In Welsh Druidry, we believe in reincarnation, and the gradual journey of the soul from Annwn, through untold incarnations in our own world of Abred, until it has become sufficiently wise to leave material incarnation behind and progress to Gwynfyd, the existence of purely spiritual life:
8. The transmigration of souls. The Bardic dogma on this head was, that the soul commenced its course in the lowest water animalcule, and passed at death to other bodies of a superior order, successively, and in regular gradation, until it entered that of man. Humanity is a state of liberty, where man can attach himself to either good or evil, as he pleases. If his good qualities preponderate over his evil qualities at the time of his death, his soul passes into Gwynfyd, or a state of bliss, where good necessarily prevails, and from whence it is impossible to fall. But if his evil qualities predominate, his soul descends in Abred into an animal corresponding in character to the disposition he exhibited just before he died. It will then rise as before, until it again arrives at the point of liberty, where it will have another chance of clinging to the good. But if it fails, it must fall again; and this may happen for ages and ages, until at last its attachment to good preponderates. It was believed, however, that man could not be guilty twice of the same sin; his experience in Abred, whilst undergoing punishment for any particular sin, would prevent him from loving that sin a second time; hence the adage, “Nid eir i Annwn ond unwaith.“
Barddas: Julius Caesar, B.C. 99-44
This excerpt is slightly simplistic in that it suggests that gwynfyd might be achieved after one life. Surely, this might be possible for a very few – but, in truth, for most of us gwynfyd can only be reached after many, many lifetimes in human form:
Gwynfyd cannot be obtained without seeing and knowing every thing, but it is not possible to see and to know every thing without suffering every thing. And there can be no full and perfect love that does not produce those things which are necessary to lead to the knowledge that causes Gwynfyd, for there can be no Gwynfyd without the complete knowledge of every form of existence, and of every evil and good, and of every operation and power and condition of evil and good. And this knowledge cannot be obtained without experience in every form of life, in every incident, in every suffering, in every evil and in every good, so that they may be respectively known one from the other. All this is necessary before there can be Gwynfyd, and there is need of them all before there can be perfect love of God, and there must be perfect love of God before there can be Gwynfyd.
Barddas: The Book of Bardism
In Iolo Morganwg’s time, Christianity was the state religion, and its observance was enforced by the state. In such a time, it was not possible to discuss the divine except in Christian terms. In our own time, when we have the freedom to explore religious matters, we should not interpret the use of ‘God’ in Barddas as meaning the Christian god; it is the Divine, however you interpret that (and that is for another post).
In The Wisdom of the Loom, I tried to tease out meaning from this. I considered what it means for the soul to be reincarnated across eons, from single-cell slime, through untold existences as animals, until reaching human form. I considered how each form of life has its capacity to experience virtues of intelligence, compassion, and the ability to learn – as well, of course, as the most primitive instincts to feed and to reproduce. Progression from one form of life to another occurs when the soul has fully explored and understood the virtues to the fullness of the limited degree possible in that form; then, it is reincarnated in a species with a slightly greater capacity for virtue – and is reborn, again, and again, until is has mastered that species’ capacity for virtue, and so on, and so on, until the human form is attained: the species with the greatest capacity for abstract thought and compassion.
At the same time, we share this world with other forms of life. In common with the Buddhists, we can understand that the animals around us may contain the souls of people we once knew, who have slipped back down the scale and are striving once more to reach human form. They deserve our compassion – and who knows, perhaps we ourselves may once more be reborn as an animal, and may need the compassion of others.
Furthermore, there are the other Peoples we share this world with: the Tree People, with their slow intelligences and subterranean connections and communities; the Tylwyth Teg – the Fair Folk; and the disembodied spirits continuing their journey to higher levels of gwynfyd, outside the world of flesh.
However, there was one aspect of our existence that was not clear to me then, and which has become clearer since. A fellow member of an OBOD forum brought it up: if a given spirit can be reincarnated in any part of the world, in any society, how can there be any true bond with our physical family? How can there be a bond with our ancestors and descendants, other than in the most abstract form?
As I thought about this, the answer became clear.
In this life, we exist as an eternal spirit temporarily incarnate in flesh. This combination, combined with our responses to our experiences, is what makes up our personality. The eternal aspect of the spirit retains awareness of its previous existences in flesh, but this memory is only rarely available to the personality of a particular incarnation.
The breakthrough I had was to understand that who we are is not simply a blank mind born into a fresh body, which only begins to develop a personality after it is born and begins to experience the material world. In fact, the flesh and the mind are marked from the moment of conception.
How so? Science is gradually discovering that memory can be physically transmitted between generations:
- ‘Memories’ pass between generations (BBC)
- Memories Can Be Inherited, And Scientists Might Have Just Figured Out How (Science Alert)
- Memories Can Be Inherited, and Scientists May Have Just Figured out How (Futurism)
- How Memories Can Be Genetically Passed Down Through The Generations (Psyblog)
- Can the legacy of trauma be passed down the generations? (BBC)
Briefly it seems that memories, in some way that we still understand only imperfectly, can be transmitted genetically between generations. Since a woman’s eggs develop during gestation along with the rest of her body, the memories genetically encoded in those eggs are those of her own mother: our genetic memories thus begin with those of our grandparents, not our parents. Our own experiences, captured in our genes, will only begin to affect our grandchildren, not our children.
This adds a third dimension to the loom of life. The first dimension derives from the experiences of past existences. The second dimension derives from our interaction with the world around us, both human and non-human.
The third dimension of our life is derived from our grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents so on. Their experiences are literally encoded into our being. To what extent do they influence us? It’s impossible for us to know, especially in Western culture, where so few of us ever know our grandparents well on a personal level. Nevertheless, the science is showing us that we are bound to our ancestors not only on a physical level, not only through the culture they passed down to us, but by genetically inherited trauma and experience. In our lives, we are dealing not only with our own experience but with those of our grandparents. Similarly, the experiences we live through will have after-effects that our grandchildren will have to deal with, even if they never meet us or learn anything about us.
This is why our family is important. This is why we have a duty to know and honour our ancestors; this is why we have a duty to those who will follow us in our family line. Our choices in this lifetime – towards compassion and spiritual advancement, or towards our base urges and animal nature – reflect not only our own responses to our environment, but our ancestors’ responses to theirs. Our spiritual journey is therefore not only ours alone, but that of our ancestors.