Most cultures have their own creation myth. And their own myth to explain the departure of the dead. The absence of life in those we love has always been a difficult concept to grasp, both emotionally and intellectually. Even now, with all our scientific data, we’re not really any closer to understanding where they go or if, in fact they go anywhere at all. Science can tell us that someone or something is biologically inactive but that’s as far as it goes.
Our ancestors had a different way of looking at things that didn’t involve scientific rationale. For them, time was cyclical. Time only ever became linear when were events were written down in sequence and calendars were added. This idea of cyclical time came from what our ancestors saw in the world about them – the continuous ebbing and flow of tides, the repeating pattern of seasons, the growth and harvest of crops and, most strikingly of all, the rise of the morning sun in the east and its sinking at night in the west.
For this reason, they also had a strong belief that the spirits of the dead departed towards the west with the setting sun, sinking with it into the Otherworld each night where it rested with the dead. Celtic cultures weren’t the only culture to believe this of course. The Greeks – amongst others – believed in Elysian Fields “at the world’s end” in the West. Ireland is, however, one of the few areas of Celtic culture the entrance to the Otherworld has actually been identified in some of the older manuscripts – Bull Rock.
Bull Rock is an islet sitting about five miles south-west of the Beara peninsula and it looks like a pyramid-shaped black from some angles. Nevertheless, it’s a substantial chunk of granite poking up out of the Atlantic and it’s the most westerly piece of land in that region). Known in Irish as Teach Donn or Tech Doinn(the House of Donn), this rock was said to be where the souls of the dead departed, following the line of the descending sun by passing via an impressively amazing passage that cuts directly through the heart of the giant rock in a westerly direction.
[Photo from site: http://ruttledge.se/2008/01/25/bull-island/]
Donn is generally regarded as a sort of overlord of the Dead but of course he’s actually nothing more than a personification of the coming of darkness (the night) and, metaphorically, death. ‘Donn’, in Irish, means ‘brown’ (for modern Irish ) but its meaning was closer to ‘dark’ in the past. The Metrical Dindshenchas (an account of the origins of Irish place-names and traditions – which can’t always be believed) says the following about Tech Duinn. You’ll note this was written from a very Christian perspective that ‘poo-poos’ ‘the heathen’
Tech Duinn, whence the name? Not hard to say.
When the sons of Mil came from the west to Erin, their druid said to them, ‘If one of you climbs the mast’, said he, ‘and chants incantations against the Tuatha De, before they can do so, the battle will be broken against them, and their land will be ours; and he that casts the spell will die.’
They cast lots among themselves, and the lot falls on Donn to climb the mast. So was it done: Donn climbed the mast, and chanted incantations against the Tuatha De, and then came down. And he said: ‘I swear by the gods’, quoth he, ‘that now ye will not be granted right nor justice.’
The Tuatha De also chanted incantations against the sons of Mil in answer from the land. Then after they had cursed Donn, there came forthwith an ague into the ship. Said Amairgen: ‘Donn will die’, said he, ‘and it were not lucky for us to keep his body, lest we catch the disease. For if Donn be brought ashore, the disease will remain in Erin for ever.’
Said Donn: ‘Let my body be carried to one of the islands’, said he, ‘and my people will lay a blessing on me for ever.’ Then through the incantations of the druids a storm came upon them, and the ship wherein Donn was foundered.
Let his body be carried to yonder high rock’, says Amairgen: ‘his folk shall come to this spot.’ So hence it is called Tech Duinn: and for this cause, according to the heathen, the souls of sinners visit Tech Duinn before they go to hell, and give their blessing, ere they go, to the soul of Donn. But as for the righteous soul of a penitent, it beholds the place from afar, and is not borne astray. Such, at least, is the belief of the heathen. Hence Tech Duinn is so called.”
In this 12th-14th century document, the concept of ‘death’ has been personified through thousands of years of ‘Chinese whispers’ to a character called Donn who forms part of the Melesian invasion force of Ireland (according to this, the Melesians invaded Ireland, replacing the native Tuath De Danann).
Nowadays Bull Rock holds a lighthouse (established in 1889 and still in use today) and its function is about saving lives as opposed to easing them onto the afterlife. When I go home and sit on a ditch on those rare clear days when you can look out across the water, I often wonder how many people truly understand what a amazing edifice we have lying just off the coast.