An Sí

Sí
Sí “Otherworld Residence” – Cairn Loch Craobh, Sliabh na Caillí, Loch Craobh, An Mhí, Cúige Laighean, Éire (Íomhá: An Sionnach Fionn 2009)

An Sí

Introduction

The is the supernatural or parallel world of Irish, Scottish and Manx mythology and folklore. It’s literary form was derived from pre-Christian Gaelic and Celtic beliefs about the afterlife and its inhabitants, filtered over a period of centuries through a process of assimilation by various schools of religious scribes in the early Medieval Church of north-western Europe.

The Name

In the Irish language the word (Old/Middle/Early Modern Irish Síd/Sídh, Modern Scottish Sìth) has two broad but linked meanings. The first – and probably oldest – is “(the) Otherworld”: that is the subterranean world of the Tuatha Dé Danann and Aos Sí in the literary traditions of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. This was originally the abode of the gods and their opponents in the pre-Christian religion of the Gaels (hence the frequent Latin notations in the Medieval manuscripts describing the Tuatha Dé and Aos Sí as “gods of the earth”). However it was also a type of afterlife for mortals, normally heroic ancestral figures or those favoured by the gods.

The Otherworld itself was reached through ancient burial mounds and caves, lakes and springs, or more supernaturally via sudden mists or visions (c.f the archaeological evidence throughout the Celtic world of presumed votive offerings deposited in the ground and in shaft-pits, bogs and lakes – gifts to the gods below?). Later it became associated with faraway islands reached by boat or ship. While this latter method has been attributed to Classical (Greek and Roman) influences during the Christian literary era it likely also represents a continuation of native traditions and these islands may have been a manifestation of the undersea aspects of the Otherworld. In Irish, Scots and Manx folklore mysterious coastal or overseas islands became a much more prominent feature of supernatural tales (especially those from Ireland).

The second – and later – definition of is “Otherworld Residence, Territory” (pl. Síthe “Otherworld Residences, Territories”). These Síthe were regarded as the Otherworld homes of the Tuatha Dé Danann and Aos Sí, while also providing access to their supernatural lands. They were both part of yet separate from the Otherworld as a whole, and in the literature and folklore often represented the dwellings or kingdoms of particular members of the Otherworld community; and presumably at one stage the most prominent native gods or goddesses.

The majority of Síthe were equated with the ancient burial mounds and graves that dotted the landscapes of Ireland, Scotland and Mann (though the term was sometimes applied to other areas associated with the supernatural like notable hilltops, caves, springs, lakes and certain wilderness locations). Most of these prehistoric monuments (classified by Irish archaeologists in chronological order as court tombs, portal tombs, passage tombs and the long lasting wedge tombs) dated from the broad middle of the Neolithic Age, between 4000 and 3000 BCE. Their funeral purpose seems to have been communal in nature with interments over long periods of time and from this must have grown the ancient belief that such monuments were the dwelling places of ancestral kings or heroes – and later the gods themselves. Of course those who constructed and used the burial mounds were the ancestors of the peoples who were eventually to emerge from the agricultural, maritime and trading communities of coastal western Europe during the so-called Atlantic Bronze Age as the Celts. However by the time Christianity and literacy reached Ireland and the other Gaelic nations the memory of those who built the mounds or what they contained was inevitably forgotten or evolved into new oral traditions.

It’s likely that the concept of the Tuatha Dé and Aos Sí living in different residences or territories within the Otherworld reflected the division of Ireland and Scotland into separate kingdoms and lordships during the late pre-historic and early Medieval periods. The belief may have been given impetus by the widely spaced locations of the burial monuments regarded as Síthe, suggesting an obvious equivalence with the widely-spaced homes and fortresses of the kings and lords in the mortal world (especially if the great mounds were originally thought of by those peoples or tribes living around them as the abodes of their deceased ancestors). In a sense the Otherworld became an idealized version of the human world, distinguished by the supernatural aspects of its inhabitants, creatures and lands.

These many layers of interpretation mean that the translation of the word Sí in the literature or folklore is often dependent on context, with many semantic ambiguities, though it should be noted that Aos Sí is simply the “People of the Otherworld Residences, Territories” (which can be glossed in English as the “Otherworld People, Folk”). As for the word itself the linguistic origins for its development seem fairly clear.  We can begin with an Indo-European stem *sed- “to sit” which evolved into a Celtic *sedos “a residence, dwelling, settlement”. This then took on the special meaning of the “residence, domain of the gods” (i.e. the Otherworld) reflected in its later Irish form, the word Síd. That term then took on a dual meaning allowing it to refer to a specific “Otherworld residence”, as shown in the Old, Middle and Early Modern Irish word Sídh. That double-meaning is retained by the Modern Irish  though many users are unaware of its wide range of possible interpretations.

The Otherworld as the Afterlife

The Otherworld or Sí, while the domain of the gods and other supernatural beings, was also the world of the spirits of the dead: that is, in crude terms, the Celtic afterlife. It was where one’s ancestors dwelt after death and distorted memories of the role of the ancient burial monuments must have contributed towards this belief. However in the recorded literature those mortals who visit or stay in the Otherworld are famous figures: legendary heroes and kings. Could it be that the Otherworld was not available to the ordinary people as a whole? Did they face a slightly less luxurious afterlife or no existence at all after death? Since early Irish and Scottish texts are mainly concerned with the lives of the aristocratic classes and their ecclesiastical peers it is difficult to know how much they reflect wider assumptions held in the pre-Christian societies of Ireland,  Scotland and Mann – especially as they are bequeathed to us through a Christian filter.

It could be that one of the attractions of the new Christian religion for Irish, Scots and Manx converts was the promise of eternal life for all believers, regardless of one’s economic circumstances or status in wider society. The theory that Christianity initially began in the Gaelic nations as the faith of the lower classes (beginning with slaves from Roman Britain and Europe) may be apropos here. Though it should be remembered that the qualifications for nobility amongst the Gaels were not simply about one’s bloodline or family but were instead more concerned with the possession of property and the system of clientism. As an Irish legal maxim has it, “A man is greater than his birth”, and commoners and nobles could rise and fall in status, and almost certainly did so.

It may be then that the ordinary people of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man outside the aristocratic families or learned classes could also expect a life or continued existence in the world beyond, though perhaps one less exalted than that of their social superiors. Unfortunately it seems that the exact nature of the Celtic afterlife will remain one of several crucial areas of religious thought from pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland that (along with the beginning and end of the world) are lost or beyond conclusive reconstruction.

It is worth noting here that the Irish word for “Heaven”, Neamh, though now understood to refer to the Christian afterlife may originally have had a non-Christian meaning or association. However this is a matter of (considerable) debate and nowhere in the early secular or religious literature of the Gaelic nations is the Otherworld referred to as Neamh.

Appendix I: Names of the Otherworld

Leaving aside the general name of Sí, or the many names of particular Síthe mentioned as being located in Ireland (and Scotland, the Isle of Man and elsewhere), a large number of titles, poetical and descriptive, existed for the Otherworld. They referred to the Sí as a whole or particular regions or aspects of the Otherworld. The most important were:

Má Mheallach “Delightful, Pleasant Plain”

Má Mhoin “Plain of Feats, Tricks”

Tír Tairngaire “Promised Land” (this is a direct translation of the Hebrew/Biblical “Promised Land” however it has recently been suggested that the term may be an original pre-Christian description for the Otherworld)

Eamhain Abhlach  “Pair (Twins) of (Many) Apple Trees; (The) Apple-Treed Pair (Twins)” [eamhain “a pair (or triplet) born at one birth; a twin, one of two or three born together; a pair (of people or objects) / abhlach “of (many) apple trees; apple-treed”]

Tír na mBan “Land of the Women”

Má dhá Cheo “Plain of the Two Mists”

Tír na nIonaidh “Land of Wonder”

Tír faoi Thoinn “Land under the Wave”

Tír na mBeo “Land of the Living”

Insí Tuaisceartach “Northern Islands”

Teach Doinn “Tower of Donn” (Donn “Dark One”)

Má Fionnairgid “Plain of White-silver”

Má Airgeadnéil “Plain of the Silver-cloud”

Má Réin “Plain of the Sea”

Í Bhreasail “Island of Breasal”

Ciúin “Calm, Silent, Gentle (Land, Place)”

Iomchiúin “Very Calm, Silent, Gentle (Land, Place)”

Ildathach “Multicoloured (Land, Place)”

Inis Subha “Island of Gladness, Joy”

Airgtheach “Silver (Place, Land)” (alt. “Silver-house”)

Tír na nÓg “Land of the Young, Youth”

Má Teathrach “Plain of Teathra” [teathra “scald-crow, crow; sea, ocean”]

Glossary

All spelling, names and terms in Modern Irish unless stated otherwise.

The modern dual forms and meanings of the name are:

An Sí “The Otherworld”

(gs. , npl. Síthe) “(an) Otherworld Residence, Territory”

© An Sionnach Fionn

Online Sources For The Above Articles:

  1. Warriors, Words, and Wood: Oral and Literary Wisdom in the Exploits of Irish Mythological Warriors by Phillip A. Bernhardt-House
  2. Irish Perceptions of the Cosmos by Liam Mac Mathúna
  3. Water Imagery in Early Irish by Kay Muhr
  4. The Bluest-Greyest-Greenest Eye: Colours of Martyrdom and Colours of Winds as Iconographic Landscape by Alfred K. Siewers
  5. Fate in Early Irish Texts by Jacqueline Borsje
  6. Druids, Deer and “Words of Power”: Coming to Terms with Evil in Medieval Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  7. Geis, Prophecy, Omen and Oath by T. M. Charles-Edwards
  8. Geis, a literary motif in early Irish literature by Qiu Fangzhe
  9. Honour-bound: The Social Context of Early Irish Heroic Geis by Philip O’Leary
  10. Space and Time in Irish Folk Rituals and Tradition by Lijing Peng and Qiu Fangzhe
  11. The Use of Prophecy in the Irish Tales of the Heroic Cycle by Caroline Francis Richardson
  12. Early Irish Taboos as Traditional Communication: A Cognitive Approach by Tom Sjöblom
  13. Monotheistic to a Certain Extent: The ‘Good Neighbours’ of God in Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  14. The ‘Terror of the Night’ and the Morrígain: Shifting Faces of the Supernatural by Jacqueline Borsje
  15. Brigid: Goddess, Saint, ‘Holy Woman’, and Bone of Contention by C.M. Cusack
  16. War-goddesses, furies and scald crows: The use of the word badb in early Irish literature by Kim Heijda
  17. The Enchanted Islands: A Comparison of Mythological Traditions from Ireland and Iceland by Katarzyna Herd
  18. The Early Irish Fairies and Fairyland by Norreys Jephson O’ Conor
  19. The Washer at the Ford by Gertrude Schoepperle
  20. Milk Symbolism in the ‘Bethu Brigte’ by Thomas Torma
  21. Conn Cétchathach and the Image of Ideal Kingship in Early Medieval Ireland by Grigory Bondarenko
  22. King in Exile in Airne Fíngein (Fíngen’s Vigil): Power and Pursuit in Early Irish Literature by Grigory Bondarenko
  23. Sacral Elements of Irish Kingship by Daniel Bray
  24. Kingship in Early Ireland by Charles Doherty
  25. The King as Judge in Early Ireland by Marilyn Gerriets
  26. The Saintly Madman: A Study of the Scholarly Reception History of Buile Suibhne by Alexandra Bergholm
  27. Fled Bricrenn and Tales of Terror by Jacqueline Borsje
  28. Supernatural Threats to Kings: Exploration of a Motif in the Ulster Cycle and in Other Medieval Irish Tales by Jacqueline Borsje
  29. Human Sacrifice in Medieval Irish Literature by Jacqueline Borsje
  30. Demonising the Enemy: A study of Congall Cáech by Jacqueline Borsje
  31. The Evil Eye’ in early Irish literature by Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly
  32. The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory by John Carey
  33. “Transmutations of Immortality in ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare'” by John Carney
  34. Approaches to Religion and Mythology in Celtic Studies by Clodagh Downey
  35. ‘A Fenian Pastime’?: early Irish board games and their identification with chess by Timothy Harding
  36. Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative: An Overview by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  37. Oral Life and Literary Death in Medieval Irish Tradition by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  38. Satirical Narrative in Early Irish Literature by Ailís Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh
  39. Lia Fáil: Fact and Fiction in the Tradition by Tomás Ó Broin
  40. Irish Myths and Legends by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh
  41. ‘Nation’ Consciousness in Early Medieval Ireland by Miho Tanaka
  42. Bás inEirinn: Cultural Constructions of Death in Ireland by Lawrence Taylor
  43. Ritual and myths between Ireland and Galicia. The Irish Milesian myth in the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann: Over the Ninth Wave. Origins, contacts and literary evidence by Monica Vazquez
  44. Continuity, Cult and Contest by John Waddell
  45. Cú Roí and Svyatogor: A Study in Chthonic by Grigory Bondarenko
  46. Autochthons and Otherworlds in Celtic and Slavic by Grigory Bondarenko
  47. The ‘Terror of the Night’ and the Morrígain: Shifting Faces of the Supernatural by Jacqueline Borsje
  48. ‘The Otherworld in Irish Tradition,’ by John Carey
  49. The Location of the Otherworld in Irish Tradition by John Carey
  50. Prophecy, Storytelling and the Otherworld in Togail Bruidne Da Derga by Ralph O’ Connor
  51. The Evil Eye’ in early Irish literature by Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly
  52. Rules and Legislation on Love Charms in Early Medieval Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  53. Marriage in Early Ireland by Donnchadh Ó Corráin
  54. The Human Head in Insular Pagan Celtic Religion by Anne Ross
  55. Gods in the Hood by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein
  56. The Names of the Dagda by Scott A Martin
  57. The Morrigan and Her Germano-Celtic Counterparts by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein
  58. The Meanings of Elf, and Elves, in Medieval England by Alaric Timothy Peter Hall
  59. Elves (Ashgate Encyclopaedia) by Alaric Timothy Peter Hall
  60. The Evolution of the Otherworld: Redefining the Celtic Gods for a Christian Society by Courtney L. Firman
  61. Warriors and Warfare – Ideal and Reality in Early Insular Texts by Brian Wallace
  62. Images of Warfare in Bardic Poetry by Katharine Simms
  63. Rí Éirenn, Rí Alban, Kingship and Identity in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries by Máire Herbert
  64. Aspects of Echtra Nerai by Mícheál Ó Flaithearta
  65. The Ancestry of Fénius Farsaid by John Carey
  66. CELT (Corpus of Electronic Texts) – published texts
  67. Mary Jones (Celtic Literature Collective) – translations

Printed Sources For The Above Articles:

  1. The Gaelic Finn Tradition by Sharon J. Arbuthnot and Geraldine Parsons
  2. An Introduction to Early Irish Literature by Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin
  3. Lebar Gabala: Recension I by John Carey
  4. The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory by John Carey
  5. Studies in Irish Literature and History by James Carney
  6. Ancient Irish Tales by Tom P. Cross and Clark Harris Slover
  7. Early Irish Literature by Myles Dillon
  8. Irish Sagas by Myles Dillon
  9. Cycle of the Kings by Myles Dillon
  10. Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz
  11. The Celtic Heroic Age by John T Koch and John Carey (Editors)
  12. Landscapes of Cult and Kingship by Roseanne Schot, Conor Newman and Edel Bhreathnach (Editors)
  13. The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght
  14. The Learned Tales of Medieval Ireland by Proinsias Mac Cana
  15. The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest by Máire MacNeill
  16. Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature by Kim McCone
  17. The Wisdom of the Outlaw by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  18. Conversing With Angels and Ancients by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  19. From Kings to Warlords by Katharine Simms
  20. Gods and Heroes of the Celts by Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (trans Myles Dillon)
  21. The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher
  22. In Ireland Long Ago by Kevin Danaher
  23. Irish Customs and Beliefs by Kevin Danaher
  24. Cattle in Ancient Ireland by A. T. Lucas
  25. The Sacred Trees of Ireland by A. T. Lucas
  26. The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
  27. Irish Superstitions by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
  28. Irish Folk Custom and Belief by Seán Ó Súillebháin
  29. Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology and the Past by NB Aitchison
  30. Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland by Lisa Bitel
  31. Irish Kings and High-Kings by John Francis Byrne
  32. Early Irish Kingship and Succession by Bart Jaski
  33. A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly
  34. Early Irish Farming by Fergus Kelly
  35. A Guide to Ogam by Damian McManus
  36. Ireland before the Normans by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
  37. Early Medieval Ireland: 400-1200 by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
  38. A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Editor)
  39. Early Ireland by Michael J O’ Kelly
  40. Cattle Lords & Clansmen by Nerys Patterson
  41. Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland by Patrick C Power
  42. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe by H R Ellis Davidson
  43. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe by Hilda Ellis Davidson
  44. Lady with a Mead Cup by Michael J Enright
  45. Celtic Mythology by Proinsias Mac Cana

 

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