St Brendan was a fifth century Irish priest, a Kerry man by birth. His brother was bishop of Tuainn-Muscraighe, and his sister abbess of Annadown. He was mostly based at the monastery of Clonfert.
It is recorded he undertook two voyages, the first apparently unsuccessful; the second (565 to 573AD) is recorded as The Voyage of St Brendan. The tale was written in Latin, it is thought in the ninth century. Many have taken the tale to contain the basic elements of real voyage; the destination a matter of speculation. Some suggested Madeira; others the Canary Isles; some even suggested the Antilles. Tim Severin, noted explorer, suggested the first landing in the Americas. He sought to prove this by undertaking a similar voyage following what is known as the ‘stepping stones’ route: following trade routes to, amongst and beyond, the islands of the Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, Fair Isle, then Iceland, Greenland to Nova Scotia. It was suggested that for the journey to be successful would have needed exceptionally warm periods. Recent work on climate change has suggested that during and immediately following the Roman period was a particularly warm period. The Romans at last left Britain in 410, so this would suggest a possibility.
However philologists have noted a great many similarities between events and places in St Brendan and other voyage tales of a similar period of record.
The tale is divided into twenty-nine chapters of varying lengths.
Chapter 1 St Barrid arrived, and told of finding the Island of Paradise on a voyage. Brendan was prompted to find it also.
2 He assembled fourteen monks to accompany him.
3 They fasted for forty days at three-day intervals, to prepare.
4 They visited St Enda.
5 Three latecomers begged to be admitted to the group.
6 They set sail. Their first sighting was an island with a dog who took them to a hall with no people but food laid out. One of the latecomers was tempted to steal, by a devil.
7 The latecomer was exorcised and the devil expelled, but the man died and was buried there.
8 They landed at another island where a young man brought them bread and water. They sailed on.
9 They sailed long, then found an island of flocks of huge docile sheep. It was Maundy Thursday, they stayed until Easter Saturday. A man suddenly appeared, hereto known as ‘the steward, ’and informed them they were to go to the next island for Easter Monday and the Resurrection then to sail to a further island, an island of birds, for Pentecost.
10 On their journey to the next island they beached on a low island. When lighting a fire there it suddenly sank – it was a whale: Jasconius.
11 They arrived at the next island, a paradise of birds, which all sang psalms and praised God. One bird flew down to Branden and told him they were fallen angels God had given mercy to.
12 They sailed for a long time before arriving at a further island where they were met by members of the silent order of St Ailbe. They ate with them. They celebrated Christmas there.
13 After Epiphany they sailed on, another long journey. They arrived at an island rich in fish; the spring water, however, was too rich and they fell asleep for days.
14 They sailed on again over a ‘curdled sea’.
15 They found themselves once more at the island of sheep, encountered Jasconius, and the further island of birds. They told him he was to voyage for seven years to prepare himself and his crew. That each Maundy Thursday was to be spent on the island of sheep; each Easter was an encounter with the whale Jasconius; from Easter Sunday to Pentecost on the Island of Birds, and each Christmas with St Ailbe.
16 They journeyed on again. Their boat was approached by a fierce sea creature; another came and fought with it. They ate the torn apart sea beast.
17 They found an island of ‘compartments’ where three groups of young, older and elderly monks lived apart from each other. They communicated by singing hymns. The second latecomer left the boat here.
18 They were found by a huge bird carrying large grapes. They landed on the island of large grapes; they stayed there for forty days.
19 They sailed on and were chased by a flying gryphon, which was killed by the previous grape bird.
20 They arrived at St Ailbe’s. It was Christmas.
21 Set sail on a crystal clear sea.
22 They passed a silver pillar in the sea, wrapped in a kind of net.
23 They passed an island of blacksmiths, who threw slag at them.
24 They passed a volcano island. It was a portal of hell. They lost their third latecomer there.
25 They came across Judas Iscariot on a rock in the sea: God allowed him Sundays free from Hell, and he spent it there. The sky was full of devils come to reclaim him, but Brendan intervened and gained him some respite.
26 They came across an island where lived Paul the Hermit, clad only in hair. He told them how he too sailed out on a similar voyage.
27 They returned to the isle of sheep, Jasconius, and the isle of birds.
28 They arrived at the Promised Land of Saints.
29 They returned home. Brendan died.
In the Voyage of St Brendan we see maybe see parallels with both The Odyssey, and Sinbad (a Persian name for dweller on the river Sind; no tale has yet been found of Sinbad in Persian): the whale-as-island does not seem to occur in Homer, but it does in Sinbad; all three texts do have an island where the inhabitants throw rocks etc out to sea at the boat – in Sinbad and Homer this is a blinded giant, in Brendan they are forge-workers. It is possible to see the water of sleep in Brendan as an equivalent to both the adulterated food that changes the crew’s natures, in Sinbad, and the Lotus eaters in Homer; I wonder whether the island where the third crew member is lost to hell, can be seen in Homer as the episode where Odysseus contacts the spirits of the dead, and Sinbad joins the dead in the grave-pit with his wife’s body. The grazing animals occur in all three texts: the quiescent sheep of huge size on Brendan’s island of sheep; the oxen of the sun in Homer; and the sheep bodies used to gather the jewels in Sinbad. I wonder if this is too fanciful a connection, though. The whale-as-island (Jasconius) only occurs in Brendan and Sinbad, but is an important element in both, occurring several times in each text.
At first I thought there must be a template these writers used, a wonder-voyage template, or at heart an Ur-voyage all these was based on. Then sense woke up and, well, writers, storytellers riff on what has gone before, and combine elements from other stories. And then there are the complications of time: transmission problems of who recorded them, why, where, and how. All these add their element, some small, sometimes re-casting the entire piece into another form.
So, we can see in the Brendan, the basic premise of The Voyage of Bran: a voyage towards a paradise, combining elements of flipped perception (the flowery plain that is the sea: the whale that is an island). The next step is to trace the specific elements in earlier literatures that were available to the writers of the text under investigation.
In the twelfth century Irish Book of Leinster several other such wonder-voyagers are recorded, they are known as imram. Of the seven officially recognized imram only four seem to have come down to us: The Voyage of Bran; the Voyage of Maelduin; the Voyage of the Boat of Hui Corra; and the Voyage of Snedgus and Mac Riagla. There is also a parody of the genre, in the Aislinge Meic Con Glinne.
The Voyage of St Brendan was a Latin tale recorded elsewhere. It spread surprisingly quickly; versions have been found in Dutch/Middle High German; Venetian; Anglo-Norman; Occitan/Catalan; Norse and in Caxton’s Golden Legend. That is just two hundred years’ worth of published versions.
In the Journal Modern Philology (Vol 15, Number 8 -1917) William Flint Thall gives a very welcome examination of the phenomenon of imrama, and possible influences upon their conception.
It has been speculated that the oldest of the imrama is the Maelduin tale; linguistically, however, the early sections of Hui Corra win out. The oldest complete imram is Maedluin.
Many of the imrama share episodes:
Maelduin and Bran share episodes with – the Isle of Laughter; the otherworld Queen, drawing the hero to her with a magic ball of yarn.
Maelduin and Hui Corra have the Isle of Laughter; the isle of Weeping; the hell-miller; the female water woman; wonderful apples; an isle of compartments; an pedestal isle; a rainbow river; a silver pillar in the sea.
Bran and St Brendan have a four-footed isle(?); birds who sing the hours; mention of one hundred and fifty islands.
Maelduin and St Brendan have the three latecomers who are lost.
Maelduin and Bran have an isle of singing birds; walled isle of monsters.
Inner structures of the tales also show characteristics in common–
Bran had a voyage to, some have it Tir na N’Og, the isle of eternal youth; in some versions it is the Isle of Women. On the way there he lost a crew member on the Isle of Laughter. On his return journey he was instructed to pick up the lost man.
There is a looping round here, by design, and what it loops around is the central episode of the finding and residence upon the Isle of Women. The boat arrived and the crew were reluctant to go ashore; Bran was pulled ashore by a magical ball of yarn (‘clew’).
When the crew eventually grew homesick and resolved to return, the Queen was reluctant to release them . This is a framing of the central episode of residence.
There is little to the tale to structure anything else on. The tale opens with Bran dreaming of a beautiful woman telling him where all beauty, joy and lasting life is to be found . It ends with Bran and his crew unable to land back in Ireland: it was a year’s trip outside normal time scales: they arrived back as legends of themselves only; they would become ashes if they set foot back on land again.
The tale of St Brendan is more substantially structured.
There are three runs of three episodes: chapters 9, 15, and 27 see the recurrence of landing at the isle of huge sheep
10, 15, 27 the whale, Jasconius
11, 15, 27 the isle of Birds
And there is one run of two: chapters 12 and 20 where St Brendan met St Ailbe. These two episodes frame chapter 15 where St Brendan lands again at the Isle of Birds: this time the birds reveal to St Brendon: Your voyage will last seven years. Every year you will spend Maundy Thursday with ‘the steward’ (chapter 8?); Easter an encounter with the whale Jasconius; Easter Sunday to Pentecost with the Isle of Birds; and Christmas with St Ailbe.
What’s interesting about this is that St Ailbe’s order are silent: Christmas with a silent order! The mind boggles.
And also the Easter with the whale Jasconius: he always sinks and strands them. But then the dating of Easter was always the sticky problem between the Celtic Church and the Roman Church; what better image of the ambiguous problem between the churches!
The whole tale began with the arrival of St Barrid, who told his tale of a wonder-voyage. St Brendan resolved to follow him.
In last but one chapter 28 he landed at the Promised Land of the Saints. Then returned home.
How does the central chapter 15 fit in with this? It is where The Will of God is revealed to him – through St Barrid’s arrival (1), the information of the birds (15), and Brendan’s prophesied death (29) on the Promised Isle of Saints, on his return.
St Barrid’ s tale is interesting: he went to visit his son (!!!), who told him of a voyage to the Island of Saints. He set off himself. It was a short and direct route. Then he returned.
Why-ever did not St Brendan use the same route?! Instead he seems to have gone round and around in ever-widening circles, always returning every year to the same places for Easter and Christmas.
The tale seemed to be based on the need for all to cleanse themselves spiritually through the voyage; it was another take on the pilgrimage scenario.
The isle of the Promised Land of the Saints had a river down the centre they were not allowed to cross. Perhaps Bran’s amorous Queen and women lived over the river – Brendon and crew were all chaste monks…!
Are these circlings, then, rings? We are used to seeing the smaller rings within each half of the whole: here the circlings are like ‘layers in an onion’. But do they ascend and then descend from the centre?
Who would you parallel Judas Iscariot (25) with? Devils tormented him, and St Brendan won him one more night of peace from them; a devil made an earlier appearance on the first isle they encountered ( 6/7): the devil that tempted the latecomer to steal, had to be exorcised, and led to his death. It said it had been with for seven years. But the scale is all wrong.
Do we match St Ailbe (11 et al) with Paul the Hermit (26)?
Apart from that there is little that fits.`
The tale of Maelduin is more substantial again, coming in with thirty-five episodes. It ends as it began with Maelduin arriving back in Ireland, but with his father’s murderers, his vengeance on them the reason for the voyage, forgiven. It is not easy to find a centre to the tale, though.
A great many episodes here are also found in St Brendan: the isles of the empty banquet hall with food laid out; island of birds singing psalms; several naked hermits clad only in hair; columns/pillars in the sea; islands of great sheep; isles of savage smiths throwing things at them; crystal seas; cloudy seas. As above many episodes are shared with the other extant imrama.
One German commentator found parallels in Maelduin with Virgil. The above William Flint Thall was able to dispute most/all of these satisfactorily. Virgil’s Aeneid must take its place along with Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica; with Sinbad; the Odyssey, in the generous genre of wonder-voyages. And let’s not forget Noah. Latterly there are the tales of Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo et al. The episode elements are predominantly provided by the cultures that have recorded them. It is essential to remember these tales have accrued many layers of transmission-elaborations before we got to them.
To suggest that eg the whale episode, would come from a single source completely disregards the sea-going traditions and experience of other cultures. There is and has been, after all, more than just one whale in the sea! That many episodes are repeated indicates that other cultures were indeed just as rich in story sources as others; and just as ready to borrow where something took their fancy.
Many episodes here are to be found in the Norse sagas. I envision a long-term and intimate trading of wonder-tales, legends and folk stories amongst traders from many European and Eastern European countries. This camaraderie, maybe at times contests of story-tellers, would have enriched each other’s repertoires at all the different ports and trading centers they met. I envision here, I suppose, an early collection of traders spanning the known world of early and middle medieval Europe. Maybe small-scale and rag-tag; but traders can be quite intrepid, especially when there is a profit to be made.
This is not so fanciful either; it was in the mid twelfth century that Scandinavian traders were busily working the old Viking routes of the Baltic, and then the North Sea coast. They became based at Visby on Gotland, off the Swedish mainland. And then the German Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, founded Lubeck . Lubeck was a specially built town/city in Schleswig, ideally placed to regulate traffic in the Baltic coming in over the Skagerak of Denmark. Under The German Hanseatic League, trading was built around the centers of Bruges, Antwerp, London, Bergen, Visby, Lubeck, Hamburg, Cologne and deep into the eastern Baltic: Helsinki, Novgorod, the Danube and east and south.
As Vandals, Huns and Goths displaced the peoples of Europe, sacking centres of learning, the scholars and learned fled West. They enriched the academies of Western Europe and also Ireland. Just as Irish monks had and continued to venture out in turn into European centers of learning, European traders were coming in to them; or centers in contact with them.
The St Brendan tale gained such wide popularity due to a number of related factors. In its written form it was, unlike the other imrama, in Latin, the lingua franca of the emerging West after the Roman decline and emigration of peoples. As such it could be read and understood by a wide range of cultures. The tale also emphasized the Christian religion, which was a major part of the newly emergent states of Europe; dissemination – look at the countries that versions appeared in: Dutch/Middle High German; Venetian; Anglo-Norman; Occitan/Catalan; Norse – all were part of the main trade routes of the middle ages.
I have heard whispers of the Babylonian Talmud text of the voyages of Rabbah bar-bar Hannah. Another source to search out!