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The Otherworld (Tir na nÓg)*

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“It is the most delightful land of all that are under the sun; the trees are stooping down with fruit and with leaves and with blossom. Honey and wine are plentiful there; no wasting will come upon you with the wasting away of time; you will never see death or lessening. You will get feasts, playing and drinking; you will get sweet music on the strings; you will get silver and gold and many jewels. You will get everything I have said…and you will get gifts beyond them which I have no leave to tell of.” Thus it was that the Otherworld, the mystical enchanted land of many Celtic myths, was described to the warrior Oisin by the faerie-woman Niamh of the Golden Hair.

In Irish myth, the Otherworld was created as the domain of the divine race of the Tuatha de Danaan  following their defeat by the Milesians (Ireland’s fifth and last race of invaders). The Milesians, it was decided, would rule the visible part, while the Dananns took possession of the invisible regions below ground and beyond the seas. This Otherworld was accessible through lakes, caves and above all the Sidhe or faerie mounds, the countless prehistoric burial mounds such as those of the Boyne in Co. Meath. The Dagda, the tribal patriarch of the Dananns, dived the Sidhe among his people. According to one story, the Dagda gave each of his offspring a sidh except for Oenghus, his son by the goddess Boann. The Dagda had Oenghus by Oenghus’s half-brother Midir at the sidh of Bri Leith. Later Oenghus went with Midir to demand a sidh from their father. The Dagda said that he had given out all the faerie mounds, but told Oenghus to go to Newgrange, the sidh of Nuadu, a Danaan king, and ask to stay a night and a day there. Nuadu agreed, but at the end of his stay Oenghus refused to move and lived at Newgrange thereafter.

For most of the time, life in the Otherworld consisted of hunting and feasting, and those who lived there knew neither pain nor sickness. Nor did they ever grow old, for which reason the Otherworld was also known as Tir na nÓg, the Land of Youth. Each sidh possessed a magic cauldron that dispensed an inexhaustible supply of food, and also boasted some special wonder. There might be magic apple trees laden with fruit that granted immortality; or food or drink that restored the dead to life; or pigs that could be slaughtered and cooked in a cauldron one day and come back to life the next, to be eaten again; or magic potions that bestowed great wisdom.

Manannán, the god of the sea, was said to have built invisible barriers to keep mortals of the Otherworld. Nevertheless, there are many stories of heroes and other individuals crossing into the Otherworld by accident, or being led there by magic animals or faerie women. In the tale of Mael Duin, the hero’s ship contains more than the magic number of 18 men and in consequence drifts into the Otherworld kingdom of Manannán, which did not lie below ground but was a group of enchanted islands.

The Tuatha de Danaan, however, could move freely between the mortal world and their own domain. The Mórrígan was on Danaan who rarely left her sidh to oversee the fate of warriors, such as Cu Chulainn. At the festival of Samhain, the boundaries of the Otherworld came down together, and its inhabitants left their Sidhe to roam freely among mortals, often causing havoc with their magic.

The hero Finn first came to the attention of the High King of Ireland by vanquishing an Otherworldly mischief-maker who regularly burnt down the royal seat at Tara. In later times, the gods and goddesses of the Otherworld became the faerie people of folk belief, just as the Celtic festival of Samhain has survived down to the present day Hallowe’en.

The land of Annwn, the magic underworld of Welsh mythology, is similar to the Irish Otherworld. It is a land of hunting, feasting, health and youth, ruled by King Arawn, who sometimes emerged into the mortal world on hunting expeditions with his magical hounds. In the First Branch of the Mabinogion, King Pwyll of Dyfed exchanges places with Arawn for a year, and spends his time in Annwn “in hunting and song and carousal, and affection an discourse with his companions.”  After this there is a firm friendship between Annwn and the kingdom of Dyfed. According to the Second Branch of the Mabinogion, the first pigs to be seen in Britain came from Annwn and were given by Arawn to Pwyll’s successor, Pryderi.

One of the treasures of Annwn was a magic cauldron of plenty. In one story, “The Spoils of Annwn,” Arthur and three boatloads of his men entered the underworld in an attempt to steal the cauldron. The raid was a complete disaster, however, and Arthur escaped from Annwn with only half a dozen of his companions. Arthur’s experience points to the darker side of the Otherworld. When mortals ventured into it deliberately, they tended to encounter demons, monsters and other perils, rather than the land of bliss that greeted those who strayed into it or were invited or conducted there by on of its true inhabitants.

A number of animal species are specifically associated with the Otherworld. In addition to pigs, both dogs and swans are prominent. In several myths in which magical Otherworld swans appear, they are metamorphosed humans, as in the stories of Midir and Etain, lovers who flew away together as swans, and Oenghus and the swan-maiden Caer, the daughter of a Danaan god who spent every day of one year as a beautiful woman and every day of the next as a swan on the lake in Connacht.

Another story relates how the sea god Lir, the father of Manannán, went into self-imposed exile in a sidh in Ulster after failing to be chosen as king of the Otherworld. The successful candidate, Bobd Dearg, magnanimously present Lir with his sister Aobh in recompense. Lir and Aobh were married and had two sets of twins (or three children in some variants). When Aobh died, Lir married her sister Aiofe, who was jealous of her step children and turn them into swans. They were destined to remain swans for 900 years, until the coming of St. Patrick who freed them from the spell. When the saint restored them to human form, there were very old, but lived just long enough to be baptised into the new Christian religion.

*Source: ed. Littleton, C.S. Mythology: The Illustrated Anthology of World Myth and Storytelling, Duncan Baird Publishers, 2002.

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