Thank you Viducus Brigantici Filius for help with editing this blurb.
The conceptions of the afterlife of the Gaulish and Proto-Germanic speaking peoples are mentioned vaguely in secondary sources. These sources vary in their naming conventions and glosses of foreign concepts regarding death, but at least show us that there was the concept of an afterlife. Both Lucan and Caesar mentioned that Gaulish-speaking peoples had a form of reincarnation in which one is reborn in the same or a new body in the next world.
The Proto-Germanic speakers, however, require more inference through archeology and comparative studies. Ship burials in mounds and fields where Germanic speakers lived demonstrate a common motif of a nautical journey towards a heavenly field, as well as overlooked lore on locations such as Ódáinsakr.
This falls in line with one of the possible attested afterlife depictions as described by Procopius.
They imagine that the souls of the dead are transported to that island. On the coast of the continent there dwell under Frankish sovereignty, but hitherto exempt from all taxation, fishers and farmers, whose duty it is to ferry the souls over. This duty they take in turn. Those to whom it falls on any night, go to bed at dusk; at midnight they hear a knocking at their door, and muffled voices calling. Immediately they rise, go to the shore, and there see empty boats, not their own but strange ones, they go on board and seize the oars. When the boat is underway, they perceive that she is laden choke-full, with her gunwales hardly a finger’s breadth above water. Yet they see no one, and in an hour’s time they touch land, which one of their own craft would take a day and a night to do. Arrived at Brittia, the boat speedily unloads, and becomes so light that she only dips her keel in the wave. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see any one, but they hear a voice loudly asking each one his name and country. Women that have crossed give their husbands’ names.
Koch asserts that ‘Brittia’ is an earlier form of ‘Breizh’, the Breton term for Brittany. A similar belief is found in Breton folklore, stating that the Bay of the Departed is where this journey starts. On top of this, Celtiberia may have had similar folklore regarding this type of afterlife. Pliny the Elder states:
“Opposite to Celtiberia are a number of islands, by the Greeks called Cassiterides, in consequence of their abounding in tin: and, facing the Promontory of the Arrotrebae, are the six Islands of the Gods, which some persons have called the Fortunate Islands.”
While it doesn’t confirm that the Celtiberians regarded this as part of their beliefs in the afterlife, Sabine Baring-Gould relays to us:
“In the Portuguese legend, the Island of the Seven Cities is unquestionably the land of departed spirits of the ancient Celtiberians; the properties of the old belief remain: the barge to conduct the spirit to the shore, the gorgeous scenery, and the splendid castle, but the significance of the myth has been lost, and a story of a Spanish colony having taken refuge in the far western sea has been invented, to account for the Don meeting with those of his own race in the phantom isle.”
There are also examples in Insular Celtic religions such as Tír Tairngire (Land of Promise/Promised Land), Tír fo Thuinn (Land under the Wave), Mag Mell (Plain of Delight/Delightful Plain), Ildathach (Multicoloured Place), and Emain Ablach (the Isle of Apple Trees).
These blessed Isles all have the common theme of being bountiful, winterless, happy, and beyond the setting sun. There was no suffering, no work, no disease and no death. Pursuits of music, strength, life and all other pleasure persist. It is with this that the terms *Ieru̯eniđđi (Western Isle) and *Ieru̯eniđđīs (Western Isles) are proposed for use. With the various lore demonstrating that some cultures had one Isle and others had many, we can’t deny the possibility of an infinite number of otherworldly isles upon the passing of life.
This blissful afterlife also aligns with the Bacchic imagery found on funerary monuments in Treveran lands, which possibly indicates an end-point to the cycle of reincarnation, a possible afterlife option reported to by Caesar and others. Or perhaps it was a mix or syncretism based off of similar ideas purported by Pindar, in which one is reincarnated three times in order to be deemed pure enough to enter the ‘Fortunate Isles’.
Procopius’ account above, however, mentions no requirements for entry to the Isle or Isles. While there may have been standards from region to region, it is clear that the Isles at least require you to be deceased in order to dwell on them.
Another interesting idea is the word Morimarusa, attested by Pliny to be a Cimbrian word for ‘dead sea’, referring to the body of water they dwelled by. This term combines Gaulish ‘Mori-’ (sea/ocean) and ‘Maruos’ (death). While this refers to a physical location, we can use this term in the journey to the *Ieru̯eniđđīs. As Breton and Norse myth have a bay and sea of the dead, so can the Bolgoi have a body of water that must be crossed.
The fishermen in Procopius’ story may demonstrate a similar concept to the Breton ‘Ankou’. The ankou in Breton folklore can either be one figure, or the last person to die in a year. This shows that those who cart the dead can change, as in Procopius’ account, indicating a possible funerary procession. Given that ‘ankou’ is a possible survival of hypothetical *Ankus, we may be able to give the titles *Ancau̯os (masc. sing.) *Ancau̯a (fem. sing.) **Ancau̯oī (masc.plural.) *Ancau̯ās (fem. plural) *Ancau̯on (neuter. sing.) and *Ancau̯ā (neuter. plural.) to the transporter of the dead.
Going back to Lucan’s statement on the Gauls believing in reincarnation:
According to your [the druids’] authority, the shadows do not strive for the silent abodes of the underworld and for the pale realm of the deep sovereign of the dead: The same spirit directs the limbs in a different region (orbe alio). If you sing an approved truth, death is the centre of a long life.
This further evidences the idea of blessed afterlife, but in the context of reincarnating into a new body.
Jürgen Zeidler lays out the commonalities for us, which are demonstrated by classical ethnographies:
- The human soul is immortal.
- After death, the soul arrives at the netherworld and remains there for an indefinite space of time.
- After this time, the soul is reborn in human shape.
- The rebirth depends on one’s previous behaviour on earth.
Zeidler believes that in Gaulish religions, death was literally the intermediary stage between the incarnations of the individual. Going further, he asserts that the post mortem existence is a corporeal one, in which the soul animates a new body, leaving the old one behind. He also states that it may be implied that if resocialization of the dead fails (for example, for lack of funerary rites), the deceased may become undead to claim revenge.
Both Zeidler and Brunaux agree that as cremation takes the place of inhumation later on in Gaulish religions, it precludes the preservation of the body and may be a way to send the soul along its journey at a faster pace. Speculatively, this may also be a preventative against the body becoming undead.
Taking Delamarre and Zeidler’s analysis into account, we can see that the three-world cosmology may also be in effect for the Gaulish afterlife. Where Lucan states that the soul doesn’t go to the netherworld, Valerius Maximus does point out a possible variant belief where the soul may dwell in the netherworld after all –
If you leave their city walls behind you, you come across that old custom of the Gauls, who are recorded to be used to lend money, which would be returned to them among the people in the netherworld.
Of course, this could be a gloss for the Gaulish Otherworld overall, where ‘netherworld’ here may have been used for convenience.
Assuming that the three-world cosmology applies (Albios, Bitus, Dubnos), we may be able to assume a syncretization of Roman views on the afterlife as well.
The soul upon death may begin a journey towards the *Ieru̯eniđđīs (pronounced Yer-weh-NIS-tees) . It is at midnight that the selected *Ancau̯on takes up their duty and ferries the soul in a short journey across the Morimarusa (cold and dead sea), guiding their noxtinauson (boat of night) towards the *Ieru̯eniđđīs, islands that fit where the dead wish to be. The soul then inhabits a new body in the *Ieru̯eniđđīs, participating in a new life where death does not exist. This is all provided that funerary rites have been given to the dead properly or if the body of the deceased has been cremated, allowing for the soul to separate and begin its journey.
- Pharsalia, Book 1 by Lucan
- Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Book 6 chapter 14 by Julius Caesar
- The Ship in the Field by Joseph S. Hopkins
- Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture edited by J. P. Mallory, Douglas Q. Adams p. 153
- De Bellis by Procopius c. 540s CE Book 8 translator: H. B. Dewin. 1916
- Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia by John T. Koch
- Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead by Claude Lecouteux
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History 4. 36 (trans. Bostock) (Roman encyclopedia c. 1st century CE)
- Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould
- Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia by John T. Koch
- Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets by Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston
- “Report-back on two rituals from Olympia (part II of III)” by Viducus Brigantici filius on the Deo Mercurio blog https://deomercurio.wordpress.com/2015/08/14/report-back-on-two-rituals-from-olympia-part-ii-of-iii/
- “Olympian Ode” by Pindar 2. 57
- Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder 4.95
- Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise (2nd ed.) by Xavier Delamarre (2003) p. 229
- Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise (2nd ed.) by Xavier Delamarre (2003) p. 219
- K ETIMOLOGIJI INDOEVROPSKEGA GEOGRAFSKEGA TERMINA: PSL. *Mor’e, LAT. Mare … PIDE. *Mor-i- (N.) by Metka Furlan
- La légende de la mort: chez les Bretons Armoricains by Anatole Le Braz
- An etymological lexicon of Proto-Celtic by Ranko Matasovic p. 37
- Yextis Keltikā : A Classical Gaulish Handbook by Olivier Piqueron p. 94
- Pharsalia by Lucan 1.454–458
- Cults of the ‘Celts’ – A new approach to the interpretation of the religion of Iron Age cultures by Jürgen Zeidler
- The Celtic Gauls: Gods, Rites and Sanctuaries by Jean Louis Brunaux p. 86
- Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise by Xavier Delamarre p. 36, 76, 151
- Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilium by Valerius Maximus 2.6.10-11