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Legendary islands of the Atlantic; a study in medieval geography

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Author Topic: Legendary islands of the Atlantic; a study in medieval geography  (Read 8088 times)
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« Reply #45 on: July 19, 2009, 03:00:39 am »


ing one of the Canary Islands. Later the map of the Pizigani
brothers of 1367 25 (Fig. 2) contains in words and a saintly figure of
warning a solemn protest against attempting to sail the unnavi-
gable ocean tract beyond the Azores. As will be seen by a modern
map (Fig. i), this area includes the vast realm of the Sargasso a
waste of weed, shifting its borders with the seasons but constant
in its characteristics in some parts and always to be found by little
seeking one of the permanent conspicuous features of earth's
surface. 26 It is described by a writer in the Encyclopaedia Bri-
tannica as nearly equal to Europe in area, a statement hardly
warranted unless by including all outlying tatters and fringes of
Gulf weed floating free. 27

It is one of the topics that tempt and have always tempted ex-
aggeration and misunderstandings. The effect on a bright mind
of current nautical yarns concerning it is shown by Janvier's
"In the Sargasso Sea," a narrative almost as extravagant as
Plato's tale of Atlantis, in its own quite different way. One of the
more moderate preliminary passages may be cited :

And to that same place, he added, the stream carried all that was
caught in its current like the spar and plank floating near us, so that
the sea was covered with a thick tangle of the weed in which were held
fast fragments of wreckage and stuff washed overboard and logs adrift
from far southern shores, until in its central part the mass was so dense
that no ship could sail through it nor could a steamer traverse it because of the
fouling of her screws.

25 [E. F.] Jomard: Les monuments de la geographic, ou recueil d'anciennes cartes
europeennes et orientates . . . , Paris, [1842-62], PI. X, i.

26 J. C. Soley: Circulation of the North Atlantic in February and in August
[sheet of text with charts on the reverse]. Supplement to the Pilot Chart of the
North Atlantic Ocean for 1912, Hydrographic Office, Washington, D. C.

Otto Krummel: Die nordatlantische Sargassosee, Petermanns Mitt., Vol. 37,
1891, pp. 120-141, with map.

Gerhard Schott: Geographic des Atlantischen Ozeans, Hamburg, 1912, pp.
162-164 and 268-269, Pis. 16 and 26.

27 Kriimmel (paper cited in footnote 26) suggests applying the name Sargasso Sea
to the area limited by the curve of 5 per cent probability of occurrence on his map
(our Fig. i). This area amounts to 4,500,000 square kilometers, or somewhat less
than half the area of Europe. Schott (see footnote 26), p. 140, gives 8,635,000 square
kilometers as the area of his natural region Sargasso Sea, which is based not only on
the occurrence of gulfweed but also on the prevailing absence of currents and on the
relatively high temperature of the water in all depths. EDIT. NOTE.

2* T. A. Janvier: In the Sargasso Sea, New York, 1896, p. 26.
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« Reply #46 on: July 19, 2009, 03:00:53 am »


He admits this theory of formation was inaccurate but later
refers to "the dense wreck-filled center of the Sargasso Sea" and
makes his castaway hero declare:

What I looked at was the host of wrecked ships, the dross of wave and
tempest which through four centuries has been gathering slowly and still
more slowly wasting in the central fastnesses of the Sargasso Sea. 2 *

Sir John Murray naturally gives a more moderate and scien-
tific account, explaining:

The famous Gulf Weed characteristic of the Sargasso Sea in the North
Atlantic belongs to the brown algae. It is named Sargassum bacciferum,
and is easily recognized by its small berry-like bladders .... It is
supposed that the older patches gradually lose their power of floating,
and perish by sinking in deep water .... The floating masses of Gulf
Weed are believed to be continually replenished by additional supplies
torn from the coasts by waves and carried by currents until they accumu-
late in the great Atlantic whirl which surrounds the Sargasso Sea. They
become covered with white patches of polyzoa and serpulae, and quite a
large number of other animals (small fishes, crabs, prawns, molluscs,
etc.) live on these masses of weed in the Sargasso Sea, all exhibiting re-
markable adaptive coloring, although none of them belong properly to
the open ocean. 10

Finally we have from the Hydrographic Office the official naval
and scientific statement of the case. In the little treatise already
referred to, Lieutenant Soley tells us that the southeast branch
of the Gulf Stream "runs in the direction of the Azores, where it is
deflected by the cold upwelling stream from the north and runs
into the center of the Atlantic Basin, where it is lost in the dead
water of the Sargasso Sea." 31 As to just what this is the office

Through the dynamical forces arising from the earth's rotation which
cause moving masses in the northern hemisphere to be deflected toward
the right-hand side of their path, the algae that are borne by the Gulf
Stream from the tropical seas find their way toward the inner edge of the
circulatory drift which moves in a clockwise direction around the central
part of the North Atlantic Ocean. In this central part the flow of the

Ibid., p. 27.

10 Murray, pp. 140-141.

11 Soley, column 2, lines 3-5.
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« Reply #47 on: July 19, 2009, 03:01:07 am »


surface waters is not steady in any direction, and hence the floating sea-
weed tends to accumulate there. This accumulation is perhaps most ob-
servable in the triangular region marked out by the Azores, the Canaries
and the Cape Verde Islands, but much seaweed is also found to the west-
ward of the middle part of this region in an elongated area extending to
the 7oth meridian.

The abundance of seaweed in the Sargasso Sea fluctuates much with
the variation of the agencies which account for its presence, but this Office
does not possess any authentic records to show that it has ever materially
impeded vessels. 32

Perhaps these statements are influenced by present or recent
conditions. It is obvious that giant ropelike seaweeds in masses
would more than materially impede the action of the galley oars,
which were the main reliance in time of calm of the ancient and
medieval navigators. Also it is hardly to be believed that small
sailing vessels could freely drive through them with an ordinary
wind. If the weeds were so unobstructive, why all these com-
plaints and warnings out of remote centuries? In the days of
powerful steamships and when the skippers of sailing vessels
have learned what area of sea it is best to avoid, there may well
be a lack of formal reports of impediment; but it certainly looks
as though there were some basis for the long established ill repute
of the Sargasso Sea.
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« Reply #48 on: July 19, 2009, 03:01:26 am »


For the genesis of Atlantis we have then, first, the great idealist
philosopher Plato minded to compose an instructive pseudo-
historical romance of statesmanship and war and actually making
a beginning of the task; and, secondly, the fragmentary cues and
suggestive data which came to him out of tradition and mariners'
tales, perhaps in part through Solon and intervening transmit-
ters, in part more directly to himself. Of this material we may
name foremost the vague knowledge of vast impeded regions in
the Atlantic believed to be shallow and requiring a physical ex-
planation; then rumors of cataclysms and sunken lands in the
same ocean; then legends of ancient hostilities between dwellers

82 Reprint of Hydrographic Information: Questions and Answers, No. 2, June
2, 1910, Hydrographic Office, Washington, D. C., p. 17.


beyond the Pillars of Hercules and the peoples about the Mediter-
ranean; and finally the reflection of the Persian war on the shad-
owy ancient past of Athens Athens the defender and victor,
Athens the Queen of the Sea.

Every solution of the Atlantis problem must be conjectural.
The above is offered simply as the best conjecture to which I can
see my way
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« Reply #49 on: July 19, 2009, 03:01:44 am »



The fifteenth-century Book of Lismore, compiled from much
older materials, tells us that St. Brenainn (evidently St. Bren-
dan, the navigator)

desired to leave his land and his country, his parents and his fatherland,
and he urgently besought the Lord to give him a land secret, hidden,
secure, delightful, separated from men. Now after he had_alept on that
night, he heard the voice of the angel from heaven, who said to him,
"Arise, O Brehamn," saith he, "for God hath given thee what thou
souglifesF, "even _the_Land of Promise" . . . and he goes alone to
Sfiab Daidche and he saw the mighty intolerable ocean on every side,
and then he beheld the beautiful noble island, with trains of angels
(rising) from it. 1

Thus far, in the rather redundant style of such literature, from
the Life of Brenainn in the Lives of the Saints of this old manu-
script. After a century and a half of disappearance this manu-
script was accidentally discovered in 1814, in a walled-up recess,
by workmen engaged on repairs.

Mr. Westropp holds that this Lismore version is the "sim-
plest and probably the earliest;" 2 but its full-blown development
of certain marvels (such as the spending of every Easter for at
least five years on the back of a vast sea monster as a substitute
for an island) may well awaken a question as to the validity of
this conjecture.

However, the suggestion of the voyage by a dream seems likely
enough, and his mood was in keeping with the anchorite enthu-

1 Anecdota Exoniensia: Lives of the Saints, from the Book of Lismore, edited,
with a translation, notes, and indices, by Whitley Stokes, Oxford, 1890, p. 252.

8 T. J. Westropp: Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic: Their
History and Fable, Proc. Royal Irish Acad,, Vol. 30, Section C, 1912-13, pp. 223-
260; reference on p. 230.
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« Reply #50 on: July 19, 2009, 03:12:55 am »


siasm of his time. Qf course he promptly set forth to find his
"promised land;" at first, in a hide-covered craft, with failure in
spite of long endeavor; afterward, by advice of a holy woman, in
a large wooden vessel, built in Connaught and manned by sixty
religious men, with final success.


Another version gives the credit of the first incitement to a
purely human visitor, a friendly abbot, St. Brendan's aim being
to reach an island "just under Mount Atlas." Here a holy
predecessor, Mernoc by name, long vanished from among men,
was believed to have hidden himself in "the first home of Adam
and Eve." To all readers this was a fairly precise location for the
earthly paradise. The great Atlas chain forms a conspicuous
feature of medieval maps, running down to sea (as it does in
reality) near Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, the innermost of the
Canaries, which seem like detached, nearly submerged, summits
of the range.

This narrative is longer and more detailed than that of the
Book of Lismore and gives more plentiful indications of voyaging,
especially toward the end, in southern seas. In its picture of vol-
canic fires it recalls occasional outbursts of Teneriffe and its
neighbors. "They saw a hill all on fire, and the fire stood on each
side of the hill like a wall, all burning." A visit is also recorded
to a neighboring land, apparently continental, which the adven-
turers penetrated for forty days' travel to the banks of a magical
river, whence they brought away "fruit and jewels." This may
well be meant for Africa, obviously quite near these Fortunate
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« Reply #51 on: July 19, 2009, 03:25:17 am »


It has been intimated that the narratives of "St. Brendan's
Navigation" may have originated in misunderstood tales of his
early sea wanderings around the coasts of Ireland seeking for a
monastery site. He was successful in this at least, being best


known (excepting as a discoverer) for the great religious estab-
lishment at Clonfert, not the first which he founded in the sixth
century but the most widely known and the greatest.

Another explanation casts doubts upon his real existence and
supposes the story of the discoveries to have arisen by confusion
of language with the well-known pagan "Voyage of Bran," per-
haps the earliest of the ancient Irish Imrama, or sea sagas.

It has also been said that the origin of the Brendan narratives
may be found in "a ninth-century sermon elaborated up to its
present form by the eleventh century/' 3 A ninth-century manu-
script is said to be in the Vatican library^
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« Reply #52 on: July 19, 2009, 03:25:46 am »


A Norman French translation was turned into Norman French
verse by some trouvere of the court for the benefit of King Henry
Beauclerc and his Queen Adelais early in the twelfth century and
partly translated metrically into English for Blackwood's Maga-
zine in 1836. It avers that the saint set sail for an

Isle beyond the sea
Where wild winds ne'er held revelry,
But fulfilled are the balmy skies
With spicy gales from Paradise;
These gales that waft the scent of flowers
That fade not, and the sunny hours
Speed on, nor night, nor shadow know. 4

They sail westward fifteen days from Ireland; then in a
month's calm drift to a rock, where they find a palace with food
and where Satan visits them but does no harm. They next voyage
seven months, in a direction not stated, and find an island with
immense sheep; but, when they are about to cook one, the island
begins to sink and reveals itself as a "beast." They reach another
island where the birds are repentant fallen angels. From this they
journey six months to an island with a monastery founded by St.
Alben. They sail thence till calm falls on them and the sea be-

Westropp, Brasil, p. 229.

* The Anglo-Norman Trouveres of the I2th and 13th Centuries, Black-wood's
Edinburgh Mag., Vol. 39, 1836, pp. 806-820; reference on p. 808.

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« Reply #53 on: July 19, 2009, 03:26:11 am »


comes like a marsh; but they reach an island where are fish
made poisonous by feeding on metallic ores. A white bird warns
them. They keep Pentecost on a great sea monster, remaining
seven weeks. Then they journey to where the sea sleeps and cold
runs through their veins. A sea serpent pursues them, breathing
fire. Answering the saint's prayer, another monster fights and
kills the first one. Similarly a dragon delivers them from a griffin.
They see a great and bright jeweled crystal temple (probably an
iceberg). They land on shores of smoke, flame, blast, and evil
stench. A demon flourishes before them, flies overhead, and
plunges into the sea. They find an island of flame and smoke, a
mountain covered with clouds, and the entrance to hell. Beyond
this they find Judas tormented. Next they find an island with a
white-haired hermit, who directs them to the promised island,
where another and altogether wonderful holy man awaits them,
of whom more anon.

In this version, as in others, there are passages such as the
mention of extreme cold and the account of a great floating struc-
ture of crystal which imply a northward course for their voyage
in some one of its stages. So greatly was Humboldt impressed by
this and by the insistence on the Isle of Sheep, which he identified
with the Faroes, that he restricted in theory the saint's naviga-
tion to high latitudes. 5
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« Reply #54 on: July 19, 2009, 03:26:24 am »


But itjs noticeable that_eyery version giyes St. Brendan the
task of finding a remote island, which was always warm and
lovely, and chronicles tlie~attainment of this delight, though he
finds other delectable islands near it or by the way. The metrical
description before quoted is surely explicit enough, but the Book
of Lismore outdoes it in a very revel of adjectives. As though
praises alone failed to satisfy the celebrant, he introduces the
figure of a holy ungarmented usher a living demonstration of

Alexander von Humboldt: Examen critique de 1'histoire de la geographic du
nouveau continent et des progres de 1'astronomie nautique aux quinzieme et
seizieme siecles, 5 vols., Paris, 1836-39; reference in Vol. 2, p. 166.
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« Reply #55 on: July 19, 2009, 03:26:42 am »


the benignity of the climate. He was "without any human rai-
ment, but all his body was full of bright white feathers like a dove
or sea mew; and it was almost the speech of an angel that he
had." "Vast is the light and fruitfulness of the island." he cried
in welcome and launched forthwith on a prodigal expenditure of
superextolling words outpoured on their new delightful home. It
is all perfectly in keeping with the glow and luxuriance of sun-
warmed shores and the unique airiness of his spontaneous rai-
ment. Clearly "summer isles of Eden," and nothing that has to
do with icebergs or wintry blasts, are called for in this case.

About six centuries lie between St. Brendan's experiences and
the earliest writing purporting to relate them and generally
accepted as to date. Doubtful manuscripts and miscellaneous
allusions also often doubtful may lessen the gap; but at best
we have several centuries bridged by tradition only, and that
rather inferred than known. It seems likely that he^reaUy>
^/iatetr^ndnenjoyed some remote^ov^y-islandsj jioFvery often \
reache4-rom the mainland, such as could in any age hayeJaieen^ I
discovered among the eastern Atlantic archipelagoes. In doing
so he might well meet with surprising adventures, readily dis-
torted and magnified ; and the first tales of them would be basis
enough for the florid fancy of Celtic and medieval romancers,
growing in extravagance with passing generations.
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« Reply #56 on: July 19, 2009, 03:26:55 am »


That he found some island or islands was certainly believed, \
for his name is on many maps in full confidence. But as to the \
particular islands thereby identified we find that conjecture had \
a wide range, varying in different periods and even with indi-^""^
vidual bias.


Probably its first appearance is on the Hereford map of 1275
or not muclrlatef^'fhe inscription being "b ortunate^hreulae sex

6 R. D. Benedict: The Hereford Map and the Legend of St. Brandan, Bull. Amer.
Geogr. Soc., Vol. 24, 1892, pp. 321-365; reference on p. 344.


suntjnsulae Set Brandanl." Ijis about on the^sjtfi^f the Canary
group, and the elliptical island Junonia is just below. The show-
ing is uncertain and conventional ; also the number six misses the
mark by one; still there can be no doubt that the Canaries as a
whole were intended. Concerning them Edrisi 7 had observed,
about 1154: "yhe Fortunate Islands are two in number and are
in the Sea of Darkness." Perhaps he had Lanzarote and Fuerte-
ventura, the most accessible pair, especially in mind. The
surviving derivatives of the last eighth-century Beatus map 8 also
bear the inscription "Insulae Fortunate" where the Canary
Islands should be, but they assert nothing of "St. Brandan."
Doubtless, dimly known, they had been reputed Isles of the Blest
from prehistoric times. If St. Brendan found them, he found
them already the "Fortunate Isles."

A tradition long survived perhaps survives still in the
Canary archipelago supporting this identification by the Here-
ford map. Thus Father Espinosa, 9 who long dwelt in Teneriffe
and wrote his book there between 1580 and 1590, avers that St.
Brendan and his companions spent several years in that archi-
pelago and quotes a still earlier "calendar," date not given, as
authority for their mighty works done there "in the time of the
Emperor Justinian." Even as late as the eighteenth century an
expedition sailed from among them for an island believed to be
outside of those already known and to
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« Reply #57 on: July 19, 2009, 03:27:15 am »

be the one discovered by
St. Brendan.

7 Edrisi's "Geography," in two versions, the first based on two, the second on four
manuscripts, viz.: (i) P. A. Jaubert (translator): Geographic d'Edrisi, traduite de
1'Arabe en Francais, 2 vols. (Recueil de Voyages et de Memoires public par la Societe
de Geographic, Vols. 5 and 6), Paris, 1836 and 1840; reference in Vol. 2, p. 27;
(2) R. Dozy and M. J. De Goeje (translators): Description de 1'Afrique et de
1'Espagne par Edrisi: Texte arabe public pour la premiere fois d'aprSs les man. de
Paris et d'Oxford, Leiden, 1866.

8 Konrad Miller: Die Weltkarte des Beatus (776 n. Chr.), with facsimile of one
derivative, Heft i of his "Mappaemundi: Die altesten Weltkarten," Stuttgart, 1895.
The 9 other derivatives on Pis. 2-9 of Heft 2 (Atlas von 16 Lichtdrucktafeln.
Stuttgart, 1895).

The Guanches of Tenerife: The Holy Image of Our Lady of Candelaria and the
Spanish Conquest and Settlement, by the Friar Alonso de Espinosa of the Order
of Preachers, translated and edited, with notes and an introduction, by Sir Clements
Markham, Hakluyt Soc. Publs., 2nd Ser., Vol. 21, London, 1907, p. 39.




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« Reply #58 on: July 19, 2009, 03:27:30 am »

The second cartographical appearance of the saint's name
seems to be in the portolan map 10 of Angelinus Dulcert, the
Majorcan, dated 1339, where three islands corresponding to
those now known as the Madeiras (Madeira, Porto Santo, and
Las Dezertas) and on the same site are labeled "Insulle Sa
Brandani siue puelan." Since "u" was currently substituted for
"v," and "m" and V were interchangeable on these old maps, the
last two words should probably be read "sive puellam." How-
ever the ending of the inscription be interpreted, there can be no
doubt about St. Brendan and his title to the islands according
to Dulcert. And that this island group must be identified with
Madeira and her consorts (though Madeira is named Capraria
and Porto Santo is named Primaria) hardly admits of any ques-

If the identificatioj^fjbhe^i^dijthe_Fortunate Islands espe-
cially favored by St. Brendan were no morelhanlT conjecture of
Dulcert or some predecessor, it still had a certain plausibility
from the facts of nature and the favorable report of antiquity.
Strabo may have borne these islands in mind when he wrote: "the
golden apples of the Hesperides, the Islands of the Blessed they
speak of, which we know are still pointed out to us not far
distant from the extremities of Maurusia, and opposite to Ga-
des." 11 Apparently, too, Diodorus Siculus, writing half a century
or so before the Christian era about what happened a thousand
years earlier still, means Madeira by the "great island of very
mild and healthful climate" and "in great part mountainous but
much likewise champaign, which is the most sweet and pleasant
part of all the rest;" 13 whereto the Phoenicians were storm-driven

"A. E. Nordenskiold: Periplus: An Essay on the Early History of Charts and
Sailing-Directions. Stockholm, 1897, PI. 8.

11 The Geography of Strabo, literally translated with notes: the first six books by
H. C. Hamilton, the remainder by W. Falconer, 3 vols., H. C. Bohn, London, 1854-
57; reference in Vol. i, p. 226.

12 The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian, in 15 Books, to which are
added the fragments of Diodorus, and those published by H. Valesius, I. Rhodo-
mannus, and F. Ursinus; transl. by G. Booth, Esq., 2 vols., London, 1814;
reference in Vol. i, Bk. 5, Ch. 2, pp. 308-309.

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« Reply #59 on: July 19, 2009, 03:27:51 am »


after founding Cadiz and which the Etrurians coveted but
the Carthaginians planned to hold for themselves. Even since
those old days there has been a general recognition of Madeira's
balminess and slumberous, flowery, enticing beauty.


Divers paps of thejojmrtepnth.^ajid fifteenth centuries do not
,rnntnin thn mmt ~ r St. Brendan (it is perhaps never spelled
Brendan in cartography) and hence do not count either way.
But the identification of the notable map of 1367 of the brothers
Pizigani 13 (Fig. 2) is the same as Dulcert's, the inscription being
also given in the alternative. Like many oceanic features of this
strange production it is by no means clear, but seems to read
"Ysole dctur sommare sey ysole pone+le brandany." Perhaps it
is to be understood as the "islands called of slumber or the islands
of St. Brandan." There is at any rate no doubt about the last
word or its meaning. But, as if to place the matter beyond all
question, a monkish figure, generally accepted as that of the
saint himself, is depicted bending over them in an attitude of

This map evidently does not copy from Dulcert, for the forms,
proportions, and individual names of the islands all differ. It
calls the chief island Canaria, instead of Capraria or the later
Madeira, and appends a longer name, which seems like Capirizia,
to what have long been known as Las Dezertas, which appear
greatly enlarged on it. Porto Santo is left unnamed on the map,
perhaps because it lies so close to the general name of the group.


A claim has been set up by the Portuguese that Porto Santo
(Holy Port) was first applied to this island by their rediscoverers
of the next century in honor of their safe arrival after peril, but
this is abundantly confuted by its presence on divers fourteenth-

14 [E. F.] Jomard: Les monuments de la geographic, ou recueil d'anciennes cartes
europeerines et orientales .... Paris, [1842-62], PI. X, I.
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