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The Evolution of the Otherworld: Redefining the Celtic Gods for a Christian Society
When Christianity spread through Western Europe the pagan tribal gods were often eradicated. However, in Ireland the Celtic Gods remained, playing minor roles in the larger Christian story.
The TÃ¡in BÃ³ Cuailnge tells the story of the Ulster cycles, focusing mainly on the heroic deeds of Cuchailainn, arguably Ireland's most famous hero. Cuchailainn himself has Otherworldly origins, as his father is supposedly the god Lug, a resident of the Sidhe. Taking a step back, the story of the TÃ¡in illustrates well the role of the Otherworld in the lives of the early Irish in many different aspects. The plot of the TÃ¡in revolves around the attempt of the leaders of the province Connacht, Medb and Ailiil, to obtain the Brown Bull from the province of Ulster. The bulls themselves were once people of the Sidhe whose occupations were pig-keepers for two of the great Sidhe mound rulers. Through much shape shifting they ended up as bulls, one belonging to Ailiil and the other to the men of Ulster, though Medb is trying to obtain it to match her husband. This situation alone depicts the seamless ties between humans and the Otherworld realm. A bickering between the two members of the Sidhe led to the shape-shifting that eventually caused the unrest between Ailiil and Medb, which in turn resulted in the men of Ireland waging war against Cuchailainn and the men of Ulster.
Queen Medb, as with Cuchailainn, also represents a crossing over from the Otherworld to 'reality'. Medb is assumed by many critics to be a human depiction of one of the many sovereignty goddesses that appear in early Irish literature. Though the story revolves around what can be considered a bitter woman attempting to match her husband in possessions, she still is clearly a stronger character than her husband, Ailiil, or Fergus, who is somewhat of her consort. She is the one leading the men of Ireland into battle, though, as with other sovereignty goddesses, she does not actually participate in the fighting. She is simply the power behind the actions, manipulating the course.
Looking at one more appearance of the Otherworld role in the story of the TÃ¡in, Cuchailainn's Otherworldly father makes an entrance. Cuchailainn's charioteer, Laeg, describes the coming of a "tall, broad, fair-seeming man" that "no one is taking any notice of" (Kinsella 142). Cuchailainn recognizes from the description that it is "some friendly one of the sÃde that has taken pity on" him, and the warrior later introduces himself to Cuchailainn as "Lug mac Ethnenn, your father from the side" (Kinsella 142). Though the god Lug does not actually fight in the battle he gives a good reason (that being, that anyone who fights alongside Cuchailainn in battle will not receive any glory, for his deeds will be overshadowed by Cuchailainn's), and he assists in giving Cuchailainn the rest he needs for his wounds to heal by standing watch over his sleeping body for three days and three nights. Lug, in his turn, as a prominent member of the Sidhe, is affecting the outcome of the battle by preventing the downfall of Ulster's one defender, Cuchailainn.
Having now established the seamless existence of the Otherworld and 'reality' in early Irish literature it becomes important to turn then to the Otherworld's transition into Christianity through the stories of "The Voyage of Bran Son of Febal" and "The Voyage of St. Brendan". Both of these stories tell of voyages to unknown lands, which were a popular theme in early Irish literature, known as immrama stories, and several of the details of each voyage are very similar though 'Bran' is a pagan story and 'Brendan' is an early Christian text.
One encounter that occurs on both of these voyages centers on a large group of white birds. The bird encounter within the 'Brendan' voyage results in a discourse between Brendan and one of the birds whom is said to be a messenger from God. Brendan asks the messenger about the birds and why they had gathered there. The bird-messenger replies saying, "We are part of the fall of the ancient enemy, not through our own sin but by agreement with theirsâ€¦Our God is just and trueâ€¦We are not punished with sufferingâ€¦We wander the different paths of the air, of heaven, and of earth, just like the other messengers of God" (Davies 165). The bird had described the group as being earthbound angels serving/praising the Christian God, untouched by sin. As John Carey points out in his essay "The Baptism of the Gods", "there is little reason to doubt that these creatures are to be identified with the folk of the hollow hills - also for the most part invisible, yet often appearing to mortals in the form of birds" (Carey 23). Carey goes on to point out, "the idea that the fairies are half-fallen angels, dwelling in earth and air and sea, has survived in Irish folklore into this century" (Carey 23).
The idea that the Celtic gods and goddesses are really beings without sin that reside on earth was a common theme prior to the rise of Christianity as well. During "The Voyage of Bran" Bran encounters Manannan, a type of sea god and member of the Sidhe who sings to Bran about his people and their world. Manannan refers several times to the idea that the people of the Sidhe are without sin. He says, "Men and gentle women under a bush, /Without sin, without crime" and later continues with "We are from the beginning of creation/Without old age, without consummation of earth, /Hence we expect not that there should be frailty;/Sin has not come to us" (Bran 592-593). Manannan is describing the Otherworldly people in the same light as the white bird on the island visited by Brendan described the flock. They are one and the same beings, though the birds sing God's praises once a year on Easter.
This theme, of the sinless beings, present since the creation, can be found in several other early Irish pagan texts. In the story "The Wooing of Ã‰taÃn" Mider sings/chants a poem to Ã‰taÃn, calling her BÃ© Find (which is her name as a member of the Sidhe). In the poem he says of the Sidhe "We see everyone everywhere/and no one sees us:/the darkness of Adam's sin/prevents our being discerned" (Gantz 56). The same reoccurring themes appear in this story regarding the Sidhe. They have not been touched with the sins of humans/Adam. They are often not seen, or invisible, which Carey pointed out as a common characteristic of the Otherworldly people, only appearing when they choose to. This poem explains why they are only seen when they so choose; that being because they are without sin. Also, the idea that they see everyone everywhere links them to the role of the later Christian angels who were God's watchers as well as messengers. This demonstrates another way that the role of the Sidhe was not altered when Christianity grew in power. The people of the Sidhe simply fit into a minor role, of the earthbound angels that the church assigned to them.
Carey cites another old Irish text, "The Adventure of Conlae" as another source for these types of references regarding the essence/presence of the Sidhe. In the story Conlae encounters a mysterious woman who is supposedly an Otherworldly being. When he asks her where she's from she replies,
I come from lands of living folk,'â€¦
'where there is no death nor sin nor transgression.
We consume everlasting feasts without labour.
There is concord among us without strife.
It is a great sid in which we are;
so that because of this we are called aes side (Carey 28).
Again, similar themes appear in this passage as were seen in 'Bran' and 'Ã‰taÃn'. The Otherworldly woman describes her home as being free from sin, transgression, and death. Her people are without sin and are immortal, as are Manannan's people, as are the people of the Sidhe that Ã‰taÃn belongs to, as are the white birds on the island visited by Brendan. She continues her description saying that her people live in a type of paradise with 'everlasting feasts without labour'. She's describing a place similar to the Garden of Eden. Had Adam not fallen humans would still reside there, but because her people did not fall with Adam, or more clearly they are without sin, they are still able to reside within the paradise that God created for them. As Carey puts it,
â€¦the men who devised this explanation for their old gods had
found a way in which they could see all of the preternatural
powers and capacities with which tradition credited the
immortals as reflecting, not devilish trickery and evil magic, but
the perfection of human nature as God had first created it"
In other words, Carey is saying that the Christian monks who most likely recorded the folklore sought to preserve the Celtic heritage and their gods in a way that allowed their continued existence in the Christian society. Whether these men did this so that Christianity would be more widely accepted with the Irish because their previous gods were allowed a high ranking place in the newly defined world, or whether they saw the necessity of preserving this folklore is not known, but the fact that the effort was made for the inclusion is obvious.
Having shown that the Otherworld of the early Irish literature passed relatively unscathed into Christian literature whether it remained as such is left to be determined. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and J.M. Synge sought to establish a Celtic revival among the Irish people, doing things such as establishing the Abbey Theatre to put on Irish drama. Many plays were written that stressed Celtic traditions and folklore as well as the presence of the Otherworld. Specifically two plays, "The Only Jealousy of Emer" by Yeats and "Cathleen ni Houlihan" by Lady Gregory and Yeats, possessed a strong Otherworldly presence. Both of these plays depict the Otherworld in much the same light as it was illustrated in the early Irish folklore.
In the play "The Only Jealousy of Emer" Cuchailainn is dying and he is being watched over by his wife, Emer, and his mistress Eithne Inguba. Cuchailainn's body is then shown to be possessed by some type of spirit or Otherworldly being, this being represented by Cuchailainn's withered right arm (a common symbol in Irish folklore). The figure of Cuchailainn bargains with Emer, showing her the ghost of her husband consorting with a woman of the Sidhe. The figure of Cuchailainn tells Emer that he has allowed her to see Cuchailainn's ghost with the woman of the Sidhe, saying "I have not given you eyes and ears for nothing" ("Only Jealousyâ€¦" 75). Emer watches the scene as the woman of the Sidhe attempts to seduce Cuchailainn into kissing her. At every memory and regret Cuchailainn has regarding Emer and his actions towards her during his life the woman of the Sidhe attempts to negate them, saying simply that he didn't care then so why does he care now. She says to him, "Being among the dead you love her/That valued every slut above her/While you still lived" ("Only Jealousyâ€¦" 77).
This Otherworldly woman is attempting to sway Cuchailainn and take him with her. This action references back to folklore of the fairies coming out of their mounds and taking humans (mostly children) away with them into the night (also reference in Yeats poem "The Stolen Child"). The figure of Cuchailainn tells Emer that the woman of the Sidhe is attempting to take Cuchailainn's ghost away in a chariot but this can be prevented if Emer will simply renounce Cuchailainn's love. She does so and Cuchailainn's spirit reenters his body as the Otherworldly spirit leaves it. He then calls for his mistress rather than his wife whose loss he was mourning while so near death. The presence of the Otherworldly figures, temporarily invisible to some characters in this play, act in ways that affect the future of Cuchailainn and the others, as they did in early folklore. The spirit that enters Cuchailainn's body says that he is the enemy of Fand, the woman of the Sidhe, showing that again, a dispute amongst members of the Sidhe affects the lives of the humans, as was seen in the TÃ¡in with the pig-keepers of the Sidhe that later became the bulls that sparked the war.
The play Cathleen ni Houlihan sparked a surge of nationalism amongst many of the Irish when it was written. Many cited it as the fire behind the 1916 Easter Rebellion. The plot is based around the upcoming marriage of Michael and the preparations going on with his parents, Peter and Bridget. This is disturbed by the entrance of a mysterious old woman who begins to tell Michael and the rest about her recent plights and her reasons for leaving her home. The old woman's first words to the family are "God save all here" to which they reply "God save you kindly" ("Cathleenâ€¦" 136). This statement or welcome serves to set the play in a Christian setting, however, as it is soon found out, the woman represents some type of Otherworldly being.
The majority of the old woman's speech sets her up as a sovereignty goddess as they appeared in many early Irish stories. Peter and Bridget are questioning the old woman as to her reasons for wandering to which she replies "Too many strangers in the house" and later in regards to what land she lost she says "My four green fields" ("Cathleenâ€¦" 136). Yeats (acknowledging Lady Gregory as well but simply writing Yeats) is alluding, through the old woman's comments, to the occupation of Ireland by the British and the four green fields are the four provinces of Ireland. This allusion sets the old woman up herself to be a representation of Ireland itself. This again is in conjunction with early Irish folklore which often described Ireland as an old woman. Similarly, Yeats is tying this particular old woman to the sovereignty goddess Eriu who gave her name to Ireland in an early Irish story.
Yeats continues the old woman's story by citing several past heroes of Ireland, such as Brian Boru, one of Ireland's great kings of the past, saying that,
There was a red man of the O'Donnells from the north, and a
man of the O'Sullivans from the south, and there was one
Brian that lost his life at Clontarf by the sea, and there were a
great many in the west, some that died hundreds of years ago,
and there are some that will die to-morrow ("Cathleenâ€¦" 137).
Yeats is linking the past folklore to the current tensions in what was Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. He is stating, as the literature states, that the Otherworld and its gods and goddesses are just as relevant and present as they were in the past.
Through the conversation of the old woman and Michael, Michael becomes entranced. Bridget says to Peter regarding Michael, "Look at him, Peter; he has the look of a man that has got the touch" ("Cathleenâ€¦" 139). Shortly after this Patrick, Michael's little brother returns saying that he passed a woman on the path, not an old, stooping woman, but "a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen" ("Cathleenâ€¦" 140). Michael's look of the 'touch' along with the shape-shifting that the old woman has undergone further propel her into the realm of the Otherworld, strengthening the argument that the Otherworld is still present in Ireland and its literature and through the change from old to young, that the Otherworld is still timeless or without age as Manannan states in "The Voyage of Bran".
Thus, despite Christianity and its effects on the pagan gods and goddesses in other European tribes, the Celtic Otherworld prevailed to modern times. Though it could be said that the Otherworld is only seen in this modern literature due to the renaissance efforts of Yeats, Gregory and Synge, the stir that these pieces caused amongst the Irish people of that time show that the Otherworldly presence is still strong in much the same way it was in early Irish literature. Similarly, the Christian monks that recorded the early stories placed effort on preserving them the way they were originally told, fitting them into the new context, much as "Cathleen ni Houlihan" and others fit into the national sentiment that ran through the early 20th century Ireland. The Otherworld has not undergone any major changes since it was first recorded, but has evolved with the times it has encountered, never changing its true essence.