The Reincarnation or Afterlife? Celts culture

Celts culture has always fascinated for its many aspects, often little known due to the scarce literature sources attributable exclusively to Latin scholars. In this paper we want to deepen the theme of the Celtic life after death, the immortality of the soul and reincarnation. Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, argued that “the essential point of the Druidic doctrine is to believe in the immortality of the soul” and added that the Druids “teach that after death it passes into other bodies” in a sort of ” soul transmigration“. Pomponio Mela, in the oldest geographical work of Latin literature, De Chorographia, reiterated this concept: “the only dogma that they [the Druids] taught publicly is the immortality of the soul and the existence of another life“. Diodorus Siculus, in his Historical, took up this theme again, combining the Druid doctrine with the Pythagorean one  “… among the Gauls the dogma of Pythagoras prevailed according to which it is a fact that the souls of men are immortal and that after a certain number of years some come back to life entering another body …“.

In reality this idea is not completely correct.

In fact, according to Pythagoras, the soul would travel an established cycle of time to then migrate and be bound in new living beings, even plants and animals. This is the difference: Druidic doctrine, as reported by Diodoro Siculo and Valerio Flacco, the soul would transmigrate only through human bodies. Flacco adds in his Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilium Libri Novem that the Celts were convinced that the souls were immortal, a concept reiterated also by Lucan “… In your opinion the souls of the dead do not reach the silent dwellings of the Erbe and pale kingdom of an infernal God, the same spirit directs our members to another world: death, if what you say is real, is a part of a long life … “.

In reality, it is not yet clear how the Celtic afterlife worked. Rather than talking about metempsychosis, or the belief that after death, the soul would have had to transmigrate from one body to another until soul was completely freed from matter. It would be more appropriate to speak of metensomatosis: the passage of the soul from one human body to another.

Celts preferred cremation to burial because fire has the ability to destroy the material body to ensure the freedom of the soul. Strabo wrote that “the souls and the universe are indestructible, but that one day fire and water will prevail over them“.

According wrote as Celts burned their dead on a pyre on which was poured the body fat of sheep and oxen sacrificed specially, along with honey and particular ointments. The cremated bones and ashes were then placed in the tomb. But here we note a contradiction: together with the bodies were also burned furnishings, animals dear to the deceased and even his slaves, as if he needed them in the Underworld. What was the need for this additional rite if the soul transmigrated between the bodies? In addition to a transmigration of the soul, the Celts also had to believe in an afterlife. To clarify this point, the Diodoro comes to our aid. In fact he states that only after a certain number of years does the soul transmigrate and that, therefore, there is a certain intermediate period in which the souls had to stay in a Oltremondo believed similar to ours. According to posthumous references, the Celtic “paradise” would have been a kind of wonderful land adorned with fountains of wine and mead, rains of beer and trees with golden apples and silver, very similar to the Walhalla. This could be the reason for the use of tombs in graves as in all other populations. The best known is the burial of a Celtic warrior of the early Iron Age, discovered in 1977 in Hochdorf an der Enz, a village north of Stuttgart, Germany. The deceased, a man of about forty years, was accompanied in his trapassing by clothes, a conical headdress in birch bark, perhaps a symbol of rank and various objects of gold, fibulae, torque, bracelets etc … Similar finds were made in Glauberg, another Celtic oppidum always in Germany. Here, in various burial mounds, incredible funerary objects have been found that included swords, weapons, gold and bronze jewelry. In particular, in the tumulus known as the “Prince of Glauberg” a statue of natural height and dating back to the 5th century BC, representing a warrior armed with a composite armor, a wooden shield, was also found. and a typical sword. The depicted man wore a jewel with three pendants, several rings, a cape-like headdress with two protrusions, similar in shape to a mistletoe leaf. Reincarnation or Afterlife? These contradictions between archaeological findings and Latin texts can be explained by different uses among different populations that Herodotus identified with the term “keltoi”. It is now clear that there has never been a unified Celtic people, but archaeologists have repeatedly found differences in language, culture and religion. Frey states that “the burial habits in the Celtic world were not uniform; rather, the localized groups had their own beliefs, which, consequently, determined distinct artistic expressions“. One can more easily speak of similar religious characteristics present in different contemporary regional cultures, in other ways very differentiated. If at the beginning, during the Bronze Age the funeral rite of cremation replaced the inhumation, probably the introduction and the progressive diffusion of new religious beliefs led to a change in the funerary uses.

Today scholar talks about two celts culture “La Tène” and “Hallstatt” to indicate two different religious funeral approaches within the same culture that we call “Celtic”. The first, widespread especially in France, in south-western Germany, in the Czech Republic, England, Ireland and northern Italy, practiced cremation while in the second, widespread in the current area identified by the Slavic countries, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary Austria, North-western Italy, Switzerland, Western France, Germany and Bohemia, burial was more widespread.

Funeral rituals and ritual beheading

Celts believed that the soul resided in the head. Hence the explanation for the beheading rituals. Strabone and Diodoro Siculo tell how often they cut off their victims’ heads: the tetes coupeés. Pliny the Elder tells us how the head of the proconsul Lucius Postumio, defeated by the Galli Boi, was used as a sacred vessel. There are numerous archaeological evidences that confirm this custom by the Celts. Examples may be the sanctuaries of Roquepertuse and Entremont of the lower Rhine valley, near Marseille.

The first is dated 3rd century BC. The characteristic of the site is the presence of a “portic” with a series of niches that were to house human skulls (Fig.1).

The Sanctuary must surely have been linked to the cult of the transmigration of souls and reincarnation. Indeed, it is not certain whether it was a place where the heads of the enemies were stored or, most probably, of a site dedicated to the cult of the Ancestors. In both cases the speech does not change. In fact, the cutting of the head, rather than a human sacrifice, was a burial ritual: on the one hand, it allowed us to appropriate the soul, and therefore the energy of the beheaded individual and, on the other, to avoid his return to seeks revenge. We will look into this last aspect soon. What has been said is even clearer if we examine the oppidum of Entremont, capital of the Celto-Ligurian confederation known as Salluvii. This union of tribes occupied the plain of Druentia, in southern Gaul between the Rhone river and the Alps, and was described by Strabone precisely as a “mixed race” of Galli and Ligurians. Also here we find, among the archaeological evidences, porticos made up of pillars and architraves made of limestone decorated with engravings, bas-reliefs, cephalic concavities and painted motifs (fig.2).

Whether it is a place that is also linked to rebirth, it is clearly evident from the presence of representations of wheat ears, which have always been considered as symbols of fertility and renewal through reincarnation. However, the theme of the cult of cut heads has not only archaeological evidences. It is present, for example, in Irish mythology. In the saga of Cù Chulainn, the skull of Bran the Blessed, placed on the London hills, protected the city from invasions. The cult of the head is also present in north-west Italy, strongly characterized by Celtic populations. In the valleys of Piedmont and the Aosta there are several examples of the persistence of these depictions that closely resemble those depicted by the Celts.

The fear of the revenant

There is no doubt that the cult of the head is linked to that of the Ancestor. But could there also be another motivation? If on one hand burning the body or burying it served to free his soul for transmigration, on the other it also had the task of preventing the return to “life” of the extinct. In the past there was widespread belief that victims of sudden and unknown death could return to the living after burial. The funeral rite was thus supposed to be a way of preventing their soul from leaving the body and returning among the living in search of vital energy. Thus the custom of taking the deceased’s head off could also have a protective value for the community. In some burials, the skulls found still carried the marks of nails used to favor their permanent adhesion to the poles of the numerous Celtic oppida. Strange burials with nailed skulls, boulders placed over the deceased, faces placed downwards or broken limbs are more frequent than you think. In Northamptonshire, England, the burial of a man of about thirty years was found, buried with a flat stone in his mouth and his face facing the earth. In Poland, in the Drawsko cemetery, skeletons were found clinging to an agricultural sickle, a prevention against the “return from the world of the dead” by the deceased. The sickle should have cut the neck of the “undead” when he tried to stand up. A few months ago the discovery, in Ukraine, of a burial of a woman in the Cherkasy area. The woman, who died at the age of about 25 between the third and fourth centuries, was buried with her arms behind her back and her face turned to the ground. This type of burial suggests that the woman was considered a “revenant” and this type of burial must guarantee that she could no longer return to harm in the world of the living. We cannot omit “Lindow Man”, a swamp mummy dating back to the Iron Age found in a bog in the English county of Cheshire. The man seems to have undergone a particularly bloody ritual: a blow to the head, a cut in the throat and a face-down burial in the bog. It would be a human sacrifice because remains of a lavish lunch of meat and cereals were found in his stomach, as well as the presence of mistletoe pollen in his stomach. According to Pliny, in the aforementioned Naturalis Historia, only the Druids could handle this sacred plant by macerating it in drinks as a remedy against poisons. Probably it would have been a priest. A similar argument can be made for the girl “Windeby I”, found in a peat bog near the homonymous locality in northern Germany. Also in this case it would be a ritual murder. In the burial was in fact found a band of wool that would have served to cover the eyes of the inata to avoid that the deceased could “find” the way to the world of the living. A second body found again in the area, nicknamed “Windeby II”, shows signs of strangulation with a hazel branch, another sacred wood, and discharged into a swamp retained by sharp branches.

In short, comparing ancient testimonies with new archaeological and folkloric traditions, a very complex Celtic cultural and religious corpus emerges that shows the particular attention of the Old not only to the life of every day but also, and above all, to that Hereafter which is still today the real question of Man.

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