The Ancient Celtic Otherworld, Part I
The Ancient Celtic Otherworld, Part I
In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher begins a look at the ancient Celtic Otherworld, the mythological place of the spirits, the dead, and the Celtic deities. We’ll concentrate mostly on the beliefs of ancient Ireland.
Where Was the Celtic Otherworld?
Called Emain Ablach by the ancient Irish, the Otherworld was often said to be somewhere underground. What were the portals by which one could travel there? The mound tombs, or raths, was one method. One myth said that, to find the way to the Otherworld, you must hunt a particular kind of white stag. But this was no earthly beast. Glowing white, with red ears and a huge set of antlers, this buck was supernatural. If you hunt this stag, it would lead you to the underground tomb that was the doorway to the Otherworld.
More Routes to the Otherworld
Water was often viewed as the conduit between worlds. Thus did the Celts look askance at waterfalls. For who knew what spirits or demons could pass through the falls from the other side to this world? Did some rivers and streams have their source in the Otherworld? Some believed they did. And perhaps they brought with them the Otherworld’s power and knowledge. Salmon were thought to be wise creatures, and eating a salmon from a certain river or drinking water from certain streams might imbue one with special Otherworld knowledge.
Others said the gateway to the Otherworld was somewhere “over the sea” on the island of Tech Duinn, where the spirits of the dead gathered. The god Donn was its gatekeeper. To go there, one traveled by boat.
What Was It Like?
The druids taught that mankind had an eternal afterlife, and in the next life man’s destination was Emain Ablach—the Otherworld. What was it like there? Though translations are hard to come by, Emain Ablach might be roughly translated as “Stream of the Apples”. It was often described as a happy place where all the tables were burdened with delicious fruit, meat, and bread; where all the inhabitants were handsome and beautiful; and where age and sickness was unknown. Yet Manannán mac Lir, the sea god, ruled there, he who brought raging storms, wind, and waves to the ocean. And he ruled over a dark undersea world populated by fantastic, dangerous creatures. So if the Otherworld was his realm to rule, how much of a paradise was it really?
But the Journey Was Costly
In Irish mythology, mortals often traveled to the Otherworld seeking its gifts. For one could return with incredible musical talent, the gift of healing, or some other magical power. But the trip often proved costly. The mythological Irish figure, Fionn Mac Comhaill, on his sojourns into the Otherworld, not only loses companions, he returns disfigured, with gray hair, and a burnt thumb. Bóann, the Irish goddess of the River Boyne, journeys to the Otherworld to bring back wisdom from the Well of Segais. But she pays for her seeking by leaving behind an arm and a leg. So beware, all ye mortals who dare enter this place. And again, we wonder what kind of place it really was.
Who lived in the Otherworld? The dead. Supernatural beings and creatures. And the ancient Celtic gods and goddesses of legend. Next time, we’ll look at their role in the Otherworld and learn more what it was like to travel there. And we’ll show why, when St. Patrick arrived on ancient Ireland, the Christian heaven proved such an attractive alternative to a dark, underground realm populated with fearsome, fickle deities.
We’ll finish next week with Part II.
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.