The Irish Otherworld, Oisin, and the Pig-Faced Princess
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Irish myth and folklore are filled with stories of the Otherworld, the place where the Fair Folk, the souls of the dead, and other supernatural beings reside. But what exactly is the Otherworld? Where is it? What is it like and how does one get there? More importantly, what happens to humans who go there and back again (yes, I am borrowing from Tolkien)? This post explores those questions, including the story of Oisín, a poet-warrior, who discovered the hard way that a human who goes into the faerie world should never try to go home again.
Hy Brasil and Tir na n’Óg
In Celtic culture, there are several names for the Otherworld. Hy Brasil and Tir na n’Óg are two labels it has been given in Irish folklore but whether these are synonyms for the Otherworld or they are specific parts of it is unclear.
Hy Brasil is a mysterious island said to be located in the Atlantic Ocean, just to the west of Ireland. It is shrouded in mist and becomes visible every seven years. But even when humans can see it and sail directly towards Hy Brasil, they are unable to reach it. The island always remains at a distance.
The popularity and endurance of the myth of Hy Brasil are demonstrated by the fact that it shows up on nautical maps dating from the 14th century through to the 19th century.
Tir na n’Óg (Land of Youth) can be and—according to the lore—has been explored by humans, often at tremendous cost. This land is occupied by the Tuatha de Danann, who are now referred to as the faeries. They are tall, graceful, exquisitely beautiful, eternally youthful immortals. They spent their days feasting, making and listening to music and poetry, and making love. Magic is an ordinary part of their lives.
The landscape consists of a few distinct geographic areas. There is a deep forest and a plain filled with bees. But there are cities, as well, with fortresses and other buildings constructed of precious metals. In one area of Tir na n’Óg, there is a fountain or a pool that is filled with salmon. The fountain is encircled by nine hazel trees. Nuts from these trees drop into the pool and the salmon eat them. According to folklore, anyone who eats a salmon from this pool will be filled with wisdom.
In the center of Tir na n’Óg stands a large, ancient tree. Some say it is the Tree of Life. Birds fill its branches and sing enchanting melodies.
Mortals can enter this paradise (or accidentally wander into it) in several possible ways. In Celtic folklore, the Otherworld is said to co-exist with the human realm. It is just on another plane and is hidden from human sight by a veil. There are areas where the veil is thin and can be passed through. These thin places often are in caves. Sometimes, they are located at burial mounds. People who go into caves by traveling through a waterfall and those who wander through mist, especially in dim, wooded areas also may find themselves stumbling into the Otherworld. Finally, Tir na n’Óg may be reached by traveling over water in an enchanted boat or on the back of a magical horse. But a trip to the faerie world rarely ends well for the human.
Oisín and the Pig-Faced Princess
The story of Oisín and Niamh is an example of a human’s trip to Tir na n’Óg and the consequences he faced. Poet-warrior, Oisín, was the son of one of Irish mythology’s most celebrated heroes, Finn MacCumhail. As a young man, Oisín was out patrolling the Irish countryside along with the Fianna, the guards of the High King. In the distance, he saw a richly dressed young woman with long golden hair. She was riding a fine white steed. He approached her. Her name was Niamh. The short version is that Oisín got on the horse with her and together they rode to the Otherworld. Before going on, let’s switch for a moment to Niamh’s side of the story.
A faerie, Niamh was the daughter of the king of Tir na n’Óg. He had been king for a very long time (remember this is an immortal race). Niamh’s father enjoyed being king and he had no intention of giving up his throne. By custom, however, every seven years, any man could challenge his kingship. The challenge was settled by a race. The throne was placed at the top of a hill. The king and challengers stood at the foot. When the race began, they all rushed to the top of the hill. Whoever sat on the throne first was the rightful king. Niamh’s father began to worry that, eventually, someone might defeat him and claim his throne. So he consulted a druid about this. The druid prophesized that only the king’s son-in-law could beat him in the race for the throne.
Niamh’s father rejoiced at this news. She was yet unmarried so the king decided to ensure she never married. To accomplish this, he ordered the druid to magically transform Niamh’s beautiful face into that of a pig.
To say the princess was upset by this is a tremendous understatement. When she confronted the druid, he told her that her face would revert to its natural loveliness if she married the son of Finn MacCumhail, Oisín. Immediately, she mounted her magical horse and traveled to the human realm to find Oisín. He was repulsed by her pig face but she told him of her predicament. She promised, if he married her, not only would she become beautiful but that he would become king of Tir na n’Óg. All he had to do was to challenge and defeat the king, and that, according to the druid, was guaranteed.
Persuaded, Oisín went with Niamh to the Otherworld. He challenged the king, won, and took the throne. Oisín and Niamh had three children, and he was reasonably happy with his life, then he became homesick. He missed his friends from the Fianna and he wanted to see his father. Niamh warned him that leaving the faerie world was dangerous for a mortal but he insisted on going. She lent him her magic steed but firmly warned him not to let his feet touch the ground.
On his return to the human world, Oisín discovered 300 years had passed. His father and everyone he knew was dead. So he had nothing to do but return to Niamh and Tir na n’Óg. On his way back, though, he saw some men struggling to move a heavy rock. Oisín offered to assist them but said he had to stay on the horse’s back. In an attempt to move the boulder, he fell from the horse. As soon as he hit the ground, he rapidly aged, died, and turned to dust.
In Celtic folklore, faeries are not the sole inhabitants of the Otherworld. Humans go there when they die. But the lore makes clear that attempting to pass through to the other side of the veil while a human is still alive never ends well.
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