Tag Archives: Avalon

Deep Time, Deep Love

Saturday 9th May: Deep Time launch, Stroud

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Saturday saw the culmination of a lifetime’s obsession – the publication of my friend Anthony Nanson’s first novel, Deep Time. This 300 thousand plus word magnum opus Nanson has been plotting and planning consciously since the mid-Eighties, but as a charming childhood booklet, The Lost World, revealed read out by Anthony’s father, the author had been haunted by dinosaurs and the depths of time for a long time (in human terms). Many friends and family gathered at the ‘British School’, behind the popular Star Anise Café at the bottom of town, to celebrate Anthony’s 50th birthday on – and what a way to celebrate: with the launch of the handsome trade paperback edition of Deep Time by innovative Stroud-based publisher, Hawthorn Press. The dress code was ‘tropical’ and some guests had made a real effort with the costumes. We were invited from 7pm although things didn’t really kick off officially until nearly 9pm – Anthony wanted people to have plenty of time to mingle and browse the book, or rather books, as it was a double book launch – the other title, Ecozoa, published by Permanent Publications, is the new collection by radical Frome-based eco-poet, Helen Moore (another dear friend from my Bath days). Anthony, in his typically gracious way, shared the limelight with Helen – their work was thematically simpatico, and she also celebrated her birthday – as well as with other bardic friends. David Metcalfe, long-time host of the Bath Storytelling Circle MC ed the evening with his usual gravitas, starting with the crowd-pleasing Big Yellow Taxi (setting the ecobardic tone of the evening). Local poet singer Jehanne Mehta – another birthday girl (on the actual day itself – Helen and Anthony’s straddle either side of it) recited a couple of stirring poems about Albion (another Blakean nod) and Wales. Poet and psychotherapist Jay Ramsay introduced Helen most eloquently and passionately. Helen performed 4 poems from the collection, one from each ‘zoa’ (the collection is structured on the 4 Zoas of Blake) with her trademark sincerity and clarity.

Some of the glamorous inhabitants of the Ecozoic - poet Helen Moore (centre) with friends. By Kevan Manwaring

Join the Party! Some of the glamorous inhabitants of the Ecozoic – poet Helen Moore (centre) with friends. By Kevan Manwaring

Then fellow Bath Spa lecturer Mimi Thebo introduced Anthony, singing his praises, before Anthony introduced the book and the long journey of its evolution. Jay was invited back up to recite his epigraphic poem, before Anthony regaled us with an extract recited, impressively, from memory. Holding the book like some peripatetic preacher wielding his bible for authority (as John Wesley probably did, preaching from a butcher’s block in the Shambles, when he used to pass through Stroud), Anthony conjured up his vision of deep time with conviction and storytelling brio. He held the audience spell-bound. Some earlier drumming by Jay and local artist Herewood Gabriel evoke some kind of tribal aesthetic, and Anthony’s word-sparks now conjured up the story fire of the rainforest, the textual simulacrum of such now brought to life with his living breath. Afterwards, glasses were charged for some heartfelt toasts – to his publishers and to his parents, most poignantly his mother, whose ill health prevented her from attending. Anthony’s father took to the stage to share the embryo text from Anthony’s childhood palaeome. Finally, David finished off with his stirring version of ‘She Moves Through the Fair’. And then the revels continued for a little while longer – dinosaur cupcakes were to be imbibed (raising money for a children’s’ cancer charity) and hearty Adnams ale from Southwold, courtesy of Kirsty’s generous stepfather, Dave. There was much clearing up but many hands made light work. The babies’ respective heads had been wetted, and guests departed heart-warmed by this double-birth spectacle, but more from the quality of love that poured towards the man at the heart of it all, enjoying the harvest of half a century.

Deep Time is available from Hawthorn Press: http://www.hawthornpress.com/books/art-and-science/deep-time/

Read Anthony’s blog (with guest poet from Helen) here: https://nansondeeptime.wordpress.com/

Ecozoa Cover

Ecozoa is available from Permanent Publications: http://permanentpublications.co.uk/port/ecozoa-by-helen-moore/

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

Isles of the Dead

ISLES OF THE DEAD

Where do we go when we die? This question has haunted humankind for millennia and although no firm proof has come to light there’s no shortage of theories! This article attempts to make a minor foray into this nebula of super-abundant speculation, on a raid in the spirit of King Arthur’s – as recorded in Taliesin’s poem ‘Preiddu Annwn’ (where the Pendragon wins the fabled Cauldron of Plenty from the Underworld). We will focus on two grails here – isles of the dead and islands of the ever-living – which often overlap like a vesica pisces, and it is perhaps only in that ‘space between’, that mandorla, that such places can ultimately be found: in the liminal cracks of knowledge and in a ‘between’ state of mind.

There’s a plethora of lost islands, as I explore in my book of that name, but here the focus will be on funerary islands. So, in the words of Pope John-Paul-George-and-Ringo: ‘turn off your mind, relax and float down stream…’ as we voyage to the isles of the deceased and the deathless.

Isles of the Dead

There are many islands of the dead both actual and mythical, although by their very nature, the former overlap with the latter: they have an otherworldly nature by design. They are meant to serve as an interface between the quick and the dead: a terminal to life’s journey; an entreport to the deadlands. Here we’ll look at a few examples, scattered around the British Isles and beyond; with the awareness that we enter treacherous waters: for where one ends and the other begins is hard to gauge. Real funerary islands have a mythic atmosphere, and mythical isles of the dead blur into islands of the ever-living: mortality becomes immortality.

Cintra Pemberton, in Soulfaring says: ‘Islands to the west, lying in the path of the setting sun, figure strongly in Celtic legends and myths, where they are usually seen to be “dwelling places of the blessed dead”.

Rolleston, in his classic Celtic Myths and Legends describes how the whole of Great Britain itself was perceived as a Land of the Dead to the Classical World:

” According to an unknown writer cited by Plutarch, who died about the year 120 of the present era, and also by Procopius, who wrote in the sixth century a.d., ‘ the Land of the Dead’ is the western extremity of Great Britain, separated from the eastern by an im­passable wall. On the northern coast of Gaul, says the legend, is a populace of mariners whose business is to carry the dead across from the continent to their last abode in the island of Britain. The mariners, awakened in the night by the whisperings of some mysterious voice, arise and go down to the shore, where they find ships awaiting them which are not their own, and, in these, invisible beings, under whose weight the vessels sink almost to the gunwales. They go on board, and with a single stroke of the oar, says one text, in one hour, says another, they arrive at their destination, though with their own vessels, aided by sails, it would have taken them at least a day and a night to reach the coast of Britain. When they come to the other shore the invisible passengers land, and at the same time the unloaded ships are seen to rise above the waves, and a voice is heard announcing the names of the new arrivals, who have just been added to the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead.’

From Celtic Myths and Legends, TW Rolleston

Manx fisherman offered this prayer to the sea as the put off from Manannan’s eponymous isle:

Manannan beg Mac y Lir,

Little Manannan, son of the sea,

Who blessed our island,

Bless us and our boat, going out well,

Coming back better with both living and dead aboard.

This could have just referred to their catch, but seems to have a psychopompic or placatory function to.

Bardsey Island, off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, Wales, is reputed to be the Isle of Twenty Thousand Saints. One of its appellations is Bangor Gadfan, after St Cadfan, who colonised it in 516 CE. His successor, St Lleuddad ab Dingad was visited by an angel who granted him requests. One of them was that the soul of anyone buried on the island should not go to Hell. This was apparently granted and Bardsey became des res for the dead! The 12th Century poet Meilir prayed in his ‘Death-bed of the Bard’ that he might be buried there. Its Welsh name is Ynys Enlli, the Island in the Currents, hinting at how difficult it is to get there – 3 trips to Bardsey was equivalent of one trip to Rome, in the medieval form of carbon credits, pilgrim points, God’s air miles. It lies at the end of a western pilgrim age route like Santiago de Compstella, dotted with water-chapels like St Cybbi’s Well, to refresh the thirsty, foot-sore pilgrims.

Yet some islands are surprisingly close. In Kent, there lies Thanet, literally ‘the dead isle’ (from the latin for death, thanatos). Bernard Cornwell, in The Winter King, describes what John Cowper Powys called the Isle of Slingers (Portland in Dorset) as serving the same function, a Dark Age isle of the dead or damned, and to this day its ugly rock-breaking penal colony atmosphere gives it still the same blighted ambience – a gobbet of gritty phlegm at the end of the longest spit in the world, Chesil Beach.

In a nod to her mythic name and fate, the late Princess Diana was said to have been laid to rest on an island in a lake at Althorpe, the Spencer estate near Northampton. However, this seems to have been a ruse to throw morbid tourists and potential grave robbers off the scent. She was apparently laid to rest in the family vault at the nearby church, St John’s, Little Brington. The watery memorial in Hyde Park was an allusion to this ‘Isle of Diana’, one that was widely accessible to tourists, similarly diverting them from her actual resting place. The memorial’s flowing design was intended to ‘reflect Diana’s life’ and symbolise her ‘quality and openness’ (www.royalparks.org.uk, accessed 20/0707). Both are modern examples of ‘isles of the dead’, illustrating the mythic power such places have. Such islands are cut-off from everyday life – we can visit it to pay our respects and then gratefully return.

The burial of royalty on islands, real or otherwise, is not unprecedented. The burial place of Pictish kings, the Isle of Lismore, off the Benderlock Coast Pennick tells us that Lismore in Gaelic means ‘great garden’, a ‘poetic kenning for the otherworldly garden-island of Avalon’. (Pennick, p112)

Iona is known as the burial place kings, and title it has some bona fide claim to: 48 kings of Scotland, plus monarchs of France and Norway, totalling 60 Royal burials. Macduff, referring to Iona, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, described it as: ‘The sacred storehouse of his predecessors, and guardians of their bones’.

Pennick describes the Isles of the Blest et al in Celtic Belief as a third way between Heaven and Hell (as in the Bonny Bonny Road of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ – the way to ‘fair Elfland’):

This timeless island paradise lies somewhere to the west in the ocean. At death, one ‘goes west’. Celtic burial islands predominantly lie to the west of the land of the living. Only by means of the ship of the dead can the deceased person be brought there. Important people were buried by the shore in the ship that carried them across the sea, enabling them to travel onwards in the world of the dead.’

(Pennick, p111)

King Arthur famously goes to the Isle of Avalon to ‘heal me of my grievous wounds’ as immortalised by Tennyson in ‘Morte D’Arthur’ and captured by numerous artists. The Isle of Scilly, called by some the Fortunate Isles lay claim to not one but two graves of Arthur!

The Viking Ship Burial at Barradoole, Chapel Hill, Isle of Man is a classic example of how this common eschatology – the voyage to the otherworld aboard a boat – crops up again and again in world mythology: Gilgamesh journeys to meet Utnapishtim and his wife (the survivors of the Flood) aboard a boat, bearing two poles – which dissolve each time he punts, so he needs one for the return journey. This is mirrored in the tradition of two coins placed over the eyes of the deceased, to pay the Ferryman of the dead, Charon, whose lot is to convey souls recently born into death across the river Styx.

Viking ship burial at Barradoole, Isle of Man. Photograph by author.

At Sutton Hoo we have another famous example – here, an actual ship buried beneath a mound, stacked with grave goods.

Sutton Hoo plan

Two otherworldly rivers are crossed by the shaman of the Salish People from what is now Washington State, NW USA – who use spirit-canoes to retrieve lost souls in the sbeteda’q ceremony. Using song and sacred paddles – and two parallel rows of men to act as crew for the two canoes needed for the rescue mission – the medicine man ‘captain’ hazards a journey to the Land of the Dead. This afterlife realm is situated, like so many, in the west. There, everything is reversed:

the seasons and also the times of the day in the Land of the Dead are exactly opposite to what they are in this world. When it is midwinter here, it is midsummer there, and when it is night here, it is daytime there. (Haeberlin)

 

Canoes of the dead in The Painted Cave, Niah National Park, Sarawak, Malaysia. Discovered in 1958. Photography by Chai Nam Lin

Similar ‘death-canoes’ theauthor visited in the Northern Philippines – made of stone. These were located in caves connected to an underground river system – which floods abruptly, as it did when the author traversed it, narrowly missed being washed away!

Such places are reminiscent of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, the laudanum-fuelled reverie which is set in the Otherworldly analogue, Xanadu: ‘…where Alph the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea…’ Coleridge walked on the Mendip hills with his fellow poet Robert Southey, and may have been thinking of Wookey Hole, with its river-carved caverns. HG Wells spent some time in Wookey and was inspired by the caverns while writing his classic The Time Machine – perhaps he imagined the original Mesolithic dwellers as Molochs. The hills above Wookey are littered with Bronze Age round-barrows – and seem to have been considered, based upon this evidence, as hills of the dead. Coming from the Southwest across an inundated Somerset Levels, the effect would not have been dissimilar to Böcklin’s painting. Here was the Island of the Dead: the monument-littered landscape of Britain an open mortuary house.

There is the possibility that these caves, at Wookey, are the entrance to Annwn – rather than Glastonbury Tor – a far more convincing abode for Gwynn ap Nudd, the West Country’s version of Hades or Pluto. Another source, the Vita Merlini, cites Aquae Sulis (modern day Bath) as the portal to Avalon – not Glastonbury – and with its hot springs caused by a 4km fault in the Earth, echoed by its name (Aquae Sulis: ‘waters of the gap’, according to RJ Stewart) there is perhaps some sense in this. Certainly a sea-faring ship could have made it up the Avon as far as Pulteney Weir (built over a natural shift in the river’s level), where sea-borne travellers could have alighted to approach the sacred springs – second only to Delphi in the Classical World –

with their own pythia, seer-priestesses, uttering their gnomic prophecies from their fume-filled scrying chambers. A place to glimpse behind the veil.

Author Robert Holdstock charts the unknown regions of the ancestors in his haunting novels. In his Merlin Codex it is Jason’s ship the Argo which acts as a funerary barge – filled with sinister sentience: ‘She will not be my coffin, she will be the vessel that takes me to the grave.’

The stone ship of Barradoole is aligned with both Snaefell – the white peak at Mann’s heart, literally ‘snow mountain’ – and the setting sun. This seems to be a common belief – the soul went west at death, towards the setting sun – perhaps in the hope it would be reborn. Nigel Pennick, in Celtic Sacred Landscapes, echoes this:

West is the direction in which the sun sets beneath the earth, symbolising the end of the life cycle, and the place to which souls must go before being reborn into another life’.

The reliable way the sun sets and is reborn again has reassured those concerned with death since the dawn of human time. It is seen in many cultures of a sign of the soul’s rebirth. Also, on a very practical level, sun=life. Without it, the world descends into darkness, coldness and, eventually, death. The world would not live without the sun, and every night in a small way, and every winter, in a greater way, we are reminded of that fact. With dawn, and with the Winter Solstice, all things are made good again. The night is defeated, for now. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris in his boat of a million years travels through the body of Night (Nut) each night, to be reborn resplendent every day (Ra), foreshadowing the perilous journey that the soul must undertake at the point of death – passing gates of trials, of soul-winnowing – if it is to return to the Source. Psychopompic funeral ballads like ‘The Lyke Wake Dirge’ provide not only sonic portals for exiting souls, but also a clear geography of the Afterlands – the Whinny Muir, the Brig o’ Dread – for the soul to be tested by and to remember… island-states to pass through, which perhaps actual death-islands provide an earthly analogue for.

On a practical level it makes sense to bury dead on an island – especially plague victims, so that any infection can not spread to the mainland. The consecrated parameters of a cemetery separate it from the mundane and an island goes one step further. Water is said to be a barrier of psychic protection, but perhaps such islands protect the quick from the dead, preventing the fatal infection of death, a form of quarantine. Few cultures live amongst their dead. The dead are blessed pariahs – cast out from society, from the wheel of life, and yet honoured. They must dwell apart, as though in a kind of leper colony. We visit in acts of charitable kindness, but are glad to go back to our warm homes, washing our hands with a shudder. Festivals of the Dead, as in Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and more anaemically, our own mainstream Halloween, bring the dead, the ancestors, back into the temporal world for a brief while. But this is an aberration – an authorised inversion of the status quo, before the dead are firmly placed back where they belong, out of sight, out of mind.

The Isles of the Dead are no place for the living. But some otherworldly islands have held a perennial appeal to the human imagination, as places of deep beauty, plenty, peace and longevity – the Islands of the Ever-Living.

Continued in Part Two

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

ISBN: 978-1-905646-07-4 £14.95 Available from all good bookshops.

References:

Anon, Kalevala, Athlone Press, 1985

Robert Holdstock, The Iron Grail, Gollancz, 2006

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

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

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

Want to visit an isle of the Dead…? Then check out

The Well Under the Sea – my ‘lost island’ novel…

Imagine an island at the crossroads of time where lost souls find each other…

Isambard Kerne, Royal Flying Corps observer, is a man alive in the lands of the dead. Having learnt the secrets of the East Wind, the reluctant adventurer must sail into the west, to Hyperzephyrus – Land Beyond the West Wind. With the help of Barinthus, a mysterious boatman, he travels to the fabled Island of the Blessed, Ashalantë, a city in the sea crafted by dreams. Here he has to endure the Circle of Truth and embrace the shadow of his deeds. He meets Amelia Earhart, legendary aviatrix of the Thirties, who is assigned to him as his angel to instruct him in the art of flying. The air ace and the windsmith find themselves falling in love, but if Earhart, a Priestess of the Well, breaks her vows, it could shatter the sacred bond of the Nine Sisters and cause the downfall of Ashalantë. Torn between duty and desire, Kerne and Earhart find themselves embroiled in a chain of events that threaten to bring about the destruction of not only the otherworldly paradise, but its shadow: Earth.

Published by Awen Publications 21 March 2012

Available from Amazon

Making Hay

Making Hay

11-14 June

Green Scythe Fair - deepest Somerset

Just back from three days in Avalon – Scythe Fair today, book launch yesterday and storytelling show on Friday (which was actually in Taunton, but it was called ‘Otherworlds’ so I’m including it!).

Friday afternoon Richard and I made our way down in the sun to Taunton – where we had a gig at the Brewhouse. We compiled an anthology show called ‘Otherworlds’ – I did a couple of stories from hotter climes (Al-Andalus; Yemen) and an Irish myth. Richard did stories from Scotland,

Ireland and ‘the fifth quarter’ – Romney Marsh. The set seemed to complement and flow well – but we could have done with a few more. We were competing with a squaddie dance company in the main auditorium – clearly more to Tauntonian taste (or perhaps it was the footie and the sun). Still the venue was impressive, felt well-received by our small but appreciative audience (‘absolutely brilliant!’) and had an enjoyable jolly. We sank a couple of well-earned beers (‘Wayland Smithy from the White Horse Brewery) when we got back. It was good to be doing some pro-storytelling again (last time was Italy).

Launching The Way of Awen at Cat & Cauldron, Glastonbury

The next day I prepared for my big book launch at the Cat & Cauldron in Glasto that afternoon. I enjoyed riding down to Avalon on my Triumph Legend with a box of books on the back. It promised to be a special night and it didn’t disappoint. We had a decent turn-out at Trevor and Liz’s shop – the launch had been timed to coincide with the OBOD bash in Town Hall. When I launched the companion volume, The Bardic Handbook, four years ago at Gothic Image we had a great turn out – with the late John Michell; Philip Carr-Gom; Ronald Hutton; and Michael Dames turning up (it turned out they were in town for the OBOD bash which I didn’t know was on – afterwards I was invited along – so I organised this one to synchronise).

The Bard and the Druid - Philip Carr-gom pops in to my book launch

Making it feel like full circle was having the first Bard of Glastonbury, Tim Hall, there who kindly played a mini-set, as he had done at my launch in 2006. It created a lovely atmosphere.

Tim Hall plays at my launch, Cat & Cauldron, Glastonbury - with friends Amber & Phil

I introduced the book and read out a small selection of poems, which were well received. There were some good questions and the vibe was good. I left with only a couple of copies of the book – one of which I gave to Ronald Hutton and Ana Adnoch when I bumped into them at the OBOD gathering. It was great to go there afterwards, as a guest – launching a book 20 years in the making deserves a good knees up! Thanks to Philip I also got my friends, Nigel and Karola, in as well. We got ourselves a plate of food and enjoyed the bardic entertainment. Ended up having a dance with my old Dutch friend Eva – who I met on Glastonbury Tor one solstice twenty years ago! Bid farewell to my friend Nigel and staggered back to Amanda’s yurt, which she had kindly offered me for the night. My friend Karola had the short straw – sharing with me – and having to put up with wine-induced snoring but we’re good friends and she didn’t kick me once!

a Legend by the Tor

The next morning, after a much needed full monty (breakfast) and walk up the Tor, I went to the Green Scythe Fair in deepest Zummerset – riding passed scores of bikers on classic bikes out for a blat heading in the other direction, and hamlets with names like Little Gurning, I finally found the site – a campsite called Thorney Lakes near a village called Mulcheney Ham. It was only a fiver to get in – and you got free tea and cake if you came on a bike – I tried my luck but didn’t convince the lady in the tea tent (who had come down on a Bonnie). I bumped into folk and bimbled about, enjoying the ambience. You felt like you were breathing in carbon credits just walking about. It’s a very positive event with lots of green solutions – alternative fuel, food, housing, clothing, education – as well as being relaxed, picturesque (and picaresque) and just the right size. If it had a theme tune it’d be ‘Heavy Horses’ by Jethro Tull. It was very Hardy-esque and felt like something you’d expect to see Gabriel Oak at. There were scything championships – all very serious stuff (involving plenty of liquid preparation). Competitors carefully whetted their blades and assessed the quality of the grass. There were lots of wonderful craft stalls, info tents and music – including my friends Tim Hall and the Architypes (sic), who performed on Sangers fabulous horse-drawn solar-powered stage. There were bands with names like ‘Bag o’ Rats’ – who played ‘psychedelic folk’ to a good-natured crowd mellow on zider. There was plenty of fresh grass cuttings for kids to play with – and it kept them amused for hours (a Battle Royale grass fight; several grass burials took place). The sky had been darkly ominous all afternoon (a bit Bergman-esque with the reapers hanging around – as though waiting for a game of chess with Max Von Sydow). At one point the heavens opened and I found myself standing under a gazebo in a sandpit to stay dry. A rainbow came out soon after. After a suitably drunken delay (a missing cup) the scything champion was announced (4th year in a row) and the MC said the standard was so high he was confident we were now ‘ready for Europe’ – though the World Cup and Olympics might have to wait. I made my way back soon after – glad to get back after a fine weekend away.

I though the magic would be over with a stack of OU marking facing me Monday morning, but then a call from my friend Helen at midday meant I ended up going on a lovely trip down the river Avon to celebrate her birthday (‘life’s too short,’ she said, and she’s right – carpe deum!). We found a sunny spot to stop for a fabulous picnic. I read out some of my poetry, including ‘Let Love Be Our River’, and on the way back recited some Elizabeth Barratt Browning and Thomas the Rhymer as the ladies rowed (they insisted after us guys had rowed on the way out). It was all very Wind in the Willows. Very relaxing!

picnic by the river - Helen's birthday