This article was first published on #FolkoreThursday.com under the title, Exploring the Otherworld of the Celts, on 18 March, 20211, written by zteve t evans.
The concept of a magical, mysterious, “Otherworld” has been a common component in many myths and legends of diverse human cultures all around the world throughout history. The ancient Celtic people also had their own ideas of this enigmatic and ethereal region. Their territories included Ireland, the United Kingdom and a swathe of continental Europe, including areas of the Iberian Peninsula and Anatolia. As such there were variations in philosophies concerning this world and the next from region to region. Presented here is a brief exploration of their idea of the Otherworld and how it appears in different Celtic regions.
The Celtic Otherworld is sometimes presented as the realm where their deities lived, or the place of their dead and sometimes both. Other stories tell of a magical paradise where people enjoyed eternal youth, good health and beauty, living in joy and abundance with all their needs satisfied. It could also be the abode of the fairies, Twylyth Teg, Aos Sí and many other similar magical entities.
Entry to the Otherworld
The Otherworld is usually hidden and difficult to find but certain worthy people manage to reach it through their own efforts. Others may be invited, or escorted by one of its dwellers, or given signs to follow. Sometimes entry is gained through ancient burial mounds or by crossing over, or under, water, such as a river, pool or the sea. There are also special places such as certain lakes, bogs, caves, burial mounds or hills where access to and from the Otherworld can be gained. Another idea is that the Otherworld exists in a different dimension alongside the earthly one as a kind of mirror-world. At certain times of the year, such as Samhain and Beltane, the veil that separates the two grows thin, or withdraws, making entry and exit easier.
Presented here is a retelling of an Anansi tale found in West African Folktales by William H. Barker and Cecilia Sinclair. Anansi the spider is a trickster who has many roles in the folklore and traditions of West Africa, Jamaica and throughout the African diaspora. He features in many roles in many tales sometimes as a hero bringing knowledge and benefits to humans or as a villain. Anansi tales explore human nature and very often by contrasting his behaviour with that of other characters or situations in the story important lessons are found as is the case in the following story.
ANANSI AND NOTHING
Anansi lived in a rundown shack and his nearest neighbor was someone called Nothing who was exceedingly rich and lived in a grand and luxurious palace. One day Anansi and Nothing decided to go into town with the purpose of both finding a wife. They set off and as they were walking along Anansi became aware of the great contrast in their appearances that revealed their financial status for all to see. Whereas he was dressed in ragged old cotton clothing, Nothing was smartly attired in fine velvet and satin. Anansi was dismayed. He knew there would be competition between the two and women would want to be the wife of the smart and affluent Nothing instead of himself.
After carefully considering the situation he came up with a plan. Nothing liked to be flattered so he told him how smart he thought he looked today. As he expected Nothing was pleased and very flattered. Anansi then gently and very politely asked Nothing, if he may try on his clothing to see what it was like to wear such fine apparel. He promised he would give it back before they reached town.
Again Nothing felt flattered and allowed Anansi to wear his clothes on the condition that they put on their own clothes before they entered town. When they reached the outskirts of town Nothing reminded Anansi of his promise. Anansi made many excuses on false pretexts not to change clothing and refused to comply. All of Nothing’s pleas fell on deaf ears so he had to continue wearing Anansi’s old cotton rags, much to his displeasure and ire.
ATTRACTING A WIFE
At last they arrived in the town center where it was the custom for people to gathee to show off their finest clothes and parade up and down hoping to attract a spouse. Anansi, wearing Nothing’s fine clothing of velvet and satin soon came to the attention of the women. They flocked around him and he had the pick of the best. He was greatly admired and could have had as many wives as he wished but he chose just one knowing he would somehow have to support her.
In comparison, Nothing dressed in Anansi’s old cotton rags was being ignored and worse still the subject of much derision by the women. Eventually, one woman saw more to him than his clothes and offered to become his wife. All the other women laughed and taunted her for wanting to be the wife of such an impoverished and raggedly man as Nothing appeared to be. However she was a woman who knew her own mind and very wisely ignored them.
Anansi chose the most beautiful woman of the many who flocked around him, making the others madly jealous. With the matter of marriage now decided, Anansi and Nothing accompanied by their respective wives, went home. However, when they reached the point where the road split into two paths which led to their new husband’s homes the two wives were in for a surprise.
When Nothing reached the path to his grand house all the servants ran out to greet him and his new wife. All around the house the servants had decorated it in bright colors and inside had prepared a lavish wedding feast for the couple to enjoy. Nothing’s new wife was happily surprised as they dressed her and her husband in fine clothing and escorted them singing and dancing along the path into the house. Anansi, to the shock of his new wife, led her up his path which was but dirt and ashes to his tumbledown shack. There was no one to greet these two newlyweds, no food, no decorations and no servants singing happy songs.
Nothing’s wife was well rewarded for her perceptiveness and judgement. Instead of being the wife of a pauper she was the wife of the richest man in the entire district. She lived in a grand and luxurious house, ate the best food, wore the finest clothes and lived like a queen. In comparison, the wife of Anansi lived in a tumbledown hovel. She was forced to eat the cheapest food and had to wear old cotton rags for clothes.
Nothing’s wife was a generous and compassionate woman. Despite having been subject to taunts and derision by her initial decision to marry the seemingly poor Nothing, she invited Anansi’s wife to visit her. Not because she wanted to get her own back or gloat but because she was kind and generous and wanted to help her.
When she arrived she was very impressed by the luxury and good life Nothing’s wife lived. Furthermore, she saw how wrong she had been to judge a person by the cut and splendor of their clothes. She begged Nothing’s wife for her forgiveness and told her of her miserable impoverished existence with Anansi. Nothing’s wife told her she was welcome to stay in her home if she did not want to go back to Anansi.
When his wife did not return and he discovered why Anansi was very angry. He blamed Nothing and decided he would take revenge by murdering him. He tried several times but without success but then hit on a plan. He persuaded some rat friends of his to dig a deep tunnel just before Nothing’s front door. After they had dug the hole he lined it with knives, spikes and broken glass and finally smeared oil upon the front step to make it very slippery. Then he hid himself in the garden and waited until it grew dark and those in the house had gone to bed. Softly he called through the window for Nothing to come out into the garden to see what was there.
On hearing a voice in the night Nothing got up to investigate but his wife, using her good sense and judgement dissuaded him from going outside. This was repeated for several nights running with his wife stopping him going outside each time. Eventually, he grew angry with the voice when it called again and would not listen to his wife. Angrily, he marched out the front to confront the voice but as he stepped out he slipped and the ground fell away below him and he tumbled into the trap Anansi had set.
His wife and servants heard him cry out and rushed to the front door but his wife stopped the servants from rushing out. Carefully opening the door and looking this way and that she found him dead in the hole pierced by many spikes and knives and cut by broken glass.
CRYING FOR NOTHING
His wife was heart-broken by his death and grieved greatly. In the hope of alleviating her grief, she followed the local tradition of cooking and sharing yams. She took them around to each of her neighbors and especially the children so that they might help her to cry out her grief. This is why when you ask why a child is crying you will often be told, “They are crying for Nothing!”