Monday 8 January 2024

Perilous Voyages


All voyages are voyages of discovery; all voyages are dangerous. Even in these days when cruise liners are thought of as little more than floating hotels, disaster sometimes strikes. Departing on a voyage is already a little death, a farewell to loved ones who may never be seen again, either because of the dangers of the passage or because the travellers mean never to return. To the oppressed and poor of Europe in the nineteenth century, America seemed a promised land, a western paradise of plenty and equality. But they had to leave behind all that was familiar if they were to make a better life across the sea. As a traditional Irish emigrant ballad The Green Fields of Canada says: 

Oh my father is old and my mother’s quite feeble

To leave their own country it grieves their hearts sore:

The tears in great drops down their cheeks they are rolling

To think they must die upon some foreign shore.


But what matter to me where my bones may be buried

If in peace and contentment I can spend my life?

Oh the green fields of Canada, they daily are blooming:

It’s there I’ll put an end to my miseries and strife. 

Anyone who’s stood at the seashore and watched the sun going down over the waves may have wondered what it would be like to seek lands beyond the sunset. Voyages have been associated with Otherworld journeys since the days of Gilgamesh (second millennium BCE). When his beloved friend Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh becomes afraid of death. He sets off to the end of the world – to the mountains where the sun rises and sets – and makes the dark journey through a tunnel called the Path of the Sun, to emerge in a garden of jewelled trees. Here he begs the goddess Siduri for advice on how to cross the ocean to find Uta-napishti, hero of the Flood, who was granted immortality by the gods. Siduri tells him to find Ur-shanabi the ferryman, who with his crew of Stone Ones can take him over the Waters of Death. The enterprise is about as successful as most Otherworld journeys and Gilgamesh learns the usual lesson, that death is inevitable and had better be accepted. It’s fascinating to find the motif of the ferryman, and of the goddess in the paradisal garden, in this four-thousand year old text. The ferryman Charon, the Garden of the Hesperides, the island of Circe – how long has humanity been imagining them? 

Voyages and suns, and perhaps death, are hinted at in Scandinavian rock engravings dating to any time between 1500 and 400 BCE, which show ships embellished with sun discs and spirals. The figure above is taken from The Chariot of the Sun and other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age by Peter Gelling and Hilda Ellis Davidson. It depicts rock art from Stora Backa, Brastad, Bohuslan, Sweden, and the authors write that the 'horizontal phallic figure' lying on his back low down in the group is 'probably to be thought of as lying on the ship immediately below him. There is a smaller figure which seems, as it were, to rise out of his body': this may be a mourner, or it may be his spirit. The entire group is a cluster of animals, men, ships and sun-wheels, large and small. 

The association of ships and suns is exemplified in the Egyptian sun god Re with his two boats: the sun boat or Mandjet (Boat of Millions of Years) which carries him from east to west across the sky accompanied by various other deities and personifications, and the night boat, the Mesesket, on which the god travels through the perilous underworld from west to east, to rise again in the morning.   

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew… 

So speaks the aged Ulysses to his companions in Tennyson’s poem. Unwilling ‘to rust unburnished’ and die by his own hearth, he sets out for the lands beyond the sunset, home of the heroic dead. Yet in the Odyssey, Odysseus has already sailed to the Otherworld. Leaving the island of Circe he reaches the shores of Hades and the groves of Persephone, fringed with black poplars, where he encounters many spirits of the dead, including his own mother whom he vainly tries to embrace: 

…Three times

I started towards her, and my heart was urgent to hold her,

and three times she fluttered out of my hands like a shadow

or a dream, and the sorrow sharpened at the heart within me.

The Odyssey of Homer, tr. Richmond Lattimore, Harper & Row 1965 


In this beautiful red-figure oil jar, we see Charon the ferryman welcoming the soul of a young man into his ferry. Charon gently extends his hand towards a fluttering soul as delicate as a mayfly. It is an extraordinarily tender gesture. 

On his death, the Norse god Baldr is laid by the other gods on a pyre in his ship Ringhorn, which is set alight and pushed out to sea. The Old English poem Beowulf tells how the hero-king Scyld Shefing was laid with many treasures in ‘a boat with a ringed neck’ and sent to sea, where –  

                             Men under heaven’s

shifting skies, though skilled in counsel,

cannot say surely who unshipped that cargo.

Beowulf, tr. Michael Alexander, Penguin 1973         

Ship burials occur all over the world (for more information visit this link throughout all of  Europe, Asia and South East Asia. In some cases people were buried in boats or in boat-shaped coffins, while others in burials which reference a sea-journey, such as this beautiful burial jar – the ‘Manunggul Jar’ – found in the Philippines’ Tabon Caves, and dated 890-710 BCE:

The boatman […] is steering rather than paddling the “ship”. The mast of the boat was not recovered. Both figures appear to be wearing bands tied over the crowns of their heads and under their jaws; a pattern still found in burial practices among the indigenous peoples in the Southern Philippines. The manner in which the hands of the front figure are folded across the chest is also a widespread practice in the islands when arranging the corpse.

The Tabon Caves, Robert B Fox, Manila: National Museum, 1970 

In Northern Europe, high-status people were sometimes buried in their ships, like the king or warrior laid to rest in the East Anglian Sutton Hoo ship burial, circa 700 CE, and the two women in the famous Norwegian ‘Oseberg ship’, thought to have been buried in or after 834 CE. 

The marvellous Welsh poem Prieddeu Annwfn or ‘The Spoils of Annwfn’ (dated by linguistic evidence to around 900 CE) tells of a raid by Arthur in his ship Prydwen on the Welsh underworld, Annwfn. Most of the eight stanzas end with a variation on the recurrent line: ‘Except seven, none returned’. By ordinary standards the expedition sounds disastrous, but this is no ordinary poem. Fateful, gloomy, mysterious, we gain a vision of a venture by sea to an Otherworld  mound or island where a pearl-rimmed cauldron full of the magical life-giving mead of poetry is guarded in a four-peaked glass fortress with a strong door. 

The hero Bran (keeper of another magical cauldron which restores the dead to life) is the subject of one of the traditional Old Irish voyage tales known as immrama, in which a hero or saint sets out for an Otherworld, stopping at numerous fantastic or miraculous islands along the way. These islands have a more sunlit appeal than that of Annwfn: Bran is invited by a mysterious woman to seek for the beautiful Emain Ablach or ‘Isle of Women’ where there is peace and plenty and no one is ever sick or dies. He puts to sea with twenty-seven companions and three curraghs – nine men in each boat. Eventually reaching the island, Bran’s boat is drawn into port by a ball of magical thread which the queen tosses to him. Each man is paired with a beautiful woman, Bran sharing the bed of the queen, and there they remain, unaware how much time is passing in the real world, until Nechtan son of Collbran becomes homesick and Bran resolves to return home. The queen warns against it, and especially against setting foot on land. When they reach Ireland, so many years have passed that Bran’s name is an ancient legend, and when Nechtan leaps out of the curragh he crumbles to dust. Seeing this, Bran and his companions sail away (presumably back to the Island of Women) and never return.  

The hero Maelduin's is a longer voyage and a happier homecoming: he's advised by a hermit that he will return home only once he has forgiven his father’s murderer. This he finally does, and makes safe landfall. But on the long voyage he and his companions see such wonders as the Isle of Ants ‘every one of them the size of a foal’; an island where demon riders run a giant horse race; an island of a miraculous apple tree whose fruit satisfy the whole crew for ‘forty nights’; an island of fiery pigs, an island of a little cat; an island where giant smiths strike away on anvils and hurl a huge lump of red-hot iron after the boat (surely a volcanic eruption?) so that ‘the whole of the sea boiled up’. Here’s a lovely passage: 

The Silver-Meshed Net

They went on then till they found a great silver pillar; four sides it had, and the width of each of the sides was two strokes of an oar; and there was not one sod of earth about it, but only the endless ocean; and they could not see what way it was below, and they could not see what way the top of it was because of its height. There was a silver net from the top of it that spread out a long way on every side, and the curragh went under sail through a mesh of that net. 

Diuran, one of Maeldune’s companions, strikes the net with his spear to obtain a piece: 

“Do not destroy the net,” said Maeldune, “for we are looking at the work of great men.”  “It is for the praise of God’s name I am doing it,” said Diuran, “The way my story will be better believed; and it is to the altar of Ardmacha I will give this mesh of the net if I get back to Ireland.” Two ounces and a half now was the weight when it was measured after in Ardmacha. They heard then a voice from the top of the pillar very loud and clear, but they did not know in what strange language it was speaking or what word it said.

The Voyage of Maeldune, ‘A Book of Saint and Wonders’, tr. Lady Gregory, Dun Emer Press 1906 

I love the way these stories delight in the marvellous inventions of God (or the poet) and the wondrous things men find when they set out to cross the illimitable sea. 

Stationed on the western edge of Northern Europe, the Irish were well positioned to wonder what might be beyond the watery horizon. Following a dream of ‘a beautiful island with angels serving upon it,’ the 6th century Saint Brendan set off into the Atlantic in search of Paradise. In a hide boat, a curragh, with twelve companions he spent years wandering the ocean from one marvellous island to another, including a landing upon the back of an amiable giant fish which allowed him to celebrate Easter there. All nature is included in Brendan’s Christianity: when he says Mass, even the fishes attend and came around the ship in a heap, so that they could hardly see the water for fishes. But when the mass was ended each one of them turned himself and swam away, and they saw them no more. 

After years of sailing, and coming near the borders of a hell of ice and fire which sounds suspiciously like Iceland, Brendan and his companions reached the Land of Promise, the blessed shore. 

…clear and lightsome, and the trees full of fruit on every bough… and the air neither hot nor cold but always one way, and the delight they found there could never be told. Then they came to a river that they could not cross but they could see beyond it the country that had no bounds to its beauty.

The Voyage of Brendan, ‘A Book of Saint and Wonders’, tr. Lady Gregory, Dun Emer Press, 1906 

The immrama combine delight and discovery as well as spiritual journeys. And in fact it was the practice of many early monks to set up their cells on remote islands such as the Arans. Saint Cuthbert on Inner Farne would pray all night, standing in the sea. Was it only for the solitude, or was the sea crossing itself a holy act which could bring the traveller to the shore of another world? Even before Christianity, were islands – liminally placed between earth and sea, like Lindisfarne, Iona, St Michael’s Mount – already considered holy? And it's worth considering that the rite of baptism is a passing through water to symbolic new life. 

The age-old tradition of crossing water to the otherworld recurs in Thomas Malory's Le Morte D’Arthur when Arthur is taken away in a barge to the Isle of Avalon ‘to heal him of his grievous wound’. And he is not the only character to make such a post-mortem or near-post-mortem voyage: the Fair Maid of Astolat, dead Elaine, drifts down the Thames to Westminster in her black barge.  

During the quest for the Holy Grail, Sir Percival’s sister dies, having given a dish of her blood in order to heal a lady. Perceval lays his sister’s body... 

in a barge, and covered it with black silk; and so the wind arose, and drove the barge from land, and all the knights beheld it till it was out of their sight.

Soon after (in Book XVII Chapter 13), Lancelot is woken from sleep by a visionary voice which commands: 

‘Lancelot, arise up and take thine armour, and enter into the first ship that thou shalt find’. And when he heard these words he start up and saw a great clearness about him. And then he lift up his hand and blessed him, and took his arms and made him ready; and so by adventure he came by a strand and found a ship the which was without sail or oar. 

And as soon as he was within that ship there felt he the most sweetness that he ever felt, and he was fulfilled with all thing that he thought on or desired.  Then he said, ‘Fair sweet Father, Jesu Christ, I wot not in what joy I am, for this joy passeth all earthly joys that ever I was in.’ 

And so in this joy he laid him down… and slept till day. And when he awoke he found there a fair bed, and therein lying a gentlewoman dead, the which was Sir Perceval’s sister. 

This unsteerable ship of the dead conveys Lancelot to a castle where he will encounter that ultimate symbol of unknowable holiness, the Grail. Putting to sea in a boat without sail or oars – or for that matter in an overloaded inflatable run by traffickers in the middle of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – is to cast yourself upon the guidance of God. Such faith must be in the hearts of many of the brave, desperate people we call migrants. 

In ballads too, as in life, to sail the sea is to face danger and possible death. The eponymous Wife of Usher’s Well sends her three sons ‘to sail upon the sea’. Barely three weeks later the news comes that they’ve drowned and the grieving mother tries to bring them back by cursing the elements that caused their death: 

“I wish the winds may never cease

Nor fashes [disturbances] in the flood

Till my three sons come hame to me

In earthly flesh and blood.”

The Wife of Usher’s Well, Oxford Book of Ballads, 1969 

So they do come home, at Martinmas, the liminal time between autumn and winter ‘when nights are long and mirk’. But their hats are made of the birch bark that grows on the trees of Paradise, and they can stay only one night. 

‘I’ll set sail of silver and I’ll steer towards the sun’, a girl threatens in the folk song As Sylvie Was Walking, for then ‘my false love will weep for me after I’m gone.’ As for the foolish lady who betrays her lover and runs away to sea with a plausible suitor who has promised to show her ‘where the white lilies grow/On the banks of Italie’ – he turns out to be The Daemon Lover of the title, who halfway over conjures up a storm to sink the ship, crying, ‘I’ll show you where the white lilies grow/At the bottom of the sea!’ 

Over countless millennia voyage tales have explored the marvels of life and the mystery of death. We humans have always embarked upon hopeful voyages, seeking a new world, a better life, a better self. But the tales acknowledge that we cannot always be in control. After the fall of Troy, Odysseus wanted to go home, but instead he spent ten long years wandering the Mediterranean, exposed to storms, shipwrecks and the whims of the gods. Still, he made it in the end despite the odds. Death is a journey we’re all going to take, but maybe not yet, not this time, although the ferryman is always waiting. One day we will leave our friends behind, set sail of silver, steer for the sun and cross the ocean to the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns. 

One day… one day.

Picture credits

'The Last of England' - by Ford Madox Ford 1852 Wikipedia

Figure from 'The Chariot of the Sun' - by Peter Gelling & Hilde Ellis Davidson, Aldine, 1972

Red-figure oil jar attributed to the 'Tymbos painter', 500-450 BCE Ashmoleon Musuem Oxford Photo by Carole Raddato Wikimedia

The Manunggal Jar - Photo by Philip Maise - Wikipedia 

The Fair Maid of Astolat - by Sophie Anderson, 1870 Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool Wikimedia 

The Wife of Usher's Well - by H.M. Brock 1934

Petroglyph - 'The Chariot of the Sun' - by Peter Gelling & Hilde Ellis Davidson, Aldine, 1972

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