‘Such a great multitude’: Biblical numerology as a literary device in Nauigatio Sancti Brendani

‘Such a great multitude’: Biblical numerology as a literary device in Nauigatio Sancti Brendani

Paper by Darcy Ireland

Given at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, on May 14, 2015

Literature across a multitude of genres and cultural influences has consistently presented some interest and idea of number symbols. Employment of a numeral as a representative of an entity or idea in any assortment of discussions, especially as it relates to early medieval Christian literature, is an example of an interaction between mysticism and allegory. A discernible stream of thought regarding number symbolism is prevalent in pieces of literature spanning from ancient times to present, pertinent for our purposes the early medieval period. The concept of number as symbol can be recognized as inherited and developed through the writings of a collection of patristic theologians. Their cumulative thought on numerology, mainly in the way of Biblical exegesis, can be a solid foundation on which early medieval Irish literature itself laid the foundation and literary concepts of Nauigatio Sancti Brendani, the Voyage of Saint Brendan, would be built, in so far as this text makes use of numbers.

This presentation will begin by briefly summarizing the text, presenting evidence for its intended audience and purpose, defining Biblical numerology and outlining its role in Jewish and Christian textual traditions up to the early medieval period. Then the presentation will provide a handful of examples in the use of Biblical numerology in Nauigatio. This talk will conclude with discussing what can be drawn from the examples of the numerology in Nauigatio, having the purposes of the text and number symbolism in mind.


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