Mar 06 2013

The Celtic Otherworld

The Heaven-World of the ancient Celts, unlike that of the Christians, was not situated in some distant, unknown region of planetary space, but here on our own earth. As it was necessarily a subjective world, poets could only describe it in terms more or less vague; and its exact geographical location, accordingly, differed widely in the minds of scribes from century to century. Sometimes, as is usual today in fairy-lore,

Pic :Mark Grealish

it was a subterranean world entered through caverns, or hills, or mountains, and inhabited by many races and orders of invisible beings, such as demons, shades, fairies, or even gods…

And the underground world of the Sidhe-folk, which cannot be separated from it, was divided into districts or kingdoms under different fairy kings and queens, just as the upper world of mortals. We already know how the Tuatha De Danann or Sidhe-folk, after their defeat by the Sons of Mil at the Battle of Tailte, retired to this underground world and took possession of its palaces beneath the green hills and vales of Ireland; and how from there, as gods of the harvest, they still continued to exercise authority over their conquerors, or marshaled their own invisible spirit-hosts in fairy warfare, and sometimes interfered in the wars of men…

“Many go to the Tir-na-nog in sleep, and some are said to have remained there,
and only a vacant form is left behind without the light in the eyes
which marks the presence of a soul.”
~~ A. E. ~~

More frequently, in the old Irish manuscripts, the Celtic Otherworld was located in the midst of the Western Ocean, as though it were the ‘double’ of the lost Atlantis; and Manannan Mac Lir, the Son of the Sea–perhaps himself the ‘double’ of an ancient Atlantean king–was one of the divine rulers of its fairy inhabitants, and his palace, for he was one of the Tuatha De Danann, was there rather than in Ireland; and when he traveled between the two countries it was in a magic chariot drawn by horses who moved over the sea-waves as on land. And fairy women came from that mid-Atlantic world in magic boats like spirit boats, to charm away such mortal men as in their love they chose, or else to take great Arthur wounded unto death. And in that island world there was neither death nor pain nor scandal, naught save immortal and unfading youth, and endless joy and feasting…

Even yet at rare intervals, like a phantom, Hy Brasil appears far out on the Atlantic. No later than the summer of 1908 it is said to have been seen from West Ireland, just as that strange invisible island near Innishmurray, inhabited by the invisible ‘gentry’, is seen–once in seven years. And too many men of intelligence testify to having seen Hy Brasil at the same moment, when they have been together, or separated, as during the summer of 1908, for it to be explained away as an ordinary illusion of the senses.

Pic: Foto Junkie

Nor can it be due to a mirage such as we know, because neither its shape nor position seems to conform to any known island or land mass…

The Celtic Otherworld is like that hidden realm of subjectivity lying just beyond the horizon of mortal existence, which we cannot behold when we would, save with the mystic vision of the Irish seer. Thus in the legend of Bran’s friends, who sat over dinner at Harlech with the Head of Bran for seven years, three curious birds acted as musicians, the Three Birds of Rhiannon, which were said to sing the dead back to life and the living into death; but the birds were not in Harlech, they were out over the sea in the atmosphere of Rhiannon’s realm in the bosom of Cardigan Bay…

And though we might say of that Otherworld, as we learn from these Three Birds of Rhiannon, and as Socrates would say, that its inhabitants are come from the living and the living in our world from the dead there, yet…we ought not to think of the Sidhe-folk, nor of such great heroes and gods as Arthur and Cuchulainn and Finn, who are also of its invisible company, as in any sense half-conscious shades; for they are always represented as being in the full enjoyment of an existence and consciousness greater than our own…

In Irish manuscripts, the Otherworld beyond the Ocean bears many names. It is Tír-na-nog, ‘The Land of Youth'; Tír-Innambéo, ‘The Land of the Living'; Tír Tairngire, ‘The Land of Promise'; Tír N-aill, ‘The Other Land (or World)'; Mag Már, ‘The Great Plain'; and also Mag Mell, ‘The Plain Agreeable (or Happy)…’

But this western Otherworld, if it is what we believe it to be–a poetical picture of the great subjective world–cannot be the realm of any one race of invisible beings to the exclusion of another. In it all alike–gods, Tuatha De Danann, fairies, demons, shades, and every sort of disembodied spirits–find their appropriate abode; for though it seems to surround and interpenetrate this planet even as the X-rays interpenetrate matter, it can have no other limits than those of the Universe itself…

Pic: Christmas w/a k

And that it is not an exclusive realm is certain from what our old Irish manuscripts record concerning the Fomorian races. These, when they met defeat on the battle-field of Moytura at the hands of the Tuatha De Danann, retired altogether from Ireland, their overthrow being final, and returned to their own invisible country–a mysterious land beyond the Ocean, where the dead find a new existence, and where their god-king Tethra ruled, as he formerly ruled in this world…

And the fairy women of Tethra’s kingdom, even like those who came from the Tuatha De Danann of Erin, or those of Manannan’s ocean-world, enticed mortals to go with them to be heroes under their king, and to behold there the assemblies of ancestors. It was one of them who came to Connla, son of Conn, supreme king of Ireland; and this was her message to him: ‘The immortals invite you. You are going to be one of the heroes of the people of Tethra. You will always be seen there, in the assemblies of your ancestors, in the midst of those who know and love you.’ And with the fairy spell upon him the young prince entered the glass boat of the fairy woman, and his father the king, in great tribulation and wonder, beheld them disappear across the waters never to return…

To enter the Otherworld before the appointed hour marked by death, a passport was often necessary, and this was usually a silver branch of the sacred apple-tree bearing blossoms, or fruit, which the queen of the Land of the Ever-Living and Ever-Young gives to those mortals whom she wishes for as companions; though sometimes, as we shall see, it was a single apple without its branch. The queen’s gifts serve not only as passports, but also as food and drink for mortals who go with her. Often the apple-branch produces music so soothing that mortals who hear it forget all troubles and even cease to grieve for those whom the fairy women take. For us there are no episodes more important than those in the ancient epics concerning these apple-tree talismans, because in them we find a certain key which unlocks the secret of that world from which such talismans are brought, and proves it to be the same sort of a place as the Otherworld of the Greeks and Romans…

A branch of the apple-tree from Emain
I bring, like those one knows;
Twigs of white silver are on it,
Crystal brows with blossoms.
There is a distant isle,
Around which sea-horses glisten:
A fair course against the white-swelling surge,–
Four feet uphold it.

The Irish Druids made their wands of divination from the yew-tree, and, like the ancient priests of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, are believed to have controlled spirits, fairies, daemons, elementals, and ghosts while making such divinations…

It will help us to understand how closely the ancient symbols have affected our own life and age – though we have forgotten their relation with the Otherworld – by offering a few examples, beginning with the ancient Irish bards who were associated with the Druids…

A wand in the form of a symbolic branch, like a little spike or crescent with gently tinkling bells upon it, was borne by them; and in the piece called Mesca Ulad or ‘Inebriety of the Ultonians’

Pic: Mark Greailish

it is said of the chief bard of Ulster, Sencha, at in the midst of a bloody fray he ‘waved the peaceful branch of Sencha, and all the men of Ulster were silent, quiet’…

In Agallamh an dá Shuadh or the ‘Dialogue of the two Sages’, the mystic symbol used by gods, fairies, magicians, and by all initiates who know the mystery of life and death, is thus described as a Druid symbol: ‘Neidhe’ (a young bard who aspired to succeed his father as chief poet of Ulster), ‘made his journey with a silver branch over him…

The Anradhs, or poets of the second order, carried a silver branch, but the Ollamhs, or chief poets, carried a branch of gold; all other poets bore a branch of bronze…’

Modern and ancient parallels are worldwide, among the most civilized as among the least civilized peoples, and in civil or religious life among ourselves. Thus, it was with a magic rod that Moses struck the rock and pure water gushed forth, and he raised the same rod and the Red Sea opened; kings hold their sceptres no less than Neptune his trident; popes and bishops have their croziers; in the Roman Church there are little wandlike objects used to perform benedictions; high civil officials have their mace of office; and all the world over there are the wands of magicians and of medicine-men…

Ossian…was enticed into Fairyland by a fairy woman: She carries him away on a white horse, across the Western Ocean; and as they are moving over the sea-waves they behold a fair maid on a brown horse, and she holding in her right hand a golden apple…

After the hero had married his fairy abductress and lived in the Otherworld for three hundred years, an overpowering desire to return to Ireland and join again in the councils of his dearly beloved Fenian Brotherhood took possession of him, and he set out on the same white horse on which he traveled thence with the fairy princess, for such was his wife…

And she, as he went, thrice warned him not to lay his ‘foot on level ground’, and he heard from her the startling announcement that the Fenians were all gone and Ireland quite changed…

Safe in Ireland, Ossian seeks the Brotherhood, and though he goes from one place to another where his old companions were wont to meet, not one of them can he find. And how changed is all the land! He realizes at last how long he must have been away. The words of his fairy wife are too sadly true…

While Ossian wanders disconsolately over Ireland, he comes to a multitude of men trying to move an enormous slab of marble, under which some other men are lying. ‘Ossian’s assistance is asked, and he generously gives it. But in leaning over his horse, to take up the stone with one hand, the girth breaks, and he falls. Straightway the white horse fled away on his way home, and Ossian became aged, decrepit, and blind…’

There are two chief classes of Otherworld legends. In one there is the beautiful and peaceful Tír Innambéo or’ Land of the Living’ under Manannan’s rule across the seas, and its fairy inhabitants are principally women who lure away noble men and youths through love for them; in the other there is a Hades world – often confused with the former – in which great heroes go on some mysterious quest. Sometimes this Hades world is inseparable from the underground palaces or world of the Tuatha De Danann…

As a rule the Hades world, or underground and under-wave world, is unlike Manannan’s peaceful ocean realm, being often described as a place of much strife; and mortals are usually induced to enter it to aid in settling the troubles of its fairy inhabitants…

In the Book of Leinster, and in later MSS., there is a dinnshenchas of almost primal pagan purity. It alludes to Clidna’s Wave, that of Tuag Inbir: To Tuag, daughter of Conall, Manannan the sea-god sent a messenger, a Druid of the Tuatha De Danann in the shape of a woman. The Druid chanted a sleep spell over the girl, and while he left her on the seashore to look for a boat in which to embark for the ‘Land of Everliving Women’, a wave of the flood tide came and drowned her..

Pic: Roee c

But the Oxford version of the same tale doubts whether the maiden was drowned, for it suggests, ‘Or maybe it (the wave) was Manannan himself that was carrying her off.’ Thus the scribe understood that to go to Manannan’s world literally meant entering a sleep or trance state, or, what is equivalent in the case of the maiden whom Manannan summoned, the passage through death from the physical body…

And still, to-day, Many believe that the ‘good people’ take to their invisible world all young men or maidens who meet death; or that one under a fairy spell may go to their world for a short-time, and come back to our world again…

Source

Originally posted 2008-06-11 14:02:34. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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