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The Old Religion of Britain weird tales from the Middle Ages



In an attempt to probe an aboriginal European religion, it must be acknowledged that the Greeks and Romans seemed to have shared a view of the afterlife that cannot have filled them with any sense of joyous anticipation. Having 'shuffled off this mortal coil,' a Roman had to look forward to an existence as a wandering spirit, a shade, in an underground world presided over by the god Pluto and the goddess Proserpina; a belief inherited from the Ancient Greeks who had Hades, the brother of Zeus, and Persephone, the daughter of the Corn Goddess or Earth Mother, Demeter ruling over the underworld. It was a gloomy existence. At death, one's spirit was ferried across the river Styx into a dark world from which, seemingly, it might never return.

The Gloomy Underworld

As far into the mists of antiquity as the eighth century BC, Homer describes the long and wandering journey of Odysseus homewards from the Trojan war. The poet causes his hero to brave the dark realms of the dead, where he meets with Achilles, his compatriot, who died on the Trojan plain. Odysseus finds a joyless place. 'I would rather be a slave on Earth,' says Achilles, 'than rule over this awful domain.'

The Greek poet Theognis, of the sixth century BC, was haunted by thoughts of his own mortality. 'Enjoy youth,' he says, 'since the gods do not allow one to be young twice, nor to avoid death. Nobody who has passed through the gateway of Death ever feels the warmth of the sun on his head again.' In the mythical world of the poet Hesiod, writing in the eighth century BC, the gates to the realms of the dead are guarded by a terrifying dog named Cerberus, a monstrous creature with fifty heads – although later descriptions reduce this number to three – a multi-headed dog who allows all to pass inwards, but will let nobody back out.

From the tragedy 'The Women of Troy' by the Greek playwright Euripides of the fifth century BC: 'Life and death are totally dissimilar. Death is nothingness; but hope remains while there is life.'

Homer's description of the journey of Odysseus, however, does not provide the only recorded visit by the living into the underworld in classical storytelling. And in fact the entire story of the Odyssey might itself be an analogy whose underlying drama gives great hints of a less pessimistic view of the afterlife, as we shall see in a later chapter. But another great poet, Virgil, included in his epic poem 'The Aeneid' a description of the eponymous hero's descent into the realm of the shades. Virgil, a Roman living a little before the birth of Christ, was born in the former Celtic lands of northern Italy only two or three generations after the Celtic army of Teutones and Cimbri had defeated the Roman army headed by Lucius Cassius Longinous and struck terror into the Roman world. Virgil wrote a mythical biography of Aeneas, a son of the goddess Venus, who escapes the final destruction of Troy by the Greeks and, suffering a long and eventful sea journey, arrives, via North Africa and Sicily, at the coast of Italy. Here, in obedience to a previous exhortation by the ghost of his father, Anchises, he seizes a golden bough and with this passport descends into the underworld, guided by the Sibyl, a priestess of Apollo.

Aeneas meets with the shades, the spirits of the dead. And as in Homer, there is a judgement, an element of punishment and reward for the goodness, or otherwise, of one's life. The wicked are taken to Tartarus, a realm in the very depths of the underworld that equates in every way with the Christian hell.

The good, in the underworld that Aeneas visits, are spared the torments of Tartarus. Passing the entrance to this grizzly place, Aeneas is guided by the Sibyl to the plains of Elysium. It is a beautiful place, where the air is clear and the fields are bathed in sunlight; there is dancing and sport, and music from the very lyre of Orpheus himself. Some amuse themselves by wrestling, others lie in lush meadows traversed by streams of crystal-clear water or stretch themselves on river banks or walk in the shade of the Fortunate Woods.

Here in Elysium, Aeneas meets his dead father. Up on a high point, overlooking the river Lethe, Aeneas's father is giving careful thought to the sight of some souls who are awaiting their destiny to ascend, again, into the upper world. Anchises greets his son with great joy and explains that all the souls in the green valley below are destined to live again in the upper world; they are drinking the waters of the river Lethe which dispel anxiety and allow forgetfulness of everything that has gone before - forgetfulness of the very underworld itself. Aeneas is astounded and asks his father if it can really be true that souls can be reborn into the world above. His father replies by explaining that each man's life determines his treatment in the world of the dead. Here, then, are the seeds of the Christian heaven and hell. But wait. 'When all the punishment is over,' he continues, 'we are allowed to roam freely within Elysium, and we fortunate few attain the Fields of Joy. But when all sin has been washed clean by the passage of time, we are all summoned to the banks of the river Lethe so that we might rise again onto the Earth's surface without any recollection of where we have been, anxious only to enter a new body.' Anchises then describes to his son the personalities and accomplishments of the Trojan men who will be reincarnated into the new city of Rome.

Virgil, or to give his full name, Publius Vergilius Maro, was born near Mantua in the north of modern-day Italy. In 70 BC, the year of his birth, this lay in Cisalpine Gaul, a region that, two hundred years earlier had been as Celtic as the rest of Gaul and undoubtedly as steeped in Celtic tradition and lore. And it seems, to Virgil at least, that death brings one into the realm of Hades and Persephone where, depending upon one's conduct in life, one drifts as a shade or is compelled to suffer the gruelling torments of Tartarus. But, having expiated all corruption, one's soul is free to wander among the sunlit fields of Elysium and prepare for the forgetful waters of the Lethe river and re-emergence once again into the world of men. The underworld, in other words, is a long hiatus before a new incarnation on the surface of the Earth. And it is perhaps significant that both entry and departure from the land of death entails the crossing of water. In later chapters we will explore this image more fully, and in particular its relevance to King Arthur's final voyage in a boat to the Isle of Avalon, to be healed of his wounds, and to return again.

The Sunlit Underworld

But there is even more compelling evidence that reincarnation was not an unknown concept even to the classical world. It can be found in a work by the Roman poet Ovid. Born in 43 BC. Ovid collected together a mass of stories from Greek mythology and Roman folklore and created with it a masterpiece of Latin poetry dealing with instances of transformation, a work commonly known as his 'Metamorphoses'. It is a treasure store of pagan myth and folktale. Three dips into this work will show the nature of the water.

Ceyx, the king of the land of Trachis, leaves his wife Alcyone and crosses the Aegean Sea to visit an oracle. Alcyone's misgivings about his sea voyage are justified when the ship is visited by a terrible storm. The goddess Juno, growing tired of Alcyone's constant prayers and offerings for the safekeeping of a man who has already drowned, finds means to present to this poor woman a vision of her dead husband. She sends her a nightmare, a sleeping image of the dripping body of Ceyx. Waking, Alcyone screams, tears at her hair and vows to join her husband in death. Beside herself with grief the following morning, she walks the shore where she last saw her husband; and there in the sea, too distant at first to make out clearly, floats a body. As it drifts nearer and nearer, and finally washes against the shingle, seeing that it is her husband, King Ceyx, Alcyone leaps onto an artificial breakwater, a barrier designed to prevent the sea from disturbing the shore and to lessen the force of the waves against the wooden ships that beach there. Alcyone jumps up onto this slippery pier, as the far-travelled storm waves crash and burst into spray about her - and turns into a bird! And as she soars into the air, a plaintive sound, a wail, as though from someone newly bereaved, comes from a beak that just a moment before had been Alcyone's mouth. Trying to embrace the drenched corpse with her wings, she moves the very gods to take pity on them both and they transform Ceyx into a bird as well; and Alcyone and her husband soar into the sky, to rear a new family and to live a new life together.

It is hard to conceive of any other reason for Alcyone leaping onto a precipitous breakwater other than to take her own life. And so in death, she took on the form of a bird and rejoined her husband in the vastness of the sky. The Earth's sky.

Immediately following this tale, Ovid relates the story of another failed suicide, that of Aesacus. Before the fall of Troy, and before Aeneas voyaged to Italy where he was shown the nature of the underworld and the souls waiting to be reborn again into the world, King Priam's son Aesacus had rejected the city life of Troy and spent his days in the hills, where he fell in love with a nymph, a daughter of the river Cebren. But in pursuing his passion too swiftly he brought about her death and in his grief, tried to take his own life. He threw himself from the top of a rocky crag into the sea; but a goddess of the sea clothed him in feathers as he fell through the water and denied him the finality of death which he craved. Aesacus was angry and resentful that he should be forced to live when all he wanted to do was to die, and that his soul should not be free to leave its unhappy prison. So, when he had gained confidence in his new wings and feathers, he soared high into the sky and once more sent himself crashing down into the waves. But for a second time his feathers saved him from drowning. He rose once more into the air, plunging himself again, and then again, and again, into the water, relentlessly, but fruitlessly, seeking a way of bringing his life to an end.

This short but powerful tale mirrors one immediately preceding the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, in which Ceyx's brother, through grief brought about by the death of his daughter, throws himself from a high rock and, rather than being dashed on the ground below, becomes a hawk. But the tale of Aesacus is one of the most beautiful in Ovid because the intention of the storyteller is so clear. In the world in which the story is set, it is impossible to die. It is possible only to become another part of the natural world. Aesacus becomes a diving bird, just as Alcyone becomes a sea bird and Ceyx also, and his brother a hawk. The storyteller wishes his listeners to look at these birds with a fresh eye, and to see souls and a consciousness behind the attentive and intelligent glint in their returning gaze.

In the final book of Ovid's Metamorphoses, we learn that Numa, a man of intelligence, and not content to learn only about the beliefs and customs of his own culture, once embarked upon a grander project; to learn the truth about the world. So he journeyed to Crotona, in southern Italy, where one of the elders instructed him in the teachings of Pythagoras.

Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos, Numa was told, and through persecution and discontent with his own people he came to live in voluntary exile in southern Italy. His thoughts had soared, Numa learned, into realms that few have since found the vision to explore. Then, in a long soliloquy, Pythagoras himself, through the poetry of Ovid, is invited to discuss the changeability of nature in words that are a curious mix of ancient and modern. He speaks of frogs forming from mud, and snakes emerging from the bone marrow of rotting corpses, but also of the changeability of the landscape, of islands that are now connected to the land, of promontories that are now surrounded completely by the sea, of rivers whose waters have changed their characters over time or whose courses have altered, those whose sources have dried up, and new springs that, conceived by Earth tremors, have flowed forth from nothing. Who would believe, he asks, that a bird could begin life as an egg! Change is the essence of nature, and man, as a part of nature, takes part in that change. We are involved in this whole process, for we are not only flesh and blood but weightless souls as well, souls that can find a home in animals and cattle. 'Why are people terrified of the coldness of death, of the black waters of the river Styx?' Pythagoras asks. 'For we are immortal and our souls will always find a home in new lodgings when our lease on the old has expired. Everything changes, but there is no such thing as death; for the spirit moves, entering whatever new form it pleases, going from the body of an animal into that of a human being, or again from a human body into that of another creature, but at no time is it ever extinguished.'

These are the words attributed to Pythagoras by the Roman poet Ovid, who was born in 43 BC. Pythagoras the man, it must be remembered, lies at the very edge of history, born in the first quarter of the sixth century BC, and to his school is attributed the appreciation of a truth of geometry that has guided the development of mathematics up to the present day. That Pythagorean thought encompassed a clear notion of reincarnation, sometimes referred to as the transmigration of souls, is beyond dispute. Many writers of classical antiquity allude to this, and interestingly, on more than one occasion they mention it in the context of a wider discussion regarding Celtic belief.

Julius Caesar informs us, in his history of the bloody war he fought to conquer Gaul for Rome between 58 and 51 BC, that in the opinion of the Gallic druids the soul is not extinguished at death but moves from one body into another. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century BC, commented that the doctrine of Pythagoras was prevalent among the Celts of Gaul, teaching that the souls of men are immortal, and that after a period of time will enter another body. The Roman poet Lucan (1st century AD): 'You [druids] it is who proclaim that the souls of the dead do not travel to the quiet country of Erebus or the dreary halls of Pluto; but rather you insist that they move into another body somewhere else and that death, if your ideas are correct, is but a staging post within a much greater life.' Clement of Alexandria (2nd century AD): 'Pythagoras was a disciple of [the Celts].'

So what we have just read about the beliefs held by Pythagoras may very well be assumed to have been held by the Celts. Valerius Maximus (1st century AD) and other classical writers describe how a Celt would lend money on a promise to pay back what was owed in the next life. This may have been a way simply of giving a gift with the implied courtesy that, 'I am sure we will be friends again in our next incarnation, and so you can repay me then', but is no less revealing for that. Valerius Maximus observed that if one should jeer at the ideas of the druids in respect to immortality, one must also laugh at those of Pythagoras.

Whether Pythagoras was influenced by Celtic belief or Celtic belief might have been influenced by Pythagoras is a legitimate question. Greek colonies in the sixth century BC, including Massilia (Marceille) in southern Gaul, are unlikely to have been deaf to the culture of the tribes surrounding them, and a flow of belief from widespread Celtic lands to Pythagoras, living as he did in the town of Crotona, in southern Italy, a Greek colony itself, is perhaps more plausible than a flow in the opposite direction. Perhaps the young Pythagoras was influenced also by myths and traditions of Attis that existed in Anatolia, just a short boat trip from the island of Samos in the eastern Aegean. Diodorus Siculus, Timagenes, Hippolytus and Clement of Alexandria, all of them respected classical writers and commentators, were all of the opinion that Pythagoras received his philosophy regarding immortality and the reincarnation of the soul from the Celtic priests of Gaul, rather than the other way around. That pre-Roman Britain shared in this belief system – was, moreover, steeped in it – is supported by an observation of Julius Caesar. Speaking of the Gallic druids, he remarked that 'the doctrine they hold is thought to have been first discovered in Britain, and brought from there into Gaul; and even now those who wish to devote their lives to its practice usually travel to Britain for their education.'

So it seems that in Britain about the time of the arrival of Julius Caesar, a belief in reincarnation was part of druidic culture there. This is important to establish, because we have already seen that, at least in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, allusions to this period of time may exist in the Medieval literature and legends surrounding King Arthur. It is but a short step to ask oneself whether any other influences from this period may have seeped into the myths and legends that together make up the Arthurian world. Perhaps these storytelling devices included ways of portraying reincarnation. We will explore this possibility in later chapters. The American scholar Roger Sherman Loomis has shown that it is possible to demonstrate that many themes in Medieval Arthurian literature have parallels in Irish and Welsh mythology. Much of this mythology has its origins in the pagan world of Cú Chulaind and Fionn mac Cumhaill, Caoilte and Oisin before the coming of Christianity. In the following chapters, we will look at some of the mythological elements in Medieval Arthurian romance that having, we will argue, a pagan Celtic focus, may shed an intriguing new light upon an old European belief system and reveal at the last the astounding nature of the style of reincarnation in which the druids may have believed.


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