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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 169

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 {387} 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 {388} 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.


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