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Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water
By Eldar Heide
Isolated Islands in Medieval Nature, Culture and Mind, eds. Gerhard Jaritz and Torstein Jørgensen (Bergen: Central European University, 2011)
Introduction: In this article I attempt to demonstrate that there is a connection between holy islands and notions of an Otherworld beyond water. I believe that the essence of holy islands is their location on the other side of water. One has to cross water to get there and in this respect holy islands are parallel to the Otherworld, which often is placed beyond water, horizontally or vertically. The liminality of certain islands seems to be related to this; they resemble the Otherworld but are located in this world. Thus, they have an intermediate position and are ideal as points of contact with the Otherworld. I also suggest that some islands are “super-liminal,” those that are either reachable on foot and thus belong to the mainland in a way, although they are islands, and those that are sometimes submerged or surface only occasionally. I support Holmberg’s [Harva’s] theory that the main source of the idea that there is an Otherworld underneath us is derived from the experience of seeing an inverted reflection of this world in calm water. To this explanation I add the specification that dry ground is included in the reflection image, which may explain why one (in most accounts) reaches the same dry kind of land no matter if one accesses the Otherworld through gaps in the ground or by jumping into water. I also discuss islands that seem to have their liminality mostly from being off-shore; that is, far away from society, and the relationship between this and Otherworld entrances in the midst of society. My article is an attempt to understand some of the logic behind the major interfaces between this world and the Otherworld, in particular that behind watery interfaces. This does not, however, imply a claim that the whole worldview was a coherent logical system. The evidence gathered for this discussion indicates that going across water – horizontally or vertically – was a more common passage to the Scandinavian gods, especially Óðinn, than has hitherto been realized.
My focus is on Old Norse sources, but I also make use of material from other Scandinavian cultures and neighbouring cultures in Northwestern Europe. I consider this justifiable because most ethnic groups in Northern Europe have been here for at least the last two millennia (and probably far longer) although not in the same area and not with the same population proportionally – and there has been substantial contact between them through the ages. Therefore, we should expect to find many of the same notions among the different peoples like those discussed here, especially the more basic or general ones. The notion of a watery barrier between this world and the Otherworld seems to be more or less universal. I use information from legendary sagas, although they are late, because the motifs in question about going to the Otherworld are so widespread and, therefore, probably ancient. In addition, it is not natural to assume that the motif of going through water to the gods is derived from Christian ideas. Although it is controversial, I also make use of folklore and other late material because it seems that it contains ancient ideas about the topics I discuss. The Icelandic motif of jumping into water in order to go to the land of the fairies is a good illustration of this; motifs found in thirteenth-century sagas and nineteenth-century folklore are close to each other.
See also: Scholar finds evidence of links between Vikings and North American natives