Imramha | Searching for God
The Voyage of Bran, as told by the Queen of the Isle of Women
The new priests came to Ireland, preaching their foreign stories of a single God, and we were curious, but not afraid. We did not see the danger in their words until it was too late. They blamed the women for all sin in the world, and the serpent for planting the seed of that sin in their heads.
That was how they sought to remove all power from us, and also from the Druids, for were they not known as serpents in symbolic terms?
I wondered if these men, for all their asceticism and sermons of abstinance and hellfire, were more than men, if they were beyond the enticement and wiles of a woman of the Sidhe. So I tested them, and found they were not.
I went to Bran, a Christian holy man, in a dream. I told him of my beautiful home in the Otherworld, and I invited him there. The very next day, he set out with a handful of companions in a frail coracle on his dangerous quest west across the sea to find me.
Find me he did. But on his return, the story he told differed much from mine. In truth, he acted of his own free will. But his tale tells of enchantment and deceit, and thus passed into common knowledge.
“It was not long thereafter when they reached the Land of Women. They saw the leader of the women at the port. Said the chief of the women: ‘Come hither on land; O Bran son of Febal! Welcome is thy advent!’ Bran did not venture to go on shore. The woman throws a ball of thread to Bran straight over his face. Bran put his hand on the ball, which clave to his palm. The thread of the ball was in the woman’s hand, and she pulled the coracle towards the port. Thereupon they went into a large house, in which was a bed for every couple, even thrice nine beds. The food that was put on every dish vanished not from them. It seemed a year to them that they were there,–it chanced to be many years.”
He wronged me, and I wept tears enough to fill a lake. But Manannán said it was my own folly, and the inevitable reward which comes of consorting with mortals.
Yet although they despised us, and preached against us, still through the ages they came seeking us.
These are the sea voyages made by early Irish saints and holy men into the Otherworld. Imram (sing.) is an Old Irish word meaning, quite literally, ‘rowing about’. It should be noted that the Imramha focus on the journey, rather than what happens when they arrive.
But it seems strange to me; why would the saints be at all interested in visiting the Otherworld, land of pagan Gods? Perhaps they sought to convert the very Gods themselves and build churches there. Were they looking for the Garden of Eden?
Imramha should not be confused with Echtrae, in which pagan heroes also traveled to the Otherworld, but which focus rather on the adventures which befall them once they arrive, instead of the actual journey itself.
Again, what were they doing there? The Otherworld was associated with the pagan Gods and the dead, according to popular current belief; were they attempting to defy death and cheat the Gods by venturing into their realm?
The Otherworld was the realm of the Sidhe, a supernatural race descended from the Tuatha de Danann. To mortal men, who did not understand them, their strange powers seemed God-like.
The Otherworld itself was ruled by Manannán, known as the Sea God, and thought to have been a deity who was around long before the Danann invasion. His kingdom consisted of many islands which lay somewhere out to sea, west of Ireland, ‘beyond the ninth wave’.
In Manannán’s land, people were all impossibly beautiful, lived long lives of ease and plenty, never growing ill, and it was summertime all year round. This was certainly not a land of the dead, but of the ‘Ever Living Ones’.
According to legend, Bran was going about his business when he found a silver branch with white blossom. It’s music lulled him to sleep. He took it back to his hall, where a beautiful woman appeared and sang fifty quatrains (that’s a long song!) about her home in the Otherworld, and invited him to join her. Then she disappeared, taking the silver branch with her against his will.
The very next day he assembled twenty seven companions and they set sail in a coracle to find the woman… sorry, I meant the silver branch, of course. This gave him the excuse… sorry, a valid reason to go after her. 😁
After several adventures along the way, including meeting the great Manannán himself, he eventually found his way to the Isle of Women. Each of the men paired off with a woman, Bran with the women’s leader, and for a year they all lived there very happily, until one of them, Nechtan, began to feel homesick for Ireland and his family.
Eventually, the sickness spread, and as the Irish always do, wherever in the world they are, they all began to long for home. Bran’s ‘wife’ was very sad to see them go, and warned that no part of them should touch Eire’s soil.
As they approached Ireland’s familiar shores, a crowd of people came to meet them. They were puzzled, for the only Bran they knew of existed only in their ancient legends.
Nechtan jumped out of the coracle and was instantly turned to ash. Sadly, Bran told his story, and the company sailed away, never to be seen or heard of again.
So Bran’s desire for a woman from the Otherworld ended in tragedy and disaster. Perhaps this was their punishment for consorting with Otherworld women, and a lesson to all Christian men. It bears a similarity with the story of Oisin, son of the mighty Fionn mac Cumhail.
Legend claims Oisin left Ireland for love of Niamh, and went with her to live in the magical realms. He thought he was there only three years, but on his return home, he found three hundred years had passed. Niamh had warned him not to dismount his horse, but he accidentally fell, instantly transforming into a very old man, and died.
There can be no doubt that to the early Christian monks, the pagan Otherworld must have sounded incredibly like they imagined the Garden of Eden, or maybe even heaven. As far as we can ascertain, the ancient Irish people believed that the Otherworld was real, and could be accessed through water (usually lakes), or over water by sailing west (the elusive Hy-Brasil being the most famous and most sought-after of these islands), or by entering via the doorway in the roots of certain magical hawthorn trees, or by wandering into fog (the Faeth Fiadha, created by Manannán’s magic cloak of invisibility).
A monk listening to these stories, which were regaled as fact, and believed in by the masses, might have been tempted to go see for himself if this mysterious land existed. Monks would often go on holy pilgrimages, looking for deserted islands on which to live a hermit’s life, and pray, and receive enlightenment. Bran’s voyage may simply have been an extension of that.
It is thought that originally, there were seven imramha tales, but only three of them now survive; The Voyage of Mael Dúin, The Voyage of the Uí Chorra, and The Voyage of Snedgus and Mac Riagla. The Voyage of St. Brendan was written around AD 900, so it is later in origin than the other tales.
The Voyage of Bran is sometimes classed as an echtrae as well as an imram, because it tells what happened when he reached his destination. Interestingly, Bran’s story seems to contain less Christian doctrine than the others, so perhaps it could be based on a much older pagan story from the oral tradition, now lost.
The much loved Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis is said to be a modern imram. Today’s fantasy novels usually involve a long journey for their protagonist, which is a modern take on this very ancient tradition, although most authors aren’t aware of it. Which just goes to show no story is truly original.
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