In the Middle Ages the Navigatio of St. Brendan was a popular legend about the Irish monk’s alleged voyage among many islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Like many such legends, some people took it way more seriously than the original author, who was undoubtedly aware that the story is a collection of myth and fiction. That hasn’t stopped people from looking for one of the islands seen by St. Brendan down to the present, particularly the mist-shrouded island where, in later legend, Brendan and his crew claimed to have spent fifteen days. The latest person to have announced the “discovery” of St. Brendan’s Island is the author of the Journal of the Bizarre blog, who feels that Google Earth has revealed the legendary island.
Although this particular landform, officially known as the Great Meteor Seamount, has been widely studied for years by scientists studying seismology and geology, no one has ever made the connection to Saint Brendan's Isle. […] Judging by the satellite images, the submerged island is part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which, although located underwater, is the world's largest mountain range. As you can see by the Google Earth pictures, Saint Brendan's Island, at one time, may have been the southernmost tip of a much larger "lost continent". Perhaps Atlantis?
In the Middle Ages, Brendan’s Island and the others he visited were identified with the Isles of the Blessed from Greco-Roman myth, a place that writers since Isidore of Seville in the sixth century had placed “in the Ocean opposite the left of Mauretania, very near the West, and separated from one another by the sea” (Etymologies 6.8), in other words, the Canary Islands. Since the Age of Exploration, Europeans identified St. Brendan’s Island as the non-existent eighth Canary Island, and they therefore placed the island near the Canaries on maps down to the eighteenth century. The author of the blog cites one such 1707 map as remarkably similar to the Great Meteor Seamount, but the author fails to note that mapmaker Guillame Delisle annotated the island as fictitious: “In this vicinity a few authors place the fabulous island of St. Brendan.” That goes back to the island’s identification with the Canaries, not to reality.
The Great Meteor Seamount can’t be St. Brendan’s Island for a number of reasons. The most salient is this: If you want to use legend of St. Brendan as an accurate guide to geography, you’d need to accept the description of the island as covered n plants and precious stones—and inhabited! Here’s the relevant passage from the Navigatio, from the ninth century or so:
When we entered the boat and set sail, clouds overshadowed us on every side, so dense that we could scarcely see the prow or the stern of the boat. After the lapse of an hour or so, a great light shone around us, and land appeared, spacious and grassy, and bearing all manner of fruits. And when the boat touched the shore; we landed, and walked round about the island for fifteen days, yet could not reach the limits thereof. No plant saw we there without its flower; no tree without its fruit; and all the stones thereon were precious gems. But on the fifteenth day we discovered a river flowing from the west towards the east, when, being at a loss what to do, though we wished to cross over the river, we awaited the direction of the Lord. While we thus considered the matter, there appeared suddenly before us a certain man, shining with a great light, who, calling us by our names, addressed us thus’: ‘Welcome, worthy brothers, for the Lord has revealed to yon the land He will grant unto His saints. There is one-half of the island up to this river, which you are not permitted to pass over; return, therefore, whence you came.’ (trans. Denis O’Donoghue)
The Great Meteor Seamount, needless to say, has never supported forests or sustained human habitation. What’s more, the other extant versions of Brendan’s voyage offer different accounts of the island, and most are conflated with the Navigatio. For example, one Irish version of the Vita Brendani, the Life of Brenainn, tells a somewhat similar story (Book of Lismore 3843f.). Once again the island is fruitful and abundant, a place of paradise, its description seemingly taken from the Navigatio. It is similarly inhabited, this time by an old man covered in white feathers. But there is no mention of the island—or any voyage of Brendan—between the saint’s death in the 500s and the Vita, meaning that the story emerged only in the 800s CE and is likely to be a reflection more of Isidore’s Fortunate Islands than a real trip.
Isidore’s paradise is a very specific one, drawn from Greco-Roman precedents:
The Fortunate Islands signify by their name that they produce all manner of good things, as if they were happy and blessed with an abundance of fruit. For suited by their nature they produce fruit from precious trees; grape vines of their own accord clothe the hillsides; instead of grass, crops (i.e., wheat) and vegetables are common. Hence, the error of the Gentiles and of the songs of the poets, which suppose this place to be the same as Paradise because of the fertility of the soil. (14.6.8, my trans.)
In chapter 25 of the Navigatio, Brendan encounters an island of abundant and endless grapes. The paradise he finds exceeds that of the Fortunate Islands and therefore is essentially heaven, but a Christian one, surpassing the pagan Islands of the Blessed recorded by Isidore.
None of this has anything to do with a ridge in the Atlantic Ocean which no one knew existed until the 1920s.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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