child story

THE CELTIC OTHER-WORLD

In the preceding chapter we have seen that the belief was widely prevalent among Greek and Roman writers that the Druids taught the immortality of the soul.  Some of these writers, too, point out the undoubted fact, attested by Archæology, that objects which would be serviceable to the living were buried with the dead, and this was regarded as a confirmation of the view that the immortality of souls was to the Celts an object of belief.  The study of Archæology on the one hand, and of Comparative Religion on the other, certainly leads to the conclusion that in the Bronze and the Early Iron Age, and in all probability in the Stone Age, the idea prevailed that death was not the end of man. 
The holed cromlechs of the later Stone Age were probably designed for the egress and ingress of souls.  The food and the weapons that were buried with the dead were thought to be objects of genuine need.  Roman religion, too, in some of its rites provided means for the periodical expulsion of hungry and hostile spirits of the dead, and for their pacification by the offer of food. 

A tomb and its adjuncts were meant not merely for the honour of the dead, but also for the protection of the living.  A clear line of distinction was drawn between satisfied and beneficent ghosts like the Manes, and the unsatisfied and hostile ghosts like the Lemures and Larvæ.  To the Celtic mind, when its analytical powers had come to birth, and man was sufficiently self-conscious to reflect upon himself, the problem of his own nature pressed for some solution. 
In these solutions the breath, the blood, the name, the head, and even the hair generally played a part, but these would not in themselves explain the mysterious phenomena of sleep, of dreams, of epilepsy, of madness, of disease, of man’s shadow and his reflection, and of man’s death.  By long familiarity with the scientific or quasi-scientific explanations of these things, we find it difficult to realise fully their constant fascination for early man, who had his thinkers and philosophies like ourselves. 
One very widely accepted solution of early man in the Celtic world was, that within him there was another self which could live a life of its own apart from the body, and which survived even death, burial, and burning.  Sometimes this inner self was associated with the breath, whence, for example, the Latin ‘anima’ and the Welsh ‘enaid,’ both meaning the soul, from the root an-, to breathe.  At other times the term employed for the second self had reference to man’s shadow: the Greek ‘skia,’ the Latin ‘umbra,’ the Welsh ‘ysgawd,’ the English ‘shade.’  There are abundant evidences, too, that the life-principle was frequently regarded as being especially associated with the blood.  Another tendency, of which Principal Rhŷs has given numerous examples in his Welsh folk-lore, was to regard the soul as capable of taking a visible form, not necessarily human, preferably that of some winged creature.  In ancient writers there is no information as to the views prevalent among the Celts regarding the forms or the abodes of the spirits of the dead, beyond the statement that the Druids taught the doctrine of their re-birth.  We are thus compelled to look to the evidence afforded by myth, legend, and folk-lore. 
These give fair indications as to the types of earlier popular belief in these matters, but it would be a mistake to assume that the ideas embodied in them had remained entirely unchanged from remote times.  The mind of man at certain levels is quite capable of evolving new myths and fresh folk-lore along the lines of its own psychology and its own logic.  The forms which the soul could take doubtless varied greatly in men’s opinions in different districts and in different mental perspectives, but folk-lore tends to confirm the view that early man, in the Celtic world as elsewhere, tended to emphasise his conception of the subtlety and mobility of the soul as contrasted with the body.  Sooner or later the primitive philosopher was bound to consider whither the soul went in dreams or in death. 
He may not at first have thought of any other sphere than that of his own normal life, but other questions, such as the home of the spirits of vegetation in or under the earth, would suggest, even if this thought had not occurred to him before, that the spirits of men, too, had entrance to the world below.  Whether this world was further pictured in imagination depended largely on the poetic genius of any given people.  The folk-lore of the Celtic races bears abundant testimony to their belief that beneath this world there was another.  The ‘annwfn’ of the Welsh was distinctly conceived in the folk-lore embodied in mediæval poetry as being ‘is elfydd’ (beneath the world).  In mediæval Welsh legend, again, this lower world is regarded as divided into kingdoms, like this world, and its kings, like Arawn and Hafgan in the Mabinogi of Pwyll, are represented as being sometimes engaged in conflict. 
From this lower world had come to man some of the blessings of civilisation, and among them the much prized gift of swine.  The lower world could be even plundered by enterprising heroes.  Marriages like that of Pwyll and Rhiannon were possible between the dwellers of the one world and the other.  The other-world of the Celts does not seem, however, to have been always pictured as beneath the earth.  Irish and Welsh legend combine in viewing it at times as situated on distant islands, and Welsh folk-lore contains several suggestions of another world situated beneath the waters of a lake, a river, or a sea.  In one or two passages also of Welsh mediæval poetry the shades are represented as wandering in the woods of Caledonia (Coed Celyddon).  This was no doubt a traditional idea in those families that migrated to Wales in post-Roman times from Strathclyde.  To those who puzzled over the fate of the souls of the dead the idea of their re-birth was a very natural solution, and Mr. Alfred Nutt, in his Voyage of Bran, has called attention to the occurrence of this idea in Irish legend.  It does not follow, however, that the souls of all men would enjoy the privilege of this re-birth. 

As Mr. Alfred Nutt points out, Irish legend seems to regard this re-birth only as the privilege of the truly great.  It is of interest to note the curious persistence of similar ideas as to death and the other-world in literature written even in Christian times and by monastic scribes.  In Welsh, in addition to Annwfn, a term which seems to mean the ‘Not-world,’ we have other names for the world below, such as ‘anghar,’ the loveless place; ‘difant,’ the unrimmed place (whence the modern Welsh word ‘difancoll,’ lost for ever); ‘affwys,’ the abyss; ‘affan,’ the land invisible.  The upper-world is sometimes called ‘elfydd,’ sometimes ‘adfant,’ the latter term meaning the place whose rim is turned back. 
Apparently it implies a picture of the earth as a disc, whose rim or lip is curved back so as to prevent men from falling over into the ‘difant,’ or the rimless place.  In modern Celtic folk-lore the various local other-worlds are the abodes of fairies, and in these traditions there may possibly be, as Principal Rhŷs has suggested, some intermixture of reminiscences of the earlier inhabitants of the various districts.  Modern folk-lore, like mediæval legend, has its stories of the inter-marriages of natives of this world with those of the other-world, often located underneath a lake.  The curious reader will find several examples of such stories in Principal Rhŷs’s collection of Welsh and Manx folk-lore.  In Irish legend one of the most classical of these stories is that of the betrothal of Etain, a story which has several points of contact with the narrative of the meeting of Pwyll and Rhiannon in the Welsh Mabinogi. 
The name of Arthur’s wife, Gwenhwyfar, which means ‘the White Spectre,’ also suggests that originally she too played a part in a story of the same kind.  In all these and similar narratives, it is important to note the way in which the Celtic conceptions of the other-world, in Britain and in Ireland, have been coloured by the geographical aspects of these two countries, by their seas, their islands, their caves, their mounds, their lakes, and their mountains.  The local other-worlds of these lands bear, as we might have expected, the clear impress of their origin. 
On the whole the conceptions of the other-world which we meet in Celtic legend are joyous; it is a land of youth and beauty.  Cuchulainn, the Irish hero, for example, is brought in a boat to an exceedingly fair island round which there is a silver wall and a bronze palisade.  In one Welsh legend the cauldron of the Head of Annwfn has around it a rim of pearls.  One Irish story has a naïve description of the glories of the Celtic Elysium in the words—‘Admirable was that land: there are three trees there always bearing fruit, one pig always alive, and another ready cooked.’  Occasionally, however, we find a different picture.  In the Welsh poem called ‘Y Gododin’ the poet Aneirin is represented as expressing his gratitude at being rescued by the son of Llywarch Hen from ‘the cruel prison of the earth, from the abode of death, from the loveless land.’  The salient features, therefore, of the Celtic conceptions of the other-world are their consonance with the suggestions made by Celtic scenery to the Celtic imagination, the vagueness and variability of these conceptions in different minds and in different moods, the absence of any ethical considerations beyond the incentive given to bravery by the thought of immortality, and the remarkable development of a sense of possible inter-relations between the two worlds, whether pacific or hostile. 
Such conceptions, as we see from Celtic legend, proved an admirable stimulus and provided excellent material for the development of Celtic narrative, and the weird and romantic effect was further heightened by the general belief in the possibilities of magic and metamorphosis.  Moreover, the association with innumerable place-names of legends of this type gave the beautiful scenery of Celtic lands an added charm, which has attached their inhabitants to them with a subtle and unconquerable attachment scarcely intelligible to the more prosaic inhabitants of prosaic lands.  To the poetic Celt the love of country tends to become almost a religion.  The Celtic mind cannot remain indifferent to lands and seas whose very beauty compels the eyes of man to gaze upon them to their very horizon, and the lines of observation thus drawn to the horizon are for the Celt continual temptations to the thought of an infinity beyond. 
The preoccupation of the Celtic mind with the deities of his scenery, his springs, his rivers, his seas, his forests, his mountains, his lakes, was in thorough keeping with the tenour of his mind, when tuned to its natural surroundings.  In dealing with Celtic religion, mythology, and legend, it is not so much the varying local and temporal forms that demand our attention, as the all-pervading and animating spirit, which shows its essential character even through the scanty remains of the ancient Celtic world.  Celtic religion bears the impress of nature on earth far more than nature in the heavens.  The sense of the heaven above has perhaps survived in some of the general Indo-European Celtic terms for the divine principle, and there are some traces of a religious interest in the sun and the god of thunder and lightning, but every student of Celtic religion must feel that the main and characteristic elements are associated with the earth in all the variety of its local phenomena.  The great earth-mother and her varied offspring ever come to view in Celtic religion under many names, and the features even of the other-world could not be dissociated for the Celt from those of his mother-earth. 
The festivals of his year, too, were associated with the decay and the renewal of her annual life.  The bonfires of November, May, Midsummer, and August were doubtless meant to be associated with the vicissitudes of her life and the spirits that were her children.  For the Celt the year began in November, so that its second half-year commenced with the first of May.  The idea to which Cæsar refers, that the Gauls believed themselves descended from Dis, the god of the lower world, and began the year with the night, counting their time not by days but by nights, points in the same direction, namely that the darkness of the earth had a greater hold on the mind than the brightness of the sky.  The Welsh terms for a week and a fortnight, wythnos (eight nights) and pythefnos (fifteen nights) respectively confirm Cæsar’s statement. 

To us now it may seem more natural to associate religion with the contemplation of the heavens, but for the Celtic lands at any rate the main trend of the evidence is to show that the religious mind was mainly drawn to a contemplation of the earth and her varied life, and that the Celt looked for his other-world either beneath the earth, with her rivers, lakes, and seas, or in the islands on the distant horizon, where earth and sky met.  This predominance of the earth in religion was in thorough keeping with the intensity of religion as a factor in his daily pursuits.  It was this intensity that gave the Druids at some time or other in the history of the Western Celts the power which Cæsar and others assign to them.  The whole people of the Gauls, even with their military aristocracy, were extremely devoted to religious ideas, though these led to the inhumanity of human sacrifices.  At one time their sense of the reality of the other-world was so great, that they believed that loans contracted in this world would be repaid there, and practical belief could not go much further than that.  All these considerations tend to show how important it is, in the comparative study of religions, to investigate each religion in its whole sociological and geographical environment as well as in the etymological meaning of its terms.

In conclusion, the writer hopes that this brief sketch, which is based on an independent study of the main evidence for the religious ideas and practices of the Celtic peoples, will help to interest students of religion in the dominant modes of thought which from time immemorial held sway in these lands of the West of Europe, and which in folk-lore and custom occasionally show themselves even in the midst of our highly developed and complex civilisation of to-day.  The thought of early man on the problems of his being—for after all his superstitions reveal thought—deserve respect, for in his efforts to think he was trying to grope towards the light.