Celtic Christianity

Saint Brendan

The Voyage of Saint Brendan: 14th century, Middle English, British Museum, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

The ship comes eventually into a mist and sails on until the air clears and they find themselves on the shores of Paradise.

þe ueorþe day hy seie an ile · al by souþe an hei · Sein Brandan sight sore · þo he þis ile isey... – On the fourth day they saw an isle, looming above the horizon to the south. Saint Brendan sighed terribly when he saw this isle...

'It is an island where a monk lives who is sustained solely on the food that an otter can catch,' said Quintin. 'They have already been to an Isle of Sheep, an Isle of Birds, and landed on the back of a great whale. They encounter an Isle of Monks, and discover that they have to go round and round again, to the Isle of Sheep, the Isle of Birds, the onto the back of the great whale again. Round and round.'

It shows how traditional ideas were incorporated into Christian ideolgy and given a Catholic gloss,' said Miranda. 'Like natural springs and revered trees becoming the places where saints performed their miracles. When Bran goes on a voyage with all his crew, in an ancient Irish tale, he sails past a number of islands before finally coming ashore on an Island of Women. Then after a year in this paradise, they return to Ireland and find that hundreds of years have elapsed since they set out – rather as Oisin does, when he returns from the Land of Youth in another Irish myth. When Maeldun goes on a similar voyage, in another ancient Irish tale, he finds, just like Bran, an archipelago of hundreds of islands, islands of giants and islands of birds and horses and cattle and magic apples, and an eagle that is restored to youth in a lake.’

'A voyage like that of Odysseus then,' said Quintin.

'Exactly,' agreed Miranda. 'And Maeldun's journey started with a violent, life-threatening, ship-wreaking storm, just like Odysseus’s.'


'So do you see what Celtic Christianity did to the voyage of Bran? It took his name, changed it to Brandan, which became Brendan, and sent him on a voyage to the Christian Paradise via a round of journeys that purposefully bore a strong resemblance to the old tales. So we still have a record of these old tales! In Celtic saints' lives! Brendan sails from an island of sheep to the back of a whale, then to an island of birds and on to an island of humans, then back again to the island of birds and the whale and the humans and round and round again, visiting an island where a man is sustained only by the food that an otter can catch, and then the ship comes eventually into a mist and sails on until the air clears and they find themselves on the shores of Paradise. As though in confirmation, really.'

'Confirmation of what?'

'That this sea is meant as a journey into the afterlife. That if you reinstate the metaphor, if you focus on the bits of the story that were retained because it was a policy that the Christian Church should absorb and embrace pagan traditions wherever possible – hence wishing-wells and springs dedicated to Christian saints – then the pagans must have believed that human beings will be reincarnated as animals, as Plato confirms at the end of the Republic.'

Story of Saint Brendan from: D'Evelyn, Charlotte, and Mill, Anna J., (Eds.), 1956. Reprinted 1967. The South English Legendary. Published for the Early English Text Society by Oxford University Press. The Middle English text of SAINT BRENDAN from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 145.

Story of Odysseus in: Shewring, Walter, with an introduction by Kirk, G. S., 1980, reprinted 2008. Homer: The Odyssey. Oxford University Press. Story of the Voyage of Maeldun and of Oisin's journey to Fairyland in: Rolleston, Thomas, 1911. Myths of the Celtic Race. The Gresham Publishing Company. Story of the Voyage of Bran in: Gregory, Lady A., 1904. Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland, Arranged and put into English by Lady Gregory. John Murray, London.

Lakes and seas

Piccadilly Line

magical water
montage of sea images

Navigate the tunnel

See for yourself

Saint Brendan – Wikipedia

The Voyage of Saint Brendan – Canterbury Cathedral, recitation of a translation of the Irish legend – video.

The Voyage of Bran – Wikipedia

Odysseus - Wikipedia

The Odyssey – Wikipedia

Máel Dúin – Wikipedia

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

Homer: The Odyssey – English translation, Internet Classics Archive

The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal, to the Land of the Living, – Kuno Meyer, 1890. Translated into English from Old Irish:

Complete text of the 14th century South English Legendary, edited by Charlotte d'Eveyln and Anna J Mill, 1956, reprinted 1967 (3 volumes, volume 1 contains the story of Saint Brendan, reprinted 2004) available through the Early English Text Society (EETS)

…or direct from Oxford University Press