“Pale stars hung in the wintry sky, over silver mist and the golden crown of Bran mac Febail, High King of Ireland. Wandering alone through the forest, he paused beneath a lofty oak tree, enchanting music lingering on the air. Resting his back against the gnarled trunk, Bran sat down, and let the sweet melody wash over him, until, in the stillness, he drifted into a deep sleep. There Bran saw an island ringed in mist, with high peaks crowned with ice rising over fertile plains, of orchards heavy with apples, and the shore of the silver sea glistening like stardust. Raising his eyes, Bran saw a woman with red gold hair astride a pale horse, whose hooves were shod in silver, and whose bridle glittered with precious jewels. She raised her grey-green eyes to him, before she turned and rode away into the west.
When Bran awoke, he found a bough full of silver apples and crystal blossom in his hand. Wandering back to the castle, he laid the branch on a table in the Great Hall and sought the warmth of the fire. Lost to the vision he had beheld, he did not hear the great doors open, nor did he see that same woman with red gold hair enter the hall. Only when she began to sing her song, that same enchanted melody he had heard on the mountainside, did he raise his eyes:
“A branch of the apple tree from Emain
I bring, like those one knows;
Twigs of white silver are on it,
Crystal brows with blossoms.
There is a distant isle,
Around which sea horses glisten:
A fair course against the white swelling surge, –
Four feet uphold it…”
She sang on about the beauty of that wondrous land untouched by sorrow and unblemished by the shadow of death. Until she turned to him,
“Let Bran hear from the crowd of the world
What of wisdom has been told to him.
Do not fall on a bed of sloth,
Let not thy intoxication overcome thee,
Begin a voyage across the clear sea,
If perchance thou mayst reach the land of women.”
When she finished her song, the branch sprang from the hand of Bran and into her own, for he had no strength to hold it, nor to reach her, as in a shimmer of crystal blossom, she disappeared.
Alone and full of longing, at dawn of the following day, Bran, with his three companies of nine, set off over the clear sea and on into the west.”
This is the opening passage of Immram Bran, or the Voyage of Bran, which tells of the adventure of the king and his men into the Irish Otherworld. The landscape through which they journey is full of symbolism and motifs which appear, and indeed reappear, throughout the tales in my new book The Silver Bough. Although the Otherworld is most often associated with Celtic mythology and folklore, this multi-faceted realm of subterranean kingdoms, fabled mountains and crystal heavens, appears in many other traditions. For some they are echoes of ancient cosmogonies, an ancestral dreamtime, or the realm of illuminated life, glimpsed in dreams, shamanic visions, and by those on the shore of death.
In my previous book The Golden Thread, I wrote about the land of Uttarakuru where the trees burn fire-bright, of the sacred peak of Mount Kailash where the Hindu god Shiva meditates amid sparkling gems, and the paradise of jewel-laden trees, of fruits of emerald and crystal, discovered by the Babylonian Hero King Gilgamesh. The Silver Bough delves deeper into this realm, to glimpse the female guardians who live in “the direction of the ocean,” and to pass beyond the crystal pillars and golden birds where the Irish hero Cú Chulainn:
“saw a land noble and bright.
Where none spoke lies or injustice.”
Purchase ‘The Silver Bough’ here.