Saint Brendan's Epic Voyage

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Saint Brendan's Epic Voyage


Saint Brendan, a Celtic monk, is sometimes credited as the first European to reach the new world. If the accounts of his travels are accurate, his journey to North America predates Leif Erikson's discovery of Vinland by 400 years and Christopher Columbus's Caribbean voyages by nearly 1,000 years.

We know very little about the life of the historical Brendan. Textual references to him begin in the seventh century. The evidence provided by these texts indicates that he was born around a.d. 489 in county Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. He was a student of Erc, the bishop of Kerry. Brendan was baptized by Erc at Turbid, near Ardfert. He was educated by Saint Ida, the "Brigid of Munster," over a period of five years. Then he completed his studies under Bishop Erc, who ordained him in 512. After he was made an abbot, he began his ministry in Ireland, and established numerous monasteries and churches throughout the country. Many topographic details in Ireland, and even as far as Brittany, bear his name. Between 512 and 530, Brendan built monastic cells at Ardfert and Shanakeel. Shanakeel, located at the bottom of Brandon Hill, became the departure point for Brendan's voyage to the "Promised Land." An influential member of the clergy, Brendan is credited with undertaking other far-ranging pilgrimages to Britain, Brittany, and the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Indeed, prior to his legendary voyage, Brendan seems to have gained a reputation as a traveler. He is credited with establishing the abbey of Llancarfan in Wales and the celebrated monastery on the remote island of Iona, located off of the northwest coast of Scotland.


There are two main sources that recount Brendan's legendary seafaring adventures. The first, Vita sancti Brendani, or Life of Saint Brendan, was first composed in Ireland in the ninth century. This document follows the fairly standardized pattern of early medieval saints' lives written in Latin. It provides significant biographical information and indicates that Brendan undertook two voyages. According to the Vita, the first voyage took five years and was an unsuccessful attempt to find a holy island that appeared to Brendan in a vision. The second successful mission took two years to complete. However, Brendan's voyages are not a focal point in Vita, but feature as relatively minor details in the life of a powerful and significant clergyman.

The second source, Navigatio Brendani, is concerned entirely with a single seven-year voyage. Scholars have determined that Navigatio is also the work of an Irish writer, and existed by the beginning of the tenth century. Navigatio does not concern itself with biographical details. Indeed, it presupposes a familiarity with the life and legend of Brendan the Saint as provided by Vita. To this extent, its structure differs significantly from Vita. The form of Navigatio most closely resembles that of the Irish immram, or "voyage-tale." The immram details a series of unrelated adventures which are linked by a sea journey undertaken by a heroic adventurer. The format of an immram is similar to that of Homer's Odyssey.


The social conditions of the early medieval period were not particularly sympathetic to voyages of discovery. However, in at least one of the distant points of European civilization, religious and missionary zeal allowed for considerable exploration. The Irish, converted to Christianity through the course of the fourth and fifth centuries, had developed a complex monastic culture. Numerous isolated convents were scatted across the island, where the religious led an ascetic lifestyle far from the lure of earthly temptations. Irish clerics devoted themselves to the translation and copying of texts and to missionary pilgrimages. These clerics also traveled to the numerous isolated and nearly inaccessible islands scattered around the British Isles in order to construct isolated monasteries or solitary cells (small religious houses).

These clerics achieved daring seafaring feats along a particularly rocky coast in small boats known as curraghs. These boats, about 30 feet (9 m) in length, featured wooden frames that were covered with leather hides sewn together into a single covering. Like the longboats of the Vikings, these boats flexed with the ocean, which allowed for fast sailing.

Early medieval monks traveled widely in these ships. The celebrated monastery of Iona, located on a desolate island off the northwest coast of Scotland, was founded in 563 by a group of monks led by Brendan, who had sailed from Ireland in a curragh. Monks used these seemingly unstable ships to undertake pilgrimages throughout the British Isles. By the end of the ninth century, groups of Irish monks had traveled as far as France and Iceland.

The Scandinavians were the most powerful naval force in Europe between the ninth and twelfth centuries. At different times, the Viking empire extended as far as Sicily in the south, as far as Russia in the east, and as far as Greenland and the mysterious Vinland in the west. The Vikings installed a base in Greenland in the tenth century, and began the ambitious exploration of the farthest reaches of the west Atlantic. But documents such as the Navigatio indicate that the Scandinavians were not the first to conquer the grim tempests of the north Atlantic.

When the Vikings arrived in Iceland in 870, they encountered a community of Irish monks, who they referred to as papars. The word papar was the Norse word for "fathers," directly referring to the colonization of Iceland by Irish monks. Indeed, many place names along the southeast coast of Iceland still incorporate the word papar. The Landnamabok, or Book of Settlements, a twelfth-century Icelandic text, describes the result of these early encounters between isolated Irish monks and the Norsemen. Shortly after the Norse arrival, these Irish monks, distraught at the prospect of sharing their land with heathens, fled in their boats, leaving behind books, bells, and crosiers (a staff carried by a bishop as a symbol of office).

The work of Dicuil, a monk writing in the ninth century during the time of Charlemagne, also demonstrates the feasibility of travel between Ireland and Iceland by medieval monks. Dicuil indicates that Irish monks were traveling regularly to an island so far north that, during the summer, the sun never set. This information seems to refer to an island like Iceland located in the far northern latitudes.

We know that Irish monks traveled considerable distances in their curraghs. But did they cross the Atlantic? Navigatio indicates that monks were aware of distant lands, and their desire to achieve a distance from worldly temptations serves as a viable motive for cross-Atlantic journeys. Indeed, while Vita indicates that Brendan's voyage was the result of a mystical vision, Navigatio presents a different motive for the trip. In Navigatio, Brendan hears of an earthly paradise which the hermit Barintus encountered on a sea voyage he undertook in order to find Mernoc, his godson. Mernoc, the text recounts, lived with a group of other monks on this distant paradise.

Interpretations of the accuracy of Navigatio sancti Brendani vary considerably. To some, the tale is too readily apparent as a Christianized version of an immram, an Irish tale of a fantastic ocean voyage. There are numerous parallels that link the Latin account of Brendan's voyage with, among others, the Celtic Voyage of Mael Duin, a text written in Gaelic. The Christian emphasis of Brendan's journey is secularized in Voyage of Mael Duin, but the islands described by both texts are virtually identical.

Navigatio features an odd mixture of realistic and fantastic details concerning the natural world. Unlike contemporaneous documents which detail the lives of saints, neither Vita nor Navigatio attribute any miracles to Brendan. Instead, Brendan is portrayed as a shrewd leader and skillful adventurer. In this sense, Brendan is similar to Odysseus. He never displays fear in the face of danger, and is certain that God will lead his ship successfully to its destination.

On one hand, the text of Navigatio is clearly allegorical. Many of the characters are flat and appear for a single purpose. For example, Brendan allows three latecomers to accompany his team of monks on the voyage, each of whom perishes because of sin. Likewise, the monks' adventures are unified through their religious and dogmatic purpose. Each adventure serves as an exemplum which demonstrates the crew's progressive development of trust in God. The crew visits three "places" three times: the Island of Sheep, the Island of Birds, and Jasconius, the largest fish of the ocean. At first, the monks are astounded by the flocks of talking birds and frightened when they realize that the island on which they have landed is actually a whale. But as they repeat this cycle, they gain the confidence in God's plan which marks Brendan's temperament. Furthermore, they pass by Hell and witness the punishment of Judas. Brendan commands the demons who administer Judas's punishment, demonstrating the true power of righteousness. The heavily Christian emphasis of these and other repeated motifs echoes that found in Celtic immrams as well as in the Latin classics familiar to medieval monks.

However, a recent voyage sheds new light on the realistic accuracy of accounts of Brendan's voyage. In 1976, Tim Severin and his crew recreated Brendan's voyage. Their success indicates that Brendan's voyage, which likely was from Ireland to Newfoundland, was possible. Severin reconstructed a leather ship using techniques described in Navigatio. His passage took him along the "stepping stone" route which crosses the North Atlantic. This route is still used by modern ships and planes, and may have also been used by Lief Ericson in his tenth-century journey to Vinland.

Severin found numerous correspondences between the seemingly fantastic details recounted in Navigatio and daily occurrences on his transatlantic journey. For example, their leather ship, named, quite fittingly, the Brendan, was frequently surrounded by schools of curious whales. Their appearance and reappearance parallels the monks' repeated adventures on the back of Jasconius, the biggest fish in the ocean. Indeed, the fairly simple, natural explanations for the fantastic details that characterize this narrative indicate that Navigatio is, more than likely, based on fact.


Further Reading

Benedeit. Anglo-Norman Voyage of St Brendan. Edited by Ian Short and Brian Merrilees. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979.

Bouet, Pierre. Le Fantastique dans la Littérature Latine du Moyen Age: La Navigation de Saint Brendan. Caen: Centre de Publications de l'Université de Caen, 1986.

Ohler, Norbert. The Medieval Traveller. trans. by Caroline Hillier. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1989.

O'Meara, John.The Voyage of Saint Brendan. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1978.

Severin, Tim. The Brendan Voyage. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.

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Saint Brendan's Epic Voyage

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Saint Brendan's Epic Voyage