Cover image by Herbert Arnould Olivier
The Immram Brain [maic Febail], meaning “The Voyage of Bran [son of Febail]”) is a medieval 7th to 8th century Irish mythical tale. The Irish hero Bran embarks on a journey to the Otherworld ultimately guided by a mysterious woman where he was wanting to receive greater insight into the divine. It’s part of the lost manuscript, Cín Dromma Snechtai or Lebor Dromma Snechtai, Book of Druimm Snechta. This story is a classic immram, voyage to the Otherworld. The poem shares similar themes and elements with other Irish immrama or echtra, such as Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis, the Latin work on St. Brendan’s voyage and The Voyage of Máel Dúin, both written later in early to mid-900 and possibly based on this more original famous tale. Sometimes the heroes return with gifts and sometimes they do not. The fear of being lured by magical, mysterious or fairie women or men and stuck in the Otherworld is a very common thread throughout old folklore into the present.
There is another possibly loose connection to Welsh literature in the tale of Branwen ferch Llŷr, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr from the Mabinogi. While the plot is not necessarily aligned, Manawydan fab Llŷr has an exact counterpart in Manannán mac Lir and Brân the Blessed has the hypothetical Irish counterpart in name at least. The 19th-century scholar Eugene O’Curry found a marginal note in the Book of Leinster, partly illegible, which said that the Cín was compiled by a son of Dauí, king of Connacht. O’Curry favoured Ernín, son of Dauí Galach, a nephew of Niall of the Nine Hostages, but thought that it may have been a son of Dauí Tenga Uma, a king of Connacht who died at the end of the fifth century who wrote it. Varied references to Dauí, king of Connacht may have been convoluted references to the same person given they were said to pass away in the same year of 500 and their similar name and relations.
What is interesting about Dauí Tenga Uma, known as ‘copper-tongue’ – for his beauty of his speech, is that he was listed as the great-great-great grandson of Brión mac Echach Muigmedóin the eponymous founder of his dynasty (Connacht), the older half brother of Niall Noígíallach, Niall of the Nine Hostages. That is to allude that the tale may have been a homage to their ancestral king and leader given the similar name and linguistics. This also lends further reasoning why it’s interpreted that many of these tales are pre-Christian as well, as is much of the symbolism held within.
One day, Bran went wandering about alone in his kingdom when he heard lovely music behind him. The music was so beautiful that eventually he drifted asleep. When he awoke, there was a branch of silver with white blossoms nearby to him and it was difficult to distinguish its bloom from its branches, it being all the same silvery colour. Bran took the magical branch back to his royal house. While there, a mysterious and beautiful woman appeared on the main floor of the house. She sang fifty quatrains to Bran describing from where herself and the branch derived…
‘A branch of the apple-tree from Emain
I bring, like those one knows;
Twigs of white silver are on it,
Crystal brows with blossoms.
‘There is a distant isle,
Around which sea-horses glisten:
A fair course against the white-swelling surge,
Four feet uphold it.
‘A delight of the eyes, a glorious range,
Is the plain on which the hosts hold games:
Coracle contends against chariot
In southern Mag Findargat.
‘Feet of white bronze under it
Glittering through beautiful ages.
Lovely land throughout the world’s age,
On which the many blossoms drop.
‘An ancient tree there is with blossoms,
On which birds call to the Hours.
’Tis in harmony it is their wont
To call together every Hour…
The poem and song continued where she described splendours of every colour glistening through gentle voiced plains. Joy, music and beauty were experienced there in abundance while harshness, sorrow and death were unknown. It was a beautiful land with abundant dragonstones, crystals and wealth. It was a place made of fifty distant isles in the ocean, each two or three times as large as Ireland. She also described the great birth of a boy whose father was unknown that would come and rule without beginning or end, whom made the heavens, had a white heart and purified hosts under pure water, healing all sickness. She warned Bran to not fall on a bed of sloth or let intoxication overcome him. She bid him to instead, cross the sea to the ‘land of women’ to ultimately discover its treasures and knowledge.
When she was finished her story, the branch sprang from Bran’s hand back into her own and she disappeared as mysteriously as she had arrived. Bran listened to her and the next day he went to venture out into the sea with his closest comrades. He took three companies, made up of nine men. When they had been sailing for two days and two nights, a man came towards them in a great chariot. He sang thirty quatrains and declared that he was Manannán mac Lir. He said that it was upon him to go to Ireland where a son would be born to him that would be named Mongan son of Fiachna. He continued to describe the land on the sea from whence he came. He described how he was from the beginning of creation, without old age, without sin. He described that his son he was on his way to father would be a great man who would be… a delight to the company of every fairy-knoll, darling of every goodly land and very wise. He would be the shape of every beast of both the sea and the land, a dragon and a wolf of every great forest, a stag, a salmon, a seal, a swan. He would have a short but a wondrous life of only 50 years. Then, he took his leave of Bran to continue on his journey.
Bran continued sailing and came across an island called the Island of Joy where everyone was gaping and laughing aloud. They let one man join the island to where he was immediately smiling and laughing nonstop with the others. The comrade would no longer address or talk to his fellow tribesmen on the boats but merely gape and laugh at them as the others were. Bran had no choice but to leave him there. They continued onward where they reached the Land of Women. The chief of the women said ‘Come hither on land; O Bran son of Febal! Welcome is thy advent!’ Bran didn’t wish to venture there and repeat his comrade’s mistake of being stuck, but the woman threw a ball of thread to his face which he instinctively clutched with his hand. The ball would not leave his palm and the woman slowly pulled the coracle towards their port leaving them no choice but to join the island. They went to a large house where there was a bed for every couple and the delicious food never ran out.
To them it seemed that only a year had passed but eventually home sickness seized one of them, Necktan son of Collbran. He begged Bran to sail home with him for a visit. The chief woman of the island agreed but warned them not to touch foot on land. They arrived back to Bran’s homeland to which he called out to people on the shore. He said ‘I am Bran, the son of Febal.’ A man on the shore replied ‘We do not know such a one, though the Voyage of Bran is one of our ancient stories.’ Necktan on hearing this, went into a panic and ignored the woman’s advice. He leapt from the coracle and in doing so, as soon as his feet touched the earth of Ireland, he became a heap of ashes as if though he had been on the earth for many hundred years.
Bran declared then all of his wanderings to the people gathered there, wrote these quatrains of the story in Ogham and bade them all farewell, returning to the mysterious sea, Otherworld and perceived as the blessed land of Tír na nÓg.
The largest but yet hypothetical symbolism held here within is in regards to the Irish belief in the Otherworld or Tír na nÓg being linked with the sea as well as references to the pre-Christian god Manannán mac Lir. There is the subtle symbology in the number nine representing wisdom and being linked in as a multiple of the number three as well, another sacred number. There is a subtle reference to shapeshifting, innate esoteric knowledge within the creation of demi-gods (such as Cú Chulainn) in yet another instance where Manannán, a god, would go on to have a child with a human. Manannán prophesized and knew his son’s entire life from beginning to his end, which is also referenced in other pseudo historical Irish texts, which describe his murder on the Isle of Islay in Scotland by Britons or Picts. The apple (crab apple) was as much a divine and sustenance giving plant, symbolic of wisdom and the Otherworld in Irish tradition as it was in other neighboring cultures such as the Greeks. Encounters with the Otherworld in the past as well as present are often considered to be ‘out of time’ and in a place where time moves much more slowly than it does here. Indeed, according to people that make ‘out of body’ journeys even today will often say that one minute in the Otherworld is often hours here. In essence, each human life is a very quick occurrence for our soul’s overall journey and only once in the Otherworld are we able to put this in context and perspective.
The apple or apple branch was also a classic ‘gift’ from the divine, ultimately a symbol of change in Bran’s way of perceiving the world and gaining Otherworldly knowledge. The women in the tale were initiators of the journey as well as testers which is common throughout Irish literature. Testers, as in testing and measuring to see if any particular warrior was ‘worthy’ and would heed their warning and usually if they did not, the outcome was bad, such as when Necktan perished and disappeared. The belief in reincarnation would still lend that he still continued onward but to somewhere else, in some other form. In essence, women were often guides, laying the framework for morality and honor in particular. It’s also meaningful that Bran was bid to venture to the ‘land of women’ where he would only know happiness and that in particular stands starkly in contrast to Christian principles of the time. This was also a tale of the call to adventure, the call of longing, to expansiveness of our ‘selves’ through growth that is ever calling, no matter how much we have ‘achieved’ already. We are constantly edged forward in progress of our intellect and understanding of the divine, ourselves and our earth. Ultimately, Bran had accomplished much in his life, became a hero and the only thing left to do was be immortalized in his death, his departure and his final journey towards the divine Otherworld, a destination of singular beauty, happiness and love. His sacrifice may have also been a final hero’s journey in that his story and his brief return offered proof of the existence of the Otherworld and everlasting life after death to his descendants. There may be missing context in regards to other varied literature concerning Bran but this was singularly, reflections on this text in particular as a stand alone text.
- Meyer, Kuno. The Voyage of Bran. 1895. (https://archive.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/vob/vob02.htm)