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Almost all cultures have at least some concept, no matter how vague, of the Otherworld—a nebulous realm that usually lies beyond death, but to which, nonetheless, certain individuals such as heroes, prophets, kings, or Shamans, have journeyed, and from which some of them at least have returned. Indeed, all that we know about the Otherworld comes from visions and descriptions given by these people either through dreams or upon their "return" to the mortal world.
A substantial number of ancient cultures viewed death in a slightly different way than we do today. Nowadays, we tend to think that whatever lies beyond the grave is a separate reality, and those who journey there are traveling to their just reward. Their involvement in our day-to-day world ceases, and they take no further interest in our affairs, nor can we contact them and establish where they are. However, this was not always the case. Death was simply viewed as an act of transition from one sphere of existence to another. It was also believed that this "other existence" could sometimes be seen, or even visited, by certain gifted individuals, either in dreams or in actuality. Furthermore, those who had gone before could sometimes return from this realm, going back and forth when they pleased, or else at certain appropriate times.
Visions of the Underworld
Given the number of people who claimed to have journeyed to the Otherworld, it is not surprising that many descriptions of it are either confusing or contradictory; nor is it surprising that some descriptions remain vague and nebulous. Cultural differences also played a part in how visions of another world, lying beyond death, were interpreted. Among some people—for example, the ancient Egyptians—the Otherworld was simply akin to a continuation of the mortal sphere, which it closely resembled. Thus, if a Pharaoh died in this world, he would reasonably expect to be a Pharaoh in the next, and enjoy the same lifestyle. Therefore, his retinue of servants would be entombed with him, in order to serve him in the Otherworld along with his favorite pets, so that he could continue to enjoy their company when his transition was complete. Not only this, but gold and ornaments were also left with him in the grave in order to pay his way in the Otherworld, and to denote that he was a man of status and wealth. This belief that the Otherworld was a continuation of the mortal existence came from the earliest times and was not unique to the Egyptian culture. Prehistoric graves have been found in the Middle East and elsewhere, which, in addition to the body, contained enough food for a journey, including grains from cereal crops to help the dead person start a living when they got to the Otherworld.
For the early Hebrews, however, the Otherworld was a somewhat different place. Known as Sheol, it was simply a misty realm where the shades of the departed simply congregated to wander aimlessly and eternally. There appears to have been nothing in this realm, save rocks and a perpetual mist. The dead were not even aware of a world close at hand where their descendants might still be living, or, if they were, they had little interest in it. The inhabitants of this place seemed torpid and stupefied, barely aware of each other as they wandered through the mist and stone, talking softly and endlessly to themselves.
Among the Nordic peoples—especially the Viking races—the notion of the Otherworld was very different. For them it was an endless hall, known as Valhalla, in which feasting, drunkenness, and fighting abounded. In a sense, this too was a continuation of the life that at least some of them followed—a roistering, barbaric, drunken orgy of excess. This was a warrior's world (in order to gain admission to it one had to die in battle) and reflected the views and aspirations of Viking society. Moreover, great warriors might return from Valhalla in order to fulfil some task (usually to deal with former enemies) that had been left uncompleted in life. They would then return to the Otherworld.
It was through all this back-and-forth transitioning, and the dreams of those who may have had direct contact with ancestors, that we know these things about the Otherworld. Of course, no location as to its physical whereabouts was given—it might be close at hand or far away. However, it was inaccessible to most mortals. The general opinion suggested that it might be close at hand, because those who had gone there were able to keep an eye on their descendants or on the affairs of the mortal world and could intervene when they chose. Therefore, the Otherworld, it was reasoned, was relatively close at hand.
What Was It Like?
Possibly for many ancient peoples, as we have seen, it may not have been all that much different from the existence they already knew, although for some, such as the Semites and Hebrews, it was a little different. For the Greeks, it might be a place of judgement where major wrongdoers suffered the consequences of their actions in life. Therefore, it could, for the evil person, be a place of intense torment. The Celts, on the other hand, were extremely vague about what the Otherworld might be like. Some described it as an "earthly Paradise," filled with rolling hills and pleasant meadows, populated by the shades of those who had gone before and by kindly spirits, while others described it as a bleak, freezing place where only terrors and dark forces dwelt. Even its function was unclear. Was it a land to which the dead went when they left the mortal world, or was it a realm inhabited by spirits and forces that sometimes interacted with Humankind? In a sense, it was. Indeed, some Celtic descriptions detailed it as a world of poetry and art, where the Muses that inspired the great singers, musicians, and poets of the mortal world dwelt. Those who visited it in their dreams were often inspired, and composed great poetry or music as a result of their visitation. All the same, descriptions of it remained unclear, and there was no real indication as to where this wondrous land might lie. Some accounts said that it was everywhere, but it couldn't be seen by mortal eyes; others said that it was somewhere on the other side of the horizon, just beyond the furthest point that the mortal eye could see. Presumably, this tied in with cloud formations, which were often seen along the horizon. This, of course, was suggestive of another land with mountains, valleys, and promontories.
Encounters of the Otherworld
Odd mirages and reflected images also added to the confusion; for example, in 1837, Irish people in the seaside town of Portstewart, County Derry, found themselves gazing at a large castle that had suddenly appeared in the middle of the bay. Flags and turrets on the structure could quite clearly be seen, as could a road flanked by a number of houses, leading up to the main gate. Dimly, through this vision, the hills of Donegal on the other side of the bay could just be seen. The mirage (for that's what it most probably was) hovered there for most of the morning and created a great stir in the locality. A number of prominent local men arrived in their carriages to marvel at the phenomenon, while a number of fishermen set out for the apparition in their boats, but were unable to reach it. Even as they watched, people appeared to come and go from some of the houses, and a wagon made its way up the road to the castle. Around midday, the vision faded and then vanished, and the coasts of Donegal were quite visible again. It was, of course, an optical illusion, albeit a rather spectacular one. Some sort of atmospheric phenomenon had reflected a scene from another part of the world and imprinted it on the landscape around Portstewart Bay. However, to many of the people who came to see it, it was akin to having a glimpse into another world—one that laid beyond their normal field of vision. Such "visions" would strengthen the idea of a phantom world, lying somewhere all around us, unseen by mortal eyes. It also furthered the notion of sunken lands that might briefly return to the ocean surface from time to time. Nor was the mirage at Portstewart the only one to be recorded in Ireland.
In his book Irish Wonders, D.R. McNally recounts another such incident in County Cork about 40 years later. On the afternoon of Sunday, July 7th, 1878, he states that there was great excitement in the general area around Ballycotton Bay because of a sudden appearance of a mysterious landmass far out at sea where none was known to exist. The day before, many fishermen from the village had been out in their boats, and they had seen no trace of any such country where one now seemed to appear; but there was now no denying the evidence of their eyes.
On the distant landmass, they could make out hills and woods. The watchers could also make out what appeared to be deep glens with buildings along their sides, which sloped down through a series of fields to the water's edge. There was no doubt in their minds that it was another country, the very edge of the Otherworld. Upon seeing the vision, several local fishermen climbed into their boats and set sail for the distant shoreline. However, as they neared it, the landmass became fainter and dimmer in outline, less vivid in color, and eventually faded away altogether.
Stories concerning the miraculous appearance were soon circulating. With each telling or retelling of the tale, the landmass grew more wonderful and more exotic. Fishermen claimed to have seen castles and palaces along the coast as well as cathedrals, towers, steeples, extensive plains, and distant cities as they drew near. Much of this was, of course, simply exaggeration, and had to be limited by the skepticism of the listener.
Other such appearances were experienced off Ballydonegan Bay, also in County Cork. In County Kerry, the population of Ballyheige saw a strange landmass appear in Tralee Bay between Kerry Head and Brandon Head, which was complete with cottages and tilled fields. A few days before, the villagers of Lisneakeabree, just across the bay from Ballyheige, had witnessed another such landmass between their own village and Kerry Head, while the local fishermen had also seen it appear in St. Finan's Bay.
Even in the North, similar images appeared around Gweebara Bay in Donegal and near Rathlin Island in North Antrim. There was little doubt in the minds of many that this was the Otherworld manifesting itself to mortals, and that the hills and fields they saw were those of the land of the dead or of Fairyland. Whatever the visions, they were indisputable evidence of another world that lay all around them, but which was generally invisible.
What, then, was this land? What was the name of this mysterious country? And how and why did it impinge upon our own world? The Celts, of course, would give it a name: Flath-Innis, the Noble Isle, or Tir-na-Nog, the Land of Eternal Youth. It was to this country that mighty, kings, warriors, and poets went when they died. It was also the realm of the old gods and fairies who came and went between this world and Earth. From this world, great strength and inspiration continually radiated into our own mortal sphere, inspiring human heroes, musicians, and writers. From this land, the inhabitants bestowed the gifts of valor, strength, music, and poetry upon those whom they favored, but they might also carry away certain individuals whom they especially cherished, perhaps never returning from the Otherworld.
The most famous tale of such abduction is, of course, the ancient Irish story of Oisin, greatest of all Irish poets. Oisin, the son of Fion mac Cumhail (Finn McCool) was one of the great heroes of the Irish kingdom of Ulster. One of the fabled Knights of the Red Branch, he was also skilled both as a musician and as a poet. He was also strikingly handsome, and this was to be his downfall, for he attracted the attention of the Queen of the Otherworld. There is little clue as to what this being might have been; some accounts say that she was a fairy, others that she was a spirit. However, she fell madly in love with Oisin and resolved that he should be her husband and jointly rule the Otherworld with her. Using a fairy horse, which he chased and tried to capture, she lured him away from the mortal world into her realm, and he found that he could not return to his own country. In the Otherworld, he had everything that his heart desired; in fact, he was a ruler there, but he was neither content nor happy. He pleaded with the Queen to let him return to the mortal world—a gift that only she could give—and in the end she agreed. But he was only to return for one day, and then he would live in the Otherworld forever at her side. Giving him a magic steed, she opened the gates of the Otherworld and allowed him to ride into the mortal sphere. There was a condition, however, that he was not to dismount or set foot on the ground, or it would be the worse for him. When he had ridden through, Oisin gradually realized an important truth: Time passed much more slowly in the Otherworld than it did in the mortal realm. Although he'd only spent a few days away, more than a hundred years had passed in his own country, and nothing he saw was familiar to him. The Pagan time of heroes was long gone and Christianity now abounded in the Irish countryside. Men were smaller and punier than they had been. While riding along, Oisin came upon a group of men trying to move a stone from a ditch and stopped to help them. He was able to move the heavy stone with one hand, and he leaned down from his saddle to do so. However, the saddle girth around the horse's belly snapped and Oisin fell from the horse onto the ground. Instantly, before the eyes of the astonished workmen, he aged a hundred years and turned to dust, which blew away in the wind. In other variants of the same story, Oisin, realizing that there was no place for his kind in the world, sadly and reluctantly returned to the Otherworld forever. It is a fitting end for a hero and poet—almost the equivalent of ascending into Heaven—and it symbolically ensures that his genius, poetry, and strength live on forever, albeit in another sphere.
The notion of the time differential is a common feature in tales concerning the Otherworld. Those who have accidentally strayed there, or who have been carried away by supernatural beings and returned from it, have usually found that great periods of time elapsed since they left. While the Otherworld has stayed pretty much the same as when they entered it, their own world has changed immeasurably. All that they knew has been swept away, and those that they knew are either dead or incredibly ancient. In most cases, those who return opt to go back to the Otherworld.
During the rise of Christianity, the Otherworld took on rather different proportions, reflecting its many supposed attributes. In the first instance, it became a Paradise where none grew old, suggestive of the wonderful Fairyland or Tir-na-Nog, which some believed it to be. This was where God Himself might live, and where souls ascend after death. It was believed to be located somewhere in the sky among the clouds. Alternately, it might be a place of eternal torment, located somewhere in the bowels of the Earth in which the unworthy were punished for their sins and offenses. It was where the Devil, the enemy of Mankind, dwelt and was the complete antithesis of the wonderful Paradise. This brought into play the developing medieval notions of personal morality, and of reward and punishment. Some largely Celtic notions (although a number of other races held them as well) considered it a place of rest and/or judgement between the worlds. This would become Purgatory, a kind of intermediate stage that appears frequently in the Christian canon. Indeed, Purgatory had many characteristics in common with the Otherworld. Both were rather vaguely described and located, and from this vantage point, those who had "passed beyond" could watch their descendants, urging them to say prayers for them so that they might ascend into Heaven. Again, parts of the Church taught that some of these souls might briefly reappear from Purgatory (just as they had done from the Otherworld), though only by a special dispensation from God, in order to urge religious observance.
Excerpted from Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms by Bob Curran, Gina Talucci, Ian Daniels. Copyright © 2007 Dr. Bob Curran. Excerpted by permission of Career Press.
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Posted April 13, 2013
Posted August 8, 2012
Fun read. Although i lent the darn book before i was done reading and find myself checking everyday to see if i got it back yet. Great book for anyone with imagination and curiosity.
Posted July 12, 2012
Sweet!!! New dungeons and forgotten treasures. Not to mention all the stories that have been lost down the ages. Old horrors and even a dragon or two maybe.awesomeWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 14, 2010
No text was provided for this review.