To the ancient Celts, the only part of their world that they could reasonably control was their own encampment, and perhaps the fields immediately around it where they kept their cattle. But out beyond those fields were unknown steppes or forested lands populated by wild animals, ghosts and hostile tribes. This outer, terrifying land they called chaos. Cosmos (Bith), on the other hand, means order, and the cosmos of these early tribes consisted of those things they could rely on-such as their encampments, their warriors’ prowess, their cattle, the seasons and the great, annual dance of the stars across the sky as they circle the Pole Star. Chaos is not always negative, for from outside the boundaries of Order come resources, and mysteries, and some of the inspiration and wisdom of the Gods. In looking at the world around them, the ancients saw the tension between chaos and cosmos, and the opportunities and risks it offered. They created ritual to manage the relationship between the tribe and the ‘Other’ (those things outside the tribe), between the village and the wildwood, and between chaos and cosmos. The cosmos of the Gael differs quite radically from those of the mainstream religions. This is largely due to the underlying belief in reincarnation. To the Gael, the soul is eternal. It comes into the physical world to learn and to grow. After death, it departs to the appropriate Otherworld realm, the nature of which is based on the person’s deeds in life. After spending a while amongst the Otherworld islands, the soul returns to the physical to continue its education. This is the basic pattern of life and death which underscores the Gaelic cosmos. On account of this idea of reincarnation, there is no concept of a permanent life within any one realm. In the Gaelic view, the soul bounces back and forth between the realms of trial, punishment, and reward. In contrast to the view that punishment is meant to inflict pain and despair, in the Gaelic view, punishment can be a very good thing. Punishment is a learning experience. It is the forge for the soul—taking what is weak and making it stronger. However to achieve this strength, the soul, just as the sword, must pass through the fires that torment and burn.
The Gael sees the universe as being divided into three parts. These are known by various names but usually correlate to the English Land (Talamh), Sky (Neamh), and Sea (Muir). While these words do denote worldly places, it is important to understand that they are really poetical allegories that describe something much larger. Defining Existence by the Realms of Land (Talamh), Sky (Neamh), and Sea (Muir) is a very convenient system. Talamh is the realm of mortals; Neamh is the realm of the Gods and of perfection; and Muir is the realm of ungodliness and discord. When we classify Life into these three Realms, we are often compelled to think that each realm is its own, autonomous entity. This is simply not true. Existence is fluid, and thus there are no boundaries: one realm freely flows into the next. Talamh flows into Neamh, Neamh into Muir, and Muir into Talamh. There is no clear distinction where one begins and the other ends. Thus the Immrama tell both of islands of suffering and islands of great joy, describing both great torments and astounding bliss.
- Celtic Cosmology by Jacqueline Borsje (2014)