Tag Archives: Saint Brendan

Voyages to the Hereafter – The Navigation of St. Brendan (Second Part)

The story that was written by the poet Benedeit (12th Cent.) is the most famous version arrived to us (it was in Norman-French dialect) and tells us the incredible adventures travelers go through during their navigation: celebration of Easter on a huge fish, which at first looks like an island; meeting with angels fallen at the time of the rebellion of Lucifer against God (these had been transformed into birds); attack by a sea snake, defeated by another after having prayed to God; approach to an island with a terrible stench, which is the Hell and where evil souls are being tortured; meeting with Judas, the betrayer of Christ, who enjoys a moment of peace before returning to devils’ torments; finally, arrival at the island “where Adam had been the lord”. Brendan and his companions are allowed to see little of that wonderful place: rivers full of fish, rivers of milk, a golden mountain, gardens full of flowers, an everlasting summer. Back home, Brendan tells the wonders of his voyage and, doing so, makes holy and virtuous those who are listening to him.

Well, we have decided to present you now the main parts of the story that, considering that our work deals with the Afterlife, are the most interesting ones: the discovery of Hell and the visit of Eden.

The island of Hell (chap. 31)

The island of Hell (by Ada Natale)…they came within view of an island, which was very rugged and rocky, covered over with slag, without trees or herbage, but full of smiths’ forges. …When they had passed on further, about a stone’s cast, they heard the noise of bellows’ blowing like thunder, and the beating of sledges on the anvils and iron. Then St. Brendan armed himself all over his body with the sign of the Cross, saying: “O Lord Jesus Christ, deliver us from this malign island”. Soon after one of the inhabitants came forth to do some work… …bearing in his hand a tongs with a burning mass of the slag, of great size and intense heat, which he flung at once after the servants of Christ. But it did them no hurt, for they were protected by the sign of the Cross. It passed them at a furlong’s distance, and where it fell into the sea, it fumed up like heap of burning coals, and a great smoke arose as if from a fiery furnace. When they had passed on about a mile beyond the spot where this burning mass had fallen, all the dwellers on the island crowded down to the shore, bearing, each of them, a large mass of burning slag, which they flung, everyone in turn, after the servants of God. And then they returned to their forges, which they blew up into mighty flames, so that the whole island seemed one globe of fire, and the sea on every side boiled up and foamed, like a caldron set on a fire well supplied with fuel. All the day the brethren, even when they were no longer within view of the island, heard a loud wailing from the inhabitants thereof, and a noisome stench was perceptible at a great distance. Then St. Brendan sought to animate the courage of the brethren, saying: “Soldiers of Christ, be strong in faith unfeigned and in the armour of the Spirit, for we are now on the confines of hell. Watch, therefore, and act manfully”.

On another day there came into view a large and high mountain in the ocean, not far off, towards the north, with misty clouds about it, and a great smoke issuing from its summit, when suddenly the wind drove the boat rapidly towards the island until it almost touched the shore. The cliffs were so high they could scarce see the top, were black as coal, and upright like a wall. Here the monk, who remained of the three who followed St. Brendan from his monastery, leaped from the boat, and made his way to the foot of the cliff, wailing and crying aloud: “Woe is me! father, for I am forcibly torn away from you, and cannot return”. But the brethren, seized with a great fear, quickly drew off from the shore. And, lamenting loudly, cried unto the Lord: “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us!” St. Brendan plainly saw how the wretched man was carried off by a multitude of demons, and was already burning amongst them, and he exclaimed: “Woe is yours, unhappy man, who has made you so evil an end of your life”.

Afterwards a favourable breeze caught the boat, and drove them southwards. And as they looked back, they saw the peak of the mountain unclouded, and shooting up flames into the sky, which it drew back again to itself, so that the mountain seemed a burning pyre.

The Earthly Paradise (chap. 36-37)

The Eden (by unknown author)…At the end of forty days, towards evening, a dense cloud overshadowed them, so dark that they could scarce see one another. Then the procurator said to St. Brendan: “Do you know, father, what darkness is this?” And the saint replied that he knew not. “This darkness,” said he, “surrounds the island you have sought for seven years; you will soon see that it is the entrance to it“. And after an hour had elapsed a great light shone around them, and the boat stood by the shore. When they had disembarked, they saw a land, extensive and thickly set with trees, laden with fruits, as in the autumn season. All the time they were traversing that land, during their stay in it, no night was there, but a light always shone, like the light of the sun in the meridian, and for the forty days they viewed the land in various directions, they could not find the limits thereof.

One day, however, they carne to a large river flowing towards the middle of the land, which they could not by any means cross over. St. Brendan then said to the brethren: “We cannot cross over this river, and we must therefore remain ignorant of the size of this country”.

While they were considering this matter, a young man of resplendent features, and very handsome aspect, came to them, and joyfully embracing and addressing each of them by his own name, said: “Peace be with you, brothers, and with all who practise the peace of Christ. Blessed are they who dwell in thy house, O Lord. They shall praise Thee for ever and ever”. He then said to St. Brendan: “This is the land you have sought after for so long a time. But you could not hitherto find it, because Christ our Lord wished, first to display to you His divers mysteries in this immense ocean. Return now to the land of your birth, bearing with you as much of those fruits and of those precious stones, as your boat can carry. For the days of your earthly pilgrimage must draw to a close, when you may rest in peace among your saintly brethren. After many years this land will be made manifest to those who come after you, when days of tribulation may come upon the people of Christ. The great river you see here divides this land into two parts; and just as it appears now, teeming with ripe fruits, so does it ever remain, without any blight or shadow whatever, for light unfailing shines thereon”.

For the complete version of the Navigation of St. Brendan, one can click on: http://markjberry.blogs.com/StBrendan.pdf

E.A. – V.G.

Voyages to the Hereafter – The Navigation of St. Brendan (First Part)

At the end of the 5th Century, Ireland was reached by monasticism, a phenomenon that had developed in the Near East in the 4th Century. Since the beginning, Irish monastic spirit was characterized by an intense asceticism. The most heroic ones started to look for absolute solitude in the contemplation of God. If Eastern monks found loneliness either on top of columns or in the desert, their Irish brothers also had an immense “desert” to use: the sea. Thus, started the Peregrinatio pro Christo, that was the research of solitude in the sea. Some hermits sailed and let their ships be carried by the waves to places which the case or, even better, God’s will had chosen for them. Both large and small islands started to be populated by monastic communities.

Saint Brendan - Map of voyagesSt. Brendan was born around the end of the 5th Century in Clonfert, where he also died, and his ashes were buried in Notre-Dame-d’Aynès (a small Roman chapel rebuilt between the 14th and 15th Centuries at Conques in the Aveyron region), far from the sea. He joined the monastic life and made numerous pilgrimages by the sea, reaching Scotland, maybe Brittany, Orkney and Shetland islands. His name is linked to the foundation of various monasteries. After his death, the memory of his travels was amplified by oral tradition and mingled with legends of Celtic folklore. Between the 6th and 8th Centuries, Ireland experienced a period of great cultural splendor and artists, scholars, monks elaborated a new culture, combining elements of Antiquity and Christianity with the old Celtic world.

The Navigation of St. Brendan (a second available text is Vita Prima Sancti Brendani – First Life of St. Brendan -, whose first version dates back to 11th-12th Centuries, but it recounts another version of the voyage), if we assume that it was written in Ireland, could be dated, as for its first draft, between the 7th and the 8th Centuries. It confirms its compliance with the new faith but, at the same time, highlights some issues in regards to the tradition:

  • Paradise is important for mankind not only at the End of Time, but one needs to already find out its existence on Earth;
  • the sea, conceived by the various cultures in different ways, is “the anteroom of the Afterlife”;
  • it is by going towards the West that one will reach the Promised Land (in the Bible the Eden is instead located in the East).

This legend was written in Latin by an unknown author, probably a cleric, and spread throughout the Middle Ages. It was translated into many languages (Anglo-Norman, French, Old Provencal, Catalan, English, Dutch, various Germanic dialects and, in Italy, Venetian and Tuscan).

This literary work reminds “Imram” (an adventurous sea voyage, made by one or more heroes). This kind of literary work was appreciated by the Irish, who were so well-linked to the sea that they could properly understand all those concepts coming from classical culture, for example Aeneid and Odyssey.

Navigatio Sancti Brendani

Navigation of Saint Brendan (German manuscript)St. Brendan is shown as a monk-blacksmith, a kind of magician who knows the power of water, an animal master, etc. These few elements are enough to give us an idea of the typical hagiographic approach: each image is used to highlight the Creation and convince mankind to convert to God.

Out of the thirty-eight chapters of the Navigation, the first tells what will be Brendan’s final destination, that is the Island of the Blessed, which is described by the abbot Barinto, his host (this is typical of the literary genre of Echtrai, whose protagonists reach islands shrouded in mist, where dead souls settled down).

The next three chapters describe the preparation of the voyage, the choice of companions and the ship construction.

The giant whaleFrom chapter 5 to chapter 35 one can read about the navigation, full of events and strange encounters: Island by high cliffs, Island of the giant sheep, the great whale, the Paradise of Birds, the elders of the community of Saint Albeo, Island of blacksmiths (the Hell), Judas Iscariot, the hermit Paul (episodes where one can find similarities with Imram, the Apocalypse or medieval texts describing voyages to the Holy Land, or even with the Aeneid, the Odyssey or Germanic mythology).

Saint Brendan encounters a siren (German manuscript)Chapters 36 and 37 again describe the Island of the Blessed, while chapter 38 tells of the return home and the serene death of the Saint.

This literary work is considered to be one the sources of inspiration of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, so as to suggest some scholars that the demonology of Dante could have been also derived, even though not all, from this ancient legend (in fact, it recounts of fallen angels, that the protagonist finds in the guise of snow-white birds, perched on a tree in Paradise; these are spirits fallen but not evil, nor proud, all sins for which, for example, in the Divine Comedy Dante places them as neutral).

E.A. – V.G.