From Mighty Oaks

No matter where you go in the world this time of year, the climate is lovely, moderated from the extremes. Even the arctic tundra is awakening and returning to life.  Spring cleaning is done and garden beds are being prepped for the growing season in northern climes. Everywhere in West Michigan gardening is on the mind and oak trees are in the nose – or, at least their DNA is! Every year, I ask the same question: Why do I have to be allergic to oak pollen? What good does it do me or the oak tree? From an evolutionary standpoint, absolutely nothing. But it’s the preservation and propagation of this precious DNA that has spawned an international campaign to save the ancient forests of Ireland.

As the second installment in a series of posts on trees sacred to the Celtic peoples, we’ll consider the oak tree this time and the modern-day initiatives of Ireland’s Woodland League. Read the first post – on the ash tree – here.

One curious thing about the oak is that it is struck by lightning more often than any other species. Therefore, the Celts associated it with their thunder god Taranis. The oak was a common emblem of kings, because of its strength, and a symbol of a king’s hospitality and protection. It also served as a boundary marker and a gathering place for the tribe (Gifford, 2001, p. 67). It can be found in placenames such as Derry (dairbhre), meaning “oak plantation,” and Durrow (dairmag), “plain of the oaks.”

Oaks were valued not only for their dependable wood but also for their acorns, an important food supply for pigs. Pannage was the practice of measuring land according to the number of swine its oakwoods could feed (Gifford, 2001, p. 64).

The Irish law tracts mention three types of fencing, one of which was the dairime, which may have been a line of oak trees plashed. In this technique, the trees weren’t cut all the way through, so the branches may have lived and grown for a while, adding to the barrier (Mitchell & Ryan, 1997, p. 283).

The huge live oak in Raheen, near Scarriff, in County Clare was planted – legend has it – by the high king Brian Boru a thousand years ago. The tree is still producing acorns and thus valuable offspring. Trees such as this ancient specimen are essential for the recovery of Ireland’s native woodland. “Having been in the one place for 1,000 years, they have remarkable DNA, adapted to this biozone. Each native tree has developed unique relationships with insects, mammals, plants and fungi,” says Andrew St. Ledger of the Woodland League. “The authentic landscape of Ireland is western Atlantic temperate rainforest, dominated by oak….Our hills are covered with exotic confers that basically acidify the soil, don’t provide much of a haven for wildlife, and deny Irish people their cultural heritage….We are a forest people without a forest.” Today only about ten percent of Ireland is covered in forest and less than one present is primeval (Walsh, 2014). The Woodland League hopes to turn this around [see link below].

One of the rough meanings of Guoidel – the Old Welsh term for the Irish people, the Gaels (the modern Welsh word is Gwyddel) – is “forest people,” according to John T. Koch in his Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Guoidel apparently shares Proto-Indo-European linguistic ties with the Irish word Fianna, the ancient warbands who often lived in the woods. Interesting.

As for me, I’m still picking last year’s oak leaves out of the lavender beds. And since I can’t breathe now, I think I’ll admire Michigan’s native oaks from behind closed doors and closed windows!


Gifford, J. (2001). The wisdom of trees: mysteries, magic, and medicine. New York: Sterling.

Mitchell, F. & Ryan, M. (1997). Reading the Irish landscape. Dublin: TownHouse.

Posted in Agriculture, Climate, Mythology, Religion | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

A Great Pestilence

For many months, it was prominently featured in the headlines. For many months, panic bubbled just beneath the surface. For many months the same word was echoed throughout the world in grave apprehension: Ebola. In the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, the same awe can be detected in the words of the Irish monk who recorded: “Aois Criost, cuicc céd ceathracha a trí. An cuigeadh bliandhain do Diarmait. Pláigh egsamhail choitcheann ar feadh na cruinne, gur sgrios an train bú airmhidnithe don chineadh daonna. The Age of Christ, 543. The fifth year of Diarmaid. There was an extraordinary universal plague through the world, which swept away the noblest third part of the human race.” (O’Donovan, 1966, p. 182-183).

Although Ireland was not touched by this deadly pandemic – unlike the more famous Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century – the Irish were well aware of the disaster coursing through mainland Britain. Irish raiders plundered the west coast of Britain, captured slaves and hostages, and set up colonies in southwest and northwest Wales and southwest Scotland. But during the 540s, they must have stayed clear of the major British population centers – the crumbling walled towns of sub-Roman Britain.

O’Donovan’s footnote in these annals states that “this plague, which was called by the Irish Blefed, is entered in the Annals of Ulster under the year 544, and in the Annals of Clonmacnoise under 546. In most chronological tales it is noticed under the year 543, as having passed from Africa into Europe.” (1966, p. 183).

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles make no mention of this instance of the bubonic plague which devastated the isle of Britain, and English textbooks – which tend to gloss over this period – also fail to note it. Yet noted Welsh historian John Davies points out, “Diau y gellir priodoli llwyddiant y Saeson ar ôl 550 yn rhannol i’r nychdod a drawodd y Brythoniaid o ganlyniad i’r pla. Tarddodd hwnnw yn yr Aifft yn 541, a chyraeddasai orllewin Prydain erbyn 549 pan fu farw Maelgwn Fawr ohono. Ymddengys na thrawyd y Saeson gan y pla, canys nid oedd ganddynt hwy, fel yr oedd gan y Brythoniaid, gysylltiadau uniongyrchol â glannau Môr y Canoldir. Credir bellach i bla 549 fod yn gymaint o ergydd â pla enwocach 1349. Trawodd yn arbennig – fel y gwnaeth y pla y mae awgrym amdano ganrif ynghynt – yr hyn oedd yn weddill o’r drefn Rufeinig. Os yw’r ddamcaniaeth fod y Saeson wedi ymatal rhag ymgartrefu yn yr hen ddinasoedd Rhufeinig yn gywir, dichon mai ofn y pla oedd y rheswn pennaf am hynny. (2007, p. 63) The success of the English after 550 may have resulted in part from the inability of the Britons to resist them because they had been enfeebled by the plague. The plague originated in Egypt in 541, it had reached western Britain by 549, when it carried off Maelgwn Fawr. It would appear that it did not attack the English, perhaps because they, unlike the Britons, lacked contacts with the shores of the Mediterranean. The plague of 549 is believed to have been as devastating as the more famous plague of 1349, and there is some evidence of an almost equally deadly pestilence a century earlier. Both scourges seem to have been particularly inimicable to what was left of the Roman order. If there is truth in the assertion that the English avoided the old Roman cities, the explanation may lie in fear of the plague.” (Davies, 2007, 66-67).

Had the plague not struck Britain twice between 400 and 600 AD, the history of the island may have taken a very different course. The various British kingdoms were by no means united against the growing Anglo-Saxon encroachment, but they were headed in that direction by the end of the sixth century. However, what Davies implies is that so much of the British fighting force, along with its leaders, had been decimated that many of the British kingdoms finally fell into disarray and succumbed to Anglo-Saxon takeover and assimilation, leaving the few struggling kingdoms of Wales the last and isolated bastion of resistance. Compared to the relatively quick takeover of Gaul by Germanic invaders after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Britons put up a darn good fight for over two centuries. Would they have been successful in turning back the Anglo-Saxon tide had it not been for the Black Death? If they had, one might hear Welsh spoken travelling between London and Glasgow today – assuming the Normans, Danes, and Vikings were equally repelled.

What really sends a little shiver up the spine is knowing that the bubonic plague is still out there…lurking. Just do a Google search for it and you can easily unearth gruesome images of modern-day plague victims. Like Ebola, it’s a terrifying disease and one not to be forgotten.

For even more creepy things to think about, check out the program The Monsters Inside Me on Animal Planet. But if you’re a hypochondriac, this is clearly not the show for you!


Davies, J. (2007). Hanes Cymru. New York: Penguin Books.

Davies, J. (2007). A History of Wales. New York: Penguin Books.

O’Donovan, J. (1966). Annala Rioghachta Eireann: Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, by the Four Masters,  from the Earliest Period to the Year 1616. New York: AMS Press, Inc.

Monsters Inside Me


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THE HOBBIT: What’s Welsh Got to Do with It?

Previously, I’ve posted about Ireland’s connection with one of the most-loved authors of our time – J.R.R. Tolkien. He had a special place in his heart for the Emerald Isle and was particularly drawn to the wilderland of The Burren. But there is another Celtic land which sparked Tolkien’s imagination – a land near to his own childhood home in the West Midlands of England. To Tolkien, Wales was a land which harbored a language that was both ancient and alive. The coal cars from Wales passing behind his house near the King’s Heath station bore names that fascinated him from an early age.

“So it came about that by pondering over Nantyglo, Senghenydd, Blaen-Rhondda, Penrhiwceiber, and Tredegar, he discovered the existence of the Welsh language. Later in childhood he went on a railway journey to Wales, and as the station names flashed past him he knew that here were words more appealing to him than any he had yet encountered….” (Carpenter, 1977, p. 26).

Before he penned The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created the languages that were heard throughout Middle-earth. For him – a linguist – the languages were primary, the story an after-thought. In The Hobbit, which grew out of a series of tales he told his children and drew upon the fairy-tale tradition, he populated Middle-earth with hobbits, dwarves, men, and elves. “The Lord of the Rings was…a continuation of Tolkien’s search for a mythology for his Elvish language. ‘The invention of language is the foundation,’ he said. ‘The stories were made rather to provide a world for the language than the reverse.’ Tolkien once admitted that he had considered writing the entire book in Elvish, but much of the original Elvish was edited out. ‘Only as much language had been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers’” (Becker, 2012, p. 37).

Die-hard fans know that the Elves of Middle-earth speak Quenya – a language of nobility, high ritual, and wizards’ spells, inspired by Finnish – and Sindarin – a utilitarian Lingua Franca Tolkien based on Welsh. Although the Sindarin language never appears in the book The Hobbit, the Elves can be heard speaking it (accompanied by subtitles) in each of the three films by Peter Jackson.

For Tolkien, it was the sound of Welsh – a soft, supple sound – that he found so pleasing, and he infused that sound into Sindarin. He once said, “Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful,’ especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent” (Carpenter, 1977, p. 56-57).

If you have an interest in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Welsh, there’s a wonderful interactive webpage you can explore: Why Do the Elves in The Hobbit Sound Welsh?

And for more fun, enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at filming an Elvish scene in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Actor Bret McKenzie, who plays Lindir, is told he has several lines of Sindarin to speak in a shoot that afternoon, and he has to master them virtually on the spot! He has a terrible time with it but in the end pulls it off beautifully. Bret’s adventure starts about 3:42 into the video:

And here’s how the perplexing scene turned out:


Becker, A. (ed.). (2012). A Tolkien treasury. Philadelphia: Running Press.

Carpenter, H. (1977). Tolkien: a biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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World Tree

As I raked leaves this weekend, I spent some time taking stock of the ash tree standing sentinel over the front yard. It’s had a rough few years and bears the D-shaped scars of attack from the emerald ash borer, a devastating insect pest that’s slowly making its way east to west across the US, killing every ash tree in its path. But not this one. Not if I can help it. This tree has witnessed the death of all the other ash trees in the neighborhood because none of my neighbors bothered to arm them against the coming battle. The armor, a treatment administered by a licensed arborist, costs about $200 every two years for a 25-foot tree, and to me it’s worth every penny. My ash tree is lush and healthy and could, one day, be the only one left in west Michigan. And it’s not just in North America that ash trees are struggling to hold their own. British ash trees are succumbing to a deadly fungal disease commonly referred to as ash dieback. It breaks the heart – especially one pumping Celtic blood.

To the Celtic peoples, trees were (and still are, as is evident by surviving traditions and folklore) sacred. The letters of the ogam alphabet, used by the Irish on stone boundary and grave markers, bear the names of trees.  In ancient Ireland, laws were enacted for the protection of trees, and fines were levied for the damage or destruction of certain trees. “A lost text of the 7th century dealt exclusively with tree judgments. Another surviving tract classifies trees as follows:  airig fedo (nobles of the wood): yew, oak hazel, ash, pine; aithig fedo (commoners of the wood): alder, willow, rowan, elm; fodla fedo (lower divisions of the wood): blackthorn, elder, arbutus (only survives in the warmer climate of Munster); losa fedo (bushes of the wood): [no examples are given]” (Mitchell & Ryan, 1997, p. 284-285). These divisions reflect the economic importance of the wood, along with the mythological endowments given to the species.

I thought I’d start a series of posts focusing on the sacred trees of the Celts, starting with the tree that is first to lose its leaves in the fall – the ash (Fraxinus), known in Irish as nion and in Welsh as onn. It’s also one of the last to come into leaf in the spring.

Looking at the graceful ash, it’s not difficult to see why it was considered the World Tree. Its branches reach for the sky, then dip downward and then up again at the tips. It’s as if the tree can’t make up its mind whether to dwell in the heavens or with man on earth. Early on, the deep root system of the ash tree was noted. As far as the branches reached above ground so did the roots below. To the ancient Celts, the tree represented the past in its roots, the present in its trunk, and the future in the growing tips of its branches. To the Norse, it was Yggdrasill, and it marked the center of the Scandinavian universe. “The Vikings believed that the first man was born of ash….The Viking runes were recorded on tables of ash and the Vikings themselves are said to have been known as Aescling, ‘Men of Ash’….” (Gifford, 2001, p. 29).

Spearshafts were almost always made of ash due to the strength of its wood, which does not split, and also perhaps because of the inter-connectedness of all things, as the druids believed. What better way to ensure the death of your enemy than to strike him down with the force of the Universe? “In the early histories of Ireland, it is said that five magical trees protected the land; three of these were ash trees, the other two were yew and oak. The magical ash trees were called the Tree of Tortu, the Tree of Dathi, and the Branching Tree of Uisnech” (Gifford, 2001, p. 28).

The ash tree also has a connection with water, perhaps the most sacred element to the Celts, considering the number of votive deposits that have been discovered in lakes, rivers, and wells. “In ancient Wales and Ireland, water-loving ash was always used for coracle slats and oars, and sailors carried an equal-armed cross carved from ash wood to protect them at sea” (Gifford, 2001, p. 29).

As for me, one thing I appreciate about the ash tree is its leaves: when they fall and dry out, they curl themselves into little balls, making them easy to rake and compact! And no weeds grow under the ash tree (the tree is said to sour the soil so no other plants grow under its canopy). Thank you!

In future post, we’ll take a look at other trees the Celtic peoples deemed sacred.


Gifford, J. (2001). The wisdom of trees: mysteries, magic, and medicine. New York: Sterling.

Mitchell, F. & Ryan, M. (1997). Reading the Irish landscape. Dublin: TownHouse.

Posted in Mythology, Religion | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s in a Name?

Cuibhlean stòlda mu dheas,  [The wheels of industry at a standstill,]
Na fàsaichean a’ tuath,   [The northern lands wasted,]
An taigh-mòr falamh an Dùn-éideann   [The empty house in Edinburgh]
Gun chumhachd gun ghuth.  [Without authority or voice.]      (Macdonald, 1987)

These are some of the poignant lines from the first song I ever heard by the Gaelic folk-rock band Runrig. The lyrics, penned in Scots Gaelic, describe the economic downturn and the lack of true authority granted to the Scottish people to govern themselves – a situation that continues today after the vote for independence on September 18. Things are changing, but not fast enough.

During that historic day just passed, it came to me that the land we know as Scotland was forged from a longing for independence. The land takes her name from the Scoti, the name the Romans gave to the Irish tribes who raided the western shores of Britain. One such seagoing tribe, the Dál Riata, left the Antrim coast around 500 AD in search of a new place to call home. They found it, seemingly without bloodshed in southwestern Scotland – a land they called Albu, a name which survives today in Scots Gaelic as Alba. The word is a cognate of Albion, which is the oldest name for mainland Britain in the Brythonic language (a precursor to Welsh).

So, what does the name Scoti actually mean? Ireland was originally referred to as Hibernia in Latin and the Irish as Hiberni up until the fourth century AD. Then the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus began to use the term Scoti for the Irish. He referred to the other great enemy of Rome in Britain as the Picti, or “The Painted People.” These were the Picts. “Scoti, by contrast, is a name with no obvious Latin meaning and has been most plausibly suggested as the Latin form of an originally Irish term for ‘plunderer’”(Marsden, 1997, p. 23). It isn’t hard to imagine a young Gaelic warrior lifting his chin and spouting to his Roman captors, “We’re the Raiders and we’re going to kick your….” Well, you get the picture.

A modern Irish dictionary reveals no trace of this meaning for scot or the original term. However, another word which sounds similar makes me wonder. Scoth (plural scotha) means “a young shoot,” or “a family branch,” or “the hair forming the tip of a tail, a brush, or loose-hanging part” (Dinneen, 1979, p. 983). Could the Irish who harried the Roman military have comprised a particular clan (“a family branch”)? They most certainly were a band of young warriors (“young shoots”) to go on raiding expeditions. Was Scoti a nickname used in reference to a particular hairstyle? Did they all sport ponytails or plait their hair in certain fashion? The Highland Clans stuck heather, juniper, and other sprigs of distinctive plants in their belts or caps (and later adopted distinctive tartans) to identify one other on the battlefield), so it seems reasonable that Irish clans or tribes resorted to impressive hairstyles as a means of identification.

“This original identity of the Scots as a people from Ireland is fully confirmed by later Irish authors, writing in Latin and familiar with classical Latin sources, who use Scoti in just that sense. Most prominent among them was Adamnan mac Ronan, the learned abbot of Iona at the end of the seventh century whose Life of Columba not only makes regular use of Scoti as a name for all Irish people and of Scotia for Ireland itself, but also uses the term Scoti Britanniae, the ‘Irish of Britain,’ for the Irish settled in Argyll” (Marsden, 1997, p. 23).

These Scoti were the Dál Riata, the People of Riata, who was a chieftain or petty king. So, what sent them to the shores of Albu? At the time of their migration, the Dál Riata were squeezed into a territory measuring about 450 square miles, bordered to the west by the River Bush, to the north and east by the sea, and to the south by the Latharna people.  This squeeze resulted from the pressures of Uí Néill expansion, and the Dál Riata sought relief in the land they could see across the waves, with their leader – according to legend – Fergus Mór mac Ercca. However, there is another legend of a migration led by Riata, who a century or more earlier delivered some of the Erainn peoples from a famine in Mumu (Munster). They settled for a time in Antrim and then crossed the sea to Argyll in Scotland. Riata’s people would have had to form a relationship with the British kingdom of Stratclut (Strathclyde), a major power source in the region. The kings of Stratclut may have welcomed Dál Riatan settlement to serve as a buffer between themselves and the Picts.

In 575 AD, a pact was drawn up by the Dál Riata’s most famous king, Áedán mac Gabráin, and the Uí Néill, who thought themselves overlords of the clans of the Dál Riata who remained behind in Antrim. The agreement reached was this: the Dál Riata dwelling in Ireland were to provide military service to the Uí Néill, but their tribute belonged to Áedán (and his successors) as their rightful overking.

History repeats itself – this time between Edinburgh and London.



Byrne, F. J. (1973). Irish Kings and High Kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Dinneen, P. S. (1979). Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla: An Irish-English Dictionary. Dublin: The Educational Company of Ireland.

Macdonald, R. and C. (1987). Alba on The Cutter and the Clan. New York: Chrysalis Records.

Marsden, J. (1997). Alba of the Ravens: In Search of the Celtic Kingdom of the Scots. London: Constable.

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Of Sunlight and Shadow

It’s the burning question everyone living in a northern clime wants to know this time each year (and if the question burned a little more, it might actually keep us warm): when will this blasted winter end? The winter of 2013-2014 has been particularly tough with the dreaded polar vortex repeatedly dipping down, bringing abnormally low temperatures further south in the northern hemisphere. I wonder – since winter came early, will spring also shift to arrive early this year, or will the white death linger on?

It’s still a question that plagues farmers today despite modern meteorological forecasting, but without such technology, how awesome this question must have been to the ancient Irish. The stars wheeling overhead were carefully watched, the progress of the sun was marked, and seeds were planted with invocations to the gods.

One American folk custom for predicting the arrival of spring that started in the 1800s among the Pennsylvania Dutch has something of a counterpart in the British Isles. One old rhyme has a familiar ring to it:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again. (Traditional)

This, of course, is the basis of Groundhog Day in North America. German pagan custom held the belief that hedgehogs would emerge from their burrows to test the weather on this day. There are no hedgehogs in North America, but the groundhog made a nice substitute.

Candlemas – a time when all the candles of the church are blessed – celebrates the purification of the Virgin Mary on February 2, when she was allowed to participate again in temple rituals after the birth of Jesus. In the Jewish tradition, women were considered unclean after the birth of a child and had to wait 40 days after delivering a boy and 60 days after a girl. The feast also celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, where prophets proclaimed him to be a light unto the world.

So, what does Jewish purification rituals have to do with hedgehogs? Nothing, but like so many other pagan festivals (including Christmas), the celebration of the sun’s return in February was hijacked by the Christian Church, making Christian concepts easier for pagan audiences to understand. In Britain and Ireland, missionaries noted at this time of year the observance of Imbolc, connected to the goddess Bridgit, an ancient fertility and sun goddess. Imbolc comes from the Old Irish i mbolc, meaning “in the belly,” a reference to the start of lambing season. It’s a time of year, spaced equally between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, when the lengthening of days becomes noticeable. Brigit was said to be the patroness of poets – poetry being a spark of light – and a goddess of the hearth. She was especially revered by the Laigin, the confederation of Irish tribes whose territory essentially became Leinster. In the Christian tradition, Brigit of Kildare, abbess of several monasteries, is said to have lived from about 451-525 AD. At Kildare, a vestal fire was kept perpetually burning in her honor until the Reformation. St. Brigit’s feast day is February 1.

So, back to our weather prediction: why were sunny skies at Imbolc believed to herald more brutal weeks of winter, while clouds or rain would suggest the end of it? In some aspects of the Irish pagan tradition, Brigit is considered to be a triple goddess. In spring, she is the maiden; in summer, the mother; in winter, the hag. This divine hag was thought to venture out to gather more firewood when the weather was fair at Imbolc, in preparation for more winter weather to come. If the day was cloudy or rainy, she would still be asleep and not awaken to do this chore. I suppose the same could be true for the hedgehog/groundhog: a January thaw would bring it out of hibernation too early and there would be nothing for it to eat.

In any case, I vote for long naps with a cat curled on my lap.

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Into the West

Back in May, in celebration of the first annual Tolkien Burren Festival, we took a look at how author J.R.R. Tolkien’s love for Ireland – especially the Burren – may have influenced The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The rugged beauty of the west coast of Ireland not only helped him envision Middle-earth, but he was likely influenced by Irish mythology in developing the mythos of the Elves leaving Middle-earth…and taking battered heroes Frodo, Bilbo, and Gandalf with them.

Tolkien’s Elves, the Eldar – a race predating humankind – are in keeping with the Sídhe of Irish tradition (see Wikipedia link below). Both the Elves and Sídhe possess an affinity for the Earth and a deep understanding of the natural and supernatural world. Both retreated to secret and powerful strongholds as the human population grew and expanded into new territories. Both, in the end, withdrew entirely from the world of men – rarely to return. To them, the future of Middle-earth (and Ireland) lay in the hands of men.

So, where did they go? The Elves’ destination isn’t really discussed in The Lord of the Rings, although the Silmarillion sheds some light on it, but it is a place parallel to the Blessed Isles of the Sídhe – the Otherworld. And since the veils between this world and the Otherworld are said to thin during Samhain (Halloween), and with the second installment of The Hobbit coming soon to theatres, I thought it would be an appropriate time to peek into the Otherworld.

For the ancient Irish, the Otherworld was located, in places, underground – its entrances gained through burial mounds – at the bottom of lochs, or in what we would call today a parallel universe. “Frequently, the Otherworld is across the sea, and a whole class of Irish stories, the immrama, deal with epic sea voyages. The journey is always westward, to where the sun sets – the sun symbolizing the conscious self – and is usually to an island of the blessed. Sometimes, a complicated route is followed from one island to another. It is possible that these stories were intended to help the soul find its way in the afterlife, possibly on the way to rebirth” (Hamilton & Eddy, 2008, p. 157).

The oldest of the immrama, or “mystical voyages,” was written down in the seventh century. In it, Bran mac Febal and company reach the Isle of Women. They live there for many years in a land where there is no wailing, treachery, sickness, grief, or death, and where silver trees grow, blossoming with crystal flowers – until one of the men becomes so homesick that they set sail back to Ireland. But once the homesick man’s feet touch Irish soil, he turns to dust because a few hundred years have passed while the men were away. The Voyage of St. Brendan is the most well-known of the immrama, told from the perspective of the Celtic Church, but it is clearly based on an earlier tale, the Voyage of Maelduin. The tale was originally told in Old Irish by a professional poet or bard, known as a fíle, before it was written down in the eighth or ninth century. In it, Maelduin encounters many strange things: a hound-footed horse, cannibal horses, fiery pigs, invisible riders, giant cattle, a crystal keep, a revolving rampart of fire, and giant ants the size of foals. Sound like a 1960s Japanese horror movie? Depends on your sense of adventure!

“The Otherworld is the storehouse of archetypes,” says Matthews (1992, p. 11) “that inform and shape our own phenomenal world. For example, take the trees that grow all around us in our own world: in the Otherworld they grow perfectly, without blight or frost to kill them. They have a luminous life, which is stronger and ‘more real.’” Apples, so mundane to us, were an Otherworldly fruit to the ancient Irish. When Maelduin and his men sail past an island of trees, he cuts a branch from one of the trees. After three days, three apples grow on it and sustain the travelers for forty days.

Getting back to Tolkien, in the movie version of The Return of the King, as the trolls batter at the door to Minas Tirith, Pippin turns to Gandalf and says, “I didn’t think it would end this way.” The situation is desperate, and although Gandalf holds great power as a wizard, there’s little hope either of them will survive the battle. “End?” says Gandalf. “No, the journey does not end here. Death is just another path – one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it…white shores. And beyond – a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Images of silver and glass are prominent in the Voyage of Maelduin. His boat passes through a silver net, suspended from a pillar. “The Pillar represents a significant gateway on the immram, for it shows the way into the deepest realms of the Otherworld….Passing beyond the net or veil signifies a deepening of experience, a greater confidence and trust….We note that from this point onwards the terrors that surround the inmost circle of the Otherworld cease” (Matthews, 1992 p. 53).

Shortly before this, Maelduin and company had come to the Sea of Glass: “They came to an utterly green sea of glass-like hue; they could see beneath them – a mighty wealth – the stones of the sea” (Matthews, 1992, p.31). Matthews points out, “The clear sea is like the clarification of the soul that is accomplished after considerable hard work and spiritual effort. In the Voyage of St. Brendan, St. Brendan’s crew are terrified of this sea because it reveals to them all the possibilities they had never thought of” (1992, p.51).

To Gandalf’s description of the Otherworld, Pippin has this to say:

Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.

Me: No, Pippin, it isn’t.


Hamilton, C. & Eddy, S. (2008). Decoding the Celts: revealing the legacy of the Celtic tradition. New York: Metro Books.

Matthews, C. (1992). The Celtic book of the dead: a guide for your voyage to the Celtic Otherworld. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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