Without being told explicitly, we can’t be sure of what kind of views of the afterlife were held by the pre-Christian Gaels, and unfortunately, we don’t have much in the way of that kind of evidence. From archaeology we can make some informed guesses, however, and looking to later historical or literary sources can give us some idea of pre-Christian beliefs from what has been preserved in the texts.
During the Iron Age of Ireland and Scotland (the Iron Age roughly corresponding with the beginning of the ‘Celtic’ period in the British Isles) we have evidence of a variety of different kinds of burial practices – cremation, burial, and a process known as excarnation, or ‘sky burials’, where the body was left out in the open until the flesh had been picked off by birds, leaving the bones clean; these bones were then moved to different places – the bones sorted and buried in different places of the house, for example, with some of the smaller bones (toes and fingers, easy to lose track of) often ending up in the midden – the household rubbish/garbage heap. Whether this was deliberate or accidental it’s hard to say.1
The continued use of many prehistoric monuments for burying cremated remains, for example – monuments built by the people who came before the Celts, or Celtic culture, at least – suggests that there was an idea that even in death, people cared where they were buried. Bodies weren’t disposed of carelessly, but were placed carefully and apparently with the conscious desire to lay them to rest with their ancestors (often, if not always). Grave-goods like rings, beads, daggers, joints of meat (pork, usually), and gaming dice, all suggest that these items were the sort of thing that the deceased might like, or need, wherever they were going.2
Without anything firmer to go on, however, we can’t say exactly where this might have been. The glimpses we get from the literature are set firmly within a Christian framework, not necessarily accurate or unchanged, but looking deeper, we can get some idea at least. What we see is that beliefs aren’t necessarily uniform, but form three major strands. In no particular order, these are:
- An Otherworldly afterlife across the sea, ‘in the west’, according to Scottish belief, or in Tech Duinn ruled by Donn in Irish belief
- The belief in the dead joining the Good Folk in the local sidhe-mounds, hills, and so on
There are several tales that hint at a belief in reincarnation, or mention it explicitly, even though it contradicts Christian beliefs. Many of the tales show that great and venerable people in Irish (pseudo-) history have been reincarnated in one way or another, often through a series of transformations into several different kinds of animals before arriving in human form again.
The process, both magical and somewhat at odds with any heavenly ideals, appears to have survived largely as a literary motif – a convenient way of lending authority to certain supposed historical events by being able to say that someone lived through these times and witnessed them first hand.3 Given their remarkable history themselves, their age and wisdom, naturally their version of events couldn’t possibly be called into doubt. The same goes for having heroes and even kings having existed in former lives as other great people, or being originally conceived by the gods themselves; their origins mark out their authority and special status above others of not so lofty pedigrees.
In Scél Tuáin Meic Cairill (‘The Story of Túan mac Cairill’), Túan is the sole survivor of the plague that afflicted his brother Partholán and his people. He lives throughout the millennia in varying different forms – transforming into a stag, and then as he reaches old age, into a boar, then a hawk, and finally a salmon, renewing his youth each time he is transformed. As a salmon he is caught and eaten by the queen of the Ulaid (people of Ulster), and as a result she becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth to him as a human baby with memories of all his previous lives. He eventually tells his story to St Finnian of Moville.4
Similarly, Mongán mac Fiachna (a seventh century Ulster prince) is said to have told St Columba that he remembers a time when he existed as a deer, a salmon, a seal, a wolf, and then as a man. Immran Brain (‘The Voyage of Bran’) also tells of how Mongán had existed in several different forms before becoming a man, and in another tale, a warrior, Caílte, tells of how Mongán was once the hero Finn mac Cumaill. Caílte is quickly silenced for letting this slip.5
The wife of Midir, Étain, goes through the same kind of transformation as well, first being transformed into a pool of water, which then spawns a fly, which is eventually swallowed by a queen, who then gives birth to Étain in human form. Unlike Mongán or Túan, Étain has no memory of her previous existence and so Midir must work hard to win his wife back, even though he is a stranger to her.6
As noted, these examples (with the exception of Cáilte’s claims about Mongán) are more a process of metamorphosis than a straightforward sort of reincarnation, humans being reborn from one life to the next. With the story of Cú Chulainn’s birth we are perhaps on firmer ground, since it takes two failed pregnancies before he is successfully born on the third go round to mortal parents (although ultimately, he is clearly of at least semi-divine origin).
All of this is suggestive, but not necessarily conclusive in proving that the pre-Christian Irish believed in reincarnation, a belief which survived as a motif in early medieval literature and beyond. Of course, we can look to Welsh examples to compare, along with the Classical evidence of authors like Diodorus Siculus who wrote about the Gauls and clearly states that the “belief of Pythagoras is strong among them, that the souls of men are immortal, and that after a definite number of years they live a second life when the soul passes into another body…”7 which suggests that the belief was a common belief amongst the Celts in general. But also, there appears to be a contemporary account of the belief in reincarnation amongst the Irish in a theological treatise, De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae (‘On the miracles of holy scripture’), which dates to 655C.E. Here we are told of “the ridiculous fables of the druids, who say that their ancestors flew through the ages in the form of birds…” Of course we must be wary of sources like this, which aren’t necessarily unbiased, but the evidence as a whole is looking pretty firm. It’s tempting to think that it’s no coincidence that there are many examples of folklore that associate birds as being souls of the dead, too.8
Donn and Tech Duinn
There are a few tales associated with Donn and how he came to be known as the god of the dead to the Irish, ruling over Tech Duinn (‘The House of Donn’), which is said to be situated off the Beara peninsula on the south-west coast.9 It is commonly identified with Bull Rock, an island in the area that has a distinctive dolmen-like shape, with the gap allowing the sea to pass under the rock as if through a gateway.10
As a son of Míl he cannot be considered to be a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, but his role as ruler of Tech Duinn, and other places, clearly marks him out as a sort of ancestor deity of the Milesians (and so, the Irish as a whole). His name, Donn, means ‘the brown, or dark one’,11 referring to his association with death (just as the colour assigned to the north wind is black – see here).12
In Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘The Book of Invasions’) we’re told that Donn was one of the sons of Míl. In the Milesians’ attempts to set foot in Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann made every effort to keep them away, including resorting to magic in order to whip up great winds and cast curses. It was foretold (or decreed, depending on how you look at it) by Ériu – the goddess who represented the land of Ireland – that Donn would gain no portion of Ireland, after she welcomed the Milesians and prophesied their victory, and Donn insulted her by effectively refusing to acknowledge her sovereignty. He was drowned at sea, after his ship was caught up in a magical wind. The place he was buried was called Tech Duinn.13
There is no mention here of Tech Duinn being any kind ‘House of the Dead’ here, but the Irish version of the Historia Brittonum (originally written by Nennius) largely follows the events of Lebor Gabála Érenn in describing the prehistory of Ireland, and tells us that on his death:
50. There was raised for him a cairn with the stone of his race, Over the broad sea, An ancient stormy dwelling; and Tech Duinn, It is called.
51. This was his great testament To his numerous children, ’To me, to my house, come ye all After your deaths.’14
This is very explicit and seems to accord with other bits and pieces of lore, but is interesting in that it directly contradicts Christian belief in heaven and the manuscript makes no bones about it. Lebor Gabála Érenn makes no mention of it (perhaps deliberately?), while the Dindshenchas (Place-name lore)15 frames it in a far more Christian context.
In the Dindshenchas tale ‘Tech Duinn’, we are told that the Mílesians’ druid foretold that the Tuatha Dé Danann could be beaten if someone climbed the mast of the ship and cast powerful incantations against the enemy before they managed to curse the Milesians. The Milesians would win, but the unfortunate soul whose job it was to climb the mast was doomed, and so lots were cast and it was Donn who had to climb the mast. Knowing it was a death sentence, Donn did it anyway for the sake of his people, and for his trouble he was cursed by the Tuatha Dé Danann and died. It was decided that his body should be buried on one of the islands off the coast of Ireland, lest the curse – the disease – of Donn spread to everyone else, and so they eventually foundered up against one of the islands. This is where Donn is buried, named Tech Duinn after him, and:
“…for this cause, according to the heathen, the souls of sinners visit Tech Duinn before they go to hell, and give their blessing, ere they go, to the soul of Donn. But as for the righteous soul of a penitent, it beholds the place from afar, and is not borne astray. Such, at least, is the belief of the heathen. Hence Tech Duinn is so called.”16
This house across the sea is not the only place that Donn is associated with. In County Clare there is Donn Dumhach, who is associated with the sand dunes at Doonbeg.17 In County Kerry there are the rocks off Kenmare Bay (known as the Bull, Cow, and Calf), which are also known as Tigh Dhoinn (The House of Donn) and are said to be the home of the dead in that area.18 In County Limerick, there is Donn Fírinne, who lives in Cnoc Fírinne (Knockfierna), who is said to have entertained the souls of the dead in his halls within the hill. It is said that those who enter the hill aren’t really dead, but have been taken by Donn in spirit, and he can be seen at night riding around on a white horse.19
Into the hills and mounds…
Other places across the ocean, like Tír na nÓg (Land of Youth), are popularly viewed as being alternatives to Tech Duinn. Over the Skellig rocks, it is said that the souls of the dead can be seen making their way to Tír na nÓg on a moonlight night, and Tír na nÓg is mentioned in modern Scottish folklore as well. Here, it the words ‘Tir nan Og’ can sometimes be found in death announcements, and it is said to be situated out to sea, “to the West of Scotland.”20 Koch, however, is of the opinion that the Otherworldly Tír na nÓg is “quite distinct from the world of the dead…” an earthly paradise, and home of the Tuatha Dé Danann.21
Across the sea is not the only place the dead are supposed to go, as we’ve seen with Donn Fírinne’s seat in the hills of County Limerick, and as there are suggestions of more localised traditions for there being an off-shore afterlife, it makes sense that there are a variety of inland places as well.
In both Ireland22 and Scotland23 (as well as Man24) there is the belief that the Good Folk of the hills are, in fact, the souls of the dead – and such beliefs are particularly apparent in the lore associated with Samhainn, when the dead are said to roam freely.25
Sometimes there is the belief that people have simply died and gone to their new home with the Good Folk; other times, there is a sort of in-between belief expressed – that some people, who are supposed to have died of consumption, were in fact taken by the Good Folk and changelings (generally said to be an elderly fairy) were left in their stead, facsimiles of the deceased, but not the actual person. In effect, it was the changeling who died, not the person, but all the same they were gone.26 Along the same lines in Scotland, Robert Kirk was said to have been taken into the Fairy Knowe, or Doon Hill near Aberfoyle, for revealing too much of those he is said to have had contact with.27
Clearly there isn’t one right answer when considering the question of what happens to us once we die. Gaelic tradition accommodates a variety of perspectives, and it is no surprise that there are both more generalised, and more localised beliefs, to be found, given the nature of the gods and their close ties with the landscape around them.
Regardless of whether we consider reincarnation, Tech Duinn, or the hills as likely options, there is an underlying and unifying concept in that ultimately, there is the sense that one is returning to the ancestors. This is one of the reasons we honour our ancestors in our practices, even if we don’t know them; at some point, we will take our place with them.
1 Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain, 1975, p287; Raftery, ‘Iron-age Ireland’, A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, Ó Cróinín (Ed.), 2005, p171; for a discussion of excarnation, see for example, Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, 1998, p53.
2 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, 1994, p189; Duffy, Medieval Ireland, An Encyclopedia, 2005, p388.
3 Koch (Ed.), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p1486.
4 See for example: Stephens, Irish Fairy Tales, 1920.
5 Koch (Ed.), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p1485.
6 Ibid; The Wooing of Étain.
7 Diodorus Siculus (c90BC to c20BC), The Library of History, [5 28 5-6].
8 MacKenzie, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, 1935, p287.
9 Koch (Ed.), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p1404; Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology, 1968, p37.
10 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p179.
11 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p179.
12 Green, The Gods of the Celts, 1986, p111; Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p179.
13 See Lebor Gabála Érenn, §79-§82.
14 Todd, The Irish version of the Historia Brittonum of Nennius, 1848, p249. (c15th century in date).
15 These are short tales that tell of the origin of a placename, often relating to gods or the children of the gods. They are relatively late in date, but in many instances draw on older myths.
16 Tech Duinn, Gwynn, The Metrical Dindshenchas.
17 Westropp, A Folklore Survey of County Clare; Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p179.
18 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p51.
19 Ibid; Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p179.
20 Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p49.
21 Koch (Ed.), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p1671.
22 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p58.
23 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p109.
24 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p124.
25 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p89-90; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p13; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p228.
26 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p37.
27 See Brian Walsh’s The Secret Commonwealth.