In Irish mythology, there is much mention of a place referred to as the Otherworld. But where and what actually is it? Ah well, that would be telling. The thing is, mankind has been searching for this mysterious and elusive land for centuries, and we are still no nearer discovering the truth.
The Otherworld has many names; Tir na nOg (the land of the Young/ Ever Young), Tír na mBeo (the Land of the Living), Mag Mell (Plain of Joy), Tír fa Tonn (Land under the Waves), Tír na mBan, (Land of Women), Tir na nIongnadh (Land of Wonders), Tir Tairnigiri (Land of Promise), Manannán’s Land, and perhaps most famously, Hy-Brasil.
So are they all one and the same place? Possibly. No, don’t roll your eyes, this is mythology, not science; there are no facts, just lots of contradiction. That’s why it’s so intriguing.
In Irish mythology, the Otherworld was divided into two realms, that of the Sidhe in their hollow hills, and the other being the island lands ruled by Manannán, God of the Sea.
Also known as the Blessed Isles, they lay ‘beyond the ninth wave‘, gentle places of peace, beauty, healing and eternal life, happiness and everlasting summer. The realm of the Sidhe, by contrast, was as full of strife as the mortal world, as any of the myths about them show us; their lives were subject to the same passions, love, hate, desire, joy, power, jealousy, battles and death as are our own.
land of the Dead
Definitely not. If the ancient Irish believed in reincarnation, they had no need for a place to collect the souls of the dead. Interestingly, though Donn of the Milesians, said to be the first Gaels, died on his ship as it neared Ireland’s shores. He was buried at Bull Rock, a formidable stony crag which juts out of the ocean, and so the legend of Donn, Lord of the Dead was born. (You can read about this in my post Donn, Lord of the Dead.)
The Milesians went on to defeat the Danann, half through might in battle, half though trickery, and the Danann were banished underground. Perhaps the thought of Donn waiting to lead them to the afterlife was a comforting thought to the Milesian warriors anxiously waiting to confront the notorious Danann, and fearing death in battle in a strange land far from home.
In any case, this story was not part of the Celtic Irish tradition, and does not form part of the Otherworld stories.
Hy-Brasil was an island which once lay off the west coast of Ireland. Its name is derived from Old Irish hy, a variation of í, meaning ‘island’, and brasil, from the root word bres, meaning ‘beautiful/ great/ mighty’. It has also been explained as coming from Uí Breasal, meaning ‘of the clan of Bresal’, a people who once inhabited the North East of Ireland.
Legend has it that the island lies shrouded in mist most of the time, thus shielded from the eyes of mortals, but that one day in every seven years, the fog rolls back to reveal its distant splendour to anyone who might be looking.
Many explorers over the last few hundred years have gone on voyages seeking this fabled island, some even claiming to have sighted or visited it. It could well have been one of the island kingdoms belonging to Manannán. (You can read more about it in my post Hy-Brasil, Mysterious Lost Island of Irish Mythology.)
Manannán was not of the Tuatha de Danann, yet when they were defeated by the invading Milesians and forced to retreat to their lands beneath the surface, he came to their aid, helping them to establish amongst themselves a High King. He then shrouded their Sidhe-mounds with fog, to keep them safe from prying eyes and unwanted attention.
Manannán’s lands were not seen as the land of the dead, as portrayed by Christian belief, but as the land of the ever living, of the ever young. As with Hy-Brasil, his lands were said to lie west of Ireland.
Niamh of the Golden Hair was said to have come from Manannán’s lands when she came for Oisin on her white horse. This animal could well have been the Sea God’s famous white horse, Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane, who could gallop over water as if it were solid ground.
Ciabhán was rescued from his little capsizing corracle by Manannán, after setting sail to seek Cliodhna, a woman from the Sea God’s land that he had fallen in love with. She too arrived from across the sea riding a white horse.
It’s quite likely that the Sea God’s kingdom comprised an archipelago of islands off the west coast of Ireland, which could be one reason why it has so many names, and could possibly have included Hy-Brasil.
There are a group of ancient texts called Imramma, in which the hero of the tale sets out in a boat searching for paradise. They are very Christian in the telling, usually but not always involving a monk or priest as the hero character, and although dated from C7th onwards, it’s thought they could be based on much older stories.
The Imram is all about the trials and tribulations of the journey; the destination is less important than the ordeal of getting there. But on the way, they encounter many strange islands, where odd things befall them and conspire to keep them from their mission, or tempt them in un-Christian ways.
In the Imram Brain, or the Sea Voyage of Bran, for example, Bran and his companions are persuaded to stop off at the Isle of Women, where they each pair off with a woman and live very happily for a year. When they eventually return home, they find that so much time has passed, Ireland has changed beyond recognition, and their names are only remembered in ancient legend.
I hope you’ll join me on Wednesday for Part Two, to find out more about the Otherworld beyond the Sidhe-mounds. You can read Land of the Ever Young Part Two here.
Get more mythology straight to your inbox. Sign up to my mailing list.