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Keltria Journal

Issue 31 - Lughnasadh/Fall 1996

The Celts & The Sea

History, Myth, and Cosmology

by Mary Branin

The Celtic word, immrama, refers to a literal spiritual voyage to the Otherworlds--particularly the Underworld, known as Annwn (Welsh), where the dead await rebirth. It is a place of renewal and new beginnings, ruled by deities such as Cerridwen and Arawn (or Cernunnos). In addition to the Underworld, Celtic cosmology includes a Middle- and Upperworld. The three worlds are further subdivided--perhaps as far as our imagination can stretch--with the Circle of Annwn including the following "caers", or castles, many of them associated with distant or submerged islands in the sea.

Caer Sidi, the castle of Arianrhod, where poets receive intiation. Arawn, ruler of the Underworld dwells there.

Caer Ochren, castle of Cerridwen.

Caer Manwyddan, sea castle of the god Manawyddan (Mananaan is Ireland)

Caer Pedryfan, where nine goddesses guard the cauldron.

Caer Feddwyd, where troubled souls engage in great feasting to forget troubled past lives.

Caer Rigor, a place of Otherworld hospitality.

Caer Goludd, Fortress of Frustration and Riches, a place where rewards can be won after going through great trials.

The Irish conception of the Underworld is similar to that of the Welsh, though different terms are used:

Tech Duinn, House of Donn

Tir na nOg, Land of Youth

Tir na mBan, Land of Women

Tir nAill, Land of the Otherplace

Tir na mBeo, Land of the Living

Tir fo Thuinn, Land under the Wave

Tir Tairngiri, Land of Promise and Ever Young

Emhain Abhlach, Apple Orchard in the Land of Promise

All realms and dimensions intersect, and we travel back and forth between Gwyndd and Abred, experiencing all over many lifetimes, before finally reaching the vortex of Ceugnant, the center.

Besides being the Land of the Living (or Dead), the sea is the realm of the Unconscious, involving the inner/outer world of the shaman. Otherworldly sea voyage is a journey toward wholeness, back to the Origin, though it is not without its perils.

In Celtic belief, water is generally associated with the Goddess (es). The Great Mother Dana may have been connected with the Don River in Russia, as well as to the Dnieper and Danube. Rivers in Celtic lands were always connected with a particular goddess, associated with one river.

The Celts made double use of the Indo-European mar- or mor-, reflected in the English word marine. Designating either water or a female horse--an animal of prime importance to the early nomadic Celts--it may be related to the Sanskrit word mah for mighty. The Celts revered the Goddess as The Great Mare, and the white breakers of the ocean were described as the white mane of Morrigan's head. The last half of the Goddess names Morrigan and Morgan--gan, gin, andgen mean birth, as in the English words genesis and begin. Thus, by etymology, the name Morgan breaks down into Mighty Sea Horse Beginning.

In pre-history, the Indo-European Celts probably originated in Russia, between the Don and Dnieper Rivers and the Black Sea to the south. It is believed that the seas of Central Asia were once one, but the climate had become much warmer between 9,000 and 2,000 BC, drying up and eventually breaking up the Turco-Siberian Sea. It may have been this climactic catastrophe that forced the Indo-Europeans to expand to the west.

At the end of the Bronze Age, after the first Halstatt (Celt) period around 530 BC, Western Europe suddenly became cold and wet again, and the North Sea and Baltic coastlines became inundated marshland. Archaeological evidence indicates vast southward migrations to escape the flooded areas. The first and most important migration of Britons to Great Britain can be dated from this period.

The sea continued to be of prime importance to the Celts that moved to the British Isles and to Brittany, for much of their diet was fish. The Mother Goddess provided her bounty from both sea and land to sustain the Celts. She was Mother, origin and provider, though in later times the Sea deity Lir and his son, Mananaan, Patron of Sailors, were conceived of as male. The sea--and any larger body of water-- could be dangerous, both to sailors and the communities that lived by them. In both its positive and negative aspects, the sea is an analogy for life itself, as well as for the vast, unexplored region of the Unconscious.

Strabo repeats a story he had heard that the Celts trained themselves to withstand fear by watching the sea destroy their communities, and that floods had caused a higher death toll than warfare (Strabo, VII, 2.), and Aristotle mentions in Nicomachean Ethics that the Celts took up arms against the waves (III, I, 26).

What did "taking up arms" mean? The bard Taliesin suggests via myth that the Celts practiced a water ritual, involving some kind of protective shield.

Math and Hyvedd, the masters of the magic wand, had unleashed the elements.

Then Gwyddyon and Amethon held counsel.

They made a shield so strong that the sea could not engulf the best of the troops.

Again, in his poem Cad GoddeuTaliesin states that he experienced the flood himself.

I was in the boat with Dylan, son of the Wave,

on a bed in the middle between the knees of the kings

when the water like unexpected spears fell from the sky

to the depths of the abyss.

Yet the Underworld itself was described as a pleasant land that most could not bear to leave. In Seven Cities, the bard Taliesin writes of:

A pleasant town lies on the surface of the ocean.

May great feasting gladden the heart of its king

at the time when the sea grow greatly daring

may the bards' crowns be above the cups of mead.

A wave will come swiftly to cover it

unfurling untowards the green pastures of the land of the Picts...

A pleasant city lies on a large lake

an impregnable fortress encircled by the sea.

(Book of Taliesin, poem 21)

In psychological terms, as Jean Markale has eloquently explained, the submerged town is the maternal womb--that of our present human life, as well as the Primal Womb of all life. In Celtic thought, death is but a journey to a new birth. In later stories, the underwater palace is a Grail Castle, where the Lady of the Grail (Cerridwen) stirs the Cauldron of Rebirth. This belief is further expanded when the sexual act-- or the desire for it--is brought into the picture. In one story after another, the sex act is linked with death and (sometimes) rebirth. In a literal sense, it is a return to the womb.

This idea is seen in the Christianized Breton story Night of the Pentecost in which a town was flooded and sunk for its sins. On the night of Pentecost, a hill opens to reveal a hidden passage to the king's palace, but at the last stroke of midnight, the entranceway closes up again, not to reopen for another year. Perik Skouarn enters an underground world of gold and jewels and beautiful women, who hold a crown of oak in one hand and a cup of wine in the other. He succumbs to sexual temptation and becomes prisoner in the world for the next year.

Mananaan, son of the Sea God, has a palace called Emhain of the Apple-Trees in his Underworld realm of Tir Taingin--Land of Promise and Ever Young. He rides a horse called Splendid Mane that can travel equally fast on land or sea. This connects the sea with the ancient Celtic Horse Goddess, also the Great Mother. In The Voyage of Bran, a beautiful woman appears to Bran, giving him an apple-tree branch (symbol of immortality) and inviting him to regraft it at Emain, the Island of Women. Mananaan appears to guide them to Emain, a land of pleasure. After some time, however, Bran and the others wish to return to Ireland, realizing that centuries have gone by.

Typically, the island in the middle of the sea is a symbol both of woman and death, an acknowledgment of the link between sex (regeneration) and death. One tale involving a search for water, rather than a sea journey, shows this very well. In The Sons of Eochaid Muigmedon, the five sons of the King of Ireland became terribly thirsty while hunting and tried to find water. They met a horrible-looking old woman with blackened, boil-covered skin and green teeth that reached to her ears. She refused to give any of them water from her well unless they would kiss her. The four eldest refused, but Niall overcame fear and kissed her. She then turned into a beautiful girl named Flaithius ("royalty"). That is how Niall became King of Ireland.

When King Arthur was mortally wounded in battle, he made his way to the seashore. There a violent storm broke out and a boat appeared. Morgan, the king's sister, and a number of ladies were on the boat. Morgan called out to Arthur, and he stepped onto the ship, which sailed immediately to the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur still lives.

Morgan, a witch goddess, ruled over Avalon, the Isle of Apples, where fruit and other vegetation grew without cultivation. On Avalon, there was no sickness, and everyone remained young forever. Moreover, eternal peace reigned. There were no criminals, and the weather was always perfect. Morgan told Arthur that he would regain his health through her if he stayed on the island, and he accepted her offer. Avalon is essentially life inside the womb of the Mother.

Avalon became the Celtic word for "apple" and corresponds to the word "ablach" in the Otherworld island Emain Ablach, to which Bran sailed. In Celtic thought, as well as many other Indo-European traditions, the apple symbolizes fertility and immortality. That is, sexual procreation and life in the midst of death. British tradition describes Morgan as the daughter of Evallach, who is considered a double of the Fisher- King, keeper of the sacred cauldron or Grail. Thus, all Grail journeys involve the seeking of immortality.

A the Grail is the life-giving waters, any journey made to find it is itself a sea journey. That is, a seeking in the depths of the unconscious, where life and death meet and transformation occurs. Such is a journey back to the Origin, to the Primal Mother. In Celtic myth, the cauldron is often discovered beneath the sea or at the bottom of a lake, under the surface of the water, in the depths.

As the water is the Mother, the hero is usually guided to the water by a woman. The journey is perilous, however. One all-too-common result in myth is that the hero does not, or cannot, return to the Middle World. In psychological terms, he experiences so much pleasure in the Other World that he does not want to return, integrating what he has learned into the the superficially more mundane things of everyday life.

Sometimes the hero becomes entranced while yet in the fullness of life. Connla the Fair was standing on the hill of Usnach with some companions when a strange woman told him:

I come from the Lands of the Living, where there is neither death nor want nor sin. We keep perpetual feast without need for service. Peace reigns among us without strife. A great fairy-mound it is, in which we live; where we are called 'folk of the fairy-mound.'

Connlan's companions could not see or hear the woman, and one of the court Druids drove her away, but she managed to toss an apple to Connla first. After that, Connla could neither eat nor drink, save for the apple, which continually renewed itself. In the end, Connlan no longer cared to remain in this world, and after he encountered the woman once more, he set off on a sea journey with her to the Land of Youth.

The Otherworld may be very near, almost within our sight, but sometimes the Land of Youth is described as an island in the west, where the sun sets. It is:

...a distant isle,

Around which sea-horses glisten:

A fair course against he white-swelling surge,--

Four pillars uphold it...

A beauty of a wondrous land,

Whose aspects are lovely,

Whose view is a fair country,

Incomparable is its haze.

Cross and Slover, Ancient Irish Tales, 503-4)

It is the unconscious mind that provides the experiences and landscape of the Otherworld, but the truths that are imparted to the shaman come from a higher plane. The journey unleashes both our fears and our untamed nature, as well as psychic phenomena so different from our ordinary way of "seeing" that the journey may become treacherous. The unconscious is a storehouse of instinctual psychic knowledge that began before the first humans ever evolved from life in the primal sea, and we must become reconciled with it in order to become completely whole.

The Unconscious--itself likened to the sea--recognizes a link between woman-water-sex-birth-death. We see only the surface, but the depths are dark, mysterious and seemingly endless. The women in these Celtic myths are aspects of the Goddess who is in every man and woman.

As a woman, I am conscious of the Goddess within--the lover, the mother, the healer--the dark and the light. Yet, I am also the hero in search of the Grail. The holy necessarily implies wholeness-- male-female, active-passive, life-death. Life--the Great Mother--is the holy Grail, and all sea/water journeys are a return to our origin.


Cross, Tom Peete, and Clark Harris Solver, eds. Ancient Irish Tales. Barnes & Noble, 1969.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton & Bollingen, 1974.

Johnson, Kenneth, and Elsbeth, Marguerite. Grail Castle: Male Myths and Mysteries in the Celtic Tradition. Llewellyn Publications, 1995.

Mallory, J.P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth. Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1989.

Markale, Jean. Women of the Celts. Inner Traditions, 1986.

Markale, Jean. The Celts: Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture. Inner Traditions, 1993.

Squire, Charles. Celtic Myth and Legends: Poetry and Romance. Newcastle Publishing Co., 1975.

Smith, Daragh. A Guide to Irish Mythology. Irish Academic Press, 1988.

This material is Copyright 1996 by the author identified. Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magick posts this article on the Internet by permission of the author. It may not be republished or reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author or Keltria Journal. Links to this page may be established.

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