Friday, May 16, 2008

St. Brendan and the Legend of Hy Breasal

Today is Saint Brendan's Feast Day, which honors the Irish-born saint that legend claims sailed to the America's in the fifth century CE. The story goes that he and 14 other monks set sail in a leather clad vessel known as a coracle in search of the Garden of Eden.

Some say he did, in fact, reach the shores of the New World since Columbus researched Brendan's legend when planning his Western route to Asia.

In the 1970's, adventurer Tom Severin, attempted the same journey using a coracle similiar to that of Saint Brendan.

To early mapmakers, it would seem logical that Brendan would have sighted Hy Breasal, an island in the Atlantic west of Ireland. Found on maps from 1325 to 1513, Hy Breasal was said to, according to Celtic legend, only appear at sunset, shrouded in mists. The Celts viewed it as a 'blessed stormless isle, where all men are good and all the women pure and where God retreats for a recreation from the rest of us'.

In addition to this mythical island, these same early maps would include St. Brendan's Island as well, which some believe was merely the tip of a pre-Columbian iceberg: North America.

The legends of these islands endured so long that it wasn't until the 1870's that they were finally removed from some Admiralty charts.
I do wonder, however, if such a place actually existed. Can, in a fit of tectonic rage, the ocean swallow an island? Perhaps as the oceans rose after the last ice age, the once very real Hy Breasal sank into myth...


RRRGroup said...

The problem, Cullan ,with St, Brendan's "visit" and all the other alleged earlier-than-Columbus discoveries of America is a lack of palpable evidence.

There must have been some adventurous sous(s) who made it here before 1492, but why didn't they leave or make a record of such a stupendous feat?


Cullan Hudson said...

Some say the evidence is there. Even amid the schitzophrenic garbage of diffusionist "proof" lie one or two compelling pieces of evidence. There are the Heavener Runestones, to cite one example I grew up with. They have neither been proven nor disproven, instead sort of swept under the rug with a nervous chuckle by the establishment, which prefers to not talk about them.

Of course, it doesn't help when the stones' chief champion became a diffusionist nut, claiming the discovery of all sorts of jumbled cultural messes. You know the type: some epigraphers wet dream where elements of Celtic, Phoenician, and Egyptian language are scratched in sandstone next to Native American pictographs and even early pioneer graffiti. Talk about contamination, but I digress...

So, it may be that the evidence is out there already or it is still awaiting discovery. It has only been in the last few decades that the theory that Norse explorers visited North America around ca. 900 really became established with solid evidence. Now the question remains, how much further did they penetrate?

Cullan Hudson said...

Plus, for those adventurous souls who traveled here with little more than was necessary, I doubt their "footprint" on the North American continent was staggering. After all, they would have arrived as scouts first to do a little poking around. Later, settlements would have come. It seems in the case of the Norse (the strongest case thusfar) that things in their society began to collapse just at the time of their biggest journey's westward. The brief settlement at New Foundland collapsed, as did Greenland. They seemed to, in a short period, retreat back to only as far as Iceland.

Word Woman said...

So true. Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack (to adapt a saying). The problem is that all of our research into early cultural presence in a local is based on finding "monuments", "artifacts", etc. The problem is found among peoples for whom edifice building consisted of using dirt and wood and who left a footprint that was 100% safe to its environment (eat your heart out Al Gore!). Centuries of floods, natural fires, and presuppositions about early peoples - often meant that many "proofs" were simply not of the lasting type.

RRRGroup said...

Well, is "discoverers" can't take the time to create a record of their accomplishment, to hell with them.


Cullan Hudson said...


Dammit, men. You're not leaving anything behind!

Perhaps they were relentlessly drilled with the naturalist credo, "pack out your garbage".

Cullan Hudson said...

Iceland, the Azores, Ascension, Saint Helena, and Tristan da Cunha are all peaks of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a submerged volcanic range that bisects the Atlantic Ocean. Most of ridge lies 9,800 to 16,400 feet below the surface.

However, unlike subduction zones, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is a boundary where tectonics are spreading the ocean floor at a rate of 1.2 inches per year, meaning that since St. Brendan's time, the Atlantic has grown wider by approximately, 150 feet. This could be enough to engulf a small island resting on a Mid-Atlantic plateau, especially when coupled with the melt of glacial ice following the "little ice age".

Just such a plateau lies due west of Ireland and is less than 500 feet deep. When the last ice age (Pleistocene) ended, sea levels had risen over 350 feet. Add to this subsequent tectonic activity and flooding and we have a curious theory for the demise of these islands. Could these mythical lands have been swallowed by the Atlantic?

There just doesn't seem to be any evidence for it as yet. Undersea earthquakes toppling ridges might explain its vanishment. Although no historical data exists, there is a known underwater earthquake zone between Ireland and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

I think with the proper resources, it would be an intriguing adventure to search for either St. Brendan's Island or Hy Breasal.