To the ancient peoples of Europe’s Atlantic coasts, the sight of the sun setting into the sea in the west has been a source of wonder and mythology that has created a number of potent ideas regarding the ‘otherworld’.
Roman prodigy Lucan’s account of the Roman Civil Wars, Pharsalia (1stC), said that the Atlantic ‘Celtic’ doctrine was that the soul doesn’t die with the body, but:
regit idem spiritus artus Orbe alio
“Rules the spirit for another cycle”
In other words, reincarnation was continuous. However, there is no indication (from what scanty contemporary evidence we possess) that reincarnation was believed to be an instantaneous phenomenon: In fact, to suggest so would be counter-intuitive to observations of nature which ‘teach’ that a journey must occur before new life is reborn – just as with the seasonal cycle of plants, animals, pregnancy and so forth. This concept that life is reborn therefore demands a stage where the soul inhabits a secret (hidden) dormant existence, and this appears to be the subject of the pagan belief in the Otherworld. Looking west towards the setting sun (the hiding of the sun, prior to its rebirth in the East the next morning) was the logical direction in which to seek this otherworld…
Medieval Irish and Scots references to Tír na nÓg (Land of the Young), Tír Tairngire (Land of Promise), Tír na mBeo (Land of the Living/Soul) and Mag Mell (‘Honeyed Plain’) all suggest these places to be ‘islands’ in the West – a receiving place for the soul.
A story including a corrupt or misunderstood version of this doctrine appears to have been told by the 5thC CE Byzantine annalist-historian Procopius of Casarea, who says (in his book The Wars of Justinian) that some North Europeans relate a story about ships leaving at night from the shores of land to convey the souls of the dead to an island in the west, which he believed was called Brittia. Procopius’ Brittia equates in sound at least to the Breton name of Brittany: Breizhe, which holds certain similarities to the Irish Goddess (or Saint) called Brighde and the Manx equivalent, Breeshey (pron. ‘Breeshya’ or ‘Vreeshya’ or even ‘Bahee’). Of interest at this point, the Scandinavian goddess ‘Freyja‘ – another receiver of the dead in ancient European myth – has a name which could easily be a mutation of the original name from which the Manx derive Breeshey or Vreeshey (ie- Brigdhe)… The archipelago of Atlantic islands known to us as the ‘Hebrides’ are also named after Brighde/Bride, from Hy Brides, and are of particular significance for their ancient association with Atlantic religion – both pagan and Christian – of which more later.
All of these names are similar in their root to 1stC CE Greek author Plutarch’s ‘Briareus’: In an essay called ‘On the Face in the Moon’, from his famous book known as the Moralia he told a tale about an island originally mentioned by Homer – Ogygia – which in Plutarch’s telling lies in the west, beyond Britain, near the setting sun. This island, he says, is where the ancient Titan/God Kronos (also known as Uranus/Ouranos) was confined by ‘Zeus’ and a character he calls ‘Ancient Briareus‘ and was the centre of a cult which worshipped him. Homer’s account of Ogygia (The Oddyssey, Book 4) tells that, much further back in time in the Age of Heroes, Ogygia (‘Isle of Giants’?) was home of the magical female Calypso, daughter of the Titan Atlas, who was also known as Atlantis. Wordly magical females were also strongly associated with ancient Atlantic/Celtic legends related to the idea of ‘Blessed Isles’, and were also usually associated with distant masculine characters: Niamh and Manannan, Morgan and Merlin etc.
The essence of death was apparently believed to be a journey to the west – across water into the setting sun. The ‘Blessed Isles’ and their archetypal versions were believed to lie in this direction. When the sun set upon the world of the living, it therefore rose upon the world of the dead. In the land of the living this otherworld could be experienced in image form – the moon represented the otherworld sun, and shades and spirits played out the goings-on in the otherworld. These lay in the future, as when the sun returned in the East a new day was born having first passed through the world of the dead. For this reason, the inhabitants of the otherworld – the souls of the dead who had passed – were believed able to presage future events. Rather than being in the past – in memoriam – they followed the path of the sun to a future rebirth.
The idea of crossing water to reach the land of the dead also occurs in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, and indeed across much of Europe from antiquity. The River Styx was the watery liminal boundary to the world of the dead to the ancient Greeks. The burial at sea of the legendary ancient Danish hero-king-progenitor Scyld Scefing (equivalent to the Norse Skjöldr) is recounted in the Epic of Beowulf, and Sceaf is the name of a legendary progenitor child in North Germanic legends who washed ashore in a small boat, accompanied by sheaf of corn – possibly a Neolithic ancestor-legend handed down to the medieval period. Scyld Scefing is therefore probably supposed to be an ancestor of Sceaf, and returns to the watery state in Beowulf, setting the scene for the pagan theme of the Beowulf story involving a watery Troll-Wife who begets the monstrous would-be king who returns to overthrow his father the old king! Of his ancestor Scyld Scefing’s funeral the bard of Heorot tells King Hrothgar:
They decked his body no less bountifully
with offerings than those first ones did who cast him away when he was a child
and launched him alone out over the waves.
The deep pagan message of Beowulf is that man has to strike a balance with the otherworld, what comes from it must be given back at the end. In the Beowulf story, the plot revolves around the forces being balanced – what Hrothgar took from Grendel’s Mother must be returned. Although Beowulf kills Grendel and his mother, he must eventually pay for theft from the otherworld when he is killed battling a dragon which seeks to recover treasure stolen by the Geats from another otherworld source.
The idea that the otherworld paralleled our own and was a inversion of it was a deep-rooted one which left its mark upon the belief in fairies, ghosts, the second sight and ideas of luck, fertility and providence into the Christian era. As already mentioned, our night was the otherworld day – a time when the spirits were active and likely to be met with. In Beowulf, it was the time when the spirit Grendel came to jealously reclaim his rights in the world of men.
In Ireland and the Isle of Man it was believed you could fend off the attention of spirits when travelling at night by reversing your clothes – perhaps to convince them that you were one of them. Fairies were hungry for the substance of our goods and well-being, as a state of plenty for us was supposed to represent famine for them, and vice-versa: They were supposed to steal the substance of crops, the butter from milk, and the health from an apparently well infant who they were supposed to have swapped for a ‘changeling’. All of these ancient spirit-beliefs became corrupted during the Christian era into ‘witchcraft’ beliefs where humans – inspired by the devil – became the supposed agents of such misfortune. It is notable that where the fairy faith stayed strong, there were few witch persecutions. Fairies and the spirit world were moral balancing forces in the Atlantic pagan form of reckoning.