When the Atlantic Ocean had many islands: The mythical and miraculous places west of medieval Europe

By Matthias Egeler

If one stands on the limestone cliffs of the island of Aran, off the western coast of Ireland, an unbounded view opens up towards the west. While deep below, on the foot of the cliff-face, the breakers roll in from the ocean and smash against the island’s bedrock, in the distance the blue of the Atlantic waters stretches on and on until it merges with the sky, the one blurring into the other in a way which almost obliterates the horizon. Irish storytelling – both the storytelling of modern folklore and that of medieval literature – does not accept that this vast space between the Old World and the New could truly be an empty one.

Local Irish tradition knows of an Árainn Bheag or ‘Little Aran’, which sometimes can be encountered west of the ‘big’ Aran of real-world topography. This Little Aran is the same island as the isle of Hy Brazil that appears on maps as prominent in the history of cartography as the world map of Gerhard Mercator and that was the destination (though never reached) of a number of voyages of exploration that set sail from Bristol in the 1480s, just a few years before, from the same harbour, John Cabot put to sea to become the first European after the Vikings to set foot on the North American mainland.


Hy Brasil on the world map of Gerhard Mercator (1569). After M. Jomard, Les monuments de la géographie, Paris [1858-1862], plate 77.
Another, and much earlier, denial of the emptiness of the Atlantic Ocean is represented by the Hiberno-Latin Navigatio Sancti Brendani, the ‘Voyage of St Brendan’. This early medieval text tells of how this saint, pushing forward into the Atlantic to the west of Ireland, encountered a whole kaleidoscope of miraculous islands, ranging from island hermitages inhabited by venerable monks to the Earthly Paradise itself, the paradisus Dei in spacio maris, the ‘Paradise of God in the vastness of the sea’. Just as Little Aran or Hy Brazil, the miraculous and paradisiacal island world discovered by Saint Brendan also made the transition from storytelling to cartography.

The world map of Hereford, created around AD 1300, is only one of many examples of prominent historical maps that allocated a place in the real world to these islands of Christian myth. In the Atlantic to the west of North Africa, the Hereford map plots a chain of islands with the legend: fortunate insulee sex sunt insule sancti Brandani, ‘the six Islands of the Blessed are the Islands of Saint Brendan’. Setting out from the ports of Europe, generations of explorers later on tried to locate this saintly world of islands, the last documented expedition in search of ‘Saint Brendan’s Island’ setting sail as late as the year 1727.


The Islands of the Blessed and Saint Brendan’s ‘Paradise of God in the vastness of the sea’ identified with each other on the world map of Hereford (c. AD 1300): an island with the legend fortunate insulee sex sunt insule sancti Brandani, ‘the six Islands of the Blessed are the Islands of Saint Brendan’. After M. Jomard, Les monuments de la géographie, Paris [1858-1862], plates 9/10.
The examples of Little Aran/Hy Brazil and the Islands of Saint Brendan illustrate a number of points that seem deeply characteristic for the longue durée of medieval European attitudes to the sea. There seems to be a geographical-mythological horror vacui, a desire to fill the empty spaces of the ocean, where no ‘real’ places can be found, at least with places of the imagination. These places of the imagination then seem to have a tendency to become the goals of real-world exploration. And there seems to be a striking degree of intercultural entanglement: mythical places of the imagination are passed on from culture to culture with remarkable ease. The Irish mythical island of Hy Brazil can be searched for by sailors setting out from an English port and can be entered on a map made by a continental European cartographer; the island world of the Hiberno-Latin ‘Voyage of Saint Brendan’ is entered on an English map and identified with the Islands of the Blessed of classical Graeco-Roman geographical mythology.

The imaginary islands of the Gaelic storytelling tradition of Ireland seem to form a crucial node both for the international entanglements of myths of islands in the western ocean and for their intricate connections with the history of maritime exploration. To the north-west of Ireland, the medieval Old Norse-Icelandic storytelling tradition continues the fascination with imaginary and semi-imaginary transmarine places that one can observe in Ireland – and it is even fascinated by the same stories. There, as Fridtjof Nansen noted more than a century ago, the Christian imaginary island of Hvítramannaland, the ‘Land of White Men’, appears to be directly based on an adaptation of Gaelic maritime storytelling as it is represented by the ‘Voyage of Saint Brendan’. Similarly, the Glæsisvellir (‘Shining Fields’) and the Ódáinsakr (‘Field of the Not-Dead’, ‘Field of Immortality’) seem to be reworkings of Irish storytelling motifs.

Even the first account of the Norse discovery of North America in Adam of Bremen’s History of the Bishops of Hamburg, probably written in the 1070s and 1080s, appears to recount a Norse adaptation of non-Norse topoi. Adam’s account of Canada (Winland, ‘Wine-Land’) is so clearly modelled on classical Graeco-Roman accounts of the Islands of the Blessed that Adam himself pauses and emphasises the reliability of his sources, trying to cover the obvious use of classical motifs, which he himself notices, by stressing the literal truth of his account.

There seems to be a convoluted but ultimately direct line that leads from Homer’s Odyssey, where, in the guise of the Elysian Plain, the Islands of the Blessed are first attested in European literature, to the Norse account of the discovery of North America. From the Greek ‘Islands of the Blessed’ (μακάρων νῆσοι, makaron nesoi) the way led to the Roman ‘Blessed Isles’ (Insulae Fortunatae), which, through the learning of Late Antiquity as it is represented by Isidore of Seville, influenced early medieval Irish conceptions of paradise islands, which in turn were adopted and adapted by the Norse. The resulting complex web of entanglements made it possible that the Norse sailors who told their tales to Adam of Bremen could use the same imagery of the Islands of the Blessed, which the world map of Hereford uses to locate the Gaelic imaginary islands of the ‘Voyage of Saint Brendan’.


At the same time, one wonders whether the Norse reception of Gaelic motifs, and of classical motifs mediated by Irish storytelling and learning, might not perhaps have done more than just colour stories. If the Norse of the Viking Age in Ireland were told of miraculous, paradisiacal islands in the west, was this received simply as a story? Or was it thought of as a promise and an incitement to push the boundaries of Norse exploration even further? Was Winland described in the imagery of the Islands of the Blessed merely because this imagery constituted a convenient topos to model a description on, or had the discoverers of Winland been chasing a classical geographical dream and thought they had found it?

In short, was the Norse westward expansion partly inspired by a mythology that had its origins in the Mediterranean of classical antiquity and which had been transmitted to the Norse via Ireland?

Cliffs on the west coast of Aran. Photo © M. Egeler, 2016.

Looking west from the cliffs of Aran, one certainly sees how visions of an Árainn Bheag or ‘Little Aran’ might arise from the shapelessness of the distant, disappearing horizon and how they could crystallise into a ‘Paradise of God in the vastness of the sea’ or a Hy Brazil to lure explorers farther and farther out into this very ‘vastness of the sea’, where rewards as precious as the ‘Paradise of God’ were awaiting. Whatever may be the role that Irish and classical geographical mythology played for the Norse westward expansion and ultimately for the Norse discovery of North America, this allure, and how its stories were passed on from one European seafaring culture to the next, certainly forms a central longue durée of medieval European maritime history up to the Age of Discoveries.


Matthias Egeler holds a Heisenberg fellowship at the Institut für Nordische Philologie of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich and is Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. He is the author of Islands in the West. Classical Myth and the Medieval Norse and Irish Geographical Imagination, published by Brepols. Click here to learn more about the book.

Top Image: The Atlantic Ocean and its islands in Abraham Ortelius World Map Typvs Orbis Terrarvm, 1570


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