions about the concept of reincarnation among the Celtic
people and the Druids as compared to the teachings of Pythagoras have sparked insights for
me that should have been obvious. The first of these insights is that the Celts believed
in a world of the spirit. This belief means, among other things, that the Celts believed
that spirits could exist in this world by inhabiting the bodies of people, of animals, of
plants, of trees and even manifest themselves as the spirits of places (wells, brughs,
caves, stones, rivers, ponds, and fields). This migration of spirit between worlds,
places, animals and people was a reflection of the communal nature of Celtic life. A
belief in spiritual migration and transmigration does not rule out the Celt's most common
spiritual belief, the belief that there is a life in another world after death in this
one. Before I cover these additional topics in Celtic/Druidic spiritual belief, let me
cite some examples from Celtic literature concerning these matters.
In the tales that lead to the "Tain Bó Cuailgne" is the story of the two swineherds, Friuch and Rucht, "The Quarrel of the Two Pig-keepers and how the Bulls were Begotten." These two men got into a contest as to who had greater Magical power. This led them to shapechange into a variety of forms over periods of years. First they were birds of prey and they fought and quarreled. Next, they were men again. Then they went through a series of changes that included being: water creatures, stags, warriors, phantoms, and dragons, until they finally became worms. One worm fell into the spring of the river Cronn in Cuailnge, where a cow belonging to Dáire mac Fiachna swallowed it. This cow gave birth to Dub, the great, dark bull of Cuailnge. The other worm suffered a similar fate in the wellspring of Garad, located in Connacht, where a cow belonging to Medb and Aillill drank it. It became Finnbennach, the white-horned bull of Ai Pain. The exploits surrounding these two great creatures is another story, for another time, to be found in the Táin Bó Cuailgne itself. It is a primary example of how spirit flowed between people, places, animals, and even objects.
Celtic Beliefs in Spirit
Another common belief in the continuity of spirit, was for the spirit of the departed to enter into stones or trees. This is often told about two lovers who die, have a tree spring from their graves and eventually re-unite with one another as intertwined branches, wooden objects, or even Ogham staves. The story of Baile and Aillinn is one such tale. These two lovers became a Yew and an Apple tree after their deaths. Eventually Ogham staves were made from their woods. When the staves were presented to the king at Tara, they sprang together and were kept in the treasure room from that day forward. The fate of Deirdre and Naoise is another tale of ill-fated love. Two pines grew from their graves, intertwining together, never to be parted. To this very day, Celtic people hold trees sacred, especially those that grow from a grave.
The Celtic belief that spirit could inhabit a place, is found in the common feeling regarding graveyards and passage graves. These places are known to contain ghosts and spirits. Many stones are said to be Druids and others who have been changed to that state by Magick. The "sleeping king" or "warrior band" idea is another example of how the Land itself contains the spirit of people. This idea that famous warriors will awaken in the hour of need is the essence of spirit being stored within the Land itself. Foundation sacrifices were also known to have occurred where a person willingly gave their spirit to a structure or to a place, to become its guardian. This belief in the connection between spirit, person and place is still alive today in the belief that the last soul to die is the guardian of the graveyard. It is also intertwined with the Celtic belief that the soul must revisit the three sods (soils) before passing through the doorway to the Otherworld: the place of birth, the place of baptism and the "sod of death".
Even in their art, Celts reflected their ideas that spirit was an interconnected weaving of all things together in a tapestry of life. Nowhere is this more evident than in the art of Celtic knotwork. Knotwork is a symbol of the interconnection between destiny, the Three Worlds and the human soul. This belief in interconnection also shows up in the Magical practices of "taking a measure" and the tying of knots in cords and threads. There are also practices that center around the "cord of life" (which is the umbilical cord itself) and how it should be honored and guarded, but that is a thread for another day.
This brief introduction has attempted to present an idea of the Celtic beliefs in the interconnectivity of life, of the connection to the land, of the soul's journeys through many forms and bodies, of the doorway of death, and the various forms of reincarnation available to the spirit. It has only touched upon the surface of the topic, which is mentioned in a vast number of tales, beliefs, and traditions. All of these works demonstrate the Celtic belief in the reincarnation of the spirit in its many forms.
Allusions to the Celts having believed in another life have sometimes been interpreted to mean that they embraced the concept of "karma" (whatever that is). There is a body of evidence to support a Celtic belief in re-incarnation as well as another life after death. This belief takes many forms. Some of these forms are noted as being a transmigration of the soul. Stories contain instances of shapeshifting. Instances exist that tell of Otherworldly experiences. Lives are said to be gifts from the Sidhe. Reincarnations are manifestations and gifts of the gods, while other cases are considered to manifest as a common spirit returning along family lines. Of course, there are also the stories about those that sleep and do not die (awaiting a call), and the magicians that live backwards in time like Merlin, as well as warriors who are resurrected with and without a soul. There may be other instances of Otherworldly life or reincarnation in Celtic tradition, but these seem to be the most often cited.
The writings of the Poseidonian and Alexandrian Schools of history, as well as Caesar, support the possibility that the Druids generally practiced and taught a belief in reincarnation. Instances also occur in the insular literature that can be taken to mean that reincarnation was thought to have occurred in the case of exceptional people. There are also mentions of a belief in a spirit that passed from one member of a family to another that occurs in the tales and survived in Celtic folk practice. Much more definitive evidence or a skillful documented research effort on a level of at least a Ph.D. dissertation should be attempted before the evidence can be said to be substantial. This does not mean that evidence does not exist (however scanty that it is).
"How Cúchulainn was Begotten"
There are references to a belief in reincarnation among the Celts and Druids to be found in traditional writings. These references seem to be characteristic of a common Indo-European spiritual belief. It seems to have been a universally held concept until relatively recently. An example of a belief in reincarnation can be found in Thomas Kinsella's translation of the story of "How Cúchulainn was Begotten."
"The men of Ulster pressed on until they reached Brug on the Boann river, and night overtook them there. It snowed heavily upon them, and Conchobor told his people to unyoke the chariots and start looking for a shelter. Conall and Bricriu searched about and found a solitary house, newly built. They went up to it and found a couple there and were made welcome. But when they returned to their people, Bricriu said it was useless to go there unless they brought their own food and set the table themselves that even so it would be meager enough. Nevertheless, they went there with all of their chariots, and crowded with difficulty into the house. Soon they found the door to the store-room, and by their usual mealtime the men of Ulster were drunk with their welcome and in good humour.
Later the man of the house told them his wife was in her birth-pangs in the store-room. Deichtine went in to her and helped her to bear a son. At the same time, a mare at the door of the house gave birth to two foals. The Ulstermen took charge of the baby boy and gave him the foals as a present, and Deichtine nursed him.
When morning came there was nothing to be seen eastward from the Brugh no house, no birds only their own horses, the baby and the foals. They went back to Emain and reared the baby until he was a boy.
He caught an illness then, and died. And they made a lamentation for him, and Deichtine's grief was great at the loss of her foster son. She came home from lamenting him and grew thirsty and asked for a drink, and the drink was brought in a cup. She set it to her lips to drink from it and a tiny creature slipped into her mouth with the liquid. As she took the cup from her lips she swallowed the creature and it vanished.
She slept that night and dreamed that a man came toward her and spoke to her, saying she would bear a child by him that it was he who had brought her to the Brug to sleep with her there, that the boy she had reared was his, that he was again planted in her womb and was to be called Se/tanta, that he himself was Lug mac Etnenn, and that the foals should be reared with the boy."
This is clearly reincarnation along family lines. The above story about Cú Chulainn is a translation of an eighth century tale, "Compert Con Culainn," as found in Lebor na hUidre and other ancient manuscripts. Another work that mentions this type of reincarnation is "Compert Mongain" (where Mongan is born through the actions of Manannán, and as a reincarnation of Fionn). The story of how Daogas was begotten of himself is the third example of this form of reincarnation to be found in Irish writings. It is to be found in a story translated on page 135, Volume II of the Ossianic Society Transactions. The examples of Finn being the reincarnation of Cumhal or of Mongan being the incarnation of Manannán seem to support this belief. Who has not heard the expression, "a chip off the old block?"
The men of Ulster desired to have Cúchualinn married so that he would be assured of having progeny. They wished that he could be reincarnated to them again, but were thwarted in their desires when he killed his only son as recounted in another tale about him. The evidence for this belief in the men of Ulster is based on this passage out of "Tochmarc Emire," where it was said:
"There was the danger besides that Cúchulainn might die young and leave no son, which would be tragic: they knew it was only out of Cúchulainn himself that the like of him might come again, For this reason also he should have a woman."
"Cauldron of Poesy"
This idea is also echoed in the teaching attributed to Amergin in the "Cauldron of Poesy" materials:
"Where is the root of poetry in a person; in the body or in the soul? They say it is in the soul, for the body does nothing without the soul. Others say it is in the body where the arts are learned, passed through the bodies of our ancestors. It is said this is the seat of what remains over the root of poetry; and the good knowledge in every person's ancestry comes not into everyone, but comes into every other person." - translation by Erynn Laurie
The Filidh Amergin is talking about a skill being passed along family lines in an almost instinctive manner. He also ascribes certain knowledge and awareness to come from the soul through heightened spiritual experiences. Here we are touching the edges of what I believe to be an ancient and valid Celtic belief in a reincarnation that occurs within families. Cormac of Caisheal seems to be echoing this concept in his glossary:
The tuirgen is "...the birth that passes from every nature to another... a transitory birth which has traversed all nature from Adam and goes through every wonderful time down to the world's doom."
Diodorus seems to be saying the same thing of Druidic belief: "... the souls of men are immortal, and that after a definite number of years they live a second life when the soul passes to another body..."
Caesar is also echoing this idea when he says that the Druids teach, "...souls do not suffer death, but after death pass from one to another..."
The Druids' beliefs and teachings about the soul indicate that the essence of a person was not thought to die at the death of the body, but to live on. I think that the tale of "How Cúchualinn was Begotten" clearly shows one possibility for what can happen to a soul after death: i.e. it is reborn into another body. This is exactly what the Druids were said to have taught in the quotation by Diodorus and in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus:
They "..were of loftier intellect, and bound by the rules of brotherhood as decreed by Pythagoras's authority, exalted by investigations of deep and serious study, and despising human affairs, declared souls to be immortal."
The Alexandrian School
The soul does not have to reincarnate in this world but can stay in the Otherworld. The life into which one is reborn appears to be tied to fate and the will of the gods. The Alexandrian School of ancient historians considered the Druids to be philosophers who followed the ways of Pythagoras, though I suspect this association by them to be because both schools of philosophy taught the belief of reincarnation. I do not think that the Druids were Pythagorean, nor do I think that Pythagoras was a Druid. Here are some of the historians that seem to have held this belief (as provided in an email source):
Hippolytus - (circa 170 - 236 CE) Christian author writing in Greek, of whose work only fragments remain, claimed that the Druids had adopted the teachings of Pythagoras
Clement of Alexandria - (circa 150 - 211/216 CE) Athenian known also as Titus Flavius Clement, a Greek theologian, founder and head of the Christian school of Alexandria, also believed the Druids learned from Pythagoras. Wrote on the topic of Druids as philosophers
Cyril of Alexandria - (archbishop of Alexandria in 412 - 444 CE) Quotes the same passages that Clement did from Polyhistor's book on Pythagoras, holding that the Druids learned their knowledge from Pythagoras. Also wrote about the Druids as philosophers
Timaeus of Tauromenion - (circa 356 - 260 BCE) Sicilian Greek writer whose work was extensively used by Diogenese Laertius and Clement of Alexandria
Polyhistor - (born circa 105 BCE) Alexander Cornelius Polyhistor, Greek who wrote of the Druids as philosophers and was the main source on Pythagoras:
"The Pythagorean doctrine prevails among the Gauls' teaching that the souls of men are immortal, and that after a fixed number of years they will enter into another body."
Timagenes - (circa mid-first century BCE) Alexandrian who is cited by Diodorus Siculus as an authority on Druids, also quoted in the works of Ammianus Marcellinus. He wrote around the same time as Polyhistor. He gives the earliest mention of the Druids being the historians of the Celts. Truly belongs to the Posidonius School
Additional information that seems to indicate the occurrence of multiple incarnations are to be found in the tales surrounding Fintan, Tuan Mac Carrel, and Gwion Bach, as well as the lament of the Hag of Beara. Beyond this I have also seen such beliefs in reincarnation expressed as an on-going Celtic tradition in the _Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries_ by W. Y. Evans-Wentz.
If the concept of Karma existed among the Celts, it might have manifested itself in the principle of repaying debts, whether incurred in one life or another:
"They lent sums of money to each other which are repayable in the next world, so firmly are they convinced that the souls of men are immortal."
- Valerius Maximus -
Such debts would have reflected on the honor of oneself and ones family. The obligation to repay them went beyond lives and lifetimes.
"Contracts were sometimes composed with provision for payment in future lives, and there was full expectation of payment, for the Celts were firm believers in reincarnation of some sort. Reincarnation as descendants in the family line seems to have been a Celtic belief, and so your grandchildren (who may well be you reborn) might pay back your neighbor's grandchildren at the completion of a contract's term of agreement. Most contracts were also sealed with a material forfeiture in the event of failure to fulfill the contract. The loyalty and trust of family was essential in the making of any contracts, because failure to fulfill a contract obligated your tuath to pay your debts if you could not."
- Erynn Laurie on Nemeton-L
Debts of behavior and morality might also have required repayment, but Im not certain they were considered to be sins as defined in modern dictionaries. If the Celts had a concept similar to sin, it probably did not occur until after they embraced Christianity. The Early Irish Penitentials and Rules (of monasteries) detailed the actions necessary for repayment and restitution for "sinful" behaviors. There does seem to be earlier evidence that pre-Christian Irish Celts thought that one could be dishonored and redeemed through actions and payments (hence the concepts of eraic and honor price in the Brehon Laws). Modern concepts of Karma seem to have developed in the East from a bedrock of earlier beliefs that were similar to those of the Celts. The Buddhist idea of Karma owes much to its Vedic and Hindu roots. Those roots are branches of the Indo-European tradition to the Euro-Indian tradition (depending on which culture you think more greatly influenced the other). I tend to view the relative mix of such Indo-European beliefs as a cyclical affair that has flowed back and forth over the aeons. Celts don't have Karma per se, they have debts, honor, and obligations (none of which vanish at the end of a lifetime). In this belief in continuity of obligation, I also see a belief in the continuance of spirit.
The idea that a person's power could be obtained through the possession of their head (and hence their soul) is another indicator of the Celtic belief in the connection between the soul and the body, and hence in the manner that ones spirit was passed or supported by the other.
I don't think that these ancient beliefs exactly mirrored modern New Age thought or even Hindu practice and belief. I do think that such episodes as those of Fintan, Tuan Mac Carrel and Taliesin allude to the ability of one's spirit to connect with other lives across the boundaries between lives. These connections may not mean that a person has actually lived before but they can mean that a person's spirit is able, through trance, to experience other lives in other times. Isaac Bonewits states this clearly in "Some Notes on Indo-European Paleopaganism and its Clergy," (c) 1984 P. E. I. Bonewits, reprinted from "The Druids' Progress" #1:
"There are definite indications that the Indo-European clergy held certain polytheological and mystical opinions in common, although only the vaguest outlines are known at this point. There was a belief in reincarnation (with time spent between lives in an Other World very similar to the Earthly one), in the sacredness of particular trees, in the continuing relationship between mortals, ancestors and deities, and naturally in the standard laws of magic (see Real Magic)."
Experiences of reincarnation and memories of past lives are frequently reported by the general public, though the objective substantiation of such previous lives and their experiences is not well documented in scholarly literature. Recent studies in Near Death Experiences (NDE) that have appeared in medical journals seem to support objective evidence of an afterlife and the ability of souls to return to physical bodies. My own mystical experiences support the idea that spirit has many corporal existences, though my mental disciplines and natural skepticism require further investigation and validation to completely establish and document this process.
The afterlife seems to be much like this one. It is a dream state, at times vivid, at other times, very remote. Whenever I have experienced being killed within a dream, it generally results in the following consequences:
Another dream occurs,
I become the person that killed me in the dream,
I do not die but lose interest in the dream anyway,
I become something else within the dream,
I wake up and realize that I've been dreaming.
Why should being awake, dying or being killed in this life be much different from the experiences of our dream lives? In my own experiences with death in this life, I have seen that it is not too different from dreams or the illusions of life. This seems to be the same question that the ancient Druids asked themselves about realities. Their teachings about this mystery are best discovered through the experiences of imbas and pathworking. There are tales in the Mabinogion that seem to demonstrate a kinship between dreaming and life, especially in regards to death being a temporary condition.
In the tale of Gronw Pebyr and Blodeuwedd, Llew was tricked into revealing how he could be killed:
He must be both within and without a house at the same time, neither on horseback nor on foot, and could only be slain by a spear that took an entire year to be made.
When Llew was killed in the only way that he could be killed in this life according to the tale, he became an eagle almost instantaneously (even though he was a wounded eagle). He cheated death by having his spirit go from one body to another. Gwydion found him in an oak tree and cured him through his powers of Draíocht. Lugh was immediately transformed into a person again. He was clearly killed by the spear of Gronw Pebyr and restored to life after being dead by Gwydion (in the transmigrated form of an eagle)?. This tale is clearly about life, death, re-incarnation and the ability of Draíocht to transform between states of being. Such tales as this and the two swineherds of the gods are all about states of being and lessons of life. The lesson in this tale seems to be that life and death go through many transformations, yet one never really dies. We change in many ways and can even become a part of the Land itself (as well as a part of its legends).
Final Thoughts and Musings
In some of the tales we have discussed, it is clear that exceptional people were thought to have been reborn. In other tales, transformations occurred through a variety of animal types. The soul and spirit have been described by Celtic tradition as going from one life and body to another in tales and in teachings as reported by the Classical historians of ancient times. Indo-European traditions also teach much the same thing, with notable survivals of this belief among the Gnostics and the Hindus in modern times. Personal experiences and the beliefs and experiences of others tend to support a continuity of spirit as well. The sleeping warrior or king is another example of a sustained after life and continuity of the self that has not been detailed in this discussion but it should be familiar to all from the tales of Merlin, Arthur or those of the Fianna. Who is to say what we experience after death? What people among us have visited the Otherworldly realms? Where are our Draiothe that we can discover the mysteries of the soul? It is in these questions and our answers to them that we will find our truth and we will experience our own rebirth.