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Sacred Isles

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 Sacred Isles

   Lundy, Isle of Avalon         Mythology

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'Many of the islands off the west coast of Britain, including Lundy, were known to the Celts as 'Isles of the Dead'. They were regarded as holy islands which formed gateways to the otherworld and to which the illustrious dead were ferried, there to be buried with solemn rite amid the spirits of their forefathers.' - A.F. Langham, The Island of Lundy.

sacred isles

'All these facts point to a powerful belief that the islands not far from the British coast were regarded as the homes of the various gods of the sun.'   Celtic myth &

The pre-Christian Celts believed islands were sacred places. 

One theme common to many ancient legends about these isles is their occupation by by priestesses;  Arianrhod, Ygerne, Morgan, Elaine and the presence on the island of at least one tower.

Islands were held to be major gateways to the Otherworld.

The Otherworld was, and is, accessible from anywhere, and everywhere. But at certain places it is easier to feel it, or to go there. 

Even in the twenty first century islands remain insulated from the mainstream world.

('Insulate' is derived from the Latin word for island.)

*** "The fact which most clearly accounts for the transformation of the sacred islands of the gods into the dwellings of monastic communities is the actual occupation of these sacred islands off the British coast by Christian monks. Stories told about the divine inhabitants of these islands were naturally transferred to the human but still hallowed successors...In fact many a hermit, anchorite, and venerable figure in religious garb who crosses our path in Arthurian romance may be legitimately suspected of being a god or goddess in disguise."  from 'Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance.'

"We have seen the Guardians of the Grail assuming more and more distinctly the forms of the Welsh gods, Manawyd, Myrddin, Bran, Avalloch, Gwair, Beli, and Llwch; and the castle of the Grail as distinctly rearing its crystal walls and phantom towers on Lundy."

The Britons were thus not unlike the Greeks in placing the enchanted abodes of the gods in islands of the sea. ****'Beheld in the glamour of distance, surrounde above and below by an expanse of crimson and gold, brooded over by cloudy flames, every island became in the eyes of those on shore an unearthly paradise, the home of their particular deity. - The Isle of Man named after Manannan or Manawyd (or the other way round!) - the Isle of Bardsey, trad. assoc. by the Welsh as the place where Merlin retired to dwell in his glass house. - Grassholm, the site of the entertainment of the Noble Head; Bran - 

**** Rhys has pointed out that the Isle of Lundy off the Devon coast probably owes its Welsh name Ynys Wair to the localisation there of the imprisonment there of Gwair or Gwri. 

All solar gods

***All these facts point to a powerful belief that the islands not far from the British coast were regarded as the homes of the various gods of the sun


Many classical writers stress the sanctity of islands and their inhabitation by priestesses with their strange rites and powers.

Demetrius (1st. C. BC);- describes the sacred isles lying off the coast of Britain and Ireland and imparts them with a an awesome gloom. He reports that few are inhabited and some are named after gods and heroes

Strabo (dates) tells of an island of women near the mouth of the River Loire visited by Posidonius, a Greek who traveled in the first century BC. which was forbidden to men. These women are represented as priestesses, and used to pay visits to men on the mainland but no men were allowed on the island. The temple had a roof but it was unroofed once a year.

Pomponius Mela (---?ad.) speaks of nine Celtic priestesses who dwell on the island of Sena (Ile de Seine) off the SW tip of Brittany. The place from which the souls of the departed were ferried to Britain. 'Sena, opposite the coast of the Osimi, is famous for its oracle of a Gaulish god, whose priestesses, living in the holiness of perpetual virginity, are said to be nine in number. They call them Gallizenae, and they believe them to be endowed with extraordinary gifts, to rouse the sea and the wind by their incantations, to turn themselves into whatsoever animal form they might choose, to cure diseases which among others are incurable, to know what is to come and to foretell it. 'These holy women had many magical powers. They could raise storms, change themselves into bird or animal form at will, cure the sick, foretell the future, forecast the weather. They are, however devoted to the service of voyagers only who have set out to consult them.

Tacitus (dates) writes of druidesses on Anglesey, a druid sacred island, the stronghold of druidic Britain, who fought beside their men against the Romans

Tir nan og, 'Land of youth' or Avalon, Insula Pomonum, Apple Isle; It is situated on an island, glimmering far out on the western ocean

The Romans called Ireland the 'Insula Sacra' - 'Sacred Isle.'

Remains of a wooden temple built circa 1 BC (is that right?) have been excavated on Hayling island. It was replaced with a stone temple by the Romans

The people of Armorica (Brittany) conducted the souls of their dead across the sea to Britain.

Evidence from recent archaeological excavations on the Isles of Scilly demonstrate that they were places of pre-Christian pilgrimage and veneration.

In early Irish legend the Hebrides of Scotland were the haunt of demons, shunned by mankind

 Legend tells how Fer Hi - 'Man of the Yew'. son of the sea god Manannan Mac Lir and a druid of the divine tribe, the Tuatha de Danaan of Ireland had his home in the western isles.

The Gaelic hero, Cu Chulainn, son of the pan-Celtic god Lugh, sailed from Ireland to the spectral Isle of Skye to learn military secrets from the war-goddess, Sga Thach, the shadowy one.

Bardsey Island (Ynys Enli) 2 miles off Caernarvonshire was a place of pilgrimage and sanctity in early times

 The church in Scotland was established by St. Columba on Iona. Columba found druids in possession of Iona when he landed there in 563 and banished the 'false bishops.'

 In Christian times there was a Major monastic settlement on Lindisfarne - 'Holy Isle.'

 Grassholm site of entertainments of the 'Head of Bran.'


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