Irish Mythology

The Voyage of Maeldun

12th century, Old Irish, Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow), Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.

again and againEx(change) of identity

"'It would be ill for us if we saw Maeldun now.' 'That Maeldun has been drowned,' said another."

The Irish Lebor na hUidre, or Book of the Dun Cow, is an early-twelfth century vellum manuscript now lying in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. It contains a story of a man who is blown, like the Ancient Greek hero Odysseus, into an enchanted sea; perhaps hinting at the true antiquity of this tale.

Like Odysseus, the voyager Maeldun encounters giants on many islands. On one he finds a glass bridge that leads into the abode of a goddess; a goddess who owns a magic pail that is always full of whatever food is desired, like Chrétien de Troyes' twelfth century Arthurian graal. In another part of this ocean they come upon a silver column rising out of the water and stretching high into the sky. Many islands contain giant animals. On one island they watch an old eagle arrive, bath in the island's lake and depart again as a young eagle. On another, they see a giant blacksmith who tells his fellow smith that he can see children on the water.

But at last Maeldun arrives back at the island whose inhabitants he initially set out to exact revenge upon, for the killing of his father. One might expect him still to be intent upon violence, after all he has been through. But after a long voyage in an Otherworldly ocean, his personality seems to have mellowed; or perhaps, like Odysseus, his face has become unfamiliar:

As night fell they saw on the horizon a land that looked as though it might at last be Ireland, and on an offshore isle they beached their boat and went ashore. On this island lived the men who had killed Maeldun’s father. At a door of the fortress they overheard the following conversation:

'It would be ill for us if we saw Maeldun now.'

'That Maeldun has been drowned,' said another.

'Still he might come,' said a third.

'If so, what would we do?' asked a fourth.

'If he should come now,' said their chief, 'we should welcome him with food and hospitality, for he will have been through a great deal.' Maeldun hammered on the door.

'Who is it?' shouted the gatekeeper. 'Maeldun,' came the reply. And he was received warmly, and given fine new clothes to wear; and he and his companions sat at the table and ate, and afterwards they spoke of the wonders they had seen.

Story fragment recounted from: Rolleston, Thomas, 1911. Myths of the Celtic Race. The Gresham Publishing Company. Reprinted 1998. Myths and Legends of the Celts. Senate, an imprint of Tiger Books International plc. Chapter VII. The Voyage of Maeldun, pp 309–31. The Homecoming, pp 330–1.

See for yourself

Máel Dúin – Wikipedia

Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) – Wikipedia

Thomas W H Rolleston – Wikipedia

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