The Voyage Theme in Celtic Mythology

“Myth is multi-layered, like life, and to get the most out of it, we have to be aware of many different elements at once.” (1)

- Moyra Caldecott  Women in Celtic Myth (1992)

The spiritual life is a journey.  This is true whether you are religious or secular in your orientation.  We are always travelling – existentially and experientially – from 'here' to 'there;' from some place we find ourselves, to a place we wish, want or decide to be—what might be called either a 'sacred' or ‘philosophic' destination.  When I think about life as a journey, I oft employ symbols and motifs from the mythologies I've become fluent in over the years, especially the Celtic myths.  The Celts loved to 'travel-with-a-purpose,' just as much as they liked staying at home by the hearth.  Thus there are several genres in Celtic myth and literature dealing with journeys; especially the "sea journey."  I post this blog here for all those who may wish to explore the idea of the journey through this particular mythology.  The following 'essay' is distilled from a lecture I used to give on the subject.

There are three types of "sea journey" tale in the Celtic tradition, two of which I will deal with in this blog.  The first is the Voyage (“Immram”) in which a mortal visits the Otherworld, but in which the journey to the final destination (usually an island) is more important than anything that happens once the adventurer arrives at the ‘destination.’  The second type is the Adventure (“Echtra”) in which a mortal visits the Otherworld, though here, getting to the Otherworld is less important than what happens once one arrives.  Despite the emphasis; whether on the voyage itself or the destination – the goal of these stories is spiritual wisdom, both for the character in the tale and for the hearer of the story.

There are seven immrama (plural; “voyages”) known to us from mediaeval lists.  Three of these survive more or less intact, and each is important in its own way.  (1)  The Voyage of Bran mac Febal is the earliest, and comes to us in a seventh century text.  (2)  The Voyage of Máeldúin is extant in a text dating from the 700's CE.  (3)  The Voyage of Saint Brendan is preserved in a ninth century text, though the tale is probably somewhat older.

Each of these tales has unique elements, yet all involve a voyage to a mysterious island (or series of islands) located to the 'west' of Ireland, and then some kind of ‘return home' after the adventure is complete.  The Voyage of Bran comes from the Pagan Celtic world, and its themes are pre-Christian in many ways.  The Voyage of Máeldúin is also Pagan in theme and structure, but deals with the ideals of redemption and forgiveness, which made the tale appealing to early Celtic Christians.  The Voyage of Brendan is thoroughly Christian in both theme and aspect, though still embodying a Celtic vision of life-in-the-world and a deep love of life in general that is absent from so much of orthodox Christianity.

The Voyage of Bran mac Febal begins as Bran is encountered by a mysterious woman who tells him of a strange island (Emain Ablach) and then urges him to go there.  This Isle is said to be "full of apples" and is the place where, the woman says, Bran will discover wisdom in its fullness.  Inspired, Bran gathers a crew, finds a large corracle (a skin-covered boat) fit for the journey, and then sets off.  He leaves his home and makes the voyage over the wide-maned sea to the West seeking wisdom.

The journey is punctuated by a number of adventures at different strange locations; usually islands in the sea—where the crew sometimes goes ashore (and other times doesn’t) – meeting challenges, gaining treasure and perhaps a little wisdom, or else failing in some way to grasp the challenge or what is to be gleaned from it.  At the Isle of Merriment and Delight, for instance, they have to leave a crewman behind in their desperate flight (the isle was not a good place to be!).  They take the loss in stride, however, as there is no chance of going back and rescuing their crewmate, and continue in their search for Emain Ablach.

At one point in the journey, Bran meets the Sea God Manannán mac Lir, who is riding his chariot over the horse-maned sea.  The sea-god stops and encourages Bran and his crew, indicating by his poetic words that Bran is on a sacred journey.

Bran and his crew push on, plunging over the wild waves.  They do eventually reach Emain Ablach, where they stay for an indeterminate time.  While there, they engage in ‘good feasting’ and ‘restorative partying,’ enjoying a great many sensual and sexual delights.  Each crewman is blessed in what he receives, and is satiated with what seems re and more like the fulfillment of his life.  This Isle is wondrous and is a place well worth being!  At some point, however, Nechtan – one of the crew – becomes homesick, and beseeches Bran to leave the Isle and return to Ireland.  After much hemming and hawing, they make the decision to leave Emain Ablach, which is an immanent instance of paradise—and seek a way home again.  Bran is warned, however, that the journey will end in sorrow, travail and despair.  One of the priestesses of the goddess on the isle gives him two words of advice: (1) First, that he must pick up the crewman left behind on the Isle of Merriment and Delight, and (2) second, that he should not go ashore, once they reach Ireland. 

With great ceremony and in a strange mood, Bran and the crew leave Emain Ablach and make their way back across the wild-maned sea to their home in Ireland.  They stop briefly at the Isle of Merriment to recover their lost crewman.  At last, they come to a familiar beach, only to find that their boat will not let them guide it into the shallows!  When a crewman puts his hand in the water, it withers away. A kind of ‘panic’ breaks out on the ship.   Nechtan, desperate to be reunited with his kin, leaps into the water and goes ashore, despite the warning given to them on Emain Ablach.  Immediately, he ages before everyone’s eyes and turns to dust.  At this point, the crew realizes that they are stranded in their boat.  They have attempted to return to the land of the living; but they have not yet died and crossed over into the otherworld.  They have adventured as living souls over the sídhe; and now they are in a strange limbo.
While contemplating their existential state; suspended between the lands of the living and the dead, Bran writes his adventures on wooden sticks in ogham letters.  He casts them into the water and watches as the tide carries them in toward shore; where they are grabbed out of the foam and froth by one of Bran’s relatives. He and his crew then wave goodbye and sail away, back out across the wide-maned sea, never to be seen or heard from again.  Legends say that they sailed until, one after another, the crew and finally Bran perished and crossed-over into the Otherworld.  At that point, they would have been free to go on to Emain Ablach (one particular manifestation of the Land of Youth, where those who have left the mortal realm continue on their quest for self-realization and wisdom) or may return – through the drafts of incarnation – back into this life, starting the mortal journey over again.

This story manifests the Celtic dream of the travel of the human soul from this life into the next and back again.  Bran and his companions cannot return to Ireland without dying, as they went into the Otherworld while still living.   However, those who die before journeying to some version of the Isle of the Blest (which is the usual order of events), continue their journey or may eventually return and be born again into this life, becoming the ‘old ones’ among us.  We may learn about life & death and the journey back & forth between the worlds by meditating on the symbols woven into this immram; Apples, Islands, Silver Branches, Pleasure and Sensuality, etc.

It should be noted that in these stories pleasure and sensuality are not evil; they are not something we must deny, escape from or ‘transcend.’  In the next life, according to Celtic wisdom, we will be sensual as well as intellectual, creative and sexual beings; being able to indulge in pleasure of all kinds without being hampered by the limitations of our senses and our bodies.  For the Celts, pleasure and sensuality, beauty and joy, facilitate self-realization and contribute to the attainment of Wisdom; they do not – unless abused or misused – prevent us from finding our best end, as in more narrow-minded spiritualities, wherein sex and the senses are to be shunned and repressed, sometimes at all costs.

The Voyage of Máeldúin is a more elaborate tale, with narrative nuance and an intricate symbolic structure.  It involves the same symbols as the story of Bran mac Febal; apples, islands, gods and goddesses and issues of life and death—but handles them in a different way, for different ends.  The tale begins with Máeldúin’s birth and an account of the murder of his father.  Once Máeldúin attains to his manhood, he is told about the murder of his father, and immediately vows to avenge him.  He seeks for a way to find the murderer and enact what he sees as justice.  He soon finds out that his father’s murderer actually lives on an island not far away.  A Druid then comes and gives Máeldúin specific instructions for how and when to execute his father’s murderer; including how to build a proper boat, how to select a crew, how many men are to man the sacred ship, and finally how to get to the island in secrecy—for Máeldúin must not travel in ‘ordinary’ paths – he is told – if he is to succeed.

Máeldúin gathers a crew and builds a wooden boat in preparation for his journey of revenge, following the Druid's instructions to the letter.  He selects his crew, loads what provisions the Druid suggested he take with him, and then says goodbye to his family.  Just before he leaves, however, his three foster-brothers come and ask to be given berth on the boat, as they, too, want to see the right thing done with regard to Máeldúin's father's murderer.  This would have been seen as a just duty among Celtic siblings; even among foster-brothers.  Máeldúin is caught between his culture’s mores and the prescriptions of the Druid who has made the journey a possibility.  He finally relends, however, and allows his foster-brothers to come onboard, against the Druid’s warnings.

Following all of the Druid’s other prescriptions, they set sail and in short time arrive – they believe in secret – at the island where the murderer resides.   When they try to go ashore, however, the sea seems not to let them go in over the surf, stranding them in motionless water just beyond the breakers.  The wild waters and the weather prohibit a safe landing and, after several tries, Máeldúin and his crew are blown away from the isle and set out upon the high-maned sea.  It is here that their adventure really begins.  Once the sea is calm, they discern (by divination) that it was the presence of the three extra passengers (the foster brothers) that threw the Druid’s prescriptions ‘off kilter.'  Repentant and miserable, they go on_ unable to guide the boat where they want it to go.  Unable to return home, they go wherever the wind and waves carry them, travelling from isle to isle.  From this point on, Máeldúin’s voyage, which started off as an errand of revenge, becomes one of self-discovery.
The company travels to almost three dozen mysterious islands in the wide-maned sea, having marvelous adventures and making several harrowing escapes along the way.  Their adventures lure them toward new spiritual horizons; they have grown significantly toward enlightenment, and they are now ‘content’ to live life a 'different way.'  Their spiritual transfiguration can be seen in what happens when they come again – quite serendipitously – to the isle where the murderer of Máeldúin’s father still lives.  Máeldúin comes ashore looking for food and lodging, and it is only once he is on the isle that he recognizes it!  The men on the island welcome Máeldúin and his crew, giving them new clothes, and serving them a sumptuous meal, during which the voyagers relate their adventures.  That night, Máeldúin meets his father's murderer and blesses him.  The next day they sail back to Ireland.

Thus this Immram ends as a story of forgiveness.  Máeldúin experiences a kind of Pagan 'conversion' while journeying from isle to isle, his ship being driven by the wild wind and strange currents.  By the time he gets back to the island of his father’s slayer, he has no desire to murder him in blood-vengeance, even though the laws of ancient Ireland would have permitted him to execute his father’s murderer!

The Voyage of Saint Brendan is another unique tale and bodies-forth deep insights for those willing to listen with an open mind.  It has Pagan undercurrents and themes suffusing it, and can be seen as an extension of the earlier tradition.  Though Brendan of Clonfert has been attributed with making as many as 12 voyages, the most significant manuscripts cite two major voyages, one unsuccessful and the other successful.  In the first of these, Brendan hears, from an old saint, about "the Isle of Paradise" where the one they call ‘God’ reigns.  This is essentially the same idea as what initiates the Voyage of Bran, though clothed in Christian mythos.  Inspired, Brendan prays for several days and then, with the approval of his abbot, gathers up a crew who together build a large wooden boat covered in animal skins like a corracle. They then go off adventuring long upon the Sea, visiting a succession of mysterious isles.  They return to Ireland, however, without finding the Isle of Paradise.

Saint Ita (Brendan’s foster-mother) then tells Brendan that the reason he was unable to find the Blest Isle was that no ‘blood’ – of either man, woman or animal – may enter Paradise.  This idea is tied to Old Testament proscriptions concerning blood and holiness, translated into a Celtic milieu.  But it also evinces the Celtic idea that nothing living can enter into the Land of Youth and reside there for very long without unforeseen consequences (as in the Voyage of Bran).  Brendan realizes that he must therefore make a boat of wood (his coracle had been made of animal skins!) and try again to reach the Isle of Paradise.  He builds the wooden boat, and then he and his crew set sail once more.  This time he is successful.  After visiting many mysterious islands, he finally reaches the Isle of the Blest.  There he encounters his God in the animals and plants and in many strange inhabitants of the isle.  After his visit he and his crew return to Ireland, ready for a life of "divine work" (prayer) and service in ministry to the unfortunate, outcast and widowed.  His voyage rendered for him the wisdom necessary to be able serve Christ; the avatar of his god, in this life, by showing him a Vision of the next life

One of the many interesting themes that emerge from the fabric of Brendan’s Voyages is the holiness of all life; which is a very old Pagan theme.  All life is sacred.  Celtic saints generally revered life in whatever form it was found.  They esteemed animals as their ‘friends’ and had a deep respect for trees and stones and the wide-maned sea.  Love of live fostered a zest for life in Celtic peoples, whether Pagan or Christian, that is so often absent from religious practitioners today.  Their sense of adventure and their intention to live life to the fullest is something worth investing ourselves in today.

[If you would like to explore the spirituality of the voyage and the journey, see "The Fourth Way: The Way of Pilgrimage and the Immram," in my book, WellSprings of the Deer, 2002]

Some sources for further reading:

A Few Texts on Bran mac Febal:  Bran mac Febal’s story is not as well known as those of Máeldúin and Brendan, and thus many of the things written about him are more or less ‘scholarly.’  Some of the classics are:

Kuno Meyer and Alfred Nutt, Immram Brain: The Voyage of Bran (2 Vols. London: 1895-7);

Anton G. van Hamel, Immrama (Dublin: 1941), pp. 1-19;

Séamus MacMathúna, Immram Brain: Bran’s Journey to the Land of Women (Tubingen: 1985).

Proisnias Maccana, “Mongan mac Fiachna and ‘Immram Brain’,” Ériu, 23 (1972), pp. 102-142;
“On the Prehistory of Immram Brain,” Ériu 26 (1975) 33-52; and “The Sinless World of
Immram Brain,” Ériu 27 (1976) 95-115.

While these may be hard to find, a CD by Máire Breatnach called “The Voyage of Bran (Celtic Heartbeat, 1994) contains both the story of Bran’s Voyage and artwork dealing with it, including an artist’s depiction of the Ogham sticks that Bran carved at the end of his voyage.

A Few Texts on Máeldúin:

Matthews, Caitlín  The Celtic Book of the Dead
(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992)

This is an excellent text, which goes into detailed analyses of the various islands visited by Máeldúin and interprets the whole book as a guidebook for the journey of the soul after death.

McDowell, Patricia A.  The Voyage of Mael Duin
            (Dublin, 1991)

Oskamp, H. P. A.  The Voyage of the Máel Dúin: A Study
            (Groningen, 1970)

Sources on Brendan:

Ashe, Geoffrey  Land to the West: St. Brendan’s Voyage to America
            (Collins, 1962)

Bourgeailt, Cynthia  “The Monastic Archetype in the Navigatio of Saint Brendan.”
            Monastic Studies  14 (1983)  109‑122

MacDonald, Iain  Saint Brendan (Floris Books, 1992)

O’Meara, John J.  The Voyage of Saint Brendan: Journey to the Promised Land
            (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1978)

Severin, Tim  The Brendan Voyage
            (Arena, 1978)