The heathen giant in the Voyage of St Brendan

The heathen giant in the Voyage of St Brendan

By Clara Strijbosch

Celtica, Vol. 23 (1999)

Introduction: About 1150, probably in the Rhineland, a Brendan story was composed in the (Frankish) vernacular which came to be known under the title De reis van Sint Brandaan (The Voyage of Saint Brendan, hereafter referred to as Voyage). The original text, O, is lost. Three later versions survive: a Middle Dutch text in verse in two manuscripts (C and H), a German text in verse in two manuscripts (M and N) and another German text in prose (P). The Voyage has an extraordinary framework which gives it a unique place within the Brendan tradition. According to the Voyage, Brendan burned a book containing stories about the wonders of God’s creation out of disbelief. For this reason he is sent out on a voyage so as to see with his own eyes certain divine manifestations which earlier he had refused to credit. In this way he is to recover the book by retelling it with the wonders which he witnesses on his voyage. The majority of the phenomena which he comes across are related to man’s actions and behaviour in this life and the circumstances consequent upon them in the Afterlife. Brendan encounters souls in hell, heaven and paradise. The astonishing and sometimes frightening experiences restore his belief.

One of his meetings with an Afterlife-creature is described only in the Middle Dutch version C. It does not occur in any of the extant German versions. Neither it is found in the text which is regarded as the most important predecessor of the Voyage, the Latin Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. It concerns the episode of Brendan’s encounter with the speaking head of a dead heathen giant (C lines 137±260). In this episode the following tale is told:

Brendan and his monks find the head of a dead man by the seashore. The head is very large, its forehead measures five feet across. At Brendan’s request, the giant tells him that he was a heathen, who for his own profit waded through the sea. He was big and strong, and stood a hundred feet tall. He waylaid the sailors and took their goods. For all his outsize proportions he was drowned in a flood. Brendan offers to resuscitate and to baptize him, so as to give him the possibility of obtaining remission for his sins and afterwards going to paradise. The giant refuses, because he is afraid that he will not be able to resist the temptation of sin. This would be worse, for, as he says, baptized souls are tormented much more in hell than heathens are. Besides, he has a terrible fear of dying once again. He wants to go back to his torments (or: poor company) in the darkness. He takes his leave, with Brendan’s good wishes. Brendan departs for his ship.

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