Celtic World & Cultures
Here you will find information about the Otherworld, Celtic custom and tradition.
|Wedded to the Land|
|The “Otherworld” was a domain of Celtic deities or supernatural beings such as the “Fairy People”. The Otherworld was considered to be the Celtic version of heaven (or even hell to most Christian writers).
They were hidden from mortal eyes by strong Otherworld magic. They were situated in all sort of places. Some of these Otherworlds were located on the islands, the dunes, dun-hills, forests, rivers, and lakes. A grand castle or even humble cottage could be the Otherworld, which would, appeared at night for mortals, but would probably vanish in the morning.
Normal rule does not apply in the Otherworld. A year may seem to pass in the Otherworld, but in the real world centuries may have passed. Time seemed to have stand still. Nor does the people who live there, aged like mortals. They seemed to remain forever young.
The Otherworld also seemed to be able to move from one location to another. Or there may be only one Otherworld but it exist everywhere. In another word, the Otherworld is a paradox. Entering the enchanted place, may be close by or it could be a place far away.
Originally, the Otherworld, particularly the Irish myths, was sometimes situated on some remote islands in the west. Later the Otherworld was located on Ireland itself, but mostly hidden from mortal eyes by strong otherworldly magic.
There were several strange, mythical places of where this Otherworld was located. There was the “Land of Youth”, called Tír na nÓg in Irish Gaelic. It was the home of Danu and the other Irish deities known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, which means the “People of the Goddess Danu”. It was said to be situated in some distant land, possibly an island or group of islands.
Tír na nÓg has four magical cities: Falias, Gorias, Finias and Murias. In each city, was a magical treasure or talisman, which the Tuatha Dé Danann received when they settled in Ireland. (See Treasures of Tuatha Dé Danann in the Book of Invasion.) Also residing in each city was a druid. These four druids taught the Tuatha Dé Danann knowledge and skills. They were named (See the Druids of Danu in the new Druids page.)
Below is the table with the name of cities in Tír na nÓg, together with the druids and treasures they possessed.
The Otherworld located on several areas in Ireland was hidden by magic, in a subterranean fortress called Sid, Sidh or Sidhe. The word Sidhe (sid or sidh) means “Fairy Rath” or “Fairy Fort”. The Tuatha Dé Danann were sometimes called áes sídhe, which is the “People of the Sídh”. The Tuatha Dé Danann retreated here after they were vanquished by the Milesians.
The Irish Otherworld was also called Tech Duinn – “House of Donn” or “House of the Dead”. Donn was the Irish god of the dead. For some reason, the location of Tech Duinn is often linked to the province of Munster.
There was also the Tir Tairngire – “Land of Promise”, said to be home and realm of the sea-god Manannn Mac Lir. Here was where Lugh was brought up. Tir Tairngire is often translated into Emain Ablach.
There is said to be underwater Otherworld, known as Tir fo Thuinn.
The “Land of the Dead” became associated with Spain, where the Milesians come from. While the “Land of the Living” (or the “Land of the Happy Dead”) was said to be situated somewhere west of Ireland. It was said to be on some island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and it was originally the home of the Partholanians.
The Welsh called their Otherworld – Annwn Annwfn or Annwyn. Arawn ruled this Otherworld kingdom. The hero Pwyll of Dyved was allowed to rule Annwfn (Annwvyn) for one year, before he returned to his own world.
According to the early Welsh poem, titled Spoils of Annwfn (Preiddiau Annwfn), Arthur and his followers went to a number of otherworlds, seeking to steal the a magic cauldron. Thejourney probably ended in disaster, since only seven had survived and it wasn’t clear if they had gained the cauldron or not.
Another popular name for Welsh Otherworld, was the Caer Wydyr or Caer Wydr – the “Fortress of Glass”. Caer Wydyr is similar to Tower of Glass in the Arthurian Legend, but located in Glastonbury Tor, England. Glastonbury Tor was supposed to be the location of the “Isle of Avalon” or “Isle of Apples”, the finally resting place of King Arthur.
In Welsh myths, however, the Arthurian Avalon was derived from the name Ynys Afallon.
Also in British and Welsh, particularly those concerning King Arthur, such as the Isle of Avalon, the domain of the Lady of the Lake and the Grail Castle, can all be considered to be Celtic Otherworld.
When King Arthur was mortally wounded, his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, writers say that she brought the king to Avalon, to be healed. Geoffrey of Monmouth, mentioned Morgan le Fay as one of nine sisters who were also great sorceresses and they lived in Avalon, but Geoffrey does not connect her being Arthur’s sister. See Battle of Camlann (Early Traditions) and Twilight of the Kingdom, for a few different variations about the episode of death of Arthur and Avalon.
Layamon wrote that the Avalon was ruled by elf-queen named Argante, who could be another name for Morgan, since later authors had often called her the ruler of Avalon. In Erec and Enide (c. 1165), Chretien de Troyes wrote that one of the wedding guests was Guingamar. Guingamar was the lord of Avalon and a friend of Morgan le Fay.
In the early thirteenth century, some believed that Avalon was situated in Glastonbury. The monks or priests in Glastonbury wrote their own version of the Grail legend, called Le Haut Livre du Graal or Perlesvaus. They even claimed that Arthur and Guinevere were buried in Glastonbury.
Gerald of Wales, who wrote his Tour of Wales in the late 12th century, had visited the site and also believed that Glastonbury was the burial sites of Arthur. Glastonbury was situated on the island in the middle of a marshland. Most contemporaries and modern scholars were sceptical about these claims of the Avalon/Glastonbury connection.
Glastonbury Tor was also sometimes called the “Isle of Glass” or “Tower of Glass”. The name is similar to the Welsh Caer Wydyr or “Fortress of Glass”.
Another famous Arthurian Otherworld was the domain of the Lady of the Lake. Some say her home was an underwater palace, while others say that the lake was only a powerful illusion to hide her home from intruders.
The heroes and cousins, Lancelot and Bors were brought up in her home. Lancelot gained the name Lancelot of the Lake, because of his association with the Lady of the Lake. (See Lady of the Lake in Lancelot du Lac.)
It was the Lady of the Lake who gave Arthur the Otherworldly sword, Excalibur. (see Legend of Excalibur)
The magical forest and spring of the Lady of the Fountain could also be considered to be an Otherworld. The water in the spring looked like it was boiling as it bubbles, yet the water was actually cold. Pouring the water from a golden bowl on to huge marble stone would cause an immediate storm to lash the forest and the Lady’s castle.
Some Otherworld may look like paradise, but was actually some elaborate prison. As in the case of the Valley of No Return (Le Val Sans Retour). Here, no knight could leave the land, if he had ever been unfaithful to his true love. The entire valley was like paradise, where valley was green and there was always plenty of water, even though it never rain. There was always feasting and dancing. Lancelot broke the spell, because he had always been true to love – his love for Guinevere.
|Wedded to the Land|
|In Celtic mythology, there is a relation between the ruler and deity, and that of the ruler and the land. The king was wedded in a sacred marriage to the goddess that was supposed to ensure the fertility of the land.
Quite often in ancient religions or myths, the earth and land was often represented by the feminine entities, such as the goddesses, or they were the personification of the land or earth. The goddess of the land often had the attributes of the mother goddess or the fertility goddess.
Of course, it is not necessary that she is a goddess; she may be the queen or the representative of the goddess, like a priestess. The king’s consort, whoever she may be, she is often described as the “Sovereignty Goddess“. The future fertility and prosperity of the kingdom depends upon the mating the king mating with the sovereignty of the land.
In Irish mythology, there were number of women or goddesses who were the Sovereignty of Ireland. Among them were Morrigan (and her triple aspects as the goddess of war – Badb, Nemain and Macha), Eriu and her sisters Banba and Fodla.
The three sisters, Eriu, Banba and Fodla were each a poetic name of Ireland. They were Sovereignty of Ireland, as well as Danann goddesses. However, Eriu was the most famous of the three sisters. In the Lebor Gabala (Book of Invasions) and Cath Maige Tuired (Second Battle of Mag Tuired), Eriu had a lover, named Elatha, who was Fomorian king. She became the mother of King Bres of Ireland, when Nuada lost his arm. With the defeat of the Fomorians in the second battle of Mag Tuired, she was one of the wives of the hero Lugh Lamfada, as consort. When the three grandsons of Dagda murdered Lugh, Eriu married one of the brothers, named MacGreine. Her sisters married the other two brothers – Banba to MacCuill and Fodla to MacCecht. So Eriu was the mother of one king and the wife of two kings.
When the Milesians arrived, the three sovereignties of Ireland knew that the Milesians would conquer Ireland, so each queen tried to persuade the Milesians to name the land after her name. Eriu, the last queen to approach the Milesians, promising them victory over her people. Eriu and her sisters fell with their husbands in the Battle of Tailtiu. As they had promised, the Milesians named the entire isle to Eriu, Erin or Eire, which is another name for Ireland.
One of the most amazing goddesses was Morrigan. Morrigan was the daughter of Delbáeth and Ernmas. Morrigan also had two sisters, Badb and Macha (and possibly of a third named Nemain).
Here she is seen as three separate figures. However, it is altogether possible that Badb, Macha and Nemain were all one person, known as the Morrigu, but each one represented one aspect of the goddess. So the Morrigu were the triple goddesses of war. They were also the sovereignty goddesses of Ireland, married to the high kings.
Badb and Nemain had been named as the wives of Neit, a shadowy figure in Irish myths, while Macha was the wife and consort of Nuada Airgedlámh. Macha and Nuada died in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired. Macha was also said to be the wife of Nemed, the leader of the Nemedians, a race that had settled on Ireland before the arrival of the Tuatha de Danann.
Before the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, the god Dagda encountered a beautiful woman at Glenn Etin at Samhain night (the eve before the battle). Dagda seduced and slept with this woman. It is believed that this woman was Morrigan, and she foretold victory to the Danann, promising aid. Each year, on Samhain night, Dagda had to mate with Morrigan, to ensure the fertility and prosperity of Ireland, because the war goddess was the sovereignty of Ireland.
Sovereignty goddesses were not limited to marriage with the high king of Ireland. Each province in Ireland had a sovereignty goddess in their province. There were also another Macha, who was the sovereignty of Ulster, and in the neighbouring province, Medb (Maeve) was the sovereignty of Connacht. There are uncertainty of whether the Ulaid Macha was the same queen/goddess as the Nemedian Macha and the Danann Macha.
However, the idea of sacred marriage between a king and the goddess doesn’t just appear in the Irish and Welsh myths. In fact, a king wedded to the goddess was a very ancient ritual of many different ancient cultures. And like the Celtic myths, the sacred marriage had to do with the fertility of the land.
The one that come to my mind is the myth of the Sumerian goddess, named Inanna, whom the Babylonian called Ishtar. Inanna’s attributes combined the Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Athena, because she was the goddess of love and war. Inanna had also being identified as the Phoenician fertility goddess Astarte, and the Egyptian Isis (Auset). So in a sense, Inanna was the sovereignty goddess of Sumer.
In the Norse mythology, the sacred marriage was called hierós gámos, though the marriage was between the sky god and the earth goddess. Since agriculture was important to the Scandinavians, the union of the between the deities, would ensure the fertility of the land. The soils required not only to be fertile, but it need sunlight and rain.
According to the Sumerian myths, she was the wife of Dumuzi the shepherd god. For some reason, Inanna descended into the Underworld, and Ereshkigal, the goddess of the dead, trapped her sister Inanna in her domain. However, Enki the god of wisdom send two of his creature to rescue Inanna. When Inanna escaped from her prison in the Underworld and fled to her home in the heaven, Ereshkigal send her demons after her sister. Inanna managed to protect herself and her children, but she could not protect her husband. Dumuzi was dragged into the Underworld. However part of his spirit escaped death.
As sovereignty of the land, Inanna was said to be the bride of each king. Each king was seen as the incarnation of Dumuzi, the husband of Inanna. So each king actually married and mated with the priestess of Inanna (Ishtar).
In the Welsh myths, Guinevere was known as Gwenhwyfar, a queen and goddess of Britain. So Gwenhwyfar was a personification of Britain; she was the sovereignty of Britain. When Arthur married Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), he was wedded to the land (Britain).
However, in the mainstream Arthurian literature, Guinevere not only representing the kingdom of Logres (Britain), but the source of Arthur’s earthly power came from the Round Table.
There were several versions on the origin of the Round Table, but original table (told by Wace, in the Roman de Brut, c. 1155) was constructed so that all knights were equal, with no one having precedence over the others, regardless background (see the Life of King Arthur and Origin of the Round Table). The Round Table had nothing to do with Merlin and the Grail. But as the stories of the Grail became entwined with Arthur’s knight, the origin of the Round Table was changed.
As early as 1200, a poet named Robert de Boron wrote a trilogy concerning the Grail: Joseph d’Arimathie, Merlin and Perceval. According to Boron, the Round Table was constructed by Merlin, using the Grail Table of Joseph of Arimathea as a model. Also Merlin made the table round because the circle was like the Earth. To shorten this story Merlin had originally built this for Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father), but at his death, King Leodegan of Camelide, the father of Guinevere, received the Round Table from Uther. When Arthur married Guinevere, Leodegan had bestowed the Round Table (and 100 knights) to Arthur as a dowry. (More detail about can be found in the legend of Excalibur, the Origin of the Round Table, and Merlin and the Grail.
The whole point of this story is that Guinevere was very much the symbol of the wholeness of the Round Table and the kingdom of Logres, in some way, she represented the power of kingship more so than Arthur himself. The Queen was one with the kingdom and the fellowship of the Round Table. The health of the kingdom and the fellowship of the Round Table depended upon Guinevere, since she owned the Round Table.
In the Mort Artu (Death of King Arthur, part of the romance in Vulgate Cycle), the Round Table had split because Guinevere was caught in her bedchamber with her lover Lancelot. She was to sentence to death, but Lancelot rescued her. War resulted with Arthur and his kinsmen against Lancelot and his kinsmen, and the division between two factions was symbolised the division of the Round Table. The division and war had seriously weakened Arthur’s own power. However, the Round Table had further fractured when Mordred, his illegitimate son, acting as viceroy in Arthur’s absence, had seized kingship and the kingdom. In this version, Mordred tried to force Guinevere into marrying him, but the queen had managed to escape.
In some early versions, it was Mordred, not Lancelot, who was Guinevere’s lover. Mordred in the early legend was Arthur’s nephew and the brother of Gawain. The king was absence in the war against Rome, when Guinevere had willingly seduced her husband’s nephew. Through marriage to the Sovereignty of Britain (Guinevere), no one could prevent Mordred becoming the king of Britain. Like the later legend, Mordred’s usurpation was short-lived.
In whichever versions you may have read Arthur’s kingship was in crisis. By marrying his aunt, the Queen, Mordred had a legitimate claim to the throne and crown. Whoever marry the Queen, has the key to the kingdom, because the Queen was the kingdom.
In the legend of the Grail, the Grail King, sometimes also known as the Fisher King or the Maimed King, was more closely associated with the fertility of the land than Arthur. Because the Grail King was maimed, his kingdom became a desolated and barren Waste Land. (There are several version of his maiming, so I won’t go over this, but if you are interested, then read the Fisher King.) Since the Grail King was wounded in the thighs and became sterile, so his land became barren.
To restore the kingdom and the fertility of the land, the Grail King must be healed. Again, there are many versions of how the king was healed, but the most common version was that Grail hero, had to ask the correct question about the mystery of Grail: “Whom does the Grail serve?”
The whole point of this is that land was linked to the king’s health, as if he was actually wedded to the land. Cause damage or injury to the king, then the land will suffer too.
As can be seen, the Grail King and his land shared a common theme of the Celtic myths.
The wholeness of the kingdom depended upon the king being completely healthy. This bring us back to the Irish myths, where a king who suffered from physical imperfection or disfigurement, he was barred from kingship. Nuada lost his arm in the war against the Firbolgs. With only one arm he had to abdicate to Bres. Bres was physical beautiful and healthy, but he was unfit to rule as well, because he was a tyrant and the most ungenerous of king, which made him unpopular with his people. Such was Bres’ tyranny that Nuada was first given a silver arm, so that Nuada can rule again. Later, Miach, the son of Dian Cécht, restored Nuada’s arm, so that there was no uncertainty of Nuada’s right to rule Ireland.
|The word geis means “bond”, a prohibition, taboo or injunction. The geis is tied with one’s fate or destiny. The violation of one’s geis, will lead to some misfortunes, and in most cases, to one’s own death. They were something like a curse or a blessing. The Ulster Cycle stressed the importance of not breaking his or her geis, yet it seemed to be unavoidable.
Cu Chulainn had a geis where he was not allowed to eat meat of a hound (because he was named as a hound), but the hero was tricked into breaking his geis.
In the tale of the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, the high king, Conaire Mor, has an interesting number of geis impose upon him. Conaire was warned of not killing any bird, because his father (Danann) could shift-shape into a bird. See Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel for the list of geis he was bound to. One by one, Conaire broke each geis. When he broke one geis, he set the chain reaction where he will break all of them in rapid succession.
However, there are occasion when avoiding violation of the geis, does not necessarily means that diaster will be avoided. Avoid breaking a geis can sometimes work against the person. There are several famous tales, where the heroes met their death had avoided violation of their geis.
Cu Chulainn’s son did not violated a single geis, yet Connla was killed by his own father for faithfully observing the geis that Cu Chulainn had impose on his son before he was even born.
In the tale of Deirdre, Fergus had offer protection to the sons of Usna, on the way to the court of King Conchobar, when Fergus was invited to attend a feast, hosted by chieftain. His geis was that Fergus had to attend any invitation to a feast, so Fergus had to attend. This geis may seem harmless one to break, but Fergus did not break this geis, and the result was just as disastrous. So Fergus send Deirdre and the sons of Usna ahead, escorted by Fergus’ two sons, while he attended the feast. Through Conchobar’s treachery and plot, one of Fergus’ sons, betrayed his father and allowed the sons of Usna to be captured. Conchobar had the sons of Usna executed, while they were still under Fergus’ protection. So the price of keeping the geis resulted in a feud between Fergus and Conchobar.
The hero Diarmait had faithfully kept his geis that Grainne had impose upon him, which was to runaway and marry her, because she was not in love with the Fian leader, Finn Mac Cumhaill. Doing so resulted in a feud between two great friends. Diarmait had no choice but to keep his geis, despite the wrath of his jealous leader (Finn). Eventually, Diarmait met his death, and Finn who had the power to heal him, refused to so.
However, Diarmait did have another geis that his foster-father Angus had placed upon him when he was young, not to hunt wild boar.
See the Pursuit of Diarmait and Grainne.
I not really certain, how a person find out what his or her own geis. Just about anyone can impose a geis upon another. Sometimes a druid imposed a geis to a person, other times, by king, hero, and in several of the stories, they were imposed by the person from the Otherworld (a god or goddess – one of Tuatha Dé Danann). In fact the geis was probably linked to the Otherworld.
In the Welsh myths, there was something like the geis in Math Son of Mathonwy (Mabinogion), where Aranrhod imposed several curses (blessings) on her own son, Lleu. But unlike the Irish geis, these could be overcome. Gwydyon, brother of Aranrhod, helped her son overcome these curses, by duping Aranrhod.
Pwyll had to accept a couple of conditions set by Arawn, which including taking his place as Lord of Annwn, by being disguised as Arawn, and fighting Arawn’s enemy, Havgan.
|The Celtic calendar or the new year begins on Samhain.
Today, the pagan religion of Wicca have adopted many of Celtic holidays, particularly Samhain, Beltaine and Imbolc, as well as some from the Norse/Germanic calendar.
Below, is a table of pagan festivals that the Celtic people celebrated each year.
|Like the other languages, Greek, Latin and the Germanic languages, the Celtic language belong to the branch of language known as the Indo-European language.
As you may have read in the About Celtic Myths, on Who were the Celts?, you would know that the ancient Celts had migrated to as far east as the Galatea in Asia Minor, and to the west as far as Spain and the British Isles, around the 5th century BC. The Celts had settled in large part of the ancient world that it could be considered to be a Celtic Empire.
It was an empire in a sense that that they shared a similar languages and cultures, including arts and crafts. But it was an empire that was divided into tribal divisions. There was never any central authority or government that we usually associated with an empire. Neighboring Celtic tribe had warred against another Celtic tribe as often as they fought against foreign kingdoms.
With spread of their migration, there was a spread of their language. However, what we known as the modern Celts, their languages only survived in certain regions.
The modern Celtic language has been divided into two different groups. One group known as Goidelic or the Q-Celtic branch, which consisted of Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and Manx; the last one is now extinct. While the others languages were Welsh, Cornish and Breton, which belonged to the group, called Brythonic or Cymric or the P-Celtic branch.
During the Roman conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), a Roman general, had written memoir of his campaigns in Gaul and Britain, describing their customs and belief. The Gauls were not illiterate. On the contrary, Caesar wrote that the Celts had adopted Greek letters for mostly trades and commercial purposes, particularly with the Greek city of Massilia (modern Marseille, in southern France). They have been using Greek alphabets, centuries earlier. The Gauls just didn’t use Greek writing to record their knowledge, customs, history and literature.
After the conquest and annex into the Roman Empire, the Celts began using the Roman (Latin) alphabets. Still, the Gauls didn’t commit their history or poems into writing. Both the Britons and the Gauls never have their own writing system until centuries afterward. Romano-Celtic inscriptions were found sanctuaries and shrines, naming the deities in both Continental Europe and in Britain, but these were written down or carved into stones after kingdoms had become Roman provinces.
To understand the Gauls, we had to rely on classical Greek or Roman authors, like Caesar, who had written in his memoir about his conquest in Gaul (France); he had recorded their culture and lifestyle. Caesar says that the Druids preferred their pupils to memorise verses rather than to write them down.
But what was the Celtic society like before the adoption of the Roman alphabets? A great majority didn’t know how to read or write. But that’s not to say that the all Gauls were illiterate, unless you were a merchant or a druid.
If they had their own writing systems before the Roman conquest, we will never know. However, there is a writing system which the Celts had used between the 4th and 8th century AD, which was called “Ogham”.
Ogham had adapted the Roman alphabets into a simple alphabets that consisted of straight line and a series of notches. The Oghamic alphabets is shown in the table below:
Most of the inscriptions of oghams were found in Ireland. Other inscriptions were found in Cornwall, Scotland and the Island of Man. It seemed the Picts in Scotland had also adopted these alphabets.
According to the Irish myths, the ogham alphabets were invented by the Ogma, the Irish god of poetry and eloquence.