I recently had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Luke Dysinger, a Benedictine monk who shared his take on the history of the early Christian church and the societal reasons for its appeal. The picture he painted of the world in which Christianity took root was a view I had never considered before. The gods of various cultures, dominated by Greek and Roman pantheons, were beings to fear. He said, “You made offerings to these gods at their shrines in an attempt to convince them to ignore you.” If they paid any attention to you, it wasn’t to help you, but to screw up your life purely for their entertainment. You needed to appease them, get them to look the other way while you lived your life with as little interference as possible from the gods.
When world building, as we fantasy writers must, we consider the relationship of our characters with the gods that rule that realm. In writing Three Wells of the Sea, I researched the Celtic view of the Otherworld extensively. One of the primary reasons the Roman legions feared battle with the Celts was that the Celts did not fear death. Not only did they not fear it, they embraced it. They believed that death was just a birth in another world. This belief in “transmigration of the soul” has often been confused with reincarnation. The difference between the Celt’s view and the standard Hindu/Buddhist view is that the person was born into a physically different realm.
This realm is called by many names in Celtic mythology — Tir na nOg or the Land of Youth, the Land of Apples, the Plains of Delight. In later years, it became disguised as the Land of Faery. But the interesting thing to me is that it was perceived as a different world where the soul would live out another lifetime, often paying debts accrued in this world. It’s well known that the Celts would borrow money or land with the agreement that they would repay the debt in the next world. With the birth of a child they would mourn the death of the babe in the Otherworld before they would hold a celebration to mark the birth. Likewise, a death was celebrated with feasting and music after mourning their loss. The Irish wake is the remnant of this.
Where is this other world? The Celts believed the sun lit that other world during our night and that wells and caverns were passageways that might lead one there. Water that springs from the earth had a clear origin and link with that other realm and the magic inherent in it.
The Picts, known for painting or tattooing their bodies, also left enigmatic stone carvings long debated by scholars. When I look at the design known as the “Z rod” used in so many Pictish stone carvings, I see a direct expression of this dual Earth design. A Z-shaped object with leafy sprouts on both ends zigzags between two circles that might be pools or wells. It brings to mind a tree that grows in two worlds, sharing roots deep underground.
Perhaps we all design our personal Otherworld, creating the reality our soul will step into when we leave this life. I’ve got mine all figured out. How about you?