Watery gateways to the Otherworld

See my other post: Boand – Water Goddess of the Boyne

In the ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’ entries about Boand, the eponymous goddess/fairy woman of the River Boyne, there is explicit mention of a belief that all rivers run to the Otherworld which is also the world of Creation:

“…Sid Nechtain is the name that is on the mountain here, the grave of the full-keen son of Labraid, from which flows the stainless river whose name is Boand ever-full.

Fifteen names, certainty of disputes, given to this stream we enumerate, from Sid Nechtain away till it reaches the paradise of Adam…

….from paradise back again hither

to the streams of this Sid.”

The ancient Greeks believed exactly the same – all rivers ran into the ‘world river’ Okeanos (the great sea) which bordered the realm of Cronus-Atlantis (Ogygia)  and the Elysium. The Dindshenchas entry actually claims that the River circulates from the Otherworld, back to Sid Nechtain where it arises within the Sid as the magical spring or stream of Segais, before emerging back into the mundane world at the ‘pool of Mochua the cleric’.

This is an important piece of mysticism that explains much about the reincarnation beliefs of the Atlantic peoples, as promoted by Caesar’s Druids.

Boand is famous in the Irish Mythological Cycle as being the mother of Aengus Og, after an illicit coupling with the Stallion-Man-God known as the Daghda. The similarities between her Dindshenchas stories and those of Sinand are marked by allusions to the mystical origins and recirculation of rivers between this world and the next, and back again. Key to this are the mystical Otherworld/underworld wells from which the Boyne and the Shannon arise: described as ‘Connla’s Well’ (Sinand/Shannon) and Segais (Boann/Boyne) – both interchangeable motifs linked to fairy women at sacred hills (the usual site where springs arise). The Irish, ‘Arthurian’ British, Gallician, Germanic and Breton mythologies plus that of Gallia Aquitania and the Pays D’Oc, are full of the motifs of magical men and women riding horses, associated with spring pools, forests, hills and rivers and the Otherworld. They are connected by an important common thread of themes which defies the explanations of Roman and Greek religion and Roman and Greek understandings of Gaulish, German and British religion in the Iron Age.

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.

Through a mirror – water in the Atlantic religion

It has been well-established (if you’ll pardon the pun) that water played a prominent role in the religion of the ancient peoples of north and west Europe before the establishment of christianity. Even afterwards, and particularly in Ireland (no doubt something to do with its superabundance of moisture), this continued to be the case.

Flag Fen, England - site of a timber trackway and platforms built over water during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, associated with ritual water deposits

Flag Fen, England – site of a timber trackway and platforms built over water during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, associated with ritual water deposits. Anyone seen Grendel’s mother?

Votive deposits of religious artefacts, weapons and artefacts, food such as cheese and even human remains have been discovered in Europe’s wetlands, dating to the Bronze Age if not earlier, and archaeology of these environments has uncovered extensive constructed track-ways and structures to which have been ascribed great religious as well as economic and social importance.

Llyn Cerrig Bach

Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey – Site of Iron Age ritual water-deposits 300BC-100AD

An increasing number of crannogs and related ancient lake structures have been identified in the aquatic (and formerly aquatic) landscapes of Britain, Ireland and the rest of the ancient Celtic world. These are testament to the unique importance of proximity to water in the lives of peoples in the humid and often stormy climes of the Atlantic northwest of Europe: It offered protection, food, a source of power, a medium of transport, and a resource for industry. Coupled with the profound relationship between early (post-‘Theodosian’) Christian churches and religious settlements in northern and western Europe and the older pagan ritual sites at or near wells, springs, lakes, rivers and islands, it can be seen that water was at the heart of religious as well as secular life.

Aubrey Beardsley's depiction of Bedivere consigning the sword Excalibur to the 'Lady of the Lake'

Aubrey Beardsley’s bookplate engraving of Bedivere consigning the sword Excalibur to the ‘Lady of the Lake’

The legendary imagery connecting man with the spirit world through water is found throughout Europe from antiquity, but in particular it remained an active and important feature of the stories and literature of Atlantic Europe in the post-Christian period: From the lake-dwelling ‘Grendel’s mother’ and her role in Kingship in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, to the ‘Lady of the Lake’ (variously known as Nimue, Viviane, Elaine, Niniane, Nivian, Nyneve, and Evienne etc) of later Gallo-Brythonic ‘Arthurian’ legendary romances, the magical female in water pervades mythology.

Breton traditions tell of Malgven or Morgan, her daughter Dahut – the ‘Groac’h Ahez’ and her silver keys to the gloomy underwater realm – the medieval Lai tradition (Marie de France etc) from the region used the theme of beautiful female fairies met at springs and rivers into which they might plunge carrying worthy knights to the fairy realm of Avalon.

In Russia (where magical female spirits inhabiting rivers are called Rusalka), there is a similar tradition of the aquatic otherworld – a medieval epic tale known as Sadko, in which its eponymous hero visits the world of the ‘Sea Tsar’.

Sadko visits the Sea Tsar

Sadko visits the Sea Tsar

Ancient Irish legends (eg – from Dindsenchas) often confer the origin of rivers upon female characters: Sinand, Boand,  Éirne etc. Lakes are created by legendarily careless legendary girls who forget to cap off wells, and Old Women lament the coming of the sea to take them. Christian tales tell of lake and river monsters who vex their saints and heroes, and in the written accounts of pre-Christian legends, the Morrigan appears at critical junctures on river banks to warn, cajole (and occasionally have sex with) the stories’ male proponents…

Newgrange on the Boyne. Horde of poisonous sheep shown for scale!

Newgrange on the Boyne (Boand). Horde of poisonous sheep shown for scale!

In folklore, there are still many more tales involving the aquatic realm and the magical female, not least of which are those of the merrows and mermaids and the continental melusine.

In my next post, I am going to examine one particular sacred ‘aquatic’ landscape in Ireland: The Bog of Allen.