Celtic Death Practices

Something I hadn’t read before is a belief in reincarnation that was described as Greek or Roman accounts of the Celtic peoples. Including something akin to Tibetan “sky burial” where a body is left to be eaten by scavengers such ravens and vultures. In Tibetan Buddhist belief the body is left to the vultures because it is now see as an empty shell and there is no need to preserve it. In the case of the Celts, it appears that it was a way for the ravens, or other scavengers to carry the soul up to the heavens, or gods.

“…to these men death in battle is glorious;
And they consider it a crime to bury the body of such a warrior;
For they believe that the soul goes up to the gods in heaven,
If the body is exposed on the field to be devoured by the birds of prey‟.
(Silius Italicus, Punica 3: 340-343)

“…those who laid down their lives in war they regard as noble, heroic and full of valor,
And them cast to the vultures believing this bird to be sacred”.
(Claudius Aelianus. De Natura Animalium X, 22)

The article explains that recent archeological evidence from Celtic sites across Europe seem to confirm this practice, and that in some cases bodies even appear to have been manually defleshed prior to being buried. In the Tibetan practices the body is commonly cut apart prior to being left to the vultures, but I haven’t seen whether skeletons found with evidence of being defleshed found at the excavations at Ham Hill in southern England, Ribemont-sur-ancre in France also showed evidence of scavenging. But I suppose it’s possible the flesh was offered up to the birds separate from the in case like of large battles such as evidenced at Ham Hill.

The article suggests that this ritual of letting the birds scavenge on the bodies was also part of a reincarnation belief and that after being lifted to the heavens, their souls would return, and the Roman poet Lucanus (1st c. AD) wrote hearts undaunted rush upon the foe And scorn to spare the life that shall return” was why Celtic warriors fought so fearlessly.

While you, ye Druids, when the war was done, To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned: To you alone ’tis given the heavenly gods To know or not to know; secluded groves Your dwelling-place, and forests far remote. If what ye sing be true, the shades of men Seek not the dismal homes of Erebus Or death‟s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life Still rules these bodies in another age- Life on this hand and that, and death between. Happy the peoples ‘neath the Northern Star In this their false belief; for them no fear Of that which frights all others: they with hands And hearts undaunted rush upon the foe And scorn to spare the life that shall return”.
(Pharsalia Book 1:453-456)

The article was “Samonos / Samhain / Halloween – “On the Celtic Festival of  the (not quite) Dead“, and is available on the academia.edu website.

death, halloween, Samhain
Houses in Early Medieval Ireland
Irish Dendrochronology

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