restricted access The Irish Eschatological Tale The Two Deaths and Its Sources
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The Irish Eschatological Tale The Two Deaths and Its Sources

It is right to know, indeed, that everyone should prepare for the certain meeting and the uncertain meeting which is before him — namely, the meeting with death. For its coming is certain; it is uncertain, however, at what hour or what time one will go. Everyone should prepare for the two companies which come to meet every soul, namely, the company of God with beauty and magnificence and brightness, and the company of the devil with its darkness and with its baseness and its evil counsel.

(The Two Deaths, 1)1

The interim between an individual’s death and the Last Judgment at the end of time is one of the great eschatological questions.2 There are [End Page 125] numerous texts that cover this issue and propose different solutions to the relationship between individual and collective judgments. The most prominent genre addressing the question of the afterlife is vision literature, but descriptions of the judgment and posthumous destinies of souls can also be found in various hortatory anecdotes and homilies, among other types of sources.3 One such source is the Irish text known as The Two Deaths, which gives a detailed account of the destiny of the soul right at the moment of death, thus concentrating on the individual and disregarding the collective.

The text is retained among other miscellaneous material of a mostly religious nature in the fifteenth-century manuscript Liber flavus fergusiorum.4 It was edited and translated by Carl Marstrander in 1911.5 Since then it has been briefly discussed by only a handful of scholars, and mainly in conjunction with other eschatological themes and especially with the theme known as The Three Utterances of the Soul.6 The aim of this article is to reduce the story to its core elements and trace their history to various sources in an attempt to establish the way The Two Deaths was put together. Discussion of the dating of the text will follow at the end of the article.

The words of St. John D. Seymour in his 1920 article “The Bringing Forth of the Soul in Irish Literature” are a good starting point for this survey: [End Page 126]

We must now consider an account of the death of the sinner and of the righteous which is found in Latin (and said to be a translation from the Greek) in the De Vitis Patrum. A version also exists in Coptic. . . . There is an exactly similar narrative in Irish literature, entitled The Two Deaths. . . . The above contains some peculiarly Celtic touches introduced by the unknown redactor. . . . But apart from these touches, which are only to be expected, it is clear that the Irish writer knew and made use of the passage in the De Vitis Patrum, which comes pretty near saying that we have here a direct connexion between Irish and Eastern literature.7

The text referred to by Seymour as the De vitis patrum is part of the systematic collection of the wisdom of the desert fathers known also by its Greek name Apophthegmata patrum. It was published in Patrologia latina 73 under the title Verba seniorum, “The Sayings of the Fathers.”8

Martin McNamara slightly revised Seymour’s statement in 1984 in his Apocrypha in the Irish Church, concluding rightly that “the direct connection here is surely with the Latin text, not with an Eastern original.”9 Charles D. Wright returned briefly to the question in 1993 in his Irish Tradition in Old English Literature, when discussing the adaptations or imitations of eschatological tales from the De vitis patrum in Irish and Anglo-Saxon sources. He states that “the Irish version of the Three Utterances sermon borrows its framing narrative from another eschatological anecdote in the Vitas patrum.”10

The Three Utterances

I will start the discussion with the three utterances, which form the most memorable part of the story line. The motif of the three utterances is not peculiar only to The Two Deaths, and it can be found in a number of versions, both in Latin and Old English.11 The most popular context [End Page 127] for this motif is...