Reincarnation and the Irish March 03 2016

Did the Irish in the days before Patrick believe in reincarnation?

(It is never too early to prepare for St. Patrick’s Day!)

You bet they did! The Druids and the Irish that revered them believed so strongly in reincarnation that if one died in debt, no effort was made to settle account out of any wealth left behind the deceased: the debtor knew that he could catch up with the indebted on the other side!

The Irish Mythological Cycle called “The Wooing of Etain,” Etain is turned by magic into a butterfly. After fourteen years she lands in a cup of wine and is drunk by the wife of Etar, a warrior of the Ulaid. By swallowing the butterfly she becomes pregnant and thus Etain is born into human form.

The birth of the mighty mythic hero, Cuchullain is born from Dechtire’s swallowing a mayfly that landed in a cup of wine. That night the god, Lugh, came to her in a dream and explained that he was the mayfly and that she would give birth to a boy. When she awoke, he transformed her into a swan and took her to his halls in the Otherworld. There she 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.

In the Táin Bo Cúailinge, or The Cattle Raid of Cooley, Queen Medbh and her husband, Aillil, waged war on Ulster over possession of the mighty bull, Donn Cuailgne. When Donn Cuailgne fights the white bull, Finnbhennach, he kills him before dying of exhaustion himself. In a preliminary story to this major mythic cycle, The Tale of Two Sineherds, we learn that 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.

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.


Clearly in old Ireland, reincarnation was mingled with shape shifting and transformation: one being could become another. But the symptoms seem clearly to indicate that on the Emerald Isle, “Féach tú arís” or “See you again,” comes from quite literal origins!