The Land of the Dead and the Otherworld


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

1 comment:

  1. Intriguing thoughts on the similarities and differences between the Greek and Celtic Otherworlds. To me the Celtic transmigration of souls and their return to the Otherworld don't seem to be incompatible but might be explained by the soul returning the Otherworld and sojourning there before reincarnating like in the Greek view. The main differences seem to be that the Greek Otherworld is gloomier and perhaps, as you mention, seems more distant and the exchanges between mortals/immortals aren't as easy and everyday as those in the Celtic myths and lore. The rules about what the living and dead can do seem more absolute.

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