The Voyage of Bran
Immram Brain (maic Febail) (The Voyage of Bran (son of Febail)) is a medieval Irish narrative. The content derives from Irish mythology, but was written in the 8th century. Some Irish tale-lists categorise the tale as an Echtra ("Adventure"), but it contains the essential elements of an Immram, or "Voyage". It may have influenced the later story of Saint Brendan's voyage. The concept of "voyage" has been widely used across the world in that time. While this specific set comes from Ireland, it can be tied to some Scandinavian tales as well as other tales told on what is now the United Kingdom. In one rendition, this text has been recorded by Seamus Mac Mathuna.
Bran mac Febail (modern spelling: Bran mac Feabhail) embarks upon a quest to the Otherworld. One day while Bran is walking, he hears beautiful music, so beautiful, in fact, that it lulls him to sleep. Upon awakening, he sees a beautiful silver branch in white bloom in front of him. He returns to his royal house, and while his company is there, an Otherworld woman appears, and sings to him a poem about the land where the branch had grown. In the song, she identifies the branch to be from an apple tree in Emain, another part of Ireland. In this Otherworld, it is always summer, there is no want of food or water, no sickness or despair ever touches the perfect people, and there is no unhappiness or "no rough or harsh voice." She tells Bran to voyage to the Land of Women across the sea, and the next day he gathers a company of nine men to do so. Each of his foster brothers were put in charge of a group of three men.
After two days, he sees a man on a chariot speeding towards him. The man is Manannan mac Lir, and he tells Bran that he is not sailing upon the ocean, but upon a flowery plain. He also reveals to Bran that there are many men riding in chariots, but that they are invisible. He tells Bran of how he is to beget his son in Ireland, and that his son will become a great warrior. He follows by prophesying the life of the boy and how Manannan mac Lir will be a teacher and a father to him.
Bran leaves Manannan mac Lir, and comes to the Isle of Joy. All the people upon the Isle of Joy laugh and stare at him, but will not answer his calls. When Bran sends a man ashore to see what the matter is, the man starts to laugh and gape just like the others. Bran leaves him and sails farther.
He then reaches the Land of Women, but is hesitant to go ashore. However, the leader of the women throws a magical clew (ball of yarn) at him which sticks to his hand. She then pulls the boat to shore, and each man pairs off with a woman, Bran with the leader. There were three times nine "couches" available for all of them.
For what seems to be one year, although it is in actuality many more, the men feast happily in the Land of Women until Nechtan Mac Collbran feels homesickness stir within him. The leader of the women is reluctant to let them go, and warns them not to step upon the shores of Ireland and to get back the man they left on the Island of Joy.
Bran and his company sail back to Ireland. The people that have gathered on the shores to meet him do not recognize his name except in their legends. Nechtan Mac Collbran, upset, jumps off the boat onto the land. Immediately, Nechtan Mac Collbran turns to ashes.
Bran and his company relate the rest of their story to the Irish, and then sail across the sea, never to be seen again.
The Voyage of Bran was first written down in the late 7th century to early 8th century.
The poem shares similar themes and elements with other Irish immrama, such as The Voyage of Brendan and The Voyage of Mael Duin, both written in early to mid-900. For example, Bran, Brendan and Mael Duin each encounter a holy island where the inhabitants live quiet, blissful lives. Bran is told of a tree with holy birds that all sing at the same time, which is similar to what Brendan encounters in his voyage. The stories are also similar in that at one point, one of the travellers is exorcised or left behind on an island, either by free will or as punishment for a sin.
The Voyage of Bran may also be compared to the Welsh text Branwen Daughter of Llŷr from the Mabinogi. The parallels are not along the lines of plot, as with The Voyage of Brendan and The Voyage of Mael Duin, but rather in the names of characters. As Patrick K. Ford writes, both the title character Branwen and her brother Bendigeidfran’s names include the element bran (the -fran of Bendigeidfran is a mutated form), connecting them with the Bran from The Voyage of Bran. Along with their brother Manawydan, Branwen and Bendigeidfran are the children of Llŷr, the Welsh word for ‘sea,’ and cognate with the Irish word lir in Manannan mac Lir.
Structurally, The Voyage of Bran is a combination of poetry and prose, with many short stanzas punctuated by longer, prose narration. These prose narrations are known as Narrative Envelopes.
Parallels with The Voyage of Máel Dúin
The Voyage of Bran has many parallels to The Voyage of Máel Dúin.
- In paragraph 61, Bran and company visit the "Island of Joy." After being sent by Bran to investigate the island, one of Bran's men will not speak to the crew, only gaping at them, just like the inhabitants of the island. The man is then abandoned and left on the island. Similarly in chapter 31, of The Voyage of Máel Dúin, one of Máel Dúin's men is sent to investigate, cannot stop laughing , loses the ability to recognize his crew, and is eventually left behind.
- In paragraph 62, Bran and company reach the "Island of Women." There, they are welcomed by many women, fed well, and one of the women uses a ball of yarn in order to magically ensnare Bran. In chapter 28 of The Voyage of Máel Dúin, the crew reaches an island that is home to seventeen women, who are hospitable to them. When they try to leave, one of the women throws a ball of yarn that magically clings to Diurán's hand.
- In paragraph 65, one of Bran's men jumps from the coracle after having been magically at sea for hundreds of years. Upon touching dry soil, he is turned into ash. In chapter 11 of The Voyage of Máel Dúin, one of the foster brothers tries to steal a necklet and is burnt to ash by a magical cat.
- Dublin, RIA, Lebor na hUidre, pp. 121a-24 (originally, f. 78). Diplomatic edition: 10088-10112.
- Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson B 512, f. 119al-120b2 (originally, f. 71–72).
- Dublin, RIA MS 23 N 10, pp. 56–61.
- London, British Museum, MS Egerton 88, f. 11b (col. 2) – 12a and f. 13a (cols. 1–2).
- London, British Museum, MS Harleian 5280, f. 43a-44b.
- Stockholm, Royal Library, MS Vitterhet Engelsk II, f. 1b-4.
- London, British Museum, Add. 35090.
- Dublin, TCD, MS H 4.22, f. 48b17-50a6 and f. 40–53. Incomplete.
- Dublin, TCD, Yellow Book of Lecan (=H 2.16, MS 1318). Cols. 395–398.
Editions and translations
- Mac Mathúna, Séamus (ed. and tr.). Bran's Journey to the Land of Women. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1985. Edition (html) available from CELT.
- Murphy, Gerard (ed.). "Manannán, God of the Sea, Describes his Kingdom to Bran and Predicts the Birth of Mongán." In Early Irish lyrics, eighth to twelfth century, ed. Gerard Murphy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956. pp. 92–100. The poem "Caíni amra laisin m-Bran" as preserved in MS 23 N 10. Edition available from CELT.
- Hamel, A.G. van (ed.). Immrama. Mediaeval and Modern Irish 10. Dublin, 1941.
- Meyer, Kuno and Alfred Nutt (ed. and tr.). The Voyage of Bran son of Febal to the land of the living. 2 vols. London, 1895–1897. PDFs available at Internet Archive.
- Ford, Patrick K. (ed. and tr.). "Branwen Daughter of Llŷr." The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 57–59.
- Oskamp, HPA (1970). The Voyage of Máel Dúin. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff Publishing. pp. 101–179.
- Mac Mathúna, Séamus (1985). Immram Brain - Bran's Journey into the Land of the Women. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.
- Carey, John. "Bran son of Febal and Brân son of Llyr." In Ireland and Wales in the Middle Ages, ed. Karen Jankulak and Jonathan M. Wooding. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007. 168-79.
- Carney, James. "The earliest Bran material." In Latin Script and Letters AD 400–900. Festschrift presented to Ludwig Bieler on the occasion of his 70th birthday, ed. J.J. O'Meara and Bernd Naumann. Leiden, 1976. 174-93. Reproduced in The otherworld voyage in early Irish literature. An anthology of criticism, ed. Jonathan M. Wooding. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000. 73–90.
- Hull, Vernam E. "A passage in Imram Brain." ZCP 28 (1960–61): 256–7.
- Hull, Vernam E. "An incomplete version of the Imram Brain and four stories concerning Mongan." ZCP 18 (1930): 409–19.
- Mac Cana, Proinsias. "The sinless otherworld of Immram Brain." In The otherworld voyage in early Irish literature. An anthology of criticism, ed. Jonathan M. Wooding. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000. 52–72.
- Mac Cana, Proinsias. "On the 'prehistory' of Immram Brain." Ériu 26 (1975): 33–52.
- Mac Cana, Proinsias. "Mongán Mac Fiachna and Immram Brain." Ériu 23 (1972): 104–42.