Few things have captured the imagination of the Irish across the millennia like the idea of the Otherworld. We have trips to the Otherworld recorded in some of our earliest tales, preserved in our oldest manuscripts. What is interesting is that these tales appear to have been an already strong tradition prior to having been written down in the Christian period by a monastic milieu. Like many other things in the world of myth and folklore, the idea of the Otherworld evolved over time. From domain of the Tuatha dé Dannan in the earliest tales, to the fairy Otherworld of modern accounts, this article hopes to illustrate a crash course in the Irish Otherworld and what elements evolve, and which stay the same.
We have a number of different literary genres of trips to an array of different worlds other than our own:
- Eachtra (Adventures): These tales are overtly Pagan in nature and involve trips to the native, pre-Christian Otherworld. They often portray the Otherworld as being accessed through either entering a hollow hill or by the protagonist being surrounded in mist. These portals of entry are not confined to the Eachtra tale types and are found throughout the literature.
- Imramma (Voyages): These are Christian tales, involving clerics setting off and visiting Otherworld islands that show signs of influence from the indigenous belief in the Otherworld. It is easy to see with the similarities between the pre-Christian and Christian Otherworlds and how there was almost a sense of rapprochement between the two traditions. A pre-Christian Otherworld with Christian Ideals (“Land of the Living where there is no Sin”). MacCana commented how “In most of its aspects, Irish Christianity is one of compromise and syncretism with indigenous tradition and usage”.
- Fís (Visions): These are completely Christian in nature and deal with Christian eschatology and as a result the Otherworld in question is either hell or heaven and as such not applicable to this article.
“The multi-locational character of the Otherworld is evidenced throughout Irish tradition” Prionsias MacCana
Typically the Otherworld may surround you but you fail to see it. It was described by Ní Bhrolicháin as “A perfect realisation of this world. A place without death, disease, war and old age”, although there is at least one tale of the fairy Otherworld that depicts the fairies as aging and requiring a ritual to become youthful again. As with much in relation to the Otherworld things can be contradictory. In terms of the quote above the lack of war and death in the Otherworld is not exactly true, for example, in the case of De Gabháil in Síde (The Taking of Hollow Hill). Here death within the Otherworld is shown, although admittedly death is brought by humans entering in the sídhe (Otherworld, hollow hill). Humans bringing death to the Otherworld can also be found in Welsh sources, namely in the first branch of the Mabinogi, where Arawn, Lord of Anwyn (Welsh Otherworld) enlists the help of Pwyll in delivering a fatal blow to an immortal enemy. The need for human help in the Otherworld is also a very important element in the later fairy lore.
The Otherworld has received many names over the course of history, which again muddies the water even further. It is never made completely clear if these are multiple Otherworlds or just a single one given different names. Some of these are as follows:
- Tír na mBeo (Land of the Living)
- Tír na mBan (Land of Women)
- Mag Mell (The Plain of Delight)
- Tír Tairngire (The Promised Land)
- Tír na nóg (The Land of Youth)
There is also the later addition of Otherworldly islands such as Hy Brasil, Little Aran and an Island off Ballycotton (to name but a few). These are likely a direct influence from the Imramma tales and only appear at 7 year intervals or during certain climactic conditions. The tradition of going across the sea to enter the Otherworld though only appears in two tales. Professor John Carey remarks how this was not in keeping with the native lore and may have been a product of the Ulster literary movement.
Summary of the Ancient Otherworld
The ancient Otherworld is portrayed often as being around us at all time, yet imperceptible to most people. It can be entered by passing through a hollow hill (Sídhe or Brugh) especially at liminal times of year such as Samhain . There are numerous mentions of the fact that “All sídhe are open at Samhain” and that the magical barrier, the Fé Fiada is not actively concealing them.
There is a time discrepancy between our world and the Otherworld, with them being at opposite points in the yearly cycle. We see examples of this in one of the early Finn tales when Finn McCumhaill (Fionn mac cool) is sat between Dá Chic Anann (The Paps of Anu) at Samhain. He can see into the two sídhe on either summit of the mountain and hears two men speak to each other. One says to the other “Is your Subhais good?”. The dish mentioned, Subhais, is typically a dish associated with Bealtaine, a festival at the opposite side of the year. This is similar to an event in Eachtra Nerai (The Adventure of Nera), also set at Samhain. As Nera returns from the Otherworld to warn the royal assembly at Rathcroghan of an impending attack, he is given Torthaí Samhraidh (the fruits of summer) to prove that he had been on a different plain to our own. This motif of bringing a gift back from the Otherworld is a prominent one which there are a number of examples, including it being a common occurrence within both Eachtra and Imramm tales.
It can also be accessed through bodies of water, such as lakes and there are many examples of tales that relate to underwater and flooded kingdoms or allusions to the Otherworld being under the water. This later evolves in the imram tales to the Otherworld being accessed by crossing the sea in boats, and later again to the mystical islands such as Hy Brasil. The difference between the Imram and Eachtra being that the Imram focuses on a “prolonged adventurous voyage at sea rather than upon the experience of a mortal in a single Otherworldly place”.
Music is commonly associated with the Otherworld in both ancient and modern accounts. Sad, mournful and magical music can often be an indicator that the Otherworld now surrounds you. The legendary Finn Mac Cumhaill encounters an otherworldly entity that emerges from a sídhe near Tara every 9 years and burns the royal fortress to the ground. He uses a magical instrument that causes people to fall asleep, not unlike the legendary harp of the Dagda himself. The element of mournful music combined with the magical aspect of it will be seen again in the modern Otherworld segment below.
Another theme that occurs in both old and new sources is abundance. This is a prominent feature throughout the tales. Feasts, trees laden with fruit and fields full of crops are often mentioned. In the human world this is intrinsically bound up with rightful rulership reflected in the fertility of the land. . The judgments and behaviour of the king reflect in the cosmos. Assuming the king has been ceremonially wedded to the land (personified in the form of the sovereignty goddess) and displays Fír Flatheomon (The King’s justice), the land would be fertile and abundant, as would the people of the Tuatha (petty kingdom). Were the king not to display these attributes, crops would fail, storms and plagues would ravage the land and children would be stillborn or born with deformities.
Modern Folklore of the Otherworld
Now we venture into the more modern take on the Otherworld, that of the fairies. We can see many parallels with the older tradition mentioned above with repeats of motifs such as altered time and reality, envelopment by mist, abundance and music. Here we see a departure from entering the Otherworld through Tumuli, which have been replaced by the monuments colloquially named “Fairy Forts”. These numerous monuments dot the Irish landscape, numbering roughly 30,000 or more, are also known by the names rath or lios. These were enclosured dwellings dating to the middle ages and to this day they are still treated with a degree of suspicion, or genuine fear. Many of these monuments lie unmolested in a farmer’s field, despite how much they may be in the way or taking up valuable planting space. The folklore record is full of what happens to those who dare destroy this abode of the good folk. Despite these innocuous looking “forts” appearing to us as a simple embankment ringed by trees, entering into them may transport you to the Otherworld, similar to entering a sídhe. Upon stepping into one of these areas you might find yourself in a mansion belonging to “the other crowd”. Likewise, it has been said that there have been incidents of people attempting to cut down fairy trees, only to be confronted by a member of the good folk asking why they are cutting into “the jamb of their door”. They will furiously protect their dwellings and usually death and destruction follow any desecration of them.
Unsuspecting people may also be transported by sleeping under a fairy tree or in some cases even from falling asleep on the side of the road. For example a tale recorded by Eddie Lenihan tells of a man who fell asleep on the edge of the road and awoke in “the finest house he had ever seen”. Here we see the common fairy lore motif of finding themselves in an Otherworldly mansion (which is a contrast to the older lore where entering a hollow brought you to an alternate land). More often than not these mansions have a huge table laden with food, mirroring the abundance of the “ancient” Otherworld. This food however comes with dire consequences. Should you make the mistake of ingesting any of this food, then you will remain in the fairy realm forever. A warning against doing this is usually given by another human (usually a long lost female family member) who had been “swept” (taken away) by the fairies in the past. These accounts and tales illustrate a grey area between the ghost world and the fairy world in the Irish lore. The Otherworld is often shown as being populated by not only the Sídhe, but also dead (or at least believed dead) humans. In terms of the food aspect, it could be argued there is at least one parallel between the ancient and modern beliefs of the intoxicating nature of the otherworldly food. Eachtra Conlae tells us how Conla was able to sustain himself entirely on an apple from the Otherworld but as a result essentially bound himself to the Otherworld. Comparatively looking at the apple aspect, it brings to mind Iðunn, the Norse goddess who had magical apples that prevented the gods from aging. The topic of aging brings me to my next point.
I mentioned above about the ageless nature of the Otherworld in the ancient tales. We have seen how the inhabitants of the sídhe are capable of dying, at least at the hands of humans. For the most part in the fairy lore, the good people are shown as likely being immortal. In many of the tales attributed to the “fallen angel” origin theory, the fairies have been around since the fall of Adam and will be there till judgement day. They are variously described throughout the lore as being either beautiful or wizened so their actual aging process is ambiguous at best. A tale collected by Eddie Lenihan gives us a fascinating insight into the aging of na daoine usaile. In this narrative we are told of a man, who after being “swept”, is introduced to multiple generations of fairies of extreme old age. They claim to have been there for hundreds of years and require human help in retrieving a magical razor blade from a well (retrieving things from wells and wells connected to the Otherworld being examples of more ancient motifs). Shaving with this razor brings them back to the age of 35. This is the only instance I have personally seen a ritual where the other crowd change their age.
We see a number of times where time anomalies happen. Anyone familiar with the older tales will know that the passage of time in the Otherworld is much different from our own. Months or years spent in the Otherworld could translate to mere minutes passing in our own world (c.f Adventure of Nera) or centuries might have passed (c.f Óisín returning from Tír na nÓg). In the modern lore, time discrepancies are relatively tame compared to the older tellings, but are still evident. People will often suffer lost time, similar to those now popularised by UFO encounters. Invisible barriers might hold a person in place (likely to prevent them from witnessing some fairy activity). Another time when this happens is when people are “led astray” and might spend hours lost in the one field. Being “led astray” may take a more serious turn when a fairy mist descends upon you. This clearly echoes the old tradition of being enveloped in mist when being transported to the Otherworld (c.f Baile in Scáil). The difference here though is that the fairy mist has the ability to drown out environmental noises such as birds, wind through the trees and most importantly, the sound of running water. Crossing running water would allow you to escape so covering the sound of this allows the other crowd the ability to lead you astray even further.
Yet another aspect of continued tradition, albeit altered to a degree, is the association of the Otherworld with music and the bringing back of gifts. Music is often heard coming from fairy forts. This is always described as mournful, unnatural sounding music and many skilled musicians have tried to “take an air out it”, yet are unable to take a single note from it. The music in this case seeming to be esoteric knowledge they are not allowed access as there have been a number of tunes freely given to humans that could be played and passed down. (an example, with added lyrics by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, is found here of the fairy music Port na nPúcaí). There have also been healing books taken from the Otherworld, as well as other healing items such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle. This was used by the famous healer to diagnose and cure the multitudes of people who traveled to seek her powers of precognition and healing. The gifts have changed over time and we find no real evidence, that I am overtly aware of, that shows the bringing back of blossoming or silver branches as tokens that we find in the manuscripts.
Hopefully this cursory glance into aspects of the Irish Otherworld has given at least a brief look into the evolution of the idea of the native Otherworld throughout the centuries and that it illustrates the continuation of many motifs over a millennia that still remained strong in the oral tradition well into modern times.
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“Introduction to Early Irish Literature”, Muireann ní Bhrolicháin
“The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature” ed. Johnathon Wooding
“Meeting the other Crowd” Eddie Lenihan
“Folktales of Ireland” Séan o Suilleabháin
“Irish Folktales” Henry Glassie
“The Celtic Heroic Age” ed. Koch and Carey
“The Location of the Otherworld” John Carey