THE CELTIC DOCTRINE OF REBIRTH
‘It seems as if Ossian’s was a premature return. To-day 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–Dermot’s pre-existence–Tuan’s re-birth–Re-birth 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 Re-birth Doctrine.
RELATION WITH THE OTHERWORLD
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 re-birth. Alfred Nutt, who studied this intimate relation more carefully perhaps than any other Celtic folk-lorist, 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 a coming back again; and Buddha announced it as his mission to teach men the way to be delivered out of this eternal Circle of Existence.
HISTORICAL SURVEY OF THE RE-BIRTH DOCTRINE
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 re-birth 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 re-birth 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 re-birth 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 re-birth 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 ever, 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. 1 To-day in the Roman Church eminent theologians have called the doctrine of Purgatory the Christian counterpart of the philosophical doctrine of re-birth; 2 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. (See chap. xii.)
ACCORDING TO THE BARDDAS MSS.
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.
ACCORDING TO ANCIENT AND MODERN AUTHORITIES
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. 3 Lucan, in the Pharsalia, addressing the Druids on their doctrine of re-birth 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 re-birth 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 Jubainville, 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.
REINCARNATION OF THE TUATHA DE DANANN
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 Re-birth 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, 3 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; 1 and Dechtire, his sister, and the other of Cúchulainn, is called a goddess. 2 In the case of Cúchulainn himself, it is distinctly noted that he is the avatar of Lugh lamhfada (long-hand), the sun-deity 3 of the earliest cycle. Lugh appears to Dechtire, the mother of Cúchulainn, and tells her that he himself is her little child, i.e. that the child is a reincarnation of himself; and Cúchulainn 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).’ 4 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, 5 also, that the grandfather of Cuchulainn, son of Sualtaim, was from the country of the Sidhe, and so was Ethné Ingubé, 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 Cóir 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.