Ancient Gaelic culture had a tradition of the Imramm – well-described by Caitlin and John Matthews (1). Imramma are “voyage quests, whereby a hero is called to penetrate to the furthest west to find wisdom, healing or paradise. For the Celtic peoples, the lands westward over the Atlantic have ever been the regions of the Blessed Isles, the happy Otherworld from which faery visitants, empowering objects and supra-human wisdom derive. As with the Grail quest, the Imramma are found in both pre- and post-Christian traditions, testifying to their importance, which may have been remnants of a once-coherent ‘book of the dead’ teaching, preparing people for states of existence after death, similar to the Tibetan bardo wisdom”.
I have one which was presented to me as a voyage to discover heaven and hell. I do not know its date or precise origin. The monks – I think they were monks – sailed past many islands in their hard journey into the open sea, their craft small and vulnerable, the conditions variable and sometimes scary. Occasionally they were able to land and refresh themselves – without finding anything much beyond the means of continuing subsistence. Eventually they grew close to a relatively large and inhabited island. They couldn’t see it very well through the mist and rain, but they could hear the cries and shouts of a human-seeming population in distress. Getting closer the voyagers glimpsed large, steaming cauldrons on the shore and the smell coming from these was succulent, not bad at all. Yet angry and emaciated figures were huddled around them – some were snarling, jostling and fighting; others were paralysed with despair and sunken into vacancy and helpless gibbering; yet others were just a little bit more solution focused (as we might now say) and caught up in their own private frustration about how to get food from the cauldrons into their mouths with the very long spoons provided. They were so caught up in this that none of them even noticed the travellers, who found it wisest to back away from this scene before they were discovered in ways that might turn ugly.
The voyage continued … and continued. Eventually, as the story goes, and on a brighter calmer morning, the monks found themselves approaching another island, with an uncanny resemblance to the first. Quite large, with similar human-seeming inhabitants and large, steaming cauldrons on the shore and the same succulent smell. The beings gathered around them even wielded the same awkward, ungainly and very long spoons. The only difference, of course, in the whole scene, is that they were using these spoons to feed each other.
There are three things I particularly like about this story. One is that the ethics of empathy can grow in very pragmatic soil, the soil of enlightened self-interest, the soil of common sense. The turn to co-operation doesn’t have, in itself, to be especially high-minded. So in a way the ethics of empathy, in a fuller sense, can develop out of the experience of simple, practical co-operation. The second is that, although hell is all too easy to get into, it is also quite possible to get out of: no need to abandon hope. The third is that the Otherworld journey takes us straight back into the realm of everyday life and how we do it.
- Matthews, Caitlin and John (1994) The encyclopaedia of Celtic wisdom: the Celtic shaman’s sourcebook Shaftsbury, Dorset, UK: Element (also published by Element in Rockport, Massachusetts, USA and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia)