Early Celtic Beliefs
The early Celts were a diverse group of tribes that were spread across Gaul, Britain, Ireland, Asia Minor, Central Europe, and the Balkans. Not much is known about their culture and beliefs, since they did not have written scriptures or codes of conduct. All information was passed on verbally, and most information on their beliefs and rituals was lost with the last Celts. However, from their burial sites, archaeological remains, and other sources, historians and philosophers have attempted to look into Celtic lives and beliefs.
A Brief Overview
Celts belonged to one of the world's earliest civilizations. The Celtic people practiced Druidism, a religion overseen by priests and priestesses called Druids. For Celts, the afterlife was as real as the mortal world. It was believed that after a person's death, her soul needed a clear path so it could travel to the otherworld, which is why all windows and doors were kept wide open when a person died.
In the Druidism culture, a priest would come and explain to the dying person how her soul would travel to its final destination and find eternal peace in the otherworld. In the case of sudden death of an individual, the priest would come and whisper this information to the deceased. Souls that did not get proper religious direction became targets for evil spirits, or may have roamed around restlessly, causing trouble for the living.
The wake refers to the period the body of the deceased was laid out after the soul reached its afterlife. The body was washed with the waters from a sacred well to keep it protected and was wrapped in the Eslene (death cloth). It was then placed on a bier, or coffin, in the center of the house for mourners to come and pay their respects.
During the wake, mourners would come and sit by the corpse and share memories of the deceased. All mourners would “have a last drink” with the departed person. The body was laid out for up to a week, especially if it was that of a warrior or a king, before the funeral preparations began. Rush torches were kept burning throughout the days and nights until the body was taken for cremation or burial.
After the mourning period, there was a funeral feast. Usually a roasted boar or bull was served, and all the relatives and friends of the deceased were invited. A part of the food was given to the deceased person as “grave food,” and then the body was finally buried or cremated.
The Celts considered funerals to be a celebration of the deceased's life. They believed that all men would one day die and be born again in a new life. During the time of funeral feast, the mourner praised all the accomplishments and contributions of the deceased person.
Celtic Burial Practices
The Celts preferred burial to cremation, especially for the great warriors, noblemen, and leaders. Mounts and tombs were built for such people; for everyday people, normal graves were dug. Stillborn babies were taken away by the priest and buried without any ceremony in a burial ground away from the settlements.
Were any objects buried with the ancient Celts?
With each body, goods such as objects of daily use, personal belongings, and food were also placed inside the grave. Weapons were placed with bodies of warriors, or any goods that were a mark of the profession of the deceased. Married women were buried with a comb and mirror, priests with a torch, and so on.
Finally, on the seventh day, the body would be buried or burned as per the tribal customs. The remains of the body, in case of cremation, were to be buried underground or dispersed in water. During funeral preparation, the body was to be kept as natural as possible without any chemical embalming or artificial adornments.
Celtics Afterlife Beliefs
Druids taught the concept of immortality of the soul — that even when a person dies physically, her soul continues to live. They believed that the soul was reincarnated as another entity in the living world, either as a plant or animal, or again as a human.
When one gained complete understanding of the immortality of the soul and the process of rebirth, she would be moved to a higher realm of existence, a different, outer world. This would continue until the soul reached the highest state, “the source,” after which the process of reincarnation ended and the soul would be eternally rested.