A Secret Commonwealth: The Otherworld in Nonfiction
Most people have experienced brushes with the Otherworld, that liminal place where dimensions overlap and reality shimmers, shivers, and breaks apart: seeing ghosts, dreaming "true" dreams, meeting that strange and uncannily helpful "person" at just the right moment... These situations are more common than we collectively admit — but attitudes are shifting. According to the Institute of Noetic Sciences, "The paranormal is no longer a fringe subject. Need proof? Only 32 percent of Americans report no paranormal beliefs, and half of the population reports belief in two or more paranormal phenomena." About.com reports that 71 percent of respondents to their Paranormal Poll have personally experienced things that can't be explained and shouldn't have happened in ordinary, day-to-day reality.
These experiences, says Patrick Harpur in Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld, are part of "the daimonic tradition. Although it appears in many disciplines, such as theology, philosophy, aesthetic theory, and so on, it is not itself a discipline. It is not a body of knowledge or system of thought. Rather, it is a way of knowing and thinking, a way of seeing the world, which poets and visionaries have always possessed but which even they cannot stand outside of or formulate. Thus one cannot be taught the tradition... one can only be initiated into it." The best of all such overviews, this groundbreaking work unites all types of strange phenomena under the "daimonic reality" umbrella, and is chock-full of "ah ha!" moments.
The Otherworld by any other name is... Faery. The first collection of such experiences in the British Isles was the Reverend Robert Kirk's The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, published in 1691. The inhabitants of this land, according to Kirk, are "of a middle nature betwixt man and angel," having "intelligent, studious spirits, and light changeable bodies (like those called astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud and best seen at twilight." Says W.B. Yeats in Lady Gregory's Visions & Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920), "there must have been many discussions upon those questions that divided Kirk's Highlanders. Were these beings but the shades of men? Were they a separate race? Some-times we are told... that the Sidhe are 'the ancient inhabitants of the country' but more often that they are fallen angels..." Many who have had dealings with the Otherworld would argue all of the above, and more. In Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore (1893 & 1902), Yeats describes Irish encounters with the "gentle folk," and avows, "I have therefore written down accurately and candidly much that I have heard and seen, and, except by way of commentary, nothing that I have merely imagined. I have, however, been at no pains to separate my own beliefs from those of the peasantry, but have rather let my men and women, dhouls and faeries, go their way unoffended or defended by any argument of mine." Another invaluable survey of the people of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Brittany, and the Isle of Man is W.Y. Evans-Wentz' The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. Published in 1911, it documents the traditional beliefs of this part of the world just before they were challenged, and changed, by the advent of modern life.
Although modern living has done much to obscure and erase contact with the Otherworld, there are those who actively seek it out. In her book, Faery Tale: One Woman's Search for Enchantment in a Modern World, Signe Pike searches for entry to the Faery realm, journeying through England, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and beyond. In this delightful memoir/ travelogue, she writes, "I wanted to see if enchantment was somehow still there, simply waiting to be reached... I wanted to travel the world, searching for those who were still awake in that old dreamtime, and listen to their stories — because I had to know that there were grown-ups out there who still believed that life could be magical. And in that moment, I decided, I am going to find the goddam faeries."
In Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, Daniel Pinchbeck travels to West Africa, Mexico, and the Ecuadorean Amazon in search of the Otherworld; he finds it in the shamanic traditions of those regions. He writes, "Shamanism is a technology for exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness in order to accomplish specific purposes: healing, divination, and communication with the spirit realm. The characteristics of shamanism were defined by the religious historian Mircea Eliade: 'special relations with "spirits," ecstatic capacities permitting of magical flight, ascent to the sky, descent to the underworld, mastery over fire, etc.' Shamanism can also involve magical transformation of humans into animals, prophetic dreams, and interaction with the souls of the dead."
In Food of the Gods: the Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge Terence McKenna makes a compelling case for plant intelligence as the "missing link" and advocates the use of psychotropic drugs as a pathway to the Otherworld. He writes, "It should be noted that Eliade used the word 'profane' deliberately with the intent of creating a clear split between the notion of the profane world of ordinary experience and the sacred world which is 'Wholly Other.' Not all shamans use intoxication with plants to obtain ecstasy, but all shamanic practice aims to give rise to ecstasy. Drumming, manipulation of breath, ordeals, fasting, theatrical illusions, sexual abstinence — all are time-honored methods for entering into the trance necessary for shamanic work... By entering the domain of plant intelligence, the shaman becomes... privileged to a higher dimensional perspective on experience."