The Ancient Celtic Otherworld
First Appeared in Ripples, The Quarterly Journal of Shining Lakes Grove, Yule, 1995.
Few areas of Celtic lore are more confused by the ravages of time and cultural intrusion than the phenomena of death and the afterlife. The coming of the new Christian faith to Northern Europe signaled a radical change in our traditional understanding of death and rebirth as new characters and biblical theology were superimposed on aboriginal mythology. This hybridization of belief systems created a uniquely Celtic Christianity that, while greatly enhanced by popular folk belief, was in many ways very different from our pre-Christian understanding of the world.
Much of the thinking that resulted from this course of events has been passed down through the centuries to us in folk tales and continues to distort our views of ancient cosmology today. Many of these ideas even continue to be upheld and promoted by modern Neopagan lore as tales are retold and studied for use in revivalist movements. To gain a clearer understanding of our cosmological heritage we must attempt to identify and remove these external influences of late history to reveal a functional and internally consistent world view. While we can not hold out much hope for a truly precise picture of our ancestors’ beliefs, these efforts will carry us much closer to that goal.
The Myth of the Sidhe Gods
The Gods and Goddesses of our ancestors were seen as very powerful. They existed in this world and could move freely between the realms. They were intimately tied to the activities of the world and had an active role in daily events. Many were involved directly in the very cycles upon which life depended.
When Christianity came to the fore people slowly adapted their understanding of these older deities to the new faith. A theology developed to explain the deities’ loss of power to the Christians God which described them as being defeated and relegated to the margins of the world. This belief was a continuation of our traditional view of supernatural relegation. The Celtic Deities were forced to live underground in the same way that they had once forced older pre-Celtic Gods to move out into the Sea.
Today the myths that have been passed through time to us contain stories of how the Gods were forced to live beneath the ground in caves and burial mounds. They began to be referred to as the Sidhe from the Gaelic term for under the hill . Stories abound of fantastic underworld palaces where the former Gods, in diminished form, host marvelous banquets for the dead and heroes of old. These themes are repeated in other tales which picture these palaces as hostels or bruidhen. These accounts have contributed much confusion to a clear understanding of ancient cosmology as they unjustly cast most of the major Irish deities in the role of the Celtic Otherworld God.
As the Christian view of the sinister nature of death and the Otherworld took hold, attitudes toward the old Gods became rooted in suspicion and fear. In late times our view of the Gods became so diminished that they began to be thought of as fairies, sprites, elves, dwarves, etc. These characters maintained their sinister and dangerous nature until recent times when the New Age movement and modern Disney stories turned them into cute but inconsequential playthings.
The Schizophrenic Horned Man
A very popular figure in modern day Neopaganism is the horned man, often given the name Cernunnos taken from a single inscription in Gaul. This modern horned man is a strange mixture of a number of ancient deities from Pan through the Green Man through Hermes through Arawn to Gwyn ap Nudd created through the syncretic power of Wiccan theology. He is seen as a representation of the wild and lusty force of nature while at the same time embodying a sinister otherworldly soul hunter character.
I believe that some of the content of this deity is the result of the collision of the ancient Welsh Otherworld God Arawn with the Christian Devil which occurred as Annwn slowly became synonymous with the Christian Hell. Other portions come from Gwyn ap Nudd, who was once a Welsh hunter God but later became the leader of the wild hunt where the forces of chaos and evil roamed the countryside seeking lone travelers for the opportunity to snatch their souls.
As the aboriginal view of death as a natural passage in the never-ending cycle of life was overtaken by Christian concepts, the previously benevolent Otherworld God took on the sinister and fearful characteristics of a demon. The festival of Samhain slowly turned from a respectful honoring of those who had passed beyond into a time to hide in our homes for fear of having our souls snatched away. Tales that once told us how to welcome the honored dead into our homes were reversed to teach us how to protect ourselves from them and bar them from our doors.
The horned man is indeed one of oldest known deities of Western Europe. But far from being a soul snatching Death God he was the protector of animals and the forest creatures. He was intimately connected with the deeply spiritual, but hardly sinister, activity of hunting and was honored widely as vital to the delicate dance of life. In this original form he is a very appropriate deity for our modern movement at a time when environmentalism is practically a spiritual imperative.
The Sea God King of the Otherworld
The ancient Celtic Otherworld had little to do with the underground. In fact, it is more readily identified on the horizontal plane as outward from the center rather than downward. It was associated strongly with the sea, and for this reason occupies a place as a realm in the triad of land, sea and sky. The dead are envisioned as living on beautiful islands or in magical lands under the surface of the waves.
The Otherworld is a happy place of peace and harmony, an idealized mirror image of this world. There is no pain, sickness or aging as the dead enjoy beautiful music and endless banquets of delight. The heroes of the ages entertain themselves with all sort of sports and good-natured athletic competitions as all await their time of return to this world.
The king and host of this wondrous realm is a Sea God. For Shining Lakes Grove he has been identified as Manannan mac Lir. His functional equivalent in the Welsh pantheon is the God Arawn. Both of them are far from demonic characters. Manannan is a wise and gracious host who has many wondrous abilities and possessions such as magical horses who can stride on the surface of the ocean, a cloak of invisibility and magical pigs.
Other Otherworldly Characters and Concepts
The Irish Celts have a tale of the first mortal ever to die. Just prior to their landfall upon Ireland, the sons of Mil are stricken by a mishap. One of their number, a fellow named Donn is drowned by the Goddess Eriu after he insults her. From this point on he appears in the tales as the keeper of the first guidepost on the journey to the Otherworld. The dead were believed to have briefly visited or passed by his house just after the moment of death. This house is located on an island off the coast of Ireland called TechnDuinn or House of Donn. This tale is undoubtedly of ancient origin as it is present in other forms in the larger body of Indo-European lore such as the Vedic Yama.
The battle hags of Celtic lore are closely associated with death. They are often seen transformed into ravens who hang around battlefields to feast on the gory remains. They are closely associated with the destiny of warriors and are usually triple Goddesses. Examples are Badbh, Nemhain, Macha and the Morrigan. They do not, however, seem to have anything to do with the realm of the dead itself and rather are mostly concerned with the moment of loss of life and possibly transportation of the soul to that realm.
There are also female characters who can be more readily seen as Goddesses of the Otherworld. They are generally very beautiful women who have great regenerative and healing powers. They are strongly associated with swans or songbirds with beautiful plumage and magical voices. The Goddesses often have the ability to transform themselves into the form of these birds. Examples of these Goddesses are Fand, Be Lind, Fi Band, Naiv, Rhiannon and probably Epona. In later tales they were seen as enchantresses who lured heroes into Otherworld adventures.
Living mortals also occasionally entered the Otherworld. A large number of the tales that have been passed down to us concern mortal adventures into the Otherworld and encounters with its inhabitants. Bold heroes such as Pwyll, Cu Chulainn, Bran, Finn and Conaire all found or fell upon a way to transgress the boundary between the worlds. These tales provide a wealth of knowledge about the nature of the Otherworld while pointing the way for modern practitioners to access and explore this realm. This is particularly true of those tales surrounding the God Manannan mac Lir.
A final character that should be mentioned is the Otherworldly dog or hound. As with many of the Indo-European people, the Celts also had such beasts in their mythology. Kings of the Otherworld such as Manannan and Arawn had special dogs which were red and white or speckled in appearance. They served their masters as hunting dogs or guard gods. When they were viewed by mortals they were seen as omens of impending death.
Conclusions for Neopagan Theology
Through the careful study and adoption of the principals outlined above we will be able to cultivate an understanding of death and the Otherworld that is much closer to that of our ancestors. The concept of the Otherworld as a peaceful and benevolent respite has important implications to our funerary and worship practices while permitting us to evolve a much more balanced and less-fearful approach to the journey beyond the veil.
The understanding of the genealogy of the Sidhe God tales is particularly important to our revival of faith in the old Gods. The fact that these Gods have been freed from their underground prisons to rule the world again has great power to bring them into our lives and show us their relevance to the interworkings of life. As we have begun to learn in Shining Lakes Grove this belief that the Gods can be once again seen and felt in nature around us has great power to intimately connect our acts of love and worship to the ever changing force of life around us.