Echtrai

An echtra or echtrae is a particular type of story concerning a hero’s adventures in the Otherworld. This name is used for a class of Old Irish literature that focused on the hero’s actions in a particular Otherworld location. While a journey may be included, little detail is given and it has no bearing on the story other than being a necessary part of getting to a particular destination.

An echtra usually has the following elements:

  • The young hero is invited to the Otherworld (or a stand in) by a beautiful maiden or an impressive warrior, showing that the hero is special and that the Otherworld is a dangerous place for those who go uninvited.
  • The hero must cross the sea or a great plain (typically covered in fog) in order to reach the host’s home, signifying leaving our reality for the other.
  • The host is revealed to be Fair Folk of some description or a deity such as Manannán mac Lir or Lugh. This reinforces the Otherworld nature of the environment.

The ending has four variations, which may reflect moral decisions made by those who wrote it down or those who have copied or retold the tale. The first and presumed oldest version is that the hero remains in the Otherworld, which reinforces the connection between the Otherworld and death or the afterlife. The second variation is when the hero is returned with knowledge and / or gifts for his people, which is often used to explain the origins of certain towns, technologies or blood-lines. The third variety has the hero returning after much time has passed, another reinforcement of the dangers of the Otherworld, while the last variety has this with the addition of rapid ageing or death should the hero set foot on the ground in this reality, which is used to reinforce the questionable moral standing of anyone who has spent so long around people who some eras interpreted as demons.

Given the shared culture between the nations and groups of the Blessed Isles, some elements on the above list are found individually in stories from outside of Ireland but the term has only been extended to non-Irish tales that meet all of criteria.

The influence of this type of tale on literature can still be seen in “portal fantasies”, in which a particular hero or group of heroes are called to pass through to a magical world and fulfil some quest.

See also Imrama.

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