The Land of the Dead and the Otherworld

Epona on the paths of the dead.
Funeral stele from ancient Gaul

Akhilleus: “I’d rather slave on earth for another man -
Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive -
Than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
Odyssey Book IX

The hero of the Iliad drained of his life blood,
So a Greek view of the Land of the Dead,
The shades no more than that - shadows
Of their living selves, dwellers neither in
Paradise nor any place of horrific torture
Beyond the emptiness of their deaths.
Odysseus feeds them blood to bring them 
Into his living world, but soon again they fade.

Some Greeks thought the druids of the Keltoi
Had no Land of the Dead, believing instead
In reincarnation, reviving from death as
One or more others, a creaturely exchange
Of life for life, or lives - anything that dies
Becoming again and again in one world.


[the Gauls] “do not fear death  ….. 
the human spirit is immortal and will enter a new body”  
Diodorus Siculus 

For the Greeks numphai live in forests, groves, 
Rivers, streams and springs of our world. 
For Brythons there is the Otherworld - Annwfn
From which otherness comes to us,
And returns.

The Otherworld’s a world within world,
Without world, a not-world (that negative
Does not deny but asserts a presence) 
But animate life is eternal in Thisworld, 
Before and after.

What then of our many dead,
 Passing on roads of transformation, re-configuration?
Here a present life continues to know itself absolutely, 
Uniquely, not recognising past or future selves
Though they share a time that is Forever
With a sense of an also world that is Other.


It is not possible to be absolute about what was believed in a particular place and time, let alone in the wider arcs of space and time encompassed by ‘the Greeks’, ‘the Celts’ etc. Certainly, centuries after Homer, and far longer still after the origins of the stories from which he distilled his poem, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras advanced the theory of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls to new physical bodies. Even the Odyssey, with its vivid portrayal of the Greek Land of the Dead in Book IX, also tells us in Book XXIV, where this land is revisited, that Hermes, leading the ghosts of the dead with his golden wand, “charms the eyes of men or wakens those he will”. But the main thrust of the historic heritage of such belief sees the Greek Land of the Dead as a place of gloom which transmutes and becomes overlain over time into later views and of the nature of Hell in the Middle Ages. The Celtic Otherworld, by comparison, though sometimes viewed as an Underworld, seems to originate in a quite different sense of a parallel realm to that of everyday between which exchanges are possible and, indeed, often occur.

Ynys Manaw

Mist over Man gathering - Ellan Vallin
Island of Manannan
Grey cloud and grey rock merging
His spell the isle protecting.

In Two Fields

The gap between Parc y Blawd and Weun Parc y Blawd,
the 'two fields' of Waldo Williams' poem

There is a line in the poem 'Mewn Dau Gau' (In Two Fields) by Waldo Williams which is as follows:

Awen yn codi o'r cudd, yn cydio'r cwbl

This can be literally translated as 'Awen rising from hiding, linking everything together'. The fact that this sounds rather awkward in English, lacking the compactness of expression of the Welsh as well as the links of emphasis provided by the cynghanedd, might explain the fact that neither of the available translations into English attempt a literal translation of the line. In particular neither translate 'awen' to its usual literal meaning of 'muse' or 'poetic inspiration'.
Tony Conran's translation blends the line with the previous one as
' ... goodwill widened / And rose out of hiding, to make us all one'

Rowan William's translation seeks to unpack the compactness of the Welsh rather than translate it literally:
' ..... there is a new voice / rising and spilling from its hiding place .....' 
Rowan Williams has also provided a commentary on his translation in which he explains his strategy. On this line he says "The Awen that rises out of hiding ... needs a bit of a gloss, as 'muse' in English would have an unhelpfully precious and archaising feel. It will have to be 'a new voice/ ... call it the poet's', hoping that there is enough to make it clear that this is not just a matter of some one poet's imagination at work. I don't think this is properly captured in my version, I have to say."
So how should we read 'awen' here? Clearly it is being used in a special way and one which eludes both translators.  In both cases, of course, they have some part of the meaning. The poet certainly does mean to say it arises from poetic inspiration and 'goodwill' certainly plays a part in the overall sense of oneness which envelops those working in the fields in this poem. But if it both contains them and is contained in their sense of community, it also arises from something or someone outside of them: the "sea of light" rolling over the dark land at the beginning of the poem, the one who "hides amidst the words" the "bringer of quietness", the "silent hunter who casts a net around us". 'Awen' is a spiritual force that arises from all this to bring everyone, and everything, together as well as an inspiration for the poet who discovers it in the words in which it is hiding.
‘Awen’ is a word that is deeply ingrained in Welsh cultural awareness and response to landscape as well as carrying the literal sense of poetic inspiration and as a word for the Muse. I think too of the words of the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan who speaks of awen as having inhabited a young shepherd in the form of a hunter figure dressed in green and carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows. I’m not sure that Waldo Williams would have known this reference from Vaughan’s correspondence with his cousin, the antiquary John Aubrey who had written to him asking about remnants of the ancient bards in Wales. He would certainly have known Vaughan’s poetry but the ‘hunter’ figure here and the “silent hunter” of Waldo Williams’ poem, though they come from different cultural sources, and are presented in very different contextual frameworks, both emanate from a landscape in which spirit infuses animate matter.
Awen, then, arises both from without and from within. Words are shaped from the silence of not-world into the world. For Waldo Williams the world was a community in which 'adnabod' ('recognition' - a key word in his poetry) was part of the experience of living alongside others in a recognised place. So those working in the fields shared the experience of being one and it is awen that makes sense of it all, bringing it all together, in the poet's words and also in the felt presence, in the gap between those two fields, into which comes "the outlaw, the hunter, the exiled king" parting the rushes to reclaim his domain.

  Rowan Williams' translation of the poem, together with other information about Waldo Williams, can be found 

and also, together with his commentary in Cof ac Arwydd ed. Damian and Jason Walford Davies (Barddas, 2006)
Tony Conran's translation can be found in his parallel text edition of Waldo Williams' poetry The Peacemakers (Gomer, 1997)

Henry Vaughan's description of the inspired shepherd can be found HERE

Walking Eleri

Away from the estuary, the long, straight stretch of water channelled along the edge of the bog, draining it into the sea.

Away from this along a winding stream rippling over a stony bed, rushing towards its salty end. 

Back from this through the tunnel of trees, or so it seems in summer when the leaves hang heavy over the water.

But now - in spring - the winding river meandering this way and that between wooded banks is lighter, airier, less mysterious. Leaves are unfurling but not yet luxuriant.

Even so its enchantments are a joy to the heart: anenomes in hollows along the edge, sunlight falling on glittering rapids or glazing deep pools in slow-moving channels with yellow-green light.

Walking upstream into this place is like walking into a dream, a vision of the blessed realm, but here tangible, in space and time, the world we know, enclosing and enduring.

Step by step I pace the river; the river runs on. But the path falters, losing itself in a sea of aromatic wood garlic leaves. I have to leave the river, climb a steep bank away from the flow into a field.

Bereft of the river now. The field is empty but the river rushes on beneath the trees, a hidden mystery.

I cross the field to a lane. Then walk on another way to find her again flowing beneath an old stone bridge. I pause as I cross but cannot recover the sense of travelling to a hidden country. The road home is hard and I tread it heavily. 


The crescent waxing moon in the west the other night was tinged with red. It was some time after sunset so I didn't expect reflected light from that. Mars was also visible not far off and my star-gazing was done in a magical atmosphere as the sky seemed suffused with a misty light that did not prevent the stars from being seen but put them into soft focus. Orion, which I have marked in the sky through the winter, has now sunk below the horizon, though my star map tells me Betelgeuse should still be visible low on the horizon. Although the Plough will continue to be prominent, pointing to the the North Star, the shorter, lighter nights to come will cause most of the stars to fade into the background even where they are still visible.

Among the things to do in the garden as the weather improves, I have removed the panels from the front of our garage which allow the swallows, when they arrive, to access their usual nesting place in the garage roof space. Unlike the martens who build their nests in the eaves of the main house, swallows like an enclosed space, so we always make sure they can get in by removing the panels which we put back when they have left before the winter.

The cowslips have put on a good show in the wild garden this year and as apple blossom begins to show on the tree Spring seems to be advancing fast in clear bright weather though it remains cold at night. The flowers of Yellow Archangel are also magnificent. Some years there a very few or none at all although the variegated green-white leaves always put on a good show. But every few years, as now, the yellow flowers blossom in profusion. Along with the celandines they turn the garden into a blaze of yellow against the green. Now there are bluebells too and soon they will add their own contribution to the palette.

Trioedd Bae Ceredigion

The Three Deluged Giants of Cardigan Bay

Nodon, who had a well on the great plain of Maes Maichgen, now under the sea.
He would drink from it and bathe in it and guarded it jealously.
So Merid, the well maiden, kept it covered and opened for none but he.

Gwyddno Garanhir of Cantre’r Gwaelod whose long legs bestrode the waters like a crane.
He had a well kept by Mererid on his land which spread at the foot of the mountains in a great plain.
Seithennin betrayed him and Mererid fled so he will not look over this land ever again.

Bendigeidfran who crossed the rivers of Lli and Archen to reach Iwerddon beyond them.
He was a bridge for his people who came to recover the Cauldron and rescue Branwen.
His head led a remnant of his people over the sea to Gwales when the Cauldron was broken.

The Three Violated Maidens of Cardigan Bay

Merid who kept the well of Nodon on the plain of Maichghen far to the West.
She was left bereft by a drunkard who broke the well-head to his cost.
The waters rose behind him and overtook him and the plain now is lost.

Mererid who kept the well of Gwyddno Garanhir and the cup of plenty.
Seithennin would drink from her cup so he drained it until it was empty.
Mererid on a bay mare fled as the flood waters rose and rushed over the land to the sea.

Branwen went with the Cauldron – or it went with her – over the sea to wed.
Her tears for Gwern and the many slain swelled as the blood of conflict was shed.

A sea of sorrow brought her death from a broken heart and the grave is now her bed. 


These triads of my own making reflect a reading of local folklore pertaining to Cardigan Bay which I discuss on The Guardian of the Well HERE ~>