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The Guardians of the Otherworld

All art by Andrew Ostrovsky

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

C.S. Lewis

I recently had a conversation with a scholar of Irish mythology about the variety of strange creatures and beings which are described in trance-states and fairy-lore, as well as those depicted in many medieval texts. One of my questions was why we are so quick to assume that the many exotic beings we read about are always the same archetypal figures from folklore and mythology.

My own bias, and let me put it out in the open, was that within religious and spiritual art throughout history, we have representations of strange creatures and forms which we *cannot* identify. These usually appear to humans on what might be termed sacred ground. Some, like the anthropologist David Lewis Williams see the depictions of these odd beings as being trance-evoked, depending upon the location. So, in this argument, the proposal is that when a person enters an altered state of consciousness in a cave, for example, they encounter supernatural beings who do not always fit into a known pantheon or lexicon.

A good example is the so-called ‘The Sorcerer’, a half human, half deer figure depicted at Trois Frères, France, and dated to 13’000 years ago. The belief of archaeologists, like Lewis-Williams, is that this was drawn to depict an anthropomorphic figure encountered by an ancient shaman. https://upperpalaeolithicart.wordpress.com/…/chauvet-cave/

Even more mysterious are the images discovered in the Hoshangbad district of Chhattisgarh state in northern India. In this instance we have half-amphibian, half-human beings and creatures, including some descending from the sky. These forms, according to the archaeologist JR Bhagat, who has researched the caves, depict a race of supernatural entities who were once worshipped by the local population. The folklore of the Baster region contains many stories of these so-called “rohela people” who were believed to dwell in a realm within the sky. These drawings are at least 10’000 years old.

We know that caves were considered marginal places, or entrances to the otherworld, because they still serve this function with many indigenous peoples throughout the world today. Caves become the initiatory doorways for both the young seeking to connect with ancestors, and the shaman in Asian traditions, where a totem spirit or guide might be discovered. Further examples can be found in the southern regions of Africa, where the San people tell us that their caves were portals to the spirits who dwell in the sky realms consisting of both the dead, and those yet to be born, as well as pantheons of strange beings bearing little resemblance to any human or animal forms we know. Of course, merely entering these places may not be enough in itself to begin the trance state. Often, chanting, drumming and psychedelic substances are used to further this process.

In Irish folklore, we have what seems to be a stable pantheon of fairy beings and animals which, although exotic and unearthly, tend to be found in archetypal forms throughout the country. But is this really the case, or is it that we tend to impulsively identify any strange sighting from the catalogue we have already been presented with? Many encounters, when examined closely, throw up odd variants which do not always match with the list of fairy beings within the collected record. This shouldn’t be controversial, nor should it be a surprise. After all, many of the spirit beings depicted by native and indigenous peoples change from region to region, and can often have physical traits that seem almost created for a single individual going through the initiation or encountering them.

As we enter the Otherworld, all rules we are bound by change, as we too also change: our reception of consciousness, our perception of ourselves and surroundings, and, of course, the unbound outward connection to aspects of mind we were previously unable to distinguish. As Jung wrote when describing his own attempts to express his own initiatory, spiritual, journey, “I indignantly answered, “Do you call light what we men call the worst darkness? Do you call day night?” To this my soul spoke a word that roused my anger, “My light is not of this world.” I cried, “I know of no other world!” The soul answered, “Should it not exist because you know nothing of it?”

We can apply Jung’s revelation to the many strange humanoid figures and unusual beings we find in cave art, encountered in spiritual journeying and, today, even sightings of crypto terrestrial animals which bear no resemblance to creatures we might expect to find in our world. Although not usually associated with the same consciousness-altering conditions, many medieval manuscripts also contain depictions of strange creatures, demonic and eerily beautiful winged forms, as well as supernatural animals never recorded here in the earthly realm.

The Aberdeen Bestiary, for example, a 12th century manuscript, describes a flying winged serpent called an iaculus. This creature was said to reside in cemeteries and act as a messenger between the worlds of the dead and the living. It would provide secret knowledge providing it was fed a bowl of warm beer every day. If this was not given, the iaculus would kill the person seeking their counsel. Many medieval texts associated with magic also include images of demons, angels, and creatures unknown to us.

Marginalia, which are images drawn to the side of the main text, also depict fantastical flying folk, as well as fearsome half-human half-beast figures which seem to both punctuate the words, as well as acting as guides through the text. Some magical books were actually eaten in order to transfer their power to a person. In fact, the Book of Durrow, an ancient Irish manuscript from the 7th century was later dipped in water by monks and farmers in order to produce a healing medicine for livestock. This is important, as books themselves are gateways to the imaginal realms in the same way as caves and sacred sites.
The images, the paper, and even the ink of magical texts were considered powerful enough to both induce a trance and bring a person into contact with the beings of the spiritual realms.

As Owen Davis writes in his work Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, “A grimoire is defined by the writing it contains, but the act of writing can itself be magic and certain words can have active properties independent of the holy or magical text in which they are written.” I don’t think this will be surprising for anyone who follows this page. The power of a book or image to transform consciousness is well attested to in many of the folktales and fairy encounters we have explored here. Often the movement of fairies, demons and other beings associated with the Otherworld transfer across entire religious systems, as well as through the millennia.

The Irish philosopher John Scotus Erigena wrote about the division of supernatural and angelic beings which emanated from the primordial source. This work heavily influenced many of the illustrations depicting demons and angels which appeared in later medieval texts, and yet Erigana certainly took inspiration for his angelic hierarchy from Plato, and, it has been argued, from the spiritual beings encountered by Greek seers and oracles, and supernatural messengers associated with Hekate. Even today, many scholars casually associate fairies with fallen angels, so we can see how this legacy can continue to manifest both new and ancient interpretations.

Whether it is appearing physically at ancient sites, upon the pages of magic books, or carved upon cave walls, the strange guardians seem to remind us of just how many ways there actually are to enter these Otherworlds. Marginal places open us to connections between consciousness within, and consciousness without. While we may associate a journey to a sacred site as the most obvious type of pilgrimage we can undertake to reach these mind-states, inner contemplation through reading or art can be just as effective in allowing access to these eternal places.


David Halpin is a writer from Tallaght, now living on the Carlow/ Wicklow border. He has been writing about Irish Forteana and spirituality for over thirty years and has had his articles published in magazines and books throughout the world. David’s photographs of Ireland’s sacred sites have been published in journals and articles worldwide and in 2020 were included in An Taisce’s annual report on the Irish landscape. David is also a reviewer of esoteric writing and as well as publishing for The Occult Book Review, he also contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online publications. His articles have appeared in The Wild Hunt, New Dawn Magazine, Coire Ansic, and he is a regular contributor to Ancient Origins. David also runs the blog, Circle Stories, where he focuses his writing upon the topics of consciousness and folklore.

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