Having sailed with the wind somewhere in the region of Aquilone, they saw an island that was all full of large stones and was very filthy and there were no trees or leaves or herbs or flowers or fruits, but all was full of forges and blacksmiths; and each forge had its own blacksmith, and had all the tools that belong to the blacksmith, and burned like an intense furnace, and each one was pounding with such great power and with so much noise that, if there were not another Hell, that would have seemed to be it. And, seeing Brendan and his brethren all these things, which were so cruel and so terrifying, said Brendan to his brethren: «My brethren, this is an evil place to stay; I have great compassion for the things I see, and so there is no need to follow them if we can avoid them».
As soon as he said those words, there came a wild, very strong wind, and it brought the ship close to the island and, as it pleased God, the ship passed it by, and was saved, since the ship was as close as the stretch of a bow, and the monks could hear a huge wind and noise of hammers beating on anvils. Saint Brendan, hearing that noise, began to cross himself and said, «O Lord God, let us escape from this island, if it is your will». At once a man of that island came to them; he was old and had a very long beard; he was black and hairy like a pig, and smelled very strong. When those servants of God saw him, the man drew back immediately, and the abbot crossed himself and commended himself to God, saying, «O my sons, raise higher the sails and sail more strongly, so that we can escape from this island, because it is unwise to remain».
After he had spoken these words, soon came upon the sea shore a sore bearded old man; he held pincers and an iron shovel burning with fire and, seeing that the ship had left, threw that iron shovel after them, but as it pleased God, it didn’t reach them, but where it fell the water boiled heavily. After that they saw on the bank a great multitude of filthy men like the first one; and everyone was holding a large iron club, all burning with fire, producing a great stench. And they were throwing at them those clubs, but none reached them; but they produced a great stench, and the water boiled for three days; we saw that island also burning very fiercely, and when the brethren went away, they heard a great shout, and the noise that those foul people produced. And Saint Brendan comforted all his brethren saying: «Fear not, my children, the Lord God is and will be our help. I want you to know that we are in the regions of Hell, and this island is its belonging, and you have seen its signs, and therefore you should pray devoutly so you need not fear these things».
After these words they heard voices shouting in great pain and saying, «O Holy Father, and servant of God, pray for us poor fellows: and know that we are held in spite of ourselves and against our will; we would willingly come to you, but we cannot; it is a pain for us who were never born in the world, which is full of all possible deceit and betrayal; we are bound very tightly and we cannot see what or who holds us, so our life is always full of pain and always will be». When the brethren heard these words, they were filled with great compassion and prayed to God, that he might preserve them from those afflictions. And, looking toward the island, they saw a naked man who was taken to his torture and was hearing voices, shouting and saying, « Fire, Fire! ». And others were saying, « Water! », And they heard many other words, some much worse, and the sea water became murky and it seemed that it threw up flames and a horrible stench, and this is why the brethren were utterly dismayed, because they did not know where they were or where they were going; but with the help of God they departed from that horrible place.
Sailing for another day, to the west they saw a big mountain rising from the sea, and on that mountain there seemed to be wild animals such as dragons, lions, griffins and horrible snakes and other very ugly beasts; and from the top of that mountain a great river of water was pouring. Saint Brendan wanted to dodge that mountain, but a wind drove him to the shore, which was very high, and from that hill ran a river of vivid blood; one friar of the three left with the abbot immediately came out from the ship and began to go to the shore at the bottom of the cliffs, and when he was there, he was taken, and immediately began to cry out: «O Holy Father, for evil I walked away from your companionship; I’ve been taken and I do not know by whom or why, and I do not have the power to come back to you». Soon the brethren began to sail the ship away and, wanting to distance themselves from the port, they prayed to God saying, «O Lord God, have mercy on us sinners». The abbot too, was looking at what that monk was doing, and what was being done to him by the demons: he was being led from one torment to another with violence, and they saw him being swallowed nine times by a dragon, each time coming out of the beast from its underside. When the abbot saw that he was being so severely tortured by various torments, he said, «O son, sad are you who were ever born into this world: I believe you do deserve such suffering for your grave sins».
As soon as he had spoken thus, a wind came and brought the ship toward Austro; and sailing away, he turned back to see the island from where they had sailed, and he saw that the whole company was blazing in a great, very tall fire; the abbot and his monks, seeing this, sailed vigorously southwards, and for seven days they found nothing but sky and water.
Saint Brendan’s Sea Travels
The Navigatio Sancti Brendani is an anonymous medieval work that was widely circulated for centuries and, from the tenth century on, was translated into many languages and dialects across Europe. We know of a total of about 120 Latin manuscripts: an impressive number for this kind of narrative.
It is known that Brendanus was born in Ireland in the fifth century, was ordained a priest in 512 and later became Saint Brendan of Clonfert, also known as Brendan the Navigator. This Irish abbot is the basis of the legend told in the Navigatio.
During his life and his apostolate he travelled across the sea, sailing as far as Scotland and the northern Orkney and Shetland islands. Over time, these trips took on a mythical nature, undergoing a process of embellishment and expansion from the influence of Celtic legends that populated the rich pre-Christian culture of those places.
There is no certainty as to who the author was, or where the Navigatio was written, but for centuries the work was widely known in several languages and in some dialects, including Tuscan and Venetian. It drew on the narrative Irish genres of Imram and echtrae, which in ancient Irish literature used to tell the story of an adventurous journey, including travel stories of saints wandering to the most remote regions of the north, or even of pagan heroes who journeyed to the next world.
The Navigatio of Saint Brendan tells of the departure of the abbot himself, with some monks from his monastery, on a voyage in search of the Earthly Paradise which, after seven years of tumultuous wanderings, they eventually found on an island in the far western reaches of the world. It all began when Brendan began to feel a deep desire to know where the land of the afterlife was, and prayed to God he could visit Paradise while still living. St Brendan selected his companions and together they put to sea in search of the world of the dead, which they reached after years of sailing, encountering surreal places and enigmatic characters on the way.
Their adventures followed quickly upon each other:
They found an island with a dog and an Ethiopian Devil, then an island paradise of birds on which soul-birds were singing psalms and praying to God; they found the island of the Ailbe monks where they discovered magic leaves, and where one didn’t grow old and there was complete silence; they discovered a “coagulated” sea, and received a prophecy from a bird who told them they would travel for seven years before finding the Island of Paradise. They landed on an island with a griffin, and briefly landed on a floating island that was actually a whale. They found an island of blacksmiths and a volcano, and met an unhappy Judas sitting on a cold rock in the middle of the ocean, where he rested from the pains of hell on Sundays and festive days. They finally found the Promised Land of the Saints and returned home, where Brendan would eventually die and so return to the place he had visited in life.
The voyage takes place as a predestined path where symbols continually evoke legends and mystical-religious elements that can still be found in contemporary culture. The topoi employed in the legend include the meeting with Evil, hellish islands, indolent angels, the clash with the Zaratan – a giant sea monster that immediately brings to mind Moby Dick – and the vision of legions of humans of all ages.
The Navigatio Sancti Brendani is the oldest text of all those that recount the adventures of the sailor saint. Over the course of hundreds of years, up to the seventeenth century, it inspired numerous works, more or less faithful to the original. It remained connected on the one hand to the trend of Christian hagiographies and tales of travel to discover the afterlife and, on the other, to Celtic-inspired works of navigation, the aforementioned Imrama, that also tell of heroes who defy the sea to journey to other-worldly places.
Through its poetic and legendary content, expedients, fabulous characters, symbols, and images, this work hints at its belonging to a storytelling tradition where the narrative was passed down orally through generations , a practice common in Ireland prior to Christianization of the island. On top of this, there is the contribution of the tradition of Christian hagiography, which had flourished for centuries.
The edifying but fairytale-like and surprising nature of the book made it stand out from other works of medieval literature, and meant that it was destined, in a new world where cities were thriving again and there was a strong desire to travel, to be increasingly successful: in the twelfth century a series of translations into vernacular languages began, starting with the Anglo-Norman version by Benedict in 1121; in Italy, different accomplished versions were either faithfully generated from the Latin version, or produced by expanding and reworking the same.
Always and everywhere, from the poem of Gilgamesh to the shamanic tales, man has told of his impossible aspiration to reach the world of the afterlife and of the travels of mortal souls who descend or ascend to other worlds to reach God. This is a vast, fascinating, and still very much unexplored area of ancient culture; it is a category of the realm of the imagination that is difficult to understand but that has united men and their sensibilities throughout the centuries.
Translation by Silvia Accorrà (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)