The Isles of the Dead in Folklore (12 November, 2014, 19 Cheshvan, 5775)
We trace the Lost Ten Tribes to the Cimmerians and Scythians who in Assyrian writings are implied to originally have been one people. They first appeared to the north of Assyria in areas where the Ten Tribes had been exiled to. The Scythians separated themselves, wars were fought, and most of the Cimmerians were driven out. They went to the west being later found amongst the Celts and in Britain and Scandinavia.
The Greek poet Homer placed the Cimmerians in a land and city "farthermost in the west."
# She [the Ship of Odyseus] came to deep-flowing Oceanus, that bounds the earth wherein is the land and city of the Cimmerians wrapped in mist and cloud # Odyssey vol.1
Source: Marek J. Olbricht (Cracow): The Cimmerian problem re-examined the evidence of the Classical sources in Collectanea. Celto-Asiatic Cracoviensa (editors: Jadgwiga Pstrusinska and Andrew Fear, 1999?) https://www.academia.edu/1509846/The_Cimmerian_Problem_Re-Examined_the_Evidence_of_the_Classical_Sources
Sun then set, and shade
All ways obscuring, on the bounds we fell
Of deep Oceanus, where people dwell
Whom a perpetual cloud obscures outright,
To whom the cheerful sun lends never light,
Nor when he mounts the star-sustaining heaven,
Nor when he stoops earth, and sets up the even,
But night holds fix'd wings, feather'd all with banes,
Above those most unblest Cimmerians.
- from Homer's Odyssey, trans. George Chapman (Book XI)
# Homer (possibly from some story as to the Arctic night) supposes the Cimmerians to dwell in a land 'beyond the ocean-stream,' where the sun never shone. (Odys., xi. 14.) #
Homer places the entrance to the Underworld (Tartarus ) in this same region (Odyseus 24:11-14).
[Hecateus of Abdera (300s BCE) placed the Cimmerians in a city among Hyperboreans in the north.]
Homer is understood to be placing the Cimmerians in either Britain or Denmark. Plutarch, Strabo and others identified the Cimmerians with the Cimbri who were to be found in Denmark.
The Welsh refer to themselves as Cymry and the Welsh language is known as Cymreig or Gymraeg.
Strabo (64 BCE -24 CE) came from Amasya in Pontus, north-central Turkey, which at that time was part of the Roman Empire. Strabo moved to Rome where he wrote his work Geographica ("Geography"). This is a description of peoples and places from different regions of the world known to his era.
Strabo was something of a rationalist and a skeptic. In his age Homer was regarded with near religious reverence. in the extract below Strabo refers to Homer and rationalizes some of his statements. Homer spoke of Tartarus as the Place of the Dead and "farthermost in the west," in Oceanus meaning the Atlantic Ocean. Strabo says Homer probably made an association between Tartessus in Spain facing the Atlantic Ocean and Tartarus due to their similarity in sound. Similarly the Cimmerians had been active in the Crimea and Bosporus region separating Europe from Asia. They had raided Ionian Greek cities in the region. Greek writers apparently considered the Cimmerian base-land in the Bosporus region to be dark and gloomy. Strabo suggests that Homer took this association of the Cimmerians with dark and gloom to locate them in the far west where it was reputed to be super dark and even gloomier! Strabo also imputes that Homer, being an Ionian, may have let his native prejudice against the Cimmerians influence him in this regard to relocate them in even more foreboding regions.
Strabo's Geography, Book 3, ch.2 #12
12. The poet, man of many voices, so to speak, and of wide information, affords us grounds for the argument that even these regions were not unheard of by him, if one were only willing to argue scientifically from both statements that are made about these regions, not only from the worse, but also from the better and more truthful. Worse, namely,
the statement that Tartessus was known by hearsay as "farthermost in the west," where, as the poet himself says, falls into Oceanus "the sun's bright light, drawing black night over earth, the grain-giver." Now, that night is a thing of evil omen and associated with Hades, is obvious; also that Hades is associated with Tartarus. Accordingly, one might reasonably suppose that Homer, because he heard about Tartessus, named the farthermost of the nether-regions Tartarus after Tartessis, with a slight alteration of letters; and that he also added a mythical element, thus conserving the creative quality of poetry. Just as the poet, because he knew that the Cimmerians had taken their abode in northern and gloomy regions about the Bosporus, settled them in the neighbourhood of Hades, though perhaps he did it also in accordance with a certain common hatred of the Ionians for this tribe (indeed, it was in the time of Homer, or shortly before his time, they say, that that Cimmerian invasion which reached as far as Aeolis and Ionia took place). ... .. one might get a hint from the mythical invention of Tartarus that Homer had in mind the regions about Tartessus.
Strabo pointed out a parallelism between Tartarus, world of the dead, and Tartessos in Spain facing the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean area in general. Strabo says that Homer placed Tartarus in the region. The British Isles became identified as the Place of the Dead. This was a Greek and Roman concept though the Gauls also believed it as mentioned by Procopious. The idea in fact may have originated in Ancient Assyria where it was applied at first to Habor (a place to which the Ten Tribes were exiled cf. 2-Kings 17) then to the Isles of the West ("Zeitschrift Fur Assyriologie", Berlin and Leipzig 1929, Strasbourg 1909).
Ireland was known as or the Happy Isle or Island of the Blessed. Ireland and Britain together could also be referred to as Isles of the Blessed.
Different sources (most of which we have quoted in past articles) indicate an association in Jewish and other literature between the Ten Tribes (or groups associated with them) and the Blessed Isles and the Isle or Place of the Dead. The idea is also reflected in the Zohar.
All this makes the quotation below of interest.
Britain as Island of the Dead March 31, 2012
Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
From The Fate of the Dead, A Study in Folk Eschatology in the West Country after the Reformation, Theo Brown, in Chapter VII 'Entrances to the Other World' (pp 63-64) 'On the continent, it seems possible that Britain itself was the Land of the Dead. In parts of Germany the Wild Hunt was called die Engelske Jagd [The English Hunt], and, according to Hardwick [Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, Manchester, 1872, p. 177], the name of England was used to denote the realm to which the dead had gone. One cannot tell to what extent such notions may have been derived from Procopius, who wrote early in the sixth century A.D. that souls were conveyed in boats from Gaul to Britain on certain nights, and Souvetre found that Breton fisherman around the Ile de St Gildas (off Port-Blanc, near Treguier on the Channel coast) remembered a similar tradition. [Emile Souvetre: Les Derniers Bretons, 2nd edn, 1836, vol. I, pp. 37-8] Sebillot heard that on the sabbath, a boat would appear on the beach. There was no one aboard, but a voice would cry: 'Embarque, allons en Galloway [Embark, we are going to Galloway, south-west Scotland]!' Then the boat would slip off, so filled with invisible passengers, it seemed almost ready to sink.' [Paul Sebillot: Legendes locales de la Haute Bretagne, Nantes, 1899, I, ix.]
The Greeks and Romans were pagans. They lacked the Biblical background and thought-patterns of western civilization. The early Christians (recent converts from paganism) also thought differently from us. The question of the Ten Tribes and their identification did not resonate with them as it does to us. Nevertheless, indirect indications in their writings help confirm our identification of the Ten Tribes with Western Peoples.