An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 92

A later theory describes Elysium as a part of the Underworld.


It is testified by Cosmos of Prague and other early writers that the pagan Slavs believed in the continuance of life after death, and naturally therefore in an abode of the dead; but it is probable that this region was not a place of reward or punishment till the influence of foreign ideas made it so. The abode of the dead was called by the pre-Christian Slavs peklo, raj, or nav, which some authorities have endeavoured to collate with the Greek naus, the Latin navis; and colour is lent to this connexion by the ancient Slav custom of burying their dead in boats, wherein the soul travelled to its abiding-place. More probably, however, nav is from the root ny which expresses the idea of death (thus navi, the dead, unaviti, to kill). The historian Dlugosz identifies a god Nya, ruler of the Underworld and the souls of the dead, with Pluto; and another possibility is that the word nav still lingers in the Little Russian mavka[Pg 208] or navka, a species of elf or nymph, believed to be the spirit of an unbaptized child.

It is most likely that the terms raj and peklo were formerly synonymous with nav—that is, designated a Hades where life continued much the same as on the earth; but in later times raj came to signify the Elysian fields, peklo Tartarus. Both words occur prior to the introduction of Christianity, although Christianity modified their use. The derivation of raj cannot be traced with any certainty. It appears elsewhere as vuirei, said to be connected with the Elysian vireta of Virgil. It is generally pictured as an island far out in the sea, a place of eternal sunshine and happiness, where dwell the souls not only of the dead, but of those who have not yet been born. Here also are the birds that in autumn take flight from the earth-world, and the seeds of the flowers that have perished; types of all things that vanish from the earth in winter are here preserved, to be restored to the waiting world in spring-time. The mystic isle of Buyán is one variant of the raj. Its name is probably derived from an adjective signifying 'burning,' 'ardent,' or 'fruitful,' and the isle itself is connected with the idea of the sun, of warmth, intense light, and fruitfulness. Buyán is the resting-place of the white stone Alatnir, a potent magical instrument frequently mentioned in spells and charms. Like everything else connected with Buyán, Alatnir is of burning, dazzling brilliance.

Peklo also was associated with the idea of heat, possessing affinities with the verb pech, to parch; but whereas raj came to signify Paradise, peklo, under the influence of Christian ideas, became identified later with the infernal regions, a place of punishment for the wicked dead. In modern folklore we find mention of a subterranean place of the dead called Ad, inhabited by demons who torment the souls of evil-doers; the corresponding Heaven (of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" kind) is equally vague and indeterminate; and both have been so evidently influenced by Christian conceptions that they reveal but little of their pagan ancestry.

The nav of the ancients was reached by various ways. Sometimes, as has been indicated, the soul had to traverse a[Pg 209] wide sea in the boat-shaped coffin provided by relatives left on earth. Sometimes, again, the journey was accomplished on foot, when a pair of boots was provided; or the soul might have to climb a mountain of iron or glass, and for this the parings of its mortal nails were laid in the coffin. The road leading to the celestial regions was generally the Milky Way, though sometimes the rainbow was trodden by the dead. In either case popular imagination pictured the nav a long distance away.


Besides a belief in a land of the dead, the Celts had an Otherworld to which favoured mortals might penetrate. This region possessed many names—Mag Mor, the Great Plain; Tir n' Aill, the Otherworld; Tir-nan-og, the Land of Youth, the Shining Land; and so forth. It is also called in Celtic myth the Isle of the Men of Falga, Falga being an old name for the Isle of Man, which was connected with the god Manannan, lord of the under-seas.

This Celtic Elysium was sometimes beyond the seas, sometimes under the seas, or it might be situated in the hollow hills; and sometimes it was the abode of the Sidhe or elder gods. It is alluded to in the Voyage of Bran, in the Cuchulainn cycle, and in the tale of Laegaire mac Crimthainn. In Celtic myth it was clearly distinguished from the subterranean place of the dead; it was a blessed region which only a favoured few might hope to reach during life. The subterranean home of the earth-gods is sometimes a place of the dead, because Celtic myth is predominantly agricultural.

The Otherworld, shrouded by mist, was upon the same plane as the terrestrial, or sometimes co-extensive with it. There dwelt the gods and other supernatural beings. It had some resemblance to the Mohammedan Paradise in its purely material delights, yet was not without its spiritual aspect. It conferred oblivion for a term of years on those who visited it, like that later Land of Faerie where long forgetfulness awaits the wight who wanders in its enchanted glades. The Celtic Elysium is the first step in the evolution of a Heaven.

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The gods connected with it were Manannan and Lug, the sun-god, probably because it lay in the western sea.

Some think that the Celtic Elysium was coloured by Christian story, but such a very sensuous Paradise possesses little of the character of a Christian Heaven.


Various destinations awaited the dead in ancient Mexico. Warriors slain in battle repaired to the sun, where they dwelt in bliss with the deity who presided over that luminary; and sacrificed captives also fared thither. These followed the sun in his course, crying aloud and beating upon their shields. "It is also said," writes old Sahagun in his History of the Affairs of New Spain,