[Note: This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz’s The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]
In Ireland this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart. ‘
– W. B. YEATS
‘Many go to the Tir-na-nog in sleep, and some are said to have remained there, and only a vacant form is left behind without the light in the eyes which marks the presence of a soul. ‘
– A. E.
General ideas of the Otherworld : its location; its subjectivity; its names; its extent; Tethra one of its kings – The Silver Branch and the Golden Bough; and Initiations – The Otherworld the Heaven. World of all religions – Voyage of Bran – Cormac in the Land of Promise – Magic Wands – Cuchulainn’s Sick-Bed – Ossian’s return from Fairyland – Lanval’s going to Avalon – Voyage of Mael Duin – Voyage of Teigue – Adventures of Art – Cuchulainn’s and Arthur’s Otherworld Quests – Literary Evolution of idea of Happy Other-world.
THE Heaven-World of the ancient Celts, unlike that of the Christians, was not situated in some distant, unknown region of planetary space, but here on our own earth. As it was necessarily a subjective world, poets could only describe it in terms more or less vague; and its exact geographical location, accordingly, differed widely in the minds of scribes from century to century. Sometimes, as is usual to-day in fairy-lore, it was a subterranean world entered through caverns, or hills, or mountains, and inhabited by many races and orders of invisible beings, such as demons, shades, fairies, or even gods. And the underground world of the Sidhe-folk, which cannot be separated from it, was divided into districts or kingdoms under different fairy kings and queens, just as the upper world of mortals. We already know how the Tuatha De Danann or Sidhe-folk, after their defeat by the Sons of Mil at the Battle of Tailte, retired to this underground world and took possession of its palaces beneath the green hills and vales of Ireland; and how from there, as gods of the harvest, they still continued to exercise authority over their conquerors, or marshalled their own invisible spirit-hosts in fairy warfare, and sometimes interfered in the wars of men.
More frequently, in the old Irish manuscripts, the Celtic Otherworld was located in the midst of the Western Ocean, as though it were the ‘double’ of the lost Atlantis ; and Manannan Mac Lir, the Son of the Sea – perhaps himself the ‘double’ of an ancient Atlantean king – was one of the divine rulers of its fairy inhabitants, and his palace, for he was one of the Tuatha De Danann, was there rather than in Ireland; and when he travelled between the two countries it was in a magic chariot drawn by horses who moved over the sea-waves as on land. And fairy women came from that mid-Atlantic world in magic boats like spirit boats, to charm away such mortal men as in their love they chose, or else to take great Arthur wounded unto death. And in that island world there was neither death nor pain nor scandal, nought save immortal and unfading youth, and endless joy and feasting.
Even yet at rare intervals, like a phantom, Hy Brasil appears far out on the Atlantic. No later than the summer of 1908 it is said to have been seen from West Ireland, just as that strange invisible island near Innishmurray, inhabited by the invisible ‘gentry’, is seen – once in seven years. And too many men of intelligence testify to having seen Hy Brasil at the same moment, when they have been together, or separated, as during the summer of 1908, for it to be explained away as an ordinary illusion of the senses. Nor can it be due to a mirage such as we know, because neither its shape nor position seems to conform to any known island or land mass. The Celtic Otherworld is like that hidden realm of subjectivity lying just beyond the horizon of mortal existence, which we cannot behold when we would, save with the mystic vision of the Irish seer. Thus in the legend of Bran’s friends, who sat over dinner at Harlech with the Head of Bran for seven years, three curious birds acted as musicians, the Three Birds of Rhiannon, which were said to sing the dead back to life and the living into death ;- but the birds were not in Harlech, they were out over the sea in the atmosphere of Rhiannon’s realm in the bosom of Cardigan Bay. And though we might say of that Otherworld, as we learn from these Three Birds of Rhiannon, and as Socrates would say, that its inhabitants are come from the living and the living in our world from the dead there, yet, as has already been set forth in chapter iv, we ought not to think of the Sidhe-folk, nor of such great heroes and gods as Arthur and Cuchulainn and Finn, who are also of its invisible company, as in any sense half-conscious shades; for they are always represented as being in the full enjoyment of an existence and consciousness greater than our own.
In Irish manuscripts, the Otherworld beyond the Ocean bears many names. It is Tir-na-nog, ‘The Land of Youth’; TIr-Innambeo, ‘The Land of the Living’; Tir Tairngire, ‘The Land of Promise’; Tir N-aill, ‘The Other Land (or World)’; Mag M‡r, ‘The Great Plain’; and also Mag Mell, ‘The Plain Agreeable (or Happy).’
But this western Otherworld, if it is what we believe it to be – a poetical picture of the great subjective world – cannot be the realm of any one race of invisible beings to the exclusion of another. In it all alike – gods, Tuatha De Danann, fairies, demons, shades, and every sort of disembodied spirits – find their appropriate abode; for though it seems to surround and interpenetrate this planet even as the X-rays interpenetrate matter, it can have no other limits than those of the Universe itself. And that it is not an exclusive realm is certain from what our old Irish manuscripts record concerning the Fomorian races. These, when they met defeat on the battle-field of Moytura at the hands of the Tuatha De Danann, retired altogether from Ireland, their overthrow being final, and returned to their own invisible country – a mysterious land beyond the Ocean, where the dead find a new existence, and where their god-king Tethra ruled, as he formerly ruled in this world. And the fairy women of Tethra’s kingdom, even like those who came from the Tuatha De Danann of Erin, or those of Manannan’s ocean-world, enticed mortals to go with them to be heroes under their king, and to behold there the assemblies of ancestors. It was one of them who came to Conrila, son of Conn, supreme king of Ireland; and this was her message to him :- ‘ The immortals invite you. You are going to be one of the heroes of the people of Tethra. You will always be seen there, in the assemblies of your ancestors, in the midst of those who know and love you.’ And with the fairy spell upon him the young prince entered the glass boat of the fairy woman, and his father the king, in great tribulation and wonder, beheld them disappear across the waters never to return.
THE SILVER BRANCH AND THE GOLDEN BOUGH
To enter the Otherworld before the appointed hour marked by death, a passport was often necessary, and this was usually a silver branch of the sacred apple-tree bearing blossoms, or fruit, which the queen of the Land of the Ever-Living and Ever-Young gives to those mortals whom she wishes for as companions; though sometimes, as we shall see, it was a single apple without its branch. The queen’s gifts serve not only as passports, but also as food and drink for mortals who go with her. Often the apple-branch produces music so soothing that mortals who hear it forget all troubles and even cease to grieve for those whom the fairy women take. For us there are no episodes more important than those in the ancient epics concerning these apple-tree talismans, because in them we find a certain key which unlocks the secret of that world from which such talismans are brought, and proves it to be the same sort of a place as the Otherworld of the Greeks and Romans. Let us then use the key and make a few comparisons between the Silver Branch of the Celts and the Golden Bough of the Ancients, expecting the two symbols naturally to differ in their functions, though not fundamentally.
It is evident at the outset that the Golden, Bough was as much the property of the queen of that underworld called Hades as the Silver Branch was the gift of the Celtic fairy queen, and like the Silver Bough it seems to have been the symbolic bond between that world and this, offered as a tribute to Proserpine by all initiates, who made the mystic voyage in full human consciousness. And, as we suspect, there may be even in the ancient Celtic legends of mortals who make that strange voyage to the Western Otherworld and return to this world again, an echo of initiatory rites – perhaps druidic – similar to those of Proserpine as shown in the journey of Aeneas, which, as Virgil records it, is undoubtedly a poetical rendering of an actual psychic experience of a great initiate.
In Virgil’s classic poem the Sibyl commanded the plucking of the sacred bough to be carried by Aeneas when he entered the underworld; for without such a bough plucked near the entrance to Avernus from the wondrous tree sacred to Infernal Juno (i. e. Proserpine) none could enter Pluto’s realm. And when Charon refused to ferry Aeneas across the Stygian lake until the Sibyl-woman drew forth the Golden Bough from her bosom, where she had hidden it, it becomes clearly enough a passport to Hades, just as the Silver Branch borne by the fairy woman is a passport to Tir N-aill ; and the Sibyl-woman who guided Aeneas to the Greek and Roman Otherworld takes the place of the fairy woman who leads mortals like Bran to the Celtic Other-world.
THE OTHERWORLD IDEA LITERALLY INTERPRETED
With this parallel between the Otherworld of the Celts and that of the Ancients seemingly established, we may leave poetical images and seek a literal interpretation for the animistic idea about those realms. The Rites of Proserpine as conducted in the Mysteries of Antiquity furnish us with the means; and in what Servius has written we have the material ready. Taking the letter ¥, which Pythagoras said is like life with its dividing ways of good and evil, as the mystic symbol of the branch which all initiates like Aeneas offered to Proserpine in the subjective world while there out of the physical body, he says of the initiatory rites :- ‘ He (the poet) could not join the Rites of Proserpine without having the branch to hold up. And by “ going to the shades” he (the poet) means celebrating the Rites of Proserpine.’ This passage is certainly capable of but one meaning; and we may perhaps assume that the invisible realm of the Ancients, which is called Hades, is like the Celtic Other-world located in the Western Ocean, and is also like, or has its mythological counterpart in, the Elysian Fields to the West, reserved by the Greeks and Romans for their gods and heroes, and in the Happy Otherworld of Scandinavian, Iranian, and Indian mythologies. It must then follow that all these realms – though placed in different localities by various nations, epochs, traditions, scribes, and poets (even as the under-ground world of the Tuatha De Danann in Ireland differs from that ruled over by one of their own race, Manannan the Son of the Sea) – are simply various ways which different Aryan peoples have had of looking at that one great invisible realm of which we have just spoken, and which forms the Heavenworld of every religion, Aryan and non-Aryan, known to man. And if this conclusion is accepted, and it seems that it must be, merely on the evidence of the literary or recorded Celtic Fairy-Faith, our Psychological Theory stands proven.
The Rites of Proserpine had many counterparts. Thus, to pass on to another parallel, in the Mysteries of Eleusis the disappearance of the Maiden into the under-world, into Hades, the land of the dead, was continually re-enacted in a sacred drama, and it no doubt was one of the principal rites attending initiation. In our study of the Celtic Doctrine of Re-birth, we shall return to this subject of Celtic Initiation.
THE VOYAGE OF BRAN, SON OF FEBAL
We are well prepared now to enjoy the best known voyages which men, heroes, and god-men, are said to have made to Avalon, or the Land of the Living, through the invitation of a fairy woman or else of the god Manannan himself; and probably the most famous is that of the Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal, as so admirably translated from the original old Irish saga by Dr. Kuno Meyer. Perhaps in all Celtic literature no poem surpasses this in natural and simple beauty.
One day Bran heard strange music behind him as he was alone in the neighbourhood of his stronghold; and as he listened, so sweet was the sound that it lulled him to sleep. When he awoke, there lay beside him a branch of silver so white with blossoms that it was not easy to distinguish the blossoms from the branch. Bran took up the branch and carried it to the royal house, and, when the hosts were assembled therein, they saw a woman in strange raiment standing on the floor. Whence she came and how, no one could tell. And as they all beheld her, she sang fifty quatrains to Bran :-
A branch of the apple-tree from e’vean
I bring, like those one knows;
Twigs of white silver are on it,
Crystal brows with blossoms.
There is a distant isle,
Around which sea-horses glisten:
A fair course against the white-swelling surge,-
Four feet uphold it.
When the song was finished, ‘ the woman went from them while they knew not whither she went. And she took her branch with her. The branch sprang from Bran’s hand into the hand of the woman, nor was there strength in Bran’s hand to hold the branch.’ The next day, with the fairy spell upon him, Bran begins the voyage towards the setting sun. On the ocean he meets Manannan riding in his magic chariot over the sea-waves; and the king tells Bran that he is returning to Ireland after long ages. Parting from the Son of the Sea, Bran goes on, and the first island he and his companions reach is the ‘Island of Joy’, where one of the party is set ashore; the second isle is the’ Land of Women’, where the queen draws Bran and his followers to her realm with a magic clew, and then entertains them for what seems no more than a year, though ‘ it chanced to be many years’, After a while, home-sickness seizes the adventurers and they come to a unanimous decision to return to Ireland; but they depart under a taboo not to set foot on earth, or at least not till holy water has been sprinkled on them. In their coracle they arrive before a gathering at Srub Brain, probably in West Kerry, and Bran (who may now possibly be regarded as an apparition temporarily returned from the Otherworld to bid his people farewell) announces himself, and this reply is made to him :- ‘ We do not know such a one, though the Voyage of Bran is in our ancient stories.’ Then one of Bran’s party, in his eagerness to land, broke the taboo; he ‘leaps from them out of the coracle. As soon as he touched the earth of Ireland, forthwith he was a heap of ashes, as though he had been in the earth for many hundred years. . . . Thereupon, to the people of the gathering, Bran told all his wanderings from the beginning until that time. And he wrote these quatrains in Ogam, and then bade them farewell. And from that hour his wanderings are not known.’
CORMAC’S ADVENTURE IN THE LAND OF PROMISE
In Cormac’s Adventure in the Land of Promise, there is again a magic silver branch with three golden apples on it :- ‘ One day, at dawn in May-time, Cormac, grandson of Conn, was alone on Mur Tea in Tara. He saw coming towards him a sedate (?), grey-headed warrior. . . . A branch of silver with three golden apples on his shoulder. Delight and amusement to the full was it to listen to the music of that branch, for men sore wounded, or women in child-bed, or folk in sickness, would fall asleep at the melody when that branch was shaken.’ And the warrior tells Cormac that he has come from a land where only truth is known, where there is ‘neither age nor decay nor gloom nor sadness nor envy nor jealousy nor hatred nor haughtiness’. On his promising the unknown warrior any three boons that he shall ask, Cormac is given the magic branch. The grey-headed warrior disappears suddenly; ‘and Cormac knew not whither he had gone.’
‘Cormac turned into the palace. The household marvelled at the branch. Cormac shook it at them, and cast them into slumber from that hour to the same time on the following day. At the end of a year the warrior comes into his meeting and asked of Cormac the consideration for his branch. “It shall be given,” says Cormac. “I will take [thy daughter] Ailbe to-day,” says the warrior. So he took the girl with him. The women of Tara utter three loud cries after the daughter of the king of Erin. But Cormac shook the branch at them, so that he banished grief from them all and cast them into sleep. That day month comes the warrior and takes with him Carpre Lifechair (the son of Cormac). Weeping and sorrow ceased not in Tara after the boy, and on that night no one therein ate or slept, and they were in grief and in exceeding gloom. But Cormac shook the branch at them, and they parted from [their] sorrow. The same warrior comes again. “What askest thou to-day? “ says Cormac. “Thy wife,” saith he,” even Ethne the Longsided, daughter of Dunlang king of Leinster.” Then he takes away the woman with him.’ Thereupon Cormac follows the messenger, and all his people go with him. But ‘a great mist was brought upon them in the midst of the plain of the wall. Cormac found himself on a great plain alone’. It is the ‘Land of Promise’. Palaces of bronze, and houses of white silver thatched with white birds’ wings are there. ‘Then he sees in the garth a shining fountain, with five streams flowing out of it, and the hosts in turn a-drinking its water. Nine hazels of Buan grow over the well. The purple hazels drop their nuts into the fountain, and the five salmon which are in the fountain sever them, and send their husks floating down the streams. Now the sound of the falling of those streams is more melodious than any music that [men] sing.’
Cormac having entered the fairy palace at the fountain beholds’ the loveliest of the world’s women’. After she has been magically bathed, he bathes, and this, apparently, is symbolical of his purification in the Otherworld. Finally, at a feast, the warrior-messenger sings Cormac to sleep; and when Cormac awakes he sees beside him his wife and children, who had preceded him thither to the Land of Promise. The warrior-messenger who took them all is none other than the great god Manannan Mac Lir of the Tuatha De Danann.
There in the Otherworld, Cormac gains a magic cup of gold richly and wondrously wrought, which would break into three pieces if ‘three words of falsehood be spoken under it’, and the magic silver branch; and Manannan, as the god-initiator, says to Ireland’s high king :- ‘ Take thy family then, and take the Cup that thou mayest have it for discerning between truth and falsehood. And thou shalt have the Branch for music and delight. And on the day that thou shalt die they all will be taken from thee. I am Manannan, son of Ler, king of the Land of Promise; and to see the Land of Promise was the reason I brought [thee] hither. . . . The fountain which thou sawest, with the five streams out of it, is the Fountain of Knowledge, and the streams are the five senses through which knowledge is obtained (?). And no one will have knowledge who drinketh not a draught out of the fountain itself and out of the streams. The folk of many arts are those who drink of them both.’
‘Now on the morrow morning, when Cormac arose, he found himself on the green of Tara, with his wife and his son and daughter, and having his Branch and his Cup. Now that was afterwards [called] “Cormac’s Cup “, and it used to distinguish between truth and falsehood with the Gael. Howbeit, as had been promised him [by Manannan], it remained not after Cormac’s death.’
This beautiful tale evidently echoes in an extremely poetical and symbolical manner a very ancient Celtic initiation of a king and his family into the mystic cult of the mighty god Manannan, Son of the Sea. They enter the Otherworld in a trance state, and on waking are in Erin again, spiritually enriched. The Cup of Truth is probably the symbol of having gained knowledge of the Mystery of Life and Death, and the Branch, that of the Peace and Joy which comes to all who are truly Initiated; for to have passed from the realm of mortal existence to the Realm of the Dead, of the Fairy-Folk, of the Gods, and back again, with full human consciousness all the while, was equivalent to having gained the Philosopher’s Stone, the Elixir of Life, the Cup of Truth, and to having bathed in the Fountain of Eternal Youth which confers triumph over Death and unending happiness. Thus we may have here a Celtic poetical parallel to the initiatory journey of Aeneas to the Land of the Dead or Hades.
THE MAGIC WAND OF GODS, FAIRIES, AND DRUIDS
Manannan of the Tuatha De Danann, as a god-messenger from the invisible realm bearing the apple-branch of silver, is in externals, though not in other ways, like Hermes, the god-messenger from the realm of the gods bearing his wand of two intertwined serpents.’ In modern fairy-lore this divine branch or wand is the magic wand of fairies; or where messengers like old men guide mortals to an underworld it is a staff or cane with which they strike the rock hiding the secret entrance.
The Irish Druids made their wands of divination from the yew-tree; and, like the ancient priests of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, are believed to have controlled spirits, fairies, daemons, elementals, and ghosts while making such divinations. It will help us to understand how closely the ancient symbols have affected our own life and age – though we have forgotten their relation with the Otherworld – by offering a few examples, beginning with the ancient Irish bards who were associated with the Druids. A wand in the form of a symbolic branch, like a little spike or crescent with gently tinkling bells upon it, was borne by them; and in the piece called Mesca Ulad or ‘ Inebriety of the Ultonians ‘ it is said of the chief bard of Ulster, Sencha, that in the midst of a bloody fray he ‘waved the peaceful branch of Sencha, and all the men of Ulster were silent, quiet’. In Agallamh an d‡ Shuadh or the ‘Dialogue of the two Sages ‘, the mystic symbol used by gods, fairies, magicians, and by all initiates who know the mystery of life and death, is thus described as a Druid symbol :- ‘ Neidhe’ (a young bard who aspired to succeed his father as chief poet of Ulster), ‘made his journey with a silver branch over him. The Anradhs, or poets of the second order, carried a silver branch, but the Ollamhs, or chief poets, carried a branch of gold; all other poets bore a branch of bronze.’ Modern and ancient parallels are world-wide, among the most civilized as among the least civilized peoples, and in civil or religious life among ourselves. Thus, it was with a magic rod that Moses struck the rock and pure water gushed forth, and he raised the same rod and the Red Sea opened; kings hold their sceptres no less than Neptune his trident; popes and bishops have their croziers; in the Roman Church there are little wandlike objects used to perform benedictions; high civil officials have their mace of office; and all the world over there are the wands of magicians and of medicine-men.
THE SICK-BED OF CUCHULAINN
We turn now to the story of the Sick-Bed of Cuchulainn.’ And this is how the great hero of Ulster was fairy-struck. Manannan Mac Lir, tiring of his wife Fand, had deserted her, and so she, wishing to marry Cuchulainn, went to Ireland with her sister Liban. Taking the form of two birds bound together by a chain of red gold, Fand and Liban rested on a lake in Ulster where Cuchulainn should see them as he was hunting. To capture the two birds, Cuchulainn cast a javelin at them, but they escaped, though injured. Disappointed at a failure like this, which for him was most unusual, Cuchulainn went away to a menhir where he sat down and fell asleep. Then he saw two women, one in a green and one in a crimson cloak; and the woman in green coming up to him laughed and struck him with a whip-like object. The woman in crimson did likewise, and alternately the two women kept striking him till they left him almost dead. And straightway the mighty hero of the Red Branch Knights took to his bed with a strange malady, which no Druid or doctor in all Ireland could cure.
Till the end of a year Cuchulainn lay on his sick-bed at Emain-Macha without speaking to any one. Then-the day before Samain (November Eve) – there came to him an unknown messenger who sang to him a wonderful song, promising to cure him of his malady if he would only accept the invitation of the daughters of Aed Abrat to visit them in the Otherworld. When the song was ended, the messenger departed, ‘and they knew not whence he came nor whither he went.’ Thereupon Cuchulainn went to the place where the malady had been put on him, and there appeared to him again the woman in the green cloak. She let it be known to Cuchulainn that she was Liban, and that she was longing for him to go with her to the Plain of Delight to fight against Labraid’s enemies. And she promised CuchuIainn as a reward that he would get Fand to wife. But Cuchulainn would not accept the invitation without knowing to what country he was called. So he sent his charioteer Laeg to bring back from there a report. Laeg went with the fairy woman in a boat of bronze, and returned; and when Cuchulainn heard from him the wonderful glories of that Otherworld of the Sidhe he willingly set out for it.
After Cuchulainn had overthrown Labraid’s enemies and had been in the Otherworld a month with the fairy woman Fand, he returned to Ireland alone; though afterwards in a place agreed upon, Fand joined him. Emer, the wife of Cuchulainn, was overcome with jealousy and schemed to kill Fand, so that Fand returned to her husband the god Manannan and he received her back again. When she was gone Cuchulainn could not be consoled; but Emer obtained from the Druids a magic drink for Cuchulainn, which made him forget all about the Otherworld and the fairy woman Fand. And another drink the Druids gave to Emer so that she forgot all her jealousy; and then Manannan Mac Lir himself came and shook his mantle between Cuchulainn and Fand to prevent the two ever meeting again. And thus it was that the Sidhe-women failed to steal away the great Cuchulainn. The magic of the Druids and the power of the Tuatha De Danann king triumphed; and the Champion of Ulster did not go to the Otherworld until he met a natural death in that last great fight.
OSSlAN’s RETURN FROM FAIRYLAND
Ossian too, like Cuchulainn, was enticed into Fairyland by a fairy woman :- She carries him away on a white horse, across the Western Ocean; and as they are moving over the sea-waves they behold a fair maid on a brown horse, and she holding in her right hand a golden apple. After the hero had married his fairy abductress and lived in the Otherworld for three hundred years, an overpowering desire to return to Ireland and join again in the councils of his dearly beloved Fenian Brotherhood took possession of him, and he set out on the same white horse on which he travelled thence with the fairy princess, for such was his wife. And she, as he went, thrice warned him not to lay his ‘foot on level ground’, and he heard from her the startling announcement that the Fenians were all gone and Ireland quite changed.
Safe in Ireland, Ossian seeks the Brotherhood, and though he goes from one place to another where his old companions were wont to meet, not one of them can he find. And how changed is all the land! He realizes at last how long he must have been away. The words of his fairy wife are too sadly true.
While Ossian wanders disconsolately over Ireland, he comes to a multitude of men trying to move an enormous slab of marble, under which some other men are lying. ‘Ossian’s assistance is asked, and he generously gives it. But in leaning over his horse, to take up the stone with one hand, the girth breaks, and he falls. Straightway the white horse fled away on his way home, and Ossian became aged, decrepit, and blind.’
THE GOING OF LANVAL TO AVALON
The fairy romances which were recorded during the mediaeval period in continental Europe report a surprisingly large number of heroes who, like Cuchulainn and Ossian, fell under the power of fairy women or fees, and followed one of them to the Apple-Land or Avalon. Besides Arthur, they include Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawayne, Ogier, Guingemor and Lanval. The story of Lanval is told by Marie de France in one of her Lais, and is so famous a one that we shall briefly outline it :-
Lanval was a mediaeval knight who lived during the time of King Arthur in Brittany. He was young and very beautiful, so that one of the fairy damsels fell in love with him; and in the true Irish fashion – himself and his fairy sweetheart mounted on the same fairy horse – the two went riding off to Fairyland :-
On the horse behind her
With full rush Lanval jumped.
With her he goes away into Avalon,
According to what the Briton tells us,
Into an isle, which is very beautiful.
THE VOYAGE OF TEIGUE, SON OF ClAN
There is another type of imram in which through adventure rather than through invitation from one of the fairy beings, men enter the Otherworld; as illustrated by the Voyage of Mael-Duin, and by the still more beautiful Voyage of Teigue, Son of Cian. This last old Irish story summarizes many of the Otherworld elements we have so far considered, and (though it shows Christian influences) gives us a very clear picture of the Land of Youth amid the Western Ocean – a land such as Ponce De Leon and so many brave navigators sought in America :-
Teigue, son of Cian, and heir to the kingship of West Munster, with his followers set out from Ireland to recover his wife and brethren who had been stolen by Cathmann and his band of sea-rovers from Fresen, a land near Spain. It was the time of the spring tide, when the sea was rough, and storms coming on the voyagers they lost their way. After about nine weeks they came to a land fairer than any land they had ever beheld – it was the Happy Otherworld. In it were many ‘red-laden apple-trees, with leafy oaks too in it, and hazels yellow with nuts in their clusters’; and a wide smooth plain clad in flowering clover all bedewed with honey’. In the midst of this plain Teigue and his companions descried three hills, and on each of them an impregnable place of strength. At the first stronghold, which had a rampart of white marble, Teigue was welcomed by ‘a white-bodied lady, fairest of the whole world’s women’; and she told him that the stronghold is the abode ‘ of Ireland’s kings: from Heremon son of Milesius to Conn of the Hundred Battles, who was the last to pass into it’. Teigue with his people moved on till they gained the middle dun, the dun with a rampart of gold. There also ‘they found a queen of gracious form, and she draped in vesture of a golden fabric’, who tells them that they are in the Earth’s fourth paradise.
At the third dun, the dun with a silver rampart, Teigue and his party met Connla, the son of Conn of the Hundred Battles. ‘In his hand he held a fragrant apple having the hue of gold; a third part of it he would eat, and still, for all he consumed, never a whit would it be diminished.’ And at his side sat a young woman of many charms, who spake thus to Teigue :- ‘ I had bestowed on him (i.e. felt for him) true affection’s love, and therefore wrought to have him come to me in this land; where our delight, both of us, is to continue in looking at and in perpetual contemplation of one another: above and beyond which we pass not, to commit impurity or fleshly sin whatsoever.’ Both Connla and his friend were clad in vestments of green – like the fairy-folk; and their step was so light that hardly did the beautiful clover-heads bend beneath it. And the apple ‘it was that supported the pair of them and, when once they had partaken of it, nor age nor dimness could affect them’. When Teigue asked who occupied the dun with the silver rampart the maiden with Connla made this reply :- ‘ In that one there is not any one. For behoof of the righteous kings that after acceptance of the Faith shall rule Ireland it is that yonder dun stands ready; and we are they who, until such those virtuous princes shall enter into it, keep the same: in the which, Teigue my soul, thou too shalt have an appointed place.’ ‘Obliquely across the most capacious palace Teigue looked away’ (as he was observing the beauty of the yet uninhabited dun), ‘and marked a thickly furnished wide-spreading apple-tree that bare blossoms and ripe fruit both. “What is that apple-tree beyond? “ he asked [of the maiden], and she made answer :- “ That apple-tree’s fruit it is that for meat shall serve the congregation which is to be in this mansion, and a single apple of the same it was that brought (coaxed away) Connla to me.” ‘
Then the party rested, and there came towards them a whole array of feminine beauty, among which was a lovely damsel of refined form who foretold to Teigue the manner and time of his death, and as a token she gave him ‘a fair cup of emerald hue, in which are inherent many virtues: for [among other things] though it were but water poured into it, incontinently it would be wine’. And this was her farewell message to Teigue :- ‘ From that (the cup), let not thine hand part; but have it for a token: when it shall escape from thee, then in a short time after shalt thou die; and where thou shalt meet thy death is in the glen that is on Boyne’s side: there the earth shall grow into a great hill, and the name that it shall bear will be croidhe eisse; there too (when thou shalt first have been wounded by a roving wild hart, after which Allmarachs will slay thee) I will bury thy body; but thy soul shall come with me hither, where till the Judgement’s Day thou shalt assume a body light and ethereal.’
As the party led by Teigue were going down to the seashore to depart, the girl who had been escorting them asked ‘how long they had been in the country’. ‘In our estimation,’ they replied, ‘we are in it but one single day.’ She, however, said: ‘For an entire twelvemonth ye are in it; during which time ye have had neither meat nor drink, nor, how long soever ye should be here, would cold or thirst or hunger assail you.’ And when Teigue and his party had entered their currach they looked astern, but ‘they saw not the land from which they came, for incontinently an obscuring magic veil was drawn over it ‘.
THE ADVENTURES OF ART, SON OF CONN
This interesting imram combines, in a way, the type of tale wherein a fairy woman comes from the Otherworld to our world – though in this tale she is banished from there – and the type of tale wherein the Otherworld is found through adventure :-
Becuma Cneisgel, a woman of the Tuatha De Danann, because of a transgression she had committed in the Other-world with Gaidiar, Manannan’s son, was banished thence. She came to Conn, high king of Ireland, and she bound him to do her will; and her judgement was that Art, the son of Conn, should not come to Tara until a year was past. During the year, Conn and Becuma were together in Tara, ‘and there was neither corn nor milk in Ireland during that time.’ The Tuatha De Danann sent this dreadful famine; for they, as agricultural gods, thus showed their displeasure at the unholy life of Ireland’s high king with the evil woman whom they had banished. The Druids of all Ireland being called together, declared that to appease the Tuatha De Danann ‘the son of a sinless couple should be brought to Ireland and slain before Tara, and his blood mingled with the soil of Tara’ (cf. p. 436). It was Conn himself who set out for the Otherworld and found there the sinless boy, the son of the queen of that world, and he brought him back to Tara. A strange event saves the youth :- ‘ Just then they (the assembly of people and Druids, with Conn, Art, and Finn) heard the lowing of a cow, and a woman wailing continually behind it. And they saw the cow and the woman making for the assembly.’ The woman had come from the Otherworld to save Segda; and the cow was accepted as a sacrifice in place of Segda, owing to the wonders it disclosed; for its two bags when opened contained two birds – one with one leg and one with twelve legs, and ‘the one-legged bird prevailed over the bird with twelve legs’. Then rising up and calling Conn aside, the woman declared to him that until he put aside the evil woman Becuma ‘a third of its corn, and its milk, and its mast ‘ should be lacking to Ireland. ‘And she took leave of them then and went off with her son, even Segda. And jewels and treasures were offered to them, but they refused them.’
In the second part of this complex tale, Becuma and Art are together playing a game. Art finally loses, because’ the men of the sidh (like invisible spirits) began to steal the pieces ‘ with which he and the woman play; and, as a result, Becuma put on him this taboo :- ‘ Thou shalt not eat food in Ireland until thou bring with thee Delbchaem,the daughter of Morgan.’ ‘Where is she?’ asked Art. ‘In an isle amid the sea, and that is all the information that thou wilt get.’ ‘And he put forth the coracle, and travelled the sea from one isle to another until he came to a fair, strange island,’ the Otherworld. The blooming women of that land entertain the prince of Ireland during six weeks, and instruct him in all the dangers he must face and the conquests he must make.
Having successfully met all the ordeals, Art secures Delbchaem, daughter of Morgan the king of the ‘Land of Wonders’, and returns to Ireland. ‘She had a green cloak of one hue about her, with a gold pin in it over her breast, and long, fair, very golden hair. She had dark-black eyebrows, and flashing grey eyes in her head, and a snowy-white body.’ And upon seeing the chaste and noble Deibchaem with Art, Becuma, the banished woman of the Tuatha Dc Danann, lamenting, departs from Tara for ever.
OTHERWORLD QUESTS OF CUCHULAINN AND OF ARTHUR
There is yet the distinct class of tales about journeys to a fairy world which is a Hades world beneath the earth, or in some land of death, rather than amid the waves of the Western Ocean. Thus there is a curious poem in the Book of the Dun Cow describing an expedition led by Cuchulainn to the stronghold of Scyth in the land of Scyth, or, as the name means, land of Shades, where the hero gains the king’s cauldron. And the poem suggests why so few who invaded that Hades world ever returned – perhaps why, mystically speaking, so few men could escape either through Initiation or re-birth the natural confusion and forgetfulness arising out of death.
In the Book of Taliessin a weird poem, Preiddeu Annwfn, or the ‘ Spoils of Annwn’, describes, in language not always clear, how the Brythonic Arthur made a similar journey to the Welsh Hades world named Annwn, where he, like CuchuIainn in Sc‡th, gained possession of a magic cauldron – a pagan Celtic type of the Holy Grail – which furnishes inexhaustible food though ‘it will not boil the food of a coward’. But in stanzas iii and iv of Preiddeu Annwfn, Annwn, or Uffern as it is otherwise called, is not an underground realm, but some world to be reached like the Gaelic Land of Promise by sea. Annwn is also called Caer Sidi, which In another poem of the Book of Taliessin (No. XIV) is thought of as an island of immortal youth amid’ the streams of the ocean’ where there is a food-giving fountain.
LITERARY EVOLUTION OF THE HAPPY OTHERWORLD IDEA
We have now noticed two chief classes of Otherworld legends. In one there is the beautiful and peaceful Tir Innambeo or’ Land of the Living’ under Manannan’s rule across the seas, and its fairy inhabitants are principally women who lure away noble men and youths through love for them; in the other there is a Hades world – often confused with the former – in which great heroes go on some mysterious quest. Sometimes this Hades world is inseparable from the underground palaces or world of the Tuatha De Danann. Again, it may be an underlake fairy-realm like that entered by Laeghaire and his fifty companions; or, as in Gilla Decair,  of late composition, it is an under-well land wherein Dermot has adventures. And, in a similar tale, Murough, on the invitation of a mysterious stranger who comes out of a lake and then disappears ‘like the mist of a winter fog or the whiff of a March wind’, dives beneath the lake’s waters, and is escorted to the palace of King Under-Wave, wherein he sees the stranger as the water-king himself sitting on a golden throne. In continual feasting there Murough passes a day and a year, thinking the time only a few days.  As a rule the Hades world, or underground and under-wave world, is unlike Manannan’s peaceful ocean realm, being often described as a place of much strife; and mortals are usually induced to enter it to aid in settling the troubles of its fairy inhabitants.
All the numerous variations of Otherworld tales now extant in Celtic literature show a common pre-Christian origin, though almost all of them have been coloured by Christian ideas about heaven, hell, and purgatory. From the earliest tales of the over-sea Otherworld type, like those of Bran, Maelduin, and Connia, all of which may go back to the early eighth century as compositions, the christianizing influence is already clearly begun; and in the Voyage of Snedgus and of Mac Riagla, of the late ninth century, this influence predominates. Purely Christian texts of about the same period or later describe the Christian heaven as though it were the pagan Otherworld. Some of these, like the Latin version of the tale of St. Brandan’s Voyage, greatly influenced European literature, and probably contributed to the discovery of the New World.
The combination of Christian and pagan Celtic ideas is well shown in the Voyage of the Hui Corra :-‘ Thereafter a wondrous island was shown to them. A psalm-singing venerable old man, with fair, builded churches and beautiful bright altars. Beautiful green grass therein. A dew of honey on its grass. Little ever-lovely bees and fair, purple-headed birds a-chanting music therein, so that [merely] to listen to them was enough of delight.’ But in another passage the Christian scribe describes Otherworld birds as souls, some of them in hell :- ‘ “Of the land of Erin am I,” quoth the bird, “and I am the soul of a woman, and I am a monkess unto thee,” she saith to the elder. … “Come ye to another place,” saith the bird, “to hearken to yon birds. The birds that ye see are the souls that come on Sunday out of hell.” ‘ Still other islands are definitely made into Christian hells full of fire, wherein wailing and shrieking men are being mangled by the beaks and talons of birds.
But sometimes, like the legends about the Tuatha De Danann, the legends about the Otherworld were taken literally and most seriously by some early Irish-Christian saints. Professor J. Loth records a very interesting episode, how St. Malo and his teacher Brandan actually set out on an ocean voyage to find the Heaven-world of the pagan Celts :- ‘ Saint Malo, when a youth, embarks with his teacher Brandan in a boat, in search of that mysterious country; after some days, the waves drive him back rebuffed and discouraged upon the seashore. An angel opens his eyes: the land of eternal peace and of eternal youth is that which Christianity promises to its elect.’
Not only was the Celtic Otherworld gradually changed into a Christian Heaven, or Hell, from the eighth century onward, but its divine inhabitants soon came to suffer the rationalization commonly applied to their race; and the transcribers began to set them down as actual personages of Irish history. As we have already observed, the Tuatha De Danann were shorn of their immortality, and were given in exchange all the passions and shortcomings of men, and made subject to disease and death. This perhaps was a natural anthropomorphic process such as is met with in all mythologies. Celtic myth and mysticism, wherein may yet be read the deepest secrets of life and death, supplied names and legends to fill out a christianized scheme of Irish chronology, which was made to begin some six thousand years ago with Adam.
A few of the pagan legends, however, met very fair treatment at the hands of poetical and patriotic Christian transcribers. Thus in Adamnan’s Vision, though the Celtic Otherworld has become’ the Land of the Saints’, its primal character is clearly discernible: to reach it a sea voyage is necessary; and it is a land where there is no pride, falsehood, envy, disease or death, ‘wherein is delight of every goodness.’ In it there are singing birds, and for sustenance while there the voyagers need only to hear its music and ‘sate themselves with the odour which is in the Land’.
Again, in the Book of Leinster, and in later MSS., there is a dinnshenchas of almost primal pagan purity. It alludes to Clidna’s Wave, that of Tuag Inbir :- To Tuag, daughter of Conall, Manannan the sea-god sent a messenger, a Druid of the Tuatha De Danann in the shape of a woman. The Druid chanted a sleep spell over the girl, and while he left her on the seashore to look for a boat in which to embark for the ‘Land of Everliving Women’, a wave of the flood tide came and drowned her. But the Oxford version of the same tale doubts whether the maiden was drowned, for it suggests, ‘Or maybe it (the wave) was Manannan himself that was carrying her off.’ Thus the scribe understood that to go to Manannan’s world literally meant entering a sleep or trance state, or, what is equivalent in the case of the maiden whom Manannan summoned, the passage through death from the physical body. And still, to-day, the Irish peasant believes that the’ good people’ take to their invisible world all young men or maidens who meet death; or that one under a fairy spell may go to their world for a short-time, and come back to our world again.
We have frequently emphasized how truly the modern Celtic peasant in certain non-commercialized localities has kept to the faith of his pagan ancestors, while the learned Christian scribes have often departed widely from it. The story of the voyage of Fionn to the Otherworld, which Campbell found living among Scotch peasants as late as the last century, adds a striking proof of this assertion. So does Michael Comyn’s peasant version of Ossian in the ‘Land of Youth’ which, though dating from about 1749, has all the natural character of the best ancient tales, like those about Bran and Cormac. We are inclined, therefore, to attach a value even higher than we have already done to the testimony of the living Fairy-Faith which confirms in so many parallel ways, as has been shown, the Fairy-Faith of the remote past. Mr. W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet, adequately sums up this matter by saying, ‘But the Irish peasant believes that the utmost he can dream was once or still is a reality by his own door. He will point to some mountain and tell you that some famous hero or beauty lived and sorrowed there, or he will tell you that Tir-na-nog, the Country of the Young, the old Celtic paradise – the Land of the Living Heart, as it used to be called – is all about him.’
At the end of his long and careful study of the Celtic Otherworld, Alfred Nutt arrived at the tentative conclusion which coincides with our own, that ‘ The vision of a Happy Otherworld found in Irish mythic romances of the eighth and following centuries is substantially pre-Christian’, that its closest analogues are in Hellenic myth, and that with these ‘ it forms the most archaic Aryan presentation of the divine and happy land we possess ‘.