Irish Mythology and Reincarnation

Druid greets the dawn at Stonehenge

The Druids left us no written record of their religion, or the belief system of our ancient Irish ancestors. What we know has been patched together from later Christian interpretations of the myths and legends, and the writings of observers such as Julius Ceaser, but none of it can be proven to be fact.

Reincarnation is a Latin word, meaning ‘entering the flesh again’. As far back as the C1stBC, Alexander Cornelius Polyhistor wrote that the Gauls teach “that the souls of men are immortal, and that after a fixed number of years they will enter into another body”.

Julius Caeser wrote of the Celts in his ‘De Bello Gallico’ that “the principal point of their doctrine is that the soul does not die and that after death it passes from one body into another….. a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed.”

Although these writers are referring to the Celts of Europe, it is reasonable to suppose that the Irish people of the same time period may have held similar beliefs. Indeed, there is much evidence to support this in the stories of Irish mythology.

In the Tochmarc Étaíne, ‘The Wooing of Étaín’ from the Mythological Cycle, Etain is transformed by magic into a butterfly. After fourteen years, she lands in a cup of wine which is drunk by the wife of Etar, a warrior of the Ulaid. Etar’s wife swallows the butterfly and becomes pregnant, and thus Etain is reborn into human form a thousand years after her first birth.

This story illustrates the Celtic acceptance of transformation, ie the temporary taking of another shape, and transmigration, when the soul transfers into another body following an actual rebirth.

A similar story is told about the birth of Cuchullain. Dechtire drank a cup of wine in which a mayfly had landed. That night she was visited by the God Lugh in a dream, who told her that the mayfly was him, and that she would soon give birth to a boy child. When she awoke, he transformed her into a swan, and took her to his halls in the Otherworld, where she duly gave birth to Setanta. She returned with him to Emain Macha in Ulster, where he was raised, and went on to become the hero known as Cuchullain.

The biggest difference to the Etain story, is the presence of the God Lugh. It implies that not only did the deity father a son on a mortal woman, but that he was actually reborn as his own son, thus manifesting himself again in the mortal world.

Most people are familiar with the story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, one of the most popular tales of Irish mythology. It tells how Connacht Queen Medbh and her husband Aillil waged war on Ulster over possession of the mighty bull Donn Cúailnge. At the end of the saga, Donn Cúailnge fights the white bull Finnbhennach and kills him before dying of exhaustion.

It is interesting to note that these were no ordinary beasts. In the Tale of Two Swineherds, Friuch and Rucht are minding livestock belonging to the Gods Ochall and Bodb, when they begin to quarrel. A fight breaks out, in which they assume many animal forms in order to gain mastery of each other, finally becoming two worms. These are promptly swallowed by two cows grazing nearby, which then give birth to the two bulls Finnbhennach and Donn Cúailnge.

Unrequited love is often associated with reincarnation in Irish mythology. In the Fenian Cycle, hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhal, rescues a small deer in the forest, which turns out to be a Sidhe Princess named Sadbh. She had been transformed by the mysterious figure known only as the Dark Druid, for refusing to marry him. In the safety of Fionn’s fortress, she is able to return to her true form. She and Fionn fall in love, and she becomes pregnant, but when Fionn is away at battle, the Dark Druid returns and steals her away, returning her to the shape of a doe. She is never seen again, but apparently gives birth to a human child, a son named Oisin, whom Fionn finds on the slopes of Benbulben after seven years of searching.

Similarly, in the popular Irish legend of The Children of Lir, Aoife transforms Lir’s children into swans as she is jealous because he loves them more than he loves her. They are doomed to spend 900 years as swans, during which time St Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity. A monk was able to baptise them and turn them back into humans, but unfortunately, they were so old, they died. Another version, possibly pre-Christian, claims that the marriage of Lairgren and Deoch broke the curse.

Another Aoife, daughter of Daelbeth, and Luchra, daughter of Abhartach, both fell in love with Illbreac, but he had eyes only for Aoife. In a fit of jealous rage, Luchra turned Aoife into a crane, whereupon she flew to the lands of Manannán and lived there for 200 years. When she died, Manannán was so sad, he used her skin to make the crane-skin bag in which he kept all his magical treasures.

Mongán mac Fiachnai was a Prince of the kingdom of Cruthin who is recorded in the Annals as dying in 625AD. Little is known about him, except that he was said to have possessed remarkable shape-shifting powers, and had access to the Otherworld. One curious tale claims that, although fathered by Sea-God Manannán, he is in fact the reincarnation of hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall.

It might be that the concept of reincarnation served to perpetuate those ancestors, kings or heroes most admired and beloved, that perhaps the ordinary folk were loath to let go. Certainly, the characters reputed in mythology to have transformed or to have been reborn seem to arise from nobility, royalty, deities or the hero-warrior, rather than commoners.

As the Milesians in their fleet of ships neared the shores of Ireland, intent on wresting it from the Tuatha de Denann, their poet Amergin chanted this verse, which begins:

“I am the wind which blows over the sea,
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…”

At first glance, these words seem to confirm a belief in transformation, or shape-shifting, but perhaps they had nothing to do with reincarnation at all. It occurred to me that this poem could just as easily have been an example of Dichetal do Chennaib, a technique of the ancient Fili, or poet, involving chanting to achieve an altered state of being, or knowing, much as the warrior before battle would invoke the riastradh, or battle frenzy. Perhaps he hoped to achieve each of these qualities, or perhaps it was simply boastful talk designed to strike fear into an enemy which well understood the qualities each of the entities quoted.

The mythology we have inherited is ambiguous at best, and hard to decipher. Whilst it is certainly possible that the Celts and ancient Irish people may have believed in the concept of reincarnation, although not quite in the way we understand it today, it is not something we can say with any certainty. Whilst to some, this may be a source of frustration, for me, it is its strength; it is open to interpretation, thus it can be whatever you want it to be.

25 thoughts on “Irish Mythology and Reincarnation

  1. I’ve always loved the concept of reincarnation in stories, and especially the concept of shape-shifting. I think it’s the idea of connection, across time, forms of life and human and spiritual worlds that really touches me.

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  2. Love your informative and well-researched articles Ali. Even in our modern world we still lightly imagine that we’ll return as someone who has an easier or better life – like a cat maybe, or an estate agent 🙂

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  3. Great post Ali! Thanks for sharing. I have always loved myths and legends. This was a very informative article. There is so much that we do not know about this condition we call human. 🙂

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    1. Thanks Shawn! Yes, you are so right! By moving to Ireland I was thrust right into this deep pool of mythology Ireland was built on, glad to meet like-minded people who love it as much as I do. This condition we call human, I like that… its such a mystery to us even after all these years of existence!

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  4. Such an interesting post, Ali, which touches on so many myths I hadn’t heard of in years. We read so many of these tales in national school, but of course while our ancient Celtic culture was allowed to be celebrated to an extent, the spiritual side was never mentioned in a Catholic school. So it’s lovely to see you come at this from a more enlightened angle.

    Having said that, I might think twice next time I swallow a fly.

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  5. Really interesting, Ali, especially the part about the change in philosophy to one life only to control the church population. I myself have had some strange things happen to me that indicated I have had another life, and there was a very young child here in the US whose knowledge and memories of things were those of a fighter pilot who was shot down in WWII, So who’s to say no?
    Swans seem to figure prominently in Irish mythology. Is there a reason for that?

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    1. I’m not sure about the swans but they probably do. Thats amazing about the child! David was saying a similar thing about a child in India. I’d love to hear your story one day. I’ll see if I can find anything out about the swans. ☺

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  6. Another interesting post, Ali 🙂 I wonder if the Celts’ belief in reincarnation came with them from their original home in northern India? I’ve also heard, though I don’t know if it’s true, that Christianity taught reincarnation until about 700AD, at which point they realised it was easier to control the congregation with the idea that they had only one chance to live a good life. I certainly feel there is something to the idea, especially after my then three–year-old daughter told me ‘I dream of India, I see their colours and faces.’ And I’ve had some unusual experiences myself, though that’s another story…

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    1. Yes I’ve heard of the Sanscrit connection and when you look at some of their art ie Cernunos seated in the lotus position on the Gundestrop cauldron, you cant help but wonder. I believe the early Christians did indeed teach reincarnation. It makes me laugh that the only way they could control their unruly bunch of ex pagans was by preaching hellfire and damnation! Your daughters dreams are interesting… I hope I get the chance to hear about your unusual experiences one day!

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  7. It might be that the concept of reincarnation served to perpetuate those ancestors, kings or heroes most admired and beloved, that perhaps the ordinary folk were loath to let go. Certainly, the characters reputed in mythology to have transformed or to have been reborn seem to arise from nobility, royalty, deities or the hero-warrior, rather than commoners.
    Whilst the above is certainly true, it would be the case that it would only be worth recording the transfers of spirit of the heroes and the kings rather than ordinary folk but I’m sure the belief was there that they also had reincarnation o maybe that if they somehow performed some act of bravery during their lifetime hey would have rebirth. I don’t know whether they would find it strange that kings, the aristocracy and the heroes returned as the same thing and therefore as peasants that’s how they’d return. There would have had to have been hope of what they could become too.

    It’s strange how many religions of the world offer some hope of rebirth in one form or another.From my own point of view, I believe that what we’d call our life force is electrical and like radio waves generated by an electrical force they can go on forever. No reason therefore that they can’t take up residence in a new host and be born again.
    I’m minded of a young child in India who spoke of another mother and father which baffled his parents. He described his other family from a very young age and the place they lived. As he got older the story didn’t change and eventually he was able to take them to his previous home. He greeted the occupants as his parents and described his life as their son who had died young.It seems the facts were accurate. For years I’ve heard or read of similar stories. This one was remarkable enough to warrant a TV documentary.

    xxx Massive Hugs Ali xxx

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    1. Hi David, I’m so sorry I’m only just getting back to you now. I’ve often wondered about that; did they perpetuate the notion of reincarnation only for those whom they could not let go for some reasson, ie beloved leader, skilled healer, mighty warrior, or was it something which applied to everyone, the difference being that nobody bothered to record what happened to the commoner, because they weren’t interesting or important enough. Its a real mystery! There seems to have been no logic to the events that were recorded, at least, not to our modern way of thinking; some came back as animals, for example. Or they came back in a similar role as that they left. You would expect to see some kind of ‘growth’. As to the insect being swallowed and born as human, I suspect that may just have been a later addition, a possibly Christian way around the fact that the woman concerned slept with a man other than her husband, which was not acceptable by their morals. Also, Mongan and Etain were reborn hundreds of years after their first lives, so what happened to them during that time, where were they? That story about the little Indian boy is incredible, makes me shiver!And thank you, I really like your own personal viewpoint, and appreciate you sharing it… I am struggling to come to some decision about my own views and beliefs, it’s not all come clear yet, but I feel certain it will all fall into place for me one day. Still treading that journey…

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