“…there is an Irish legend as to a priest who came to disbelieve that men had souls. “Who ever saw a soul?” he would say. “If you can show me one I will believe.” All the king’s sons were on his side, but at last a mysterious child comes on the scene and shows him that if we have life though we cannot see it, we may also have a soul though it is invisible.”
Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, by George Henderson, p. 80-81 (1)
The excerpt above comes from a tale collected by Paul Sébillot, an artist and folklorist from Brittany, paraphrased by the author George Henderson in his monumental work attempting to uncover the remnants of ancient Druidic practice in the folk knowledge and customs of the various Celtic nations. The grand scope of his exercise is without question amazing to behold, it is both bold and careful in its conduct, and is a fascinating trip through the beliefs of the British and Irish people. The effectiveness or persuasiveness of his writing is a matter of opinion of course, but with such an ambitious goal he is clearly unable to focus and develop any one point decisively. Nonetheless, it is a formidable case of early Celtic Studies research, and in particular the Sébillot story sticks out for its similarities to other, very old Irish material on the nature of the immortal soul, which shall be the subject of this writing.
“I have come… from lands of strange things, from lands of familiar things… I was a stag, I was a salmon… I ran upon it when I was a wolf…”
So utters the mysterious youth to Saint Columcille in a cryptic text dated to the Old Irish period, perhaps as far back as the seventh century.(2) The tale begins with the Saint and his compatriots encountering the youth; the Saint asks the lad where he is from, and is answered with the enigmatic rejoinder about “strange lands” and “familiar lands” to learn from Columcille “the spot on which died, and the spot on which were born, knowledge and ignorance.” Pressed further about the history of the nearby lake, the youth says he remembers when it was a flowery kingdom; he lived there as various wild beasts, and as a man, concluding with a riddling passage:
I have landed there under three sails: the yellow sail which bears, the blue sail which drowns, the red sail under which flesh [bodies] were conceived. Women have cried out because of me, although father and mother do not know what they bear, with labor for living folk, with a covering for the dead.
At that point the Saint asks the youth for quiet, and the two leave together to have words in private. The Saint returns alone, the youth vanished before the eyes of all, and when his followers ask about what the youth had said, Saint Columcille tells them that he will not utter a word of it, and that “it was better for mortals not to be informed of it.”(3)
What is there to make of this strange text? It bears some resemblance to the folkloric tale collected by Sébillot, in that an adept of the church, while teaching his pupils, is greeted by a mysterious youth who utters something about the everlasting soul. But in the Sébillot story it is about the existence of the soul and in this Old Irish text it seems to suggest not just the presence of the soul but also it’s transmigration from life to life in animal and human form. Professor Carey proposes that the language involving the vessel of three sails is a direct echo of Druidic symbolism: the yellow sail which bears (birth) the blue sail which drowns (death) and the red sail under which bodies were conceived (the soul renewed in a different form.)(4) That is certainly an attention grabbing argument, and it fits in neatly with the rest of the text.(5) He further states that he believes the text’s identification of the youth as the Irish hero Mongán mac Fíachnai is secondary, a belief not totally warranted for reasons discussed below.
So does the text describe reincarnation by means of an allegory of the voyage of the soul? To back up that claim, it should now be mentioned that yet another text, much more famous, bears a striking resemblance to the previous two, though I am not aware that any of them have been compared.
A Story From Which It Is Inferred That Mongon Was Finn Mac Cumhaill
One day Forgall the Poet is entertaining the court of Mongán mac Fíachnai when the two find themselves in disagreement over the historicity of one of the poet’s songs. Forgall states that a certain warrior was slain in battle at a place called Duffry, while Mongán adamantly contradicts this. Forgall is insulted and promises that he will cast spells on the fishing routes, the fruitful trees, and the farming plains so that all will be henceforth barren. Mongán try’s to pacify the poet with rich gifts but Forgall promises he will only relent by being given Mongán’s own wife’s hand. To the queen’s consternation, the king agrees to this after a stipulation that an appointed waiting period must lapse. After the poet has left, he swears to his wife that help is already approaching. When the time has come Forgall arrives to claim the queen, but another enters the hall as well. The stranger is Cailte, a warrior under the leadership of Finn son of Umall from the legendary past. Cailte has apparently survived centuries to now be present in Mongán’s court. At that the king revives the dispute with Forgall, asking the newcomer where he was during the battle in question. Cailte responds with a gesture towards Mongán, proclaiming “We were with thee, Finn.” “Hush!” Cries Mongán, “That is not fair!” “We were with Finn, then,” Cailte modifies before continuing on, saying that the death of the warrior in question occurred by the Larne river, not at Duffry, as Forgall had argued. Mongán therefore wins the dispute, and the text ends:
Mongan, however, was Finn, though he would not let it be told.(6)
Between this legend and the one concerning Columcille, we see both are connected to Mongán, that they deal with a mysterious person who begins to speak on something about the transmigration of the soul, and who is then silenced by the questioner, who states that it is not right to reveal these things for some reason. It appears reasonable to suggest that both, or even all three tales provided here are based on some original source in Celtic pre-Christian belief.(7)
To add to the argument we can also turn to the myths of the Celtic people’s continental neighbors, the Germanic tribes. Discussion about the Germanic people’s belief in reincarnation, documented in their mythic literature more directly than that in Celtic lands, is already a well tread path. Instead of the more well known sagas that include such beliefs, such as Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, attention might be better turned to a more obscure but even more relevant work.
Óláfs þáttr Geirstaðaálfs
Extant in six versions in MS no earlier than the thirteenth century, researcher Anne Heinrichs believes that the story as it is probably took shape around the mid twelfth century. The text centers on Saint Óláfr of Norway, a king who ruled in the early part of the eleventh century. We find that it recounts a particularly supernatural version of the Saint’s birth, where he is swaddled with the ancient royal artifacts of state at the behest of the apparition of his ancestor, the deceased pagan King Óláfr digrbeinn or Geirstaðaálfr. The work continues that the people “believed that Óláfr digrbeinn’s soul had now been born in the body of this Óláfr…,” though the Christian writer of the text scoffs at such an idea. Pressing on, we discover in a later passage:
It is said that one day when King Óláfr passed the barrow of Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr, one of his followers asked him, “When were you buried here?” The king answered, “Never did my soul have two bodies, and never will it have, and not on Resurrection Day.” But the man insisted and said, “Some people have said that when you came to this place before, you stated, ‘Here we were and from here we started!’” The king said, “I never said that and I never will!… The king was deeply disturbed at heart; he pricked his horse and sped from the place as fast as he could.
The Flateyjarbók-version adds another line: Óláfr knew that it is strictly forbidden to men to search out God’s secrets further than Jesus Christ intends to reveal them.
Here we have a character, both Saint and king, who is amongst his people, goaded by a man on the transmigration of the soul, and his hasty termination of the subject, due to, in one survival at least, an impropriety in revealing these secrets. Whether by coincidence or some distant and forgotten myth, the incident in Óláfs þáttr Geirstaðaálfs reflects almost exactly the basic narrative as the older Irish texts.(9) Whatever it is, I think it provides more evidence that Sébillot and Henderson were on the right track in their search to discover the deep Druidic secrets of the soul.
(1) Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, by George Henderson,
Works of Paul Sébillot at Project Gutenberg,
(2) A Single Ray of the Sun, John Carey, p. 3-7
(5) He buttresses his argument with a comparison to another, later Old Irish text regarding Tuan mac Cairill and his time spent in the forms of various beasts.
(6) Ancient Irish Tales. ed. and trans. by Tom P. Cross & Clark Harris Slover. NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1936
(7) There are of course other texts that seem to describe reincarnation.
(8) Anne Heinrichs’ work on the psychology of the text is very informative and contains all the relevant information,
(9) The obvious answer would be that these stories sprang up due to shared Christian anxiety over the late persistence of pagan folk belief; but to that we must consider that the Mongán tale reflects no Christian moral quandary; yet still contains the ‘silencing of the speaker’ motif, and of all the Irish tales it is the most plain in language regarding reincarnation. Therefore that obvious, suitable and very reasonable answer seems somewhat doubtful. Instead, perhaps it is possible that the Saints’ tales are Christian incorporations of myths held over from the pre-Christian era, with the Mongán tale representing our nearest surviving facsimile.