Otherworld inversions in ‘The Voyage of Bran’

The Old Irish (circa 8thC CE) literary account of the tale of a fairy woman’s invitation to hero Bran mac Febail to visit the otherworld ‘Isle of Women’ (Tír na mBan) is one of the most important containing an appearance by the enigmatic character of Manannán mac Lir (also referred to as Moninnán in the text), who was in the tale described as the Lord of the Otherworld and later also supposed to have been the Irish ‘god of the sea’, or even the founding and protector god of the Isle of Man.

In the first part of the story, an otherworld woman appears unbidden in the fortress of a legendary king named Bran Mac Febal. She bears a silver apple branch laden with blossoms which she says comes from a tree in the otherworld and hands it to Bran before reciting an ‘aisling’-style visionary account of the otherworld which inspires him to set out in search of it. This account tells how this world consists of a great island (or islands) in the west and hints that it is a mirror-reflection of our world. She predicts the liminal moment in his voyage at which he will see Manannán and at which point he will know he has arrived in the Otherworld (Kuno Meyer translation):

 At sunrise   there will come
   A fair man illumining level lands;
   He rides upon the fair sea-washed plain,
   He stirs the ocean till it is blood.

The liminal point of ‘sunrise’ is actually here the sunset of the corporal world, and she alludes to this in her description of the sea turning to ‘blood’, with the reddening sunset. It is probable that the reddening of the sea was interpreted as a figurative indication of the host of the dead going beneath the waves into the inverted Otherworld.

In the second part of the narrative (dealing with the journey), the following stanzas describe the actual moment when Bran is met and addressed by Manannán ,who rides across the waves on a chariot accompanied by a host of souls who Bran cannot see (i.e. – conducting the dead into the land beneath the waves):

Bran deems it a wondrous pleasure to travel in his coracle over a clear sea, while for me, the chariot in which I am is driving from afar over a flowery plain.

What is clear sea for the prowed ship in which Bran is, is a many flowered Mag Meall for me in a two-wheeled chariot.

Over a clear sea Bran beholds many breaking waves. I myself behold flawless red-topped flowers on Mag Mon.

Sea horses glisten in summer throughout the prospects which Bran can roam with his eye. Flowers pour forth a stream of honey in the land of Manannán mac Lir.

The sheen of the sea on which you are, the brightness of the ocean over which you voyage: it has strewn forth yellow and green; it is solid earth.

Speckled salmon leap from the womb of the white sea which you behold: they are calves, they are lovely lambs…

… Though you should see but a single chariot-rider on the many-flowered Mag Meall, on its bosom, besides him, are many steeds which you do not see.

(Translation from Early Irish Lyrics by Gerard Murphy, 2007 reprint of the 1956 first edition; I also refer the reader to the Kuno Meyer transaltions which are available online.)

By contrasting the great plain of the sea, with the great plain of his otherworld domains of Mag Meall (Honeyed Plain) or Mag Mon (Plain of ?Sports/?Delights), Manannán draws Bran (and the reader) into the Otherworld in a smooth transition that eases across the boundary between both worlds almost imperceptibly. The ensuing descriptions he gives tell of the feasting and beauty of the fairy inhabitants of this place.

    The sea, of course, is where the sun appears to Atlantic peoples to descend into in the west every day, and for this reason, Manannán is therefore depicted in this tale as the lord of the parallel world of the afterlife, where sea is land and vice versa.

 This otherworld is named in the poem (either in whole or in its part) by various names, including: Emain, Emne, Ciúin, Aircthech, Mag Findargat, Mag Argatnél, Mag Réin, Mag Mon, Mag Meal, Ildathach and Tír mBan. The diversity of names used in Celtic tales of the otherworld sometimes suggests it to be more of a western archipelago, reflecting that of the eastern Atlantic seaboard: Ireland, Britain and the Hebrides etc. However, by ascribing many names to one idea gives a special status to something magical – an indefinability that prevents its overthrow by literality. This represents the struggle between oral pagan tradition and literary Christian absolutism.

The themes of conflict between the pagan and the Christian are bubbling just below the surface throughout the poetry and prose of the ‘Voyage of Bran’. When the ‘fairy woman’ or Manannán holds the stage, they give a very persuasive account of the spirits of the otherworld, who are said to be without original sin and full of virtue. There is no indication that the Christian scribe(s) and interpreters of the tale and its poetic stanzas are seeking to Christianise the otherworld – the ultimate goal is to consign it to history, or to the world of fantasy and story:

Once the author or scribe finishes dealing with the pagan and fairy themes, the poetic stanzas go on to address christian themes of the afterlife almost as if the transcriber of the pre-historic oral versions is guilty about such content. An interlineal note in one of the surviving manuscripts of the tale even contains a supplication to the christian god: arca fuin dom Dia – ‘I ask forgiveness of my God’. The style is therefore the same as in the ‘Lament of the Sentuine Berri’, which similarly descends into expressions of Christian scribal anxieties over the apparently pagan content: Both pieces contain core doctrinal aspects of the two main characters at the heart of the pre-christian Atlantic religion.

Ancient Irish literature and legends are full of motifs of the masculine hero being inspired by the dreamy visions of a powerful otherworld female, who also frequently functions in such legends as the one who bestows sovereignty and male temporal power. The ‘Voyage of Bran’ is no exception, but where it is exceptional is that it deals with the less common theme of the god-like Manannán (or Moninnán). In the Voyage he seems to function as a walk-on part or herald who welcomes Bran to his kingdom and conducts him through the otherworld showing its sights and impressing upon him the ‘principle of inversion’ regarding the nature of the otherworld. When reconsidering the introductory stanzas spoken by the ‘fairy woman’ in Bran’s fortress in the human world, it is quite possible to conclude that Manannán’s masculine appearance in the otherworld is an inverted reflection of the fairy woman who inspires Bran while in the ‘Land of Men’: In the ‘Land of Women’ the Fairy woman becomes a Man! Such a principle appears to have powered a pagan understanding which balanced the importance of the role of the masculine and feminine, the living and the dead, night and day, summer and winter and so forth… It was a religious philosophy designed to seek harmony between the apparently polar forces of the universe.

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