Immrama – Part 2: The Voyage of Maelduin

To begin my work with The Celtic Book of the Dead oracle deck, I first should explain something about the immram that it’s based on. Caitlin Matthews has chosen to base her deck on the Voyage of Maelduin. This text dating from around the 1st century was probably transcribed in the 6th or 9th centuries and it is the earliest known immram story, which is actually a very long poem. It is attributed to the poet and sage Aed Finn, a person about whom we know next to nothing about, except he was the original story-teller.

There are many editions of this immram, as well as poetical workings such as Tennyson’s The Voyage of Maeldune. The poem is rather long to write out but I’ve listed some worthy sites at the end of this post where it can be read.

But firstly, who was Maelduin? Mael Duin was the son of the warrior and chieftain Ailill Ochair Agha and an abbess from Kildare, who was raped by Ailill on one of his raiding adventures. Because of the shame of having an illegitamate child, let alone one born from rape his mother called him Maelduin or ‘bald one’ and sent him to be fostered by the Queen of the Eoghanacht of Ninuss (probably Munster), who raised him as her own son. Under her protection and tutelage Maelduin grew strong and good-looking and outstripped his friends in every endeavour. However, his friends were jealous and taunted him about his lack of parentage. As far as he was concerned he was the son of a king and queen, so confused he went to his mother and swore he would not eat or drink until she told him the truth.

In the end the Queen took him to his mother, the abbess, who told him who his father was and that he had died. So Maelduin returned to his father’s tribe and was welcomed among them. One day he was moping about in a church yard when one of the monks began to shout at him, telling him to avenge his father rather than crying over him. From the monk Maelduin learned that his father had been murdered by raiders from Laighis (in the province of Leinster) and so avowed to avenge his father. However, he had to decide on the best way to approach his enemies and decided to go by sea. He seeks advice from the druid Nuca, who tells him to build a special magical boat and cover it with skins (most likely a large currach), which Nuca then enchanted. He is told to only take 17 companions and Maelduin chooses his closest friends, German and Diuran, to be amongst these. They are about to set sail when Maelduin’s three foster brothers swim out to join the crew, although Maelduin asks them to return they do not. He cannot watch them drown so allows them to come aboard but the additional numbers to the crew messes up the strict magical advice of Nuca and the causes the adventure to go awry.

Map of Irish provinces

County Kildare, Ireland

River Kenmare, Munster, Ireland

The poem goes on with all kinds of disasters, adventures and dangers besetting Maelduin and his men, as the come to various islands. As the text is very long I have listed them in the order in which they appear:

The island of ants, from which the men flee because the ants’ intention is to eat their boat  The island of tame birds  The island of the horse-like beast who pelts the crew with the beach  The island of horses and demons  The island of salmon, where they find an empty house filled with a feast and they all ate, drank, and gave thanks to God  The island with the branch of an apple tree, where they are fed with apples for 40 nights  The island of the “Revolving Beast”, a creature that would shift its form by manipulating its bones, muscles and loose skin; it cast stones at the escaping crew and one pierces the keel of the boat  The island where animals bite each other and blood is everywhere  The island of apples, pigs, and birds  The island with the great fort/pillars/cats where one of the foster brothers steals a necklet and is burned to ashes by the cat  The island of black and white sheep, where sheep change colors as they cross the fence; the crewmen do not go aboard this island in fear of changing color  The island of the pigherd, which contained an acidic river and hornless oxen  The island of the ugly mill and miller who were “wrinkled, rude, and bareheaded”  The island of lamenting men and wailing sorrows, where they had to retrieve a crewmen who entered the island and became one of the lamenting men; they saved him by grabbing him while holding their breath  The island with maidens and intoxicating drink  The island with forts and the crystal bridge, where there is a maiden who is propositioned to sleep with Máel Dúin  The island of colorful birds singing like psalms  The island with the psalm singing old man with noble monastic words  The island with the golden wall around it  The island of angry Smiths (Blacksmiths)   The crew voyaged on and came across a sea like a green crystal. Here, there were no monster but only rocks. They continued on and came to a sea of clouds with underwater fortresses and monsters.  The island with a woman pelting them with nuts  The island with a river sky that was raining salmon  The island on a pedestal  The island with eternal youth  The island with red fruits that were made as a sleeping elixir  The island with monks of Brendan Birr, where they were blessed  The island with eternal laughter, where they lost a crewman  The island of the fire people   They find a man in the sea from Tory. He was cast there as punishment. He asks them to throw their wealth into the ocean. He prophesies that they will “reach their country, it will be sage thus; though you will meet your enemies, you will not slay them.”  The island of cattle, oxen, and sheep   They finally make it back to the original island they were on where there was talk of murdering Ailill. Máel Dúin expresses the marvels that God has revealed to them on their journey. They all make peace. It should be noted that this is a tale of Early Celtic Christian spirituality, although the ancient Celtic traditions and mystical motifs shine through.


Prose texts for the Voyage of Maelduin:

The Celtic Book of the Dead (book & oracle deck) by Caitlin Matthews


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