Here is Part Three of Balladeer’s Blog’s look at the various mythological works in Ireland’s Lebor na hUidre, The Book of the Dun Cow. For Part One click HERE

voy mael duinTHE VOYAGE OF MAEL DUIN (Immram curaig Mail Duin) – Dated to around the late 900s A.D. or earlier, this story deals with the epic quest of Mael Duin (aka Maildun and Maeldune) and the crew of his ship as he seeks revenge on his father’s killers. This lengthy epic deserves to be as well-known as the Odyssey or the Quest for the Golden Fleece.

        At any rate, exactly why the main character wants revenge for that slaying is beyond me, because Mael Duin’s father, supposedly Ailill of the Edge of Battle, raped a nun at a priory and she subsequently gave birth to him. The nun turned the infant Mael Duin over to her queen and king to raise as if he was their own child.

        voyage of mael duin cMael Duin matured, and proved better than his presumed siblings at athletic, martial and academic competitions. Losing their temper over this, one of our hero’s foster brothers ridiculed Mael Duin for not even knowing who his real father and mother were.

        The hero prevailed upon his mother the queen to tell him the truth, and she referred him to his birth mother, the nun. She revealed to Mael Duin the name of his father and the young man set out with his three foster brothers to the land of his father Ailill of the Edge of Battle.

        Upon visiting the graveyard at a burned-out church, a man named Bricne (a name commonly used for troublemakers in Irish myths) told him that Ailill had been slain by marauders from Leix. Mael Duin then approached a Druid named Nuca at Corcomroe to learn how to locate the exact men who killed his father.

        Nuca advised Mael Duin to outfit a ship and gather a crew of a precise number – 17 in some versions, up to 60 in others – because any more or less than that number would frustrate his goal. Nuca further advised Mael Duin on the exact day he should have construction begin on his three-skinned ship for the voyage and on the exact day he should set sail to begin his quest.

        At last setting sail for Leix on the appointed day, Mael Duin was refusing the pleas of his three foster brothers to go along with him on his revenge quest. Not to be deterred, the foster brothers dove into the sea and swam after our hero’s ship. At length, Mael Duin and his crew were so far out to sea that his foster brothers vowed they would keep following along until they drowned if need be.

        Mael Duin relented and had the trio brought on board, thus bringing untold hardships upon himself and his mission. Near Leix, Mael Duin and his crew learned the location of his father’s killers, who boasted to all passersby about their deed. Before our hero’s ship could put in at the necessary port, the bad luck brought on by having more than the number of required men caused horrific winds to blow the vessel far off course til it was lost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

This caused a return voyage that lasted “three years and seven months” as the old texts say. A brief synopsis of Mael Duin’s adventures during this voyage at each island his crew encountered :

I. The first island was populated by large, horse-sized ants who tried to feed on the voyagers and their vessel. Even returning to their ship and setting sail did not end the danger. The giant ants swam after them until the vessel was too far away.

II. Next came an island on which stood a magnificent city whose entire population had vanished, leaving the island populated by nothing but birds. Mael Duin and his crew hunted and fed upon many of the birds, loaded more onto their ship and resumed their journey.

III. The following island was populated only by a large beast that was part horse and part dog. They escaped this monster, but it tried sinking their ship by throwing rocks after them.

IV. An island with a flat green landscape and enormous nuts, upon which gargantuan demons engaged in raising and racing horses several stories tall.

V. An island on which the blessings of God had laid out a plush castle with meals and beds laid out for Mael Duin and his crew, as well as ample salmon to take with them upon departure the next day.

VI. An island from which the voyagers obtained apples sufficient to feed them for the next 40 days and nights at sea.

VII. Next came an island surrounded by a stone wall which imprisoned a large, chimeric creature whose body changed over and over again as it manipulated its skin and bones. It tried throwing boulders to sink Mael Duin’s ship. He blocked one with his shield, which was destroyed by the impact, and another boulder embedded itself in the hull.

VIII. An island inhabited by horse-like creatures who were crazed with anger and who constantly tore at each other’s flesh, drawing so much blood that the land was moist and sticky from all the spilled blood.

IX. An island full of trees which grew apples that quenched both hunger and thirst. The obstacles to be overcome were the fiery-skinned boars that roamed the island all day long, returning to their caves at sundown.

X. An island with deserted white limestone houses and a white limestone fort in which one lone cat lived. In the fort was plenty of food and alcohol for the voyagers, as well as beds to sleep on for the night. Mael Duin ordered his crew to partake of all the food and drink they wanted but to not dare taking any of the gold or silver items hanging from the walls.

        The next morning one of Mael Duin’s foster brothers disobeyed and tried stealing a necklace from the wall, only to be killed by the cat flaming on and leaping through his body, reducing him to ashes.

XI. An island inhabited only by a giant shepherd who had a brass palisade dividing the land in half. On one side of the palisade all of the giant’s sheep were white and on the other side all of them were black. When the shepherd would move one sheep to the other side of the palisade its color would change to match the others on that side. 

XII. An island of large swine and hornless cattle tended by a lone giant. A river of acid separated many of the cattle from our heroes, complicating their efforts to load up on some for food. 

XIII. A vast continent on which the voyagers discovered a corn mill at which worked a hideously ugly humanoid miller. From the west came an unending horde of customers as ugly as the miller, and those customers loaded up on the mill’s product before returning to the west.

XIV. A land inhabited by black people in black clothing and with their hair bound in ribbons. The entire population did nothing but engage in endless sorrowful wailing. Two of the crew fell victim to the same curse of constant wailing, prompting a rescue mission to recover them. Only one could be recovered, since one of Mael Duin’s foster brothers had lost himself in the mob.

XV. A strange island with fences dividing it into sections. Behind the crystal fence lived kings. Behind the brass fence lived queens. Behind the silver fence lived warrior men and behind the gold fence lived fair maidens. No one would answer our heroes’ questions about the island, but one maid was sent to feed the voyagers with plenty of cheese.

        She then satisfied their thirst with an alcoholic beverage which put them to sleep for three days. When they woke up, they found themselves on board their ship, far away from the island of fences.

XVI. An island on which stood a large castle surrounded by a moat. Crossing over the moat was a bridge made of glass so smooth that neither Mael Duin nor any of his men could cross it without falling off. A beautiful maiden emerged from the castle, gave our heroes food and drink, and when they woke up the next morning, they were once again on board their ship and out to sea.

XVII. An island populated only by birds which constantly sang psalms.

XVIII. An island full of birds and a centuries old man whose hair was so long he used it as his only clothing. The old man explained that he had been stranded on the island long ago when the ship he was on sank. God saved him and caused the island to become larger every year and more trees to grow every year. The souls of his descendants came to this island as birds after they died.

        God also provided bread, fish and alcoholic beverages every day for the old man, and this was extended to Mael Duin and his crew during the three days they stayed on the island. When they finally set sail, the old man prophesied that all of them would reach their final destination except one.

XIX. An island mostly surrounded by a golden wall and with downy white grass. The sole occupant was a very old man who, like the previous one, wore only his long hair as clothing. In the middle of the island was a fountain which, on different days, would dispense water, whey, milk, ale, wine, fish or bread. (Like a Sampo from other folklore.) After three days, the old man ordered them to leave.

XX. An island inhabited by giant blacksmiths who wanted to kill our heroes. When Mael Duin and his crew escaped in their ship, the smiths threw huge, heated slabs of iron at them, causing the sea around their vessel to boil and buck.

XXI. A stretch of green sea so clear that the sea bottom could be seen from aboard ship. Huge castles were spotted, and herds of undersea cattle. Giant herdsmen watched over them, and sometimes large monsters who lurked in the underwater trees would prey on the cattle.

XXII. A stretch of sea made of clouds, causing the voyagers to fear they might sink through the softness to the bottom, where they would face whatever beasts lurked down there.

XXIII. An enchanted island surrounded by a wall of seawater that rose upward as if it was solid. Many people and animals lived on the island and asked our heroes if they were the people who, it had been foretold, would cause their island’s destruction. The voyagers decided not to risk it and after collecting several large nuts that floated on the water, Mael Duin and his crew journeyed onward.

XXIV. An island on which a freshwater stream rose up out of the ground and flowed across the sky like a rainbow, ending on the other side of the island. Our heroes stayed for a day, collecting drinking water and catching fish out of the overhead stream, then sailed off.

XXV. An enormous silver column which rose from the sea and went up so high its summit could not be seen. From its top fell a gigantic net made of silver, but the net was so large that Mael Duin’s ship easily sailed between the meshes.

        One of the crew – Diuran the Rhymer – hacked off a small bit of the silver net, telling the others that he would offer it up to God on the altar at Armagh. A booming voice could be heard from the top of the column, but in an unknown language.

XXVI. An island standing several feet above the sea, perched on a pedestal. The island was inhabited and the pedestal contained a locked door which could be used for entry to the island. None of the inhabitants would talk to our heroes, however, so they sailed away. 

XXVII. An island full of friendly people who were ruled over by a beautiful queen from an impressive castle. The queen romanced Mael Duin and she had a daughter for every member of his crew. She explained that she had been married to the former king of this island but he had passed away long ago, so she held court for a few hours each day to govern the land.

        The woman invited the voyagers to stop their endless wandering and live on the island with her and her daughters, partying all day and loving all night. After a year, our heroes set sail again, foiling the attempts of the queen to keep them there.

XXVIII. An island full of trees on which grew ball-sized fruit which, when squeezed, yielded juice that made a person sleep for a full day. Our voyagers discovered, however, that mixing that juice with water weakened it enough that it made a powerful drink which did not make them fall asleep.

XXIX. A heavily forested island on which stood a fortress and a small church. Our heroes went ashore and met the sole inhabitant – another old man with hair so long he wrapped it around himself as clothing. He told Mael Duin that he and 14 other holy men had studied under Brenainn of Birr and had sailed from Ireland to do missionary work.

        Their ship had wrecked near the island, so they erected the fort and the church and lived off fruit, fish and the ample sheep who lived there. The monk was the lone survivor of the 15. Mael Duin and his crew lived with the monk for three months, attending mass and living off the land.

XXX. During their stay on the island, our heroes observed an odd variation of a phoenix story. An enormous white bird at first mistaken for a cloud came to rest in the center of the island. Two eagles, large, but still smaller than the first bird, arrived on the island as well.

        The smaller birds pecked away at all the lice and other parasites in the great bird’s feathers. The next day they pecked off all of the great bird’s feathers, then they fetched enough mystic berries to turn the waters of a nearby lake red.

       The great bird, plucked clean, now bathed in the red lake waters. On the third day the bird emerged with fine new feathers and with its youth restored. It circled the island three times, then flew off, with the smaller birds following it.

        Diuran the Rhymer was bold enough to bathe in the lake waters when the birds were gone, and was granted eternal youth. He aged no more from that day onward. None of the others dared follow his example, so they – Diuran among them – loaded their ship with supplies from the island and sailed away.

XXXI. An island consisting of one long, level plain. The inhabitants do nothing but laugh, with no explanation forthcoming. Mael Duin’s third foster brother falls victim to the laughing malady and refuses to leave. The others sail off without him.

XXXII. Now that all three of the foster brothers are off the ship for good, the curse is lifted and the winds propel Mael Duin and his crew toward their original destination, but not without a couple more encounters.

XXXIII. An island surrounded by a large wall of fire, which rotated so that at times our voyagers could see through the open gate as it rotated by. Inside was a great multitude joyfully celebrating to delightful music. Deciding not to tarry, Mael Duin and the others traveled on.

XXXIV. They encountered an old white-haired man who at first seemed to be standing on the water, but was really stranded on a rock very near the surface of the ocean. He, like all the other old men, was clothed only in his long, long hair.

        The old man explained that he was originally from Toraigh. Long ago he had plundered all the valuables from a church where he served as a gravedigger and took to sea with the loot. As punishment, God caused his ship to wreck upon the rock, and he has lived there ever since. 

        Every day until he will die, God causes just enough food and drink and firewood to come to the man, carried by birds or fish. Each day he repents but knows he will be with God at the end of this period of punishment with no companions and only a subsistence diet. 

        The white-haired man also tells Mael Duin of a vision God has sent him. He (Mael Duin) will find the men he seeks, but will not kill them over mercy out of recognition of all the times God has saved him and his crew on their long journey. The voyagers depart.   

XXXV. Mael Duin and his crew at last reached Leix, where he confronted the men who killed his father. As the old man predicted, Mael Duin chose to forgive the killers and let them live. They in turn feasted him and his crew and provided them with fine new clothes.

        All of them spend days together, while Mael Duin regales his former enemies with stories about all the wonders that God showed him on his years-long voyage. And yes, Diuran the Rhymer does indeed offer his fragment of the gigantic silver net up to God on the altar at Armagh.




Filed under Mythology


  1. Mmmpf. And I thought Homer was pretty-well greased when he got to spinning yarns. Better alcohol in metheglin than in Kykeon, maybe?

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