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Thread: Egyptian and Celtic Ideas of Immortality: the Megalithic Connection

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    Egyptian and Celtic Ideas of Immortality: the Megalithic Connection

    By Thomas Rolleston
    From Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race [1911]

    The Ankh on Megalithic Carvings

    There is very strong evidence of the connexion of the Megalithic People with North Africa. Thus, as Sergi points out, many signs (probably numerical) found on ivory tablets in the cemetery at Naqada discovered by Flinders Petrie are to be met with on European dolmens.

    Several later Egyptian hieroglyphic signs, including the famous Ankh, or crux ansata, the symbol of vitality or resurrection, are also found in megalithic carvings. [See Sergi, op. cit. p.190, for the Ankh on a French doImen.] From these correspondences Letourneau drew the conclusion “that the builders of our megalithic monuments came from the South, and were related to the races of North Africa.” [“Bulletin de Ia Soc. d’Anthropologie,” Paris, April 1893.]

    Evidence from Language

    Approaching the subject from the linguistic side, Rhys and Brynmor Jones find that the African origin – at least proximately – of the primitive population of Great Britain and Ireland is strongly suggested. It is here shown that the Celtic languages preserve in their syntax the Hamitic, and especially the Egyptian type. [“The Welsh People,” pp. 616-664, where the subject is fully discussed in an appendix by Professor J. Morris Jones. “The pre-Aryan idioms which still live in Welsh and Irish were derived from a language allied to Egyptian and the Berber tongues.”]

    Egyptian and “Celtic” Ideas of Immortality

    The facts at present known do not, I think, justify us in framing any theory as to the actual historical relation of the dolmen-builders of Western Europe with the people who created the wonderful religion and civilisation of ancient Egypt.

    But when we consider all the lines of evidence that converge in this direction it seems clear that there was such a relation. Egypt was the classic land of religious symbolism. It gave to Europe the most beautiful and most popular of all its religious symbols, that of the divine mother and child. [Flinders Petrie, “Egypt and Israel,” pp.137, 899.] I believe that it also gave to the primitive inhabitants of Western Europe the profound symbol of the voyaging spirits guided to the world of the dead by by the God of Light.

    The religion of Egypt, above that of any people whose ideas we know to have been developed in times so ancient, centred on the doctrine of a future life. The palatial and stupendous tombs, the elaborate ritual, the imposing mythology, the immense exaltation of the priestly caste, all these features of Egyptian culture were intimately connected with their doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

    To the Egyptian the disembodied soul was no shadowy simulacrum, as the classical nations believed-the future life was a mere prolongation of the present; the just man, when he had won his place in it, found himself among his relatives, his friends, his workpeople, with tasks and enjoyments very much like those of earth. The doom of the wicked was annihilation; he fell a victim to the invisible monster called the Eater of the Dead.

    Now when the classical nations first began to take an interest in the ideas of the Celts the thing that principally struck them was the Celtic belief in immortality, which the Gauls said was “handed down by the Druids.”

    The classical nations believed in immortality; but what a picture does Homer, the Bible of the Greeks, give of the lost, degraded, dehumanised creatures which represented the departed souls of men ! Take, as one example, the description of the spirits of the suitors slain by Odysseus as Hermes conducts them to the Underworld :

    “Now were summoned the souls of the dead by Cyllenian Hermes …
    Touched by the wand they awoke, and obeyed him and followed him, squealing,
    Even as bats in the dark, mysterious depths of a cavern
    Squeal as they flutter around, should one from the cluster be fallen
    Where from the rock suspended they hung, all clinging together;
    So did the souls flock squealing behind him, as Hermes the Helper
    Guided them down to the gloom through dank and mouldering pathways.”
    [I quote from Mr. H. B. Cotterill’s beautiful hexameter version.]

    The classical writers felt rightly that the Celtic idea of immortality was something altogether different from this. It was both loftier and more realistic; it implied a true persistence of the living man, as he was at present, in all his human relations. They noted with surprise that the Celt would lend money on a promissory note for repayment in the next world. [Valerius Maximus (about A.D. 30] ) and other classical writers mention this practice] That is an absolutely Egyptian conception. And this very analogy occurred to Diodorus in writing of the Celtic idea of immortality – it was like nothing that he knew of out of Egypt. [Book V].

    The Doctrine of Transmigration

    Many ancient writers assert that the Celtic idea of immortality embodied the Oriental conception of the transmigration of souls, and to account for this the hypothesis was invented that they had learned the doctrine from Pythagoras, who represented it in classical antiquity.

    Thus Caesar : “The principal point of their [the Druids’] teaching is that the soul does not perish, and that after death it passes from one body into another.”

    And Diodorus: “Among them the doctrine of Pythagoras prevails, according to which the souls of men are immortal, and after a fixed term recommence to live, taking upon themselves a new body.” Now traces of this doctrine certainly do appear in Irish legend.

    Thus the Irish chieftain, Mongan, who is an historical personage, and whose death is recorded about A.D. 625, is said to have made a wager as to the place of death of a king named Fothad, slain in a battle with the mythical hero Finn mac Cumhal in the third century.

    He proves his case by summoning to his aid a revenant from the Other-world, Keelta, who was the actual slayer of Fothad, and who describes correctly where the tomb is to be found and what were its contents. He begins his tale by saying to Mongan, “We were with thee,” and then, turning to the assembly, he continues: “We were with Finn, coming from Alba. . . .” “Hush,” says Mongan, “it is wrong of thee to reveal a secret.”

    The secret is, of course, that Mongan was a reincarnation of Finn. [De Jubainville, ” Irish Mythological Cycle,” p. 191 sqq.] But the evidence on the whole shows that the Celts did not hold this doctrine at all in the same way as Pythagoras and the Orientals did. Transmigration was not, with them, part of the order of things.

    It might happen, but in general it did not; the new body assumed by the dead clothed them in another, not in this world, and so far as we can learn from any ancient authority, there does not appear to have been any idea of moral retribution connected with this form of the future life. It was not so much an article of faith as an idea which haunted the imagination, and which, as Mongan’s caution indicates, ought not to be brought into clear light.
    However it may have been conceived, it is certain that the belief in immortality was the basis of Celtic Druidism.

    [The etymology of the word “Druid ” is no longer an unsolved problem. It had been suggested that the latter part of the word might be connected with the Aryan root VID, which appears in “Wisdom”‘ in the Latin videre, &c., Thurneysen has now shown that this root in combination with the intensiye particle dru would yield the word dru-vids, represented in Gaelic by draoi, a Druid, just as another intensive, su, with vids yields the Gaelic saoi, a sage.]

    Caesar affirms this distinctly, and declares the doctrine to have been fostered by the Druids rather for the promotion of courage than for purely religious reasons. An intense Other-world faith, such as that held by the Celts, is certainly one of the mightiest of agencies in the hands of a priesthood who hold the keys of that world.

    Now Druidism existed in the British Islands, in Gaul, and, in fact, so far as we know, wherever there was a Celtic race amid a population of dolmen-builders. There were Celts in Cisalpine Gaul, but there were no dolmens there, and there were no Druids. [See Rice Holmes, “Caesar’s Conquest,” p. 15, and pp.532-536.

    Rhys, it may he observed, believes that Druidism was the religion of the aboriginal inhabitants of Western Europe “from the Baltic to Gibraltar” (“Celtic Britain,” p. 73). But we only know of it where Celts and dolmen-builders combined. Caesar remarks of the Germans that they had no Druids and cared little about sacrificial ceremonies.]

    What is quite clear is that when the Celts got to Western Europe they found there a people with a powerful priesthood, a ritual, and imposing religious monuments; a people steeped in magic and mysticism and the cult of the Underworld.

    The inferences, as I read the facts, seem to be that Druidism in its essential features was imposed upon the imaginative and sensitive nature of the Celt – the Celt with his “extraordinary aptitude” for picking up ideas – by the earlier population of Western Europe, the Megalithic People, while, as held by these, it stands in some historical relation, which I am not able to pursue in further detail, with the religious culture of ancient Egypt.

    Much obscurity still broods over the question, and perhaps will always do so, but if these suggestions have anything in them, then the MegalithicPeople have been brought a step or two out of the atmosphere of uncanny mystery which has surrounded them, and they are shown to have played a very important part in the religious development of Western Europe, and in preparing that part of the world for the rapid extension of the special type of Christianity which took place in it.

    Bertrand, in his most interesting chapter on L’Irlande Celtique,” [“Rel. des Gaulois,” lecon xx.] points out that very soon after the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, we find the country covered with monasteries, whose complete organisation seems to indicate that they were really Druidic colleges transformed en masse. Caesar has told us what these colleges were like in Gaul.

    They were very numerous. In spite of the severe study and discipline involved, crowds flocked into them for the sake of the power wielded by the Druidic order, and the civil immunities which its members of all grades enjoyed. Arts and sciences were studied there, and thousands of verses enshrining the teachings of Druidism were committed to memory.

    All this is very like what we know of Irish Druidism. Such an organisation would pass into Christianity of the type established in Ireland with very little difficulty. The belief in magical rites would survive-early Irish Christianity, as its copious hagiography plainly shows, was as steeped in magical ideas as ever was Druidic paganism. The belief in immortality would remain, as before, the cardinal doctrine of religion.

    Above all the supremacy of the sacerdotal order over the temporal power would remain unimpaired; it would still be true, as Dion Chrysostom said of the Druids, that “it is they who command, and kings on thrones of gold, dwelling in splendid palaces, are but their ministers, and the servants of their thought.” [Quoted by Bertrand, op. cit. p. 279]

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