The Voyage of Bran is an immram tale from the late seventh or early eighth century. It was likely a source of inspiration for later imramma, including the immram of Brendan. It is a short text with a mixture of poetry and prose. The body of the story is written in prose and the substantial sections of poetry are reserved for the voices of spiritual beings. There are two such characters in the story: a mysterious and unnamed woman and Manannán Mac Lir. Manannán is undoubtedly the Celtic sea god who ruled an island paradise, protected sailors, and gave immortality to the other gods through his magical pigs. The mysterious woman appears to be one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, though she could equally be an angel, and the text does not specify. As we will see in this story, the difference between the gods of old and the Christian angels can, at times, be ambiguous.
This story is interesting because it is both Christian and pagan and the dynamic between those two elements can shed a great deal of light onto how the early Celtic Christians integrated their new faith with their own ancient tradition. In pre-Christian Celtic mythology there is often a sense that the gods are not that different from you and I. They fall in love, get jealous, go to war, and can even be defeated. In the stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann which survie today, the gods were defeated by the Milesians (human beings who later became known as the Irish) and driven underground.
The gods of old were not omnipotent, omnipresent, or omniscient. If one wanted to categorise them in Christian terms, they seem more like creatures than creators. For many early Christians who were still fully immersed in their indigenous polytheistic cultures, understanding the old gods as angels and/or demons made perfect sense. And so, as one reads the Voyage of Bran, one is left with a sense that in some fashion, the old gods are still as present as they always were, in the sea and in the hills. They now speak of Christ and of the one ultimate source of all that is and is not, the Christian God who is the uncreated creator of all.
The story starts out with Bran hearing sweet music while he was walking around his property. At first he could not tell where the music came from. Every time he turned around to look for it, he could still hear it playing behind him. Eventually the sweet music lulled him to sleep. When he awoke from his slumber, there was a branch from a tree made of silver with white blossoms dangling from it. This magical tree branch was the source of the sweet music, the blossoms ringing like bells. He picked up the branch and gathered together his friends who were nearby. They went into his house and were surprised to find a strangely dressed woman they did not know sitting on the floor. The mysterious woman began to recite a poem and she said,
“A branch of the apple tree from Emain I bring, like those one knows; Twigs of white silver are on it, crystal brows with blossoms. There is a distant isle, around which sea horses glisten…An ancient tree there is with blossoms, on which birds call to the Hours.`Tis in harmony it is their want to call together every Hour.”
The birds singing the monastic hours appears to be a reference to angels, as it was in the immram of Brendan, it is also one of the main themes of my upcoming book Psalter of the Birds. Just as the tree of life is in the centre of Eden, there is also a tree in the centre of this holy island. It seems that the mysterious woman, who appeared with the music of the silver branch that Bran found, brought with her a token of this tree where birds sing the liturgy. The angels of heaven are always making music. It is the music of the spheres which reverberates through the universe creating and sustaining the cosmos. The will of God is made manifest through this sacred song and it is the same song which birds sing in praise of the rising sun.
What could this woman be, who carries with her a piece of the tree of life, other than an angel? Perhaps she is herself one of the birds in paradise who changed form and visited Bran to invite him on his sacred journey. After describing the apple tree and the angelic birds who live there, the mysterious woman continues to describe the island which she now calls Emne by saying,
“Many-shaped Emne by the sea, whether it be near, whether it be far, in which are many thousands of women in unique and varied clothing, which the clear sea encircles. If he has heard the voice of the music, the chorus of the little birds from the very gentle land, a small band of women will come from a height to the plain of sport in which he is.”
If a person makes their way to this island of paradise and has heard the music of the heavenly choirs, then the women of the island will come to greet them. In this immram the island of women is the paradise which the voyagers seek. The way this particular immram speaks of the island of women is different from some of the others. Instead of being an island of temptation which lures the spiritual seeker away from heaven, in this story paradise is inhabited by beautiful and generous women.
This sounds more like the way Oisin would describe paradise than how Patrick would, you can read about that story HERE. It seems the Christian emphasis on virginity as the true path to holiness had not influenced this story in quite the same way. Yet, even with a more liberal view of human sexuality, this story still shows itself to be Christian. The poem of the mysterious woman shifts gears from musical birds and beautiful women to a description of Christ.
“A great birth will come after ages, that will not be in a lofty place. The son of a woman whose mate will not be known. He will seize the rule of the many thousands. A rule without beginning, without end. He has created the world so that it is perfect. Whose are earth and sea. Woe to he under the unwill of Mary’s son. Tis he that made the heavens, happy he that has a white heart. He will purify hosts under pure water. Tis he that will heal your sickness.”
This little discourse on Christ speaks to the Christian path of salvation. We can return to Eden by the healing which Christ offers. The world was created in perfection but human beings have lost their way. The one who has a pure heart will be in right relationship with God and the one who does not will be purified under water (baptism) so that Christ may heal their sickness. The journey to Eden is one of healing and the waters of the sea are going to wash Bran clean of his spiritual illnesses. It is a baptism in the ocean which will prepare him to approach paradise.
After giving this little sermon in poetic form, the mysterious woman warned Bran not to let his drunkenness overcome him. She encouraged him not to be lazy and lay around in bed but rather to get up right away and begin a voyage across the clear sea. Because if he does, she told him, he may well reach the land of women. After saying these things she disappeared and no one could tell where she went. As she was vanishing the silver branch in Bran’s hand lept out of his grip and into the hand of the angel as she disappeared. He tried his best to hold onto it but he was not strong enough. All traces of his encounter with the angelic slipped away into nothingness.
First thing in the morning, Bran gathered together a group of friends to set out in search of paradise. He organised the people into three groups of nine and they set off into the sea. After two days of travel they saw a man in a chariot driving towards them on the surface of the sea. The man introduced himself as Manannán mac Lir. When the sea god reached Bran and his entourage he introduced himself and then began to recite a poem.
His poem begins by describing the way he and his people perceive the ocean around them. For Bran they were surrounded on all sides by waves but for Manannán they were in a beautiful meadow filled with many fragrant flowers. From the perspective of Bran salmon leap out of the womb of the white foamed sea but for Manannán they were actually lambs prancing about in the flowers. Most importantly, while Bran could only see Manannán there was in actuality a large host of Manannán’s company on horseback surrounding them. Manannán described the people around him to Bran like this,
“The size of the plain, the number of the host, colours glisten with pure glory. A fair stream of silver, cloths of gold, afford a welcome with all abundance. A game, most delightful, they play sitting at the luxurious wine. Men and gentle women under a bush without sin, without crime…We are from the beginning of creation without old age, without consummation of earth. Hence we expect not that there should be frailty. The sin has not come to us.”
Once again, we see an older and more liberal view of sexuality here. To be under a bush was a common euphamism for having sex. The fact that the Tuatha Dé Danann had playful sex with one another without it being a sin or a crime is important because for many early Christians sex and the division of humanity into gender was a consequence of the fall from Eden. But here, in this story, there is a different view. It seems that, according to Manannán, the fair people who live in Eden without old age or sickness also have a sexuality which is untouched by sin or crime. In the untouched island of paradise, the original perfection in which they were created remains uncorrupted and so sexuality has not become a source of sin for them.
Manannán then goes on to describe how the sin which affected Adam in Eden did not reach his people. The curse of Adam is one of mortals – those who can see only the crashing waves and not the rich kingdom which is truly there. It is, indeed, the curse of Adam which darkens the inner eyes of human beings and prevents them from seeing the angelic worlds present in the natural elements. The sea is filled with dancing and music and we are blind to it.
Manannán then explained how he had his own spiritual journey to undergo. As Bran and his entourage were passing into the realm of the angels, Manannán was making a journey in the opposite direction to meet with a woman who would bear his son. We do not have the space here to go into Manannán’s journey but it is worth noting that just as we can journey to the spiritual world, so can the angels journey to ours. The veil which separates heaven and earth is nothing more than a shadow over the eyes of the human race.
Manannán ended his poem by encouraging Bran to continue onwards because it was not much farther to the land of women with all the different colours of their hospitality. Bran needed only to continue forward and he would reach his destination before sunset that day. And so Bran continued onwards and came upon an island filled with laughter. The people of the island were so engulfed in their joking and laughter that Bran could not have a conversation with any of them. He decided to send someone in to investigate and report back to him. The man was caught under the same spell of laughter and could no longer be reasoned with. Bran and his friends tried shouting at the man who went to the island but he would not respond to anyone. Eventually they counted him as a loss and left him there.
Laughter was often seen as a sign of frivolity in ancient times. If one does not take life seriously and is always laughing at everyone else, they can easily go astray. This should not be understood as meaning that life should be full of misery without any joy but rather as a warning that too much laughter can become irresponsibility.
Those who truly wish to pass through the sea and find the island of paradise, frivolous pursuits and mindless entertainment will always be an obstacle. While joy and laughter can be wonderful medicines, they can also become a distraction from the true work of healing the inner condition. Those who become lost in a constant desire for entertainment and never take life seriously become mindless and unable to communicate with those who wish to pursue Eden.
It was not long after that they reached the Land of Women. While they were still in their boat just off the shore of the island, the chief of the women of paradise called out to Bran and invited him to land his boat. Bran was afraid to land there after having lost one of his fellow travellers on the last island they visited.
The chief of the women threw a ball of yarn towards Bran, just above his head. Bran reached up above himself and caught it in his hand. As soon as the ball of yarn was in his palm, it clung to it as if it was glued in place and Bran could not let it go. The chief woman still had the end of the yarn in her hand and she used it to pull Bran and his boat to the shore.
When they landed on the shore of Eden, the chief of paradise led them all to a house with many rooms which had been prepared for them. There were three sets of nine rooms, each with its own bed for them to lie in and there were three sets of nine angelic women to be coupled with each of the men in Bran’s entourage.
There was still a place prepared for the man who was left on the island of laughter and he could have laid there if he had not been lost along the way. They were also given a table with a beautiful feast and no matter how much they ate the food never disappeared. Every one of them found their food and drink was especially tailored to their own taste and preferences. They stayed there for what felt like a year until they eventually grew homesick and decided to head back.
The chief woman of paradise warned them that if they wanted to return home they should not set foot on the soil of Ireland and that they should stop by the island of laughter to pick up the man they had left behind. With these instructions in mind they set sail for home. When they arrived back to the land of mortals some people on the shore shouted to them and asked who they were. Bran told them his name and they said they knew not of anyone living by that name but said that the Voyage of Bran was one of their ancient stories passed down through the generations.
At that time one of Bran’s companions leapt out of the coracle and onto the land. As soon as he touched the ground he turned to a pile of ashes as if he had been dead for many centuries. Their stay in paradise had felt like only one year but during that time hundreds of years had passed in the land of mortals. The story ends with these final words:
“Thereupon to the people of the gathering Bran told all his wanderings from the beginning until that time. And he wrote these quatrains in Ogam, and then bade them farewell. And from that hour his wanderings are not known.”
Do you think the old gods are the same as angels and demons?
If you found yourself in paradise would you become homesick after a while?
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