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The Popularity of the Brendan Voyage

The Popularity of the Brendan Voyage

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This essay explores the reasons for the popularity of the myth of the Brendan voyage. This examination takes into account the monastic culture of the period of its compostion, allegorical readings of the text, and the reception of the tale by some readers (e.g. Time Severin) as an embroidered account of a real journey.
This essay explores the reasons for the popularity of the myth of the Brendan voyage. This examination takes into account the monastic culture of the period of its compostion, allegorical readings of the text, and the reception of the tale by some readers (e.g. Time Severin) as an embroidered account of a real journey.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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HI3020 Myth & HistoryQ(4) Outline and discuss some of the factors that might explain the popularity of a myth like the
Voyage of Brendan
during the Middle Ages.Lecturer: Mr Robert PowellStudent: Susannah NorrisStudent Number: 106018513Submission Date: 16th December 2008
When the soul recognizes something familiar to itself in the words of an enigma, it comes tounderstand in the deeper meaning of the enigma’s words what is not familiar to itself and isthereby separated from the earth by means of earthly terminology. By approaching what italready knows, the soul comes to understand what is unknown to it. To creat allegories, thedivine thoughts are cloaked with what we know; by examining exterior language, we attain aninterior understanding.- Gregory the Great; Expostion on the Song of Songs1-2
The wide appeal of myths such as the
The Voyage of Brendan
may be traced to multiple and variedfactors relating both to context and the complex form of retelling. Dated approximately to the lateninth or early tenth century, this story of the adventures of the sixth century saint was originallywritten in a very simple, ‘culturally neutral latin idiom’
and was later translated into severalvernaculars. It is a
tour de force
of the early Irish insular church, an eschatological text renderedeven almost universally fascinating through narrative skill. Its popularity may be attributed in nosmall measure to its allegorical nature - it tells a story on both a literal and figurative level, whilealso achieving a subtle linking of the narratives. The myth hence appeals to an extensive audience;native Irish, Christian, monastic and secular, adult and child. Taking as exemplar the latin versionof 
The Voyage of Brendan
, I will in the course of this essay attempt to demonstrate how bothcontemporary considerations and factors functioning within the text may have contributed to theoverall popularity of such myths in the Middle Ages.In order to understand the widespread appeal of myths such as the
Voyage of Brendan
it isnecessary to consider some of the underpinning theological ideas of the period which informed theusual interpretative approach. Gregory the Great, in his exposition of the process of reading thewritten text, presents the Fall as Adam’s will as falling out of harmony with divine will, and asrepresenting a loss of understanding; the post-lapsarian human condition is seen to be spiritually blind and incomprehending. This view, widespread in the (early) medieval world, accepts words as
W.R.J Barron and Glynn S. Burgess, eds.,
The Voyage of St. Brendan: Representative Versions of the Legend in English Translation
, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002, p.15.
composing the link between higher reality/spiritual truth and the physical. It essentially directs thatstories should be approached from an allegorical perspective, that one must look beyond the surfacewhile using the Bible as the model or reference point of truth. This was the standard approach to thestudy of texts and myths such as the
which incorporate a crucial element of the pastoral;such tales were shaped to appeal to a wide audience so that the flock may see with their physicaleyes what they cannot see spiritually. Religious truths are thus taught through the depiction of realevents, the intent being to elevate the mind through mythical allegory. This is perhaps
crucialfactor in accounting for the popularity of such myths in the Middle Ages, and one which is particularly significant in a text as allegorically rich as the
 Though the product of a latin monastic environment, ‘…the tale is not written from the pointof view of Brendan’s community, or even, in any exclusive sense, from the point of view of theIrish church: its tone is more cosmopolitan than that of any other Irish hagiographical document.’
This is related to its incorporation of popular contemporary literary forms; here God’scommunication through the
in order to reveal the deeper 
meaning to the spiritually blind is not limited to the physical, but seems to include narratively familiar references and figures.This furthermore better allows the text to be read at a more superficial level, enhancing the popular appeal of the myth to the wider adventure story audience:
Into the Legend of St. Brendan in its several forms went many other ingredients besides Irishmyths of the ‘happy otherworld’ in the (§412) western ocean and Christian ‘visions’ of heavenand hell: much folklore that is common to all western Europe; the geographical knowledge andideas of the time, including northern - perhaps Norse and Icelandic - and very considerableoriental matter; and many literary reminisces, drawn from the Bible and from the classics, or atleast the
of Isidore of Seville
The central theme of questing, for instance, is one which speaks to all eras and ages. Within thisthere is a clear, although perhaps indirect
, classical influence in the myth, those springing mostreadily to mind being Homer’s
and Virgil’s
; Kenney has described it as ‘…the epic
James F. Kenney.
The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical 
. New York: Octagon, 1979, p.411.
James F. Kenney.‘The Legend of St Brendan’,
Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada
, 3rd series, 14 (1920), 51-67.
Cf. William F. Thrall, ‘Virgil’s
and the Irish
: Zimmer’s Theory’,
 Modern Philology
, 1917, 15, 449-74.

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