A to Z Challenge Folklore

Thin Places and the Other Side #AtoZChallenge #folklore

T is for Thin Places.

Learn more here.

Thin Places and the Other Side are linked. Sometimes just by existing (crossroads, cemeteries, etc.) and sometimes through sacred days (Samhain, Beltane, etc.)

If modern and ancient folklore can be believed, Samhain is the time when our world and the Other Side are the closest to being one.

In BBC’s Merlin, Morgana used this link to tear the veil between worlds.

But there’s much more to be seen…

Folklore

The Religion of the Ancient Celts by J. A. MacCulloch [1911]

Samhain, beginning the Celtic year, was an important social and religious occasion. The powers of blight were beginning their ascendancy, yet the future triumph of the powers of growth was not forgotten. Probably Samhain had gathered up into itself other feasts occurring earlier or later.

Thus it bears traces of being a harvest festival, the ritual of the earlier harvest feast being transferred to the winter feast, as the Celts found themselves in lands where harvest is not gathered before late autumn. The harvest rites may, however, have been associated with threshing rather than ingathering. Samhain also contains in its ritual some of the old pastoral cults, while as a New Year feast its ritual is in great part that of all festivals of beginnings.

New fire was brought into each house at Samhain from the sacred bonfire, itself probably kindled from the need-fire by the friction of pieces of wood. This preserved its purity, the purity necessary to a festival of beginnings. The putting away of the old fires was probably connected with various rites for the expulsion of evils, which usually occur among many peoples at the New Year festival. By that process of dislocation which scattered the Samhain ritual over a wider period and gave some of it to Christmas, the kindling of the Yule log may have been originally connected with this festival.

Divination and forecasting the fate of the inquirer for the coming year also took place. Sometimes these were connected with the bonfire, stones placed in it showing by their appearance the fortune or misfortune awaiting their owners

Earlier customs recorded among the Celts also point to the existence of this primitive belief influencing actual custom. Nicander says that the Celts went by night to the tombs of great men to obtain oracles, so much did they believe that they were still living there. In Ireland, oracles were also sought by sleeping on funeral cairns, and it was to the grave of Fergus that two bards resorted in order to obtain from him the lost story of the Táin. We have also seen how, in Ireland, armed heroes exerted a sinister influence upon enemies from their graves, which may thus have been regarded as their homes–a belief also underlying the Welsh story of Bran’s head.

Where was the world of the dead situated? M. Reinach has shown, by a careful comparison of the different uses of the word orbis, that Lucan’s words do not necessarily mean “another world,” but “another region,” i.e. of this world. 1 If the Celts cherished so firmly the belief that the dead lived on in the grave, a belief in an underworld of the dead was bound in course of time to have been evolved as part of their creed. To it all graves and tumuli would give access. Classical observers apparently held that the Celtic future state was like their own in being an underworld region, since they speak of the dead Celts as inferi, or as going ad Manes, and Plutarch makes Camma speak of descending to her dead husband. What differentiated it from their own gloomy underworld was its exuberant life and immortality. This aspect of a subterranean land presented no difficulty to the Celt, who had many tales of an underworld or under-water region more beautiful and blissful than anything on earth. Such a subterranean world must have been that of the Celtic Dispater, a god of fertility and growth, the roots of things being nourished from his kingdom. From him men had descended, 3 probably a myth of their coming forth from his subterranean kingdom, and to him they returned after death to a blissful life.

Several writers, notably M. D’Arbois, assume that the orbis alius of the dead was the Celtic island Elysium. But that Elysium never appears in the tales as a land of the dead. It is a land of gods and deathless folk who are not those who have passed from this world by death. Mortals may reach it by favour, but only while still in life. It might be argued that Elysium was regarded in pagan times as the land of the dead, but after Christian eschatological views prevailed, it became a kind of fairyland. But the existing tales give no hint of this, and, after being carefully examined, they show that Elysium had always been a place distinct from that of the departed, though there may have arisen a tendency to confuse the two.

If there was a genuine Celtic belief in an island of the dead, it could have been no more than a local one, else Cæsar would not have spoken as he does of the Celtic Dispater. Such a local belief now exists on the Breton coast, but it is mainly concerned with the souls of the drowned.

Anyone who’d ever read “The Juniper Tree” by the Brothers Grimm will know that it’s a horrid tale about stepfamily – but it’s also a tale about the Other Side and Thin Places.

“Then the juniper tree began to move, and its branches lifted themselves each from the other and came together again, just like someone rejoicing and clapping his hands. At the same time a mist rose from the tree, and right inside the mist a burning – like fire – and out of the fire there flew a beautiful bird, singing so it was wonderful to hear, and flew off high into the sky, and when he was gone the juniper tree was just as it had always been and the shawl and the bones were gone too. But little Malinka was light-hearted and happy just as though her brother was still alive – and she went back to the house, all cheerful, sat down at the table and ate up her supper.”

– The Juniper Tree, the Brothers Grimm.

My copy of the Brothers Grimm Folk Tales.

As creepy as it is, the juniper tree gives a woman a child (let’s not get into that) and she dies after giving birth. Her husband remarries and his new wife kills his son – makes their daughter believe she’d done it and then cooks the boy in a stew. In the extract above, the little boy’s sister buries his bones in the shadow of the juniper tree.

Bonsai Juniper. Image credit.

The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper

In-Between Places

Just as fairies are often connected with thresholds and transitions in human lives, such as birth and death, so too fairy worlds are located at thresholds and borders. Woods and forest s that mark the separation of a town or village from the wilderness of nature, seashores and mountaintops at the point between sea and land, land and sky – all of these are in-between places where fairies dwell. Domestic fairies traditionally make the hearth their home, which sits at the point of intersection between the cosy world inside the household and what lurks outside. Twilight, midnight, Samhain (Halloween), the times favoured by fairies, are in-between times, on the cusp of night and day, light and dark, summer and winter.

*More can be read in the book.

Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane

Toice Bhrean

In Irish folklore Toice Bhrean was originally the guardian of a sacred well but due to her neglect, the left its lid off one day causing the well to overflow, thereby creating Lough Gur. According to legend, Toice Bhrean was punished for forgetfulness; she must spend eternity beneath a magical tree growing at the bottom of the lake. Once every seven years when the water evaporates just enough she is able to see sunlight for a few moments.

It is still held in modern times to be an entrance way to Tir-Na-Nog, a fairy Otherworld.

The Lady of the Lake (Arthurian mythology)

It seems that in the earliest texts, the Lady of the Lake was a fairy queen who ruled over an underwater or otherworld land called Tir na Mban (Land of Women). There was an island in the middle of the lake where she resided with her servants.

Goibniu (Tuatha de Danann weaponsmith of magical weapons and brew master.)

In his Otherworld roadhouse, Goibniu brewed ale made from the fruit of Otherworld trees. Anyone who drank his ale would remain eternally vital and youthful.

*More can be read in the book.

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan

Liminality Cosmological concept. The Celts saw this world as impinging upon or existing parallel to and Otherworld of spirits, fairies, and divinities. Places that were not quite one thing, not quite another – twilight and dawn, the turning days of the year, geographical sites like bogs and lakes and misty islands – were the points of exchange between these two worlds. Such liminal (literally, “shadowy”) places and times were very important in Celtic myth and ritual. On Samhain and Beltane, the year’s most powerful days on November 1 and May 1, respectively, visitations from the Otherworld could be expected; passing twilight near a fairy mound on either day amplified the liminality and thus made one subject to fairy kidnapping.

Otherworld (cosmological concept): this term is used to describe an alternative reality that was the home of spirits and divinities and the beloved dead… the Celtic Otherworld existed nearby, though just out of reach. Sometimes it rested on an island in the ocean that floated unfettered through time or space. At other times, the Otherworld was imagined beneath a hill, which opened to reveal an entire vast city. In the Otherworld time moved slowly, so that an hour spent there could be a century here.

Bog (symbolic site): formed of centuries of sphagnum moss and other plants compacted in water, bogs were a prominent feature of the Irish and Scottish landscape until recent times… bogs are typically liminal zones, neither dry nor wet, …perfect entrances to the Otherworld.

Lake (symbolic site): Celtic religion saw water as sacred, so it is not surprising that lakes were seen as potent symbols of the Otherworld. Tales of cities beneath lake waters are found in many Celtic lands, as are stories of magical beings who dwell either under the lake’s waves or on magical islands [e.g. Lady of the Lake].

Islands (mythological site): the Celts considered islands to be liminal places, neither quite here nor quite in the Otherworld, and thus useful as gateways for passing between worlds. [e.g. Avalon]

Thinness Cosmological concept. The Celts believed that reality was not all the same everywhere. While common reality was opaque and solid, there were also “thin places” where the Otherworld was near. These included Fairy Trees that grew alone in the centre of a rocky field; bogs where people could be lost and drowned; and Islands that appear remote or close according to atmospheric conditions. There were also “thin times” in the year, turning points at which Otherworld forces could penetrate to our world, or dwellers here could happen into that world. Although each day had a thin time at twilight, there were two days every year when time grew so thin that the two worlds collided: the two Celtic feasts of Beltane on May 1 and Samhain on November 1. The idea in thinness in time and space may be connected to the belief of shape-shifting, the ability to transform one’s body into that of an animal, a plant, or even a fog.

*More can be read in the book.

Peat Bog. Image credit.

Further Reading:

Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

Thin Places are specific sites with a mystical quality, places where the veil between the Realms are thin. There are people who claim to experience enchantment, power, wisdom and alternate realities when dealing with a Thin Place.

Ireland is dotted with Thin Places. From familiar ones like Newgrange, the Hill of Tara, Drombeg stone circle, Carrowmore and Glendalough to less familiar, yet must-see sites, like the Hill of Uisneach where all the lay lines of Ireland meet, Caldragh Cemetery on Boa Island, Coole Park which was the home of Lady Gregory where many others who contributed to Irish literature – like William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory herself – came to be amazed at the acres of woodland and gardens, Glencolumbkille consecrated by St. Columcille after driving demons from the glen into the ocean, and the stone circles along the Beara Way in County Cork.

The Celts divided the year into two parts: the light (summer) and the dark (winter). Samhain is the division between these halves and also the time when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest. Humans and Fae freely mingle in this time, though most humans wear costumes to fool the Fae about their identities as not to be carried off by them. Because Samhain is a “nowhere” time, between the old year and the new, people generally avoid graveyards and crossroads as not to accidentally cross into the Underworld. Beltane also divides these times, yet it doesn’t have as much of an effect on the Veil as Samhain. The only lore I could find specifically tying Beltane to a thinning in the Veil is Llyn Cwm Llwch lake which holds an invisible island that can only be reached by a door set in rock that opens every Beltane.

In-between times and places give the supernatural (faeries, demons, etc.) the greatest power to influence the lives of mortals. In-between times (“thin times”) include: twilight, dawn, Samhain, Beltane, and midnight. In-between places (“thin places”) include: seashores, mountaintops, bogs, cairns (graveyards), stone circles, cave entrances, crossroads, and forests.

Kealkil Stone Circle, standing stones and overgrown cairn. Image credit.

Thin Places and the Other Side in Modern Culture

Merlin

The Spirit World, also known as the Underworld or the Other World, is a region that may be under the surface of the earth or in a hypothetical parallel universe. It may also be connected in some way to Avalon, the Land of Eternal Youth where the Sidhe dwell, served by the pixies. The Spirit World is apparently the place where the souls of the recently departed go and is possibly the place where heaven and hell are located. It is a place of darkness and of ancient and evil spirits.

The Spirit world is separated from the world of the living by the Veil, located at Gateways between the worlds. The Pool of Nemhain is the last of the five Gateways that separate the world of the living from the world of the dead (Lancelot du Lac). The Cailleach is the gatekeeper to the Spirit world and guardian of the Veil (The Darkest Hour). She may inhabit the Spirit World as well.

The Veil is the gap between the mortal world an the next known as the Spirit world. The Spirit world is inhabited by the Dorocha and other creatures of the Old Religion, like the manticore (Love in the Time of Dragons) or the Fomorroh (A Servant of Two Masters). The Veil is guarded and kept by the Cailleach, goddess of death and winter.

On Samhain Eve, the Veil between the worlds is at its thinnest and the High Priestesses, back in the time of the Old Religion, would perform a blood sacrifice to tear the Veil and release the Dorocha. To heal the Veil, another sacrifice had to be made (The Darkest Hour).

Lancelot walks into the spirit world to heal the broken Veil. Image credit.

The Vampire Diaries

The Other Side was a supernatural dimension where the spirits of dead supernatural beings resided in a state of purgatory or limbo. It was created by Qetsiyah with the intention of forcing Silas to spend an eternity with her on the Other Side instead of moving on and finding true eternal peace with his soulmate, Amara.

The Other Side was first mentioned by Anna when she appeared as a ghost and talked to Jeremy Gilbert, who had recently gained the ability to see ghosts after his resurrection. Anna told him she was all alone on the “other side;” though, Anna admitted that she did not know what it was officially called. However, other residents of the supernatural dimension, such as Sheila Bennett and Esther, referred to it as “the Other Side”, a name that ultimately stuck and was used by the rest of the characters. This place was ruled by The Spirits.

The Other Side collapses. Image credit.

The Originals

The Ancestral Plane, also known as the Ancestral Well[1], was a supernatural dimension in which the deceased ancestral witches of New Orleans resided. According to Genevieve, it shares some similarities with the infamous Other Side. Witches gain access to the Ancestral Plane via consecration, in which their magic bleeds into the earth, fueling the community while their life essence becomes tethered to the Earth, bound to it. This grants them a connection to the Earth and the ability to interact with the environment if so they wish, however, their interaction with the physical world is limited to the City of the Dead. 

The Ancestral Plane. Image credit.

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr

In the Wicked Lovely series, Rae enters Faerie through a cave, leaving her body behind and being almost immortal in a place off-limits to humans.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The most prominent distinction between types of dimensions is the distinction between heaven and hell dimensions.

hell dimension (also known as a demon dimension) is a dimension with conditions extremely hostile for the development of human life. They are known as “hell” dimensions due to their similarity to the nightmarish afterlife believed to exist by many religions. Demons are the dominant lifeform in these dimensions, and many of these worlds are inhabited by pureblood demonsEarth itself is technically also a demon dimension, as it was originally populated by demons before mortal lifeforms evolved and drove the pure-breed demons out.

heaven dimensions (also known as a higher plane) is a dimension which is populated by benevolent beings. They are known as “heaven” dimensions due to their similarity to the idyllic afterlife believed to exist by many religions. Little else is known about heaven dimensions.

There are various ways of travelling between dimensions:

  • Hellmouths; mystical convergences where the barriers between dimensions are weaker, which emit supernatural energy and attract evil.
  • Similarly, the barriers between the dimensions can also be breached by performing certain rituals at “hot spot” locations to transport beings and objects to and from other dimensions. Some dimensions such as Pylea can be accessed in this way by opening portals with spells, which some others such as Quor’toth can only be reached by using dark magic to tear the very fabric of reality. Some spells are powerful enough to access any dimension, while one that uses “the Key” is powerful enough to unlock all dimensions at once.
  • An ancient, mystical force known as The Key is capable of completely tearing down the barriers between dimensions, causing all dimensions to bleed into one another and chaos to reign.
Buffy throws herself into the portal opened by the Key to close it. Image credit.

Thin Places and the Other Side in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Thin Places

At crossroads, graveyards and other places of change and choice, the Veil between Realms are extremely thin. (Realms in this context: Land of the Dead and Land of the Living.)
The Living can easily cross over. As long as their bodies stay intact, they can return to their lives.
The dead want to cross over to the Land of the Living and will be hunted down by Grims/Barguest to return to the Other Side.
Thin Places are to be avoided on Samhain.

Origin of the Fae: Other Side

Reference to the to the Realm on the other side of the Veil between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead.

Origin of the Fae: Otherworld

Realm of deathfae and the dead. Encompasses Tir fo Thoinn (the Land beneath the Waves, home of Merrows, Sirens, etc.) the Underworld and other grey areas in-between (Valhalla, Hades, Castle of the Keeper of the Veil, etc.).

Origin of the Fae: Underworld

Where souls of mortals and fae go to be judged and find their final rest.
Rulers: Dagda and Hel (respectively).
There are many layers to the Underworld and many denizens of Faerie who happily live in this in-between place in Otherworld.

thin places English Afrikaans
other side English Afrikaans
Otherworld English Afrikaans
underworld English Afrikaans
crossroads sketch
unseen book extract
Get it here.

Do you believe that there are Thin Places? Can you think of more folktales where Thin Places and the Other Side feature? Have you ever encountered a Thin Place? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to the subject.

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10 thoughts on “Thin Places and the Other Side #AtoZChallenge #folklore”

  1. I have heard about the Thin Places, yes. Have you read the mediaeval poem Sir Orfeo? It’s a mediaevalised version of the Orpheus story. Orfeo’s Queen was kidnapped by the King of Faerie, while sleeping under an “Ymp tree”, a definite thin place. But Faerie is also a place of the dead. Orfeo arrives at the castle of the Faerie King and passes people still in the form of how they died, including his wife sleeping under the tree. Fortunately that story ends happily, with him retrieving her and finding his steward was faithful.

    1. I’m glad you liked the illustrations 🙂 I only learned the term a couple of years ago, but I’ve been aware of these places where things are different since an early age… sometimes it’s that shop squeezed in between the others that just feels off, somehow.

  2. Fascinating. We can visit this kind of places, how do we know that we won’t experience something special in them?
    The image syou use in this post were particularly lovely.

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