Consider the stories from Greece about Hades and Persephone, which operate at the purely mythic level and Orpheus and Eurydice which enacts the same mythic pattern but sets it as a story about humans rather than gods. In the first Hades snatches Persephone away to his dark realm and her mother Demeter eventually manages to rescue her but only on the basis that she spends half the year in Hades and half in the world we know. This is a story about the gods and the turning of the seasons. Now consider the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. As with many Greek stories about interactions between the worlds, the human characters concerned have some divine ancestry but live as humans in our world. Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies so her husband Orpheus, a musician with divine gifts, one might say inspired by the Awen and so godlike in his nature, goes to the Land of the Dead and plays his music charming Hades into releasing her, though the condition that he must not look back until they are both in the open air introduces a tragic dimension that is often a feature of the Greek stories. This feature often translates to an ironically comic view of human frailty as in the Roman Ovid’s re-telling of the tale.
So what we have here is a basic myth of a goddess being snatched away by a god into his realm and her return being allowed for part of the year and a parallel story of a woman being taken into this realm and her release negotiated, though not successfully achieved. The story is different but the mythic pattern is the same. In Ireland this pattern occurs in the story of Midhir and Etain. There are two versions of this story which echo the differences between the two Greek stories. In one they are both inhabitants of Tir na Nog (i.e. both gods) but in another version Etain is human and is carried off by Midhir, a king of the Tuatha de Danaan, after he tricks her husband and wins her in a game of chess. The cultural context here is very different and firmly embedded in the mythical history of Ireland. But, again, the mythic pattern is the same.
Celtic otherworlds may be in caves or under hills, beneath lakes or seas, or on far-away islands. The variety of location and context reveals a multi-layered inheritance in how these worlds are perceived and how they tend to fuse, in later literature, in a more generalised experience of Faery or, more trivially, Fairyland. In both these latter cases most often this is an inaccessible place that may be glimpsed but rarely visited though its inhabitants may well also inhabit our world. In an article about the Welsh name for the Otherworld, Bernard Mees and Nick Nicholas remark that ” the Welsh name Annwfn … suggests an etymological notion of an otherworld” [see bleow*]. Suggested Brythonic origins of the name are *an-dubnos (‘not-world’ or ‘not-deep'[deep-notness?]) or *ande-dubnos (‘underworld’ or ‘under-deep’). Also discussed is a Gaulish word antumnos, used in calling upon Dis or Prosperpine and therefore suggesting a nether world of darkness rather than a paradisal parallel realm.
The probable Greek origin of antumnos also suggests a dark, underworld location. The authors of the article find it unlikely that the supposed Brythonic term *an-dubnos was used without knowledge of its associations with the Greek Underworld. This may imply that its later associations with the ‘Hell’ of Christian tradition is not entirely a later overlay. Rather, as Mees and Nicholas suggest “… the entrance of the term to early Brythonic might even be plausibly connected with the development of the dual nature of the Insular Otherworld and Graeco-Roman influence: paradisaical and ageless on the one hand, sinister and Stygian on the other.”
In this view, it seems that the Brythonic Celts wanted it both ways, not wishing to abandon the idea of a blissful parallel dimension to their own world but also paradoxically seeing it as a dark Underworld where the souls of the dead reside. If the fabric of these alternatives appear to have little in common with each other this may be because, for us, ancestors and other-beings seem to require differently imagined locations. But do they?
In Britain the story exists in various folklore and literary versions including the Shetland ballad ‘King Orfeo’ and the Breton lay ‘Sir Orfeo’. Both conceive of the place into which Orfeo’s wife Heroudis is snatched as a domain of Faery. The confusion between this and the Land of the Dead is expressed ambiguously in these tales. ‘King Orfeo’ has the lines “The King of Faery with his dart/Has pierced your lady through the heart” possibly suggesting death but also, potentially, enchantment. ‘Sir Orfeo’ portrays the land that Orfeo enters as one where the folk who had been captured were “thoughte dede and nere nought” (seemed dead but were not) but a few lines further on “some dede and some awedde” (some dead and some mad). I wrote my own concise distillation of these British versions some time ago HERE. Lorna Smithers also discusses ‘Sir Orfeo’ and the nature of the Otherworld in her own inspired exploration linking with some different contextual matter HERE where the overlay between Annwn and the Land of the Dead is also discussed. The mythic pattern of capture and release from the Otherworld may also be seen in the story of Rhiannon in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi tales where it is Manawydan who rescues her. Again the cultural context changes but the pattern remains. The medieval Welsh poem of ‘The Girl in Ogyrfen’s Hall’, discussed recently on this blog, I think gains much of its power from its concentration on just one aspect of this mythic pattern. The gods live in an Otherworld which is parallel to and connected to our world. The seasons come and go as the gods move between the worlds, life leaving the land and returning in due season. So that land is also the Land of the Dead, where the ancestors dwell, just as they also dwell in the landscape that we know, their embedded actions in shaping and naming the landscape and the memories of their lives, their spirits, their being here with us which is also there in the Otherworld where the cauldron of re-birth gives them new identity.
So the mythic world of the gods is also our world, the legendary world of those semi-divine or heroic figures who have visited that world also inhabit our own world, and so it is there for us too if we would see it. Or it is ‘other’ if we choose it to be so.
- [*]Bernard Mees and Nick Nicholas in Studia Celtica XLVI (2012) pp.23->
- See also Gwilym Morus Baird’s discussion of ‘Dwfn’ in relation to Annwn HERE