Episodes 39 & 40: Brendan the Navigator
Welcome to the journey of Brendan the Navigator, an immram of an Irish saint and his travels around the Atlantic, encountering talking birds, mute monks, massive grapes, and towers of crystal. Throoughout all this, despite his saintly stature and quest to find the Promised Land of Saints, Brendan acts like a holier-than-thou jerk the entire time.
Brendan the Navigator was an incredibly popular medieval tale — it was first recorded around 900 A.D. about the real figure Brendam the Abbot, and has over 100 existing copies of the tale in several languages. The real life Brendan did make some kind of journey across the Atlantic, but it was likely nothing like his haigiography depicts.
Saint Brendan himself was a fifth century monk and onen of the twelve apostles of Ireland. Not much is known his actual life, since his navagatio wass wriiten five hundred years after his death. We do know the real Brendan was born in Tralee, modern County Kerry, Irealnd. He was made a priest at age twenty-six and founded several monastaries. He traveled around the British Isels and to Brittany before going on his legendary seven year voyage.
Though schoalrs are not entirely sure where Brendan’s journey was supposed to have taken him, some think he sailed all the way to North America or Greenland, while other suggest the Canary Islands or Azores. After his return to Ireland, however, he continued to travel around both the emerald isle and the greatere British Isles until his death.
The Irish tale of his expedition was not akin to the sagas, however. Unlike these tales, the Irish immram is a highly stylised story about a journey to the Otherworld. In some cases, this is the legendary Tir na nOg of Irish pagan legend, but more often these stories are Chrsitian in aspect. Immrams were most oftten written in the 8th and 9th centuries and concern more Chrisitan topics than their sister stories, the echtrae. Echtrae are Irish adventure stories (which often also have voyages and trips to the Otherworld) but can be mostly mundane and are older and contain more pagan elementss than immrams. An echtra may only have one destination, whereas an immram has several destinations, stops, and challenges along the way.
Brendan departs from Ireland with 17 monks, three of whom are last-minute additions and two whom Brendan warns will have terrible fates. Nonetheless, they depart and sail across the sea, landing on an island covered in sheep. The man there informs them that they'll be traveling around the sea for seven years on a holy voyage. Brendan and his crew go on to several fascinating places, including attempting to make camp on the back of a giant fish, sailing to an island covered in talking birds, and to a massive crystal column in the middle of the sea. Brendan also visits an island with a monastery of immortal monks who speak entirely through sign language. They do lose all three monks who jumped aboard at the final moment — one died after Brendan exorcised the devil from him, another was pulled from the boat by spirits and onto a volcano which might have been the entrance to hell, and the third stayed on an island with a cloister of chanting monks. Finally, Brendan and his brothers arrive at the Land of Saints, but can only travel up to a certain river which they cannot cross. A resplendent young man greets them there and invites them to stay for forty days, after which they must return home. Upon returning home, Brendan shared his journey throughout all of Ireland and founded several monasteries before his death.
For the full story and all our commentary, check out the full podcast!
Final Rating: 6.5
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Searching for our sources? Read Brendan the Voyager here or here, and check out our Library for more! Additional references for interested scholars:
Anderson, John D. “The Navigatio Brendani: A Medieval Best Seller.” The Classical Journal, vol. 83, no. 4, The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, 1988, pp. 315–22. Link.
Deetjen, Christian. “Witchcraft and Medicine.” Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, vol. 2, no. 3, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1934, pp. 164–75. Link.
Dunn, Joseph. “The Brendan Problem.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 6, no. 4, Catholic University of America Press, 1921, pp. 395–477. Link.
Hillers, Barbara. “Voyages between Heaven and Hell: Navigating the Early Irish Immram Tales.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, vol. 13, Department of Celtic Languages & Literatures, Harvard University, 1993, pp. 66–81. Link.
Swank, Kris. “The Child’s Voyage and the <em>Immram</Em> Tradition in Lewis, Tolkien, and Pullman.” Mythlore, vol. 38, no. 1 (135), Mythopoeic Society, 2019, pp. 73–96. Link.
Roche, Norma. “Sailing West: Tolkien, the Saint Brendan Story, and the Idea of Paradise in the West.” Mythlore, vol. 17, no. 4 (66), Mythopoeic Society, 1991, pp. 16–62. Link.
Waters, E. G. R. “Rare or Unexplained Words in the Anglo-Norman ‘Voyage of St Brendan.’ A Contribution to French Lexicography.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 21, no. 4, Modern Humanities Research Association, 1926, pp. 390–403. Link.
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