The land of the sidhe / Tuatha Dé Danann / Children of Don / Children of Llyr. That is, the home of the supernatural figures alternately called gods and faeries.
The designation of this land as "the otherworld" might be due to the etymology of the word Annwfn, one of the Welsh names for the place:
an- (intensifying prefix) + dwfn: deep = "The Very-Deep Place"
an- (negating prefix) + dwfn: world = "The Not-World"
In other words, we are dealing with a place which is deep in the earth, but not what we think of as the underworld, i.e. the land of the dead (called Uffern in later Welsh). The pagan Celts--and modern druids--believed in reincarnation, and so there was no real "land of the dead" per se, and especially no "god of the dead" despite the claims of Julius Caesar that the Celts say they are descended of Dis Pater. Only later, in the manuscripts, are we told of Tech Duinn as the home of the dead.
In Celtic mythology, it seems that the Otherworld can be divided into two realms (using Irish terms): the sidhe and Hy-Breasil.
The sídhe, while generally used as a collective term for the gods or faeries, originally refered to the long barrows, the hollow hills that the Tuatha Dé Danann inhabit.
According to Irish myth, the Tuatha Dé Danann were driven into the hills--literally, sídhe--after being defeated by the Milesians, the modern Irish. They sought refuge inside the hills, and through the wisdom of Manannan mac Lír, divided up into seperate kingdoms, with one high king over the various sidhe--this king was Bodb Derg, much to the anger of Lír. The most famous of these sídhe were Brú na Bóinne and Temhair in Meath.
What must be remembered, though, is that these hills are in fact neolithic structures--burial mounds. While the early history of Ireland is somewhat murky, let's propose an idea, one which has been floated around before. Could the Irish have known the function of the sídhe? Could the worship of these gods/faeries who inhabit the sidhe be a form of ancestor worship? It's unknown, and purely speculation.
The sidhe also exists in Welsh tradition. It is refered to as a gorsedd, meaning "seat", tor meaning "hill" or "tower", and "Caer Siddi" in the poems of Taliesin. For instance, there is the Gorsedd Arbeth, where Pwyll pen Annwfn first sees Rhiannon, and where later Pryderi causes an enchantment to fall on Dyfed. Then there is Glastonbury Tor, where according to one saints' life--that of Saint Collen--Gwynn ap Nudd rules over the Tylwyth Teg. Giraldus Cambriensis records the story of Elidur, a priest who lived with the "Good People" as a child, after finding their home in the side of a hill. Interestingly, Girladus claims that they spoke Greek, which would back up certain claims of descendence from the Greeks and Trojans, a common theme in some of the early histories and bruts
Then there is Caer Siddi, mentioned in the poems of Taliesin:
Save only seven
None returned from Caer Siddi.
--"The Spoils of Annwn"
Perfect is my seat in Caer Siddi
Manawyd and Pryderi know it.
--"Song Before the Sons of Llyr"
While the word siddi is a borrowing from the Irish sídhe, it should be noted that this actually seems to refer to an Otherworld island; for that, see below under Hy Breasil.
It should be noted that in Welsh literature there isn't a firm tradition of sidhe as a home to the gods, as there is in Irish literature. Figures like Gwydion, Arianrhod, and Bendigedfran do not live in the hollow hills; it is the home to "lesser" supernatural beings who have not been rationalized into kings and queens.
While Annwn/Annwfn--the Otherworld as ruled by Arawn--isn't specifically said to be inside a hill, it is likely that that is the case in the earliest version of the story. In alternate tales, when Annwfn is ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd, entrance is gained through Glastonbury Tor (see "St. Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd").
Now, when a human finds his way into these sidhe, it is usually on one of the "Fire Festivals": Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh. On these days--but especially Samhain and Beltane--the doors on the hills would open and the faeries would walk about the realm of men. There are numerous stories, both literary (such as those dealing with Fionn mac Cumhill) and folklore (too numerous to mention) wherein the hero witnesses the faeries leaving and entering the hollow hills on these days, participating on combat on these days, and so on. This method seems to be discouraged by the faeries--this is their time, and the human who stumbles upon them is often punished in some form.
The other method of finding a way into the sidhe was to be lost: caught up in a magical fog--such as when Conn Céad Cathach and his men were caught, and found themselves at the house of Lugh Lamhfada, or lost in the woods, such as when Pwyll ran into Arawn while hunting. This is usually a case of being selected by the god for a special reason--kingship, or switching roles for a duel. In these instances, the hero is (eventually) rewarded for his deeds.
What is most important about the sídhe is that while it is supernatural, ruled by gods, it is very much like our world--there are wars, jealousy, betrayals. It is as full as strife as our world, and often this strife bleeds over into our world.
The term Hy Breasil (and its various spellings) refers to the Blessed Isles of legend. Until the modern era (well into the age of exploration), maps would often have an island of "Brasil" or "Breasil" out in the Atlantic. The idea of islands out to the west is, of course, half based in fact and half based in myth: the Hesperides and Hy Breasil could just as easily be the Azores and the Faroe Islands. So it is no surprise that the Celts had islands in their Otherworld; it is important to notice, though, that they differ with the sidhe in both their governance and their reachability.
According to Irish (and occasionally in Welsh) mythology, the islands lie "beyond the ninth wave." Now, the reason for this is likely bound up with their fondness for the number three--nine, of course, is 3 x 3--a square of three, probably representing perfection (this is just speculation). The Otherworld islands are lands of peace and eternal life, unlike the sidhe:
Without grief, without sorrow, without death,
Without any sickness, without debility,
That is the sign of Emain--
Uncommon is an equal marvel.
--The Voyage of Bran
In Irish myth, these islands are ruled by Manannan mac Lír. Now, Manannan, while a god, is not really one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He has no pedigree with them, but instead is descended of Ler, "the sea" about whom little is known, though he is the later basis of Shakespeare's King Lear. And so, as the isles are not ruled by the TDD, they are peaceful, not centered on the inter-tribal warfare of the sidhe. They are also extremely difficult to access. One only reaches these islands through the invitation of Manannan or his daughters. This process is usually termed an echtrae.
In The Voyage of Bran and in other Irish texts, we are give several names for the Otherworld Islands:
Emhain Abhlach: Plain of Apples
Inis Subai: Isle of Joy
Tír na mBean: the Land of Women
Tìr fo Thonn: the Land Beneath the Wave
Tìr Tairnigir: the Land of Promise
Tír na nOg: the Land of Youth
Hy Breasil / Hy-Brazil / Hi Brasil: Most Best Place (?)
The Voyage of Máel Dúin (though a Christian immram) lists some forty islands, while The Voyage of Saint Brendan lists still more islands; both texts are similiar to the early, pagan echtrae in their descriptions of these islands.
For a human to come to these islands was, except in certain circumstances, to be there for eternity. Connla and Oisín were chosen by lovestricken daughters of Manannan. While Connla was never seen again, Oisín foolishly decided to return to Ireland to see his family again; he found that hundreds of years had passed in the interim. Moreover, once he dismounted from his enchanted white horse and set foot on the soil, those hundreds of years caught up with Oisín and he died. Similarly, Bran, after visiting the various islands mentioned above, returned to Ireland only to find that he had been away for hundreds of years; he sailed back out to sea, never seen again.
More pleasant is the story of Cormac mac Airt, who was brought to the islands by Manannan so as to give him the cup of truthfulness and other magical items. Cormac was able to return home, as he had been invited there for a short time, not intended as a husband for one of the faeries.
In Welsh myth, though the islands are less prominent, they do exist, more or less ruled by the enchanted head of Bendigedfran ap Llyr, brother of Manawyddan (the Welsh Manannan). Here there is no aging, no death, great feasts, and the ability to forget all pain. According to Branwen uerch Llyr, he and his companions stayed on Gwales (an unidentified island) for eighty years in this state, before one of them broke the enchantment by opening a forbidden door.
In some medieval Welsh traditions, Myrddin gathered the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and housed them on his "Isle of Glass."
In The Book of Taliesin there is the poem "The Spoils of Annwn" which recounts an unsuccessful attempt of Arthur to raid the Otherworld islands in search of a magic cauldron. In it, he lists what seem to be eight islands, with a fort on each island:
And finally, one cannot write of Otherword islands without mentioning Avalon, Ynys Afallach in Welsh. Originally ruled by Afallach son of Nudd with his daugther Modron, later medieval versions have it ruled by Brons (Bendigedfran ap Llyr) or Pelles (Pwyll). It is where King Arthur was taken by Morgan le Fay (Modron?) to be healed of his wounds after the battle of Camlann; it is also said to be where the Holy Grail resides.
One of the most recognized symbols of the Otherworld Islands is the apple. Like the name of Avalon (from afal "apple") to the Silver Branch of Manannan, which is carried by visitors from the islands when luring away the hero, it is a familiar symbol, with counterparts in the Greek Hesperides, the Norse Apples of Youth, and the Judeo-Christian Fruit of the Tree of Life.
The Axis Mundi
Finally, I have read about a tradition of "The Stone of the Tree"--the Cloch a Bhile--located at Lough Gur, Co. Limerick. The Cloch a Bhile itself is a large stone (it looks like a tree trunk) which is said to represent a tree growing at the bottom of Lough Gur. At this tree, one could access the Otherworld. It was under the protection of Aine Clí and her son Gearoid Iarla. Nearby, there is still a stone circle, reportedly the largest in Ireland. Were one to climb the branches of this tree, they could access all parts of the Otherworld.
This tradition has the rather obvious analog of Yggdrasil--the World Ash Tree of Norse tradition, as well as calling to mind the Tree of Life in other traditions. It also is reminicent of the Silver Branch of Manannan, mentioned above, as a symbol of Hy Breasil. The tree was certainly important to the pagan Celts, as evidenced by the druids, who met in nematona--sacred groves--instead of temples. (Temples may have been a later Roman import, but I'm merely speculating about that.)
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Mary Jones © 2003