6th Century: St. Brendan’s Isle

Abraham Ortelius - Septentrionalium Regionum Descrip (1595 - First Edition 1570) [detail]

The 10th century Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis relates the story of Saint Brendan the Abbot (c. AD 484 – c. 577), who takes a group of fourteen monks on an expedition in search of the island of Paradise. After a long series of adventures featuring dogs, birds, devil-whales, gryphons, and demonsas well an island inhabited only by Judas Iscariot (who is sent there as a respite from Hell on Sundays and feast days)—they alight in the promised land:

They saw a land, extensive and thickly set with trees, laden with fruits, as in the autumn season. All the time they were traversing that land, during their stay in it, no night was there, but a light always shone, like the light of the sun in the meridian, and for the forty days they viewed the land in various directions, they could not find the limits thereof. One day, however, they came to a large river flowing towards the middle of the land, which they could not by any means cross over. St Brendan then said to the brethren: “We cannot cross over this river, and we must therefore remain ignorant of the size of this country.” While they were considering this matter, a young man of resplendent features, and very handsome aspect, came to them, and joyfully embracing and addressing each of them by his own name, said: “Peace be with you, brothers, and with all who practice the peace of Christ. Blessed are they who dwell in thy house, O Lord; they shall praise Thee for ever and ever.”

He then said to St Brendan: “This is the land you have sought after for so long a time; but you could not hitherto find it, because Christ our Lord wished, first to display to you His divers mysteries in this immense ocean. Return now to the land of your birth, bearing with you as much of those fruits and of those precious stones, as your boat can carry; for the days of your earthly pilgrimage must draw to a close, when you may rest in peace among your saintly brethren. After many years this land will be made manifest to those who come after you, when days of tribulation may come upon the people of Christ. The great river you see here divides this land into two parts; and just as it appears now, teeming with ripe fruits, so does it ever remain, without any blight or shadow whatever, for light unfailing shines thereon.” When St Brendan inquired whether this land would. be revealed unto men, the young man replied: “When the Most High Creator will have brought all nations under subjection, then will this land be made known to all His elect.” Soon after, St Brendan, having received the blessing of this man, prepared for his return to his own country. He gathered some of the fruits of the land, and various kinds of precious stones; and having taken a last farewell of the good procurator who had each year provided food for him and his brethren, he embarked once more and sailed back through the darkness again. (Denis O’Donoghue, trans.)

The narrative is an Irish immrama story of seafaring adventuresthat is clearly a Christian allegory, yet belief in the island persisted for centuries, buttressed by seemingly authentic details in the text. It appeared on maps beginning in 1235 and did not disappear until the early 1800’s.

Eventually the claim was made that the Navigatio—even if not geographically accurate—must have had a basis in an actual voyage to North America, making the Abbot and his monks the first Europeans to land there. To prove this possible, a British historian and writer named Tim Severin built an Irish currach the kind of leather-clad boat used at the timeand sailed 4,500 miles (7,200 km) from Ireland to Peckford Island, Newfoundland; the trip is documented in the the 1978 film The Brendan Voyage.

Brendan is the Patron Saint of sailors and travelers.

Abraham Ortelius - Septentrionalium Regionum Descrip (1595 - First Edition 1570)   TIm Severin - The Brendan Voyage

Abraham Ortelius: Septentrionalium Regionum Descrip[tio] (1595; first edition 1570)

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