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Tales and folklore refer to the Otherworld as "The Fortunate Isles" in the western sea, or at other times underground (such as in the Sídhe) or right alongside the world of the living, but invisible to most humans. The intrusion of the Otherworld into this one is signaled by the appearance of divine beings or unusual animals, or other phenomena such as sudden changes in the weather. Sometimes an otherworldly woman will present an apple or an apple branch, or a ball of thread to follow as it unwinds.
Beliefs of the ancient Gauls
Graeco-Roman geographers[who?] tell about the Celtic belief in islands consecrated to gods and heroes. Among them were Anglesey (Môn), located on the Northern Welsh Coast, which was the sacred island of the druids of Britain; the Scilly islands, where archaeological remains of proto-historical temples have been found; and some of the Hebrides Islands, which were, in the Gaelic tradition, home of ghosts and demons: on one of them, Skye, the Irish hero Cúchulainn was educated by the warrior woman Scathach.
Byzantine scholar Procopius of Caesarea described the Otherworld beliefs of the ancient Gauls. He said it was thought that the Land of Dead lay some place west of Great Britain. The Continental Celtic myths told that once the souls of the dead had left their bodies, they travelled to the Northwestern coast of Gaul and took a boat in direction to Britannia. When they had to cross the Channel, the souls went to the homes of the fishermen, and knocked desperately at their doors. The fishermen went then out of their houses and led the dead to their goal in ghostly ships.
There are still remains of those beliefs in the Breton and Galician traditions. In Brittany, the name Bag an Noz is used to denote those ships who carry the dead to their goal: Anatole Le Braz describes in his book La légende de la mort chez les Bretons armoricains the existence of souls' processions which make their way toward coastal places like Laoual, to start their last travel from there.
The Otherworld has been described in Irish poetry and tales as being a land of paradise, happiness, and summer. It is often described as a series of islands where the various deities and ancestors live. Many mythological heroes, such as Cúchulainn and Bran in The Voyage of Bran, journeyed to Otherworld realms.
The Irish believed in an Otherworld, which they described sometimes as underground, such as in the Sídhe mounds, and sometimes located on islands in the Western Sea. The Otherworld was variously called Tír na mBeo ("the Land of the Living"), Mag Mell ("Delightful Plain"), and Tír na nÓg ("Land of the Young"), among other names. It was believed to be a country where there was no sickness, old age, or death, where happiness lasted forever, and a hundred years was as one day. It was probably similar to the Elysium of the Greek mythology and both may have a shared origin in ancient Proto-Indo-European religion. In Irish Immrama ("voyage") tales, a beautiful young woman often approaches the hero and sings to him of this happy land. Sometimes she offers him an apple, or the promise of her love in exchange for his assistance in battle. He follows her, and they journey over the sea together and are seen no more. Their journey may take place in a boat of glass, in a chariot, or on horseback (usually upon a white horse, as in the case of the goddess Niamh of the Golden Hair). Sometimes the hero returns after what he believes is a short time, only to find that all his companions are dead and he has actually been away for hundreds of years. Sometimes the hero sets out on a quest, and a magic mist descends upon him. He may find himself before an unusual palace and enter to find a warrior or a beautiful woman who makes him welcome. The woman may be the goddess Fand, the warrior may be Manannán mac Lir or Lugh, and after strange adventures the hero may return successfully. However, even in cases where the mortal manages to return to his own time and place, he is forever changed by his contact with the Otherworld. However, there is nowhere in Irish mythology where it explicitly states that these paradises were actually portrayals of an afterlife; rather, that view became popular after the spread of Christianity, when an attempt was made to explain native tradition by drawing parallels with Christian teaching. The actual abode of the dead in Irish mythology was the less pleasant Tech Duinn.
Sídhe: The dwellings of fairies
The Irish tradition tells that the fairies are descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann, an ancient folk that were driven to the Underworld by a wave of invaders, the Gaels, who came from Galicia led by chieftain Míl Espáine.
The Tuatha had no other choice than to take refuge under the sídhe, a Celtic word which denotes the hills where the long barrows lay. The fairies who live in the mounds are known as the Aos Sí or the daoine sídhe. All through Ireland, legends can be heard about Knocks (from the Irish cnoc), hollow hills which are inhabited by extended fairy communities ruled by a King or a Queen. The best known sídhe sites in Ireland are: Knockma, where the throne of Finvarra (King of the fairies of Connaught) is located; Knockany, ruled by Ainé, Queen of Munster; and Newgrange in county Meath, a megalithic passage tomb which is associated with the deities Boann, Angus Óg and The Dagda.
The sídhe can be found by humans in certain times in the year, especially at Midsummer, when the daoine sídhe might be seen dancing under the moonlight.
In Brittany and in Asturias, similar myths are kept. In the Asturian mythology, there are many stories which describe human encounters with xanas, fairies which are dancing around a chief fairy, the Xana Mega, or the Queen of Fairies, known as xacias in Galicia. The castro of Altamira is said to hide an enormous underground realm which is ruled by a royal couple, and whose entrance is found some place on the hill.
This conception of the Otherworld is also preserved in the Welsh story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, which ends with the survivors of the great battle feasting in the presence of the severed head of Bran the Blessed, having forgotten all their suffering and sorrow, and having become unaware of the passage of time. In Irish lore, Donn, a god of the dead, reigned over Tech Duinn ('The House of Donn'), which was seen as existing on or under Bull Island, located off the Beare Peninsula in the southwest of Ireland. It was believed that the newly-dead journeyed to Tech Duinn, either to remain there forever, or perhaps as a starting-point on their journey to the Blessed Isles across the Western Sea. A Welsh corollary to Tech Duinn is Annwfn, ruled by the Otherworld kings Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd.
In the First Branch of the Welsh tales known as The Mabinogion, entitled Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, the eponymous prince offends Arawn, ruler of Annwn (the Welsh Other World), by baiting his hunting hounds on a stag that Arawn's dogs had brought down. In recompense, Pwyll exchanges places with Arawn for a year and defeats Arawn's enemy Hafgan. Meanwhile, Arawn rules Dyfed. During this year, Pwyll does not sleep with Arawn's wife, earning himself gratitude from Arawn. On his return, Pwyll becomes known by the title Pen Annwn, "Head (or Ruler) of Annwn."
- James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp.21, 205, 270, 322–3, 346, 359–60. ISBN 0-19-280120-1.
- Cf. Eleanor Hull, The Silver Bough in Irish Legend, in Folk-Lore, xii.
- Pharsalia, 1, 457
- Patrick K. Ford (ed/trans), The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977. ISBN 0-520-03414-7
- MacKillop 1998, pp.147–9
- MacKillop 1998, pp.19–20
- James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford: 1998. ISBN 0-19-860967-1