Saint Brendan’s Voyage

Saint Brendan the Navigator (484-577 A.D.) is the patron saint of boaters, mariners, travelers, whales, portaging canoes, elderly adventurers and two Irish dioceses, Kerry and Clonfert.  His feast day is celebrated on May 16.  Brendan is chiefly renowned for his legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed.  It is recorded he took two voyages; the first unsuccessful, the second (565–573 A.D.) is recorded as The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot. 

Brendan was born in County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in the west of Ireland.  When he was one, he was handed over to the care of the nun, Ita, when she lived at the foot of Mount Luachra. Ita of Killeedy was known as the “Brigid of Munster” and sometimes called “the white sun of the women of Munster.”  She was a skilled organizer, herbalist, and teacher. Brendan remained with her until he was seven. He regarded Ita as his foster mother and treated her with reverence and affection. He came to her for advice and guidance throughout his life.  One story states that after his first five years of wanderings, Brendan returned to Ireland and went to see Ita. “O my beloved,” she said, “wherefore hast thou tried without my counsel? Thou wilt not gain the Land of Promise borne in the hides of dead beasts. Thou wilt find it in a ship made of boards.” He went to Connaught, built a wooden ship, and embarked on his famous voyage. 

According to Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, Brendan was in his seventies when he and 17 other monks set out on a westward voyage in a curragh, a wood-framed boat covered in sewn ox-hides. The Irish monks sailed about the North Atlantic for seven years.  One of his companions is said to have been Saint Malo, the namesake of the historic port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany, France.  The idea to sail in search of the promised land of the saints came from Barinth, the abbot of Drumcullen, a distant relative of Brendan’s. Barinth told him about a wonderful isle, a place where there was no hunger, thirst, or darkness.  Brendan was determined to find it. There were 13 voyagers (12 original apostles, plus 1) and Brendan. At the last minute three other monks begged to be taken along.  Brendan consented, but predicted that while one of them would come to a good end, the two others would perish miserably.

The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot is one of several wonder-voyages or sea tales of the Irish known as the “Immrama.”  These voyage stories describe the hero’s series of seafaring adventures.  Besides Brendan’s tale, four others have come down to us:  the Voyage of Bran, the Voyage of Mael Duin, the Voyage of the Boat of Ui Corra, and the Voyage of Snedgus and MacRiagla. Unlike the Voyage of Bran, where alluring women figure prominently, Brendan and his crew do not encounter any females on their trip. Not one. Only men and boys—very monk-like. 

During the Dark Ages (500-1000 AD), Irish monks ventured across Europe and into the North Atlantic in pursuit of spiritual and religious missions.  They reached the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Faeroe Islands.  They may have even reached Iceland.  Was it faith that made them step into a boat and hope they would find the Isle of the Blessed; or did they have prior knowledge of lands to the West from Scandinavians or others?  It’s possible that fishing boats, traders or a raiding party was blown off course during a storm and made an accidental discovery. Brendan’s voyage is part chronicle, allegory, explanation, and sea yarn. It contains a lot of mysteries, which makes it fun to try to identify different lands and creatures.  Two that particularly appeal to me are “Jasconius” and “Paul the Hermit.”

Jasconius

Jasconious is a giant sea creature that appears several times in the Voyage of Brendan the Abbot. The monks first thought Jasconius was an island, and went off to cook some fish to eat, leaving Brendan with the boat. “…and no sooner was the fire hot and the fish beginning to boil, than the island began to quake and to move like a living thing, and there was great fear on the brothers and then went back into the ship leaving the food and cauldron after them, and they saw what they took to be an island going fast through the sea, and they could notice the fire burning a long way off, that they were astonished. They asked Brendan then did he know what was the great wonder, and Brendan comforted them, and he said, “It is a great fish, the biggest of the fishes of the world, Jasconye his name is…”

Jasconius or Jasconye was most likely a Right whale but could have been a Humpback or even Sperm whale. Various cultures and ancient peoples had many legends surrounding the Leviathan, a gigantic and fearful sea creature found in the Book of Jonah in the Bible.  The Fastitocalon, a giant sea turtle, lured sailors to rest on its back, and then drowned them. In the Latin Physiologus, written in the second century AD, the creature is called an Aspidochelone.  The Christian scribe who compiled the Physiologus included plants, stones, animals and fabled, fantastic creatures, each with a moral or allegorical background. In the folklore of the Greenland Inuit, there was a similar monster called Imap Umassoursa, which also disguised itself as an island, and killed its prey by tipping over and spilling them into the sea. More likely mariners, hunters, or the curious attempted to stand on or get near the creature and were pulled down in its wake when it dove. Vikings also had many stories about giant whales or kraken monsters that would attack ships.

Paul the Hermit

Brendan finds “Paul the Hermit” living on a small circular island. Paul says he is 140 years old. For his first 30 years on the island, he was fed by an otter, who brought him a fish and firewood for cooking every three days.  For the last 60 years the hermit subsisted only on the waters of a tiny spring before the entrance to his cave home. He had no clothes except for his own hair which was long and white.  He was 50 years old when he first arrived on the island.

Brendan asked him about how he came to the island.  Paul told him his story: “For forty years I lived in the monastery of St. Patrick, and had the care of the cemetery. One day when the prior had pointed out to me the place for the burial of a deceased brother, there appeared before me an old man whom I knew not, who said, ‘Do not, brother, make the grave there, for that is the burial place of anther.’ I said, ‘Who are you, father?’ ‘Do you know know me?’ said he. ‘Am I not your abbot?’ ‘St. Patrick is my abbot,’ I said. ‘I am he,’ he said; and yesterday I departed this life and this is my burial place.’ He then pointed out to me another place, saying, “Here you will inter our deceased brother; but tell no one what I have said to you. Go down on tomorrow to the shore, and there you will find a boat that will bear you to that place where you shall await the day of your death.’ Next morning, in obedience to the directions of the abbot, I went to the place appointed, and found what he promised. I entered the boat, and rowed along for three days and nights, and then I allowed the boat to drift whither the wind drove it. On the seventh day, this rock appeared, upon which I at once landed, and I pushed off the boat with my foot, that it may return whence it came, when it cut through the waves in a rapid course to the land it had left.”

Was he deranged to push off the boat; or was he full of faith to obey his vision and abandon himself to his fate?  The story of Paul the Hermit’s relationship with the otter is similar to the tale of St. Cuthbert and the Otters. Both men had otters help and comfort them in their spiritual trials. Because of the presence of the otter, we know Paul’s island cave probably wasn’t more than a mile from land in Scotland or northern Ireland.

Is there any truth behind the story of the Voyage of Saint Brendan? Could it have really happened?  British historian and explorer Tim Severin set out to follow the legend. In 1976 Severin built a replica of Brendan’s currach. Handcrafted using traditional tools and materials, the 36-foot, two-masted boat was built of Irish ash and oak, hand-lashed together with leather throng, wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides, and sealed with wool grease.  Between May 1976 and June 1977, Severin and his crew sailed the Brendan 4,500 miles from Ireland to Newfoundland, Canada.

He sought to prove Brendan’s voyage by undertaking a similar journey following what is known as the “stepping stones” route: following trade routes to and amongst and beyond the islands of the Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland to Nova Scotia. Severin’s re-creation of the voyage helped to potentially identify many of the legendary sites in the story: the “Island of the Sheep,” the “Paradise of the Birds,” “Crystal Towers,” “mountains that hurled rocks at the voyagers,” (volcanoes) and the “Promised Land” of the saints. The patch of sea they described as being in a semi-solid state may have been ice floes and slush.

The voyage of the Irish monks across the Atlantic and back was significant for the next group of transatlantic voyagers: Norwegians. Did Irish monks reach North America in the 6th century? It appears they did, and the stories of their sea voyages inspired Norsemen to set out for new lands farther to the west. Vikings first traveled to Greenland in the 8th or 9th century; and Leif the Lucky (Leif Eriksen) established the first Viking settlement in “Vinland,” in the 10th century. Brendan the Abbot discovered the “New World” almost 1,000 years before Columbus.

The abbot, Barith, Brendan’s distant kinsman, was his inspiration to travel to the Island of the Blessed.  Barith had traveled there and returned to Ireland. Who told Abbot Barith about the fabled lands to the west? 

Read the Brendan manuscript here.

Chapter Synopsis of the Voyage

1.Barinth tells of his visit to the Isle of the Blessed, which prompts Brendan to go on his journey.

2.Brendan assembles 13 monks to accompany him.

3.They fast at three-day intervals for 40 days and visit Saint Enda for three days and three nights.

4.Three latecomers join the group. They interfere with Brendan’s sacred numbers.

5.They find an island with a dog, mysterious hospitality (no people, but food offered) and an Ethiopian devil.

6.One latecomer admits to stealing from the mysterious island; Brendan exorcises the Ethiopian devil from the latecomer; the latecomer dies and is buried.

7.They find an island with a boy who brings them bread and water.

8.They find an island with some sheep; eat some and stay for Holy Week.

9.They find the island of Jasconius, celebrate Easter Mass, and hunt whales and fish.

10.They find an island that is the “Paradise of Birds.” The birds sing psalms and praise God.

11.They find the island of the monks of Ailbe, who have magic loaves of bread, do not age, and maintain complete silence. They celebrate Christmas.

12.They undertake a long sail after Lent. They find an island with a well, and drinking the water puts them to sleep for 1-3 days, depending on the number of cups each man drank.

13.They find a sea in a semi-solid state.

14.They return to the islands of sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds. A bird prophesies that the men must continue this year-long cycle for seven years before they will be holy enough to reach the Island of the Blessed.

15.A sea monster approaches the boat, but God shifts the sea to protect the men. Another sea monster approaches, bites the first into three pieces, and leaves. The men eat the flesh from the dead creature.

16.They find an island of three choirs of monks who give them fruit, and the second latecomer remains while the others leave.

17.They find an island of grapes and stay there for 40 days.

18.They see a gryphon and bird battle.  The gryphon dies.

19.They journey to the monastery of Ailbe again for Christmas.

20.Many threatening fish circle their boat, but God protects them.

21.They find an island, but when they light a fire, the island sinks. They realize it is a whale.

22.They pass a “silver pillar wrapped in a net” in the sea.

23.They pass an island of blacksmiths who throw slag at them.

24.They find a volcano, and demons take the third newcomer down to Hell.

25.They find Judas Iscariot sitting unhappily on a cold, wet rock in the sea, and learn it is his respite from Hell for Sundays and feast days. Brendan protects Judas from the demons of Hell for one night.

26.They find an island where Paul the Hermit has lived for 60 years. He wears nothing but his hair and is fed by an otter.

27.They return to the islands of sheep, Jasconius, and the Paradise of Birds.

28.They find the Promised Land of the Saints.

29.They return home, and Brendan dies.