Exploring Celtic Mythology in
On the contrary. The Celtic Book of the Dead retells an old story full of hope and forgiveness. Written by Caitlin Matthews, it explores the Celtic tradition of looking at life—and preparing for death—as a journey, an immram. An immram is an Old Irish word for a hero’s sea journey to the Otherworld.
Many cultures have so-called books of the dead. The Egyptian Guide to the Afterlife, for example, which was written on papyrus nearly 4,000 years ago, consists of magic spells to assist a dead person’s journey through the underworld, and into the afterlife.
Then there’s the ancient Bardo Thödol, more commonly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Ironically, it is neither Tibetan nor a book about death. It is, however, a commentary on the universal experience of death and dying from a Buddhist perspective. Meant to be recited aloud, it teaches Buddhists how to become enlightened and fulfill their potential as spiritually awakened beings so that they can enter Nirvana when they die.
Some people consider Dante’s Divine Comedy to be the Christian Book of the Dead. You are probably familiar with the three realms of the afterlife: Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory) and Paradiso (heaven). You may even reference the Inferno without knowing it, by saying, “There’s a special circle in hell …” for people who commit a particularly heinous crime.
Dante called his epic poem a comedy because, unlike tragedies that begin on a high note and end badly, comedies begin badly but end well. It is an allegory for the soul’s journey toward God. It teaches Christians how to live, so that when they die, they go to Paradise, not Hell or Purgatory. It’s been called the greatest self-help book of all time.
As with other books of the dead, The Celtic Book of the Dead began not as a book, but as tales. Handed down for centuries in the oral tradition, it wasn’t written down until sometime in the late 7th century or early 8th century. It is a retelling of the immram undertaken by Máel Dúin, son of Ailill Ochair Aghra.
As the story goes, Ailill took part in a raid, during which he raped a young nun. The nun gave birth to Máel Dúin, and gave him to the local king and queen to raise. When he discovered that they were not his real parents, Máel Dúin set off to meet his father’s family. There, he learned that Ailill was killed by a band of pirates. Máel Dúin decided that it was his duty to avenge his father.
So, he went after the pirates on an immram to the Otherworld that lay west of Ireland. When he and his companions finally made it back to the original island of the murderers, Máel Dúin recounted the marvels that God had revealed to them, and abandoned his revenge.
It’s very similar to the story of Saint Brendan the Navigator, the patron saint of sailors.
Brendan was born in Ireland around 489 A.D. and founded a monastery in Galway. According to various legends, sometime in the early 6th century, when Brendan was already old, he and 17 other monks set sail on a voyage across the North Atlantic in a curragh, a wood-framed boat, for seven years to find the legendary Island of the Blessed—the Otherworld.
The Otherworld is often described in terms of islands—islands of joy, peace, happiness, and eternal life. Lands located far out to sea, in a lake, or a river, where there is no death and where the fullness of personal potential is revealed.
Another name for the Otherworld is Tír na nÓg, the Land of Eternal Youth, the realm of eternal youth, beauty, health, abundance, and joy.
Both heroes’ journeys were such epic adventures that many believe that the Island of the Blessed, or the Otherworld, was none other than the yet-to-be-named America—one thousand years before Columbus. Island of the Blessed is even included in some ancient maps of the area. Based on that reasoning, we must be living in the Otherworld. But if the Otherworld is perfection, joy, and peace, then probably we’re not.
Anyway, Brendan learned that his journey took so long because God wanted to show him the many mysteries in the immense ocean—in the world. Only when he fulfilled who he was, and could carry home the mysteries of life, could he then return to the land of his birth, and rest in peace.
The immram heroes—Máel Dúin and Brendan—overcame storms, temptations, and hunger. Strange creatures attacked from air and ocean. But they also encountered wonderous sights—Islands of Joy and Plenteous Salmon, a rainbow stream, a crystal castle, and pillars of silver rising from the sea.
Their stories are similar to that of Dante, who journeyed through hell and purgatory to get to heaven. Or the Buddhists’ journey to enlightenment.
The immram, then, is the ideal framework for the 12-year-old protagonist in Ghost Girl to find meaning in her life—and her mother’s death.
In this contemporary novel, Bonnie is sent to live with relatives, who will homeschool her in a haunted house. There, ancestral ghosts befriend her and guide her on a mystical voyage to the Celtic Otherworld.
In that quest, Bonnie must overcome grudges, bullies, and an evil shopkeeper. Finally, lured at midnight into the forbidden attic by a spirit dog and touched with a magic potion, she seeks answers to who she is, where she belongs, and why her mother died.