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.

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