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The Ancient, Celtic Otherworld, Part II

The Ancient Celtic Otherworld, Part II

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at the ancient Celtic Otherworld with Part II. The Otherworld was the mythological place of the spirits, the dead, and the Celtic deities. (Click here for Part I.)


Mound Tombs Were Otherworld Gateways

Where Was It? What Was It Like There?

Last time, we saw that the Celtic Otherworld was often below ground or on an island across the sea. The portals leading there were mound tombs, caves, waterfalls, or certain streams. Called Emain Ablach by the Irish, some believed it was a happy place. Yet if Manannán mac Lir, the sea god, ruled its domain, as some believed, how could any place ruled by he who brought the raging storms and ruled the monsters of the deep ever be happy? And then there’s this: All who went there and returned paid a terrible price, in disfigurement or the deaths of their companions.

Time Was Different There

The Celtic Otherworld was similar to this world, only far different. Trees grew and rivers flowed. But colors were enhanced. And sounds were brighter, clearer. Even the music was more enchanting. The fruit was sweeter and tastier. Often, travelers who spent only a week in the Otherworld found, on return to this world, that hundreds of years had passed and everyone they had known was dead. In the Otherworld, time did not move on and no one aged.

[As a side note, this description is remarkably similar to the reports of “near death experiences”–minus the time warp. Though we cannot discount such experiences, we caution that all such temporary travelers to the next world have only stepped on the threshold of what lay beyond. Since they never really died, none ever reached their final destination, did they? Who knows what lays beyond the foyer? Is it Heaven? Or is it Hell?]

Who Lived in the Otherworld?

Supernatural beings inhabited the Otherworld. Some were forces of nature. Others were gods and goddesses. Still others were the fairies, or “the little people”. Also inhabiting the Otherworld were the spirits of the dead. At one time, the ancient Irish believed in a separate Underworld belonging to the dead. But over time, both Underworld and Otherworld became a single supernatural realm, where the spirits of the dead also dwelt. The druids taught that humans went to an eternal afterlife. And the Otherworld was mankind’s next destination.


Contrary to one popular belief today, the Celts did not believe in reincarnation. Yes, they believed the soul lived on in an afterlife. What folks might be doing today is confusing a Celtic belief in shapeshifting for reincarnation after death.


Modern Depiction of Balor

Celtic Deities in the Underworld

If we examine the gods and goddesses who inhabited the Otherworld, we also wonder what kind of place it really was. With fearsome visages and a history of murder, mayhem, and fickle alliances, these are not gods to be trusted, admired, or worshiped. Consider for a moment Balor, the god of death. He is described as a giant with a single large eye. When its seven lids begin to open, one at a time, the eye progressively heats up all in his sight until everything burns. Great companion for an eternal rest, huh? Indeed, most of the images of the Celtic gods would give most people nightmares. To appease these gods, goddesses, fairies, and spirits was an endless, thankless task.

St. Patrick Brought a New Worldview

This was what the ancient Irish believed about the Otherworld. Into this belief system came St. Patrick in A.D. 432. He brought the message that there was only one God, and that all who believed in Jesus as the Son of that God would have eternal life. No wonder he made so many converts. For within a short time after his arrival, the Irish Celts abandoned the old beliefs and embraced Christianity.

Next week, we’ll have a change of pace and look at An Irish Christmas, Part I.

Sources for this post were “Deities, Natural Forces, and Ancestors” by Francine Nicholson, from Land, Sea, and Sky. (http://homepage.eircom.net/~shae/index.htm), Wikipedia, and The Celts by Peter Berresford Ellis.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.