Celtic Otherworlds

18 Sep

Enchantment permeates Celtic mythology, shrouding the tales in a haunting, dreamlike quality. The all-pervasive otherworld lies behind much of the mystery and magic, penetrating the forests and lakes, and crafting charmed rings and weapons such as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. There are in fact many otherworlds of Celtic myth: invisible realms of gods and spirits, fairies, elves and misshapen giants, some of them sparkling heavens while others are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul. Common gateways to the otherworld are by water and across narrow bridges, beneath mounds or wells which hide glittering subterranean paradises or dark purgatories. Above all, it is on the eve of Samhain, October 31, that all the gates to the otherworld open and spirits emerge from beneath the hollow hills.

The archetypal inspired bard was Thomas the Rhymer, who slipped in and out of the otherworld, drawing on divine sources of inspiration for his poetry. Bards, like druids, possessed supernatural powers of prophecy and inspiration when seized by awen, the divine muse. Their power to satirize with the glam dicin, an undermining song, made them more feared than fierce warriors. Another famous bard from Celtic mythology was Taliesin (“shining brow”), who was gifted with all-knowing vision when he drank three drops of knowledge from the cauldron of the witch Ceridwen. The Mabinogion is the title given to a collection of eleven prose stories collated from medieval Welsh manuscripts in which Taliesin is quoted as saying “I am old, I am new. I have been dead, I have been alive.”

Otherworld Image

But the otherworld is just as often depicted as a perilous place in Celtic myth. The Enchanted Forest of Arthurian legend was alive with beguiling fairy maidens, who often taunted errant knights. One such, Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci, was a banshee who attracted mortal lovers for her own amusement, inspiring them with a hopeless infatuation and then leaving them bereft of will or purpose until they withered on the lake, “alone and palely loitering”. Pwyll, a Welsh chieftain, was another hero who fell foul of the otherworld. After riding through a lush, wooded idyll, he suddenly found himself in the otherworldly realm of Annwn. After driving off some shining white hounds from a fallen stag, he encountered Arawn, the grey-clad ruler of the underworld. Arawn was the Lord of Winter, who fought an annual battle with Havgan, the Summer King, and asked Pwyll to swap places with him for a year, at the end of which Pwyll fought and won the seasonal duel.

Even the great wizard Merlin, wise and thoughtful though he was, became enchanted by the ravishing Lady of the Lake, Nimue. Despite Merlin’s foresight, he allowed himself to be lured deep beneath a stone and bound there by his own magic spells. In another legend, Nimue put Merlin into a trance beneath a thorn tree and then trailed her veil around him, creating an invisible tower of air in which he was trapped forever. It is said that his voice can still be heard in the plaintive rustling of leaves. Above all it is Balor and his misshapen people, the Fomorii, who symbolize the dark forces of the otherworld. They oppressed the Irish with crushing tributes and cruelty and Balor’s single eye paralysed his enemies with its deadly gaze. The Fomorii were finally defeated by the Tuatha De Danann, the children of the goddess Dana, at the second battle of Magh Tuireadh, at which Balor was slain by the hero Lugh of the Long Arm.

The classic takes on Celtic mythology are The Mists of Avalon by Marion Bradley, The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead and The Arthurian Saga by Mary Stewart – all of which are books that have reached almost legendary status in fantasy circles. Although they are lighter and are usually considered books for children, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence and Jenny Nimmo’s Snow Spider trilogy are also all highly recommended for anyone with even a slight interest in Celtic lore. The aforementioned Stephen Lawhead wrote an intriguing re-imagining of Celtic myth and legend with his Song of Albion series, where the present mingles seamlessly with the mythic past, a pastiche which was employed to far greater acclaim in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago novels. For an interesting slant on the conflict between the Fomorii and the Tuatha De Danann, read Mark Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule trilogy, in which a new Dark Age descends on Britain as the two ancient races of demi-gods bring their conflict to the 21st century. Chadbourn’s stirring depiction of a gritty, post-apocalypse world inhabited by dragons and other mythological creatures in which the beleaguered remnants of humanity struggle for survival is as good as any other fantasy series out there and totally authentic in its references to Celtic myth. All well worth a look if you find the Mabinogion hard going!

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4 Responses to “Celtic Otherworlds”

  1. Risa September 19, 2016 at 1:02 pm #

    I enjoyed this post since I’m slightly enamoured of the Otherworld too! I’m so glad you mentioned Lawhead as so few people seem to have heard of him, even amongst those who enjoy reading anything to do with the Arthurian Legend. I have read only the Crystal Cave from Stewart’s Merlin series and I found it intriguing and the writing lovely. I’m not sure why I haven’t followed up with the rest of the series…I need to look into that one.

    Also, thank you for the other recommendations. 🙂

    • celticsprite September 20, 2016 at 12:06 am #

      I suggest you to read Mary Stewart’s “The Hollow Hills” … It is the second in a quintet of novels covering the Arthurian Legends. This book is preceded by The Crystal Cave and succeeded by The Last Enchantment. The Hollow Hills was written in 1970 and published in 1973. I bid you farewell wishing you an enlightened journey…

  2. celticspritel September 19, 2016 at 11:58 pm #

    Thanx for honoring the Celtic Otherworld kind Ash….Many cultures over the world are used to believe that the soul or the spirit never dies. The Celts are not the exception, since they were fierce in battle and did not fear death. It was just the first step for a “journey of transmigrations”.

    And this happened to be in a different world. It is a single place with no shadows but the eternal light. A dimension of constant hope, plenty of adventures and trials to undergo until the triumphal return to the corporeal world. A new dimensional site where the “Underworld” and the “Otherworld” motif mingles as one, and the soul lives out another lifetime.

    It is pointed out that folk tales are the disguised representation in conscious thought of unconscious, or repressed contents and events. And this symbolic aspect of legends is even reckoned by some scholars of psychology and mythology to be the principal characteristic of sacred expressions.

    While learning and knowing about spiritual and religious facts, we contribute to maintain and strengthen our relationship with the realm of the sacred or spiritual dimension. These beliefs are reflected not only in the myths and art, but also in the Ogham alphabet. All their hidden meanings appear on each of the letter kennings.

    I guess you will find interesting to take a look at my book upon this subject….(https://www.amazon.com/Celtic-Otherworld-Eliseo-Mauas-Pinto-ebook/dp/B0109XKD1I), and learn how intense it is the sense of natural symbolism in Celtic culture. You will get acquainted with some of the myths and motifs that have a spiritual and a symbolic form, or the attribution of symbolic meaning, or a character to something….Keep up the sacred flame as always!…. Bright blessings!

  3. celticsprite September 20, 2016 at 12:01 am #

    Thanx for honoring the Celtic Otherworld kind Ash!….Many cultures over the world are used to believe that the soul or the spirit never dies. The Celts are not the exception, since they were fierce in battle and did not fear death. It was just the first step for a “journey of transmigrations”.

    And this happened to be in a different world. It is a single place with no shadows but the eternal light. A dimension of constant hope, plenty of adventures and trials to undergo until the triumphal return to the corporeal world. A new dimensional site where the “Underworld” and the “Otherworld” motif mingles as one, and the soul lives out another lifetime.

    It is pointed out that folk tales are the disguised representation in conscious thought of unconscious, or repressed contents and events. And this symbolic aspect of legends is even reckoned by some scholars of psychology and mythology to be the principal characteristic of sacred expressions.

    While learning and knowing about spiritual and religious facts, we contribute to maintain and strengthen our relationship with the realm of the sacred or spiritual dimension. These beliefs are reflected not only in the myths and art, but also in the Ogham alphabet. All their hidden meanings appear on each of the letter kennings.

    I wrote a book upon this subject which I guess you will surely would like to take a look at https://www.amazon.com/Celtic-Otherworld-Eliseo-Mauas-Pinto-ebook/dp/B0109XKD1I
    On this work, you will learn how intense it is the sense of natural symbolism in Celtic culture. Keep up the sacred fire as always…. Bright Blessings!

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