The Otherworld in the Celtic tradition

‘Are you really’ – someone asked me recently – ‘promoting the middle-world journey in your HedgeWalking practice? Isn’t that supposed to be really dangerous?’ To which my answer was, ‘No, I don’t believe it is. Though “middle world” isn’t the terminology I would use, as it derives from a cosmology which is quite different from that represented in our native traditions.’ (‘Middle world’ is a term usually used in the practice of core shamanism or neoshamanism to refer to journeying in our own physical reality, as opposed to journeying in another reality, such as an ‘underworld’ or ‘upper world’.) And I’ve heard others state their belief that ‘middle-world’ journeys are inherently dangerous, and shouldn’t be attempted by students for a good long while.

So I thought I’d better explain – because I happen to believe that what teachers of contemporary shamanism might term the ‘middle-world journey’ is actually precisely the starting point for an authentic, grounded practice. And all of this is one of the many reasons why I don’t like to call my HedgeWalking teachings ‘shamanism’. Even though some of what I teach involves techniques that might reasonably be labelled ‘shamanic’, the set of teachings and practices that I call ‘HedgeWalking’ is not based either on the set of practices, or the attempt to essentialise and organise global indigenous cosmologies, that are found in contemporary core shamanism. *

What I’m interested in is exploring a practice which is grounded in our native traditions and cosmology. So what is the evidence for the use of shamanic practices by our ancestors? Well, that’s a big subject, and if you’re interested in exploring it deeply you might like to think about signing up for my Celtic Studies: Myth and Tradition course, which begins in April and lasts for a year. In a nutshell, though: although there is no direct evidence for the use of specific shamanic practices, there are for sure strong shamanic elements in the old Irish literature, so it’s not unreasonable to believe that our ancestors – like those of so many cultures around the world – might have practiced some kind of shamanism.

But all of this, of course, begs the question of what shamanism actually is. There are many definitions of the term, and there are many different variants of shamanism throughout the world, but it’s generally held to be based on a belief that the physical world is pervaded by invisible forces, or spirits, which affect our lives and the world around us. The role of the shaman is to act as mediator between the human world and the world (or worlds) of spirits. Many societies (but by no means all) who hold to the practice of shamanism believe in a three-fold cosmology, in the form of an upper world, middle world (this reality) and underworld; those worlds are connected by a central axis (such as a pillar, or a ‘world tree’), and the shaman can travel between all of these realms with the help of guides.

It is important to understand that there is no evidence in the pre-Christian Irish (or other Celtic) literature for belief in a cosmology which consists of upper, middle and lower worlds. (We do not, of course, know everything – or even much – about the beliefs of our ancestors, and so we can only go on what clues remain. It’s quite possible that there might once have been such a cosmology, but we don’t see any clear traces of it in the writings that are available to us today.) In our native Irish traditions (and, to the extent we can tell, probably the traditions in other Celtic countries too) there is only mention of an Otherworld which is immanent in this one – immanent in the sense of wholly entwined with, and inseparable from.

In the old stories, the Otherworld can be accessed in all kinds of ways: by crossing a physical boundary or threshold, such as a river; by passing through mist; by entering into a subterranean cave; by entering a hollow hill, by travelling to the bottom of a loch, or across the sea to various islands. It’s as if there are many different countries in the Otherworld, each one with its own unique topography and inhabitants. But the clearest illustration of the idea that the Otherworld is immanent in this one comes perhaps from the tale known in English as The Voyage of Bran. In it, Bran sets off across the sea in a coracle to find the Land of Women, Tír na mBan, to which he’s been invited by a beautiful Otherworldly female. One day, he happens across the god Manannán Mac Lir, who speaks to Bran of his world – the Otherworld – as if to see it, and enter into it, doesn’t require a physical journey to a specific ‘geographical’ location, but rather requires a change of focus, and an ability to see through the physical world and perceive the other realities which are normally hidden from us:

Bran deems it a marvellous beauty
In his coracle across the clear sea:
While to me in my chariot from afar
It is a flowery plain on which he rides about.

Bran sees the sea; Manannán sees a flowery plain. The Otherworld isn’t a different location: it’s a different level of reality beyond the purely physical, which humans do not naturally have the ability to perceive. (Manannán later tells Bran that he and his people have the ability to perceive other layers of reality because they didn’t ‘fall’ like the children of Adam, but that’s clearly a Christian overlay.)

How then do we begin to reach for the ability to see this way – to pierce through the veil and journey into those different levels of reality? How do we practice shifting our perception so that we can see beyond the physical reality we’re so comfortable with, and on into the other layers of reality which are entwined with it? Well, there are many ways to do this, and one of them (which also is core to HedgeWalking) involves working with techniques which kickstart the development of the mythic imagination. But there’s another clue in the form of the question itself. I believe that we start precisely in the physical reality that those other levels of reality are entwined with. Right here, in the ‘middle world’; in the reality we know. As I’ve written elsewhere, I firmly believe that to be able to walk in other worlds, you need first to be able to walk in this one. This is where it all starts. After all, it’s the ground of our being.

It’s also where you can more easily tell what’s real, and what you’re making up; and whether I was making things up while journeying was a major concern of mine when I first began to work with shamanic practices, many years ago. As a psychologist, my work at the time was focused on the creative imagination, and I had completed an intensive training in clinical hypnosis and other imaginal techniques. My therapeutic practice was focused entirely on the creative imagination and the mythic imagination, and on the use of visualisation and narrative techniques which were built on a foundation of altered states of consciousness. It was an interest in those altered states of consciousness, combined with my search for an authentic spiritual practice, which led me to sign up for a year-long training in ‘shamanism’ in Devon. I’ve written in a previous post about how that training didn’t really work for me, founded as it was on a cosmology and practice that was derived from two continents half a world away. There are other, quite specific reasons why I couldn’t work with the methodology I was taught; one is that it was based on inducing an altered state of consciousness through drumming, which I found actively hindered rather than helped (it made my head rattle, and I was always immensely irritated by the time constraints). And also because I couldn’t make sense of all that upper and lower world terminology; it bore absolutely no relationship to what I understood the Otherworld to be in my native traditions. Trying to separate the Otherworld into two different realms inhabited by different types of beings made me feel as if I was ripping my own psyche in two.

And so I abandoned that teaching which was not only derived from a mish-mash of ideas from other cultures, but which almost entirely took place inside. I couldn’t be doing with that; I went back to the drawing board, and engaged in a years-long apprenticeship to outside: to the land. (I’ve written about some of that long apprenticeship here, so won’t repeat it again.) I focused on other ways of achieving altered states of consciousness which were derived from my training in hypnosis and other imaginal techniques – and one of the many benefits of working this way was that I could sit wherever I wanted to – under a tree, on the seashore – and practice them quite unobtrusively and without having to worry about whether it was nice weather for a drum.

I focused, then, on learning how to listen to the land’s dreaming. I am an animist; I believe that everything in the world has spirit, or consciousness, of some kind. And I believe that all of those consciousnesses, combined together, make up the anima mundi: the soul of the world. (As Plato described the anima mundi: ‘this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.)

The anima mundi is exactly where I wanted to begin. I wanted a mystical relationship with the natural world, and the energies which inhabit it. And in the Irish mythical tradition, the gods are immanent in the land, not cut off from it in some ethereal, transcendental upper world. We are creatures of this Earth; an authentic spiritual practice has surely to begin in it and of it. Right here, in the land where our feet are planted – right at the heart of the curiously forbidden ‘middle world’. The world of trees, birds, animals, and rock. The sacred world of which we know so little, until we learn to really sense it in different ways. That’s where we’ll find the wisdom we need to know first: the wisdom which comes, quite literally, from the ground of our being. Plato also wrote in his Phaedrus that the ‘first prophecies were the words of an oak’, and that those who lived at that time found it rewarding to ‘listen to an oak or a stone, so long as it was telling the truth’. Liars may be found in any reality, and so may dangers. The trick is apprenticeship. Don’t blunder in. Go slow, go careful, go respectfully; don’t push the boundaries of what you’re capable of too far; always go with help. But above all, go. This beautiful dreaming Earth wants to be in relationship with us, and this is the world in which we live. Let’s live in it a little more fully. Once we’ve listened to an oak or a stone or a crow; once we’ve learned to fully walk in this world – maybe then we might find we have the skills, judgement – and above all, humility – which will enable us to walk safely and authentically in any others we might happen across.

* If you are interested in an accurate and academically sound discussion of shamanism, I recommend Ronald Hutton’s Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination. The Quest for the Shaman, by archaeologists Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green, is another useful resource.

If you’re interested in more information on HedgeWalking and the details of this practice, you’ll find a Q&A here.

2 Comments on “The Otherworld in the Celtic tradition

  1. As someone who has attended workshops on core shamanism and with a Seidr man working in the Norse tradition I can really relate to what you’re saying here. Whilst I’ve been able to follow those practices in the workshops I’ve found my experiences very different when I’ve got out on the land and worked directly with the gods and spirits alone. As a Brythonic polytheist the Otherworld for me is Annwn, ‘the Deep’, and as you say it is a world immanent within this one and one that requires a different way of seeing and travelling. As our faerie lore teaches (I see Faery as a later name for Annwn) it’s not always accessible by banging a drum and setting an intention. It’s more about building relationships, following intuitions, listening to subliminal guidance, surrendering to dream states, and cannot be forced. “You can’t go straight to Annwn” was my most recent advice from my deity and it makes sense on so many levels!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so looking forward to the year long course! For me, the Otherworld has always been imminent, easily accessible and real, with tangible objects, events or verifications in “this” reality. I cross those thresholds many times per day and night, and always have, but I really cannot explain the how of it when someone asks me. It will be good to delve into the lore and traditions. Thank you for all you offer in this world, and I’m sure the Otherworld, too!

    Liked by 1 person

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