In previous posts, we discussed places within the earthly realms which were seen as portals to the Celtic Otherworld. We have also begun an initial discussion of the names and attributes of the inhabitants of the Otherworld. In this post we will explore the nature and appearance of the Otherworld realms, as they are described in early Irish literature.
We have some inkling of how the Continental Celts may have viewed the Otherworld in terms of where the souls of the dead were believed to travel. The graves of noble or important people were richly outfitted with clothes and jewelry, food and drink, tools and weapons, and even chariots – either for passage into the next life or for use therein. Classical reports state that the Celts appeared to have believed in the immortality of the soul, that our spirits inhabit another body after this one.
It is not entirely clear from the evidence we have whether the abode of the Gods and Goddesses was the same as the abode of the deceased. This ambiguity exists in earlier evidence as well as later folkloric materials. There are descriptions of living people visiting the abode of the deities, and either choosing or having to stay there. This seems to be an unusual situation, however, and there are some early writings which seem to indicate that the Celts of Ireland and Britain perceived of an offshore island which was presided over by a God of the Dead. This is quite different, however, from the abode of the Gods.
We have seen that there were earthly portals or places of connection between this world and the Otherworld: Neolithic burial mounds (often called ‘Síd’ or ‘fairy’ mounds), hills and mountains, bodies of water, sacred groves, as well as human-created temples (contrary to many popular assertions that the Celts only worshipped out of doors). We know that offerings were made at some of these sites, and undoubtedly sacred prayers, invocations, songs, chants and liturgy were offered there as well.
But what about the experience of human beings who passed over the threshold into the world of the gods? How did they perceive or experience these ineffable realms? While early Irish literature is not in all cases a direct window into the Iron Age, there are many instances where the material that has been preserved does seem to reflect native belief. These sources refer to the abode of the gods and goddesses (the Áes Síde) by a number of different names, including:
Mag Mell – The Plain of Honey
Mag Argatnél – The Plain of Silver Clouds
Tír na mBan – The Land of Women (here referring to heroes’ encounters with Otherworld women)
Tír na nÓg – The Land of Youth
Tír Tairngire – The Land of Promise (this name probably influenced by Biblical tradition)
Emain Ablach – Emain (Twins) of the Apple Trees; which is paralleled in Welsh tradition by the place-name
Avalon – Place of Divine Apple Trees / Divine Place of Apple Trees
The names themselves are evocative, and worthy of spiritual exploration. The Otherworld might really be more properly referred to as The Otherworlds, for early evidence suggests the veneration of deities who inhabited all three cosmic realms – Upper World, Middle World and Lower World. In addition, there are a number of ‘rulers’ of these realms, who seem to inhabit and hold sway over particular areas or territories. Those beneath the earth are differentiated to some extent from those beneath the waters.
There are some remarkable descriptions of the Otherworld embodied in poetic verse which is usually found embedded within an early Irish tale or saga. They describe these hallowed realms as being like our world in some ways, but more beautiful, more numinous, more harmonious and more mysterious. War, disease and death are rare there, but not unknown. Colours, sounds and experiences seem to be enhanced, as is often the case in enthographic descriptions from other cultures.
Here are some descriptions which I have translated from the Old Irish (copyright 2012). The first is from a description of the lands under the waves, and the second from that inside a fairy mound. [For a more complete discussion of these realms and the full poems, see ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief’ – McFarland Publishers).
There is an island in the distance…a fair land throughout the ages of the seas on which many blossoms fall Glistening is the appearance of every colour throughout the gentle winds of the plain…
In the doorway to the west, in the place where the sun sets, are a herd of horses with speckled manes… In the doorway to the east are three trees of purple crystal from which a flock of birds sings…
In one tale, a deity invites a mortal woman to visit him in his underwater world, and describes it as a place “where there is neither yours nor mine,’ where the people who live there see all, but none see them.
These poems – and many other aspects of the traditional lore found in the Old Irish texts – can serve as important spiritual gateways to connecting with, experiencing and understanding the Realms of the Áes Síde.
Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Celticist, author and musician. She is an Old Irish translator at Stanford University and has published several well known books on Celtic religion including ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief’ as well as ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’.