Fae winds and tiny lights may sometimes alert us to subtle changes in our place of being, whether they appear in a tale or as we climb up a hillside. Either way they signal a risk of enchantment, a visit from something, or someone, supernatural and we must make shrewd and canny choices about what may happen next….
The wind bites. It is freezing cold.
You walk up the path bent against the stinging rain. The threshold of the cave gapes ahead like a wide toothless mouth in the cliff. Waves are crashing noisily below, a sinister order in their chaos.
You hesitate at the entrance. There will be shelter inside but there are rumours of other things: old wives, and young ones too, talk of a gateway, an entrance to another world.
It is cold on the cliff but you are curious. You turn towards the cave. The blackness is darker than night, curiously inviting. You step over the threshold.
Immediately your senses sharpen, your eyes hopelessly straining to make sense of the dark, tuning your ears to the defending silence beyond the drip, drip, drip of unseen water. You can smell the salt and the chill and the scent of the unknown and you feel the breath of ages upon your skin.
And there! A faint strain of a melody? No, surely a sea bird.
A faint laugh carried on the cold draughts? Maybe a storm petrel ?…curious. You turn to go but glancing back you see a tiny light in the distant black…
We cannot be sure how our ancestors conceived the notion of another realm, an ‘other’ world, an ‘after’ life, although archaeological evidence suggests they did have beliefs and desires concerning other worlds where the dead, and the living, may journey.
And to facilitate their passage to these realms they buried their dead under the earth, in tombs of rock and stone and moss. They used fire to release their spirit and essence or laid them gently upon the earth where the birds and beasts assisted their transition to another life.
Sometimes they were buried with food and clothes, weapons and tools, slaves, servants and animals for their journey.
But the living did not travel so gently.
The realms of the dead were not for those who still had breath. There are rumours of otherworldly places where lived supernatural and magical creatures, places where the gods wrestled with giants and where myths were born.
We find tales of canny heroes, magicians, warriors, travellers (or perhaps they were unwise, even foolish) travelling to these otherworlds either by design or accident with natural elements acting as entrances or portals. The traveller may pass over or under water, through air or fire. A wood or forest may lead them to another land; a cave or opening into the earth may lead the traveller to the dark, chthonic realms of the underworld, a hunt may lead the unsuspecting to an encounter with the supernatural.
A few of these tales have survived. Some are retold, some now fixed in ink and some reimagined.
In Irish and Welsh tradition the Otherworld is usually located on an island or under ground, often close to the sea or a river but not always. In the First Branch of the Mabinogi Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, journeys to the Otherworld after becoming lost on a hunt in the forest where he encounters the supernatural hounds of Arawn, king of Annwfn. Pwyll was captivated by their appearance as they seemed to glow in the dark…
‘They were a gleaming shining white and their ears were red’.
Sir Gawain reluctantly rides out from Arthur’s court in search of the Green Chapel to meet his doom at the hands, or rather axe, of the Green Knight. The knight emerges from a dank cave into the terrifying green light of the chasm.
And syþen he keuereȝ bi a cragge and comeȝ of a hole, Whyrlande out of a wro wyth a felle
There are many folktales involving a descent into a subterranean Otherworld, maybe through a door in a hill or a mound, through a cave or even down a rabbit hole.
Either way the Otherworld, or faery or ‘fair elf-land’ is a dangerous place and a venture not to be taken lightly.
Beware! You are risking life and sanity by entering uninvited. There are tales, many cautionary, of travellers who dared to venture deeper into the dark passageways; who descended down dank, slimy steps, slipped and hurled down a hole into a world that did not make sense. In the Otherworld time has no meaning and three hundred years may pass in three days. Accepting food and drink may trap you there forever and the wild, beautiful music will make you dance and dance and dance, oblivious to your old life.
And so you stare into that night black mouth in front of you.
Do you step back….?
That light you thought you saw…a flicker…
That music so sweet?…no, no turn away…unless you have been invited and even then… take care, the world may not be the same when you return!
So what will you do?