Immrama (singular – immram) are Celtic (specifically Irish) stories about a hero’s journey to the Other World, or Western Isles. The voyages are full of adventures, meeting with many strange beings and challenges along the way, and arriving at various magical islands before reaching the destination. Typically the hero may or may not be able to return home again.
The stories, told in the oracular in pre-Christian times, were written down as early as the 7th century by monks and scholars. Originally there were seven recognised Immrama in the ancient text but only four now remain – The Voyage of Mael Duin, The Voyage of the Ui Chorra, The Voyage of Snedgus and Mac and The Voyage of Bran.
In her book The Celtic Book of the Dead (book with oracle deck), Caitlin Matthews compares the Irish immrama to the Tibetan and Egyptian books of the dead. Whilst all three can be seen as preparation for dying and a means of navigating the after life, she suggests that the Irish immrama have a dual purpose – not only to prepare the soul for the afterlife but also to aid a person to circumnavigate the ‘mystical journey of the soul’ in this life.
The tradition of the immram is based upon certain fundamental understandings: the voyage enacts the passing into the Otherworld, the testing of the soul, the passage into and beyond death and the empowerment of the spiritual quest.
These voyages have constant motifs of a person, or persons, in a boat, voyaging across the water (ocean or sea) to far off lands. Even today, we hear the term ‘gone West’ to refer to something or someone that has become dysfunctional in some way. To the Celts, the Isles of the Blessed – the Otherworld – lie in the West, across the sea. Any kind of watery body was a gateway to the Otherworld and Land of the Shining Ones. Streams, rivers, lakes, and seas were considered sacred sites but the sea was always considered dangerous and a ‘soul challenge’. The sea is symbolic of the cauldron of creation from where all life springs. To take a voyage across the sea is symbolic of returning to the womb of the Great mother, to discover and to be mystically and magically transformed.
The word ‘immram’ means rowing out, or rowing about, and vessels of the sea whether they be ships or small coracles, are an important symbolic motif in Celtic mythology. The ship or boat is a feminine image – we still call ships ‘she’ and in times passed there was a tradition of adorning the prows of ships with the images of various goddesses. Therefore, it might be deduced that the ship or boat (whatever its size) acts as a protector for the travellers. Moreover, seafaring vessels also have been found in burial mounds, sometimes votive boats made out of gold as have been found in North Wales and Broighter in County Derry, Ireland.
We also have the story of Gwion Bach who, as a baby, is cast adrift by the goddess Cerridwen in a coracle – this is a return to the womb and he is rebirthed as Taliesin, he of the radiant brow, the great bard. Again, the motif of being cast adrift in the waters and returning transformed.
Of course the main purpose of a Book of the Dead is to prepare the soul for passing over and into the Otherworld but we can also take these stories as archetypal too – we begin in ignorance but at some point in our lives we start a spiritual quest to become enlightened. We feel something is missing from our lives and journey to find the missing element…this can be likened to our own immram. Along the way we meet all kinds of obstacles, physical and non-physicals and have all kinds of adventures but all through this we are being refined; it is our soul journey.
To further explore The Celtic Book of the Dead, and one immram in particular I will be working through the Voyage of Mael Duin in further posts.
References: Wikipedia; Discover Irish (website); Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs (wikisource); The Celtic Book of the Dead by Caitlin Matthews