Imramha | Searching for God

The Voyage of Bran, as told by the Queen of the Isle of Women

The new priests came to Ireland, preaching their foreign stories of a single God, and we were curious, but not afraid. We did not see the danger in their words until it was too late. They blamed the women for all sin in the world, and the serpent for planting the seed of that sin in their heads.

That was how they sought to remove all power from us, and also from the Druids, for were they not known as serpents in symbolic terms?

I wondered if these men, for all their asceticism and sermons of abstinance and hellfire, were more than men, if they were beyond the enticement and wiles of a woman of the Sidhe. So I tested them, and found they were not.

I went to Bran, a Christian holy man, in a dream. I told him of my beautiful home in the Otherworld, and I invited him there. The very next day, he set out  with a handful of companions in a frail coracle on his dangerous quest west across the sea to find me.

Find me he did. But on his return, the story he told differed much from mine. In truth, he acted of his own free will. But his tale tells of enchantment and deceit, and thus passed into common knowledge.


“It was not long thereafter when they reached the Land of Women. They saw the leader of the women at the port. Said the chief of the women: ‘Come hither on land; O Bran son of Febal! Welcome is thy advent!’ Bran did not venture to go on shore. The woman throws a ball of thread to Bran straight over his face. Bran put his hand on the ball, which clave to his palm. The thread of the ball was in the woman’s hand, and she pulled the coracle towards the port. Thereupon they went into a large house, in which was a bed for every couple, even thrice nine beds. The food that was put on every dish vanished not from them. It seemed a year to them that they were there,–it chanced  to be many years.”

quote from sacredtexts


He wronged me, and I wept tears enough to fill a lake. But Manannán said it was my own folly, and the inevitable reward which comes of consorting with mortals.

Yet although they despised us, and preached against us, still through the ages they came seeking us.



Imramha. 

These are the sea voyages made by early Irish saints and holy men into the Otherworld. Imram (sing.) is an Old Irish word meaning, quite literally, ‘rowing about’. It should be noted that the Imramha focus on the journey, rather than what happens when they arrive.

But it seems strange to me; why would the saints be at all interested in visiting the Otherworld, land of pagan Gods? Perhaps they sought to convert the very Gods themselves and build churches there. Were they looking for the Garden of Eden?

Imramha should not be confused with Echtrae, in which pagan heroes also traveled to the Otherworld, but which focus rather on the adventures which befall them once they arrive, instead of the actual journey itself.

Again, what were they doing there? The Otherworld was associated with the pagan Gods and the dead, according to popular current belief; were they attempting to defy death and cheat the Gods by venturing into their realm?

Not quite.

The Otherworld was the realm of the Sidhe, a supernatural race descended from the Tuatha de Danann. To mortal men, who did not understand them, their strange powers seemed God-like.

The Otherworld itself was ruled by Manannán, known as the Sea God, and thought to have been a deity who was around long before the Danann invasion. His kingdom consisted of many islands which lay somewhere out to sea, west of Ireland, ‘beyond the ninth wave’.

In Manannán’s land,  people were all impossibly beautiful, lived long lives of ease and plenty, never growing ill, and it was summertime all year round. This was certainly not a land of the dead, but of the ‘Ever Living Ones’.

According to legend, Bran was going about his business when he found a silver branch with white blossom. It’s music lulled him to sleep. He took it back to his hall, where a beautiful woman appeared and sang fifty quatrains (that’s a long song!) about her home in the Otherworld, and invited him to join her. Then she disappeared, taking the silver branch with her against his will.

The very next day he assembled twenty seven companions and they set sail in a coracle to find the woman… sorry, I meant the silver branch, of course. This gave him the excuse… sorry, a valid reason to go after her. 😁

After several adventures along the way, including meeting the great Manannán himself, he eventually found his way to the Isle of Women. Each of the men paired off with a woman, Bran with the women’s leader, and for a year they all lived there very happily, until one of them, Nechtan, began to feel homesick for Ireland and his family.

Eventually,  the sickness spread, and as the Irish always do, wherever in the world they are, they all began to long for home. Bran’s ‘wife’ was very sad to see them go, and warned that no part of them should touch Eire’s soil.

As they approached Ireland’s familiar shores, a crowd of people came to meet them. They were puzzled, for the only Bran they knew of existed only in their ancient legends.

Nechtan jumped out of the coracle and was instantly turned to ash. Sadly, Bran told his story, and the company sailed away, never to be seen or heard of again.

So Bran’s desire for a woman from the Otherworld ended in tragedy and disaster. Perhaps this was their punishment for consorting with Otherworld women, and a lesson to all Christian men. It bears a similarity with the story of Oisin, son of the mighty Fionn mac Cumhail.

Legend claims Oisin left Ireland for love of Niamh, and went with her to live in the magical realms. He thought he was there only three years, but on his return home, he found three hundred years had passed. Niamh had warned him not to dismount his horse, but he accidentally fell, instantly transforming into a very old man, and died.

There can be no doubt that to the early Christian monks, the pagan Otherworld must have sounded incredibly like they imagined the Garden of Eden, or maybe even heaven. As far as we can ascertain, the ancient Irish people believed that the Otherworld was real, and could be accessed through water (usually lakes), or over water by sailing west (the elusive Hy-Brasil being the most famous and most sought-after of these islands), or by entering via the doorway in the roots of certain magical hawthorn trees, or by wandering into fog (the Faeth Fiadha, created by Manannán’s magic cloak of invisibility).

A monk listening to these stories, which were regaled as fact, and believed in by the masses, might have been tempted to go see for himself if this mysterious land existed. Monks would often go on holy pilgrimages, looking for deserted islands on which to live a hermit’s life, and pray, and receive enlightenment. Bran’s voyage may simply have been an extension of that.

It is thought that originally, there were seven imramha tales, but only three of them now survive; The Voyage of Mael Dúin, The Voyage of the Uí Chorra, and The Voyage of Snedgus and Mac Riagla.  The Voyage of St. Brendan was written around AD 900, so it is later in origin than the other tales.

The Voyage of Bran is sometimes classed as an echtrae as well as an imram,  because it tells what happened when he reached his destination. Interestingly, Bran’s story seems to contain less Christian doctrine than the others, so perhaps it could be based on a much older pagan story from the oral tradition, now lost.

The much loved Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis is said to be a modern imram. Today’s fantasy novels usually involve a long journey for their protagonist, which is a modern take on this very ancient tradition, although most authors aren’t aware of it. Which just goes to show no story is truly original.


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52 Comments on “Imramha | Searching for God

  1. Good old women-bashing again. That is certainly a Christian habit. A boatload of men going out looking for fun then having twinges of remorse—they were meant to be holy men after all—so they blame the wicked women for enchanting them. Typical.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re a great story teller, Ali. You certainly draw me into these myths and legions. “He wronged me, and I wept tears enough to fill a lake” – what a great line.
    All of this always takes me back to watching ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ for some reason.

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  3. I love a quest!!! and though the stories often end sadly it is the idea of them that beckons and shines. Finding eden or the garden is a life long quest that has taken so many forms -Tir na nog, shangri-la – all part of our longing but I fear if we do arrive our mortal eyes miss it as we see through the glass darkly (origina sin or as Buddhists say clouded by desire) !! I love the connection of Bran’s voyage with the story of Oisin! Wonderful post Ali!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The legend of Oisin makes me wonder if my local supermarket is an anti-magical realm. I go there with my wife and it seems like 300 years have past, but it turns out to be only 30 minutes.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. People do get into a tizzy in the comments, don’t they Ali. I think your post most enjoyable and the pictures it paints delightful. I’m so utterly ignorant of this whole area it’s like watching an artist create a picture from pots if paints – I’d love to be able to do so but I don’t have the first clue where to start.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hi Ali just writing to thank you for all your interpretations of myths and legends especially over yule tide. I have really enjoyed reading them. I wonder if you have already done a version or plan to do one of The Tain? Growing up with 2000AD and Slaine I have always loved reading the source materials and do not think it matters that so many of our traditional tales have the same themes/plots/characters reused by different races and religions through the ages. In fact that is probably what makes them so appealing and timeless as each age puts its own stamp and twists into the story. I look forward to reading your take on the arthurian legends. Thanks again

    Matt

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    • Hi Matt, nice to meet you! Thanks for your lovely comment.I have wondered about the Tain, but you know, there seem to be quite a lot of retellings out there already. I like to bring out some of the lesser known myths, because there are so many wonderful stories to share. Having said that, one of my projects for this year is to retell all three of The Three Sorrows of Ireland, which includes the Children of Lir, and that is just about the most popular well known Irish myth you can get! Hopefully I will be able to put it back in its proper context with this project, I hope so anyway. I think you’re right; there is plenty of scope for storytellers to re-use and adapt our old stories, although I think that has led to the confusion and the different variations we have aquired over the centuries… its a bit like that game we used to play as kids called Chinese Whispers, do you remember that? And interestingly, it was my love of Arthurian legend which brought me to Irish mythology, believe it or not. It was my Dad who got me interested in that as a child, and also in archaeology. My favourite Arthurian story only plays a very small part in the overall saga, its the story of Tristan and Iseult. Do you know it? She was an Irish princess, and rumour has it she was brought back to Ireland to be buried in a place which is now called Chapelizod, named after her (Isolde)… well, I’m just going to have to go there! My husband says I wont find anything, but that doesn’t matter; its just nice to remember. I will do my best to continue to try and interest you in my stories and the myths! btw, I have written a couple of posts comparing Arthur with Fionn mac Cumhall, if you’re interested.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow Ali I have been diving into your back catalogue and I am blown away by your wonderful stories. I agree with your theory that Arthur is based on Fionn and that The Mists of Avalon is one of the best versions. Not only a great read but it opens up some new ideas on the struggle for religious dominace. Another version I like is Bernard Cornwell’s warlord series again not written from Arthur’s view point it would make a better TV series than The Last Kingdom. I was also disappointed with Game of Thrones as a reading experience luckily the TV version has scaled back the character’s and it will be interesting to see how both versions progress. With your exciting tales of Fionn and your knack for creating a real life atmosphere (I want to Believe ) you could be sitting on the next big thing. I for one will be immersing myself in your work and I may be some time. Just before I go may I recommend the Boudica series by Manda Scott I expect you already know them but if not I think you would enjoy them all. Thanks in advance for the hours of pleasure I will have exploring Your Ireland.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Gosh I am delighted you are enjoying the site so much! You made my day! 😊 Thanks for the book recommendations, my head has been stuck in Irish mythology stories for so long, I haven’t really read any Arthur stories for a while. I like the sound of the Boudicca series. I can see you love reading… do you write as well?

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          • No just a reader and an avid fan of quality drama series on TV I think they are the new movie’s and they get people talking about plot twists and characters the way we all used to when there were only 4 channels to watch

            Liked by 1 person

            • Haha! Those were the days! We may have multiple channels these days but not everything on them is worth viewing.

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        • Yes, it was thanks to my Dad really. He loved all the old Arthurian tales, and that got me hooked too. But I only discovered Irish myths after I moved here, and they fascinate me most. 😊

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          • I discovered the Arthurian tales by myself when I decided I wanted to know the origin of so many fantasy stories, when I was a teenager. I don’t even remember when and how my fascination with Ireland began…

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  7. So many things to cover.

    1. awesome post.

    2. How far is the 9th wave? Do you know? I’m wondering if it’s far enough to be America – the reason I say that, is the Giants that lived there. They were said to “live forever” although many died here (shrug)

    3. Reminds me of the nephilim and annunaki obvs! But I would say that. They too were said to live forever – or at least long enough for it to seem like forever to us mere humans.

    Like Noah and what’s his face (Moses?) from the bible who lived for like 1000 years. Could conceivably been seen as forever to someone who at that time could only live 30-50 years.

    4. Also turned to ash – like they had died – or lived a considerably long time and when they came back they couldn’t live ‘here’ any more –
    I’ll tell u why that’s relevant

    5. It is said that the annunaki can’t survive here for as long as they can on Nibiru, their home planet. Like half the life span – it’s darker there and has less radiation. Part of the reason they don’t stay here for long. So I can see connections all over the place.

    6. Silver branch – any chance it could bring people back to life? Like the ankh in Egyptian myth.

    7. There’s a Sumerian God called Marduk – son of Enki – which is also known in Greek mythology as Poseidon – and there’s your connection to the sea….. OHHHH man someone needs to write a book about all these connections! 😋

    8. Could reach the other world through water… Or through Marduk the water God?

    I have no idea whether any of this is true or if the connections are accurate. But, it’s sure as shit interesting.

    Wicked post 😍

    Liked by 3 people

  8. i love how you tell the Irish mythology thank you. I love visiting Glendaloch where St. Kevin was a hermit in his cave. The story says that he threw a pagan woman out of his cave for tempting him but in reality it was the Goddess Brigid and they stayed together and lived a happy and knowledge seeking life.

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  9. Reading the old stories from you Ali is like having a song sung. Everything told in a lilting accent and with the emphasis placed on the old beliefs pre the Christian invasion. I wonder who amongst the Christians has the power to step in and with one word stop a war as a Druid would have been able to.I wonder if the world will ever see the like of the Sidhe again so that new stories can be woven.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks David. I do love the old stories. And talking about their beliefs isn’t intended as ‘Christian-bashing’, though sadly I think some people take it that way. Their beliefs were fundamental to the way they lived, and I find it fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. And I would suggest Gilgamesh and Abraham, for as the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy says, if people sat around and didn’t travel, nothing much would happen.

    Liked by 2 people

    • And the Irish are still fond of going out into the world even today, though they leave their hearts behind. There are prolific Irish communities all around the globe. Talk to any Irish person and they are likely to have spent at least a part of their life living abroad. I think they have restless adventurous souls.

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  11. “Why did the Saints set out on imramha?” Perhaps because in Ireland the delineation between ‘saint’ and ‘druid’ was not quite what we have been led to believe.

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    • Led to believe by who? The Christians wrote down these stories themselves, so we can only go off how they defined themselves and the Druids. They didn’t seem to like them much. However, it’s quite possible that the early Irish people saw a Christian holy man in the same role as one of their Druids. And if my own experience (not extensive, I admit) is anything to go by, there seem to be many similarities between early Christian ceremonies and pagan ones. They were certainly closer to the natural world, as an example. Whether this was genuine or contrived to convince the pagans to convert, we can’t say. We weren’t there.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Quite true, There is no word in the gaelic language for saint because, well it didnt exist. So a similar word, Naomh which means holy waas used. Which is why the big lie or at least misleading about Patrick came to pass. Officially never Canonized by the Vatican, yet he is still considered a saint all over the world?
        Did our ancestors see these early christian priests as similar to the druids? One can only speculate.
        They may have been naive to this new religion but, history shows that the church in Ireland was quite different to that of Rome. Makes you wonder whom was assimilated?

        Liked by 1 person

        • We can do slightly better than speculation. See the book reference in the comment below. Here is a quotation… ‘the filid were not unworthy. What they believed in was the immortality of the spirit; what they pursued was philosophy; and what they practised was the revelation in art of the spirit’s freedom, how it is not bounded by the forms through which it passes. All of this is prior to Christianity; in fact it is druidism; and it is the heart and soul of druidism, not its peripheral trapping. In one of the great demonstrations of the breadth and brilliance of the human mind Irish druidism was reborn as Christianity; and despite the exertions of Latin-Christian enthusiasts who included some gifted writers, it was never afterwards expunged from the Irish speaking culture.’…

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      • Led to believe by most of the scholarly commentaries on the texts. It is more than possible that the early Irish people saw simply Holy Men without necessarily distinguishing their faith. The fact that the ‘Christians’ saw fit to write the stories down is interesting don’t you think. If there had been so much antagonism wouldn’t they have simply substituted their own stories… The book you really need to read if you can overcome your natural abhorrence of the title is ‘the Christian Druids’ by John Minahane. It’s subtitle is ‘On the filid or philosopher poets of Ireland’. It is a work of high genius and comes very close to expounding what precisely the poet’s and bards of Ireland were really up to…

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        • I don’t have an antagonism towards the Christians, Stuart. Its quite possible that the ancient people did see all holy men in one role. I don’t dispute that. But one scholarly work is as good/ bad as another when it comes down to it; it’s guesswork. We can think what we like and make educated guesses, but we’ll never know. We weren’t there. So how can you say this book explains what the bards were really up to? That’s your opinion.

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