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Holy Islands and the Otherworld: Places Beyond Water

By Eldar Heide

In this article I attempt to demonstrate that there is a connection between holy islands and notions of an Otherworld beyond water. I believe that the essence of holy islands is their location on the other side of water. One has to cross water to get there and in this respect holy islands are parallel to the Otherworld, which often is placed beyond water, horizontally or vertically. The liminality of certain islands seems to be related to this; they resemble the Otherworld but are located in this world. Thus, they have an intermediate position and are ideal as points of contact with the Otherworld. I also suggest that some islands are “super-liminal,” those that are either reachable on foot and thus belong to the mainland in a way, although they are islands, and those that
are sometimes submerged or surface only occasionally. I support Holmberg’s [Harva’s] theory that the main source of the idea that there is an Otherworld underneath us is derived from the experience of seeing an inverted reflection of this world in calm water. To this explanation I add the specification that dry ground is included in the reflection image, which may explain why one (in most accounts) reaches the same dry kind of land no matter if one accesses the Otherworld through gaps in the ground or by jumping into water. I also discuss islands that seem to have their liminality mostly from being off-shore; that is, far away from society, and the relationship between this and Otherworld entrances in the midst of society. My article is an attempt to understand some of the logic behind the major interfaces between this world and the Otherworld, in particular that behind watery interfaces. This does not, however, imply a claim that the whole worldview was a coherent logical system. The evidence gathered for this discussion indicates that going across water – horizontally or vertically – was a more common
passage to the Scandinavian gods, especially Óðinn, than has hitherto been realized.

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