The ‘otherworld’ of the Atlantic Europeans appears to have been the keystone of a system of moral philosophy that existed as a dominant cultural force until the 19th century CE. This moral philosophy was founded firmly in an ancient supra-regional (northern and western European) pagan religion – one that the orientalist Greco-Roman state religions and subsequently their religious inheritor – christianity – had systematically attempted to displace and replace from the 4th century BC onwards. This religion and culture almost certainly pre-dated the cultural or ethnic impact of the Halstatt and La Teine ‘celtic’ material cultures, but it has subsequently become attached to them and their ‘celtic’ afterglow in the minds of the modern European kindred across the globe.
What was this ‘Otherworld’?
It had many identities expressed in Atlantic popular across a broad swathe of time: In once sense it functioned as a location in which the dramatic and instructional narratives of mythology were played out. In another it was a place where a soul or spirit of a dead or living person might travel to visit or to reside. It might be a place that was distant – the endpoint of a journey – or a place intrusively near to us yet still alien and strange. Its denizens could be at once both very similar to us and yet somehow very different. If one word could sum it up, it would be this: contradiction. At the heart of this contradiction was a fundamental belief that the otherworld somehow mirrored our own. It was a reflection – as if in water or a mirror – that existed in a spiritual form and acted as a counterbalance to the material forces of the world. This belief is in fact traceable in all cultures across the planet, and is a part of empirical (ie – pagan) spirituality.
The confusing, contradictory nature of the otherworld might make it difficult to understand and easy to dismiss, yet the essential paradoxes of these beliefs are in fact their strength and key to the otherworld doctrine. Just as an understanding of indeterminacy and multiple parallel possibilities is the glue that holds together our modern understanding of the subatomic world (and increasingly of the macrocosm), so the otherworld functioned in a similar fashion for the pre-literate, anti-literate and illiterate cultures of the ancient European world down into modern times.
Who was in the otherworld?
When we had plenty in our world, the poor and hungry otherworld denizens were considered jealous of our material wealth (our cattle and kine), and we were poor and needy they might offer us stupendous wealth. and fabulous treasures. They might interrupt our peace and harmony with chaotic acts of cruelty. They could appear as splendidly as they could grotesquely. The people of the otherworld offered a reflection of humanity in all its states, and therefore functioned as a moral anchor that helped us tread the middle path between this world and the next.
As such, it appears that it was believed that each human had a reflection in the ‘other place’ (read Robert Kirk, Martin Martin et al for a 17thC account of how prevalent the beliefs were in the highlands and islands of Scotland). In times of impending peril, this reflection might manifest visibly to people with the ability of ‘second sight’, and act or appear in a manner which presaged an event that would befall the earthly counterpart. It was called a ‘fetch’ or ‘living ghost’, and a striking account is given by the 14thC monk Ranulph Higden (in ‘Polychronicon’) of the belief in the Isle of Man.
Similar attributes are given to ‘fairies’ in folktales who often presage events in this world through their actions and behaviours. The implication from Robert Kirk’s accounts of highland fairy beliefs is that fairies and fetches are somehow the same, although he himself did not pretend to understand how this was so, except to imply and comment upon a belief that spirits – like the world and its seasons – were continually reincarnated, and lived a long time moving between different places and forms as they went. Ghosts, scal phantoms, fairies, Tuatha de Danann etc may all refer to different statuses occupied by eternal souls in their life cycles.
Spirits were believed to be constituted by that classical ‘fifth element’ – ether, ‘lux’, ‘spirit’ or subtle light. The mundane world was believed to founded, composed and constituted by four philosophical ‘elements’: earth, water, air and fire. Fire was closest in nature to this ‘ether’ which was itself believed to be a form of light, and the substance which all gods and spirits were supposed to be made from. ‘Spirit’ or ‘ether’ was supposed to be able to represent all of the four mundane worldly qualities – this is why the ancients believed it to be the substance of the ‘otherworld’. This worldview dominated ancient European cultures as late as the 17th century CE after which the anti-pagan paradigms of monotheism couched in Enlightenment era science did away with it as a main force.
Where was the otherworld?
To answer this depends upon reconciling a number of apparent contradictions about location. In medieval Irish prose-tales, ‘otherwordl’ locations such as Mag Mell, Tir Taingaire or Tir nan Og etc are typified as existing in the west, often as distant islands full of magical folk. In the case of Tech Duin and the Isle of Man, these are very real and visible islands, for which ‘west’ is relative. At the same time, the otherworld might also be encountered underground in the Sid mounds, or at liminal points in the landscape, the seasons or the day. Our night-time appears to represent the working daytime of those denizens we call spirits, elves and fairies. People took care never to speak ill of fairies as they were frequently belieed to be very much nearby. The otherworld is therefore both near and distant. Recalling the description I just gave of the ancient ‘elemental’ philosophy, one might say that the world was perfused and pervaded by ‘spirit’ which was the framework around which the mundane elements worked.
The otherworld’s moral philosophy:
How did ‘fairies’ influence behaviour and maintain a moral code without recourse to written statutes? By acting as a counter-ballast to actions in the mundane world. It was ‘Newton’s laws of motion’ and the ‘first law of thermodynamics’ expressed in the timeless empiricism of European pagan spirituality:
Take too much from this world, and the otherworld will come for its portion.
Tread a middle path and the otherworld will treat you the same.
The poor and humble are wealthy and great in the next life.
From decay comes generation.
All of these ideas hinged upon the otherworld/afterlife doctrine of cyclical continuity. We know that ancient Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and others were influenced by the ‘philosophers’ of the Atlantic Europeans, otherwise known as druids. They later wrote about this and admitted it (eg – Diogenes Laertius).
We have to ask ourselves to what degree these ideas were pervading contemporary philosophers among the Hellenized peoples of the Mediterranean, middle east and asia minor during the early Roman Empire: Jesus of Nazareth in particular, whose own story and philosophies and eventual act of self-sacrifice appear to mimic the practices the Romans were busy trying to stamp out in Gaul, Britannia etc.
I shall finish with the words of Pliny (1stC AD) who had this to say about the druids:
…we cannot too highly appreciate our debt to the Romans for having put an end to this monstrous cult, whereby to murder a man was an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh most beneficial.
He could just as likely have been referring to another religion that was just starting out among a group of philosophical Hellenic Jews in the middle east…