An important genre of Celtic hero stories is the travel myth, the tale of a heroic voyage. This kind of tale is called an imram (“journey”), and these contain similar elements of Otherworld journeying, usually by sea. According to tradition, there are seven great imrams, but only three tales survive in their entirety. These are the Voyage of Mael Duin, the Voyage of St. Brendan, and the Voyage of Snedgus and mac Ríagla.
The saga of Mael Duin is the earliest known Celtic travel myth. Many later tales, such as “The Voyage of Brendan,” are based on this legend.
Mael Duin was the son of a renowned warrior, Aillill Edge-of-Battle. His father was killed on the battlefield before Mael was born, and his mother became a nun. Mael was fostered with his sister's family, raised never knowing the truth of his origins.
When Mael grows to maturity, he discovers his true background and makes a pact to avenge his father's death. Not knowing where to begin, he consults a druid, who tells him his enemies can be found across the sea. But in order to reach them, Mael must accept a geas and take with him a crew of exactly seventeen men.
Mael prepares his ships and selects his crew of seventeen, yet as he prepares to set sail, his foster brothers beg to come along. When Mael demurs, they attempt to swim after Mael's boat. Fearful they will drown themselves in their stubbornness, Mael at last relents and pulls his brothers on board.
After many days of vigorous rowing, Mael and his party encounter two small islands, their destination. However, when they prepare to disembark, a sudden storm blows up and tosses the boat far out to sea. Mael berates his foster brothers for their sudden misfortune, which must be due to their disregard for the druid's geas.
They continue to sail for days, even weeks, as the storm rages around them. Eventually, the winds recede, and the adventurers find themselves in the sea of the Otherworld, populated with many strange islands. These islands contain many strange and wonderful things, including an island filled with giant ants, another filled with giant horses, another by flaming pigs, and even one populated by phantom horsemen.
On one of the islands, Mael discovers an enchanted apple tree, from which he steals a branch containing three apples. These are the sort of Otherworld apples that can never be fully eaten, and they feed his crew for many days. Eventually, Mael and his crew encounter a walled island. The island contains a fabulous palace at its center, with many treasures on display. Oddly, it is deserted but for a great many cats that wander about. In the kitchen, Mael and his friends find an abundance of food and drink, of which they eat their fill.
As they prepare to return to their ship, Mael's brother suggests they gather some of the treasure that is arrayed about the castle. Mael cautions against it, lest it anger the feline occupants of the palace. Mael's brother cannot resist entirely, however, and snatches a necklace as they depart. At this, the cats begin to glow like embers. They pursue Mael's brother, and when they catch him, they leap on him, and his body is reduced to ashes. Mael grieves, but he returns the stolen treasure and apologizes to the cats before departing once more.
Mael and his companions continue from isle to isle, seeing many more strange, wonderful, and frightening things. One island they encounter is populated with a great number of dark-skinned people, who sit along the beaches weeping terribly. When one of Mael's brothers leaps from the ship to inquire what they sorrow about, he is overcome with sadness and sits among them weeping inconsolably. When he refuses to return to the ship, the others continue without him.
Eventually, the crew encounters the island's counterpart, whose population is filled with immense joy and whose fields ring with laughter. Mael's remaining brother, in his grief, finds the isle irresistible and cannot be prevented from leaving the ship. At last unburdened of his extra passengers, Mael finds himself free to leave the Otherworld. A falcon appears in the sky and leads the sailors back to Ireland, to the small isles where Mael was first blown off course. There, Mael encounters the men responsible for his father's death. When he prepares to confront them, however, they greet him as a great hero on account of his journeys. At this, all of Mael's anger leaves him, and he no longer desires vengeance.
In the course of their island wanderings, it is said that Mael Duin and his companions encounter an island populated with Otherworld women who offer them eternal youth and happiness. Mael marries the island's queen, and he and his men are happy there for the span of a year. Eventually, they become homesick and wish to leave. As they row away from the island, the queen throws Mael a length of string, and when he catches it, she uses it to draw the boat back to shore. This cycle is repeated several times, until Mael's exasperated crew cuts off his hand to prevent a recurrence.
The Voyage of St. Brendan
The legend of St. Brendan of Clonfert, otherwise known as Brendan the Navigator, represents the Christian entry into the imram tradition. Brendan was rumored to have been born in the late fifth century. He was a student of St. Brighid of Munster (an altogether different Brighid from the renowned goddess/saint) and went on to found a number of monasteries. While most historians agree that Brendan probably did conduct some sort of sea expeditions, many of the elements of Brendan's tale are identical to elements of earlier legends, especially the story of Mael Duin and the Voyage of Bran. The story resembles the ancient tales, with much religious allegory and scenes evocative of Dante's Inferno.
Brendan's story did not go unnoticed by the Church. Shortly after he was made a saint, he was adopted as the patron saint of travelers and sailors.
Brendan's legend tells that he began his voyage as penance for burning a religious book containing accounts of many fantastic miracles. An admonishing angel declares that as punishment, Brendan will spend seven years journeying to Tir na Nog, to witness his own miracles and record them in the place of those he had destroyed. Brendan sets sail with an improbable sixty companions in a small Irish boat called a coracle, a primitive leather craft traditionally popular with traveling monks.
Brendan's recorded adventures sound very much like Mael Duin's. He travels to many small islands, each with unique inhabitants, and sees many bizarre and strange sights. Like Mael, he takes on three passengers at the last minute, who all meet fated ends. Also like Mael, he and his men encounter an uninhabited palace filled with food and laden with jewels — although in this version, it is Brendan himself who denounces the thief and prevents any misfortune from befalling the party.
Instead of magical apples, Brendan and his sailors feast on bread and water delivered in answer to the abbot's pious prayers. The party acquires a mysterious “Provider,” an old hermit who appears at will and keeps them stocked with food, water, and fish for the best part of their journey.
The most fantastic element of Brendan's story concerns an island that is seemingly unremarkable until the sailors build a campfire to warm themselves and cook their supper. The island suddenly begins to quake and quickly sinks beneath the waves, allowing the party barely enough time to scramble back to their boat. It soon becomes evident that the island is not an island at all but an enormous serpent or dragon, whose name Brendan reveals to be Jasconius. The resemblance of Jasconius to the fabled Jormungandr, the Norse serpent of Midgard, is well recognized.
In another oddly pagan encounter, Brendan encounters an island, called the “Eden of the Birds,” inhabited by birds. The cheerful creatures reveal to Brendan that they are an ancient tribe of people whom God has caused to take the shape of birds for eternity, in order to testify to the glories of creation. It is a curious passage. The theme of warriors returning as divine messenger birds is an ancient pagan idea, but Brendan's story is clearly intended for a Christian audience — another sign of the unusual amity Celtic theologians had with the old pagan ideas. The story disappears from later versions, perhaps due to discomfort with this similarity.
The adventures continue in like vein, with more monsters and sea creatures, demonic encounters, and even a visit to Judas, who is stranded on an outcropping of rock, much like Prometheus, suffering eternal, repeating torments. At one stop, Brendan and his crew are forced to flee as they are pelted with flaming rocks and molten metal hurled by a giant from the entrance of a great cave. It seems clear that Brendan and his men, although at sea, are also in hell, and that this version of hell is very much like the ancient Otherworld.
At last, they come to a place of complete darkness, through which they travel for many weeks. When the darkness lifts, they find a beautiful paradise — an island filled with fruit trees and precious stones, where it is eternally daylight. Here, they encounter a monastery, from which appears a mysterious, shining youth, who calls all of them by name and informs the adventurers that they have reached their destination, the Blessed Isle. He exhorts them to fill up their ship with all they can carry and to return home.
When Brendan inquires whether the island should ever be known to mankind, the youth promises that it would one day be known to all. Brendan and his party remain on the island for three days and nights. As they prepare to leave, they seek a blessing from the monastery. Upon exiting, they discover themselves miraculously returned to their own monastery.
Brendan's tale proved incredibly popular and encouraged many to visit his monasteries. Many people attempted to recreate his journeys in order to locate “Brendan's Isle.” In modern times, there has been much speculation over the veracity of the story and whether many of the seemingly fanciful details of the story may describe real locations. Some theorize that the giant hurling rocks from his cave may in fact describe volcanoes of Iceland, or that the isle of birds may describe one of the Danish Faeroe islands. Various encounters with sea monsters are said to describe whales and other unfamiliar creatures. There is even an unlikely but persistent belief that the Blessed Isle visited by Brendan was in fact the shore of Newfoundland, which would place Brendan as the first European in America.
Snedgus and Mac Riagla
The Voyage of Snedgus and Mac Riagla was another late addition to the imram tradition, one that is more overtly more Christian than earlier stories. Both heroes are cousins of Columcille, and they begin their journey for reasons which are never revealed. After an encounter with a miraculous spring, they decide to leave the fate of their journey in the hands of God, and they throw away their oars. Their adventures aren't terribly remarkable; in close parallel to the earlier tales, they come upon magical isles filled with birds, creatures, and the like. What is unusual about the story is that among the saints and biblical characters they encounter are ancient kings and mythological figures, including Merlin — who is mentioned as an equal to Patrick, and credited with helping the great saint to intercede with a wrathful God on behalf of Ireland.