As with myth and dream, modernity has almost lost its Otherworld. The language of wonder and flight is paltry and dry. As the Earth becomes haunted of vanishing life, so the everteeming Ocean is a faded, seldom and flickering place. Change is inexorable; ghosts and monsters abound. But all is not done. Thanks to mediums in the earthweal community (that would be you), we can return to the Otherworld hidden in this one, find renewal and gifts for the tribe through ripened songs of it. That is this week’s challenge.
Getting to the Otherworld is a voyage of equal parts doubt and faith. In the 12th-century “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” the saint reads a book containing wonder-tales of God’s creation; in disbelief, he throws the book into a fire. An angel punishes Brendan by sending him on a voyage so that he may see with his own eyes all of the wonders he disparaged. On his 7-year journey Brendan and his retinue of 14 monks travel to many islands in search of the Promised Land of the Saints. There are many wonders: an island of birds singing Psalms; an island with a magic well; a silver pillar in the sea; the whale Jasconius on whose back they celebrate Easter; a cold rock where Judas Iscariot is allowed respite from Hell on Sundays and Feast Days; an island of choirs, an island of grapes, an island of blacksmiths, an island on which they feed for 40 days. After he has witnessed all of these, Brendan sails back to Ireland to write the very book he had burned.
An act of doubt is repaid by a journey of faith, as Jonathan Wooding explains in “The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature”:
The immrama (literally, “rowings about”) were envisaged as a distinct genre in literature in the early Irish language. What distinguishes the immrama in structural terms is their leitmotiv of the sea voyage, acting as a framing concept for a voyage which takes in encounters on a number of islands in the ocean. Eremium (or desertum) in oceano quaerere is the phrase frequently appearing in saints’ lives to indicate the pious adventure undertaken.
The Christian voyage to Heaven was founded on much more ancient sails. The Immram Brain or “The Voyage of Bran” is an earlier text, written down in the late 7th or 8th century, and reveals the pre-Christian origins of this tale cycle. Bran is visited by a woman from the Otherworld who describes her homeland Emain with such beauty and grace that Bran assembles three companies of nine men each to sail with him in search of the Island of the Women. The company voyage for three days and three nights; on the third day a chariot comes riding across the waters up to Bran’s ship. It is the sea god Manannan, and god explains to Bran how the Otherworld looks compared to this world. Seamus Heaney translates the text thus:
Bran is astonished at the beauty of the waters;
his coracle lifts on the clear wave.
I ride where he rows; my chariot plunges, I
surge through a blossoming plain.
Bran rolls with his boat, the sea lifts and
lays him, he leans to the prow.
My chariot axle threshes a surf of wildflowers,
my wheels are spattered with flower juice.
Bran sees the backs of the waves like the quick
backs of dolphins; the sea surface glitters.
I see greensward, wild roses and clover,
the pelt of the grazing.
You look and next thing salmon leap out
of the foam; mother-wet silver.
They are my calves, my calves’ licks, my
lambs, my bleating cavorters.
One chariot, one charioteer-me at full tilt-
that’s all you can see.
You are blind to what’s here. The land is a drumming
of hoofbeats, a mane-flow, a host at full gallop.
The land is immense, we swarm in its
bounty, it flourishes for us.
You are welcome; from the prow, gather up
the fruit of the branches.
Men and women, lovely, at ease among
windfalls. No sin and no forcing.
They rise off the forest floor, they pour
out the wine.
We are from the beginning, won’t grow
old or go under the earth.
We cannot imagine debility; we
are unmarked by guilt.
The Otherworld view is contrary to ours. In the ancient Egyptian Underworld, the feet of the dead touch those of the living as each crossed the day. My patron saint Oran was buried standing up in the footers of the Iona abbey in 563 AD to appease a spirit (some say it was Manannan) who had been disturbed by the cutting of the sward. (A fish-woman had come up from the sea to tell Columba this.) After three days and nights, St. Columba wished to look on the face of his friend (Oran may have been his real brother) one last time a bid Oran’s face be uncovered. Oran’s eyes flew open and the mouth uttered these words: “All you say about heaven and hell and man and earth is wrong! In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all!” Horrified, Columba had Oran buried back over in haste; and yet he appointed Oran the tutlary spirit of the abbey graveyard (Relieg Odhrain, as it became known), saying, “No one may access the angels of Iona but through Oran.” So Oran’s brief oracle must have had some tooth of truth to it.
What do we find in the Otherworld? When Bran comes to The Island of Women, he and his company remain there for a year, feasting and pairing off with the women. Good times. But eventually one of the company grows homesick for Ireland, and the company load back in their ships for a return trip. The lead woman warns Bran not to step ashore in Ireland. As they near Ireland, people on the shore recognize Bran and his company only from an old tale preserved in their tradition. The homesick man jumps ship but as he steps on shore he is turned to ashes. Realizing he is now more a part of the dead than the living, Bran decides to leave Ireland forever—but not before the tale of his voyage is written down.
In the Otherworld, one breath is a lifetime; three days and three nights are centuries. Dreamtime is wefted this way, an eternal now. Years ago w,hen I underwent therapeutic hypnosis addressing the damage of my past, the therapist told me that years of work could be accomplished in minutes down in the subconscious where time’s veil is thin.
Saint Oran has his own voyage tale. According to one legend, St. Columba bids Oran sail north from the Iona abbey off the coast of Scotland in search of the sea god Mannanan. Oran sails for three days and nights, coming to many islands: yet on each island he finds a note that says Not Here. One island has high cliffs on all sides, so Oran cannot land his boat; but down a cliff-face is lowered a tiny piece of parchment attached to a string which says Not Here. Oran eventually reaches the Land of the North and spends a day there; when he returns to Iona it is centuries later and the monks barely remember the story of a monk of their order who sailed north.
Not here but of course here, and here, and here, on this island, and the next, and the next… The infinite veld is ever here, unseen and unbelieved but open and waiting for any who would venture.
Voyages to the Otherworld feed something very old in the human spirit with the bread and water of innermost life. We yearn for this music, hear it twisting on the wind and crashing in the wave, in the swaying trees and wheat rustling in moonlight. The magic island in Shakespeare’s Tempest is alive and daunting with that music, full of “sounds and sweet airs which delight and hurt not.” It is almost sexual – the deep end of love suggests it — and the feminine is the medium of it.
In Poetry and Prophecy, Norah Chadwick traces the shamanic roots of manticism or “inspired speech,” a form of address which was itself a voyage to the otherworld. Chanted as poetry, a song is thus a ship. Writing of the Polynesian oral saga, the seeress is the medium:
The task of marshalling and controlling the spirits, and of conducting the soul and the dead person to its last resting-place in the spirit world, is performed among the Sea Dyaks in dramatic poetry by a seeress, whose only mimetic act is her seat on a swing — possibly reminiscent of her spirit form, her power of flight. She neither acts nor dances, but in song rich in realistic detail she conducts her hearers for many hours through the long journey to the abode of the dead.
“Every experience of the Otherworld is in a sense both an initiation and a marriage,” Alwyn & Brinsley Rees write in Celtic Heritage. Li Ban, “Beauty of Women,” a daughter of the king, Eochu, from whom the lake was named, survived beneath the lake as a kind of mermaid, half-woman, half-fish. In this form she lived for hundreds of years until Christianity was firmly established. In the sixth century she was caught in a net by a monk of Bangor, and accepted the Christian faith.
The poet’s tuion or “singing robe” may have been stolen from an otherworld woman who spends alternating years as a bird. In “The Dream of Oengus,” a man betroths a selkie (seal-woman), an while he is in possession of the (human) robe she is in his power. (Anne Rosse, Pagan Celtic Britain.)
The medium does not belong even to the seeress. Chadwick:
In the Thorfinns Saga Karlsefnis the seeress who is called to give an oracle insists that she cannot get the spirits to attend to her until she can get a singer with a good voice to chant the required spells (galdrar). Eventually a girl is found who is actually a Christian but who has learnt the spells in her youth. She sings unwillingly, but her voice is good, and the spells are the right ones, and the seeress is able to give her oracle. It is interesting to note that it is not the seeress herself who is the singer of the spells. Her own inspiration comes from the music and words sung by another. The spirits come in defining response to words and music, and not other compelling power is needed. (8)
The medium of the Otherworld is our own imagination which sees an island at the bottom of every lake. In an anecdote of Colum Cille in Sancti Columbae Hiensis cum Mongano Heroe Colloquium, a mysterious youth appears to Columcille at Carraic Eolairc on the shores of Loch Foyle. When asked by Columcille about the original form of the lake, the youth gave a description from his own experience. The youth describes the prosperous country which the lake has covered, and says that he has at various times been a deer, a salmon, a seal, a wolf, and a man.
Nigel Pennick writes in Celtic Sacred Landscapes,
Islands in holy lakes have a special quality, for it is through lakes that the otherwordly land of Tir nan Og may be visited. This is the “Country of Youth,” where people and non-human beings live immune to the passage of time. It is said to exist in the depths of lakes, and the legend is localized in several places such as Lough Carrib, Lough Gur and Lough Neagh.
On occasion, these lands have been visited by human beings. Both the bard Oisin and the warrior O’Donoghue entered the otherworldly realm through the Lake of Killarney.
To reach Tir nan Og, one must pass through the reflective crystal waters of the lake, undertaking a journey from the outer world into the inner, just as the sun enters the waters of the underworld at sunset. It is a perilous shamanic descent into the unconscious depths where timeless archetypes reside.
The lake is a dangerous crystal castle where all is reflected inwards. There, the visitor may be trapped in an inner world that bears no relation to the outer one. Once entered, it is a region from which it is difficult to escape. But those who do manage to return to the everyday world are transformed by the experience.
O that we return! Merlin was trapped in the spell of Niniane, the Lady of the Lake, bound to the roots of a hawthorne tree. Whether he remains there willingly or cannot unbind the spell is not clear: probably both. Why come back to this world, so ruined by the ambitions and gambits of masterful apes?
Waving her hands and uttering the charm, [she] presently enclosed him fast within the tree.” Lancelot Speed’s illustration for James Thomas Knowles’ “The Legends of King Arthur and His Knights” (1912)
As the pagan world Christianized, avenues to the Otherworld faded, grew dim. Myth became legend became romance. Modernity’s nostalgia is greatly for that fabled past. We are enthralled by it and lost to it.
Richard Wilbur catches the moment of that world’s passing thus:
In a while they rose and went out aimlessly riding.
Leaving their drained cups on the table round.
Merlin, Merlin, their hearts cried, where are you hiding?
In all the world was no unnatural sound.
Mystery watched them riding glade by glade;
They saw it darkle from under leafy brows;
But leaves were all its voice, and squirrels made
An alien fracas in the ancient boughs.
Once by a lake-edge something made them stop.
Yet what they found was the thumping of a frog,
Bugs skating on the shut water-top,
Some hairlike algae bleaching on a log.
Gawen thought for a moment that he heard
A whitehorn breathe “Niniane.” That Siren’s daughter
Rose in a fort of dreams and spoke the word
“Sleep”, her voice like dark diving water;
And Merlin slept, who had imagined her
Of water-sounds and the deep unsoundable swell
A creature to bewitch a sorcerer,
And lay there now within her towering spell.
Slowly the shapes of searching men and horses
Escaped him as he dreamt on that high bed:
History died; he gathered in its forces;
The mists of time condensed in the still head
Until his mind, as clear as mountain water,
Went raveling toward the deep transparent dream
Who bade him sleep. And then the Siren’s daughter
Received him as the sea receives a stream.
Fate would be fated; dreams desire to sleep.
This the forsaken will not understand.
Arthur upon the road began to weep
And said to Gawen, “Remember when this hand
Once haled a sword from stone; now no less strong
It cannot dream of such a thing to do.”
Their mail grew quainter as they clopped along.
The sky became a still and woven blue.
In our time, the Otherworld shimmered in the books of our childhood, was luridly painted on the big screen and has become the haunt of digital realms. Yet at this moment it seems most distant, an abstraction. Maybe that distance has to do with the fading of the real world, the inability of imagined worlds to resurrect the myth of the living one. Certainly there are rhetorical and poetic challenges finding hints of the Other amid such damage; the doors themselves are burning, withering, decaying, flooding.
What does a voyage to the Otherworld come to mean in the Anthropocene? Our day is parallel to the late Medieval, where the voyage of a saint had no better luck finding the old Otherworld as discovering any new one. What echoes today do we hear in this oem by the bishop-king of Cashel, Corma mac Cuilennain, who died in 908, as he contemplated a journey of penance on the sea:
Shall I go, O king of the Mysteries, after my fill of cushions and music, to turn
my face on the shore and my back on my native land?
Shall I cut my hand with every sort of wound on the breast of the wave
which wrecks boats?
Shall I leave the track of my two knees on the strand by the shore?
Shall I take my little black curragh over the broad-breasted, glorious ocean?
O king of the bright kingdom, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?
Whether I be strong or poor, or mettlesome so as to be recounted
in tales, O Christ, will you help me when it comes to going upon the wild sea?
Shall we indeed? What help is there, in these immodest, shrinking and fuming times? Can we still hear the call, can Otherworld sails still trim, do islands still wait for us above the waterline across the main? And what does the Otherworld dream of a world such as we wander today? (Compare the Land Beneath the Wave to the Underground Railroad of America’s slave nightmare, now harrowingly transcribed from text to screen by Barry Jenkins.) Is ours a damaged redemption for which there can be no better the fate of the world?
In the Voyage of St. Brendan, St. Brendan and his companions come to an island of high cliffs with no entrance. Having circled the island for a number of days, they see a church, and hear the voices of people singing and praising God. A waxen tablet is lowered to them, bidding them to cease trying to enter the island, this is not the promised land (non ista tibi terra promissa). They leave the island, taking with them the tablet, which they used to read every day as if it had been sent to them by God.
The message Not Here is the sign of Heaven. The ruins of Eden is its very possibility.
I have used the medium of Irish myth, but voyages to the Otherworld are universal. Journey there this week from inside your own story-cycle, and report on the news you find there.