By Alan Senior
Originally printed in the January-February 2004 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Senior, Alan. "Echoes from the Celtic Otherworld." Quest 92.1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2004):14-18.
O world invisible, we view thee,O world intangible, we touch thee,O world unknowable, we know thee,Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Those words by Francis Thompson set the scene for our exploration of literature and music and theworld of the faery. This world is often called the Celtic Otherworld because, for the ancient Celts, the only adventures worth recording were those occurring in "another dimension", and the only journeys of real significance were journeys between this world and the world beyond.
But they may well have objected to the term Otherworld, which was conceived by modern-day Western minds, implying that the spirit-world is somewhere "out there." The Celts perceived the Otherworld as dynamically interacting with our world, often with music acting as a bridge between the two. Some believed the Otherworld was located in islands far out to the west where the sun sets, called Tir Nan Og (Land of the Ever Young), unconstrained by time and space, which govern our existence. Whoever visited it became more than mortal, returning after a period of days or weeks to find that no time had elapsed at all.
Literature about Faeries
In 1691 the Reverend Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle wrote The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, andFairies, reprinted by Observer Press, Stirling in 1933. In it he attempted to define the elusiveness of faery essence and the nature and organization of those beings, during a time when few in Scotland denied their reality. He wrote that faeries are intelligent and curious; have light, fluid bodies; can appear or vanish at will; and have the ability to drastically alter their appearance and control their own size. Faeries once had their own society and agriculture but are unable to stay in one place and travel constantly. They are, he maintained, physically immaterial, are divided into tribes, and have children, marriages, and burials. They live in houses normally invisible to human eyes, often speak with a whistling sound, and may be commanded to appear at our will. Sometimes they cannot be told apart from humans and may be enchantingly beautiful or grotesquely ugly. Kirk was taking the view of Paracelsus and others that faeries can be commanded and that relations with them can become natural. He died the year after writing this—of a heart attack on a faery hill. Did the faeries take him? people asked.
The word faery, which has many spellings, comes from the Latin fatum, meaning enchantment, and is alsorelated to the Fates, those goddesses who spin, weave, and cut the threads of our lives on Earth. So what do theosophical writers have to say about these entities? They recognize the world of the faerie as a part of a usually hidden spiritual world coexisting with our physical world and that the general function of these nature spirits is to absorb prana, or vitality, from the sun and distribute it to the physical world, building and caring for the forms of the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms. In a hierarchical structure, or devic order, are to be found these architects, builders, and craftspeople of nature, all linked in an intimate relationship from the form-building angels ("heavenly messengers"; Latin: angelus) flowing downward to the smallest faery creatures.
The Theosophist Edward L. Gardner wrote a book, Fairies: The Cottingley Photographs and Their Sequel,published in 1945 by the Theosophical Publishing House, London (and reprinted in 1951 and 1974) after hisinvolvement in the controversial affair of the photographs of the Cottingley faeries. Gardener stated that within our physical octave there are degrees of density that elude ordinary vision. Thus, faeries are small because they adapt themselves to our ideas; they have no clear-cut shape normally and resemble only hazy, luminous clouds of color with a bright, spark-like nuclei. Sometimes they assume the shape of diminutive human beings, half-visible, and perhaps are stimulated to appear so by human thought processes, desires, and expectations. But they can change size, shape, color, or gender at will.
The Irish poet and Theosophist W. B. Yeats, who reported many experiences with faeries, said that theypossess no inherent form, but change according to their whim or the human mind viewing them. ArthurConan Doyle provided similar explanations in his own book of 1922, The Coming of the Fairies, having seen the grainy photographs taken in 1917 by two girls in the Bradford area of Cottingley. He believed they were genuine and that other faery appearances should be taken seriously, adding that faeries are quite substantial, in their own way as real as we are, but are not born and do not die as we do, while their observed forms are often powerfully influenced by human thought.
All this was borne out by another Theosophist (and clairvoyant), Geoffrey Hodson, in his bookFairies at Work and Play. Hodson and Gardner specified that each nature spirit possesses a definite individuality, not real or physical in the usual sense, but real enough at the time, taking on a specific shape in response to the ideas in our minds—either tiny, tall as a human, or gigantic; beautifully enchanting or hideously frightening; helpfully benevolent or harmfully spiteful. These, they said, are the "little people" of folklore who have endured for thousands of years.
As for the Cottingley photographs taken by two girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, at the Yorkshire village, it is notable that Polly Wright, the mother of Elsie, was interested in Theosophy and its teachings that thought forms can be materialized so that clairvoyants like Hodson are able to perceive them. She attended Theosophical meetings at the Bradford Lodge and circulated the faery pictures at the Society's conference in Harrogate. Illustrations of thought forms had been published in earlier theosophical books by C. W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant; this and the popular, "psychic photography" were sufficient to persuade many people that it was possible to photograph faeries. But it was later admitted that the faeries in the 1917 photographs had been very skillfully drawn, cut out, and secured to the stream's bank or tree branches with hatpins—although this is not to say that the stream at Cottingley is not a liminal place, where forms of faery life might be observed by some people. In 1921 Geoffrey Hodson visited Cottingley Glen and declared it to be swarming with elemental life—wood elves, a brownie, water sprites, gnomes, goblins, and the rarer undines in the stream.
In ancient times, the Celts believed that music was the means by which supernatural influenceaffected the listener, creating feelings of joy or sadness, sometimes inducing a trancelike sleep(particularly with harp music), or aiding relaxation and healing. Such altered states of consciousnesswere mostly joyful and inspiring, but the music also included the "weeping-strain," which caused the listener to wail or lament, particularly at funerals played by a haunting and sorrowful violin. Other instruments mentioned in connection with supernatural influence include bagpipes, whistles, trumpets, tympans, horns, and bells. The voice, human and nonhuman, also becomes a musical instrument in this context. In later Christian times, music was "sent from Heaven" to aid the saints in their difficult missionary work. When the work was done, their spirits were summoned to heaven accompanied by choirs of angels.
In early Irish literature and folk tales, music is revealed as an essential attribute of theOtherworld, its sound heralding the approach of the supernatural, and by means of it the sidhe-folkplace men and women under enchantment. The word sidheis Gaelic for an Otherworld hill or mound andthe sidhe-folk are rulers of the faery realms, often called "people of the hills." Celtic folklore is full of stories about earthly musicians carried off by the faeries to satisfy their desire for music, which they are also able to perform, sometimes teaching special playing techniques to mortal musicians.
Liminal places are those where supernatural music can be heard—in a cave or hillside hollow entrance; at ancient tumuli, cairns, or hilltop forts; even on mountaintops where Christian saints ascended, like Jesus, to commune with God and pray. The word liminal comes from the Latin limen, meaning threshold, and refers to a transitional state where the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thin or lifted entirely, though just where this world ends and the Otherworld begins is not clearly enunciated. But there is nothing specifically Celtic about descents into caves—similar stories and practices occur in the Mithraic mysteries and the rites of primitive peoples, indicating a visit to the world beyond. The Earth has many of these places of power, and the Romans had a term, genius loci, referring to a divinity that resided in a particular locale. The genius of a place is a higher and more spacious form of presence whose extent we do not know, and Geoffrey Hodson in Clairvoyant Investigations(published by Quest Books in 1984) refers to these as lofty Landscape Devas, or Devarajas, who might preside over a whole range of mountains, stimulating the growth and evolution of a particular area. John Muir, the great Scottish conservationist and founder of National Parks, sometimes spoke of what I take to be Landscape Devas in his essays. Awareness of these presences has inspired much great music, as we'll see.
But it is, says Hodson, chiefly the angels of music who are concerned with the whole divine art of music, right up to the highly evolved order of angels called by the Hindus gandharvas, and "every true musician is brought into relationship with the gandharvas or archangels of creative sound and can become a channel for their uplifting influences . . .Composers and performers are in contact with these also, and it may be that great Egos have been and will be inspired, not only from their own Egos or immortal Selves, but with the aid of the angelic hosts" (p. 76). Cyril Scott expands on this in Music, Its Secret Influence throughout the Ages (Aquarian Press, 1958), in which he speaks of composers he calls Deva-exponents who have been able to "bring through" a portion of that music, having contacted much of the atmosphere of the nature-spirit evolution and, in the case of the Russian Aleksandr Scriabin, the Devas of the higher planes.
Many well-known tunes are said to be of faery origin, and the traditional Irish melody "The Londonderry Air" is claimed to be one such tune. Was it perhaps heard by a traveling minstrel touched by Faerie and passed down through the generations to become part of our heritage? It has certainly retained its supernatural status, and it is thought by actors to bring bad luck if whistled backstage in theaters. It was also one of many songs chosen by New Zealand Theosophist Hugh Dixon (with family and friends) to perform for Geoffrey Hodson's Clairvoyant Investigations. The words to this tune, which begin "In Derry Vale beside the singing river, so oft I strayed, ah, many years ago," also interestingly include the line "Oh Derry Vale, my thoughts are ever turning to your broad stream and faery-circled lea." During the performance, Hodson clairvoyantly observed flowerlike forms and sylphs jumping and dancing while the music was being sung—"natural denizens of air, radiant creatures, all gold, all blue. . . moving in graceful dances within the aura of the singer" (p. 102).
From Scottish folklore there is the tale of the musician Thomas the Rhymer of Ercildoune and of his visit to Elfland, sometime in the thirteenth century. Near the Eildon Hills in the Borders, while playing his lute, he suddenly became aware of a beautiful lady dressed in green and riding a white horse —no less a person than the Queen of Elfland. "Play your lute for me, Thomas," she said; "fair music and green shade go well together." So Thomas took up his instrument again, and it seemed as though he had never before been able to play such lilting tunes. He agreed to accompany her to her home in Elfland. As they rode, the border between this world and the Otherworld of Elfland faded, and they passed into an enchanted country filled with a splendid light. After seven years he left, rewarded with the gift of prophecy and a tongue that could not lie, so he became known as a seer who always told the truth ("True Thomas"). Some say that he eventually went back to Elfland and lived on as adviser in the faery court.
In Scotland there are many tales of mysterious music being heard yet no performer ever being seen. Other stories tell of faery harpers seducing young women with their enchanting and irresistible melodies. Near Portree on the Isle of Skye, there is a hill with a Gaelic name meaning "a faerie dwelling of the pretty hill." Those who visit it at night claim to hear the most beautiful music coming from beneath the ground, yet they can never say exactly where it originates. Likewise, beckoning, curious, and alluring music has been reported coming from under the arches of Fraisgall Cave in Sutherland.
The Scottish Symbolist painter John Duncan (1866—1945) often retreated to the tranquillity of the Hebrides to restore his health and spirits and to seek out the Gaelic culture in its purest form. The island of Eriskay, with its "holy quiet," seemed to him a kind of spiritual home, and he wrote, "One should go to that island clad in peace and shod in silence. One should dawn into it and fade from it without hail or farewell." Here, on the Isles of Iona, Eriskay, or Barra, it isn't difficult for the most practical of mortals to believe in the sidhe, and it was on Barra, while painting, that Duncan confessed to hearing "faery music"—first a strange voice singing a curious, plaintive melody (but with no human in sight), then not one but several bells pealing, to be joined by what seemed like many voices. But his companion at this time heard nothing: It was Duncan's clairaudience at work.
Duncan eventually came to consider that the world of faeries was as essential an element of the Hebridean landscape as the rocky shores, the sea, and the sky, and during his visits he encountered many visionary beings. Although he was sometimes troubled by these visions, they were too intense and meaningful to be ignored, and Duncan knew they were not mere symptoms of imbalance. He wrote "I am not mad. I know they are not to be confused with mortal men and women. They do not collide with solid bodies but they are not shape-shifters. Nothing ghostlike or vaporous. . . " He was aware that he was living in a materialistic age and that many would scoff at the idea that art should concern itself with something imperceptible to the eye, but his intuition prevailed.
These experiences of a hidden world were so intense and meaningful that Duncan sometimes suspectedthat the very concepts of reality and illusion might in fact be inverted. "Could it be," he mused,"that some only see with the outer eye and others with the inner eye? With the innermost eye. . . nothing is invisible." This echoes Yeats and A. E., who also believed that truth might be revealed in those rare moments of illumination when "the veils that separate us from this â€˜real' world wear thin, as clouds do, and the starry eternities show through either in momentary flashes or in tranquil beauty."
Finally, this is what George William Russell (A. E.) had to say about the Land of the Ever Young:
Tir Nan Og . . . is that region the soul lives in when its grosser energies and desires have been subdued, dominated and brought under the control of light; where the Ray of Beauty kindles and illuminates every form which the imagination conceives, and where every form tends to its archetype. It is a real region which has been approached and described by the poets and sages who, at all times, have endeavoured to express something of the higher realities . . .In a sense it corresponds with the Tibetan Devachan . . .If we will we can enter the enchanted land. The Golden Age is all about us, and heroic forms and imperishable love. In that mystic light rolling around our hills and valleys hang deeds and memories which yet live and inspire. The Gods have not deserted us. Hearing our call they will return. A new cycle is dawning and the sweetness of the morning twilight is in the air. We can breathe it if we will but awaken from our slumber.
Alan Senior, a native of Yorkshire, has lived in Scotland since 1971. An international lecturer for the Theosophical Society, he edited the Scottish Theosophical magazine Circles for many years. As a painter and a writer, he exhibits throughout Scotland and lectures at Aberdeen and St. Andrews Universities.