It’s the season of Samhain, and if you’ve been a pagan for more than 15 minutes, you know that’s when the veil between the worlds thins, and we can more easily feel the presence of our ancestors and other beloved dead. It is also the time when some other people can more easily make their way from the beyond to our world. It is the source of some of the legends of Halloween in our mainstream society.
I saw a few people sharing articles about how the veil between worlds is a modern concept. Here is a brief article by Mat Auryn on the origin of the term. And here instead long twitter thread from someone I don’t know who says there is “not a single example of pre-Victorian use”.
These comments are correct. The term entered modern paganism through spiritualism. My best guess is that spiritualists got it from the Christian story of the veil in the Jewish temple being “rent in twoafter the death of Jesus.
It is important to know our history. It is important to know what is ancient folklore and what is modern invention. But what that means is more important when we’re talking about things like the Veil Between Worlds. And that’s what I want to do in this post.
Where are the dead?
If our dead haven’t really gone, where are they?
Finally, we don’t know. If you find such speculation useless, that’s fine. Orthodoxy – or really, any “-doxy” (belief) – is not necessary to be a good person, or a good pagan. But I can’t stop thinking about it.
A few people I respect say there is no Otherworld. The dead have simply been transformed in such a way that we cannot easily see or hear them. But they are still there with us. There is some logic to this.
But many stories of our ancestors say they went… somewhere. Some say it’s a subterranean world, deeply buried. Others say they went to heaven. The idea of the dead going “westward” did not come from Tolkien, but from people who watched the sun go down, knowing that it would rise again in the east the next morning.
Celtic stories are often about people who wander into other worlds. Is this the land of the dead? Is this the land of the gods? The Land of Fairies? Different stories point in different directions, but they all indicate that the people in them go somewhere.
My own travel experience is similar. Sometimes I go down, sometimes I go up and sometimes I go on. I can tell you how I get there, but I can’t guarantee you’ll be able to follow my instructions.
The bottom line is that I am convinced that the dead – and the gods and the righteous people – reside in a place (or possibly many places) that is not this place. For convenience, I – along with many others – call this place the Otherworld.
The Veil is a metaphor
Above all, the Veil Between the Worlds is a metaphor for the border between this world and the beyond. It helps us understand why most of the time we can’t see, hear or smell our beloved dead, but other times we can almost touch them.
Celtic tales often describe this boundary as a mist. Some witches call it a hedge. Others speak of a door or a portal. Ultimately, these are all metaphors meant to help us begin to understand something we don’t know enough to discuss in literal terms.
We sometimes hear the expression “appropriate metaphor”. According to the dictionary, “apt” means “suitable or suited to the circumstances”. Metaphors are neither good nor bad. They are more apt – more appropriate – when they help us understand indirectly what we cannot directly understand. They are less able when they don’t. In particular, metaphors help us orient ourselves in the world in relation to other people, places, and events.
Appropriate metaphor or not?
And that raises the question of whether the veil between the worlds is more useful or less useful in understanding the boundary between this world and the afterlife. Most of the time when I use the Veil in my writing, I do so because I’m sure people will understand what I mean.
From a passive perspective, I think the Veil is a good metaphor. We know that the dead are not normally with us. We also know that when they are with us, we can hear them but not see them. Or if we can see them, it’s a dim and obscured view. We feel their presence but we cannot touch them. All of these experiences imply that there is something between us and them, but not something particularly solid.
This fits well with the tradition that says the veil is thinnest in Samhain (and also in Beltane, 6 months and 180 degrees opposite Samhain on the wheel of the year). What we don’t hear at all in July, we can clearly hear in October.
From an active point of view, I find it less useful. When I travel to the Underworld, I either descend to Earth or ascend to Heaven. I sail west. Or I fight my way through dense mists until I emerge on the other side. Or sometimes I’m just there – the more you do this, the easier it gets…even if it’s never exactly easy. In all my travels and ecstatic experiences, I have never encountered a Veil or anything like a veil.
What prevents us from moving between worlds?
My quick answer to “what is the Otherworld?” is that it is the land of the Gods and the ancestors. And I think that’s a good answer. But while our ancestors often struggle to cross from the afterlife into this world, the gods don’t.
I don’t believe our gods are omnipotent, omniscient, or omni-anything. Yet they are the most powerful of spirits, and they can be pretty much where they want to be, when they want to be there.
Whatever prevents dead humans from moving easily between worlds, it doesn’t prevent the gods.
Do Fair Folk reside in the Otherworld? Our stories tell us that they live in fairy mounds and other similar places that are in this world…or at least, open to this world. Perhaps a mound of fairies is a passage from this world to the afterlife. Or maybe the fairyland is entirely on its own, separated from the world of the gods and the world of our ancestors.
I usually think of another world with many realms, but there could just as well be multiple other worlds.
Is it the Veil that keeps us from going to the Otherworld whenever we want for as long as we want? Or are we simply unable to go very far or very long in our lifetime?
Is it the barrier or the place itself?
I can’t get into the local bank vault. There’s a barrier between me and her – a thick, heavy door with both ancient and high-tech security measures that I can’t defeat. But if I had the right codes and the right knowledge, I could.
I can’t climb Mount Everest for different reasons. Permit and expense issues aside, I am not physically able to do this. And given that I once had altitude sickness at 12,300ft (and was fine at the time), I’m pretty sure I’d be dead long before I got to 29,029 feet. Additionally, 97% of people who have summited Mount Everest have used bottled oxygen. Humans aren’t supposed to be there.
Is it the Veil (mists, gates, etc.) that keeps some of us from easily visiting the Otherworld and most of us from visiting it at all? Or are living humans simply unable to function in this environment for very long?
My best guess is that it’s mostly the barrier. But experience tells us that people who spend a lot of time in the Otherworld often find it difficult to function in that world…or make it their permanent home.
Or in the words of Captain Barbossa“It’s not going to the land of the dead that’s the problem – it’s getting back there.”
The torn veil
I can’t talk about the Veil Between Worlds without mentioning another phenomenon that many of us have experienced in recent years: the Veil is being torn apart.
The kind of spiritual experiences we expect to have at Samhain and Beltane now take place year-round. People who move between worlds say that the borders they usually encounter are minimal or simply don’t exist. More people experience Fair Folk more frequently. And otherworldly encounters are on the rise – almost everyone has a story, if they feel safe to tell it.
It’s something else we can speculate about but ultimately don’t know. Still, I’m convinced that the Otherworld is getting closer to the ordinary world, and that’s one of the causes of Tower Time.
What do you do when the front door of your house has been ripped off its hinges? At least you get a lot more visitors to your house…
Choose your model and work with it
While I agree that we need to be aware of the true history of terms such as the Veil Between Worlds, the most important thing is to develop a useful model of reality as we experience it. For me, there is a boundary between the ordinary world and the afterlife, but it’s more like mists than a curtain. I don’t know how accurately this model reflects the reality of the Otherworld, and I don’t know if we could know for sure.
What I do know is that there is this world, there is the world of gods and the dead, and going from one to the other is not easy.
But it is possible.
Especially right now.