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.’
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.
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