Archive for September, 2011

Autumn Equinox blessings to everyone! May you all enjoy the Feast of Avalon (or Mabon, Harvest Home, Cornucopia, or whatever you call it). I so enjoy this time of year with the colorful leaves and cool weather that seems to require a good pot of tea.

OK, now we can get down to business.

Some of you might remember the vandalism suffered by the Holy Thorn tree in Glastonbury England last December. The thorn, which legend says sprouted from a staff stuck in the ground by Joseph of Arimathea, is sacred to many Christians as well as Avalonians who hold with the theory that Avalon was located in Glastonbury*.

This spring, Glastonbury locals watched to see if the tree would recover by putting up sprouts that could regrow the tree. It did indeed sprout, but now Glastonbury Mayor John Cole says that the trinkets that people are leaving as offerings to the tree are actually hampering its recovery. He also mentions that the many, many ribbons tied to the fence around the thorn are so plentiful as to be blocking sunlight from the sprouts.

To read more about this, see the full story at the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-15019937

* Yes, I plan on tackling the many suggested locations of Avalon in a series of posts sometime next year.

Catching Up On Posts:

Sorry to have neglected this little project the last couple of weeks. I plan to get us back on track next week with Part 4 of the “Avalon and the Otherworld” series with a post focused on the Welsh Annwn.

Everyone have a splendid Autumn Equinox weekend!

Thistle

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Now for the last two Irish Otherworlds we will cover (for now anyway). Again, it is unclear if these informed Geoffrey of Monmouth’s characterization of Avalon. But many Irish myths were recorded before those in other parts of Great Britain, so it is possible that their ancient origins shine through more clearly than in some later recorded myths.

Tir Na Nog

Here’s a confession: I’ve been to Tir Na Nog. No, really. And their shepherd’s pie is heavenly. OK, it was Tir Na Nog, the Irish restaurant and bar in Philadephia, PA, and not the one of myth.

You might think I’m being silly, but I’m actually making a point – Tir Na Nog is easily the most recognized name for the Irish Otherworld. It is often used for restaurants and bands, as a Google search will demonstrate (even a horse rescue uses it). And yet, finding serious information about it online or in my little home library proved difficult (admittedly, I didn’t have time to check the library of the local university). Most online sources I unearthed looked a bit questionable and definitely unsourced.

As mentioned in Part 1, W.Y. Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries lists Tir Na Nog along with many other spirit lands: “

It’s Tir-na-nog, ‘The Land of Youth’; Tir-Innambeo, ‘The Land of the Living’; Tir Tairnigire, ‘The Land of Promise’; Tir N-aill, ‘The Other Land (or World)’. . .” (pg 334)

And again, W.B. Yeats in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, treated Tir Na Nog as a categorization, placing it, Lough Lean (now lake of Killarney), Loughleagh (Lake of Healing), Hy-Brasil (Isle of the Blest), and the Phantom Isle into one group. This may be key, as you might notice the abundance of “Land of” titles to the Otherword in the Evans-Wentz quote above.

In his chapter introduction, Yeats relates how Tir Na Nog is the Land (or Country) of the Young, hidden from the natural courses of age and death. Several mortals are said to have gone to Tir Na Nog and returned – including Oisen the Bard. With his fairy wife Niamh, Oisen lived there for 300 years. Upon returning to the human world, his age caught up with him and he died not long after describing the fairy land. This is the same story associated with Emhain Ablach. Yeats reported that many people have claimed to see the isle since then and that these sightings often precede a national crisis.

It is said that this place is where the Tuatha De Danann moved after leaving the surface of Ireland. This, along with only a few mortals visiting it, supports the idea that Tir Na Nog is not really an afterlife place for everyone but a paradise for the faerie folk/gods and for very special humans.

Hy-Brasil (or just Brasil)

Hy-Brasil is a phantom island west of Ireland that is cloaked in mist. According to some, it is invisible except one day every seven years. At this special time, it is visible but mortals can never reach the isle. No matter how far or long they travel, it remains out of their reach. In other versions, it is visible much more often, but again can never be reached – at least not by common means.

Though its name sounds similar to Brazil the South American country, researchers do not see an association. Instead, it is suggested it might mean descendents of Breasal; Breasal was an ancient clan in Ireland.

Yeats relays a poem by Gerald Griffin, “Hy-Brasail – the Isle of the Blest,” about this mysterious place. The first verse goes:

“On the ocean that hollows the rocks where ye dwell,
A shadowy land has appeared, as they tell;
Men thought it a region of sunshine and rest,
And they called it Hy-Brasail, the isle of the blest.
From year unto year on the ocean’s blue rim,
The beautiful spectre showed lovely and dim;
The golden clouds curtained the deep where it lay,
And it looked like an Eden, away, far away!” (pg 212)

The poem goes on to tell of a peasant that hears about this wonderful place and set out to reach it, in spite of warnings, a rising wind, and that he was leaving a “holy” place, Ara. And as he travels that day, his home is farther away but Hy-Brasil never looks any closer. Still, he continues this journey. The poem ends:

“The warning of reason was spoken in vain;
He never revisited Ara again!
Night fell on the deep, amidst tempest and spray,
And he died on the waters, away, far away!”

Yeats also relates an account about the Phantom Isle, which seems to be Hy-Brasail. Some young men, spotting this island, set out to reach it by boat. When they were close enough that they thought they could get out of the boat and go ashore, the island disappeared. This was repeated the next day. On the third day, the young men took the advice of an elder and, when they were close to the Phantom Isle, they shot an arrow “barbed with red-hot steel” onto the island. This magically made it stationary and they were able to go ashore.

Yeats also mentions that witnesses claim to have seen Hy-Brasil even at the beginning of the 20th century.

Given its elusive behavior and that it requires the divine spark of fire (the red-hot steel) to make it stay put, I’m inclined to believe that Hy-Brasil is another place not meant for mortals. It’s easy to think of it as a parable – an ancient Irish version of “the grass is always greener on the other side” lesson.

Now that we’re done with the Irish myths for a while, do you have any thoughts on these elusive isles? Do you think they might be what inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth? Or have you done more extensive research on these and would like to add anything? Do feel free to add to the conversation.In Part 4 of this series, we will look at possible Welsh inspirations.

Until next time, bright blessings!

Thistle

Sources

Evans-Wentz, W.Y., The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. New York, New York: Citadel Press, 1994.

Yeats, W.B., Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. New York, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1986.

Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C3%ADr_na_nÓg and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hy-Brasil

Addition: Check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4.

© 2011 PJ Graham

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