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.
Thomas the Rhymer, also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas Learmont and True Thomas, may or may not have been a Scottish poet and prophet who lived between 1220 and 1297. I say ‘may’ because in many ways Thomas is as much myth as man. He is mentioned in the chartulary (1294) of the Trinity House of Soltra as having inherited lands in Erceldoune, a Berwickshire village now known as Earlston. He is said to have predicted the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland, and the battle of Bannockburn, as well as being the traditional source of many (fabricated) oracles, one of which ‘foretold’ the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. He is also the reputed author of the poem Tristrem, based on the romance of Tristan and Isolde, which no less an authority than Sir Walter Scott considered genuine (it probably in fact emanated from a French source). What Thomas is best known for, however, is the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, included by Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), which tells of his visit to the land of faerie and his imprisonment there by a fey enchantress. In popular lore he was often coupled with Merlin and other British seers. An elusive, inspiring figure, Thomas the Rhymer slipped in and out of the Otherworld, creating new myths and legends that have only grown in the telling in the many centuries since his seeming ‘death’. He is also the probable source of the legend of Tam Lin.