Antumnos: A Hypothesis of the Gaulish Afterlife

Introduction

A little while ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine in the Gaulish Polytheism community regarding different deities associated with death and the afterlife, as well as the possibility that some deities might be the same, but under different titles in inscriptions. Given that there are no surviving mythologies regarding the intricacies of Gaulish religious thought, most of what we come up with comes from cross comparative analysis with other Indo-European and Celtic communities, our understanding of the Gauls through the eyes of their neighbors such as the Greeks and the Romans, and some well educated speculation. Through the conversation I had with my friend, I found myself pulling much of what I had discovered while working through my Gaulish cultural studies in the Initiates Program in ADF. I realized that there were certain things that I have discovered in my studies regarding the Otherworld and the Afterlife that my friend had not realized, mainly due to availability of certain resources and financial limitations many of us have (I have made some purchases that made my wife raise an eye brow at me a few times). This article is pulling together information I have come across with regarding the Celtic view of the Otherworld and the Afterlife, as well as the information we have regarding the Gauls on this topic to assess a hypothesis on what the Gaulish view might have been regarding the Otherworld and the Afterlife.

Evidence for Gaulish Views of the Otherworld and Afterlife

First off, if we are going to approach this topic, we need to look at what we actually know about how the Gaulish people viewed the idea of the Otherworld and the Afterlife from the resources we have available.

Burial Evidence:

Immurement and Inhumation Burials:
Lets start with the physical remains of the dead. The earliest Celtic remains of inhumation burials date back to the 5th century BCE. These burials, as well as those from later periods, all had common elements. The grave, whether it was a mound tomb or a simple coffin made of wood were rectangular shaped, with the long ends facing north and south, while the sort ends faced east and west. The person within the grave was laid on their back and their head was to the west and their feet were to the east. Buried with them, they would have personal items including jewelry that they would be wearing, weapons at their side, and food placed at their feet. The level of the extravagance of the grave seemed to be connected to the wealth of the person who died, but whether it was a simple grave or an elaborately decorated tomb with feasting wear and cauldrons of mead/beer, what appears to be the case is that people of importance to the community had the luxury of immurement and inhumation burials (Brunaux, p. 83-84).

Cremation Burials:
Cremations made their first appearance with the Belgae people towards the end of the 4th century BCE and spread throughout Gaul from there. Evidence of this is found in various parts of the Gaulish Celtic regions, however, dating and identification can be difficult because it is hard to identify cremation graves. The graves we have found appear to have been holes in the ground just big enough to put an urn in. Most did not have any weapons or jewelry and it is thought that these people did not have the same status as earlier burials or burials of noblemen (Brunaux, p. 84-85). In addition, Caesar stated that up to just before he started his campaign north, the Celts would cremate the slaves and client of lords when they died and there is evidence of this in a collection of tombs in Luxembourg called the Nobleman’s Tombs which dated to the 1st century BCE (Green, p. 68, 79).

Other Ways Bodies were Disposed:
In addition to burials and cremation, we have evidence of bodies dumped in pits, caves, bogs, etc (Brunaux, p. 86). In many of these cases, the person in question would be bound hand and foot with nooses around their necks. Some would, in addition to this, have their throats cut or holes in their head from contact from a sharp object. Some historical documents refer to the practice of exposure burials where warriors were left on the battlefield to let the scavengers eat at the corpses. They believed that in doing so, the spirits of the dead warriors would go to the sky to join the gods (Brunaux, p. 87). The Celts were also known for headhunting and preserving the heads to be shown off to guest, prisoners of war were known to be cremated as well as being used for divination and the reading of entrails, as well as various other forms of ritual murder as part of offerings to gods (Green, pp. 76-78)

Historical Documents:

As we move away from the physical evidence and move into the literature from Classical sources, there appears to be some agreements that the Gauls believed that the soul was distinct from the body and something happened to it after death, but after that things get more complicated. Some literature stated that after some number of years, the soul would transfer from one body to another (process known as transmigration) while others said that the soul would pass to “the infernal regions” after they die. We also have some writings suggesting the the deeds of people influence where they go after they die, which is reflected in writings where Gaulish warriors insisted on dying in battle because they loathed dying sick or of old age, as well as the insistence of leaving of fallen warriors on the battlefield to be eaten by vultures. Both of these actions suggest the possibility of the belief that the dead warriors would travel to a realm, either in the heavens or across the sea, to dwell with the gods or the honored dead. (Brunaux, pp. 87, 104)

Before I go further into my analysis regarding the views of the Afterlife and the Otherworld among the Gauls, it is important to take a look at the evidence we have from other Celtic cultures, specifically the Irish and the Welsh, for there is a relationship there that needs to be looked at.

Irish Perspectives of the Otherworld and Afterlife

Irish imagery regarding the afterlife and the Otherworld is like a patchwork tapestry of various local elements and timeframes weaved together with some common threads.  From what can be gathered, entrances to the Otherworld are found across bodies of water including lakes and the sea, in ancient burial/Sí mounds which are scattered across the island, and with cave entrances that are also located at various locations. Off the southwest shore of Ireland, lore talks about a place called Tech Donn (the House of Donn) where the decedents of the Sons of Mill can go to after they die.  This island is said to have ramparts and at the center of the fortified area is a house or keep.  The main gate to the keep is the entrance to Tir na nÓg, the Land of Youth. (Lincoln, p. 112; Rees, p. 97-98).  There are also various voyage stories, particularly the Voyage of Bran and the Voyage of Maeldúin, where they talk about a paradise island across the sea free of treachery, sorrow, sickness, and death.  According to the stories, Bran and his ships sailed for 2 days and 2 nights before finding it and they knew nothing but pleasure and delight while they were there.  With Maeldúin, his company traveled and saw not only this island but 30 others, all unique and full of wonders. (Lincoln, p. 24; Rees, p. 315-318).  When looking at the burial mounds and Sí mounds, what we have appears to be various independent regional Otherworldly locations within the mounds, each one with their regional kingdoms separate from the others.  Descriptions of these Otherworlds under the mounds say that they are wondrous places with an everlasting feast.  These mounds would only open up at certain times of the year like Samhain or La Bealtaine and groups of spirits would leave the mounds to visit other mounds, wander the land, visiting people and villages whom they knew, and/or partaking in what is known today as the Wild Hunts. (Morus-Baird, web)  Lastly, caves such as the Cave of Cruachain and St. Patrick’s Purgatory are clearly described as an entrance to the Otherworld, but local lore only shows things coming in and out of the cave, including animals of the Otherworld and goddesses like the Morrigan, but not how thing are within the cave. (Rees, p. 303-304)

Welsh Perspectives of the Otherworld and Afterlife

In Welsh literature, the Otherworld/Afterlife is called Annwfn and it is described as a place of elegant perfection and beauty with castles, keeps, and kingdoms similar to what we see in the Middle Ages.  Unlike the Irish material, the Otherworld/afterlife was seen as a deeper and more intensive part of this world and many of the stories talk about heroes and travelers just traveling and eventually stumbling across it on their travels or being guided by a resident of the Otherworld with no special conditions needed to go there.  The most southwest corner of Wales, the region is called Dyfed, is mainly associated with Annwfn and many believed that Annwfn was just another kingdom region in the area. (Morus-Baird, web; Rees, p. 178)  What is clear is that unlike the Irish material where the different mounds seem to be their own separate Otherworld locations independent of each other, Annwfn appears to be one place with various sub-kingdoms ruled by an Over-king.  In addition to these Otherworld regions that people could just stumble across, there is also evidence of Otherworld locations existing on islands across the water, such as a lake or the sea. (Rees, p. 45)  Off the west coast of Dyfed is a land called Plant Rhys Ddwfn which roughly translates to “The Place of the Children of the King of the Netherworld/Otherworld” and the Island of Glass, who was ruled by someone named Maheloas, whose name means “Prince of Death”.  Both of these places are described as places of eloquence and beauty, much like the rest of Annwfn.  And then you have the island of Fortunata, The Isle of Apples, where the ferryman Barinthus ferries King Arthur to after he falls in battle to his nephew Mordred, which is also described as a place of beauty (Lincoln, pp. 25, 66).

A Possible Model for a Gaulish Perspective on the Otherworld and Afterlife

So brining this all together, in the historical records regarding the Gauls, there was agreement that the soul was distinct from the body and something happened to it after death, however there was some disagreement on what that looked like. Writers like Diodorus and Caesar stated that the Gauls believed that the soul did not suffer death but passed from one body to another in a form of transmigration. On the other hand, writers like Lucan and Mela stated that the soul of the dead did not descend into Hades, but was reborn elsewhere to join their ancestors in some form of paradise and death is just a point of change in a perpetual existence (Brunaux, pp. 47-48; Green, pp.51, 68). Based on this, the burial types, and insights into other historical references, what we see is an evolving relationship between the people and the afterlife. We do see some distinctions between social class and where they go after death with the burial of equites being strikingly different from plebes, who were cremated. We also see this distinction between the deeds of people and where they go, reflected in where the Gaulish Celtic warriors, who insisted on dying in battle because they loathed dying sick or of old age (Brunaux, p. 104). This is a position similar to how the Greeks viewed how people would be admitted into Elysium before the 5th century BCE (reserved for demi-gods, heroes, and those who were ritually married to a god), as well as how the Norse viewed who goes to Valhalla (warriors and heroes) verses who would go to Niflheim (those who died of old age or sickness) (Lincoln, pp. 120-121).

The random disposal of bodies that appear to be slaves or prisoners of war also suggests that where they went after death was of little concern to the Gaulish Celts, possibly because they felt that there was a general standard afterlife that they felt everyone would go to and since they were either not part of the community or of lowly social status, thus they had little concern on what happened to them after death. Headhunting was one thing that seemed to be connected to vitality and luck, as well as possibly a form of ancestral veneration, but nothing conclusive has come up on how headhunting relates to the Gaulish Celtic view of the afterlife, however there are some interesting theories among members of the modern Gaulish Polytheism Community that deserve a deeper look into. (Green, p. 76)

One element that does come up when looking at both the Welsh and Irish material regarding the Otherworld in addition to this, is that they saw the Otherworld reflecting their local social/political structures.  This is something that is not mentioned in any of the historical information I have seen regarding the Gaulish Celts, but if they also did this, then they would have possibly seen the Otherworld as made up of various regional locations headed by ancestral/semi-divine kings who met on special occasions to foster fellowship among the various Otherworldly tribes/clans (Brunaux, pp. 54-55).  Given the social structures the Gaulish Celts had by the time Caesar came to Gaul, it is also possible that these perspectives were going through a shift, similar to what was happening socially.

So with all of this being brought together, my hypothesis regarding how the Gauls viewed the afterlife and the Otherworld is that it traditionally was seen as how the Irish viewed the Otherworld, as a series of independent regions with ancestral/semi-divine kings ruling each region. Like the Norse and the Greeks before the 5th century BCE (and because the Gaulish Celts LOVED to import aspects of Greek culture to show off how wealthy and successful they were to their neighbors) the Gaulish Celts believed that one of these regions was a paradise that was ruled by a god (or series of gods) where the honored dead would go who showed valor in battle and mastery of skill. Also given the historical references of the Gaulish Celts “not descending into Hades” as well as food, drinks, and feasting items found in graves, it would reinforce the idea that the Otherworld/Afterlife generally was a place of “elegant perfection and beauty” with feasting, celebrations, youth, and merriment. It is possible that with this structure, like the Irish, there were certain times of the year that entrances to the Otherworld (caves, mounds, etc) would open and groups of Otherfolk, called Antumnatîs, would travel between various regions or would gather once a year like the Druids were said to do at a centralized location within their region. Talking to people who are familiar modern French folklore, there seems to be some merit to this given how diverse local folklore is in France. There seems to be some indications that each region talked about places were beings of the Otherworld would either gather or would have a strong Otherworldly presence to it. If anything, this shows that it is worth looking into more to see how it fits into our understanding of the Gaulish Otherworld. That however is a project further down the road.

To finish off this article, here are some reconstructed (unless stated otherwise) Gaulish terms that would apply to the Otherworld/Afterlife for those interested. All terms are phrased in plural form. (Tarvogenos, web)

  • Antumnos: The Otherworld, used by most modern Gaulish polytheist to also refer to the afterlife generally
  • Albion: A magical land often identified with Britain, possibly where the honored dead go.
  • lanobitus: A land of of plenty, bliss, prosperity, and abundance. Possible name for an afterlife, similar to Elysium
  • Antumnatîs: Otherfolk; general term for beings of the Otherworld
  • Croucatîs: Spirits associated with the mounds/monolithic structures
  • Senisteroi: A term for honored/venerated ancestors
  • Allatatîs: A general term for Spirits of the Land (not necessary Otherfolk)
  • Andernados: A general term for the dead (not the honored ancestors)
  • Suleuiâs: Good guides; an attested term used for helping spirits that are believed to be the servants of the gods (possibly similar to the Norse álfr or the Greek diamon)
Resources:
  • Brunaux, Jean Louis. The Celtic Gauls: Gods, Rites, and Sanctuaries Paris: Edition Errance, 1987
  • Green, Miranda. The World of the Druids London: Thames & Hudson, 1997
  • Lincoln, Bruce. Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991
  • Morus-Baird, Gwilym. “The Celtic Otherworld?” YouTube; uploaded by Celtic Source. 10, March, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5WiifupG-4
  • Rees, Alwyn &Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales New York: Thames & Hudson. 1998
  • Tarvogenos, Letonelos. “Anationton (Soul Path – “Animism”)” Bessus Nouiogalation: https://nouiogalatis.org/2020/02/17/anationton-animism/

Cover Picture: “Tam Lin”; https://bookshelfpiratereviews.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/thoughts-about-ballads-tam-lin-re-tellings/

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9 thoughts on “Antumnos: A Hypothesis of the Gaulish Afterlife

  1. Pingback: Antumnos: A Hypothesis of the Gaulish Afterlife – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. Pingback: Antumnos: A Hypothesis of the Gaulish Afterlife — Nemeton Dumnonantu | Vermont Folk Troth

  3. Pingback: Antumnos: A Hypothesis of the Gaulish Afterlife — Nemeton Dumnonantu | Die Goldene Landschaft

  4. Reblogged this on Apollo's Raven and commented:
    The following is a reblog of the post entitled, Antumnos: A Hypothesis of the Gaulish Afterlife,” from the website NEMETON DUMNONANTU. The post describes evidence for Gaulish views of the otherworld and afterlife with references to Irish and Welsh mythology and beliefs.

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  5. Pingback: Antumnos: uma hipótese Gaulesa da vida após a morte. - Druid Reborn

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