Celtic Mythology: Irish Afterlife More Pleasant than Greek Counterpart
by M. Seaver
The Irish (Celtic) view of the world in the afterlife was far more pleasant than that of the Greeks. These two powerful early western societies contributed much to the continent of Europe and to the entire world, including their fascinating mythologies. The Irish believed in the Isle of the Blest or Tir na n-Og, while the Greeks thought their deceased spent eternity in the underworld of Hades, in either Tartarus or Erebus. The Irish realm of the dead was a land of joy, as opposed to the Greek, a world of sorrow and remorse.
The Celts were a group of people originally from south eastern Germany who spread throughout Europe, and were a major civilization for almost a millennium. They are credited with introducing iron use to most of Northern Europe. The Celts also introduced soap to the Romans and the Greeks. The Celts were the first people in Europe to use a common market. They invented many things, chain armor just one of many. The great age of the Celts was called the La Tene period of the iron age, which lasted from about 500 BCE to the beginning of the Common Era. The Celts were known as Gauls by the Romans, who had their capital, Rome, occupied by the Celts for seven months in about 390 BCE. The Celts' art was very elaborate and imaginative, and was some of the most remarkable art of ancient Europe. As shown by Fitzgerald, their stories and myths were also fairly imaginative, and were as numerous as those of other civilizations. As Severy states, "So the Celts were not on the fringe but central to Europe's rise" (588).
The Greeks were very important to Europe's rise as well. They did not call themselves Greek: they called themselves Hellenes. They were an expansive civilization, and they expanded all over land around the Mediterranean sea. The Hellenes were not a nationalistic society, but were loyal to their own city-state. They had great conquerors and philosophers in their ranks, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. One group of Hellenes, the Athenians, are credited with the concept of democracy. They had wonderful story tellers, like Homer, whose epic poems are still taught in classrooms today. Their myths are some of the most commonly known in the world. They also had great playwrights, such as Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, in their ranks. The Greeks did show they were a major military force when they pulled together to defeat the mighty Persians. Athens was the major city-state until its loss in the Peloponnesian war to Sparta. Athens was the center for philosophy, art and literature while Sparta was the mighty military power of the city-states. The wars the Greeks waged against other city-states led to the demise of this great civilization.
One very interesting aspect of both of these civilizations is their elaborate and imaginative mythology. A very interesting part of this is their beliefs in an afterworld. The world of the Irish afterlife is known by many names. The exact location of this wonderful land is not known. The one thing agreed upon by most is that it lies to the west of Ireland. Some of the names associated with it are:
According to Delaney, the country of Brazil gets its name from this, for when the Spaniards arrived in the New World, they thought it was so marvelous they named it after the splendid afterworld of the Irish (85). Tir na n-Og, The Land of the Young, was a paradise. It "was as sweet as Elysium, as vivid as Nirvana, as desirable as Valhalla, as green and sunny as Eden" (Delaney 85). As Princess Niav states in a poem:
- Tir na n-Og
- The Land of the Young
- the Isle of the Blest
Beyond all dreams my land delights
Fairer than any eyes have seen,
All year round, the fruits hang bright,
As the flowers bloom in the meadows green.
Wild honey drips from the forest trees,
We have endless stocks of meadow and wine,
No illness comes from Across the seas,
Nor death, nor pain, nor sad decline.
No boredom comes to feast or chase,
The music plays as the champions sport,
The light and splendours all increase
Each day in the Golden Land of Youth. (qtd. in Delaney 87)
Everything in this land was beautiful, bright and colorful. Delaney notes that it is called the Land of the Young because in this paradise, the aging process is reversed, so the youngest are the wisest. Time has no meaning in this place, and day changes to night and then back to day for one person whenever they desired it to do so. Everyone's soul desired to get to this wonderful place, which was more like a dream world than a land for the dead (85-95). The land was full of color, it was a lively land, bright and cheerful. It was as large or as small of a land as they wanted.
Hades and Persephone, his queen
The Greek underworld is a far less pleasant place for a soul. The underworld, often called Hades, after its king of the same name, was divided into two parts, Erebus, the underworld for a regular person when they died, and Tartarus, the land for criminals and the prison of the Titans, the ancestors of the gods, whom Zeus put down there. Erebus was the section probably more closely related to the Land of the Young, a place for more every day people. Hades was a dark dreary place where the souls just walked around as shadows or melancholy spirits. Many people feel that Hades, the god, "got the short end of the stick," when he and his brothers Zeus and Poseidon drew to see who would get what part of the universe. The entrance to Hades was across the river Styx. The only way to get across this river was to pay Charon, the ferry boatman. The land of Hades was guarded by Hades' monstrous dog, Cerberus, a dog with three heads and a snake for a tail. There was no going back to the mortal realm once you arrived in Hades, and Cerberus was the insurance to make sure it stayed this way. In some later works, Hades is described as a place where the evil people were punished and the good people were rewarded.
Orpheus and Eurydice:
The only exception for this, as noted by Cerf and Klopfer, was the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the great musician Orpheus persuaded Hades to release his wife, Eurydice. They leave, but Orpheus looks back at Eurydice, which he wasn't supposed to do. She goes back to Hades, and after Orpheus dies days later, they rejoice to see each other in Hades. (150-152) This story shows that not everyone is extremely depressed to go to Hades, but they would still rather be together in the mortal world.
Differences between Celtic and Greek Underworlds:
The differences between The Land of the Young and Hades are numerous. First of all, Tir na n-Og was a paradise, desired by all souls. Hades was a melancholy, sad land and feared by most. The Irish afterworld was a colorful, vibrant, bright land. The Greek underworld was dark, almost colorless land. There was a king in both lands, but the Irish lord was a more accessible, kind hearted person than Hades. Irish souls were allowed to go back to the world of the living and live again, a type of reincarnation, while the Greeks only had one life to live. Finally, there was no large, menacing beast to strike fear into the people of Tir na n-Og.
The mythology of the Irish Celts and Ancient Greeks, though similar in some aspects, differs greatly when it comes to their views on a soul's land after they died. The Irish afterlife, Tir na n-Og, the Land of the Young, or Hy-Brasil, the Isle of the Blest, the far more pleasant of the two, would be a sight worth seeing and maybe would be a great place to live. The Greek underworld, the dark, dreary land of the dead, Erebus or Tartarus, would be a place everyone would probably want to stay away from.
History and Thought of Western Man
Rich East High School * Park Forest, IL 60466
This page was created by M. Seaver. Last revised 3/28/00.