The most common type of mythical geographical feature are non-existent islands. Sailors called these “flyaway islands,” because they were not where they were supposed to be when a crew went looking for them. There are a number of reasons that non-existent islands appear so often on maps, including a basis in legends, optical mistakes, navigational mistakes, and deliberate misinformation. Today I’ll talk a bit about one of the islands based in legend.
Historically, the oceans almost always formed the edge of the known world. It is likely that the question of what lay over the water, beyond the horizon, was a subject that stirred the imagination of coastal visitors for as long as there have been humans. This naturally led to speculation about what possibly existed far out at sea, resulting in the oceans becoming the location of numerous legendary places and beings. Every nation located on the coast of a large body of water has tales of places out at sea that were based on myths and fables. Sometimes these were the location of Earthy Paradise, or a magical land or certainly at least a land of unimaginable wealth.
There was a long tradition of rich islands off the coasts of Asia and Africa. The wealthy kingdom of Ophir from the Bible was often believed to be an island, the Garden of Eden was thought by some as an island, and others said that Adam and Eve went to an island in the east after being expelled from Eden. John Mandeville spoke of over 5,000 islands east of Asia, Marco Polo said there were 12,700 islands in the India Sea and 7,459 in the China Sea, and Arab geographer Al-Idrisi said the oceans contained 27,000 islands!
The Atlantic was also heavily populated by legendary islands. I have already discussed, in an earlier blog, the non-existent islands based on the reports of the Zeno brothers, but there were a number of mythical islands with an even longer history, including St. Brendan’s island, Brazil, Antilla, and the Island of Seven Cities. Though none of these islands existed (at least as they were thought to exist), many Europeans went looking for them time and again over the centuries.
St. Brendan’s Island
St. Brendan of Ardfert (ca. 484-578) was an Irish monk who was said to have sailed, with sixty men, into the Atlantic Ocean in search of the Isle of the Blest. According to the story, they sailed for five years and saw many wonders, eventually reaching a beautiful island where they met a holy man. Brendan believed this to be his “Promised Land of the Saints.”
Legends about Brendan became current shortly after he died and by the tenth century a number of books had been written about his voyages. The written accounts differ with each other, but there is enough in them that matches the geography of the North Atlantic that it seems to indicate that the accounts probably reflect some knowledge of voyages in the North Atlantic by Irish monks, including possibly by St. Brendan himself. Certainly Irish monks had been to Iceland before 800 A.D., and it is possible that they made it to Greenland.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, expeditions were sent out from Portugal and Bristol, England, to locate St. Brendan’s island, though of course this non-existent land was never discovered. Still, by the thirteenth century the island appeared as a concrete place on maps. The first map to include the island seems to be the Ebstorf mappemundi of 1235. It also appeared on the Hereford mappemundi of 1275 (above), which labels the island as “Fortunate Insulae sex sunt Insulae Sct. Brandani.”
St. Brendan’s island appeared on maps to as late as the middle of the eighteenth century, wandering about the Atlantic Ocean in numerous locations. Sometimes the island might actually reflect newly discovered islands, such as the Madeiras or Canaries (which are also called the “Fortunate Islands”), or it might simply be inserted in some unexplored blank spot at the guess of the mapmaker. The island appeared on the Behaim globe of 1492 and prominently on a number of other maps, including those by Abraham Oretlius (above) and Gerard Mercator (below).
Though St. Brendan’s island did have a long history on maps, lasting almost 500 years, it did begin to disappear from most maps by the early seventeenth century, for by then it seems to have mostly been accepted as referring to the Canary Islands. There was another island, of equally legendary status, that floated about the Atlantic even after St. Brendan Island vanished. I’ll write about that island, Brasil, in the next blog.