THE RELIGION OF THE ANCIENT CELTS
REBIRTH AND TRANSMIGRATION
In Irish sagas, rebirth is asserted only of divinities or heroes, and,
probably because this belief was obnoxious to Christian scribes, while some MSS.
tell of it in the case of certain heroic personages, in others these same heroes
are said to have been born naturally. There is no textual evidence that it was
attributed to ordinary mortals, and it is possible that, if classical observers
did not misunderstand the Celtic doctrine of the future life, their references
to rebirth may be based on mythical tales regarding gods or heroes. We shall
study these tales as they are found in Irish texts.
In the mythological cycle, as has been seen, Etain, in insect form, fell into
a cup of wine. She was swallowed by Etar, and in due time was reborn as a child,
who was eventually married by Eochaid Airem, but recognized and carried off by
her divine spouse Mider. Etain, however, had quite forgotten her former
existence as a goddess.1
In one version of Cúchulainn's birth story Dechtire and her women fly away
as birds, but are discovered at last by her brother Conchobar in a strange
house, where Dechtire gives birth to a child, of whom the god Lug is apparently
the father. In another version the birds are not Dechtire and her women, for she
accompanies Conchobar as his charioteer. They arrive at the house, the mistress
of which gives birth to a child, which Dechtire brings up. It dies, and on her
return from the burial Dechtire swallows a small animal when drinking. Lug
appears to her by night, and tells her that he was the child, and that now she
was with child by him (i.e. he was the animal swallowed by her). When he
was born he would be called Setanta, who was later named Cúchulainn.
in this version, is thus a rebirth of Lug, as well as his father.2
In the Tale of the Two Swineherds, Friuch and Rucht are herds of the
gods Ochall and Bodb. They quarrel, and their fighting in various animal shapes
is fully described. Finally they become two worms, which are swallowed by two
cows; these then give birth to the Whitehorn and to the Black Bull of Cuailgne,
the animals which were the cause of the Táin. The swineherds were
probably themselves gods in the older versions of this tale.3
Other stories relate the rebirth of heroes. Conchobar is variously said to be
son of Nessa by her husband Cathbad, or by her lover Fachtna. But in the latter
version an incident is found which points to a third account. Nessa brings
Cathbad a draught from a river, but in it are two worms which he forces her to
swallow. She gives birth to a son, in each of whose hands is a worm, and he is
called Conchobar, after the name of the river into which he fell soon after his
birth. The incident closes with the words, "It was from these worms that
she became pregnant, say some."4
Possibly the divinity of the river had taken the form of the worms and was
reborn as Conchobar. We may compare the story of the birth of Conall Cernach.
His mother was childless, until a Druid sang spells
over a well in which she bathed, and drank of its waters. With the draught she
swallowed a worm, "and the worm was in the hand of the boy as he lay in his
mother's womb; and he pierced the hand and consumed it."5
The personality of Fionn is also connected with the rebirth idea. In one
story, Mongan, a seventh-century king, had a dispute with his poet regarding the
death of the hero Fothad. The Fian Caoilte returns from the dead to prove Mongan
right, and he says, "We were with thee, with Fionn." Mongan bids him
be silent, because he did not wish his identity with Fionn to be made known.
"Mongan, however, was Fionn, though he would not let it be told."6
In another story Mongan is son of Manannan, who had prophesied of this event.
Manannan appeared to the wife of Fiachna when he was fighting the Saxons, and
told her that unless she yielded herself to him her husband would be slain. On
hearing this she agreed, and next day the god appeared fighting with Fiachna's
forces and routed the slain. "So that this Mongan is a son of Manannan mac
Lir, though he is called Mongan son of Fiachna."7
In a third version Manannan makes the bargain with Fiachna, and in his form
sleeps with the woman. Simultaneously with Mongan's birth, Fiachna's attendant
had a son who became Mongan's servant, and a warrior's wife bears a daughter who
became his wife. Manannan took Mongan to the Land of Promise and kept him there
until he was sixteen.8
Many magical powers and the faculty of shape-shifting are attributed to Mongan,
and in some stories he is brought into connection with the síd.9
Probably a myth told how he went to Elysium instead of dying, for he comes from
"the Land of Living Heart" to speak with S. Columba, who took him to
see heaven. But he would not satisfy the saints' curiosity regarding Elysium,
and suddenly vanished, probably returning there.10
This twofold account of Mongan's birth is curious. Perhaps the idea that he
was a rebirth of Fionn may have been suggested by the fact that his father was
called Fiachna Finn, while it is probable that some old myth of a son of
Manannan's called Mongan was attached to the personality of the historic Mongan.
About the era of Mongan, King Diarmaid had two wives, one of whom was barren.
S. Finnen gave her holy water to drink, and she brought forth a lamb; then,
after a second draught, a trout, and finally, after a third, Aed Slane, who
became high king of Ireland in 594. This is a Christianised version of the story
of Conall Cernach's birth.11
In Welsh mythology the story of Taliesin affords an example of rebirth. After
the transformation combat of the goddess Cerridwen and Gwion, resembling that of
the swine-herds, Gwion becomes a grain of wheat, which Cerridwen in the form of
a hen swallows, with the result that he is reborn of her as Taliesin.12
Most of these stories no longer exist in their primitive form, and various
ideas are found in them-conception by magical means, divine descent through the
amour of a divinity and a mortal, and rebirth.
As to the first, the help of magician or priest is often
invoked in savage society and even in European folk-custom in case of
barrenness. Prayers, charms, potions, or food are the means used to induce
conception, but perhaps at one time these were thought to cause it of
themselves. In many tales the swallowing of a seed, fruit, insect, etc., results
in the birth of a hero or heroine, and it is probable that these stories embody
actual belief in such a possibility. If the stories of Conall Cernach and Aed
Slane are not attenuated instances of rebirth, say, of the divinity of a well,
they are examples of this belief. The gift of fruitfulness is bestowed by Druid
and saint, but in the story of Conall it is rather the swallowing of the worm
than the Druid's incantation that causes conception, and is the real motif of
Where the rebirth of a divinity occurs as the result of the swallowing of a
small animal, it is evident that the god has first taken this form. The Celt,
believing in conception by swallowing some object, and in shape-shifting,
combined his information, and so produced a third idea, that a god could take
the form of a small animal, which, when swallowed, became his rebirth.13
If, as the visits of barren women to dolmens and megalithic monuments suggest,
the Celts believed in the possibility of the spirit of a dead man entering a
woman and being born of her or at least aiding conception,--a belief held by
other races,14 --this
may have given rise to myths regarding the rebirth of gods by human mothers. At
all events this latter Celtic belief is paralleled by the American Indian myths,
e.g. of the Thlinkeet god Yehl who transformed himself now into a pebble,
now into a blade of grass, and, being thus swallowed by women, was reborn.
In the stories of Etain and of Lud, reborn as Setanta, this
idea of divine transformation and rebirth occurs. A similar idea may underlie
the tale of Fionn and Mongan. As to the tales of Gwion and the Swineherds, the
latter the servants of gods, and perhaps themselves regarded once as divinities,
who in their rebirth as bulls are certainly divine animals, they present some
features which require further consideration. The previous transformations in
both cases belong to the Transformation Combat formula of many Märchen,
and obviously were not part of the original form of the myths. In all such Märchen
the antagonists are males, hence the rebirth incident could not form part of
them. In the Welsh tale of Gwion and in the corresponding Taliesin poem, the
ingenious fusion of the Märchen formula with an existing myth of rebirth
must have taken place at an early date.15
This is also true of The Two Swineherds, but in this case, since the myth
told how two gods took the form of worms and were reborn of cows, the formula
had to be altered. Both remain alive at the end of the combat, contrary to the
usual formula, because both were males and both were reborn. The fusion is
skilful, because the reborn personages preserve a remembrance of their former
just as Mongan knows of his former existence as Fionn. In other cases there is
no such remembrance. Etain had forgotten her former existence, and Cúchulainn
does not appear to know that he is a rebirth of Lug.
The relation of Lug to Cúchulainn deserves further inquiry. While the god is
reborn he is also existing as Lug, just as having been swallowed
as a worm by Dechtire, he appears in his divine form
and tells her he will be born of her. In the Táin he appears fighting
for Cúchulainn, whom he there calls his son. There are thus two aspects of the
hero's relationship to Lug; in one he is a rebirth of the god, in the other he
is his son, as indeed he seems to represent himself in The Wooing of Emer,
and as he is called by Laborcham just before his death.17
In one of the birth-stories he is clearly Lug's son by Dechtire. But both
versions may simply be different aspects of one belief, namely, that a god could
be reborn as a mortal and yet continue his divine existence, because all birth
is a kind of rebirth. The men of Ulster sought a wife for Cúchulainn,
"knowing that his rebirth would be of himself," i.e. his son
would be himself even while he continued to exist as his father. Examples of
such a belief occur elsewhere, e.g. in the Laws of Manu, where the
husband is said to be reborn of his wife, and in ancient Egypt, where the gods
were called "self-begotten," because each was father to the son who
was his true image or himself. Likeness implied identity, in primitive belief.
Thus the belief in mortal descent from the gods among the Celts may have
involved the theory of a divine avatar. The god became father of a mortal by a
woman, and part of himself passed over to the child, who was thus the god
Conchobar was also a rebirth of a god, but he was named from the river whence
his mother had drawn water containing the worms which she swallowed. This may
point to a lost version in which he was the son of a river-god by Nessa. This
was quite in accordance with Celtic belief, as is shown by such names as
Dubrogenos, from dubron, "water," and genos, "born
of"; Divogenos, Divogena, "son or daughter of a god," possibly a
river-god, since deivos is a frequent river name; and Rhenogenus, "son of the Rhine."18
The persons who first bore these names were believed to have been begotten by
divinities. Mongan's descent from Manannan, god of the sea, is made perfectly
clear, and the Welsh name Morgen = Morigenos, "son of the sea,"
probably points to a similar tale now lost. Other Celtic names are frequently
pregnant with meaning, and tell of a once-existing rich mythology of divine amours
with mortals. They show descent from deities--Camulogenus (son of Camulos),
Esugenos (son of Esus), Boduogenus (son of Bodva); or from tree-spirits--Dergen
(son of the oak), Vernogenus (son of the alder); or from divine animals--Arthgen
(son of the bear), Urogenus (son of the urus).19
What was once an epithet describing divine filiation became later a personal
name. So in Greece names like Apollogenes, Diogenes, and Hermogenes, had once
been epithets of heroes born of Apollo, Zeus, and Hermes.
Thus it was a vital Celtic belief that divinities might unite with mortals
and beget children. Heroes enticed away to Elysium enjoyed the love of its
goddesses--Cúchulainn that of Fand; Connla, Bran, and Oisin that of unnamed
divinities. So, too, the goddess Morrigan offered herself to Cúchulainn. The
Christian Celts of the fifth century retained this belief, though in a somewhat
altered form. S. Augustine and others describe the shaggy demons called dusii
by the Gauls, who sought the couches of women in order to gratify their desires.20
are akin to the incubi and fauni, and do not appear to represent
the higher gods reduced to the form of demons by Christianity, but rather a
species of lesser divinities, once the object of popular devotion.
These beliefs are also connected with the Celtic notions of transformation
and transmigration--the one signifying the assuming of another shape for a time,
the other the passing over of the soul or the personality into another body,
perhaps one actually existing, but more usually by actual rebirth. As has been
seen, this power of transformation was claimed by the Druids and by other
persons, or attributed to them, and they were not likely to minimise their
powers, and would probably boast of them on all occasions. Such boasts are put
into the mouths of the Irish Amairgen and the Welsh Taliesin. As the Milesians
were approaching Ireland, Amairgen sang verses which were perhaps part of a
"I am the wind which blows over the sea,
points out that some of these verses need not mean actual transformation, but
mere likeness, through "a primitive formation of predicate without the aid
of a particle corresponding to such a word as 'like.'"22
Enough, however, remains to show the claim of the magician. Taliesin, in many
poems, makes similar claims, and says, "I have been in a multitude of
shapes before I assumed a consistent form"--that of a sword, a tear, a
star, an eagle, etc. Then he was created, without father or mother.23
Similar pretensions are common to the medicine-man everywhere.
But from another point of view they may be mere poetic extravagances such as are common in
Thus Cúchulainn says: "I was a hound strong for combat . . . their little
champion . . . the casket of every secret for the maidens," or, in another
place, "I am the bark buffeted from wave to wave . . . the ship after the
losing of its rudder . . . the little apple on the top of the tree that little
thought of its falling."25
These are metaphoric descriptions of a comparatively simple kind. The full-blown
bombast appears in the Colloquy of the Two Sages, where Nede and
Fercertne exhaust language in describing themselves to each other.26
Other Welsh bards besides Taliesin make similar boasts to his, and Dr. Skene
thinks that their claims "may have been mere bombast."27
Still some current belief in shape-shifting, or even in rebirth, underlies some
of these boastings and gives point to them. Amairgen's "I am" this or
that, suggests the inherent power of transformation; Taliesin's "I have
been," the actual transformations. Such assertions do not involve "the
powerful pantheistic doctrine which is at once the glory and error of Irish
philosophy," as M. D'Arbois claims,28
else are savage medicine-men, boastful of their shape-shifting powers,
philosophic pantheists. The poems are merely highly developed forms of primitive
beliefs in shape-shifting, such as are found among all savages and barbaric
folk, but expressed in the boastful language in which the Celt delighted.
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the bull of seven battles,
I am the eagle on the rock . . .
I am a boar for courage,
I am a salmon in the water, etc."21
How were the successive shape-shiftings effected? To answer this we shall
first look at the story of Tuan Mae Caraill, who survived from the days of
Partholan to those of S. Finnen. He was a decrepit man at the
coming of Nemed, and one night, having lain down to sleep, he awoke as a stag, and lived in
this form to old age. In the same way he became a boar, a hawk, and a salmon,
which was caught and eaten by Cairell's wife, of whom he was born as Tuan, with
a perfect recollection of his different forms.29
This story, the invention of a ninth or tenth century Christian scribe to
account for the current knowledge of the many invasions of Ireland,30
must have been based on pagan myths of a similar kind, involving successive
transformations and a final rebirth. Such a myth may have been told of Taliesin,
recounting his transformations and his final rebirth, the former being replaced
at a later time by the episode of the Transformation Combat, involving no great
lapse of time. Such a series of successive shapes--of every beast, a dragon, a
wolf, a stag, a salmon, a seal, a swan--were ascribed to Mongan and foretold by
Manannan, and Mongan refers to some of them in his colloquy with S. Columba--"when I was a deer . . . a salmon . . . a seal . . . a roving wolf
. . . a man."31
Perhaps the complete story was that of a fabulous hero in human form, who
assumed different shapes, and was finally reborn. But the transformation of an
old man, or an old animal, into new youthful and vigorous forms might be
regarded as a kind of transmigration--an extension of the transformation idea,
but involving no metempsychosis, no passing of the soul into another body by
rebirth. Actual transmigration or rebirth occurs only at the end of the series,
and, as in the case of Etain, Lug, etc., the pre-existent person is born of a
woman after being swallowed by her. Possibly the transformation belief has
reacted on the other, and obscured a belief in actual metempsychosis as a result of the soul of an
ancestor passing into a woman and being reborn as her next child. Add to this
that the soul is often thought of as a tiny animal, and we see how a point
d'appui for the more materialistic belief was afforded. The insect or worms
of the rebirth stories may have been once forms of the soul. It is easy also to
see how, a theory of conception by swallowing various objects being already in
existence, it might be thought possible that eating a salmon--a transformed
man--would cause his rebirth from the eater.
The Celts may have had no consistent belief on this subject, the general idea
of the future life being of a different kind. Or perhaps the various beliefs in
transformation, transmigration, rebirth, and conception by unusual means, are
too inextricably mingled to be separated. The nucleus of the tales seems to be
the possibility of rebirth, and the belief that the soul was still clad in a
bodily form after death and was itself a material thing. But otherwise some of
them are not distinctively Celtic, and have been influenced by old Märchen
formulæ of successive changes adopted by or forced upon some person, who is
finally reborn. This formulæ is already old in the fourteenth century B.C.
Egyptian story of the Two Brothers.
Such Celtic stories as these may have been known to classical authors, and
have influenced their statements regarding eschatology. Yet it can hardly be
said that the tales themselves bear witness to a general transmigration doctrine
current among the Celts, since the stories concern divine or heroic personages.
Still the belief may have had a certain currency among them, based on primitive
theories of soul life. Evidence that it existed side by side with the more
general doctrines of the future life may be found in old or existing
folk-belief. In some cases the dead have an animal form, as in the Voyage of
Maelduin, where birds on an island are said to be souls, or
in the legend of S. Maelsuthain, whose pupils appear to him
after death as birds.32
The bird form of the soul after death is still a current belief in the Hebrides.
Butterflies in Ireland, and moths in Cornwall, and in France bats or
butterflies, are believed to be souls of the dead.33
King Arthur is thought by Cornishmen to have died and to have been changed into
the form of a raven, and in mediæval Wales souls of the wicked appear as
ravens, in Brittany as black dogs, petrels, or hares, or serve their term of
penitence as cows or bulls, or remain as crows till the day of judgment.34
Unbaptized infants become birds; drowned sailors appear as beasts or birds; and
the souls of girls deceived by lovers haunt them as hares.35
These show that the idea of transmigration may not have been foreign to the
Celtic mind, and it may have arisen from the idea that men assumed their totem
animal's shape at death. Some tales of shape-shifting are probably due to
totemism, and it is to be noted that in Kerry peasants will not eat hares
because they contain the souls of their grandmothers.36
On the other hand, some of these survivals may mean no more than that the soul
itself has already an animal form, in which it would naturally be seen after
death. In Celtic folk-belief the soul is seen leaving the body in sleep as a
bee, butterfly, gnat, mouse, or mannikin.37
Such a belief is found among most savage races, and, might easily be mistaken
for transmigration, or also assist the formation of the idea of transmigration.
Though the folk-survivals show that transmigration was not necessarily
alleged of all the dead, it may have been a sufficiently vital
belief to colour the mythology, as we see from the existing tales, adulterated
though these may have been.
The general belief has its roots in primitive ideas regarding life and its
propagation--ideas which some hold to be un-Celtic and un-Aryan. But Aryans were
"primitive" at some period of their history, and it would be curious
if, while still in a barbarous condition, they had forgotten their old beliefs.
In any case, if they adopted similar beliefs from non-Aryan people, this points
to no great superiority on their part. Such beliefs originated the idea of
rebirth and transmigration.38
Nevertheless this was not a characteristically Celtic eschatological belief;
that we find in the theory that the dead lived on in the body or assumed a body
in another region, probably underground.
1. For textual details see Zimmer, Zeit. für Vergl. Sprach. xxviii. 585 f.
The tale is obviously archaic. For a translation see Leahy, i. 8 f.
2. IT i. 134 f.; D'Arbois, v. 22. There is a suggestion in one of the
versions of another story, in which Setanta is child of Conchobar and his sister
3. IT iii. 245; BC xv. 465; Nutt-Meyer, ii. 69.
4. Stowe MS. 992, RC vi. 174; IT ii. 210; D'Arbois, v. 3 f.
5. IT iii. 393. Cf. the story of the wife of Cormac, who was barren till her
mother gave her pottage. Then she had a daughter (RC xxii. 18).
6. Nutt-Meyer, i. 45 f., text and translation.
7. Ibid. 42 f.
8. Ibid. 58. The simultaneous birth formula occurs in many Märchen,
though that of the future wife is not common.
9. Nutt-Meyer, i. 52, 57, 85, 87.
10. ZCP ii. 316L Here Mongan comes directly from Elysium, as does Oisin
before meeting S. Patrick.
11. IT iii. 345; O'Grady, ii. 88. Cf. Rees, 331.
12. Guest, iii. 356 f.; see p.
13. In some of the tales the small animal still exists independently after the
birth, but this is probably not their primitive form.
14. See my Religion: its Origin and Forms, 76-77.
15. Skene, i. 532. After relating various shapes in which he has been, the poet adds
that he has been a grain which a hen received, and that he rested in her womb as
a child. The reference in this early poem from a fourteenth century MS. shows
that the fusion of the Märchen formula with a myth of rebirth was
already well known. See also Guest, iii. 362, for verses in which the
transformations during the combat are exaggerated.
16. Skene, i. 276, 532.
17. Miss Hull, 67; D'Arbois, v. 331.
18. For various forms of geno-, see Holder, i. 2002; Stokes, US 110.
19. For all these names see Holder, s.v.
20. S. Aug. de Civ. Dei, xv. 23; Isidore, Orat. viii. 2. 103. Dusios
may be connected with Lithuanian dvaese, "spirit," and perhaps
with Θεός (Holder, s.v.). D'Arbois sees in the dusii
water-spirits, and compares river-names like Dhuys, Duseva, Dusius (vi. 182; RC
xix. 251). The word maybe connected with Irish duis, glossed
"noble" (Stokes, TIG 76). The Bretons still believe in fairies
called duz, and our word dizzy may be connected with dusios,
and would then have once signified the madness following on the amour, like
Greek νυμφόλεπτος, or
"the inconvenience of their succubi," described by Kirk in his Secret
Commonwealth of the Elves.
21. LL 12b; TOS v. 234.
22. 2 Rhŷs, HL 549.
23. Skene, i. 276, 309, etc.
24. Sigerson, Bards of the Gael, 379.
25. Miss Hull, 288; Hyde, Lit. Hist. of Ireland, 300.
26. RC xxvi. 21.
27. Skene, ii. 506.
28. D'Arbois, ii. 246, where he also derives Erigena's pantheism from Celtic
beliefs, such as he supposes to be exemplified by these poems.
29. LU 15a; D'Arbois, ii. 47 f.; Nutt-Meyer, ii. 294 f.
30. Another method of accounting for this knowledge was to imagine a long-lived
personage like Fintan who survived for 5000 years. D'Arbois, ii. ch. 4. Here
there was no transformation or rebirth.
31. Nutt-Meyer, i. 24; ZCP ii. 316.
32. O'Curry, MS. Mat. 78.
33. Wood-Martin, Pagan Ireland, 140; Choice Notes, 61; Monnier, 143;
34. Choice Notes, 69; Rees, 92; Le Braz 2, ii. 82, 86, 307; Rev.
des Trad. Pop. xii. 394.
35. Le Braz 2, ii. 80; Folk-Lore Jour. v. 189.
36. Folk-Lore, iv. 352.
37. Carmichael, Carm. Gadel. ii. 334; Rhŷs, CFL 602; Le Braz 2,
i. 179, 191, 200.
38. Mr. Nutt, Voyage of Bran, derived the origin of the rebirth conception
from orgiastic cults.