The most common view of the afterlife in modern Paganism is the Wiccan version of reincarnation. The critics of Wicca would say that this came to Wicca from Hinduism via Gerald Gardner. However, the Wiccan version of reincarnation differs from the Hindu model is several important ways. First off, there is no goal of escaping the cycle of death and rebirth in Wiccan reincarnation- life is good, the body is good, desire is good- it’s not considered illusion. Also in Wicca, there is the concept of the Summerland- a kind of Pagan version of heaven where the soul rests and recuperates until ready to reincarnate again. The Summerland, also called Isle of Apples and Land of Youth, is straight out of Celtic mythology. It is the Otherworld, the realm of the Sidhe. Some would say that we get this hybrid because Gardner constructed the cosmology and philosophy of Wicca by piecing together what he knew of western European folklore and mythology, filling in the information gaps with Hindu concepts.
But did the Celtic peoples have a belief in reincarnation? I think yes, but it’s a bit different from the Hindu concept. The Celts believed that the ancestors return through bloodlines- you are reborn into the same family. There was also the belief that the soul could enter stones and trees, as well as animals- and this was not seen as a step backward. There doesn’t seem to be a concept of “karma” involved in the Celtic concept of rebirth- the form one takes in the next life does not appear to be punishment or reward for the deeds of a previous life. The spirit could also inhabit places- land, wells, caves, rivers.
Maybe modern Wiccan beliefs differ today from when they were first formulated back in Gardner’s day, I don’t know. But there are many ways in which the Wiccan concept of reincarnation holds true to the Celtic model;
1. there is no desire to escape rebirth, and
2. the material world is not perceived as illusion, and
3. the soul usually spends a period of time in the Otherworld.
So it would seem that the Wiccan concept of reincarnation is closer to the Celtic model than to the Hindu one. Who knew? It seems to me that the major way in which Celtic rebirth differs from the Wiccan version is the rebirth among bloodlines concept. Yet this is a big difference. Celtic Paganism puts a lot of emphasis on family and on ancestor worship, and the belief that the gods are our ancestors. Wicca is a initiatory tradition. Celtic Paganism is a family tradition.
“Three purposes for the return of souls to this world:
to collect into the soul the properties of all being,
to acquire knowledge of all things,
to acquire the power to overcome chaos.”