When I’m dead, I plan to stay that way.
Reincarnation, eh? It seems to be widely believed-in by modern Druids, and other Pagans.1 And I can’t get my head around it.
First of all, I respect the belief. I know many people who have done serious past-life work. Some Pagans have (persuasively) explained to me that they see a reflection of reincarnation in the world around them – the cycles of natural life that return to the earth and are reborn. It’s a good metaphor. I just have some problems with it. Three, in fact. Ooh look, a triad:
Three problems with reincarnation: dualism; karma; the separate soul.
I’m not body vs. soul, or even body and soul. I am.
Gnostics believe(d) that the material world is an illusion to be overcome, and that the soul is the true reality. Or, as I’ve heard people express it, that we’re ‘spiritual beings having an embodied experience’. That’s dualism. But as a tree-hugging-type Pagan, it’s really important to me that my body is holy. I am whole, not divided.
From my very limited understanding of neuroscience, I believe it suggests that consciousness is probably an emergent property. The biology and neurology of the brain gives rise to consciousness. If that’s the case, no part of us could exist outside of the body. And this is mystical. We climbed out of the primordial soup and became human, complete with the enigma of conscious thought and the ability to philosophise, reason, and relate to the gods. Our souls, if we’re calling them that, emerged from life itself. And what could be more Druid-sounding than that? We are of the earth, and to the earth we shall return. We are embodied beings having embodied experiences.
Which doesn’t mean I think no part of me will live on, by the way. More on that in a minute.
With ‘New Age’ Western beliefs, there’s often an idea of learning lessons in each incarnation until we… escape the material world?2 No, that doesn’t sound like the beliefs of many of the Pagans I know. Well, then I’m not sure what’s meant to happen after you’ve learnt all the lessons. While there are lots of ways to understand the concept of karma, my problem is particularly with the New Age (and sometimes Pagan) interpretation of it. If we’re not careful, it can become victim-blaming, offensive nonsense. In particular, the idea that we choose a certain incarnation in order to learn certain lessons bothers me. It means that a person in some way deserves or needs what they’re going through. If I can’t say that directly to someone who’s experiencing real suffering, like the parent of a child dying from malnutrition, then I’m not sure I should believe it at all.
I had a therapist once who told me I was disabled because I’d been very hard-working and responsible in a past life, and so the universe was giving me a life ‘off’, where someone else could take care of me. This, to me, sounded no less offensive than other reasons I’ve been given for this (which include ‘punishment’). This variety might sound kinder, but it’s still strongly influenced by modern prejudices about disability – especially that we’re lazy, and that other people make terrible sacrifices to take care of us – ideas that are rooted in the early twentieth-century Eugenics movement. There are so many things wrong with this statement that I don’t know where to start, so I’ll have to come back to it another time. But it doesn’t matter how you dress up these ideas to try and make them look better – they’re still offensive.
By the way, it’s easy to say that Eastern religions conceive of karma differently from the popular Westernised concept, but there’s a very broad variety of approaches to the concept of karma in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, depending strongly on cultural context.3 For example, it’s sometimes to reinforce caste systems – but not always. And even an abstract, general-cause-and-effect approach to karma still has the potential for victim blaming if you layer New Age ‘learning lessons’ concepts on top of it.
Does reincarnation necessitate a concept of karma? No – you could have random reincarnation. But it goes hand-in-hand with the idea of karma very frequently, including in the West, in both the New Age and Pagan movements.
The unified, discrete soul
The Romans wrote that ancient Druids believed in the transmigration of the soul, and that the belief was so strongly held that Celts would agree to pay debts in the next life4. But we don’t know whether this is any more true than the presumably-metaphorical ‘golden sickle’ stuff. I can’t imagine a discrete part of me surviving death, to any extent that it would be recognisable as me. Even if we could somehow get past the dualism, my experiences are embodied. Put me in another body and I’d be a different person entirely.
It also feels very bound up with the ego, when in fact I think we’re all connected. A plant dies and returns to the earth, where it becomes part of the earth. It returns to the source.
So I prefer the image of us returning, en masse, to a cauldron of rebirth. The Divine essence within us poured back into the source. I won’t return as *me* – something else can have a go at life next time around. And that feels much closer to what we see in the land around us, too.
And it seems to me that the Gaelic and Brythonic myths hint at many, varied ideas about life, death and the afterlife. People and cultures are complex and have many stories. I like that.
Like creation myths, I think afterlife myths are about poetry that illuminates and inspires, rather than literal truth. The Gnostic view of myth is that it’s about us, about our spiritual journey5 – and I think a lot of modern Druids would see myth this way, too.
So I’ll stick with my mythical images, rather than looking for ‘truth’. A land beyond the western sea. You could call it Battlestar Galactica‘s Earth, or Angel‘s Shanshu, or Tir na nOg, or unity with the Divine through gnosis - or even the Summerland. And, because nothing is ever simple enough for one metaphor, I’ll also mangle the myth of the cauldron of rebirth, to which I’ll return ready to be scooped out by the universe again, in the form of all the atoms that make me up, the stardust that will never be destroyed.
After years of being told what to think about where my soul was going after death, I discovered a new freedom when I realised I could think whatever I want to. In my time on this earth I’ve believed in several kinds of afterlife. Now I choose not to have any opinion on it at all – at least for the moment.
If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.
THERE’S JUST ME, said Death. THE FINAL FRONTIER.
- Death, ‘Moving Pictures’, Terry Pratchett
 Bonewits, I. (2006). Bonewit’s Essential Guide to Druidism. New York, NY: Kensington Pub. I believe Emma Restall Orr also talks about widespread belief in reincarnation among Neo-Druids, and I can’t find the exact reference now, so please don’t hold me to that.
 This last part strikes me as similar to Iolo Morganwg’s Christianised idea of progression through the circles of existence, from Annwn to Gwynfyd. Which is fine by me – I actually rather like his ideas – but I think it’s good to acknowledge these influences clearly.
 Keyes, C. F. & Daniel, E. V. (1983). Karma: An Anthropological Inquiry. Berkeley: University of California Press.
 Pomponius Mela. See http://www.druidry.org/druid-way/what-druidry/ethics-values-druidry. I haven’t read the original source.
 Stratford, J. (2007). Living Gnosticism. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press. See also Harris, J. G. (1999). Gnosticism: beliefs and practices. Brighton: Portland, which is a good introduction to ancient Gnosticism.