St Brendan and the sea beasts
Brendan of Clonfert must be the most famous Irish saint after Patrick himself. Today, whereas most of the Irish saints listed in the in the reference books are hardly known, Brendan stands out, and this is entirely due to his fame as a sailor.
He is always ‘Brendan the Navigator’ — the title of an influential book about him from 1945. And thanks to many other scholars and writers over the last two centuries, what Brendan did, where he went, and what he found, are better understood than ever before.
A man of many legends, he is still an historical figure, whose dates are established: born Kerry, perhaps near Fenit on Tralee Bay, c. 484AD, and died c. 577 at Clonfert, near Portumna in Galway, where he is buried. It is the events of his life between these two dates that keep researchers occupied and at odds with each other.
Irish and Latin lives of the saint exist in which the sea journeys have their place. But it was in the form of The Voyage of St Brendan, which circulated widely across the continent, that the legend entered the European imagination.
Dating from the seventh century, this is one of the most important contributions of the Irish imagination to the literature and culture of medieval Europe, and a source of inspiration for Columbus himself. It is said to have been the most widely copied manuscript of the Middle Ages, and in time it passed quickly into print, and has never been neglected since.
But it also kept alive the idea of a transpontine country on the other side of the Atlantic.
‘St Brendan’s Island’ had a place on early maps of the Atlantic, and lasted there for a very long time, down in fact to the 18th Century. The legend is filled with passages about the huge creatures of the Atlantic, the abundant bird life, the seals and walruses, icebergs and volcanoes encountered on the voyages.
The woodcut on this page, showing Brendan pacifying by his simple piety the great whales and fishes of the Atlantic Ocean, or rather the West Indies, is the creation of Robert Gibbings, the Cork-born artist and typographer.
It illustrates a remarkable episode in The Voyage of St Brendan. According to the text at one location the monks could look down through a “transparent sea” to a sandy bottom over which the creatures swam, rather like sheep in a field. In this episode some have seen an echo of very real knowledge of the coral shores and white sandy sea beds around the islands of the West Indies.
In Gibbings’ image the frail boat with its crew of monks floats on the surface of the sea, with two dolphins leaping by its side. This is all that can be seen on the surface. Yet below, the ocean is a riot of huge, extraordinary creatures. This would indeed have been how the seas of the world were before they were ravaged and abused in modern times.
The image is steeped in a deep feeling for the mysteries of the sea and its strangely varied forms of life, for which Gibbings, the author of a maritime classic of his own, felt a great empathy. The sea creatures illustrated are all drawn from life, observed on dives in the West Indies by the artist.
Gibbings wrote about all this in Blue Angels and Whales (London: Penguin Books, November 1938; enlarged and revised edition, London: J. M. Dent, 1946).
It illustrates, too, something of what the Celts and their descendants, the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, the Bretons and the Norse-Irish, once thought about the strange creatures of their northern seas and waters. It is a world of both zoology and the imagination, impregnated with a sense of wonder.
“It would seem, too,” Gibbings himself wrote of Brendan in another of his books, Lovely is the Lee (1945), “that he visited many islands which still exist and possibly others which no longer exist, that he was in fact a Christian Ulysses.”
Yet there is something very special about The Voyage of St Brendan. What fills the pages of the tale are the images of birds and beasts. This is not surprising. for as Alice Stopford Green, the nationalist historian, wrote in 1911, during the heyday of the Irish literary revival: “Irish poets, men and women, were the first in Europe to sing nature — of summer and winter, of the cuckoo with the gray mantle, the blackbirds lay, the red bracken and the long hair of the heather, the talk of the rushes, the green barked yew-tree which supports the sky, the large-green of an oak fronting the storm…”
Legends of the sea
The creators of the legend drew on the earlier voyage literature of the Gaels called imrana. These tales are quite fantastic, and most of them are now quite lost. Yet what survives indicates that the legends of the sea and the traditions of sailors were an important part of ancient Irish literature (though this is not always clear today).
Ireland, like Britain was first reached by sea from the coast along the Bay of Biscay, or perhaps the coast of northern Spain. Later Irish mariners – mainly monks, but also hopeful traders who have left no written records – in the fifth and sixth centuries sailed among the islands of Scotland and on through Orkneys, Shetland, and Faroe Islands.
The great Arctic explorer and maverick scholar Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian scientist of Icelandic origin, believed that the shores of Iceland, Greenland and Jan Mayen were reached by St Brendan by around 550AD.
The first Norse settlers in Iceland certainly refer in their sagas to the Papar, the Irish monks, whose bells and other artefacts they found in the Westmanna, or Irish, Islands, who before their coming had fled further westward across the sea to…to where indeed?
Irish mariners for certain reached Iceland long before 795. We know this from Dicuil the Irish geographer in his work On the Measurement of the Earthly Globe (Ninth Century), from the Viking sagas, and from the Arab geographer Idrîsî, writing in the 1150s. With the Norse settled in Ireland after 850 Norse-Irishmen, from such places as Dublin and Limerick, sailed to Norway regularly and on to Greenland, and even further, to the mysterious place called ‘Whiteman’s Land’, or ‘Greater Ireland’ (also mentioned by Idrîsî), which, if it was not in Greenland, must have been on the Canadian mainland, though some romantics say Florida.
The Norse text The King’s Mirror (composed around 1250, when the Norse settlements in Greenland still flourished and were in regular contact with the Church authorities in Rome), which deals with this wider area, shows extensive knowledge not only of the northern seas as a whole, but also of Irish traditions, evidence of the close interrelations of these maritime cultures.
But there is strong evidence (as discussed by Ivan T. Sanderson in his landmark book of 1955, Follow the Whale) that the Basques and perhaps the Bretons, had reached the Grand Banks of Newfoundland long before Columbus reached the West Indies in 1492.
Indeed the daring Breton captain Jacques Cartier, then in the employ of the king of France, encountered Basques on his first voyage beyond Greenland. Newfoundland from a northern perspective was not a “transatlantic “ expedition but the continuation of earlier voyages along the extended northern coasts of Europe from Norway westward – there was nothing really remarkable about it at all, it was almost inevitable.
But the politics then and later associated with the supposed ‘discovery of the New World’ have ensured that these northern exploits of the Celts, Vikings, Irish, Bretons, and Basques — the heirs to the ancient sailing cultures of the Western European seaboard since Neolithic times — have been very effectively obscured.
The seas known to Celtic mariners in the centuries after the Neolithic revolution encompass the North Atlantic between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle — this was the vast area known to Irish scholars in early Christian Ireland.
But the Gaelic poetry Mrs Stopford Green alluded to back in 1911, carried a remarkable intensity and an absorbing love of nature, of God’s creation (as it was once called), a heritage which we should cherish today where that same creation is everywhere under attack from greed and carelessness, much of it our own greed and our own carelessness.
Jonah and the Whale
Any reference to whales in a religious context brings to mind almost at once the story of Jonah, or Jonas as it used to the in Douay Version.
Jonah is the first of the ‘minor prophets’, perhaps the first of all the prophets. This is a late book in the Old Testament, and consists of a mere seven chapters. Written it is thought after the Babylonian Exile perhaps in the Fourth Century BC, compared with powerful texts of Jeremiah and Isaiah that go before it, it has the appearance of a mere folklore anecdote. But it has always been seen as something more important than that.
It will be recalled that Jonah tried to avoid the mission he was given to preach to the people Nineveh, which meant going east into Mesopotamia, by going west instead, down to the sea coast of the Levant to Joppa, the modern Jaffa (now the oldest part of Tel Aviv).
This was in ancient times the sea port of Jerusalem, though the Jews were not a sea-faring culture. The moral fable of Jonah is probably derived from the Phoenicians or the Assyrians. Joppa was in fact a centre of whaling, though little is known about its nature. Whales were then found all along that coast.
At Joppa were displayed the gigantic remains, some 40 feet long, of the monster which had wished to devour Andromeda from which (in Greek myths) she was rescued by Perseus. These were brought to Rome to be exhibited and preserved in 108BC, according to Pliny the Elder (Natural History, bk. 5, ch. 31).
But some think that it is more likely there was no whale, but as the text says, Jonah was swallowed by “a great fish”, and that this was a killer whale. In 1758 a man was said to have been swallowed by a large shark in the Mediterranean. It was fired on and the cannon ball caused it to throw up the man alive.
This did not convince everyone. Then in the early 1890s it was reported from the south Atlantic that a man named Bartley, or perhaps Bradley, was swallowed by a sperm whale, but was cut from its belly later that same day and was found alive.
But whale or shark, the whole zoological problem which has given rise to so much controversy, is really beside the point. In Luke 11: 29, 30, Jesus is made to say that “this generation is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites so shall the Son of Man also is to this generation.”
The story of Jonah is not to be taken literarily as some fundamentalists take it. In a moral fable such details are irrelevant. They do not carry the real truth of the prophecy at all.
Thomas Merton, one of the great mystics of our time, adopted the evangelist’s expression as the title of his significant book, written in the early years of his calling, which explores aside from the nature of his vocation, “the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection”.
In seeking out the truth of Jonah there is no need for Christians to embrace either whales or sharks, or indeed Andromeda’s monster.
Indeed they should be really concerned whether “this generation”, which is now our generation and our children’s generation, is doing the right thing by God and man.
(The Sign of Jonas, by Thomas Merton, is available now as a paperback from Mariner Books at £15.74)