Lakes and seas in literature and legend
'I think it will cast a lot of light on the medieval stories if we see where lakes and seas feature in older traditions first,' said Miranda.
'Sounds good to me,' replied Quintin. 'Where shall we start first? I propose we start with Homer. The Odyssey. The whole of the first half of the story is about a sea voyage.'
'And how does the voyage end?'
'With Odysseus travelling back home to his island of Ithica.'
'And how does he travel?'
'In a boat that sails more swiftly than any bird can fly, and all the while he is lying asleep so soundly that it looks as though he is dead.'
'And when he arrives?'
'He pretends to be somebody else.'
'Well, there you are,' said Miranda. 'And when heroes in Irish mythological stories are taken into the Otherworld, it often involves crossing the sea. Like when Oisín is taken to the Land of Youth by a daughter of the god Manannan and sees a lady with an apple riding across the waves. Or when Bran is urged to sail to an Isle of Women by a goddess carrying a bough of apple blossom. Or when Diarmuid travels across the sea to an island with a pool and is dragged through its depths to emerge into the Otherworld.'
'The sea that Odysseus sails around is very like an Otherworld, with giants on every island and goddesses who turn men into animals,' said Quintin.
'But we can go further back in time even than this,' said Miranda. 'There are intaglio rings dating to the Minoan period – around 1600 BC – that show a boat with a shrine at the front and no obvious way of propelling it, as though it was a fictional vessel.'
'Rather like the ship with no crew in a Breton lai called Guigemar,' said Quintin. 'There was nothing on board that boat except for a bed for a wounded man to lie on, and a candelabra of lighted candles at the bow.'
'Sounds very funerial'
'Well, I agree.'
'And the Otherworld is a land of the dead?'
'So given all this,' said Miranda, 'what are we to make of the tale of Emaré, a fourteenth century Middle English Breton lai. The maiden and emperor's daughter Emaré is sentenced to death by burning. But at the very last minute she is put into a boat instead, without sail or oar, with no food and with no water, and set adrift. She washes up many days later on a far distant shore and, like Odysseus, immediately pretends to be somebody else.'
'Wearing a dress that makes her look as though she is a creature of the Otherworld,' said Quintin. 'It says that explicitly.'