14th Mount Haemus Lecture: Music and the Celtic Otherworld

Dr Karen Ralls explains how Old Irish and Scottish Gaelic literature can offer us clues to the ways in which music and sound can enrich our spiritual practice. From the beautiful, enchanting music of the faery harp to the sacred singing of the choirs of angels, Celtic literature has many references to music and the Otherworld, and to the elements and the landscape. Karen will relate these references to scientific research to enrich our understanding of the relationship between music, consciousness, and place. Karen, a medieval historian, musicologist, and world religions scholar, obtained her PhD from the University of Edinburgh, followed by six years as Postdoctoral Fellow and Sr Lecturer (Univ. of Edinburgh) and Deputy Curator of the Rosslyn Chapel Museum art exhibition. Based in Oxford (UK), she is a musician (flute, wire-strung Celtic harp, tin whistle) whose published work includes the seminal Celtic academic study, Music and the Celtic Otherworld, The Templars and the Grail and The Quest for the Celtic Key.

by Dr Karen Ralls


From the beautiful, enchanting music of the faery harp to the sacred singing of elves or angels, Celtic literature has many references to a spiritual or supernatural dimension of music. Referrred to as ‘the Celtic Otherworld’ in Celtic and folklore studies, music in these sources is often prominently featured in this spiritual Otherworld dimension. There are numerous references to music throughout these sources, ranging from faery harpers, the songs of mermaids, the singing of elves, musical trees, melodious fountains, and so on.
Many of these references, primarily from the Old and Middle Irish literature of early medieval Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, had been previously collected into a collection for a major academic study entitled Music and the Celtic Otherworld  (Edinburgh University Press, 2000). This volume explored the spiritual dimension of music from a specifically Celtic perspective, an interdisciplinary specialist musicology study with a focus on music itself as the primary focus, rather than from the perspective of Celtic folklore or religious studies per se.  Musical references inclusive of both the earlier pagan, pre-Christian as well as Christian-related contexts about music were collected from the primary Old Irish and Gaelic Scottish manuscript sources for that volume.
In this paper, following a general introduction to the topic of music in the Celtic Otherworld in the Old Irish and Scottish Gaelic sources, seven separate sections will be presented, organised thematically:  1) Performers;  2)  Places and Times;  3)  Healing;  4)  Birds and Animals;  5)  Dreams, Dreaming, and Music; 6)  Trance-like Sleep State, and 7)  Grieving/Bereavement. Each section will present several key examples of selected Celtic music references that specifically relate to that particular theme, followed by a few examples of relevant scientific research findings from a range of fields that relate to that theme. This is followed by a short Conclusion section at the end of the paper.

Read the Lecture

Also available in The Mount Haemus Lectures – Volume Two through our bookshop and as a downloadable pdf below.

About the Author

Karen Ralls, PhD, is a medieval historian and musicologist based in Oxford, England, and the author of a major academic study entitled Music and the Celtic Otherworld (Edinburgh University Press, 2000);  further work-in-progress and additional research will be further explored about various music and Otherworld themes for a new publication in late 2014-5.

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