Having been so blessed as to attend a Catholic high school that put an emphasis on studying the humanities, particularly the classic literature of Western civilization, I was introduced early to Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid and became quickly enthralled by the fantastic voyages of the heroes of the Trojan War and their many colorful adventures. However, I was not aware until recently that a Christian counterpart to these extraordinary nautical sagas exists in the account of the fabled journeys of St. Brendan the Navigator.
St. Brendan, whose feast is celebrated on May 16, is venerated by Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christians as the special patron of sailors. His deeds are shrouded in legend and little is known for certain about the details of his life. He is thought to have been born in the year 484 in County Kerry, Ireland. By age twenty-six, he was ordained a priest. He is listed as one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland” who studied under St. Finnian at the monastic school of Clonard Abbey. He seems to have been a traveler from early on in his career, founding several monasteries across northwestern Europe.
Despite these impressive achievements, St. Brendan is probably best remembered for his supposed voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the earthly paradise known as the “Isle of the Blessed” (or “Saint Brendan’s Island”) as recounted in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), a work which probably dates to sometime in the eighth century. In the Navigatio, Brendan sets out west across the sea with over a dozen fellow monks. On their voyage, they discover many lands and meet an assortment of delightfully interesting people and creatures.
In one particularly memorable episode, St. Brendan encounters the sea monster Jasconius. Because of the creature’s immense size, the abbot and his companions at first mistake the giant fish for an island. They disembark and make camp, celebrating Easter Mass on Jasconius’s back before their campfire rouses the slumbering beast. Terrified, the monks beat a hasty retreat back to their ship and sail away. The image of a great sea beast mistaken for an island has endured in Western art and literature probably because the legend of Brendan’s encounter, along with other similar incidents, were often illustrated in medieval bestiaries.
Whether true or not, the story of St. Brendan’s voyage captured the medieval imagination and was preserved for centuries. By the time of Christopher Columbus, Saint Brendan’s Island already appeared on many maps, although its precise geographical location was a matter of some debate. The legend has even given rise to modern theories that St. Brendan, or a similar Irish seafarer, was the first European to reach the Americas, centuries before Columbus or the Vikings—although there is little hard evidence to substantiate this idea.
While some have tried to identify real-world locations as the fantastic isles mentioned in the Navigatio, many scholars argue that this distracts from the true allegorical purpose of the tale. For medieval readers, the historicity of the Navigatio was less important than its spiritual content—a metaphorical representation of the soul’s journey of salvation. The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot is one example of an entire genre of Celtic literature, the immram—a class of Christian legends concerning a hero’s voyage west across the sea to an Eden-like paradise, a land of perpetual youth, abundance, and happiness. These stories may have been attempts to Christianize the pagan traditions of the Celtic “Otherworld” or Avalon. Their influence can even be seen in the modern fantasy genre, particularly in the Undying Land of Valinor depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece The Silmarillion.
Today, you often can find the Navigatio collected among other hagiographies of the period. The legend of St. Brendan is well worth reading, not simply for the entertainment value of the saint’s various adventures, or for its historic interest as an influential contribution to medieval Christian literature, but as a spiritual meditation on the Christian life. As St. Brendan knew quite well, we are pilgrims in this world, journeying toward our eternal home, where we shall rise to new life with Christ.