Monthly Archives: April 2012

Vikings and Fairies

21-22 April

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Last weekend (20-21 April) took the Great Road North (well, rail – enduring the so-called ‘quiet carriage’) to visit charmingYork (all cobbles and cream teas), where I gave a talk on my book Turning the Wheel on Saturday at PF NE, alongside my fellow Awenaut, Karola Renard. We went up on the Friday and met up – doing the tourist thing and visiting the Jorvik Centre to get a whiff of life in York (literally) in the Viking Age. The faint aroma of a Viking midden assailed our nostrils as we entered – all part of the experience! The exhibition felt a bit virtual at first – all computer screens and a ‘discotheque’ perspex floor revealing the level of the city in the Viking Age (showing the foundations of a house from that period – well, a reconstruction of one excavated on the site). Fortunately live interpreters were on hand to stop it getting all too cyberspacey – and they knew their stuff. We were ushered onto a kind of ghost train by a cunning woman – and taken around a Viking village, inhabited by lifelike hairy folk in their respective domiciles. Pretty impressive, if surreal.

Later, we hooked up with some of the delegates in the authentic Fifteenth Century Inn, The Black Swan – complete with ‘drunken’ stairs and resident ghost (nothing unusual in York – which has created a tourist industry from its spooks). The pagans seemed friendly enough – especially after a couple of local ales (Brainsplitter, or some such). Ola and I were kindly put up by respective hosts and met again in the morning at the conference in Priory Street. We were on straight away – something of a strain after a lively night and lack of breakfast. I managed to grab a coffee and a pastry – which I munched as audience filtered in. Couldn’t get the projector to work – but I didn’t need it. I can waffle for Britain on any of my books.

Afterwards, I browsed the stalls and chatted to some creative folk, including FAE artist Tamara Newman.

I couldn’t stick around for the end of the day – my pumpkin carriage awaited – to ‘whisk’ my back to Stroud (four hours later…)

It was interesting to visit York – a fascinating picturesque city – which features in of my yet-to-be-published novel, Thunder Road – a contemporary fantasy about Vikings, Bikers and the end of the world.

The next day I did a big rideout – all around Oxfordshire – visiting sites connected with my collection of Folk Tales (commissioned by The History Press, and due out in November). I recorded half a dozen stories in situ – which was very resonant. It was an effective way to commune with the genius loci and ‘give something back’ – returning the art to the source of its inspiration. It was definitely a sense of ‘full circle’ – as I circumnavigated the county over eight hours – hitting a monsoon-like downpour on the way back (perhaps Thor was making his presence felt…).Yet, despite the soaking it was worth it – I had visited the original ‘rabbit hole’ (Binsey’s treacle well); the birthplace of the Otmoor Uprising; Garsington; Clifton Hampden and Wittenham Clumps – the latter, the location for one of the stories I performed the following night with my fellow Fire Springs members at Hawkwood College for our Spirits of Place show. It was powerful to tell the story of the Raven of Sinodun Hill there, on the Clumps – especially when a large raven circled over me just as I departed.

There seems to be an ‘ecology’ connecting ‘fairies’ and spirits of place – indeed they seem to be one and the same in some traditions. In Hellenic Mythology every stream, spring, cave, tree and mountain had its resident spirit or spirits: undines, naiads, sylphs, etc. These  elemental nymphs become the fairies of the Celtic Tradition – residing in ‘Fairy Thorns’, sacred wells and so on. When Nature is littered, polluted,  exploited or tamed – they whither, leave or die.

The ‘fairies’ of York are well looked after by the supernatural tourist industry there – the ghosts are fed by the energy of the hordes of visitors and the oxygen of the stories. They love to hear about themselves. I hope the spirits of place of Oxfordshire will be kept happy by my efforts.

 

 

Dragon Lines

6-13 April

Over the Easter break Jenni and I spent a week staying in a yurt on an organic smallholding on the Roseland Peninsula, South Cornwall. Cotna, just down from the sleepy village of Gorran Churchtown, is nestled in an L-shaped valley which gave it its original name ‘Crookcorner’. Dave and Sara, the owners, moved in five years ago and have transformed the 14 acres – which now boast a wind-turbine, polytunnels full of leafy veg, free-range chickens, woodland, solar panels, compost loos and a rather lovely straw-bale house. We were first visitors to stay in their yurt, sitting in its own field – separated by its twin by a stream and a line of recently planted willow. With a log burner and lots of homely touches, it was cosy in the evenings. We ate outside alot and enjoyed sunsets, a vast field of stars, a full moon, dawn choruses, and deep peace. At night, the only disturbance was the conversation of owls and the odd visit from Ziggy – the dribbling long-haired cat.

In the daytime we enjoyed some excellent coastal walks (the coastal path could be reached along a charming winding path – 2 miles to Porthmellon). Amid the pasties, pints and piskies, one of the highlights was a walk around the headlands of St Antony and Dodman Point – the latter possibly deriving its name from an old word for dowser or geomancer (a ‘dodman’ was a country name for a snail – it’s horns like the siting poles of the surveyor – perhaps glimpsed in the staves of the Long Man of Wilmington).  In the late Eighties, local ‘dodmen’ Paul Broadhurst and Hamish Miller discover the Michael and Mary Line – a substantial energy ‘pathway’ running up the southwest peninsula diagonally across England – the two alternating streams weaving in and out like a vast landscape caduceus… or the Rainbow Serpent of Albion. They recorded their findings in their New Age classic, The Sun and the Serpent – which even spawned a TV show, so media-trendy all that stuff was at the time. The fickle gaze of fashion moves on – and last year’s ‘cat’s pyjamas’ are sloughed like snake skin.

Yet the old leys and ways remain – just below the surface – waiting for the curious seeker to stumble upon them, like an ancient sword half-buried in a peat-bog. In Cornwall, this ancient magic feels close to the surface still. I’ve felt it every time I’ve visited – and books like The Little Country, an enchanting novel by the bardically-inclined Canadian author Charles de Lint – conjure it up for me from afar.

I dowse these ‘dragon lines’ in my own way, with the dowsing rod of my pen and my imagination – tuning into the genius loci wherever I visit and letting the awen come through me. In 2004 I was commissioned to write a poem for a dance piece by artist Beth Townley – this became my epic praise-song to Albion, Dragon Dance. I have been performing this in situ at locations around the country – north, south, east and west – as my way of giving thanks back to the land that has born and nurtured me. On the last day of our trip (an auspicious Friday 13th) we stopped off at the Hurlers stone circle on a suitably mist-erious Bodmin Moor – here I recited the Cornwall section of the poem: quite a challenge in lashing, freezing rain! We endured this in good humour, before returning gratefully to the shelter of the car.

Here it is…

Kernow

In the heat of the day,
in the eye of light,
in the land of noon,
where the sea is night.

A land of glittering granite,
sun beat-beating down,
a blacksmith’s hammer on anvil,
melting us with furnace heat.

The silent longevity of fogou and quoit
marking time. Neolithic sundials –
follow their shadow over moor and shore…
Tintagel to Men-an-Tol,
rag-tree temple, Madron’s well.
St Michael’s Mount to St Nectan’s Glen
Zennor to Lamorna, this narrow peninsula –

Twrch Trwyth’s road,
where legend disappeared beneath the waves,
comb and scissors gleaming between bristles,
like church pew mermaid with comb and mirror.
Ageless Mabon snatching success
from the ears of defeat,
before vanishing too … like Arthur …  into the mist.

The dying sun journeying beyond, to the sunken land.
Lyonesse of the endless waves, the Fortunate Isles,
of beacon towers,  inkdust sand, the semaphor of sails.
Deadly Sillina, adorned with the riches of shipwrecks,
the prayers of fishermen, the tears of fishwives.

Passion fire, soul flame yearning,
in the cauldron love is burning.
The spark on the kindling,
the flint and the tinder,
fire friend, stolen power,
seize the spear of the sun,
Long as the day, shadowbright,
give us your light,
give us your light.
give us your light,
so we may do what is right.

Between the earth and the air,
between the fire and the water,
the spirit waits at the centre,
the spirit waits at the centre.

Dance the dragon,
let the dragon dance me.
Biting the tail of infinity.

from Dragon Dance – Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2004

On Monday, 23rd April – which is of course St George’s Day (as well as The Bard’s birth-and-death day) – I’ll be performing in a show with my fellow members of Fire Springs entitled ‘Spirits of Place’ at the enchanting Hawkwood College (which has its own share of genius loci) on the outskirts of Stroud. We’ll be sharing a selection of stories from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire – taken from our new collections published by The History Press. Mine isn’t due out until the end of the year, but while in Cornwall I was editing the manuscript and rehearsing the tales – so it felt like I had a little bit of the county with me. It has it’s fair share of dragon tales…

Whatever you think of St George (England’s patron saint – all the way from Cappadocia, Turkey…) why not raise a glass to the dragons of Albion on Monday – may they continue to live on, in legend at least.

Isles of the Ever-Living

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Islands of the Ever-Living

Kevan Manwaring

(the second part of a two-part article. Last time we looked at Isle of the Dead)

No Country for Old Men

Isles of the Dead often blur into Islands of the Ever-Living – in the mythic imagination it is hard to see the join – but the latter are completely in the Otherworld (despite claims that Avalon can be found in Somerset). Ever culture has them – consoling fictions to the reality of death perhaps. Ireland has one of the most famous, Tir nan Og, the Land of the Ever-young. WB Yeats visited it many times in his immortal poetry, as in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born and dies.

The American novelist Cormac Mccarthy probably had that last line more in his head when he wrote the novel that was turned into the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men (USA, 2007) – a paradigm away from the fey afterlife depicted in Irish myth, although the state of California seems to do its best at being a modern analogue for Tir nan Og, with its Tinsel-town fairy glamour and cult of the young and beautiful, in reality ‘youth without youth’ – perpetuated by plastic surgery ad nauseam. In science fiction, the tropes of myth, legend and fantasy have been transplanted into future utopias. In the Seventies’ Sci-Fi film Logan’s Run there is no old age – because everyone is culled when they turn thirty. This is akin to the cult of dead celebrities – of film stars (James Dean and Marilyn Monroe) and pop stars (Buddy Holly; Richie Valance; the ’27 Club’ of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain, Curtis, Hutchence, etc) forever young, forever beautiful.

In the ‘grey havens’ of the ageing West, where people are living longer, it seems few allow themselves to grow old gracefully – no one is willing to open the ‘strong door’ to let in reality, as in the tale from The Mabinogion. Bran’s company – the classic seven survivors – spend eighty years on a timeless island called Gwales, off the coast of south Wales (possibly Grassholm) in the enchanting presence of their decapitated leader, whose severed head – like Orpheus’s – began to sing. His potent presence dilated time – a cryogenic Face of Bo with the charisma of Captain Jack Harkness and John Barrowman’s vocal talents!

In the Celtic Tradition the Otherworld overlaps with our own and can be accessed via a spring, a grove, a cave, at dawn, twilight, at the cross-quarters (‘The Immortal Hour is always now’ Kathleen Raine). Tir nan Og can be visited through certain lakes, e.g. Lough Corrib, Lough Gur and Lough Neagh. Both Oisín and the warrior O’Donoghue entered Tir nan Og, according to some traditions, through the waters of Lake Killarney…Indeed, almost any body of water could serve this purpose, as it acts as a mirror for the subconscious and soporific effects extends brainwaves from Alpha to Theta, allowing greater synaptic leaps and more lateral connections.

Music and song can create this effect too – in another Irish legend, ‘Midhir’s Invitation to the Earthly Paradise’ is not only a classic description of the Ever-living Lands (‘‘the young do not die there before the old.’) it provides a sonic portal, altering the consciousness of the listener.

Timelessness and its unfortunate consequence, time displacement, are common traits of the Ever-living Lands – a day in Otherworld becomes a year here, or vice versa. The most haunting example of this Oisín’s three hundred year ‘honeymoon’ on Tir nan Og with Niamh of the Golden Hair.

Other Celtic heroes spend time enchanted in the form of animals – hawks, boars, stags, wolves, birds, even insects – their human selves in a kind of chronological stasis, surviving for sometimes millennia until finally released, fully cognisant of their time in animal form but physically unaged. The anamorphic poetry of Amergin and Taliesin (‘I am stag of the seven tines…’ etc) is possibly an example of druidic metempsychosis – the transmigration of the soul into different life-forms: reincarnational evolution and past life memory. The dream of other lives the awakened human soul remembers.

Sleeping by a fairy mound or tree is always a risky gambit – as Rip Van Winkle discovered. And stepping into a fairy ring can be even deadlier – seventeenth century Scottish minister, Robert Kirk, did just that and reputedly vanished from God’s Earth – leaving behind his ‘rough guide’ to Faerie: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, a MS of which can still be viewed in the National Library of Scotland.

Bardsey Island boasts ‘the time-eating goblins of Ynys Enlli’, at least the ferry over does on its behalf. The medieval monks spin-doctors claimed there is no death there, and ‘no one dies except of extreme old age’ – the rhetoric of a medieval version of a holiday brochure, a health farm for the soul?

Yet the monks of Mount Athos, belonging to a community of Greek Orthodox monks, are said to be the world’s healthiest people. The great and the good have gone there to be purged of the ills of Western civilisation.

Giraldus Cambrensis talks of Insula Viventum, an island whose inhabitants knew no death, reputedly ‘Inish na mBeo’, the ‘Isle of the Living’, in Lough Cre, east of Roscrea, County Tipperary.

In his novel Spiritwalk, (1992) Charles de Lint has a Djibwe elder, a First Nations tribe medicine man mention Epangishimuk: ‘the spirit land in the west where Nambush ruled and the spirits travelled after death’, (Spiritwalk, p120). The Path of Souls that spirits of the dead travel to reach the west is called ‘meekunnaug’. (ibid p144)

In the Finnish epic the Kalevala, the heroes LemminKainen and Ilmarinen makes various sorties into an otherworldly realm called ‘Pohjola’, that is The North Country, defined as ‘A dark and dismal country to the north of Kalevala, sometimes identified with Lapland itself.’ There the inhabitants lived free from care because they posses the Sampo, a magic corn, salt and coin-mill; the Scandinavian equivalent of the ‘land of milk and honey’.

Dunbavin, in his book Atlantis of the West suggests: ‘the Elysian Fields may indeed be held to be the ultimate source of the Atlantis myth’, (p282-3) albeit in a circuitous way, as he tries to prove they are in the Irish Sea.

In The Odyssey, that ultimate quest back home, to Ithaka (which to the hero, becomes a kind of paradise) blind Homer describes the Elysian Fields:

The Deathless Ones will waft you instead to the world’s end, the Elysian Fields, where yellow-haired Rhadamanthus is. There indeed men live unlaborious days. Snow and tempest and thunderstorms never enter there, but for men’s refreshments Ocean sends out continually the high-singing breezes of the west.

The Odyssey, Homer, IV, 549-643

Tied in with these geographical ‘lost’ islands in history, folklore, folk tales, place memory and genius loci – what currently is called psychogeography. These are more than rocks in the sea – they carry ‘freight’, the weight of our expectations, projections and participation with them over the years.

Celtic tradition and beliefs are expressed spiritually through the land: the landscape is filled with places where spirit is present. Every time we experience it, this presence encourages us to make an imaginative act that personifies the place to us. Then we perceive its qualities personally. This is the anima loci, the place-soul. When this is acknowledged and honoured, ensouled sacred places come into being.’ Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscape, p13

It is no coincidence that a plethora of sacred islands can be found like rosary beads around the shores of the British Isles – not only did the Celts migrate West via the water, but the monks and hermits would ‘island hop’ in the hope of more remoteness more solitude, so they could be closer to God (after the Synod of Whitby in 600 AD Celtic monks headed west to slip the yoke of Rome). These are ‘thin places’, as Ynys Enlli, Bardsey Island, is known as:

the membrane between Heaven and Earth seems to be less dense…nothing comes between: there is total transparency’

Quote from Ty Carreg visitors information, Bardsey Island.

One could say the same for any liminal place: spring, pool, cave, hill, mountain, wood, stream, bridge (e.g. Fairy Bridge, Isle of Mann). To the Celtic peoples all of these would have been places where the ‘veil was thin’ – and at certain times of year, even more so, e.g. Beltane, Samhain – the beginning and end of summer, respectively, when the Good Folk, the Sidhe, where abroad. Yet islands are especially sacred:

According to traditional thinking islands are inherently sacred, being places cut off by water from unwanted physical and psychic influences.’ Pennick (ibid, p105)

They offer a refugium – a place cut-off from the world where it is perhaps possible to survive hazardous times. These ‘arks’ are often more vulnerable than they wish – for no man is an island. Every Shangri-La is destined to be discovered, desecrated, lost.

Pennick continues:

Sacred places come into being when humans recognise and acknowledge them. They are ensouled locations where we can experience elevated consciousness, receive religious inspiration and accept healing.’ ibid, p14

Bob Trubshaw echoes this when he says: ‘the significance of a place has less to do with the physical landscape than with the meanings we give to the location.’ (Sacred Places, p3)

When people perform acts at a place that are in harmony with its inner qualities’, Pennick suggests, ‘then these qualities are enhanced and increased.’ This is what he calls Spiritual Gardening, akin to the work of the geomancer, who enhances the feng shui of a place – the flow of the earth dragon – through placing of objects, running water, etc.

In Iceland these ‘dragons’ are called landvaettir – landwights or earth spirits ‘where certain areas and landholdings were kept sacred’.

Mag Mell, ‘plain of joy’ is another Elysium…It is dealt with extensively in Maculloch’s article in The Druid’s Voice. We will instead venture further North.

Thule

It is easy to see why a dramatic country on the edge of the Arctic Circle is known as the land of ice and fire: Iceland. There is a strong Icelandic storytelling tradition, no doubt born out of the very long dark nights. Its corpus of legends and folktales – imported mainly from Scandinavia when it was settled a thousand years ago – have been enhanced by the dramatic landscape. Iceland is associated with the legendary island of Thule (pronounced Thoolay) and seems to fit later descriptions of it. Ancient European descriptions and maps located it either in the far north, often northern Great Britain, possibly the Orkneys or Shetland Islands, or Scandinavia, but by the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance Thule had drifted further out, into the west and north, often Iceland or Greenland – perhaps as a result of the pushing back of the boundaries of the known world. Ultima Thule, as it was also known in medieval geographies seems to denote any distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world.” Some people use Ultima Thule as the Latin name for Greenland when Thule is used for Iceland. Iceland certainly is on the borders of known world – of both the American and Eurasian plates. It is one of the two places on Earth where it is possible to see this pulling apart of continent, and its ancient parliament, the Alþingi (All-Thing, as in the Manx Tynwald, Thing-Vollr: field of the parliament, with its own equivalent of Tynwald Hill, Law Rock) was held here, dramatically situated in its cleft like something out of Middle Earth. Here democracy was forged, but the justice it meted out was a keen-edged sword. Nearby is the ‘island of duels’, an island of sand formed in a manmade lake, created by a diverted river. Two men in dispute would go to it, only one could return – and the matter was settled. The trial-by-combat was viewed by judges, and not a few spectators one imagines! Holmganga is the Norse word for formalised single combat, meaning literally ‘going on an island’.

Fortunate Isles 
In the Fortunate Isles, also called the Isles (or Islands) of the Blessed (μακαρων νησοι makarôn nêsoi), heroes and other favored mortals in Greek mythology and Celtic mythology were received by the gods into a blissful paradise. These islands were thought to lie in the Western Ocean near the encircling River Oceanus; the Madeira and the Canary Islands have sometimes been cited as possible matches. Flavius Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana (book v.2) discussing these elusive islands, postulates:
the Islands of the Blessed are to be fixed by the limits of Libya where they rise towards the uninhabited promontory.’

The last phrase is a telling one – almost any ‘uninhabited promontory’ becomes susceptible to such speculative geography. Nature is not the only thing that abhors a vacuum. Mankind as populated the edges of the known with his imagination since the dawn of time.

Hyperborea

In ancient times Great Britain was famed as the island of the druid colleges, where trainee druids would come for instruction. Blake said:

All things begin and end on Albion’s ancient druid rocky shore.

Hyperborea, the Land Beyond the North Wind, is thought to refer to Britain: this is how it seemed to the Greeks – the back of beyond, dark, damp and primitive, the Antipodes of their zenith civilisation (from their perspective – that’s not to say there wasn’t civilisation below their radar in backwater Britain).

The earliest reference to the British Isles is as the ‘Tin Islands’ (Cassiterides, or Oestrymnides):

But from here it is two days journey by ship to the sacred island, as the ancients called it. This spreads its broad fields amongst the waves and far and wide the race of the Hierni inhabit it. Near it again lies the island of the Albiones

Massilote Periplus, c500 BCE

The ‘Hierni’ could well be the Hibernians, another name for the Irish, and the ‘island of the Albiones’ must surely be mainland Britain: Albion, inhabited by ‘the white ones’ – Caucasians. In my novel Windsmith, (awen 2006). I call these topographical ancestors The Chalk Folk. It is perhaps not surprising that ancient seafarers, presented with the white cliffs of Dover, called Britain the White Isle, however colourful its inhabitants – a home of migrant populations.

The classical myth is that Albion was a land formerly occupied by giants – cousins of the Tuatha de Danaan, the Irish aboriginal aristocracy diminised to ‘Little People’. These had conveniently vanished, justifying colonisation, although they had left their legacy in enigmatic stone temples.

Geoffrey of Monmouth compounded this creation myth in his History of the Kings of Britain, claiming Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, reached Britain, landing at Totnes in Devon, and dividing the land between his sons, Locrine, Camber and Alba (Logres; Cambria and Albion). This is a dindsenchas, a place-story, on a national scale.

It was thought by the Ancient Greeks that the god Apollo visited Hyperborea once in a course of nineteen years, a cycle known as the Great Year (‘in which period the stars complete their revolutions’ Hecateus). The ‘Temple of Apollo’ often alluded to could have been a reference to that great stone calendar Stonehenge. Britain was clearly a place was time itself was trapped in stone – as the myth that Cronus himself was chained beneath Hyperborea’s soil. Plutarch, in ‘The Decline of the Oracles’ recounts ‘the travels of Demetrius of Tarsus, an explorer sent out from Rome to survey the islands to the West of Britain. Demetrius describes a number of islands scattered in the sea. He met a few holy men who told him of a nearby isle where Cronus lay eternally imprisoned, watched over as he slept by the hundred-handed Briareus. Around about him were many daemons who acted as his servants.’

In Pindar’s Odes, we hear of such a place, guarded by fierce elementals:

Go by God’s road to the Tower of Cronus

Where the Airs, daughters of Ocean

Blow round the Island of the Blest

Pythean Odes, X, II

Long have wild seas and high winds kept all but the intrepid away from Britain’s coast, perhaps adding to its mystique. There is a Breton tradition that fishermen would ‘drop off’ the deceased on these haunted shores and it said they hear their names being called out. Author Robert Holdstock’s Merlin Codex depicts Britain as the Ghost Isle:

We were content on our island, the Island at the Edge of Dawn. Good plains for the wild hunt; good forests for the tangled hunt. Good valleys and hills. Good water. Groves where the vision of magic was comforting and sometimes enthralling.

Holdstock, The Broken Kings, p44

Islands in the Time-stream

Forbidden islands are common and the unwary traveller breaks the taboos of an otherworldly island at their peril. The immrama of the Celitc saints describe an archipelago of such Edenic places, each with their forbidden fruits – perhaps fantasized by ascetic monks, deprived of such pleasures. Ile de Sein, in the Atlantic off Cap-Sizun, ‘was once reputed to support a retinue of nine priestesses.’ This seems a common trope: the Cauldron of Plenty, held in Annwn, was ‘warmed by the breath of nine muses. This was held on Caer Wydyr (possibly Ynys Witryn) – the water-girdled fortress of crystal where nine maidens dwelt in an otherworldly place of seer-ship, itself echoing Merlin’s tower of seventy-seven windows, built for him by his sister, Ganeida – said to be located on Bardsey, with its square lighthouse, or more likely to be a kind of TARDIS, tucked into unlikely places, while the Arthurian timelord, ageing in reverse, tinkers with time.

My Mythic Reality novel The Well Under the Sea (RJ Stewart, 2009) is set on an island at the crossroads of time called Ashalantë, an amalgamation of the legends of Atlantis, Ys and Cantre’r Gwaelod. It is governed by The Nine, based upon the nine priestesses of Avalon, and contains all the classic elements of a paradisal island – orchards, fair weather, deathlessness, beautiful women, legendary heroes… At its heart is a well (based upon the mythical Well of Segais in terms of imagery, if not function) where its inhabitants, when bored of their life of Elysium can return to Earth – stripped of their ‘bodies’ and returned to their primal essence, to be reborn again.

The End Of All Our Exploring

As Oisín finds, however pleasant paradise – in his case, Tir nan Og – there’s no place like home. And this becomes literally true for him – he returns to find three hundred years have passed and all those he once loved and knew turned to dust. The centuries catch up with him in a flash when he accidentally touches the ground, and he finds himself an old, old man – a man out of his time, a lost hero from another era, a ghost in his own land. His home is ‘no place’ – utopia – and perhaps that is the nature of all such places, a state of mind, always elsewhere, always unattainable. They slip out of our grasp as we reach them, or, if we hold onto them we pay a price, as one of Maeldun’s men found on their immram – each time they tried to leave the Isle of Women, its queen would cast out a sticky thread to haul them back, until finally the man cut off his hand and they passed on.

Setting out for these places is not as difficult as returning – the perilous Road Home on the Hero’s Journey – to return with something tangible is not easy (as the Babylonian king Gilgamesh found – having quested for the flower of life, he falls asleep on the way back, exhausted by his ordeal, and a snake eats it). Perhaps the best we hope for is to accept their temptation, their transience, learn from them and let them go… Blake said ‘he who kisses a joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise’.

It is part of the pleasure of our immram that we perceive our own lands with a fresh perspective – strangers in an estranged land, the native returning from a long voyage of many years. In Four Quartets, TS Eliot says:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Little Gidding’ (239-242)

***

Expanded extract from Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden by Kevan Manwaring, published by Heart of Ablion Press, 2008 (www.hoap.co.uk)

References:

Anon, Kalevala, Athlone Press, 1985

Eliot, TS, The Four Quartets, Faber & Faber, 1943

Haeberlin, Herman K., ‘Trails to the Ghost Lands’, Sacred Hoop #57, 2007

Holdstock,Robert, The Broken Kings, Gollancz, 2007

Macculloch, JA, ‘The Celtic Elysium’, The Druid’s Voice, #18, 2008

Pemberton, Cintra, Soulfaring: Celtic Pilgrimage, Then and Now, SPCK 1999

Pennick, Nigel, Celtic Sacred Landscapes, Thames & Hudson, 1996

Trubshaw, Bob, Sacred Places: prehistory and popular imagination, Heart of Albion Press, 2005

Kevan Manwaring is a writer and storyteller who lives in Stroud. He is the author of over a dozen titles including Lost Islands, The Bardic Handbook, The Way of Awen, Turning the Wheel and The Windsmith Elegy.

Author website: http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk