by Hannah Spencer
The idea of journeying to a paradisical land has fascinated mankind since time immemorial, and stories of such travels are infused into myths and cultures worldwide. But there is often a catch, rather sinister and macabre, for those who make these trips. Their journey is not just through place, but also through time. Three examples are as follows.
The Irish hero Bran and his twenty-seven kinsmen sailed to the paradisical, otherworldly land of Emain Ablach. Here they lived in luxury with the queen and her retinue, passing a year in perfect bliss. Then their thoughts began to turn towards their homeland and, driven by homesickness, they decided it was time to leave. The queen gave them a stark warning on their departure- they must not, on any account, set foot on land when they reached Ireland.
When they finally reached home, their delight was such that one man forgot the warning and leapt ashore. The instant his feet touched the ground, he crumbled into dust as if he'd been dead for centuries. Bran spoke to the nearby fishermen from the safety of his boat, and discovered to his horror that he was the subject of a local legend- as someone who'd set out to sea centuries before and never returned. Realising the bitter truth of his fate, he turned his boat round and he and his companions sailed away into the ocean, never to be seen again.
The Celtic warrior and poet Ossian, also known as Oisin, encountered Niamh, the daughter of the sea-god. Falling hopelessly in love with her otherworldly beauty, he went to live with her in the Land of Promise or Tir-na-nOg. When he eventually began to yearn for the land of his birth, Niamh lent him her own steed for his visit, but on one condition. He must not dismount from the horse, else he could never return to her.
Oisin found his homeland much changed. He recognised no one, and no one he spoke to had heard of him or his family. Over three hundred years had passed since he'd left. As he travelled across the strange land he saw a group of men trying to move a rock, and he leant down to give them a hand. As he did so he slipped from the saddle of his mount. When he struck the ground he instantly changed from a handsome youth into a withered, blind, old man. His story was written down by Saint Patrick, who visited him in the last days of his life.
The Japanese fisherman Urashima caught a turtle when he was out at sea. He added it to his catch and three days later when his nets were full, he turned back for land. The turtle then transformed into a woman- a lami or spirit from a magical land. Urashima travelled to this land and married the woman.
After three years he decided it was time to return home, and before he left he was given a casket by his wife, which would enable him to return to her on condition it was left unopened.
He reached his home to find his disappearance was the subject of a village legend. Several hundred years had passed since he'd sailed out to sea. In shock at the revelation, he absently opened his wife's casket. Immediately he began to age until he was nothing but a pile of dust which was blown away on the wind.
When these stories are compared to the story of physics, a surprising similarity emerges. The laws of physics explain how time travel is- albeit theoretically so far- possible in much the way told above.
Time appears to be very simple. Yesterday, today, tomorrow, a constant, linear and unvarying flow. But as Einstein discovered, this is not at all true. Time is a relative concept. There is no such thing as standard time; it is affected by many things including gravity and speed of motion though space. Einstein's Special Theory states that time runs slower near a massive body such as the Earth. This means that on a mountain top, time is quicker than at sea-level. A man living on the mountain would age faster than his identical twin living by the sea, although this difference would be too small to be of any real significance. Living on planets of different sizes would produce a much greater difference.
Time is also affected by motion- proved by the nature of light. The speed of light, around 670 million mph, is constant. Light reaching you from any source will be travelling at this speed, regardless of whether you are moving towards or away from the source.
Compare this to two cars on a motorway. The first car travels at 60mph, the car behind does the same, so the relative speed between the two is nil; the second will neither catch up nor fall behind. If the first car slows to 40mph, the net difference between the two will rise to 20mph and the second will catch up with the first. The relative speed of the second car as measured against the speed of the first has increased. This is never the case with light.
If a person in a space-ship were to travel away from the sun at 50% the speed of light, he would still measure the speed of the sunlight as 670 million mph, just as he did at home. But taking into account the distance he has travelled, the light must have travelled 935 million miles in the last hour, not 670 million. This strange anomaly can only be explained one way; the clock he is using must be running slowly. Time on the space-ship has slowed down. And the faster the space-ship travels, the more time slows down. So when the astronaut eventually returns to Earth, say five years later, hundreds or thousands of years may have passed in his absence. Exactly as Bran, Oisin and Urashima discovered.
This kind of travel is not as yet possible for us, at least intentionally, but direct portals to other parts of the universe, known as Einstein-Rosen bridges, are predicted by physicists to exist. Their nature is as yet entirely theoretical but they are linked to the time and space warping nature of Black Holes. And portals to other dimensions of the universe are strangely common in folklore.
Portals to the otherworld have always been closely linked to stone circles, standing stones, Holy Wells and other ancient monuments. And of course they work both ways- these sites are where Faerie, Gods, dragons and all other otherworldly entities manifest.
The author and paranormal researcher Robert Matthews wrote about the Hurl Stone, an ancient standing stone in the Northumberland countryside. The fairies dance around it on moonlit nights, singing a simple song: 'Wind about and turn again, and thrice about the Hurl Stone,' while they whirl around faster than the eye can see. The dance becomes more and more ecstatic until suddenly, they all vanish from sight.
Is the Fairy Dance a method of building up energy to open the portal? Will it one day be possible to replicate this and venture into this passage of time ourselves? And more importantly, will we be able to find our way home? Bran, Oisin and Urashima all eventually made it back home, but it doesn't always happen. The Ninth Spanish Roman Legion famously disappeared somewhere in Northern England nearly 2000 years ago, never to be seen again. And in more recent years, people have inexplicably vanished without trace near Holy Wells. Whether they will also reappear, many hundred years hence, only time will tell.
Many people remark upon the strange and ethereal atmosphere shrouding our ancient sacred spots, which may in fact be more strange than anyone has ever realised. And who knows, maybe in the future, when modern physics has advanced to a level compatible with our mystical heritage, these places will offer untold opportunities for the destiny of mankind.
The Encyclopaedia of World Mythology, Arthur Cotterell and Rachel Storm, Lorenz Books
Mysterious Northumberland, Rupert Matthews, Breedon Books
A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking, Bantam Books
The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe through Black Holes, Adrian Berry, BCA