The Island Otherworld

Demetrius, a Roman government official who was stationed in Britain in 82 AD, made note of a number of local beliefs and traditions current among the natives of that area, some of which were related by the author and hierophant Plutarch. In the Face of the Moon, Plutarch described a tradition of some islands, believed to lie West of Britain ‘in the general direction of the sunset’:

The natives have a story that in one of these [islands] Cronus has been confined by Zeus, but that he, having a son for a gaoler, if left sovereign lord of these Islands, and of the sea, which they call the gulf of Cronus

The natural beauty of the isle is wonderful, and the mildness of the environing air Cronus himself sleeps within a deep cave resting in a rock which looks like gold, this sleep being devised by him for Zeus in the place of chains. Birds fly in at the topmost part of the rock, and bear him ambrosia, and the whole island is pervaded by the fragrance shed from the rock

One has to peer through the filter of the Interpreta Romana to discern this British Celtic tradition from the first century AD. Notwithstanding, it is still possible to make out parallels with medieval traditions from Britain and Ireland which describe an archipelago of islands in the Western sea: teeming with birds and replete with natural beauty. The tradition of suspended animation and the lack of aging or disease explicitly described in the medieval bardic works is also dimly visible in this ancient account. Further parallels with Medieval Celtic otherworld lore are to found in another classical description of a Gaulish tradition of a magical Island location, this time recounted by the first century geographer Pomponius Mela:

In the Brittanic Sea, opposite the coast of the Ossismi [of Brittany], the isle of Sena [ cf. the River Sein] belongs to a Gaulish divinity and is famous for its oracle; whose priestesses, sanctified by their perpetual virginity, are reportedly nine in number. They called the priestesses the ‘Galligende’ and think that it is because they have been endowed with unique powers; that they can stir up the seas by their magical charms; that they turn into whatever animals they want; that cure what is incurable among other peoples; that they know and predict the future - but that it is not revealed except to sea-voyagers, and only those travelling to consult them

An account by Strabo (IV, IV, 6) echoes this description of an island presided over by female priestesses, which Mac Cana and others have related to medieval traditions like the Immram’s ‘Isle of Women’, or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s nine sisters of the Island of Apples’:

… there is a small island in the ocean, not far from the land, lying off the mouth of the Loire; and the women of the Samnitae inhabit it; they are possessed with Dionysus and propitate the god with initiations and other sacred rites; and no man may land on the island, but the women themselves sail out from it and have intercourse with men and then return.

In the same section, Strabo goes on to quote another account, this time of a harbour in which two oracular crows were kept. The hero of Second Branch, it maybe remembered, is known as ‘The Sacred Raven’ (Bendigeid-fran), and the animal associated with the Greek God Cronus, alluded to in the first of these classical accounts, is the crow.

It is difficult to know precisely what to make of these second or third hand classical accounts: but they would appear to suggest that Celtic tradition of an Island Otherworld should not be thought of as a purely medieval, Christian innovation. This was a well established magical-narrative vision, the typical outline of which has been summarised by Bromwich as ‘a island kingdom of perpetual youth and unending fertility, typified by its abundant apple trees, which is presided over by women’. Similar accounts can be found in the medieval Irish tradition and the continental Arthurian material alike (Insula Avallonis etc.). Indeed, the name ‘Avallon’, meaning ‘Place of Apples’ can be etymologically related to an ancestral figure of the medieval Welsh genealogical tradition, Avallac son of Beli Mawr, hinting at a possible connection between the ancestor of the Belgae and the Island Otherworld tradition which long predates the Second Branch. Was Pliny’s account of the slumbering Chronos, based on an eponymous Avallac and his father Beli Mawr, slumbering (like Arthur of the medieval tradition) in suspended animation? We can only guess. But the resemblance of these classical accounts to the latter Island Otherworld lore would suggest that Iron Age, druidic roots of this Medieval Celtic vision are more likely than not.

The potent fusion of this sensuous pagan imagery with the promise of Christian salvation combined with the return to a timeless, prelapsarian innocence was to have a powerful impact on the medieval Celtic imagination. A literal belief in an island paradise in the Western Seas would even inspire a number of voyages, which history records were actually launched from the coasts of Ireland during the Early Medieval period. With a mixture of blind faith, fearlessness and tragic pathos, these hapless adventurers would evidently launch themselves in fragile coracles (often without oars) onto the ravenous tumult of the Atlantic ocean. The annals and hagiography of the period usually note that these voyages were prompted by a desire to find a ‘desert’ (i.e. a remote location for prayer and meditation) in the sea. But the influence of the stories of Bran mac Febail, or Saint Brendan (as the hero was known in a rather more Christianised, allegorical Hiberno-Latin version of this same tradition) or other voyage myths (those of Mael Duin, Mac Corra etc) was undoubtedly a factor underlying this fascination with the desert island to the West. Whether the pious hope of spiritual salvation or the fantasy of sexual utopia that was the primary motivating force underpinning these desperate adventures, we can only guess. The vast majority of journeys undoubtedly ended in little more than the monk’s lonely death in the arms of the ocean. But in other cases, where the voyagers returned, as well as the usual colourful travellers tales (which served to further enrich the mythical traditions involved), useful geographic knowledge was sometimes derived. It has been proposed that the Iceland and even America might have been initially discovered by these sea-faring Irish monks, directly as a result of their peregrinatory impulses.

Whether or not this was the case, there is no doubting the power of this myth in the thought-world of Early Medieval Ireland. As we have seen, classical accounts would suggest that similar traditions were known in the pre-Christian Gallo-Brittonic world - suggesting a deep-rooted, pan-Celtic possibly druidic origin for this psycho-geographic complex. Somewhere along the line, traditions of the agelessness of the Island Otherworld (similar to the Babylonian legend of Utnapishtim) was given an ingenious rationalisation which involved the concept of the mutability of time itself, and thence a view of the Island Otherworld as a subjective state - as much as an actual physical location. This advanced, relativistic understanding is most lucidly expressed in the Manannán sequence from the Immram Brain, in which the sea itself transforms into a flowering plain - merely through an altered perception of the passage of time. However, many continued to believe in the physical existence of the Island Otherworld, as demonstrated by the forlorn voyages from the Western shores of Ireland by these Early Medieval monastic adventurers - protected by nothing stronger a hide coracle and a Quixotic faith in the reality of myth.

In the medieval Celtic narrative tradition, this Island Otherworld lore seems to have increasingly fused with that of other fantastical dreamscapes: not only that of the Christian paradise, but also more native complexes such as the ‘Indigenous Underworld’ discussed in the previous chapter. In the Welsh bardic tradition in particular, influenced as it was by this Gaelic material (as we shall consider below), Caer Siddi and even Annwfn, as well as other faery otherworlds from the later folk-tradition (like the home of ‘the children of Rhys the Deep’), seem to been located wherever the story-teller felt it was necessary to place them: sometimes on an coastal island, sometimes under a lake, sometimes in the ‘Hollow Hills’ accessed through a tumulus or a hole in a leafy river bank. The agelessness and innocence of its inhabitants became a feature of this generic Otherworld, as did the notion of an anomalous passage of time. The incipient notion of the psychic nature of this otherworld experience seems to have taken hold, particularly within the more esoteric reaches of bardic lore. And this interpretation of the Island Otherworld in particular was known to the author of the Mabinogi, as we shall see below.

A fuller discussion of the Island Otherworld in the Celtic tradition, ancient and modern, can be found in Chapter Three of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi