ANNWN - Otherworld or Netherworld?

It has been observed that Celtic otherworlds take three forms: in caves or under the hills, beneath lakes or seas, or on far-away islands. In a recent article about the Welsh name for the Otherworld, Bernard Mees and Nick Nicholas remark that "only the Welsh name Annwfn ... suggests an etymological notion of an otherworld" [*]. Suggested Brythonic orgins of the name are *an-dubnos ('not-world' or 'not-deep'[deep-notness?]) or *ande-dubnos ('underworld' or 'under-deep'). Also discussed is a Gaulish word antumnos, used in calling upon Dis or Prosperpine and therefore suggesting a nether world of darkness rather than a paradisal parallel realm.

The probable Greek origin of antumnos also suggests a dark, underworld location. The authors of the article find it unlikely that the supposed Brythonic term *an-dubnos was used without knowledge of its associations with the Greek Underworld. This may imply that its later associations with the 'Hell' of Christian tradition is not entirely a later overlay. Rather, as Mees and Nicholas suggest "... the entrance of the term to early Brythonic might even be plausibly connected with the development of the dual nature of the Insular Otherworld and Graeco-Roman influence: paradisaical and ageless on the one hand, sinister and Stygian on the other."

In this view, it seems that the Brythonic Celts wanted it both ways, not wishing to abandon the idea of a blissful parallel dimension to their own world but also paradoxically seeing it as a dark Underworld where the souls of the dead reside. If the fabric of these alternatives appear to have little in common with each other is this because, for us, ancestors and other-beings seem to require differently imagined locations?

Could we imagine otherwise?
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* Studia Celtica XLVI (2012) pp.23->

8 comments:

Bo said...

Not seem the article yet but it sounds rather contorted! Thanks for this discussion---very useful indeed and I'll check the article out.

Lorna Smithers said...

Could it not be possible that the Celtic Otherworld has always been as contrary and diverse as our world? Like here there are places of light and joy, as well as of darkness and terror. And that's possibly why the Graeco-Roman conceptions of Elysium and Hades seemed to fit with the Summerlands and Annwn?

Lorna Smithers said...

Could it not be possible that the Celtic Otherworld has always been as contrary and diverse as our world? Like here there are places of light and joy, as well as of darkness and terror. And that's possibly why the Graeco-Roman conceptions of Elysium and Hades seemed to fit with the Summerlands and Annwn?

Heron said...

I think the usual distinction, Lorna, is between a place imagined as a blissful parallel world inhabited by beings that are like us, or some sort of faerie domain, and one which is a place inhabited by the souls of the dead who once lived in our world such as the one described in a pagan context in Virgil's Aeneid, and in a christian context by Dante.

Certainly the authors of the article do seem to be suggesting the diversity you describe. But the usual Celtic Otherworld is not usually thought of as a land of the dead.

Lorna Smithers said...

That's an interesting point. Most of there references I've come across do refer to it as a land of the living. Yet when I've journeyed there I've met people who I believe to be ancestors who have died in this world. However they seem very much alive in the Otherworld and their presence, I think, can be felt here too. And this contrasts with Hades and hell as lands of the dead / places where souls seem trapped. Is this the kind of distinction you think the Celts experienced? Or don't you think they connected the dead with the Otherworld at all? I always thought burial with grave goods suggested that the Celts believed the soul journeyed to the Otherworld after death.

Heron said...

It's difficult to say for sure Lorna, but my personal intuition about this is that the Land of the Dead and the Otherworld were seen as different places. Certainly in the Irish material this seems to be the case. It seems likely to me that the two came to be confused when the Brythonic celts began to interact with the Roman world so that the Otherworld eventually became the abode of 'fairies'. But even in medieval stories such as those in the Mabinogi, inhabitants of either world visit the other and there is no association with Hell, though there is in other medieval references to Annwn. So I think the distinctions just got blurred.

As far as Ancestors are concerned I think this gets even more confused as different traditions overlap and their abode in the Land of the Dead and the idea that their spirits continue to inhabit the land run in parallel with new ideas about the location and nature of the Land[s] of the Dead.

Lorna Smithers said...

Yes, in the mabinogi the Otherworld seems more like a magical mirror of ours. In 'How Culwch won Olwen' and 'The Book of Taliesin' Annwn and Uffern become more like hell. But I don't think there is any mention of the dead residing there.

I guess it's through a combination of pagan Roman (Hades) and Saxon (Helheim) influences, two centuries of Christianity plus the syncretic anthropology and New Age trends of the 20th century that the 'Celtic' Otherworld has come to be seen as a land of ancestral deities, faeries and the dead. And the divisions between these beings are pretty blurry.

I think this is also down to the Celtic Twilight (although off the top of my head I can't think of anywhere Yeats and Mcleod equate the sidhe and the dead). The popularity of core shamanism and it's influence on people doing Celtic Shamanism such as Matthews, R.J.Stewart and Tom Cowan also seems to be a major contributor.

What a muddle!

A Heron's View said...

Well actually the celts were and some still are capable of seeing the logic of respecting two polar opposite opinions together.