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Literature / The Voyage of Máel Dúin

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Máel Dúin and the Silver Pillar

The Voyage of Máel Dúin (Immram Maele Dúin) is a medieval Irish mythological romance from around the late 10th century or older. The original consists of both prose and verse parts. The name of the hero may also be spelled as Maelduin, Maeldune, Maildun, or Mailduin.

The warrior Ailill Ochair Aghra, a noble of the clan Eóganacht of Ninus, partakes in a raid on another clan's territory. On this raid, he rapes a young prioress. Not long after, Ailill is killed by a band of pirates. The prioress gives birth to a boy. As it is not appropriate for a nun to raise a child, the boy is adopted by the local king and queen, who raise him as one of their own sons.

When the boy, Máel Dúin, is a teenager, he learns that the king and the queen are not his real parents. He leaves to meet his father's family, who joyfully receive him. Before long it occurs to Máel Dúin that it is his duty to avenge his father.

With a ship and crew, Máel Dúin goes after the pirates and tracks down their island base. Revenge seems close at hand, when a storm arises, casting the seafarers far off into the unknown Western Ocean. A most extraordinary odyssey awaits Máel Dúin and his companions.

The Voyage of Máel Dúin is an immram or sea-voyage, a religiously toned genre specific to Irish mythology which tells of sailing expeditions into the otherworldly reaches that supposedly lie west of Ireland. Immrama involve adventures with enchanted islands and encounters with bizarre creatures, phenomena that defy the laws of nature, supernatural people, wise hermits, and much much more.

Various translations and adaptions of The Voyage of Máel Dúin exist, although several of them have omitted the detail that Máel Dúin is born of a rape, thereby creating plotholes and obscuring the philosophical themes of the tale.

You can read this work online as a non-bowdlerized prose translation, a bowdlerized translation with verses, or retold for children by Joseph Jacobs. Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Voyage of Maeldune" is a loose adaptation of the romance.

Compare The Voyage of St. Brendan.


  • Big Creepy-Crawlies: The first island seen by the voyagers after leaving the pirate island is overrun by giant ants, "each of them the size of a foal". At the approach of the ship, the ants gather at the strand and even try to swim toward the ship, making the voyagers flee in terror.
  • Bowdlerize:
    • The translation by P. W. Joyce and the retelling by Joseph Jacobs omit that Máel Dúin is the product of a rape. This loses the finer points of the original, namely, that Ailill was no better than the pirates that killed him, and that Máel Dúin's perceived duty to avenge his father to restore the family honor is rather questionable to begin with.
    • The P. W. Joyce translation describes the voyagers being feasted by the island queen and her daughters before going "to sleep on soft couches till the morning". The original text makes clear that Máel Dúin and his companions sleep with the queen and her daughters respectively, and continue to do so during their entire stay on the island. The same detail is omitted in Jacobs' child-friendly version. Both Joyce and Jacobs also omit that right upon their arrival on the island, the daughters of the queen prepare a bath for the voyagers, presumably because it is slightly too sexual.
  • Child by Rape: Máel Dúin owes his existence to a wartime rape.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: Each of the two times the seafarers make land at the island of the pirates, they can hear the pirates talk about exactly what they need to know: The first time, the pirates just happen to mention the time when they killed Ailill Ochair Aghra; the second time, they are just discussing how they would react if Máel Dúin happened to turn up right now ...
  • Forgiveness: When Máel Dúin finally finds his way back to Ireland and returns to the pirate fort, he forgives the men who killed his father.
  • Gene Hunting: Máel Dúin, who is the son of a nun and the nobleman Ailill who raped her, is raised by a local king and queen as their son. When Máel Dúin is a young adult, he learns that he is adopted, and insists on learning the truth about his birth parents. When his birth mother, the nun, tells him who his father was, and also that he has been killed in a pirate raid many years ago, Máel Dúin travels to meet Ailill's family (who live in another kingdom), and is welcomed with open arms. Máel Dúin lives with them happily for a while, until it occurs to him that it is his duty to avenge his father, and he gathers a warband to track down the pirates who killed Ailill.
  • Giant Flyer: At the island of the magical lake, the voyagers see a bird so large they initially think it's a cloud, and which carries in its beak a twig as large as an oak tree.
  • Isle of Giant Horrors:
    • Exploring island no. 5, the voyagers discover a large plain with many hoof marks, and each mark is "as large as the sail of a ship". They also see nut shells of unusual size and a lot of "plunder". They become scared and go back to their ship; as they sail away, they observe a crowd of gigantic people approaching the island over the sea, who proceed to put on a horse-race (with equally gigantic horses) on the island. There is no explanation for these happenings, except that the voyagers feel sure that the giants are demons, and accordingly make off as fast as they can.
    • The voyagers refrain from landing on several islands they discover because the islands are occupied by large monsters whose behavior suggests that they want to eat the voyagers. On island no. 4, there is a huge creature looking like a horse with claws; on island no. 8, there is a bizarre "twisting beast" fenced in by a stone wall going around the island; both of these monsters hurl stones at the voyagers as they are leaving. There is also an island with hungry giant ants, and one with hostile giants who forge iron, and who try to sink them with a mass of glowing iron.
  • Fountain of Youth: The giant bird they meet on the island of the magical lake rejuvenates itself by bathing in the lake. Diuran the Rhymer tries it too and is permanently rejuvenated.
  • Karmic Death: Under attack by a band of sea-raiders, Ailill Aca Ocar takes refuge in a church, but the raiders burn the church with him inside. This detail is a hint that Ailill's death was a divine punishment for the rape of the prioress: That the house of God fails to protect Ailill suggests that God denies him protection; the raiders do not respect the sanctity of the building, just as Ailill did not respect the sanctity of the prioress.
  • Killer Rabbit: The Palace of the Kitten is only inhabited by a playful kitten. But when one of Máel Dúin's companions tries to steal a necklace from the treasure piled up in the palace, the kitten jumps at him and burns him into a heap of ashes in a matter of seconds. Then it goes right back to his play.
  • Monstrous Cannibalism: Island no. 8 is populated by large horse-like animals who rend out pieces of flesh from each other's flanks, "so that out of their sides streams of crimson blood were breaking, and thereof the ground was full". The voyagers flee in terror at the sight.
  • Miracle Food: On the island of the four precious walls (no. 16), the voyagers are catered for by a maiden who gives them an unknown kind of food which looks like cheese, but tastes like whatever food one likes best ("whatever taste was pleasing to anyone he would find it therein").
  • Our Monsters Are Weird: On their voyage, Máel Dúin and his crew meet giant ants, a monstrous dog-horse hybrid, and herds of carnivorous horses and burning pigs; but none of the creatures they encounter is more bizarre than the Twisting Beast of island #9—a huge monster "with a hide like an elephant" that spends his time alternately running in circles and engaging in some really strange exercises:
    He turned round and round in his leathery skin;
    His bones and his flesh and his sinews he rolled—
    He was resting outside while he twisted within!

    Then, changing his practice with marvellous skill,
    His carcase stood rigid and round went his hide;
    It whirled round his bones like the wheel of a mill—
    He was resting within while he twisted outside!

    Next, standing quite near on a green little hill,
    After galloping round in the very same track,
    While the skin of his belly stood perfectly still,
    Like a millstone he twisted the skin of his back!
  • Revenge: Máel Dúin sets out to sea to avenge his father. Things do not go as smoothly as planned.
  • Talking Animal: Island no. 18 is discovered by the voyagers when they hear voices and the chanting of psalms, and follow the sound until they see a rock-like island full of talking birds. A little later they land on another small island where an immortal hermit lives with a swarm of birds which, he explains, are the souls of his relatives and descendants who have died back in Ireland. This suggests that all the talking birds are actually human souls awaiting the Last Judgement.
  • There's No Place Like Home: The voyagers discover an island ruled by a queen who invites them into her palace and straightaway takes Máel Dúin as her lover and sets up his seventeen companions with her own seventeen daughters. She also reveals that on her island there is no old age, and that they will live an eternal life of pleasure in her palace as long as they stay on the island. After spending three months on the queen's island, Máel Dúin's companions want to return to Ireland. At first Máel Dúin objects on the grounds that their life in Ireland could not possibly be better than their life here; only when his companions announce that they will leave with or without him, Máel Dúin chooses to go with them, rather than to part with them. The queen does not want them to leave and prevents their departure with magic, until after nine months they outwit the queen and succeed in leaving the island.
  • Walk on Water:
    • Exploring island no. 5, the voyagers see hints that the island is a meeting place of giants, and leave in fright. Looking back, they see a crowd of demonic giants "rushing along the sea to the island".
    • The hermit from Tory relates that he took up his life of penitence because one day, on a pleasure cruise in his boat, he was blown into the open sea and encountered the spirit of a saintly monk "sitting upon the wave". The monk chastised him for his sins and enjoined him to spend the rest of his life as a hermit on a small rock in the sea.