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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 163

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. 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 {370} 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 {371} 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 {372} 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. 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. 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. 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 {373} 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 {374} 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


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