IRISH PRECURSORS OF DANTE
By SIDNEY GUNN, M.A.
One of the supreme creations of the human mind is the Divine Comedy of Dante, and undoubtedly one of its chief sources is the literature of ancient Ireland. Dante himself was a native of Florence, Italy, and lived from 1265 to 1321. Like many great men, he incurred the hatred of his countrymen, and he spent, as a result, the last twenty years of his life in exile with a price on his head. He had been falsely accused of theft and treachery, and his indignation at the wrong thus done him and at the evil conduct of his contemporaries led him to write his poem, in which he visits Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, and learns how God punishes bad actions, and how He rewards those who do His will.
To the writing of his poem Dante brought all the learning of his time, all its science, and an art that has never been surpassed, perhaps never equalled. Of course, he did not know any Irish, but he knew Italian and the then universal tongue of the learned–Latin, in both of which were tales of visits to the other world; and the greater part of these tales, as well as those most resembling Dante’s work in form and spirit, were Irish in origin.
All peoples have traditions of persons visiting the realms of the dead. Homer tells of Odysseus going there; Virgil does the same of Aeneas; and the Oriental peoples, as well as the Germanic races, have similar tales; but no people have so many or such finished accounts of this sort as the ancient Irish. In pagan times in Ireland one of the commonest adventures attributed to a hero was a visit to “tír na m-beó,” the land of the living, or to “tír na n-óg,” the land of the young; and this supernatural world was reached in some cases by entering a fairy mound and going beneath the ground to it, and in others by sailing over the ocean.
Of the literature of pagan Ireland, though much has come down to us, we have only a very small fraction of what once existed, and what we have has been transmitted and modified by persons of later times and different culture, who, both consciously and unconsciously, have changed it, so that it is very different from what it was in its original form; but the subject and the main outlines still remain, and we have many accounts of both voyages and underground journeys to the other world.
The oldest voyage is, perhaps, that of Maelduin, which, Tennyson has transmuted into English under the title The Voyage of Maeldune. This is a voyage undertaken for revenge; but vengeance, as Sir Walter Scott has pointed out in his preface to The Two Drovers, springs in a barbarous society from a passion for justice; and it is this instinct for justice that inspires the Irish hero to endure and to achieve what he does. Christianity has preserved this legend and added to it its own peculiar quality of mercy; and this illustrates one of the characteristics of Ireland’s pagan literature–it is imperfectly Christian and can readily be made to express the Christian point of view.
Another voyage of pagan Irish literature is the Voyage of Bran. In this tale idealism is the inspiration that leads the hero into the unknown world. A woman appears who is invisible to all but Bran, and whose song of the beauteous supernatural land beyond the wave is heard by none but him; so that, after refusing to go with her the first time she appears, at length he steps into her boat of glass and sails away to view the wonders and taste the joys of the other world.
In these tales we have two main elements, one real and one ideal. The real element is the fact that the ancient Irish unquestionably made voyages and visited lands which the fervid Celtic imagination and the lapse of time transformed into the wonderful regions of the legends. The stories are thus early geographies, and they show unmistakably a knowledge of western Europe and of the Canary Islands or some other tropical regions; perhaps also, some have gone so far as to claim, they are reminiscent of voyages to America.
The ideal element is no less important as indicating achievement, for it shows that the Irish poets of pagan times had not only realized, but had succeeded in making their national traditions embody, the fact that love of justice and aspiration for knowledge are the foundations of all enduring human achievement and all perfect human joy. Christianity therefore found moral and spiritual ideas of a highly developed order in pagan Ireland, and it did not hesitate to adopt whatever in the literature of the country illustrated its own teachings, and not only were these stories of visits to the other world full of suggestions as to ways of enforcing Christian doctrine, but the Irish church and men of Irish birth were the most active in spreading the faith in the early centuries of its conquest of western Europe.
For these reasons it is not strange that all the earliest Christian visions of the spirit-world were of Irish origin. We find the earliest in the Ecclesiastical History of the “Venerable Bede,” who died in 735. It is the story of how an Irishman of great sanctity, Furseus by name, was taken in spirit by three angels to a place from which he looked down and saw the four fires that are to consume the world: those of falsehood, avarice, discord, fraud and impiety. In this there is the germ of some very fundamental things in Dante’s poem, and we know that Dante knew Bede and had probably read his history, for he places him in Paradise and mentions him elsewhere in his works.
In Bede’s work there is also another vision, and though in this second case the man who visits the spirit-world is not an Irishman, but a Saxon named Drithelm, yet the story came to Bede through an Irish monk named Haemgils; so it, too, is connected with Ireland, and it also contains much that is developed further in the Divine Comedy.
One of the most celebrated of the works belonging to this class of so-called “visionary” writings is the Fis or “Vision” which goes under the name of the famous Irish saint, Adamnan, who was poetically entitled the “High Scholar of the Western World.” This particular vision, the Fis Adamnáin, is remarkable among other things for its literary quality, which is far superior to anything of the time, and for the fact that it represents “the highest level of the school to which it belonged,” and that it is “the most important contribution made to the growth of the legend within the Christian Church prior to the advent of Dante.”
Another Irish vision of great popularity all over Europe in the Middle Ages is the Voyage of Saint Brendan. This is known as the Irish Odyssey, and it is similar to the pagan tales of Maelduin and Bran, except that instead of its hero being a dauntless warrior seeking vengeance or a noble youth seeking happiness, he is a Christian saint in quest of peace; and instead of the perils of the way being overcome by physical force or the favor of some capricious pagan deity, they are averted by the power of faith and virtue.
The Voyage of Saint Brendan, like its pagan predecessors, has a real and an ideal basis; and in both respects it shows an advancement over its prototypes. It contains some very poetic touches, and is credited with being the source of some of the most effective features of Dante’s poem. Its great popularity is shown by the fact that Caxton, the first English printer, published a translation of it in 1483; so that it was among the first books printed in English, and for that reason must have been one of the best-known works of the time. Dante undoubtedly knew it, for he was a great scholar in the learning of his day, and especially in ecclesiastical history and the biography of saints.
Another vision of Irish origin that Dante and other writers have borrowed from is that of an Irish soldier named Tundale. He is said to have been a very wicked and proud man, who refused to a friend who owed him for three horses an extension of time in which to pay for them. For this he was struck down by an invisible hand so that he remained apparently dead from Wednesday till Saturday, when he revived and told a story of a visit to the world of the dead that has many features later embodied in the Divine Comedy. Tundale’s vision is said to have taken place in 1149; Dante probably wrote his poem between 1314 and 1321.
The Irish also produced another legend of this sort that was enormously and universally popular, and became the chief authority on the nature of heaven and hell, in the story of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. Saint Patrick was said to have been granted a view of heaven and hell, and a certain island in Lough Derg in Donegal was reputed to be the spot in which he had begun his journey; and there, it was said, those who desired to purge themselves of their sins could enter as he had entered and come back to the world again, provided their faith was strong enough.
This legend was probably known in Ireland from a very early time, but it had spread over all western Europe by the twelfth century. Henry of Saltrey, a Benedictine monk of the Abbey of that name in England, wrote an account in Latin of the descent of an Irish soldier named Owen into Saint Patrick’s Purgatory in 1153; and this story soon became the subject of poetic treatment all over Europe. We have several French versions, one by the celebrated French poetess Marie de France, who lived about 1200; and there are others in all the languages of Europe, besides evidence of its wide circulation in the original Latin. Its importance is shown by the fact that it is mentioned by Matthew Paris, the chief English historian of the thirteenth century, and also by Froissart, the well-known French annalist of the fourteenth while Calderon, the great Spanish dramatist, has written a play based on the legend. Dante undoubtedly knew of Marie de France’s version as well as the original of Henry of Saltrey and probably others besides.
From what has been said it will be seen that Dante’s masterpiece is largely based on literature of Irish origin; but there are other superlative exhibitions of human genius of which the same is true. One of these is the story of Tristan and Isolde. Tristan is the paragon of all knightly accomplishments, the most versatile figure in the entire literature of chivalry; while Isolde is an Irish princess. By a trick of fate these two drink a love potion inadvertently and become irresistibly enamored of each other, although Isolde is betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall, and Tristan is his nephew and ambassador. The story that follows is infinitely varied, intensely dramatic, delicately beautiful, and tenderly pathetic. It has been treated by several poets of great genius, among them Gottfried of Strassburg, the greatest German poet of his time, and Richard Wagner; but all the beauty and power in the works of these men existed in the original Celtic form of the tale, and the later writers have only discovered it and brought it to light.
The same thing is true of the Arthurian Legend and the story of the Holy Grail. Dante knew of King Arthur’s fame, and mentions him in the Inferno. To Dante he was a Christian hero, and the historical Arthur may have been a Christian; but much in the story goes back to the pagan Celtic religion. We can find in Irish literature many references that indicate a belief in a self-sustaining, miraculous object similar to the Holy Grail, and the fact that this object was developed into a symbol of some of the deepest and most beautiful Christian truths shows the high character of the civilization and literature of ancient Ireland.
Wright: St. Patrick’s Purgatory (London, 1844); Krapp: The Legend of St. Patrick’s Purgatory (Baltimore, 1900); Becker: Mediaeval Visions of Heaven and Hell (Baltimore, 1899); Shackford: Legends and Satires (Boston, 1913); Meyer and Nutt: The Voyage of Bran, edited and translated by K. Meyer, with an Essay on the Irish Version of the Happy Other World and the Celtic Doctrine of Rebirth, by A. Nutt, 2 vols. (London, 1895); Boswell: An Irish Precursor of Dante (London, 1908).