The Celtic conception of Elysium, the product at once of religion, mythology, and romantic imagination, is found in a series of Irish and Welsh tales. We do not know that a similar conception existed among the continental Celts, but, considering the likeness of their beliefs in other matters to those of the insular Celts, there is a strong probability that it did. There are four typical presentations of the Elysium conception. In Ireland, while the gods were believed to have retired within the hills or síd, it is not unlikely that some of them had always been supposed to live in these or in a subterranean world, and it is therefore possible that what may be called the subterranean or síd type of Elysium is old. But other types also appear—that of a western island Elysium, of a world below the waters, and of a world co-extensive with this and entered by a mist.
The names of the Irish Elysium are sometimes of a general character—Mag Mór, "the Great Plain"; Mag Mell, "the Pleasant Plain"; Tír n'Aill, "the Other-world"; Tir na m-Beo, "the Land of the Living"; Tír na n-Og, "the Land of Youth"; and Tír Tairngiri, "the Land of Promise"—possibly of Christian origin. Local names are Tír fa Tonn, "Land under Waves"; I-Bresail and the Land of Falga, names of the island Elysium. The last denotes the Isle of Man as Elysium, and it may have been so regarded by Goidels in Britain at an early time.1231 To this period may belong the tales of Cúchulainn's raid on Falga, carried at a later time to Ireland. Tír Tairngiri is also identified with the Isle of Man.1232
A brief résumé of the principal Elysium tales is necessary as a preliminary to a discussion of the problems which they involve, though it can give but little idea of the beauty and romanticism of the tales themselves. These, if not actually composed in pagan times, are based upon story-germs current before the coming of Christianity to Ireland.
1. The síd Elysium.—In the story of Etain, when Mider discovered her in her rebirth, he described the land whither he would carry her, its music and its fair people, its warm streams, its choice mead and wine. There is eternal youth, and love is blameless. It is within Mider's síd, and Etain accompanies him there. In the sequel King Eochaid's Druid discovers the síd, which is captured by the king, who then regains Etain.1233 Other tales refer to the síd in similar terms, and describe its treasures, its food and drink better than those of earth. It is in most respects similar to the island Elysium, save that it is localised on earth.
2. The island Elysium.—The story of the voyage of Bran is found fragmentarily in the eleventh century LU, and complete in the fourteenth and sixteenth century MSS. It tells how Bran heard mysterious music when asleep. On waking he found a silver branch with blossoms, and next day there appeared a mysterious woman singing the glory of the land overseas, its music, its wonderful tree, its freedom from pain and death. It is one of thrice fifty islands to the west of Erin, and there she dwells with thousands of "motley women." Before she disappears the branch leaps into her hand. Bran set sail with his comrades and met Manannan crossing the sea in his chariot. The god told him that the sea was a flowery plain, Mag Mell, and that all around, unseen to Bran, were people playing and drinking "without sin." He bade him sail on to the Land of Women. Then the voyagers went on and reached the Isle of Joy, where one of their number remained behind. At last they came to the Land of Women, and we hear of their welcome, the dreamlike lapse of time, the food and drink which had for each the taste he desired. Finally the tale recounts their home-sickness, the warning they received not to set foot on Erin, how one of their number leaped ashore and turned to ashes, how Bran from his boat told of his wanderings and then disappeared for ever.1234
Another story tells how Connla was visited by a goddess from Mag Mell. Her people dwell in a síd and are called "men of the síd." She invites him to go to the immortal land, and departs, leaving him an apple, which supports him for a month without growing less. Then she reappears and tells Connla that "the Ever-Living Ones" desire him to join them. She bids him come with her to the Land of Joy where there are only women. He steps into her crystal boat and vanishes from his father and the Druid who has vainly tried to exercise his spells against her.1235 In this tale there is a confusion between the síd and the island Elysium.
The eighteenth century poem of Oisin in Tír na n-Og is probably based on old legends, and describes how Niam, daughter of the king of Tír na n-Og, placed geasa on Oisin to accompany her to that land of immortal youth and beauty. He mounted on her steed, which plunged forwards across the sea, and brought them to the land where Oisin spent three hundred years before returning to Ireland, and there suffering, as has been seen, from the breaking of the tabu not to set foot on the soil of Erin.1236
In Serglige Conculaind, "Cúchulainn's Sickness," the goddess Fand, deserted by Manannan, offers herself to the hero if he will help her sister's husband Labraid against his enemies in Mag Mell. Labraid lives in an island frequented by troops of women, and possessing an inexhaustible vat of mead and trees with magic fruit. It is reached with marvellous speed in a boat of bronze. After a preliminary visit by his charioteer Laeg, Cúchulainn goes thither, vanquishes Labraid's foes, and remains a month with Fand. He returns to Ireland, and now we hear of the struggle for him between his wife Emer and Fand. But Manannan suddenly appears, reawakens Fand's love, and she departs with him. The god shakes his cloak between her and Cúchulainn to prevent their ever meeting again.1237 In this story Labraid, Fand, and Liban, Fand's sister, though dwellers on an island Elysium, are called síd-folk. The two regions are partially confused, but not wholly, since Manannan is described as coming from his own land (Elysium) to woo Fand. Apparently Labraid of the Swift Hand on the Sword (who, though called "chief of the síde", is certainly a war-god) is at enmity with Manannan's hosts, and it is these with whom Cúchulainn has to fight.1238
In an Ossianic tale several of the Fians were carried off to the Land of Promise. After many adventures, Fionn, Diarmaid, and others discover them, and threaten to destroy the land if they are not restored. Its king, Avarta, agrees to the restoration, and with fifteen of his men carries the Fians to Erin on one horse. Having reached there, he bids them look at a certain field, and while they are doing so, he and his men disappear.1239
3. Land under Waves.—Fiachna, of the men of the síd, appeared to the men of Connaught, and begged their help against Goll, who had abducted his wife. Loegaire and his men dive with Fiachna into Loch Naneane, and reach a wonderful land, with marvellous music and where the rain is ale. They and the síd-folk attack the fort of Mag Mell and defeat Goll. Each then obtains a woman of the síde, but at the end of a year they become homesick. They are warned not to descend from horseback in Erin. Arrived among their own people, they describe the marvels of Tír fa Tonn, and then return there, and are no more seen.1240 Here, again, the síd Elysium and Land under Waves are confused, and the divine tribes are at war, as in the story of Cúchulainn.
In a section of the Ossianic tale just cited, Fionn and his men arrive on an island, where Diarmaid reaches a beautiful country at the bottom of a well. This is Tír fa Tonn, and Diarmaid fights its king who has usurped his nephew's inheritance, and thus recovers it for him.1241
4. Co-extensive with this world.—An early example of this type is found in the Adventures of Cormac. A divine visitant appeared to Cormac and gave him in exchange for his wife, son, and daughter, his branch of golden apples, which when shaken produced sweetest music, dispelling sorrow. After a year Cormac set out to seek his family, and as he journeyed encountered a mist in which he discovered a strange house. Its master and mistress—Manannan and his consort—offered him shelter. The god brought in a pig, every quarter of which was cooked in the telling of a true tale, the pig afterwards coming to life again. Cormac, in his tale, described how he had lost his family, whereupon Manannan made him sleep, and brought his wife and children in. Later he produced a cup which broke when a lie was told, but became whole again when a true word was spoken. The god said Cormac's wife had now a new husband, and the cup broke, but was restored when the goddess declared this to be a lie. Next morning all had disappeared, and Cormac and his family found themselves in his own palace, with cup and branch by their side.1242 Similarly, in The Champion's Ecstasy, a mysterious horseman appears out of a mist to Conn and leads him to a palace, where he reveals himself as the god Lug, and where there is a woman called "the Sovereignty of Erin." Beside the palace is a golden tree.1243 In the story of Bran, Mag Mell is said to be all around the hero, though he knows it not—an analogous conception to what is found in these tales, and another instance is that of the mysterious house entered by Conchobar and Dechtire.1244 Mag Mell may thus have been regarded as a mysterious district of Erin. This magic mist enclosing a marvellous dwelling occurs in many other tales, and it was in a mist that the Tuatha Déa came to Ireland.
A certain correspondence to these Irish beliefs is found in Brythonic story, but here the Elysium conception has been influenced by Christian ideas. Elysium is called Annwfn, meaning "an abyss," "the state of the dead," "hell," and it is also conceived of as is elfydd, "beneath the earth."1245 But in the tales it bears no likeness to these meanings of the word, save in so far as it has been confused by their Christian redactors with hell. It is a region on the earth's surface or an over-or under-sea world, in which some of the characteristics of the Irish Elysium are found—a cauldron, a well of drink sweeter than wine, and animals greatly desired by mortals, while it is of great beauty and its people are not subject to death or disease. Hence the name Annwfn has probably taken the place of some earlier pagan title of Elysium.
In the tale of Pwyll, the earliest reference to Annwfn occurs. It is ruled by Arawn, at war with Hafgan. Arawn obtains the help of Pwyll by exchanging kingdoms with him for a year, and Pwyll defeats Hafgan. It is a beautiful land, where merriment and feasting go on continuously, and its queen is of great loveliness. It has no subterranean character, and is conceived apparently as contiguous to Pwyll's kingdom.1246 In other tales it is the land whence Gwydion and others obtain various animals.1247 The later folk-conception of the demoniac dogs of Annwfn may be based on an old myth of dogs with which its king hunted. These are referred to in the story of Pwyll.1248
Annwfn is also the name of a land under waves or over sea, called also Caer Sidi, "the revolving castle," about which "are ocean's streams." It is "known to Manawyddan and Pryderi," just as the Irish Elysium was ruled by Manannan.1249 Another "Caer of Defence" is beneath the waves.1250 Perhaps the two ideas were interchangeable. The people of this land are free from death and disease, and in it is "an abundant well, sweeter than white wine the drink in it." There also is a cauldron belonging to the lord of Annwfn, which was stolen by Arthur and his men. Such a cauldron is the property of people belonging to a water world in the Mabinogion.1251
The description of the isle of Avallon (later identified with Glastonbury), whither Arthur was carried, completes the likeness to the Irish Elysium. No tempest, excess of heat or cold, nor noxious animal afflicts it; it is blessed with eternal spring and with fruit and flowers growing without labour; it is the land of eternal youth, unvisited by death or disease. It has a regia virgo lovelier than her lovely attendants; she cured Arthur of his wounds, hence she is the Morgen of other tales, and she and her maidens may be identified with the divine women of the Irish isle of women. Morgen is called a dea phantastica, and she may be compared with Liban, who cured Cúchulainn of his sickness.1252
The identification of Avallon with Glastonbury is probably post-pagan, and the names applied to Glastonbury—Avallon, Insula Pomonum, Insula vitrea—may be primitive names of Elysium. William of Malmesbury derives Insula Pomonum in its application to Glastonbury from a native name Insula Avallonioe, which he connects with the Brythonic avalla, "apples," because Glastenig found an apple tree there.1253 The name may thus have been connected with marvellous apple trees, like those of the Irish Elysium. But he also suggests that it may be derived from the name of Avalloc, living there with his daughters. Avalloc is evidently the "Rex Avallon" (Avallach) to whose palace Arthur was carried and healed by the regia virgo.1254 He may therefore have been a mythic lord of Elysium, and his daughters would correspond to the maidens of the isle. William also derives "Glastonbury" from the name of an eponymous founder Glastenig, or from its native name Ynesuuitron, "Glass Island." This name reappears in Chretien's Eric in the form "l'isle de verre." Giraldus explains the name from the glassy waters around Glastonbury, but it may be an early name of Elysium.1255 Glass must have appealed to the imagination of Celt, Teuton, and Slav, for we hear of Merlin's glass house, a glass fort discovered by Arthur, a glass tower attacked by the Milesians, Etain's glass grianan, and a boat of glass which conveyed Connla to Elysium. In Teutonic and Slavonic myth and Märchen, glass mountains, on which dwell mysterious personages, frequently occur.
The origin of the Celtic Elysium belief may be found in universal myths of a golden age long ago in some distant Elysian region, where men had lived with the gods. Into that region brave mortals might still penetrate, though it was lost to mankind as a whole. In some mythologies this Elysium is the land whither men go after death. Possibly the Celtic myth of man's early intercourse with the gods in a lost region took two forms. In one it was a joyful subterranean region whither the Celt hoped to go after death. In the other it was not recoverable, nor was it the land of the dead, but favoured mortals might reach it in life. The Celtic Elysium belief, as known through the tales just cited, is always of this second kind. We surmise, however, that the land of the dead was a joyous underworld ruled over by a god of fertility and of the dead, and from that region men had originally come forth. The later association of gods with the síd was a continuation of this belief, but now the síd are certainly not a land of the dead, but Elysium pure and simple. There must therefore have been at an early period a tendency to distinguish between the happy region of the dead, and the distant Elysium, if the two were ever really connected. The subject is obscure, but it is not impossible that another origin of the Elysium idea may be found in the phenomenon of the setting sun: it suggested to the continental Celts that far off there was a divine land where the sun-god rested. When the Celts reached the coast this divine western land would necessarily be located in a far-off island, seen perhaps on the horizon. Hence it would also be regarded as connected with the sea-god, Manannan, or by whatsoever name he was called. The distant Elysium, whether on land or across the sea, was conceived in identical terms, and hence also whenever the hollow hills or síd were regarded as an abode of the gods, they also were described just as Elysium was.
The idea of a world under the waters is common to many mythologies, and, generally speaking, it originated in the animistic belief that every part of nature has its indwelling spirits. Hence the spirits or gods of the waters were thought of as dwelling below the waters. Tales of supernatural beings appearing out of the waters, the custom of throwing offerings therein, the belief that human beings were carried below the surface or could live in the region beneath the waves, are all connected with this animistic idea. Among the Celts this water-world assumed many aspects of Elysium, and it has names in common with it, e.g. it is called Mag Mell. Hence in many popular tales it is hardly differentiated from the island Elysium; oversea and under-waves are often synonymous. Hence, too, the belief that such water-worlds as I-Bresail, or Welsh fairy-lands, or sunken cities off the Breton coast, rise periodically to the surface, and would remain there permanently, like an island Elysium, if some mortal would fulfil certain conditions.1256
The Celtic belief in Tír fa Tonn is closely connected with the current belief in submerged towns or lands, found in greatest detail on the Breton coast. Here there are many such legends, but most prominent are those which tell how the town of Is was submerged because of the wickedness of its people, or of Dahut, its king's daughter, who sometimes still seeks the love of mortals. It is occasionally seen below the waves or even on their surface.1257 Elsewhere in Celtic regions similar legends are found, and the submersion is the result of a curse, of the breaking of a tabu, or of neglect to cover a sacred well.1258 Probably the tradition of actual cataclysms or inroads of the sea, such as the Celts encountered on the coasts of Holland, may account for some of these legends, which then mingled with myths of the divine water-world.
The idea that Elysium is co-extensive with this world and hidden in a mist is perhaps connected with the belief in the magical powers of the gods. As the Druids could raise a mist at will, so too might the gods, who then created a temporary Elysium in it. From such a mist, usually on a hill, supernatural beings often emerged to meet mortals, and in Märchen fairyland is sometimes found within a mist.1259 It was already believed that part of the gods' land was not far off; it was invisibly on or within the hills on whose slopes men saw the mist swirling mysteriously. Hence the mist may simply have concealed the síd of the gods. But there may also have been a belief that this world was actually interpenetrated by the divine world, for this is believed of fairyland in Welsh and Irish folk-lore. Men may unwittingly interfere with it, or have it suddenly revealed to them, or be carried into it and made invisible.1260
In most of the tales Elysium is a land without grief or death, where there is immortal youth and peace, and every kind of delight. But in some, while the sensuous delights are still the same, the inhabitants are at war, invite the aid of mortals to overcome their foes, and are even slain in fight. Still in both groups Elysium is a land of gods and supernatural folk whither mortals are invited by favour. It is never the world of the dead; its people are not mortals who have died and gone thither. The two conceptions of Elysium as a land of peace and deathlessness, and as a land where war and death may occur, may both be primitive. The latter may have been formed by reflecting back on the divine world the actions of the world of mortals, and it would also be on a parallel with the conception of the world of the dead where warriors perhaps still fought, since they were buried with their weapons. There were also myths of gods warring with each other. But men may also have felt that the gods were not as themselves, that their land must be one of peace and deathlessness. Hence the idea of the peaceful Elysium, which perhaps found most favour with the people. Mr. Nutt thought that the idea of a warlike Elysium may have resulted from Scandinavian influence acting on existing tales of a peaceful Elysium,1261 but we know that old myths of divine wars already existed. Perhaps this conception arose among the Celts as a warlike people, appealing to their warrior instincts, while the peaceful Elysium may have been the product of the Celts as an agricultural folk, for we have seen that the Celt was now a fighter, now a farmer. In its peaceful aspect Elysium is "a familiar, cultivated land," where the fruits of the earth are produced without labour, and where there are no storms or excess of heat or cold—the fancies which would appeal to a toiling, agricultural people. There food is produced magically, yet naturally, and in agricultural ritual men sought to increase their food supply magically. In the tales this process is, so to speak, heightened.1262
Some writers have maintained that Elysium is simply the land of the dead, although nothing in the existing tales justifies this interpretation. M. D'Arbois argues for this view, resting his theory mainly on a passage in the story of Connla, interpreted by him in a way which does not give its real meaning.1263 The words are spoken by the goddess to Connla, and their sense is—"The Ever-Living Ones invite thee. Thou art a champion to Tethra's people. They see thee every day in the assemblies of thy fatherland, among thy familiar loved ones."1264 M. D'Arbois assumes that Tethra, a Fomorian, is lord of Elysium, and that after his defeat by the Tuatha Déa, he, like Kronos, took refuge there, and now reigns as lord of the dead. By translating ar-dot-chiat ("they see thee," 3rd plur., pres. ind.) as "on t'y verra," he maintains that Connla, by going to Elysium, will be seen among the gatherings of his dead kinsfolk. But the words, "Thou art a champion to Tethra's people," cannot be made to mean that Tethra is a god of the dead. It means simply that Connla is a mighty warrior, one of those whom Tethra, a war-god, would have approved. The phrase, "Tethra's mighty men," used elsewhere,1265 is a conventional one for warriors. The rest of the goddess's words imply that the Immortals from afar, or perhaps "Tethra's mighty men," i.e. warriors in this world, see Connla in the assemblies of his fatherland in Erin, among his familiar friends. Dread death awaits them, she has just said, but the Immortals desire Connla to escape that by coming to Elysium. Her words do not imply that he will meet his dead ancestors there, nor is she in any sense a goddess of death. If the dead went to Elysium, there would be little need for inviting a living person to go there. Had Connla's dead ancestors or Tethra's people (warriors) been in Elysium, this would contradict the picture drawn by the goddess of the land whither she desires him to go—a land of women, not of men. Moreover, the rulers of Elysium are always members of the Tuatha Dé Danann or the síd-folk, never a Fomorian like Tethra.1266
M. D'Arbois also assumes that "Spain" in Nennius' account of the Irish invasions and in Irish texts means the land of the dead, and that it was introduced in place of some such title as Mag Mór or Mag Mell by "the euhemerising process of the Irish Christians." But in other documents penned by Irish Christians these and other pagan titles of Elysium remain unchanged. Nor is there the slightest proof that the words used by Tuan MacCaraill about the invaders of Ireland, "They all died," were rendered in an original text, now lost according to M. D'Arbois, "They set sail for Mag Mór or Mag Mell," a formula in which Nennius saw indications of a return to Spain.1267 Spain, in this hypothetical text, was the Land of the Dead or Elysium, whence the invaders came. This "lost original" exists in M. D'Arbois imagination, and there is not the slightest evidence for these alterations. Once, indeed, Tailtiu is called daughter of Magh Mór, King of Spain, but here a person, not a place, is spoken of.1268 Sir John Rh[^y]s accepts the identification of Spain with Elysium as the land of the dead, and finds in every reference to Spain a reference to the Other-world, which he regards as a region ruled by "dark divinities." But neither the lords of Elysium nor the Celtic Dispater were dark or gloomy deities, and the land of the dead was certainly not a land of darkness any more than Elysium. The numerous references to Spain probably point to old traditions regarding a connection between Spain and Ireland in early times, both commercial and social, and it is not impossible that Goidelic invaders did reach Ireland from Spain.1269 Early maps and geographers make Ireland and Spain contiguous; hence in an Irish tale Ireland is visible from Spain, and this geographical error would strengthen existing traditions.1270 "Spain" was used vaguely, but it does not appear to have meant Elysium or the Land of the Dead. If it did, it is strange that the Tuatha Dé Danann are never brought into connection with it.
One of the most marked characteristics of the Celtic Elysium is its deathlessness. It is "the land of the living" or of "the Ever-Living Ones," and of eternal youth. Most primitive races believe that death is an accident befalling men who are naturally immortal; hence freedom from such an accident naturally characterises the people of the divine land. But, as in other mythologies, that immortality is more or less dependent on the eating or drinking of some food or drink of immortality. Manannan had immortal swine, which, killed one day, came alive next day, and with their flesh he made the Tuatha Dé Danann immortal. Immortality was also conferred by the drinking of Goibniu's ale, which, either by itself or with the flesh of swine, formed his immortal feast. The food of Elysium was inexhaustible, and whoever ate it found it to possess that taste which he preferred. The fruit of certain trees in Elysium was also believed to confer immortality and other qualities. Laeg saw one hundred and fifty trees growing in Mag Mell; their nuts fed three hundred people. The apple given by the goddess to Connla was inexhaustible, and he was still eating it with her when Teigue, son of Cian, visited Elysium. "When once they had partaken of it, nor age nor dimness could affect them."1271 Apples, crimson nuts, and rowan berries are specifically said to be the food of the gods in the tale of Diarmaid and Grainne. Through carelessness one of the berries was dropped on earth, and from it grew a tree, the berries of which had the effect of wine or mead, and three of them eaten by a man of a hundred years made him youthful. It was guarded by a giant.1272 A similar tree growing on earth—a rowan guarded by a dragon, is found in the tale of Fraoch, who was bidden to bring a branch of it to Ailill. Its berries had the virtue of nine meals; they healed the wounded, and added a year to a man's life.1273 At the wells which were the source of Irish rivers were supposed to grow hazel-trees with crimson nuts, which fell into the water and were eaten by salmon.1274 If these were caught and eaten, the eater obtained wisdom and knowledge. These wells were in Erin, but in some instances the well with its hazels and salmon is in the Other-world,1275 and it is obvious that the crimson nuts are the same as the food of the gods in Diarmaid and Grainne.
Why should immortality be dependent on the eating of certain foods? Most of man's irrational ideas have some reason in them, and probably man's knowledge that without food life would come to an end, joined to his idea of deathlessness, led him to believe that there was a certain food which produced immortality just as ordinary food supported life. On it gods and deathless beings were fed. Similarly, as water cleansed and invigorated, it was thought that some special kind of water had these powers in a marvellous degree. Hence arose the tales of the Fountain of Youth and the belief in healing wells. From the knowledge of the nourishing power of food, sprang the idea that some food conferred the qualities inherent in it, e.g. the flesh of divine animals eaten sacramentally, and that gods obtained their immortality from eating or drinking. This idea is widespread. The Babylonian gods had food and water of Life; Egyptian myth spoke of the bread and beer of eternity which nourished the gods; the Hindus and Iranians knew of the divine soma or haoma; and in Scandinavian myth the gods renewed their youth by tasting Iduna's golden apples.
In Celtic Elysium tales, the fruit of a tree is most usually the food of immortality. The fruit never diminishes and always satisfies, and it is the food of the gods. When eaten by mortals it confers immortality upon them; in other words, it makes them of like nature to the gods, and this is doubtless derived from the widespread idea that the eating of food given by a stranger makes a man of one kin with him. Hence to eat the food of gods, fairies, or of the dead, binds the mortal to them and he cannot leave their land. This might be illustrated from a wide range of myth and folk-belief. When Connla ate the apple he at once desired to go to Elysium, and he could not leave it once he was there; he had become akin to its people. In the stories of Bran and Oisin, they are not said to have eaten such fruit, but the primitive form of the tales may have contained this incident, and this would explain why they could not set foot on earth unscathed, and why Bran and his followers, or, in the tale of Fiachna, Loegaire and his men who had drunk the ale of Elysium, returned thither. In other tales, it is true, those who eat food in Elysium can return to earth—Cormac and Cúchulainn; but had we the primitive form of these tales we should probably find that they had refrained from eating. The incident of the fruit given by an immortal to a mortal may have borrowed something from the wide folk-custom of the presentation of an apple as a gage of love or as a part of the marriage rite.1276 Its acceptance denotes willingness to enter upon betrothal or marriage. But as in the Roman rite of confarreatio with its savage parallels, the underlying idea is probably that which has just been considered, namely, that the giving and acceptance of food produces the bond of kinship.
As various nuts and fruits were prized in Ireland as food, and were perhaps used in some cases to produce an intoxicant,1277 it is evident that the trees of Elysium were, primarily, a magnified form of earthly trees. But all such trees were doubtless objects of a cult before their produce was generally eaten; they were first sacred or totem-trees, and their food eaten only occasionally and sacramentally. If so, this would explain why they grew in Elysium and their fruit was the food of the gods. For whatever man eats or drinks is generally supposed to have been first eaten and drunk by the gods, like the soma. But, growing in Elysium, these trees, like the trees of most myths of Elysium, are far more marvellous than any known on earth. They have branches of silver and golden apples; they have magical supplies of fruit, they produce wonderful music which sometimes causes sleep or oblivion; and birds perch in their branches and warble melody "such that the sick would sleep to it." It should be noted also that, as Miss Hull points out, in some tales the branch of a divine tree becomes a talisman leading the mortal to Elysium; in this resembling the golden bough plucked by Æneas before visiting the underworld.1278 This, however, is not the fundamental characteristic of the tree, in Irish story. Possibly, as Mr. A.B. Cook maintains, the branch giving entrance to Elysium is derived from the branch borne by early Celtic kings of the wood, while the tree is an imaginative form of those which incarnated a vegetation spirit.1279 Be this as it may, it is rather the fruit eaten by the mortal which binds him to the Immortal Land.
The inhabitants of Elysium are not only immortal, but also invisible at will. They make themselves visible to one person only out of many present with him. Connla alone sees the goddess, invisible to his father and the Druid. Mananuan is visible to Bran, but there are many near the hero whom he does not see; and when the same god comes to Fand, he is invisible to Cúchulainn and those with him. So Mider says to Etain, "We behold, and are not beheld."1280 Occasionally, too, the people of Elysium have the power of shape-shifting—Fand and Liban appear to Cúchulainn as birds.
The hazel of knowledge connects wisdom with the gods' world, and in Celtic belief generally civilisation and culture were supposed to have come from the gods. The things of their land were coveted by men, and often stolen thence by them. In Welsh and Irish tales, often with reference to the Other-world, a magical cauldron has a prominent place. Dagda possessed such a cauldron and it was inexhaustible, and a vat of inexhaustible mead is described in the story of Cúchulain's Sickness. Whatever was put into such cauldrons satisfied all, no matter how numerous they might be.1281 Cúchulainn obtained one from the daughter of the king of Scath, and also carried off the king's three cows.1282 In an analogous story, he stole from Cúroi, by the connivance of his wife Bláthnat, her father Mider's cauldron, three cows, and the woman herself. But in another version Cúchulainn and Cúroi go to Mider's stronghold in the Isle of Falga (Elysium), and steal cauldron, cows, and Bláthnat. These were taken from Cúchulainn by Cúroi; hence his revenge as in the previous tale.1283 Thus the theft was from Elysium. In the Welsh poem "The Spoils of Annwfn," Arthur stole a cauldron from Annwfn. Its rim was encrusted with pearls, voices issued from it, it was kept boiling by the breath of nine maidens, and it would not boil a coward's food.1284
As has been seen from the story of Gwion, he was set to watch a cauldron which must boil until it yielded "three drops of the grace of inspiration." It belonged to Tegid Voel and Cerridwen, divine rulers of a Land under the Waters.1285 In the Mabinogi of Branwen, her brother Bran received a cauldron from two beings, a man and a huge woman, who came from a lake. This cauldron was given by him to the king of Erin, and it had the property of restoring to life the slain who were placed in it.1286
The three properties of the cauldron—inexhaustibility, inspiration, and regeneration—may be summed up in one word, fertility; and it is significant that the god with whom such a cauldron was associated, Dagda, was a god of fertility. But we have just seen it associated, directly or indirectly, with goddesses—Cerridwen, Branwen, the woman from the lake—and perhaps this may point to an earlier cult of goddesses of fertility, later transferred to gods. In this light the cauldron's power of restoring to life is significant, since in early belief life is associated with what is feminine. Woman as the fruitful mother suggested that the Earth, which produced and nourished, was also female. Hence arose the cult of the Earth-mother who was often also a goddess of love as well as of fertility. Cerridwen, in all probability, was a goddess of fertility, and Branwen a goddess of love.1287 The cult of fertility was usually associated with orgiastic and indiscriminate love-making, and it is not impossible that the cauldron, like the Hindu yoni, was a symbol of fertility.1288 Again, the slaughter and cooking of animals was usually regarded as a sacred act in primitive life. The animals were cooked in enormous cauldrons, which were found as an invariable part of the furniture of every Celtic house.1289 The quantities of meat which they contained may have suggested inexhaustibility to people to whom the cauldron was already a symbol of fertility. Thus the symbolic cauldron of a fertility cult was merged with the cauldron used in the religious slaughter and cooking of animal food. The cauldron was also used in ritual. The Cimri slaughtered human victims over a cauldron and filled it with their blood; victims sacrificed to Teutates were suffocated in a vat (semicupium); and in Ireland "a cauldron of truth" was used in the ordeal of boiling water.1290 Like the food of men which was regarded as the food of the gods, the cauldron of this world became the marvellous cauldron of the Other-world, and as it then became necessary to explain the origin of such cauldrons on earth, myths arose, telling how they had been stolen from the divine land by adventurous heroes, Cúchulainn, Arthur, etc. In other instances, the cauldron is replaced by a magic vessel or cup stolen from supernatural beings by heroes of the Fionn saga or of Märchen.1291 Here, too, it may be noted that the Graal of Arthurian romance has affinities with the Celtic cauldron. In the Conte du Graal of pseudo-Chrétien, a cup comes in of itself and serves all present with food. This is a simple conception of the Graal, but in other poems its magical and sacrosanct character is heightened. It supplies the food which the eater prefers, it gives immortal youth and immunity from wounds. In these respects it presents an unmistakable likeness to the cauldron of Celtic myth. But, again, it was the vessel in which Christ had instituted the Blessed Sacrament; it contained His Blood; and it had been given by our Lord to Joseph of Arimathea. Thus in the Graal there was a fusion of the magic cauldron of Celtic paganism and the Sacred Chalice of Christianity, with the product made mystic and glorious in a most wonderful manner. The story of the Graal became immensely popular, and, deepening in ethical, mystical, and romantic import as time went on, was taken up by one poet after another, who "used it as a type of the loftiest goal of man's effort."1292
In other ways myth told how the gifts of civilisation came from the gods' world. When man came to domesticate animals, it was believed in course of time that the knowledge of domestication or, more usually, the animals themselves had come from the gods, only, in this case, the animals were of a magical, supernatural kind. Such a belief underlies the stories in which Cúchulainn steals cows from their divine owners. In other instances, heroes who obtain a wife from the síd-folk, obtain also cattle from the síd.1293 As has been seen the swine given to Pryderi by Arawn, king of Annwfn, and hitherto unknown to man, are stolen from him by Gwydion, Pryderi being son of Pwyll, a temporary king of Annwfn, and in all probability both were lords of Elysium. The theft, in the original form of the myth, must thus have been from Elysium, though we have a hint in "The Spoils of Annwfn" that Gwydion (Gweir) was unsuccessful and was imprisoned in Annwfn, to which imprisonment the later blending of Annwfn with hell gave a doleful aspect.1294 In a late Welsh MS., a white roebuck and a puppy (or, in the Triads, a bitch, a roebuck, and a lapwing) were stolen by Amæthon from Annwfn, and the story presents archaic features.1295 In some of these tales the animals are transferred to earth by a divine or semi-divine being, in whom we may see an early Celtic culture-hero. The tales are attenuated forms of older myths which showed how all domestic animals were at first the property of the gods, and an echo of these is still heard in Märchen describing the theft of cattle from fairyland. In the most primitive form of the tales the theft was doubtless from the underworld of gods of fertility, the place whither the dead went. But with the rise of myths telling of a distant Elysium, it was inevitable that some tales should connect the animals and the theft with that far-off land. So far as the Irish and Welsh tales are concerned, the thefts seem mainly to be from Elysium.1296
Love-making has a large place in the Elysium tales. Goddesses seek the love of mortals, and the mortal desires to visit Elysium because of their enticements. But the love-making of Elysium is "without sin, without crime," and this phrase may perhaps suggest the existence of ritual sex-unions at stated times for magical influence upon the fertility of the earth, these unions not being regarded as immoral, even when they trespassed on customary tribal law. In some of the stories Elysium is composed of many islands, one of which is the "island of women."1297 These women and their queen give their favours to Bran and his men or to Maelduin and his company. Similar "islands of women" occur in Märchen, still current among Celtic peoples, and actual islands were or still are called by that name—Eigg and Groagez off the Breton coast.1298 Similar islands of women are known to Chinese, Japanese, and Ainu folk-lore, to Greek mythology (Circe's and Calypso's islands), and to ancient Egyptian conceptions of the future life.1299 They were also known elsewhere,1300 and we may therefore assume that in describing such an island as part of Elysium, the Celts were using something common to universal folk-belief. But it may also owe something to actual custom, to the memory of a time when women performed their rites in seclusion, a seclusion perhaps recalled in the references to the mysterious nature of the island, its inaccessibility, and its disappearance once the mortal leaves it. To these rites men may have been admitted by favour, but perhaps to their detriment, because of their temporary partner's extreme erotic madness. This is the case in the Chinese tales of the island of women, and this, rather than home-sickness, may explain the desire of Bran, Oisin, etc., to leave Elysium. Celtic women performed orgiastic rites on islands, as has been seen.1301 All this may have originated the belief in an island of beautiful divine women as part of Elysium, while it also heightened its sensuous aspect.
Borrowed from the delight which the Celt took in music is the recurring reference to the marvellous music which swelled in Elysium. There, as the goddess says to Bran, "there is nothing rough or harsh, but sweet music striking on the ear." It sounded from birds on every tree, from the branches of trees, from marvellous stones, and from the harps of divine musicians. And this is recalled in the ravishing music which the belated traveller hears as he passes fairy-haunted spots—"what pipes and timbrels, what wild ecstasy!" The romantic beauty of Elysium is described in these Celtic tales in a way unequalled in all other sagas or Märchen, and it is insisted on by those who come to lure mortals there. The beauty of its landscapes—hills, white cliffs, valleys, sea and shore, lakes and rivers,—of its trees, its inhabitants, and its birds,—the charm of its summer haze, is obviously the product of the imagination of a people keenly alive to natural beauty. The opening lines sung by the goddess to Bran strike a note which sounds through all Celtic literature:
"There is a distant isle, around which sea-horses glisten,
A beauty of a wondrous land, whose aspects are lovely,
Whose view is a fair country, incomparable in its haze.
It is a day of lasting weather, that showers silver on the land;
A pure white cliff on the range of the sea,
Which from the sun receives its heat."
So Oisin describes it: "I saw a country all green and full of flowers, with beautiful smooth plains, blue hills, and lakes and waterfalls." All this and more than this is the reflection of nature as it is found in Celtic regions, and as it was seen by the eye of Celtic dreamers, and interpreted to a poetic race by them.
In Irish accounts of the síd, Dagda has the supremacy, wrested later from him by Oengus, but generally each owner of a síd is its lord. In Welsh tradition Arawn is lord of Annwfn, but his claims are contested by a rival, and other lords of Elysium are known. Manannan, a god of the sea, appears to be lord of the Irish island Elysium which is called "the land of Manannan," perhaps because it was easy to associate an oversea world "around which sea-horses glisten" with a god whose mythic steeds were the waves. But as it lay towards the sunset, and as some of its aspects may have been suggested by the glories of the setting sun, the sun-god Lug was also associated with it, though he hardly takes the place of Manannan.
Most of the aspects of Elysium appear unchanged in later folk-belief, but it has now become fairyland—a place within hills, mounds, or síd, of marvellous beauty, with magic properties, and where time lapses as in a dream. A wonderful oversea land is also found in Märchen and tradition, and Tír na n-Og is still a living reality to the Celt. There is the fountain of youth, healing balsams, life-giving fruits, beautiful women or fairy folk. It is the true land of heart's desire. In the eleventh century MSS. from which our knowledge of Elysium is mainly drawn, but which imply a remote antiquity for the materials and ideas of the tales, the síd-world is still the world of divine beings, though these are beginning to assume the traits of fairies. Probably among the people themselves the change had already begun to be made, and the land of the gods was simply fairyland. In Wales the same change had taken place, as is seen by Giraldus' account of Elidurus enticed to a subterranean fairyland by two small people.1302
Some of the Elysium tales have been influenced by Christian conceptions, and in a certain group, the Imrama or "Voyages," Elysium finally becomes the Christian paradise or heaven. But the Elysium conception also reacted on Christian ideas of paradise. In the Voyage of Maelduin, which bears some resemblance to the story of Bran, the Christian influence is still indefinite, but it is more marked in the Voyage of Snedgus and MacRiagla. One island has become a kind of intermediate state, where dwell Enoch and Elijah, and many others waiting for the day of judgment. Another island resembles the Christian heaven. But in the Voyage of Brandan the pagan elements have practically disappeared; there is an island of hell and an island of paradise.1303 The island conception is the last relic of paganism, but now the voyage is undertaken for the purpose of revenge or penance or pilgrimage. Another series of tales of visionary journeys to hell or heaven are purely Christian, yet the joys of heaven have a sensuous aspect which recalls those of the pagan Elysium. In one of these, The Tidings of Doomsday,1304 there are two hells, and besides heaven there is a place for the boni non valde, resembling the island of Enoch and Elijah in the Voyage of Snedgus. The connection of Elysium with the Christian paradise is seen in the title Tir Tairngiri, "The Land of Promise," which is applied to the heavenly kingdom or the land flowing with milk and honey in early glosses, e.g. on Heb. iv. 4, vi. 15, where Canaan and the regnum c[oe]lorum are called Tír Tairngiri, and in a gloss to 1 Cor. x. 4, where the heavenly land is called Tír Tairngiri Innambéo, "The Land of Promise of the Living Ones," thus likening it to the "Land of the Living" in the story of Connla.
Sensuous as many of the aspects of Elysium are, they have yet a spiritual aspect which must not be overlooked. The emphasis placed on its beauty, its music, its rest and peace, its oblivion, is spiritual rather than sensual, while the dwelling of favoured mortals there with divine beings is suggestive of that union with the divine which is the essence of all religion. Though men are lured to seek it, they do not leave it, or they go back to it after a brief absence, and Laeg says that he would prefer Elysium to the kingship of all Ireland, and his words are echoed by others. And the lure of the goddess often emphasises the freedom from turmoil, grief, and the rude alarms of earthly life. This "sweet and blessed country" is described with all the passion of a poetical race who dreamed of perfect happiness, and saw in the joy of nature's beauty, the love of women, and the thought of unbroken peace and harmony, no small part of man's truest life. Favoured mortals had reached Elysium, and the hope that he, too, might be so favoured buoyed up the Celt as he dreamed over this state, which was so much more blissful even than the future state of the dead. Many races have imagined a happy Other-world, but no other race has so filled it with magic beauty, or so persistently recurred to it as the Celts. They stood on the cliffs which faced the west, and as the pageant of sunset passed before them, or as at midday the light shimmered on the far horizon and on shadowy islands, they gazed with wistful eyes as if to catch a glimpse of Elysium beyond the fountains of the deep and the halls of the setting sun. In all this we see the Celtic version of a primitive and instinctive human belief. Man refuses to think that the misery and disappointment and strife and pain of life must always be his. He hopes and believes that there is reserved for him, somewhere and at some time, eternal happiness and eternal love.
Nutt-Meyer, i. 213.
Joyce, OCR 431.
D'Arbois, ii. 311; IT i. 113 f.; O'Curry, MC iii. 190.
Nutt-Meyer, i. 1 f., text and translation.
LU 120a; Windisch, Irische Gramm. 120 f.; D'Arbois, v. 384 f.; Gaelic Journal, ii. 307.
TOS iv. 234. See also Joyce, OCR 385; Kennedy, 240.
LU 43 f.; IT i. 205 f.; O'Curry, Atlantis, ii., iii.; D'Arbois, v. 170; Leahy, i. 60 f.
"From Manannan came foes."
Joyce, OCR 223 f.
O'Grady, ii. 290. In this story the sea is identified with Fiachna's wife.
Joyce, OCR 253 f.
IT iii. 211 f.; D'Arbois, ii. 185.
O'Curry, MS. Mat. 388.
A similar idea occurs in many Fian tales.
Evans, Welsh Dict. s.v. "Annwfn"; Anwyl, 60; Gaidoz, ZCP i. 29 f.
Loth, i. 27 f.; see p. 111, supra.
Pp. 106, 112, supra.
Guest, iii. 75; Loth, i. 29 f.
Skene, i. 264, 276. Cf. the Ille tournoiont of the Graal romances and the revolving houses of Märchen. A revolving rampart occurs in "Maelduin" (RC x. 81).
Skene, i. 285.
Pp. 103, 116, supra.
Chretien, Eric, 1933 f.; Geoffrey, Vita Merlini, 41; San Marte, Geoffrey, 425. Another Irish Liban is called Muirgen, which is the same as Morgen. See Girald. Cambr. Spec. Eccl. Rolls Series, iv. 48.
William of Malmesbury, de Ant. Glaston. Eccl.
San Marte, 425.
Op. cit. iv. 49.
Joyce, OCR 434; Rh[^y]s, CFL i. 170; Hardiman, Irish Minst. i. 367; Sébillot, ii. 56 f.; Girald. Cambr. ii. 12. The underworld is sometimes reached through a well (cf. p. 282, supra; TI iii. 209).
Le Braz2, i. p. xxxix, ii. 37 f.; Albert le Grand, Vies de Saints de Bretagne, 63.
A whole class of such Irish legends is called Tomhadna, "Inundations." A typical instance is that of the town below Lough Neagh, already referred to by Giraldus Cambrensis, Top. Hib. ii. 9; cf. a Welsh instance in Itin. Cambr. i. 2. See Rh[^y]s, CFL, passim; Kennedy, 282; Rev. des Trad. Pop. ix. 79.
Scott. Celt. Rev. i. 70; Campbell, WHT Nos. 38, 52; Loth, i. 38.
Curtin, Tales, 158; Rh[^y]s, CFL i. 230.
Nutt-Meyer, i. 159.
In the Vedas, Elysium has also a strong agricultural aspect, probably for the same reasons.
D'Arbois, ii. 119, 192, 385, vi. 197, 219; RC xxvi. 173; Les Druides, 121.
For the text see Windisch, Ir. Gram. 120: "Totchurethar bii bithbi at gérait do dáinib Tethrach. ar-dot-chiat each dia i n-dálaib tathardai eter dugnathu inmaini." Dr. Stokes and Sir John Rh[^y]s have both privately confirmed the interpretation given above.
"Dialogue of the Sages," RC xxvi. 33 f.
Tethra was husband of the war-goddess Badb, and in one text his name is glossed badb (Cormac, s.v. "Tethra"). The name is also glossed muir, "sea," by O'Cleary, and the sea is called "the plain of Tethra" (Arch. Rev. i. 152). These obscure notices do not necessarily denote that he was ruler of an oversea Elysium.
Nennius, Hist. Brit. § 13; D'Arbois, ii. 86, 134, 231.
LL 8b; Keating, 126.
Both art motifs and early burial customs in the two countries are similar. See Reinach, RC xxi. 88; L'Anthropologie, 1889, 397; Siret, Les Premiere Ages du Metal dans le Sud. Est. de l'Espagne.
Orosius, i. 2. 71; LL 11b.
D'Arbois, v. 384; O'Grady, ii. 385.
TOS iii. 119; Joyce, OCR 314. For a folk-tale version see Folk-lore, vii. 321.
Leahy, i. 36; Campbell, LF 29; CM xiii. 285; Dean of Lismore's Book, 54.
O'Curry, MC ii. 143; Cormac, 35.
See p. 187, supra; IT iii. 213.
See Gaidoz, "La Requisition de l'Amour et la Symbolisme de la Pomme," Ann. de l'École Pratique des Hautes Études, 1902; Fraser, Pausanias, iii. 67.
Rh[^y]s, HL 359.
"The Silver Bough in Irish Legend," Folk-Lore, xii. 431.
Cook, Folk-Lore, xvii. 158.
IT i. 133.
O'Donovan, Battle of Mag Rath, 50; D'Arbois, v. 67; IT i. 96. Dagda's cauldron came from Murias, probably an oversea world.
Miss Hull, 244. Scath is here the Other-world, conceived, however, as a dismal abode.
O'Curry, MC ii. 97, iii. 79; Keating, 284 f.; RC xv. 449.
Skene, i. 264; cf. RC xxii. 14.
P. 116, supra.
Guest, iii. 321 f.
See pp. 103, 117, supra.
For the use of a vessel in ritual as a symbol of deity, see Crooke, Folk-Lore, viii. 351 f.
Diod. Sic. v. 28; Athen. iv. 34; Joyce, SH ii. 124; Antient Laws of Ireland, iv. 327. The cauldrons of Irish houses are said in the texts to be inexhaustible (cf. RC xxiii. 397).
Strabo, vii. 2. 1; Lucan, Usener's ed., p. 32; IT iii. 210; Antient Laws of Ireland, i. 195 f.
Curtin, HTI 249, 262.
See Villemarqué, Contes Pop. des anciens Bretons, Paris, 1842; Rh[^y]s, AL; and especially Nutt, Legend of the Holy Grail, 1888.
"Adventures of Nera," RC x. 226; RC xvi. 62, 64.
P. 106, supra.
P. 107, supra.
For parallel myths see Rig-Veda, i. 53. 2; Campbell, Travels in South Africa, i. 306; Johnston, Uganda Protectorate, ii. 704; Ling Roth, Natives of Sarawak, i. 307; and cf. the myth of Prometheus.
This is found in the stories of Bran, Maelduin, Connla, in Fian tales (O'Grady, ii. 228, 238), in the "Children of Tuirenn," and in Gaelic Märchen.
Martin, 277; Sébillot, ii. 76.
Burton, Thousand Nights and a Night, x. 239; Chamberlain, Aino Folk-Tales, 38; L'Anthropologie, v. 507; Maspero, Hist. anc. des peuples de l'Orient, i. 183. The lust of the women of these islands is fatal to their lovers.
An island near New Guinea is called "the land of women." On it men are allowed to land temporarily, but only the female offspring of the women are allowed to survive (L' Anthrop. v. 507). The Indians of Florida had a tradition of an island in a lake inhabited by the fairest women (Chateaubriand, Autob. 1824, ii. 24), and Fijian mythology knows of an Elysian island of goddesses, near the land of the gods, to which a few favoured mortals are admitted (Williams, Fiji, i. 114).
P. 274, supra. Islands may have been regarded as sacred because of such cults, as the folk-lore reported by Plutarch suggests (p. 343, supra). Celtic saints retained the veneration for islands, and loved to dwell on them, and the idea survives in folk-belief. Cf. the veneration of Lewismen for the Flannan islands.
Gir. Camb. Itin. Camb. i. 8.
Translations of some of these Voyages by Stokes are given in RC, vols. ix. x. and xiv. See also Zimmer, "Brendan's Meerfahrt," Zeits. für Deut. Alt. xxxiii.; cf. Nutt-Meyer, ch. 4, 8.