Cosmology deals with the nature of the universe and the world around us.
Because of the way our myths have survived up until the present day, we don’t have a creation myth of the kind that tells us how the world came to be. Instead of preserving that story – assuming there ever was one – the Christian monks who recorded the stories tacked on the Christian Genesis story and molded it to fit into a story of how Ireland itself came to be. So instead of a creation myth, we have an origin story.
This story tells us that six waves of invaders (or settlers) arrived in Ireland at different periods in time. Each of these invaders settled and lived in Ireland for some time, and while they were there they shaped the land around them. They cut down forests and created vast plains, lakes and rivers emerged, and so on. Some of the invaders brought social changes, like the concept of kingship. Others brought with them great knowledge of magic and all kinds of Otherworldly things. Some of these invaders were wiped out by plague or natural disasters (like the Flood), while some of the other waves of invaders arrived and ousted the previous wave by force and right of conquest.
One of these waves of invaders was the Tuatha Dé Danann, many of whom may be considered to be the gods of Ireland (and beyond). They ruled over Ireland until the Milesians arrived, and eventually the Milesians won Ireland for themselves and forced the Tuatha Dé Danann underground, into the hills and burial mounds of the Irish landscape, while the Milesians themselves became the ancestors of the Irish today.
Although many of the Tuatha Dé Danann are gods, they aren’t the only ones who might be considered to be divine in nature. There are gods such as Donn – himself a Milesian, who came to be a god of the dead, as well as a guardian of Knockfierna (one of the places he’s said to live), amongst other things – and the Cailleach, who may or may not be of Tuatha Dé Danann origin, as well as Taillte (who is Fir Bolg), or else there is Balor (who is Fomorian), or figures such as Fionnbarr (who is better known from folk tales than myth), and a number of others who don’t fit into the Tuatha Dé Danann mold. As such, although most of the gods of Ireland are a part of the Tuatha Dé Danann, not all of them are, and so the Tuatha Dé can’t be thought of as a pantheon of gods.
The myths tell us that the gods are a part of the landscape, with many of them being associated with certain mountains, hills, grave mounds, rivers, or lakes. Some of them can be found in a number of places, while others are more localized. From this, we see that some deities were more widely known than others, but it also tells us that although they are heavily associated with certain places, they aren’t confined by them either. For example, Manannán mac Lir may call the Isle of Man his home, but he is also associated with Lough Corrib in Ireland and is also found in Scotland (in the disguise of saints and folkloric figures, in some cases). So the gods aren’t restricted by simple geography, and why would they be? They’re gods! They are of this world, and of the Otherworld. They exist beyond our own simple dimensions. To us, the gods are timeless and vast.
Speaking of the Otherworld, if Gaelic Polytheism is at all dualistic in nature, then the most obvious example is in the distinction between this world and the Otherworld in general. Things are never so simple, though, because technically the Otherworld itself isn’t just one place, but many. We see this in the different names we have for Otherworldly places – such as Tír na nÓg, Mag Mell, Tír Tairnge, Tech Duinn – and in a certain type of mythological tale called immrama (voyages), which are set in many of these Otherworldly places.
This split between this world and the Otherworld gives us a duality between what is seen and known, and what is unseen and unknown. The Otherworld can be a place of revelation, as we see in the way the heroes of the immrama learn many things that have been otherwise hidden and are inaccessible to them as they journey through the Otherworldly places. In a sense, this divide also gives us a split between light (i.e. what is seen because the light illuminates it) and dark (i.e. what is hidden, because the darkness makes it intangible). Although darkness often carries negative connotations – spooky and scary because of the unknown – this isn’t really the case in Gaelic cosmology. There may be dangers, but the Otherworld itself is not inherently dangerous in the “out to get you” kind of way. Except when it kind of is…
The Otherworld is a place where time runs differently. What may seem like a day and a night might be a whole year in this world, and there are plenty of tales that show this. When it is summer here, it may be winter there, and so on. The Otherworld is also the home of the spirits and ancestors as much as it might be home to the gods, and this fact contributes to the often confused and confusing relationship and boundaries between the three. The Otherworld is also a place where social conventions are often slightly different than compared to our own, so while the spirits may seem dangerous to us, the danger often lies in our ignorance of their ways; it isn’t a good idea to offend the spirits, and doing so even by accident can cause a heap of trouble for us. When interacting with them, it’s important to understand what they might expect of us, then.
Although we might see a kind of duality between this world and the Otherworld, we can subdivide our own world into three. Gaelic Polytheists see the world around us as being comprised of three realms – land, sea and sky – and these realms are both very real, but also Otherworldly. In the land around us we share the space we live in with spirits of the earth; in the sky we see the sun and the moon that govern the seasons and the oceans, and we observe the flight of birds who may act as messengers of the gods. As we look out to sea, we might think of Manannán mac Lir as he travels his “fruitful plain,” or else we might think of the House of Donn or Tír na nÓg out west, where the souls of our ancestors reside.
Each realm is distinct, but may overlap and interact with any of the other, just as the gods, spirits, and ancestors we honor might do. We see the gods as distinct, individual beings, different from one another, and different from the gods of other cultures, but there are often very blurry lines and messy overlaps between who might be a god, or a spirit, or an ancestor exactly. This means the gods, spirits and ancestors don’t fit neatly into certain boxes that help us pin them down and pigeon-hole them. Because of these blurry lines, they might be referred to in our prayers collectively as the dé ocus andé (‘the gods and ungods’), or else Na Trí Naomh or An Trì Naomh (in Irish and Gaelic, respectively, meaning ‘The Sacred Three’). At other times, we might address them separately – when we address certain gods in our prayers, or leave offerings to the guardian spirits we share our space with, or when we honor our ancestors.
By looking at the historical and archaeological evidence, and the traditions that have survived, we see that there are certain times and places where it may be easier to communicate with the gods, spirits and ancestors: as we stand on the threshold of land, sea, or sky, on the threshold of day or night, winter, summer, fall or spring. These thresholds – “liminal” spaces – are ambiguous in nature. They aren’t one thing or another, but at the same time they are both, which is why they can be so helpful in opening the lines of communication. They can also be places or times where we might need to protect ourselves, because at liminal times like the shifting of the seasons we often find the spirits of the Otherworld making their processions from one hill to another. If we happen across their procession, they might decide to take us along with them unless we take the necessary precautions such as carrying rowan or iron. At some of the seasonal transitions, neighboring sí (the places where the daoine sí live) might go to war with each other, and unsuspecting humans might get caught in the crossfire, too.
This concept of liminality and liminal space is important in Gaelic cosmology, and it’s especially important in ritual space. In some ceremonies we might stand on a literal threshold, while in other rites the threshold forms a boundary which helps define a center. The center itself is liminal in its own way because it encompasses all directions and none all in one. In Ireland, some of the most important ritual sites – Tara, Uisneach, Tlachtga and Tailtiu – are all situated in Meath, which itself essentially means “the Middle,” and its here that the high-king of Ireland participated in some of the most important seasonal rites.
In pre-Christian times, the centre is where we find the bile, a sacred tree that stands at the center of a túath (a people), or a province (which is made up of many different túatha) under which various kinds of rites were traditionally performed. The bile represents the heart of the túath, and so it stands for the túath’s integrity and well-being. On a smaller scale, a similar concept might be found within the home in the form of the hearth, which traditionally forms the heart of the household’s warmth and light, comfort, hot food and drink, and the focus of hospitality, entertainment, nourishment, and relaxation – all important things after a hard day’s work. It’s because of this that many Gaelic Polytheists choose to place their shrine or altar in a central position within the home.
From the center we might define our space in terms of the directions. In Gaelic languages the cardinal directions – north, south, east, west – also articulate a sense of up, down, right or left. In Irish myth, it’s said that the high king’s feasting house at Tara – the ritual center of the high king – was laid out according to the provinces of Ireland, which roughly correspond to the cardinal points – Ulster in the north, Leinster in the east, Munster in the south, and Connacht in the west, with Meath in the middle. The high king, situated in the middle of the feasting hall, arranged his guests according to where they had come from, which suggests some kind of cosmological importance to the layout: The feast itself helped the king form or reinforce a relationship with lesser kings from the provinces, and as they were arranged in the same layout of the land itself, the good-natured feasting, for the benefit of all people present, helped to reinforce and strengthen the well-being of Ireland as a whole.
Some of these directions have certain associations that may be thought of as spiritually relevant, as well. For example, the west is often regarded as the direction in which the dead travel, across the sea to wherever it is they’ll end up – Tech Duinn, perhaps. It’s said that the Tuatha Dé Danann came from the “north,” although because of the ambiguity of the language it could equally be meant as from “above,” or perhaps even both.
From the cardinal points with the addition of the center, we get five directions. In ancient Ireland there were also five royal roads, leading from each province to the royal center at Tara, so we can think of them as being arteries of a sort, linking the extremities of the country to the heart of it. There are lots of other “fives” in Gaelic tradition that suggest some kind of cosmological significance to the number – five sacred rivers, five “paths of the law,” five great hostels, five provinces of Ireland, and five letters to each aicme (family or group) of the ogham alphabet. And so on.
So we have a sense of definition of the world around us – a duality of this world and the Otherworld, the boundary and the center, and then there are the three realms, each of which may be defined by itself and by its interaction with the other realms, as well as its Otherworldly component, along with the four cardinal points, and then the four direction plus the center.
Our cosmology also gives us a sense of how things should be done – with nature, instead of against it. Because of this, actions should be performed with the sun – deiseil (or deiseal) – instead of against the sun – tuathail. A Gaelic saying goes Deiseal air gach ni, which means “the sunward course (is the best) for everything.” As such, even small, everyday actions are performed in this wise where possible. This is also reflected in folk practice, where sacred sites or holy wells are approached in a sunwise manner, or else processions throughout villages or around fields or houses, are performed in the same way. The opposite direction is generally preserved for only negative things, such as cursing.