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 story of how Ireland came to be (Lebor Gabála Érenn, or “The Book of the Taking of Ireland”) decided to start with the Christian Genesis story and then focused more specifically on how Ireland came to be populated and shaped into the landscape and people we know today. So instead of a “creation myth,” strictly speaking we have an origin story. This is very different to a creation myth, because it doesn’t tell us how the pre-Christian Irish believe the world was made.
Even so, although the story as it stands has some interesting features and is a product of Christian thinking, it’s possible that there are a few kernals of actual pre-Christian belief tucked away inside. The story of Lebor Gabála Érenn tells us that six waves of invaders (or settlers) arrived in Ireland over the course of a few thousand years (give or take). 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 or spontaneously erupted, and so on. Some of the invaders brought social changes, like the concept of kingship, introducing various laws and so on. Others brought with them technological advances, like the introduction of agriculture and the harvesting and grinding of corn. Different types of learning were introduced by some of the settlers, too, including knowledge and skill in the magic arts. Some of these invaders were wiped out by plague or natural disasters (like the Flood), while some of the other waves of invaders fled subjugation, or arrived and ousted the previous wave by force and right of conquest.
One of the best-known 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. The Milesians themselves became the ancestors of the Irish people. In some cases, they intermarried with members of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and so some Irish families can claim divine ancestors amongst their kin.
Although many members 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. There is Taillte (who is Fir Bolg), or else there is Balor (who is Fomorian), and a number of others who are widely considered to be divine, but don’t fit into the Tuatha Dé Danann mould. For the most part, sovereignty goddesses – tutelary deities who “married” the king of a túath and legitimized his reign, and looked after the interests of the people – don’t tend to be listed on the branches of the Tuatha Dé Danann family tree (though there are some exceptions to this). As such, although most of the gods and goddesses 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 in its own right.
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 known in Scotland as well (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 and limitations – that’s one of the things that makes them divine. To us, the gods are timeless and vast.
So as we mentioned a few paragraphs ago, the Milesians ultimately won Ireland. In doing so, they negotiated a peace treaty with the Tuatha Dé Danann, which stated that the two peoples would share Ireland and peacefully co-exist. The Tuatha Dé Danann would rule everything beneath Ireland – living in the Otherworldly mounds, rivers and loughs – while the Milesians had dominion over everything above ground. This effectively relegated the Tuatha Dé Danann to the Otherworld, and if Gaelic Polytheism is at all dualistic in nature, then this division between “this world” and “the Otherworld” is perhaps the most obvious example to suggest as evidence to support the idea.
Things are never so simple, though, because technically the Otherworld itself isn’t just one place: it’s many places. As we see in the Immrama and Echtrai tales (stories of Otherworldly adventures or voyages), there are lots of different Otherworldly realms, and each of them have a specific purpose. Some of them are inhabited by gods or other kinds of Otherworldly, supernatural beings. Some of them operate as an afterlife. Some of them are both of these things. At the same time they are separate and distinct in the sense that they are different places, operating in different ways and accessed through certain means. Underscoring this idea of many different Otherworlds, we find different names we have for Otherworldly places, like Tír na nÓg, Mag Mell, Tír Tairnge, Tech Duinn.
Even so, 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 in an Otherworldly realm might become 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 (assuming we lump all of the Otherworlds into a general concept), 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 might reside.
Each realm is distinct, but may overlap and interact with any of the others, just as the gods, spirits, and ancestors we honor often overlap. 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 always fit neatly into certain boxes that can 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’), or else An Teòr(a) (Gaelic for “the Three”). At other times, we might address them separately or individually – 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 – most importantly of all – 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 and perhaps even neither. This liminal nature is why they can be so helpful in opening the lines of communication, because they can help bridge the divide between where we are and where the gods, spirits, and ancestors are.
Liminal spaces can be literal thresholds of some kind – a doorstep, a beach, a property line – or else they can be thresholds in a more metaphorical sense; the threshold of a season, the threshold between night and day, and so on. By inhabiting a liminal space or time, there is an element of uncertainty and even danger. Because of this, we might need to protect ourselves, because at liminal times like the shifting of the seasons – our festivals – we can come into contact with the Otherworld more easily. The festivals are traditional times for the spirits of the Otherworld making their processions from one hill to another, and if we happen across their procession, they might decide to take us along with them unless to prevent that. So we take the necessary precautions such as carrying rowan or iron with us if we have to step outseide. At some of the seasonal transitions, neighboring síthean (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 it’s here that the high-kings of Ireland participated in some of the most important seasonal and religious rites.
In pre-Christian times, the centre is where we find the bile. This is 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 – usually a large, long-lived tree like an oak, ash, or yew – represents the heart of the túath, and so it stands for the túath’s integrity and well-being. As long as it stands and flourishes, so will the túath. 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, and all things that ensure the integrity and well-being of those who gather round it. Just as the bile forms the central focus of the túath, so the hearth is the central focus of the home. 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 and Ireland as a whole – 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: Everyone had their place, which was defined by their geographical place of origin, political relationship to the high-king, and social standing. 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 (“The House of Donn”), 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 these roads as being arteries of a sort, linking the extremities of the country to its heart. 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. In the legal tracts, periods of five days (or multiples thereof) are also often significant.
So we have a sense of definition of the world around us, even if we don’t know how it all came to be, exactly. We find a distinction between this world and the Otherworld, which can be bridged by liminal times and spaces. When we account for the liminal part, the idea of any kind of duality here becomes blurry. The boundary and the center of a space are significant in defining our sense of the environment around us, shaping it and giving us a sense of it, and our relationship with our surroundings, but as liminal places in their own right they also become ambiguous in a way, even when they draw a firm and physical, literal line in the sand.
Then there are the three realms of land, sea, and sky. Each of these realms may be defined in its own right, but also by the way it can interact with the other realms. While there is the physical, present sense of each of these three realms, they also have an Otherworldly component, especially in the liminal spaces where the realms might meet. Further defining the world around us, there are the four cardinal points, and then the four direction plus the center. Here again we find liminality and – therefore – Otherworldly connotations.
Within the three realms there are elements, or dúile. There isn’t a set number of these elements, but they can include the sun and moon, storm, wind, lightning, or thunder. As in many creation myths around the world, there is a hint of belief in our myths that suggest these elements make up not just the world, but our own bodies as well; the sea formed our blood, the earth our body, and so on. Either way, we are a part of nature and we have to remember that we’re not above it, or superior to it. We’re just one part of a bigger whole. So we work with nature, instead of against it, honoring its rhythms and being mindful of the natural order of things.
Our cosmology ultimately gives us a sense of how things should (or can, at least) be done – if we want to communicate with the gods, spirits and ancestors then it makes sense to seek liminal times and/or places to help with that. These liminal spaces, liminal times, are sacred.
As part of nature, we should work with nature. This can be reflected in ideas like doing something with the sun – moving 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.” Even small, everyday actions can be 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, against the sun, is generally preserved for only negative things, such as cursing.
Words are important, too. They create our reality, giving it shape and form. These words are defined by the language we speak, and what they mean according to our cultural outlook. These words reflect our beliefs, the way we view our cosmology and creation, and our place in it. When we swear by land, sea and sky, or give a blessing of the dé ocus an-dé, we aren’t just using phrases, they aren’t just empty words. Everything we see, everything we say, reflects our cosmology. It all has meaning.