A Summary from the Introduction of “Music and the Celtic Otherworld” by Dr. Karen Ralls (Edinburgh University Press/ St. Martin’s Press, 2000)
From the beautiful, enchanting music of the fairy harp to the sacred singing of the choirs of angels, Celtic literature, especially that of early medieval Ireland, has many references to a spiritual or supernatural dimension of music. Referrred to as the Celtic Otherworld, music is often featured prominently in this sacred dimension. There are many examples of fairy harpers, the songs of mermaids, the power of the saint’s bell, the singing of angels in Heaven, musical trees, and so on.
The enchanting, alluring music of the Celtic Otherworld is portrayed as being heard from a dimension not of this world, that is, as something beyond ordinary reality and one’s normal, everyday life experience here on earth. In some cases, beautiful, ethereal music is heard, yet no musicians are seen, for example the haunting, ghostly music heard from an empty monastery at the moment of birth or death of a saint. In others, a mortal may be “abducted” by the fairies (sidhe) or angels, taken to the Otherworld, or Heaven, and then returned to earth with special musical gifts. There are many descriptions in Celtic literature of music having a powerful, and often highly unusual effect on the listener. These references are widely distributed, being found in early tales, myths, the Saints’ Lives, folklore accounts, ballads, poetry, place-lore and proverbs, and even early law tracts, in both Christian and pre-Christian contexts.
One example of a gifted fairy harper, featured in a Christian context in this instance, is from the 15th century Accallam na Senorach (Colloquy of the Ancient Men). Here, the fairy musician Cascorach puts St. Patrick and his clergy to sleep with his sweet, beautiful music. Upon awakening, they engage in a lively debate, St. Patrick discussing the power of this music with his fellow clergymen, Brogan:
‘A good cast…..of art was that….,’ said Brogan. ‘Good indeed, it were,’ said Patrick, `but for a twang of the fairy spell that infests it; barring which nothing could more nearly than it resemble Heaven’s harmony.’ Then says Brogan: ‘if there is music in Heaven, then why shouldn’t there be music here on earth? ….as it isn’t right to banish minstrelsy.’ Patrick answered: ‘neither say I any such thing, but merely teach that we must not be inordinately addicted to it.’
St. Patrick seems to be clearly acknowledging the great beauty and power of the bewitching fairy music, yet also cautions the others about it as well, implying that – in his view as a Christian – a possible danger is inherent in the `twang of the fairy spell’. In other words, he is warning his fellow clergymen that this type of music could possibly lead one astray, and not necessarily to the Christian Heaven. The mere fact that this anecdote is included in this literature shows that the powerful effects of the “fairy harp” were taken seriously in earlier Celtic society, and that even clergymen were not immune to it!
Many of these references, primarily from the Old and Middle Irish literature of early medieval Ireland, have been gathered by the author into a collection, “Music and the Celtic Otherworld“. This book explores the spiritual dimension of music from a Celtic perspective, and it is an interdisciplinary study in the phenomenology of religion, with music as its focus, rather than a study from the perspective of a Celtic folklorist. No oral folklore from more modern times is included, as this would clearly warrant a separate study. In each chapter, cross-cultural comparisons about music and the Otherworld are also included.
Let us take a brief look at the overall concept of the Celtic Otherworld itself, which is very complex, with many different subdivisions. For example, there are over one hundred names for the Otherworld itself in Celtic sources, such as “The Land of Eternal Youth”, “The Land of Promise”, “Avalon”, “The Land Beyond the West”. It is often described as being not of this world, a beautiful place somewhere beyond our daily existence. Yet, there is also the feeling that the Otherworld is immanent, i.e., in and among us in our everyday lives, all the time, whether we are aware of it consciously, or not. In certain unique and special circumstances, however, a mortal may enter and experience this Otherworld and then return to earth, and often be transformed in a major way. The medium by which he gets there, or returns, is often by music. There seem to be three main subdivisions regarding music in the Otherworld; they are
- Otherworld Paradise – a general paradise world, often portrayed as an island out at sea in earlier pagan references, or, as the Christian Heaven in the saints’ lives;
- the Land-Beneath-the-Waves, an underwater paradise, i.e., with mermaids singing, for example; and
- an Underworld dimension, which is an earth-centred paradise realm, which is portrayed as another reality inside hills, mountains, mounds; it is the home of the fairies, the sidhe folk, and elves, for example.
Celtic folklore acknowledges many different layers and subdivisions of each of these general categories.
From everyday, earthly life to the most supernatural, otherworldly existence, the Celtic literature portrays many different degrees of Otherworld influence. This might be conceived of as a visual continuum, with everyday, earthly reality on one side and a purely Otherworld reality on the other. In between the two, however, lies the area where the mundane ends, and the supernatural Otherworld begins, a type of grey area. Professional folklorists call this the liminal, a place which is like a doorway into the Otherworld. In the early Celtic worldview, the veil between this world and the next can sometimes be very thin, as it can be difficult at times to distinguish exactly where one dimension starts and another ends. Examples of liminal places might be a cave opening on a hillside, a doorway threshold into a fairy home or a saint’s monastery, or the place where three rivers or roads meet. At such liminal places, it is believed that one is more likely to have an Otherworldly encounter, making them, in early Celtic terms, perhaps the most significant places of all.
While in these various Otherworld dimensions, a mortal is often portrayed meeting various supernatural beings of the Otherworld, such as the sidhe, angels, devas, Celtic saints, magical birds and singing stones. He or she is portrayed as experiencing altered states of mind or consciousness, a feeling of timelessness, and often great joy or ecstasy, though Otherworld encounters can also be dangerous, even deadly.
In addition to examining the Celtic Otherworld in more detail, five different sections of the book look at music in the Celtic Otherworld: Performers, Instruments, Times, Places, and Effects. Very briefly, for example, to the early Celts, performers could be fairies, devas, angels, harpers, etc., yet also stones, swords or chariot wheels. Instruments, too, often defy our usual categorisations, beyond the tools of the mortal humans or even fairy/angel performer, to fishing nets, the sound of the blacksmith at work at his anvil, or the silver musical branch. Places where an encounter of music and the Otherworld could occur might be a crossroads, a cave, a certain monastery, a special loch, or a spring.
Times when such an event might occur could be on the eve one of the ancient Celtic festivals: Imbolc (1 Feb.); Beltain (1 May); Lughnasadh (1 Aug.); and Samhain (1 Nov.); it could be at the moment of dawn, midnight, twilight or dusk. The effects of music in the early Irish Celtic literature are many and varied: to increase prosperity, chants to protect a home, the “3 strains” of joy (gentraide), melancholy (goltraide) and trance-like sleep state (suantraide); to inspire or teach, to destroy enemies, to summon an animal, or to heal the sick, among many others. Throughout all the sources, it is clear that the early Irish Celts not only highly appreciated music in everyday life, but acknowledged a more transcendent, spiritual, or esoteric aspect to music as well.
But the Celts were not the only ones to acknowledge a spiritual or supernatural dimension to music. Many cultures throughout history have believed music to have a profound effect on humans, and to be an embodiment of the celestial harmony which reflects the diversity and complexity of man and the universe. It is possible that what later became the theory of the ‘music of the spheres’ existed in earlier times. From Pythagoras to the Romantics, music was perceived to have a role which far surpassed its modern status as mere entertainment or art form. It was not really until the 19th century, when a more materialistic paradigm finally became predominant, that this profound shift in perspective regarding music occurred in western culture.
Great writers and philosophers have addressed the issue of music in the universe and the role of humans in it. Marsilio Ficino, the 15th century Renaissance physician and humanist of Florence, attributed a magical power to music in his De vita coelitus comparanda (On Obtaining Life from the Heavens). From ancient times, the concept of the fundamental importance of sound, music and vibration in the universe has been examined by some of western civilisation’s greatest philosophers:
Socrates invokes music as a primary model for justice and ‘the mean’. For him, as Plato gives him voice in The Republic, the musical scale is where moderation reigns in a demonstrable way, and, therefore, the musical scales model the virtues – especially distributive justice – which allow all people to ‘sing the same chant together.’… In Book III of his Elements of Harmony, Ptolemy organises his zodiacal calendar of time as well as his influential physics of space according to the tones of two-octave musical scales… Kepler stated ‘The movements of the heavens are nothing except a certain everlasting polyphony…’ Sir Isaac Newton, genius of enlightenment physics and mathematics, remained dedicated throughout his life to the fundamental musico-theological proposition that (in his own words): ‘…The soul of the world, which propels into movement this body of the universe visible to us, being constructed of ratios which created from themselves a musical concord, must of necessity produce musical sounds…’ (Sullivan, L. Ed., Enchanting Powers: Music in the World’s Religions, Harvard Univ.: Cambridge, 1997)
A dangerous art music can be, as recognised by Plato, Tolstoy, and some of the Church Fathers – all wished to control, limit and confine the uses of certain music. This is similar to efforts by modern day parents and teachers to try to limit, or even ban certain music from children’s ears. All attest to some power, however mysterious, of music to reach us at the deepest level, for good or ill. In the Bible (Joshua 6) the walls of Jericho were destroyed by the sound of music. Censorship of particular songs or instruments is still with us today. Feelings run high about the banning or censoring the content of certain books – the same thing is true of music, and reactions can be extreme on both sides. For instance, in 16th and 17th century Scotland, fiddles were thrown on bonfires, as they were believed to “incite” people to dance, i.e. to the Devil’s way. In ancient China, music was highly regarded yet feared in some ways because of its perceived power, and there were strict laws as to when, or where, or what kind of music could be played or sung. And today, courts of law are hearing allegations that certain music is may cause violence or unruly behaviour. The overall subject of music and its effects seems to be a universal issue.
So we are reminded again of the worldview of the early Celts, and that of many other indigenous peoples. Judging from the many Celtic references to music in these sources, the early Celts did not see the Absolute as a mere blind watchmaker, but largely appear to have viewed life and the cosmos as having a unity, and giving meaning to their lives. Even today, in the early 21st century, we can still learn from and marvel at the power of music in our lives. We often fail to notice how music in our environment affects us, or we largely ignore it – perhaps we do so at our peril. The early Celts acknowleged that at certain times (dusk, dawn, midnight…), and at certain places (a cave, hillside, stone circle, monastery, tree grove…) a person might have a supernatural musical encounter. World folklore is full of such accounts and today, it seems, humanity is still searching for the ultimate meaning of music and sound, whether through scientific research or other means.
Even if we know not why, we seem to need music in our lives, and anthropologists confirm that no human culture has ever existed without some kind of music. The massive growth of the ‘World Music’ category in music stores make a statement about our contemporary times, as does the increased interest in Shamanism and the power of sound worldwide. And Celtic music has never been more popular, it seems.
An old Gaelic proverb states: ‘”To him that farthest went away, the sweetest music he ever heard was ‘Come Home'”. Many myths and stories tell of how humanity is still searching for Eden, for a ‘Paradise Lost’. Perhaps the Otherworld and its beautiful music is beckoning us to ‘Come Home’, and to restore the Lost Chord.
Dr Karen Ralls
For further detailed discussion of this subject, and extensive bibliographies, please see
Music and the Celtic Otherworld, by Dr. Karen Ralls, Edinburgh Univ. Press/St. Martin’s Press, 2000 [revised edition forthcoming by late 2017]
Indigenous Religious Musics in the Contemporary World, by Dr. Karen Ralls and Dr. Graham Harvey, (Ashgate: London), 2000.
Picture from: Historia Deorum Fatidicorum
Illustrated lectures and more detailed seminars
by Dr Karen Ralls can be arranged.
Please contact Ancient Quest for details.
Ancient Quest, and Dr. Karen Ralls, do not necessarily agree with, or endorse, material in the publications noted above, but provide this list as a general introduction to learning more about this topic.