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Blog: Irish Death Rituals
|Blog: Irish Death Rituals|
|Blog - Random Thoughts on Writing|
|Written by Terri Bruce|
|Thursday, 05 July 2012 00:00|
My new novel, Hereafter, takes place in the afterlife; as such, death rituals and afterlife myths are central to the story. In fact, the underlying premise of Hereafter is, "What if all the afterlife myths of every culture and religion are true?" I spent two years researching different beliefs and tying them together to form a cohesive whole, which I'll talk about more in future posts. However, today, I have a special treat for you: author Danielle Ackley-McPhail is here to talk about how she incorporated afterlife mythology and death rituals into her "Eternal Cycles" series.
On Legends That Will Not Die
By Danielle Ackley-McPhail
Immortality is an interesting concept. For some it means you cannot die…at all. For others it means you won’t die on your own, but with a little help…you get the idea. There’s a lot of room to play with in there and the potential for many interesting complications that really add to fantasy fiction. This applies directly to my own work as I incorporate a lot of myth in my books.
One concept that surfaces across many world religions is that there are only so many souls to go around. How would that apply to immortal beings? When I began writing my first novel, Yesterday’s Dreams, I was faced with this question. See, the novel is primarily based on Irish mythology. That means, in great part, the Sidhe…The Tuatha de Danaan…a near-immortal race that those who read fantasy feel they know everything about.
How to make them consider that might not be the case?
When I was doing research for the novel I encountered several interesting concepts. For instance, did you know Irish mythology includes a form of reincarnation? In their version you come back specifically as one of your descendents. This was an interesting point for me, particularly as I was faced with the challenge of staying true to the myth cycle I was using as a foundation, but also needing to at least recognize and in some way address popular—though not always substantiated—belief about the legendary beings I’d chosen to feature as a significant element of my book.
See one thing everyone “knows” about elves is that they don’t have babies often; in theory that is why they are always trying to steal ours. I haven’t found anything in the actual mythology that would lead to this belief, but let’s just suppose it is true…why would that be? The most basic response would be since they are near-immortal there is no need to reproduce as prolifically as humans…or bunnies. It works, but I don’t like to rely on basic. It’s too simple, which isn’t nearly as interesting for the reader.
However, if I combine this popular belief with the information about reincarnation revealed in my research you have a much more dynamic explanation. If you come back as your descendents that must mean that a Sidhe would have to die for another one to be born.
An elegant and plausible solution.
But what other dynamics come into play? How does it work? What type of rituals might form around such a cultural phenomenon?
This wasn’t very relevant in the first book. It was just a point made to give distinction to my representation of the Sidhe…until the end of the book, by which time two Sidhe managed to die (completely unplanned, on my part, I might add). Also by that time the novel had most definitely become a trilogy, aptly named the Eternal Cycle series as the cycling of the souls took on greater significance than I could have anticipated.
Because of this I actually had to consider the mechanics, so here it goes:
How does it work? Think about it…you have male and female Sidhe dying. A husband isn’t going to bear the young (that’s a little too out there for what I was doing) so what happens if the wife dies? These beings aren’t human so what if sex isn’t the deciding factor? I extrapolated that a soul will gravitate to the female Sidhe with whom they have the strongest connection. Sometimes a mate, sometimes not. It is the link that is key, not the relationship.
See, based on Irish myth, all Sidhe are related. They are all the Children of Danu. Why?
Well, the mythology doesn’t really say. You see, the Sidhe aren’t native to Ireland and very little is known about their time before. Know what that means? I get to extrapolate! I LOVE to extrapolate, and the name they are called by ties in very nicely with the reincarnation elements I have incorporated.
Look at it like this…why would they leave their homeland? All of them? All at once, never to return? The most logical answer is to survive. Where they were was no longer a safe place to be.
Well, that’s kind of where I went with it, but since I wanted to put my own take on how they came by the name Children of Danu (which can also be translated as People of Danu, just for clarity’s sake) I wove a legend of my own. In their homeland, the Sidhe were pursued…hunted…by beings part physical, part spirit. Those predators fed off magic and souls. In my legend the Sidhe race had been decimated. Only two remained, twins. One injured, one not. The injured sister surrenders herself to the spirit beings to enable her sister to flee. See, if Danu could get away all the souls that had not been consumed would return, all born of Danu’s body, thus making her the mother of her resurrected race.
That brings me to the next question:
What rituals would take shape around this process? I have two things specific to the Sidhe and their soul connection/rebirth. In Tomorrow’s Memories (book two of the Eternal Cycle Series) there is a description of a Great Wall behind the throne of Goibhniu, ruler of Tír na nÓg. It is a massive spiral composed of individual pieces of knotwork. Each knot is linked to a Sidhe soul, their experiences determine the intricacy of the pattern and reflect their state of being, even their death. When a Sidhe dies the pattern turns black and begins to fade away, the adjoining patterns grow closer together and the start of a new pattern takes shape on the tail of the spiral. Not only does this show the connection between them all, but serves as an actual anchor, allowing them to enter the Sidhe Lands at will. In the novel the spirit beings return and start to claim victims again. That is represented on the Wall. This isn’t a ritual per se, but it leads to the two rituals I did devise.
The first ritual is grim. See, having almost been exterminated once, the Sidhe do not ever kill each other, to do so is the greatest offense to the Race. When this nearly happens in Tomorrow’s Memories a harsh decision is made: to banish the one who made the attempt. Not just to cast them out, but to cut their soul from the anchor of the Wall. In the book it is called the Unraveling. Once the ceremony is completed it is as if the soul was never born Sidhe. If the one banished were to die their soul would never return, cut off from the People. This is not lightly undertaken and all of the elven race must participate in the ritual.
The second ritual is something along the lines of an Irish Wake. Mourning the death, but celebrating the life (past and future). But I need to explain a few things first.
Here is where history, not just legend comes into play. For those familiar with Newgrange and its ancient purpose, the Irish of the Megalithic period used to cremate their dead. The bodies were burned, the ashes placed into sacks, and the sacks laid in one of three basins inside the Newgrange mound. The remains were left there until the Winter Solstice. The geometry of the building was precisely arranged so that on that day the sun’s rays entered the mound and went down into the chamber, lighting it completely from top to bottom as if it were in direct sunlight. The ancient Irish believed that when the sun hit those remains inside the soul was released and the remains could then be interred in a mass cairn. It is also said that Newgrange is the resting place of Dagda and Boann, who are Sidhe gods.
At the time I wrote Yesterday’s Dreams I didn’t know any of that, and yet when my Sidhe died I had them turn to glittering ash and the remains were gathered in black velvet pouches to be returned to Tír na nÓg. It was gratifying to find my representation borne out by fact and legend.
Back to the ritual, though. In Today’s Promise, book three in the Eternal Cycle series, I deal with a lot of actual death-related rituals. First is the already mentioned Unraveling. The flip side of that is the Welcoming. This is the wake-like experience I mention three paragraphs up. Basically all the Sidhe women who have been blessed to bear the souls of the departed enter a sacred glade carrying the black velvet pouches holding the remains. Once there, and with everyone looking on, the blessed form a circle which is encased by mist. The memories of the departed are envisioned on that mist, to be seen by all. This recognizes their lives, but also cleanses the souls of those memories, thus speeding its journey back to life as the child will not be born until the remnants of the past life fade. This is a bit more literal than the average wake, but I felt nicely echoed the real-world concepts of wakes and shiva and other such mourning rituals.
I could go on about more, but then…I’d nearly be writing a book or three. Oh…wait…
I did! You can find out more about them, as well as read excerpts, at www.sidhenadaire.com and www.sidhenadaire.com/excerpts.htm.
And if my host will allow, here is a brief excerpt from Today’s Promise featuring the Welcoming ritual:
As twilight slid to night, darkness cloaked the glade. All around them, the mists took on a magical glow. All eyes turned toward the center, drawn by the pillar of vapor now suddenly residing there. Kara gasped at the sight. It was both solid and ethereal all at once. Broad and high, it reached toward the heavens, billowing and swirling, yet never losing cohesion.
Award-winning author Danielle Ackley-McPhail has worked both sides of the publishing industry for over seventeen years. Her works include the urban fantasies, Yesterday's Dreams, Tomorrow's Memories, the upcoming Today’s Promise, and The Halfling’s Court, and the writers guide, The Literary Handyman. She edits the Bad-Ass Faeries anthologies and Dragon’s Lure, and has contributed to numerous other anthologies.
She is a member of the New Jersey Authors Network and Broad Universe, a writer’s organization focusing on promoting the works of women authors in the speculative genres. She can be found on LiveJournal (damcphail, lit_handyman), Facebook (Danielle Ackley-McPhail), and Twitter (DMcPhail). Learn more at www.sidhenadaire.com.
written by Danielle Ackley-McPhail , July 05, 2012
This was fun to share, thanks for having me.
written by Danielle Ackley-McPhail , July 05, 2012
Glad to be here! This was a lot of fun.
I was amazed by the mound culture as well. That information I happened upon after the fact. I'd taken a trip to Ireland for a convention...just because I could! I went as one of the guest authors to promote Yesterday's Dreams and indulged in some sightseeing. The mounds at Newgrange are impressive and it was gratifying to learn their history and how that substantiated my creative efforts.
Thanks again for the opportunity to share this!
written by TerriB. , July 05, 2012
Thank you so much for stopping by Danielle - the research you did and the way you incorporated it into your novel is fascinating! I knew about the Irish version of reincarnation, but I did not know about the group burial mound and the rituals surrounding it. Amazing!