The psychology of mythology: or, why the Otherworld is just as real as this one

I’ve spent a lot of years studying the psychology of myth. For me, in a slightly oversimplified nutshell, it all come down to this: Freud’s theories on anything – inevitably, interminably, explaining everything in sexual terms – rarely interest me much at all; Jung is marvelous but often a little too human-centred for my tastes; James Hillman takes psychology and mythology back out of our heads and into the world again, and so is always to be revered.

I’ve written about some of these things in this earlier post about the re-enchantment of psychology, but I wanted to continue to share on this website some practical examples of why the psychology of myth should be more than just a subject of theoretical or scholarly interest – but how, rather, it can actively illuminate the way we see the world, and live, today. Whilst taking my Master’s degree in Celtic Studies at the University of Wales, I’ve specialised in two main areas: the origins of Grail mythology (some of which I wrote about in If Women Rose Rooted), and the Otherworld in Irish and Welsh mythology. (The two are beautifully intertwined, but that’s a long tale for another day. Soon.) And so follow along with me while I tell you a story: a psychologist-mythologist’s story of how the world is, which derives not only from close study of the original traditions and literature of my native lands, but from my own experiences of belonging to these mist-bound, storm-tossed wild Celtic edgelands of Europe, where the Otherworld is not only just as real as any other, but is still seen to be inextricably interwoven with this one.

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Let’s begin by following on from that earlier post, and pick up on Jung’s ideas, which later were fleshed out by James Hillman, that psyche (or soul) and its associated archetypes (i.e. the deepest patterns of psychic functioning) have an independent existence, outside of us. As Hillman put it: ‘It is not we who imagine, but we who are imagined.’ In other words, the soul is not an entity ‘within’ each of us, but something transpersonal which expresses itself in our unique experience, but which is not reducible to that individual experience. What’s interesting is that these ideas weren’t original either to Jung or to Hillman, but can also be found in traditional Islamic philosophy, and in particular, in the concept of the mundus imaginalis.

Generally, in Western civilisation we consider what is ‘imaginal’ to be lacking in concrete reality. But Henry Corbin, a theologian and philosopher who explored Islamic Sufi traditions, used the term mundus imaginalis to describe a particular order of reality which is referred to in ancient Sufi texts. These texts tell us that, between the physical world and the world of abstract intellect, lies another world: the world of the image, the mundus imaginalis; a world that is just as real as either of these other two. And so, in Corbin’s expression of this ancient Sufi philosophy, the material world which we take as real is in fact totally enveloped by a spiritual reality which influences (or perhaps even determines) it.

The reality of the mundus imaginalis communicates itself to human beings through images, so that the act of imagining then becomes an act of connection to it. But we’re not just talking about any old imaginings; as Corbin said:

We must be careful not to confuse it with the imagination identified by so-called modern man with “fantasy”, and which, according to him, is nothing but an outpour of “imaginings”.

This is an important point: Corbin differentiated between the simple everyday acts of daydreaming and fantasising (which are what we often mean when we speak about ‘imagining’) and the reality of this world of archetypes and visions. To stress this point again: the forms and figures which occupy the mundus imaginalis have a real – and the key point here is that ‘reality’ is not just restricted to the material – presence. The mundus imaginalis is the place from where all spiritual and transcendent experience derives. It is the source of synchronicities, ‘psychic’ experiences and creative insights. This world penetrates into our dreams and other visionary experiences, including the places we visit during deep meditation or imaginal journeying.

The mundus imaginalis could be perceived by what Corbin called ‘the psycho-spiritual senses’:

As a world beyond the empirical control of our sciences it is a supersensible world. It is only perceptible by imaginative perception and the events taking place there can be lived only by imaginative or imagining consciousness.

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The idea of an Otherworld (or several) which runs alongside this one, which in some sense can be reached from this one, which influences this one, and which has characteristics of the mundus imaginalis, is a key aspect of shamanic cosmologies throughout the world. It is also, and very clearly, fundamental to the Irish (and to a more limited extent, because less written material exists, in the Welsh) traditions too. Belief in an Otherworld which coexists with our own has always been a defining feature of Irish culture and literature – and our Otherworld is not a land of the dead: it is very much a land of the living. It is a land of beauty and harmony; its occupants are gods and other supernatural beings; it is full of magical, archetypal objects. It does not have a defined physical location, though the old texts variously situate it on islands, underground, inside hills, beyond forest clearings, at the bottom of lakes or the sea – or they describe it as a place which can be reached while passing through mist, or following a deer into a forest. Humans can, on occasion, pass into it – either by invitation, at specific times of the year, or by happening upon a suitably liminal/threshold zone. These human ‘adventures’ in the Otherworld can occur precisely because it is a real world, existing alongside and very much intertwined with this one. There are differences, though; in most conceptions of the Otherworld in Irish and Welsh literature, the normal rules of existence do not apply: time passes differently, for example, and the seasons may be inverted.

In all European traditions, as the old mythologies were overthrown by Christian dogma, the potent and deeply influential Otherworld was downgraded to a mere ‘fairyland’. The process is especially clear in Irish tradition; once, the Otherworld was the home of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the old gods. When, as the myths tell us, they were overthrown by the Sons of Mil (the Milesians, the Gaels – humans) they were forced to retreat into the mounds, the hollow hills, where afterwards they were known as the Aos Sí (the people of the mounds). Later, under the influence of the Church, the Aos Sí were no longer thought of as gods, but began simply to be called ‘the fairies’. And yet the residues of the old beliefs live on in Ireland to this day in the creideamh sí, the ‘fairy faith’. In this country, in this specific place where I live, the Otherworld is still just as real as any other. It, and its inhabitants, are still thought to be able to influence our lives. To me, it’s always been a defining feature of the Irish way of looking at the world.

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Why does all of this this matter? It matters for a very simple reason: because our relationship with the Otherworld determines what happens in this world. The Otherworld was the source of inspiration, insight, and knowledge – for which there are many different terms in Irish, and for which the name ‘awen’ is usually used in Welsh. The Otherworld was a source of moral and spiritual authority (and, as I’ve written about extensively in If Women Rose Rooted, that authority was almost exclusively female). In some old stories it is written that the source of this world’s life was the sacred water of the wells, which flowed up out of the deep potent waters of the Otherworld. It was from the Otherworld that Sovereignty arose, a quality of the goddess of the land who was its guardian and protector, a deeply ecological force. The power of Sovereignty was also the power to determine who should rule the land, and in the old Celtic myths, Sovereignty’s power was paramount. If the power she bestowed was abused, then we invited disaster. During the reign of a king favoured by the goddess, the land was fertile and prosperous, and the tribe was victorious in war. But if the king didn’t match up to her expectations, he didn’t last long. And what she expected more than anything was that the king, and through his example, the people, would cherish the land. So it was that the ancient rites of kingship in Ireland included a ceremonial marriage, the banais ríghi, between the king and the land, and those rites lasted into the sixteenth century. In this sacred marriage, the king swore to uphold the land and his people and to be true to both; in return Sovereignty granted him the gifts which would help him to keep his oath. While there is mutual respect between the two partners – between the land and the people, between nature and culture – then all is in harmony and life is filled with abundance. But when the contract is broken and nature is abused, the old stories tell us, the fertile land becomes the Wasteland. The lifegiving power of the Otherworld is withdrawn.

An awareness of the Otherworld, then, in our own native traditions (which are so potent, and yet so often neglected in favour of cosmologies from other parts of the planet) is an awareness of the power of the Earth itself. The Otherworld isn’t just a pretty place in a fairy tale: it is the source of life and inspiration. The powerful Otherworldly woman in the oldest of our stories isn’t a mere fairy mistress, or a pretty muse in a poet’s dream: she is the moral and spiritual authority of the earth, the anima mundi personified. The Otherworld is more than just a myth; the mundus imaginalis is real. As Corbin’s work suggests:  the material world which we take as real is in fact totally enveloped by a spiritual reality which influences (or perhaps even determines) it.

We ignore it at our peril.


All images by Maxime Simoncelli, http://www.sylfvr.com/

‘Mundus Imaginalis or The Imaginary and the Imaginal’, by Henry Corbin (1972), is available at http://www.bahaistudies.net/asma/mundus_imaginalis.pdf

This subject, among many others, is covered in my online course ‘The Mythic Imagination’: http://www.thehedgeschool.org/the-mythic-imagination/

28 thoughts on “The psychology of mythology: or, why the Otherworld is just as real as this one

  1. This is exactly the kind of deeply engaging material I have come to expect and look for from your blog (here enhanced by Maxine’s haunting artwork). The potency of the limnal is something which speaks to me strongly and which I touched upon (in admittedly simplistic terms) on my own blog (here: http://bit.ly/2bWrTrC), where I wrote about the persistent springs which break up the surface of a lane I walk often. To see clear water bubbling from the earth is spell-like, and I feel intensely annoyed by attempts to divert or dam them. Many who have spent any period walking or working outdoors in the countryside, in all weathers, will at some time have experienced a moment or a place which seem somehow ‘other’ – how much more powerful that experience must have been for our ancestors, for whom long hours out-of-doors were a necessity of life and for whom life itself possessed a kind of immediacy which we have lost.

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  2. Transpersonal experiences of the otherworld are all around and yes, mostly felt outside in nature in the expansive places of mountains and lakes and in the colour Green. Pure magic.

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  3. It is always consoling to come across writing that expresses (so beautifully) all that I know to be true. I am most at home in nature, always have been. After my sister, and my very best friend, died unexpectedly in 2007, I found a liminal threshold in the woods near my home. I named this space my Cathedral and as soon as I passed under the arching oak branches inviting me to enter, I experienced deep peace. Needless to say, I visited this space every day to grieve, pray, and heal. The Otherworld is real and it’s good to know I have fellow travelers on the path there. Thank you, Sharon. I appreciate your words and work. The images are also hauntingly beautiful.

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    1. Thanks, Cheryl. So many of us know this to be true. The line I walk is trying to express it for the sceptical, who ‘imagine’ that we all always make this stuff up … reeling in a wider audience with sense as well as sensibility …

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  4. Yes, you are reeling us in! I until recent years, under the force of undeniable experience, a great skeptic and poo-poo-er of the Other World, but so much is being revealed to me as I lower those barriers and open to my own heart. Thank you so much for this wonderful expression of the truth of it, and the really essential nature of it, the need for it if we are to even survive in this modern, lost world. Interestingly, your words are also echoed in a book I’m reading now, on quantum entanglement, non-locality and the way that magical world creates this so-called reality.

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    1. I love how scepticism is floored in the face of the otherwise-inexplicable revelations! As a trained scientist, I’ve been there. And regret the scepticism not a bit, and still employ it on a daily basis, which is healthy when done with an honestly questioning balance. But sometimes, we are forced to recognise what is otherwise inexplicable, and so our real lives begin … There is much wisdom in the concept of entanglement. Thank you for introducing it here. I feel another blog post coming on …

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  5. This read is in alignment with my own thoughts on the world. I appreciate this blog post immensely. As someone else mentioned, it is a beautiful thing to stumble across words which speak the truth of your own heart, mind, and soul. Thank you.

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  6. I greatly enjoyed your lyrical style. Scientifically trained and yet having personal experience with many ‘Otherworld’ interactions, I have no doubt that this other realm coexists alongside our own. I still am saddened by some of the old tales, however, for I believe the Tuatha Dé Danann went to the hills and into the West, meaning they were killed off (hills = burial barrows, ‘West’ = land of the spirits). I think much of what we perceive as myth stems from metaphors which are blurred over time until we no longer understand their context and so accept them at ‘their word’. I do believe that these spirits inhabit the land, as did the ancients and even not so ancients, such as ‘mummies’ found in lands around Tibet wherein monks would sacrifice themselves during a deep trance state so that they would forever watch over the lands of their people, and the vast number of cultures who revered the dead and treated them as members of the extant family. All life exudes and is woven into the less visible waveform of existence, at once creator and the created.

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  7. I also have a Master’s in Early Celtic Studies from Cardiff! When did you graduate? Who do you study with? I still have an interest in the Otherworld and do mediumship and spirit work. Glad to have stumbled upon your site!

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    1. That MA is part of the Trinity St David’s online programme, run by Jane Cartwright at Lampeter but with many different tutors. The Otherworld course was initially created by Barry Lewis (now in Dublin) but the tutor I worked with was Marion Loffler.

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  8. Hello Dr. Blackie,

    I really connected with your beautiful post. As a Los Angeles based depth psychotherapist, I wrote my masters thesis on using active imagination and imaginal exploration to transcend writer’s block – something which plagued me for many years. I now use these methods to help professional writers, comedians and artists deepen their work. Coming from an Irish-American heritage, I have always been drawn to the rich imaginal realms of Irish folklore, and recently returned from an incredible 2 week journey through Iceland, where the stunning and evocative landscapes, coupled with their ancestral beliefs in hollow hills, little people and trolls, shares many similarities to the Irish. Thanks for sharing your writings and reflections. Wonderful work!
    Kind regards,
    Philip Ruddy, MFTI
    http://www.ActivelyImagine.com

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Philip. Many years ago I also offered creative imagination work for writers and artists (actually, that’s how I met my husband!). And I’m fascinated by Iceland and its folklore too. One of these days perhaps I’ll head there myself!

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  9. Dear Sharon,

    Your words deeply resonate for sure. I have discovered your blog and work very recently, then bought your book a couple weeks ago. I was thinking about putting up a blog with femininity as the main theme and reading about your work, among other books and experiences, has given me great inspiration.

    I am French ( with Spanish and Italian roots) and part of my family comes from Brittany which is, nowadays, one of our last regions who succeeded to keep enchantment and spirituality alive. There is something very old there, that one can only approach by listening carefully and using intuition. I am very glad to have found this post and can’t wait to read more!

    Merci beaucoup Sharon.

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    1. Merci a toi aussi, Coraline. When I visited Brittany briefly, I did for sure find enchantment in those old woods. And yes, it is absolutely about listening carefully. About going to the same places in the land time and again, and sitting, and waiting. The cultivation of patience is necessary; approaching the land in this way is a life practice, not a vacation. Thank you for visiting!

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  10. Thank you for writing about the Otherworld. I appreciate how this weaves with the re-enchanting of psychology blog post. As I consider returning to academia to weave my own traditional and non-traditional education (wildlife biology and ecopsychology), I am continually engaged in the question of how to keep the connection to the Otherworld alive in my own life and studies. As you mentioned in another blog, I’m living a parallel life.
    I can hardly say how grateful I am that you share your work as it keeps opening new doors of possibility for all the ‘non-conformists’. 🙂 Thank you, Sharon.

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    1. Thanks, Shea! I think it is quite possible, with care and awareness, to weave the academic into ‘real life’. It lends a necessary rigour; it just has to be seen as part of the picture, not the whole. And I’m looking forward to sharing more here, more regularly. Thanks for sticking with the changes!

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  11. I am deeply grateful you write on this subject, as so eloquently and intelligently too. I wish I could say more, but my heart is so full, I don’t know how to tease out an articulate response. I guess it would come down to just thanks, anyway. I’ve always been profoundly sad that society doesn’t recognise – or outright denies – the Otherworld, the different layers of reality, To see it written about so clearly … well, thanks.

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