The Irish (Celtic) view of the world in the afterlife was far more pleasant than that of the Greeks. These two powerful early western societies contributed much to the continent of Europe and to the entire world, including their fascinating mythologies. The Irish believed in the Isle of the Blest or Tir na n-Og, while the Greeks thought their deceased spent eternity in the underworld of Hades, in either Tartarus or Erebus. The Irish realm of the dead was a land of joy, as opposed to the Greek, a world of sorrow and remorse.
The world of the Irish afterlife is known by many names. The exact location of this wonderful land is not known. The one thing agreed upon by most is that it lies to the west of Ireland. Some of the names associated with it are:
- Tir na n-Og
- The Land of the Young
- the Isle of the Blest
According to Delaney, the country of Brazil gets its name from this, for when the Spaniards arrived in the New World, they thought it was so marvelous they named it after the splendid afterworld of the Irish (85). Tir na n-Og, The Land of the Young, was a paradise. It “was as sweet as Elysium, as vivid as Nirvana, as desirable as Valhalla, as green and sunny as Eden” (Delaney 85). As Princess Niav states in a poem:
Beyond all dreams my land delights Fairer than any eyes have seen, All year round, the fruits hang bright, As the flowers bloom in the meadows green. Wild honey drips from the forest trees, We have endless stocks of meadow and wine, No illness comes from Across the seas, Nor death, nor pain, nor sad decline. No boredom comes to feast or chase, The music plays as the champions sport, The light and splendours all increase Each day in the Golden Land of Youth. (qtd. in Delaney 87)
Everything in this land was beautiful, bright and colorful. Delaney notes that it is called the Land of the Young because in this paradise, the aging process is reversed, so the youngest are the wisest. Time has no meaning in this place, and day changes to night and then back to day for one person whenever they desired it to do so. Everyone’s soul desired to get to this wonderful place, which was more like a dream world than a land for the dead (85-95). The land was full of color, it was a lively land, bright and cheerful. It was as large or as small of a land as they wanted.
The sacred “Otherworld” of Avalon is a wonderful blend of the unknown and the unknowable. A more sophisticated form of the afterlife, Avalon cannot be called a “land” as it does not exist in any context of the mortal realm and the passage to it is as mysterious as the enchanted place itself.
Avalon is beyond the confines of space and time, sometimes described as in the “cracks of everyday life”. However, the beautiful magic of such belief could not last forever and eventually people tried to place Avalon within a sense of their understanding. Some described it as an island, others as somewhere on the other side of the world and most notably it was the resting place of King Arthur where he would be healed and one day return to his people.
Despite the attempts to drag it back to our world, Avalon remains the model of peace and cosmic order. In a dimension that we are yet to experience the true meaning of beauty, power and wisdom are recognized by those fortunate enough to find their way there.
In Celtic traditions, Avalon translates to an “island or place of apples” and the apple is known as an image of paradise in many cultures. Whether the Tree of Life, which is eternally tended by priestess guardians, is seen as an apple tree or a unique tree only found in this paradise, it is one of the few features of Avalon that can be discussed in terms that mortals comprehend.
The path to Avalon is as enigmatic as the place itself. It could be very close, yet could be far from where we now stand. Like much of its mystery, Avalon’s entrance presents to those it will in a form that only they will know.
As the ancient festival of Samhain was held in honour of the Sun God’s death and transition to the dark lands of Under wave where he then resides as Lord of Death, this is the time that the old Celtic peoples came to terms with death and pondered on their own meeting with the Dark Lord. Like all other pre-Christian peoples they had customs surrounding this inevitable part of life. Some of these Celtic customs and burial rites still can be seen today in Christianized forms, while others may seem strange to our times.
Many superstitions and taboos that are still held today in Celtic parts of the country surrounding the deceased have their origins far back in Pagan times. One example of this is the custom of burning candles day and night until the funeral harks back to the belief that the demons of the darkness could be held at bay by the power and light of fire. In Pagan times the dead were washed using water from a sacred well or by sea water to protect them while passing through the realms of water to the land under wave (Tir-fo-Thonn).
When washed the corpse was wrapped in the Eslene (Death Shirt) and laid on a fuat or bier in the centre of the home for seven days. Rush torches were kept burning for seven days and nights. The rites would begin by the traditional practise of “Caoine” (pronounced Keena, the anglicised word became keening). This would take the form of great lamentation interspersed by periods of praise for the dead person. After three days of Caoine and dependant on the status of the deceased, feasting and games would be held in their honour, the corpse having a bowl placed on their chest filled with food, and gold and weapons etc. were laid out on the bier. This would continue till the day of internment or cremation in some places.
Under Brehon Law there existed the “rights of the corpse”, this law stated that certain personal possessions belonged to the dead and could not be taken from them under any circumstances, even as a debt owed. These items were a horse, a cow, a bed, a house or its furniture. (Considering modern law on this matter how can we call these people Barbaric?) These items would be retained by next of kin.
On the morning of burial a visitor came bearing a measuring rod called a “fey”. This rod, made of Aspen and carved with Ogham letters and symbols, was used to measure the deceased to ensure a proper fit within the final resting place. The mourners would avert their eyes from this rod in awe and terror, it was thought that if this rod caught your measure your death was inevitable. Finally at the setting of the sun on the seventh day the corpse would be carried by seven men or a chariot if of noble status and buried or burned depending on tribal custom.
There has also long been a connection with the pagan god Avalloc (Avallach) who is said to be the ancestor of the dynasty of Coel Hen, the eventual rulers of Powys. Avalloc is also said to be the father or Morgen (who later becomes Morgan le Fay) and her eight sisters, who were Celtic priestesses renowned for their ability to turn into animals, to heal the incurable and prophesy the future according to the Gaulish Pomponius Mela. Irish mythology also has the name of the island over the sea belonging to the sea-god Manannian – Emain Ablach.