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Celtic Folk Belief: The OtherWorld

S. McSkimming, Dalriada Magazine, 1993

The religious beliefs of the late Bronze Age into the Iron Age among the Celtic peoples have for the most part been gleaned from the pens of Victorian writers and visionaries, or from many of the modern authors who still industrially plagiarise the works of the aforesaid authors. The unfortunate point of this is that the real and worthwhile opportunity these writers had of recording a passing era, was lost in the misleading wild fits of fantasy of their own acclaimed new age thinking. Of course this does not help any student who has no reference through other sources to evaluate the subject for themselves.

On the other side of the coin there are worthwhile books on the subject. The down side of this is the fact that most of these are academic works and as such, tend to be rather dry and unsympathetic in inclination. They make no attempt to rationalize the abstract images or culture of people they consider primitives. Many of these works are old and hard to find, most now being out of print, and if you do find any they tend to be very expensive to acquire. With this as a background in mind I would like to make "the Otherworld" the subject of this article.

Stories of the mysterious Otherworld abound in Celtic legend and folklore, with many heroic tales of the worthy and their sojourns through these elemental kingdoms. Where is this Otherworld? The answer is everywhere that is within and around us. While many are caught up and intrigued with the magical qualities of these realms, it is very easy to forget that these are religious concepts and were greatly respected and feared by our ancestors. These lands are the home of our emotive primordial links with our origins, the home of the unknown or the unanswered. Human nature has from the dawn of self awareness, always sought to explain the mysteries of life, death and their surroundings just as we still do. Also like us, that which could not be explained by conscious logic could be accounted for in the ever present unseen Spirit realms.

The Otherworld which is the inner realms of Mind could be viewed as the opposite polarity of rational thought which bases its objectivity through material collected by the five sensory faculties and which we rely on to exist in this physical form. However, even in this state we can be invaded by thoughts and forms which can have no connection with the rational processes of the physical mind involved in daily living, yet to us at the time of experiencing them they seem no less real.

Our ancestors saw this other form of reality as the workings of mind and separate from the thought process of the physical brain; mind as a detached entity. This of course begs the question "what is reality?" and that question can not be answered by any of our modern technology or science. For each of us in a lifetime may face many different realities, collectively or individually, reality can only ever be our subjective perception of it.

On surviving evidence the early Celtic peoples saw all life forms existing on three levels, three integrated but separate beings co-habiting as a single being, the realms of body and mind linked to the all pervading life force, 'Spirit'. At this point we must disassociate from the new age thinking of transcending the physical to become linked with the spiritual. Spirit itself is the unifying force interwoven through all levels of existence as symbolized by the triple knot, or the triple spiral. A brilliant example of this is illustrated in a story by Fiona MacLeod entitled: "The Divine Adventure", well worth reading.

Today most of us mock as ignorance the practises of these early people as we now live in a world where the conscious mind rules in logic. Science has for us pushed back the dark shadows of ancestral night. With smug superiority yesterday's mysteries are nearly all explained, the very nature of our planet understood, superstition replaced by knowledge. Yet how many of us, if wrenched from the security of our modern well lit and warm environment to be suddenly faced with being lost alone in a dark forest wilderness, could spend the dark hours totally free from the ancestral demons of the mind that haunted these early people? Rubbish, you may say. I would reply "try it". In many respects we still differ little from our early progenitors.

As is well documented, all of the Celtic type peoples were ancestor worshippers. This is to say that the Deities were also the ancestors of the clan. Many early legends are primarily concerned with the explanation of how the ancestors made adventurous journeys into the Otherworld realms to claim a place in the great Duns of the pre-diluvian Goddess Cessair, and in so doing they became a guide and refuge in death for the future generations of this people. The Irish legend of Donn the first man to die in Ireland being deified as the god of death is an excellent example of this. It is very natural that then as now the mysteries of death were foremost in the minds of these people.

If you can perceive life on three levels - physical, mental and spiritual interlaced as one - then the concept of the Otherworld will become less difficult to understand. This does mean that you must see that in the oneness of being, no part of it can be greater or lesser. In Celtic beliefs true vision of spirit can only be achieved when you find the central harmony of body, mind and spirit. Spirit does not only exist in higher planes. Spirit exists in all. This conflicts totally with the imported Eastern philosophy of transcending the material to attain the higher realms of spirit.

The Otherworld and the realms of spirit are with us always. We live equally as part of them and they of us. The portals to these realms lie at the centre of our being. Perhaps sometime while you are relaxed and at one with yourself and creation the mists will clear, revealing the other part of your existence to you. Then may you journey to the many coloured lands in the elemental kingdoms of Tir-fo-Thonn, Tir-na-Bea, Tirtaingiri, Tir-nan-Og and Tir-na-Moe.

Hyperspace Celtics