The origin of the Celtic Elysium, different to the Classical Elysium, belief may be found in universal myths of a golden age long ago in a distant Elysian region, where men had lived with the gods. Into that region brave mortals might still penetrate, though it was lost to mankind as a whole.
‘THE Celtic conception of Elysium, the product at once of religion, mythology, and romantic imagination, is found in a series of Irish and Welsh tales.’
In some mythologies this Elysium is the land whence men go after death. Possibly the Celtic myth of man’s early intercourse with the gods in a lost region took two forms. In one it was a joyful subterranean world any Celt hoped to go after death. In the other it was not recoverable, nor was it the land of the dead, but favored mortals might reach it in life.
The Celtic Elysium belief, as known through the tales just cited, is always of this second kind. We surmise that the land of the dead was a joyous underworld ruled over by a god of fertility and of the dead, and from that region men had originally come forth. The later association of gods with the síd was a continuation of this belief, but now the síd are certainly not a land of the dead, but Elysium pure and simple. There must therefore have been at an early period a tendency to distinguish between the happy region of the dead, and the distant Elysium, if the two were ever really connected.
The subject is obscure, but it is not impossible that another origin of the Elysium idea may be found in the phenomenon of the setting sun: it suggested to the continental Celts that far off there was a divine land where the sun-god rested.
When the Celts reached the coast this divine western land would necessarily be located in a far-off island, seen perhaps on the horizon. Hence it would also be regarded as connected with the sea-god, Manannan, or by whatsoever name he was called.
The distant Elysium, whether on land or across the sea, was conceived in identical terms, and hence also whenever the hollow hills or síd were regarded as an abode of the gods, they also were described just as Elysium was.
Classic Elysium, the Elysium fields we know from the Ridley Scott film Gladiator, (Ancient Greek: Ēlýsion pedíon
) is a conception of the afterlife that developed over time and was maintained by some Greek religious and philosophical sects and cults. Initially separate from the realm of Hades
, admission was reserved for mortals related to the gods and other heroes. Later, it expanded to include those chosen by the gods, the righteous, and the heroic, where they would remain after death, to live a blessed and happy life, and indulging in whatever employment they had enjoyed in life.
The Elysian Fields were, according to Homer, located on the western edge of the Earth by the stream of Okeanos.
In the time of the Greek oral poet Hesiod, Elysium would also be known as the Fortunate Isles or the Isles (or Islands) of the Blessed, located in the western ocean at the end of the earth. The Isles of the Blessed would be reduced to a single island by the Thebean poet Pindar, describing it as having shady parks, with residents indulging in athletic and musical pastimes.
The ruler of Elysium varies from author to author: Pindar and Hesiod name Cronus as the ruler, while the poet Homer in the Odyssey describes fair-haired Rhadamanthus dwelling there.
Feature image: Elysium by Karezoid