The Underworld

The Underworld, also known as the Otherworld or Netherworld, is featured in most mythologies around the world.  It is a realm of the dead, where the souls of the recently departed go in their afterlife.  Many versions of the Underworld are seen as places of abundance and joy, and reward for good work during their mortal life.

World mythologies call the Underworld by several names:
Celtic – Annwn, Mag Mell, Tír na nÓg, Hy-Brasil, Ablach, Sídhe mounds
Norse – Hel, Niflheim, Valhalla, Gimlé, Vingólf
Greek – Hades, Elysium, Tartarus, Asphodel
Roman – Inferno, Avernus, Orcus/Hades, Pluto
Egyptian – Aaru, Duat, Neter-khertet, Amenti
Christian – Heaven, Hell

Celtic Mythology
In the Celtic world, the Underworld was known by many names.  The Welsh concept of the Underworld was known as Annwn, a world of delights and eternal youth ruled by Arawn/Gwyn ap Nudd.  In Irish mythology, Mag Mell (‘delightful plain’), was a place of pleasure thought to be a mythical island far off the west coast of Ireland or a kingdom beneath the ocean (similar to the realms of Hy-Brasil or Emain Ablach).

Tír na nÓg (‘land of youth’) or Tir Tairngire (‘land of promise’) is another Irish concept of the Underworld, an earthly paradise of supernatural beings and a few lucky mortals who were invited to stay.  Similar to Mag Mell and Hy-Brasil, Tír na nÓg was seen as a place far to the west of Ireland, on the edges of the map, which could only be reached by an arduous journey or by a special invitation.  Famous residents of Tír na nÓg was the mortal Oisín who was brought by Niamh of the Golden Hair (Niamh Chinn Óir), as well as one of the places settled by the Tuatha Dé Danann after being banished from Ireland.

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Another concept of the Underworld comes from the sídhe, or faery people, of Ireland.  It is thought that when the Milesians (Celts) invaded Ireland, they banished the Tuatha Dé Danann who then took refuse in the sídhe mounds.  These mounds can still be seen today in the form of barrows or hollow hills (cnocs) which are inhabited by faery rulers such as Knockma, Finvarra, or Ainé.

Norse Mythology
The concept of the Underworld in Norse Mythology is related to the World Tree, Yggdrasil (Germanic Irminsul).  It was thought that brave warriors would be chosen by the Valkyries to travel to Asgard to join Odin in Valhalla or Freyja in Fólkvangr.

The base of Yggdrasil is the home of the Underworld realms of Hel/Helheimr and Niflheim/Niflheimr.  Hel was the Land of the Dead, ruled by the goddess Hel, daughter of Loki.  When humans were not accepted to Valhalla or Fólkvangr, they went to Hel’s hall Elivdnir.  Niflheim was a place of Ice and Fog, the lowest of the nine realms, and has been associated with the region of Hel.

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There was also Gimlé/Gimli, a beautiful place where survivors of Ragnarök (the end of the world) were thought to live.  Also described as the golden roof of a building in Asgard where righteous men go when they die, similar to Vingólf, one of the buildings of the gods.

Greek Mythology
In Greek Mythology, upon death the soul was separated from the corpse and transported to the entrance of Hades.  Hades was either at the outer bounds of the ocean or beneath the depths or at the ends of the earth.

Tartarus was similar to Hades in that is was far beneath the earth, and was the place where Zeus cast the Titans after defeated them, along with his father Kronos who became king of Tartarus.  The Fields of Punishment was where those who wreaked havoc on earth or committed crimes against the gods were banished.  The Fields of Asphodel was where ordinary souls who did not commit crimes nor achieve any greatness would inhabit.

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The Elysian Fields, or Elysium, was where the souls of those who especially distinguished went after death, particularly those who were associated with the gods or performed exceptional feats.  While in Elysium, the soul had a choice to either stay or be reborn.  If the soul achieved Elysium three times, they were sent to the Isles of the Blessed to achieve eternal paradise.

Also in Greek mythology, there were five rivers that flowed in both the real world and the Underworld.  The River Styx was the most prominent Underworld river, also known as the ‘river of hatred’, and was thought to circle the Underworld seven times.

Wiki – Underworld, Annwn, Mag Mell, Tir na Nog, Celtic Otherworld, Hel, Gimle, Greek Underworld

© A Year And A Day (2013)

The Morrígan, Great Queen

Morrígu, Morríghan, Morrígna, Morgan, Badb, Macha, Nemain, Anand, Fea

The Morrígan is a Celtic goddess of war, death, battle, strife, sovereignty, rebirth, fate, prophecy and magic.   She is also known as The Great Queen, Phantom Queen, Specter Queen, or Supreme War Goddess.  The Morrígan is associated with the sometimes frightening aspects of female energy and is often seen as an omen of death.  She often took the shape of a raven or crow, however her other forms included an eel, wolf, cow and horse.

The Morrígan is commonly seen as a Triple Goddess.  In texts of the Celtic Mythological Cycle, they are seen as sisters, the daughters of Ernmas and granddaughters of Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  They include Badb (‘fury’, ‘crow’) and Macha (‘battle’, ‘raven’), with the third being either Nemain (‘frenzy/fury’), Anand (aka Morrígan), or Fea (‘hateful’).  It is uncertain as to whether the Morrígan represents one or each or these goddesses, or all of them collectively.  Interestingly, Ernmas’ first three daughters are thought to be Ériu, Banba, and Fódla, the patron goddesses of Ireland and wives of the last three Tuatha Dé Danann kings.

The Morrígan’s Triple Goddess aspect can also be seen as the Maiden, Mother, and Crone of modern Wicca.

The Morrígan appears in both the Ulster and Mythological Cycles of Celtic mythology, where she is found to have relations with the Ulster war hero Cú Chulainn.  She is thought to have helped the Tuatha Dé Danann defeat the Firbolg at the First Battle of Mag Tuireadh and the Fomorians at the Second Battle of Mag Tuireadh.  It is said that she mated with the Dagda before the battle with the Formorians in exchange for her battle plans, which led the Tuatha Dé Danann to victory.

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Through her role as war goddess, she is often compared with the Germanic Valkyries.  Her role included being a symbol of imminent death or could influence the outcome of war.  In the form of a crow, she often appeared flying above the battle, inspiring either fear or courage in the hearts of the warriors.  Through her ability to predict the death of warriors, she is sometimes associated with the wailing banshee (bean sídhe) of folklore.

Some have attempted to link the Morrígan with the Morgan le Fay from Welsh mythology, however it is likely that the two names are not related linguistically.

Wiki – Morrigan
Pantheon – Morrigan
Celtic Deities – Morrigan
Thalia Took – Macha

© A Year And A Day (2013)

Lugh, Master of Skills

Lug, Lugus/Lugos (Gaulish), Lugh Lámhfhada (Irish), Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Welsh), Lugaid/Lugaidh, Lonnansclech

Lugh is a popular Celtic sun god known for his many skills.  Because of this, he was also called Lugh Lámhfhada (Lugh of the Long Arm), Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Lleu of the Skillful Hand), Samildánach (Skilled in All the Arts), Lonnbeimnech (fierce striker, sword-shouter) or Macnia (boy hero).

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Lugh is thought to be a form of the pan-Celtic/Gaulish god Lugus/Lugos.  The ancient Romans associated Lugh with the Roman god Mercury/Greek Hermes, as well as Apollo through his association with Lugus.  It is also possible that Lugh/Lugus was also a triple god, comprising the Gaulish gods Esus, Toutatis and Taranis.

Lugh was known as a sun god and a fierce warrior.  He is also known as a god of storms, particularly thunderstorms.  He was associated with the raven, crow, and lynx, and had a magic hound.  Lugh possessed several magical weapons, including an invincible Spear, one of the treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  It is said that the Spear never missed its target and was so bloodthirsty it would often try to fight without anyone wielding it.

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Lugh’s father was Cian, son of Danu and Dian Cécht of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and his mother was Ethniu/Ethlinn, daughter of Balor of the Fomorians.  It was said that Lugh’s grandfather, Balor of the Evil Eye, learned that he would one day be murdered by a grandson.  He tried to confine his daughter Ethniu, however Cian released her and she bore him three sons.  Balor arranged for the children to be killed, however Lugh was saved.  Lugh was later given to Tailtiu, a Fir Bolg, who raised him as her foster son.

Lugh had many wives, including Buí and Nás, daughters of Ruadri, King of Britain, as well as Echtach, Englic, and Rosmerta.  Lugh’s most famous son was the Irish war hero Cú Chulainn, some say through the mortal maiden Deichtine/Dechtire.

 

One story of Lugh explains how he travelled to the Hall of Tara to join the court of King Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  The guard at the door will not grant him access unless he had a skill that was of help to the King.  Lugh said he was a smith, wright, craftsman, swordsman, harpist, poet, historian, sorcerer, physician, and champion, however the guard tells him they already have experts with those skills.  Lugh then asks if any one man has all of those skills together, which the guard could not answer, and Lugh was allowed to enter the Hall.

It is during the Second Battle of Mag Tuireadh against the Fomorians that King Nuada is killed in battle by Balor. Lugh then faces Balor, who opens his poisonous eye that kills all it looks upon.  Lugh however shoots a stone from a sling-shot that drives his eye out the back of his head, killing Balor.

Lugh later finds Bres, the half-Formorian former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, beaten and scared.  Bres begs for his life, and Lugh agrees to spare him if he shares his secrets of the land, including when to plough, sow, and reap.  At the end of the war, Lugh becomes High King of Ireland and rules for many years.

Cermait, the son of Dagda, later seduces one of Lugh’s wives.  Lugh kills him in revenge, however Cermait had three sons MacCuill, MacCecht and MacGrené/ Gréine, who avenged their father’s death by killing Lugh at Uisnech in Loch Lugborta.

Lugh held a harvest fair in honour of his foster mother, Tailtiu, which fell around the time of the first harvest in the Northern Hemisphere, August 1.  The festival was named Lughnasadh (“Festival of Lugh”) and celebrated corn, grains, bread and other symbols of the harvest.  Lúnasa is also the Irish name for the month of August.  In Christian England, this festival is known as Lammas (after the Saxon phrase hlaf maesse or “loaf mass”) also celebrating the first harvest of the year.  Even today, many people in Ireland celebrate Lughnasadh and Lammas with dancing, song, and bonfires.

Wiki – Lugh, Lugus
PaganWiccan About.com – Lugh
Timeless Myths – Lugh

© A Year And A Day (2013)

Pantheon Genealogies

I recently attempted to construct a family tree of the Celtic deities.  This proved to be much harder than I initially thought!  Not only do you have to deal with a multitude of sources, but you have to filter out which sources are more accurate, and what information has been lost in the sands of time.

Timeless Myths has genealogies for several pantheons; Irish, Welsh, Norse, Greek and Roman.  These were constructed from various sources and are in no means complete (and in some cases, contradict each other).  But I find it helpful to see the various deities displayed in this way.  It allows me to see the bigger picture and to understand the context of their many stories and adventures.

IrishTuathaGenealogy1

WelshWelshGenealogy

NorseNorseGenealogy

GreekGreekGenealogy

RomanRomanGenealogy

Timeless Myths

© A Year And A Day (2013)

Ireland – The Mythology

This is the second post about Ireland (mostly because dealing with thousands of years of a country’s history would take quite a lot more blog space then I’m willing to deal with).  While my previous post dealt with historical Ireland, this post deals with the mythology of Ireland.

Although much of pre-Christian mythology in pagan Ireland did not survive the conversion to Christianity, manuscripts written in medieval times attempted to preserve this important history.  Books such as the 12th century Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) and the Book of Leinster helped scholars identify several cycles of Irish history; the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle.

BookOfInvasions

The Mythological Cycle, also known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Irish mythology, is one of the least preserved of the cycles, but I see as one of the most interesting.  The Book of Invasions, Lebor Gabála Érenn, written in the 11th century, tells the story of the ‘taking of Ireland’ with a combination of history, mythology, folklore, and Christian-inspired flair.  It tells of the six successful cycles of invasions in Ireland starting with the Irish creation myth.  The first three invaders were the Cessair, Partholón, and Nemed people.  A group of exiled Nemesians from Greece, called the Fir Bolg, were next to invade.

TuathaDeDanann

After only a short time, a group of exiled Nemesians from the North came to Ireland and challenged the authority of the Fir Bolg.  These fair-haired people were known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, or “children of the Goddess Danu”.  They were known to have great magical knowledge and a priestly class of people called Druids.  They carried with them four magical treasures; the Sword of Nuada, the Spear of Lugh, the Cauldron of Dagda, and the Stone of Fal (Lia Fáil), or the Stone of Destiny.

The Tuatha Dé Danann battled the Fir Bolg, eventually pushing them into exile.  However the Tuatha Dé Danann King, Nuada, lost an arm in battle, deeming him unfit for the throne.  A half Formorian King, Balor the Evil Eye, took the throne, leading to a battle between the Formorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann.  This resulted in the death of Nuada by Balor, with Lugh the Long Arm taking the throne.  The Tuatha Dé Danann enjoyed a prosperous reign, which is thought to correspond to the Bronze Age in Ireland.

The Book of Invasions ends with the Milesians, or Sons of Míl Espáine, the first Gaelic speakers and probably the earliest “Celtic” people.  They are thought to have brought iron to Ireland, representing the beginning of the Iron Age.  During their invasion, the wives of the Irish High Kings, and matron Goddesses of Ireland, Banba, Fodla and Ériu, asked that the new land be named in their honour.  The name Éire remains a poetic name for Ireland today.  The Tuatha Dé Danann were exiled underground, where they represent the sidhe, or faery folk, of Ireland.

The next literary cycle, the Ulster Cycle, takes place around the time of Christ in the Ulster and Connacht regions of Ireland.  This is also called the ‘Heroic Age’, as many tales are devoted to the heroic actions of Conchobar mac Nessa and the great hero Cú Chulainn, the son of Lugh.  The main story of the Ulster Cycle is the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley or The Táin.  The Táin tells of the story of Queen Medb (Maeve) and King Ailill of Connacht attempting to steal the prized bull Donn Cuailnge, with the Ulster hero Cú Chulainn saving the day.

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The Fenian Cycle takes place around the 3rd century CE in the Leinster and Munster regions of Ireland.  Mainly from the manuscript Acallam na Senórach (Colloquy of the Old Men), the Fenian Cycle contains stories about the famous Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) and his enemy Goll mac Morna.  Two famous stories from the Fenian Cycle include Oisín in Tír na nÓg and Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne, most likely the source of the story of Tristan and Iseult).

The Historical Cycle, or the Cycles of the Kings, records the history of High Kings of Ireland, from the mythical Labraid Loingsech around 431 BC, to the historically accurate High King Brian Boru in the 11th century.

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The Hill of Tara, Cnoc na Teamhrach, was noted in the Book of Invasions as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland.  Although it is uncertain whether the hill held the same significance throughout the ages, archaeological evidence prove that the area had been used since Neolithic times.  The Hill of Tara is also the site of the Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny, one of the treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Although the legendary capital of the Tuatha Dé Danann and seat of high-kingship over the ages is not used as a seat of power today, the Irish still seek to preserve this important site.

Pagan’s Path – Celtic History
Pagan’s Path – Lebhar Gabhála Éireann
Wiki – Lebhar Gabhála Éireann
Wiki – Irish Mythology
Wiki – Hill of Tara

© A Year And A Day (2013)

Ireland – The History

Because I am travelling to Ireland this month, I thought I would write about the history and mythology of Ireland!  Since this is a long and detailed subject, my first post will be about the ancient history of Ireland, the second about the mythology.  I do see how these two topics are part of each other, however there is some discrepancy with regards to dates, etc, when comparing the two.

While Ireland today is dominantly Roman Catholic, its ancient history lies in pagan roots which gave rise to an interesting mythology of powerful Deities, invasions, and magic!

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Irish settlement began after 8,000 BCE with post-Ice Age Mesolithic people settling much of the land. These hunter-gatherers later adopted agriculture, farming and cattle raising, which led to an increased dependence on the seasons and calendar year.

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The Neolithic Stone Age saw a great number of megaliths built across much of the British Isles, some of them astronomically aligned such as the Brú na Bóinne complex of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth (ca. 3,200 BCE). Cairns and dolmens were also built around this time to house the remains of their dead.

The Bronze Age saw Ireland flourish with wealth by means of industry and trade, with the first tools and weapons being forged from this new metal.  Hill forts and ring forts started to appear, including ‘crannogs’ surrounded by water.

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From about 600 BCE, the first Celtic/Gaelic people came to Ireland from central Europe.  They brought with them tools of iron, marking the beginning of the Iron Age.  This was a time of small war-like kingdoms called ‘tuaths’, which saw Irish society divided into aristocrats, farmers and slaves.  A priestly class of people, the Druids, were seen as the leaders of society, presiding in matters such as law, agriculture, medicine, and war.

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By about 50 CE, the Romans had conquered much of England, and although they never full conquered Ireland, the island was heavily affected by Roman influence.  The Romans provided the first written account of Celtic people, society and religion.  However due to their bias on the Celtic ‘barbarians’, it is not known how accurate these descriptions are.  Comments were made on the war-like savagery of the native people, as well as the Druids dealing in human and animal sacrifice.

In 432 CE, the famous Patrick was taken from western England and enslaved in Ireland.  Patrick eventually escaped years later, however after he had a vision, he returned to Ireland to preach the word of God.  By the Middle Ages, Ireland was dominantly Roman Catholic.  This was a time of monks and scholars, who created illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells.

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The golden age of Irish scholarship ended with the Vikings, who began raiding the Irish coast by 795 CE.  They started by raiding monasteries, however soon began settling the land, founding towns such as Dublin, Cork, and Limerick.  It is said the modern name ‘Ireland’ came from the ancient patron Goddess of Ireland, ‘Eire’, and the Norse word ‘land’.  The famous High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, led his army into battle in 1014, which ultimately ended the Viking rule in Ireland.

ireland, national heritage park, viking village

In medieval times, many manuscripts recording the ancient mythology of Ireland were written, such as the Book of Invasions, Lebor Gabála Érenn.  Although written hundreds of years later, and written by Christian authors, these manuscripts are some of our only ties to pre-Christian paganism in Ireland.  I will discuss these books in my next post, which will deal with the mythology of Ireland.

Irish History
Ireland History
Wiki – History of Ireland

© A Year And A Day (2013)

Faeries

Faeries (Pagan Blog Project)
Faery, Fairy, Fay, Fey, Fae

Faeries are otherworldly creatures or spirits that appear in folklore.  They are often thought of as human in appearance and having magical powers, however are sometimes unpredictable and dangerous.  In modern cultures they are often depicted as cute tiny winged creatures, however originally faeries were depicted anywhere from tall, angelic beings to short, hideous trolls.

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Faeries are known by many different names and variations!  Adhene, Asrai, Banshee, Bogle, Brownie, Bucca, Corrigan, Changeling, Dryad, Dwarf, Elemental, Elf, Fair Folk, Fates, Fir Darrig/Fear Deang, the Gentry, Gnome, Goblin, Good Folk, Gremlin, Gwyllion, Hobgoblin, Imp, Jinni, Kappa, Kelpie, Leprechaun, Naiad, Nature Spirit, Nymph, People of Peace, Peri,  Pixie, Pooka, Puck, Redcap, Selkie, Sidhe, Sprite, Spriggan, Sylph, Seelies and Unseelies, Troll, Urisk, Undine, Wee Folk, Wichtlein and others!

Common themes among the Celtic nations describe faeries as a mythical race of people who have been driven into hiding by some sort of invader.  One such race is the Tuatha Dé Danann following their defeat from the Milesians (Celts), forced to live underground in the hills and mounds of the Otherworld.  These alternate realms have been described as Mag Mell (the Pleasant Plain), Emain Ablach (the Fortress of Apples, the Land of Promise, the Isle of Women, Avalon), or the Tir na nÓg (the Land of Youth).

Faeries_FlorenceHarrison

Faeries are known for their mischief and malice, however some faeries were known for giving protection, healing or passing their skills to mortals.  In Scottish folklore, fairies were divided into the Seelie Court, the fairies who would play harmless pranks on mortals but were generally kind hearted, and the Unseelie Court, the malicious fairies who would try to bring harm to mortals for fun.

  • Faeries were prone to kidnapping humans, particularly babies, and leaving changelings in their place.
  • Faeries were also known to use magic to disguise appearance, such as ‘fairy gold’, which would quickly reveal itself to be leaves, gingerbread or another worthless item after the debt had been paid.
  • It is thought that if you travel to the world of faery, if you eat any of the faery food, you will be trapped in the otherworld forever.
  • Also time is thought to pass by at a much quicker rate in the faery world, with tales of humans escaping the faery realm after what appears to be a few hours, finding that decades had past.

Many trees, mounds and other natural features are considered property of the faeries, and any mortal who damages them would be cursed.  In many parts of the British Isles, people would avoid building or disturbing known faery mounds or faery paths as to avoid such curses.

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Some people would leave offerings around their home to appease the faeries and prevent them from causing mischief, including milk, sweet desserts like cake or chocolate, shiny or pretty objects like glass, gemstones, or shells.  Faeries are thought to dislike iron, charms of rowan and herbs, running water, bells, St John’s wort, and four leaf clovers among other things.

Faeries appeare in folklore from ancient tales of medieval chivalry, to romantic Victorian literature and more modern tales.  Faeries gained popularity during the Romanticism of the Victorian era, inspiring the image of beautiful, tiny, winged creatures, helping mortals they meet.

Types of Faeries
Faeries
Wiki – Fairies

© A Year And A Day (2013)