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Literature / The Voyage of Bran mac Febail

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The men asked them who they were that were coming over the sea. And Bran said: "I am Bran, son of Febal". And the other said: "We know no such man, though the voyage of Bran is in our very old stories."

The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal is a medieval Irish legendary narrative, relating an Irishman's expedition into the western Otherworld. It may be as old as the 7th century and belongs to the oldest stratum of Irish mythological literature.

Prince Bran is alone near his fort when he hears a beautiful music but cannot find out where it is coming from. Eventually it lulls him to sleep, and when wakes he finds besides him a branch of silver. Returned to the fort, the court is admiring the miraculous branch, when a strange, beautiful woman appears and reveals in a song that the branch is only a sample from the land of Emain, the Land of Women. Emain, the mysterious lady says, is a lush, beautiful island in the western sea where there is always summer, there is neither death nor sickness, and life consists of nothing but feasting and entertainment. She calls upon Bran to voyage to Emain, then vanishes into thin air.

The very next day, Bran assembles a crew of twenty-seven and embarks to look for the land the woman spoke of. Two days west of Ireland, they are met by Manannan Mac Lir, the god of the sea, riding on the sea in a chariot, revealing they have reached the domains of the immortals.

After a wayside adventure with an enchanted island, they reach the Land of Women, which is everything the lady promised. The sea-farers are entertained by the women of Emain, eating from magic dishes that never get empty. After the feast, Bran learns the Queen has already prepared his bed in her bed, and her companions likewise pair off with Bran's twenty-six crewmen.

After an entire year spent in this way, Bran's friend Nechtan gets homesick, and persuades Bran to sail back. The Queen is unwilling to let them go, but as she cannot talk them out of it, she only warns them not to step on the soil of Ireland.

As the voyagers approach Ireland, they see people on the shore and talk to them. But the people only remember a legend that Bran mac Febail disappeared at sea centuries ago. Nechtan jumps onto the strand, and crumbles into a heap of dust. From aboard the ship, Bran and his comrades tell their story to the people on the land, then turn back to the west, never to be seen again.

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Tropes in The Voyage of Bran:

  • No Immortal Inertia: As he touches the soil of Ireland, Nechtan crumbles into dust, "the same as if he had been in the earth through hundreds of years."
  • The Promised Land: The island of Emain, a.k.a. Tir inna mban, the Land of Women, where sickness, age and death don't exist, and food, drink, and love are free for all.
  • Rapid Aging: Nechtan ages, dies and dissolves in the blink of an eye.
  • There's No Place Like Home: With all of Emain's wonders, Nechtan seems to feel this way.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: "It seemed a year to them that they were there,—it chanced to be many years."
  • Walk on Water: Two days and two nights after sailing from Ireland, Bran and his companions meet Manannán mac Lir riding in a chariot on the sea. Manannán explains to Bran and his crew that what to them is the sea, is to him the land of Mag Mell ("Plain of Joy"); where Bran sees only the surface of the sea, Manannán sees a lush plain filled with flowers.