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The saint who got to an island that doesn’t exist

Sailors, especially if from the Canary Islands, will tell you that the island of San Borondón exists. It appears and disappears in the sea, and lights flicker on its surface from time to time. Many claim to have seen it, although no one has officially set foot on its shores, except for legendary testimonies that are impossible to prove.

In many medieval cartographies, such as those of Ebstorf or Beccario (and even in 18th century documents), the famous island of San Borondón (the Irish Saint Brendan) is almost part of the Canary archipelago.

Today, most consider it a mirage caused by warm winds blowing across the Atlantic. But Saint Brendan’s Island is not an irrelevant, minor myth. It is part of perhaps the most epic of all legendary pilgrimages: the journey of a holy sailor to paradise and back.

Saint Brendan the Navigator

Brendan of Clonfert is one of the famous Twelve Apostles of Ireland, a group of expeditionary saints who lived between the 6th and 8th centuries and spread Christianity beyond the borders of the then known world. Today, a beautiful pilgrimage route in County Cork, Cosán Na Naomh, follows the path from Ventry Bay to St. Brandon’s (that is, Brendan) Mount.

Brendan is known for a very special journey. According to tradition, he set sail with a dozen monks in search of the Promised Land of the Saints, as recounted in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, a tenth-century Immram.

In this mythical tale, Brendan set sail trusting the words of St. Barvitus, who told him how to reach the island of Paradise (a Christianization of Tír na nÓg, the island of eternal life in Celtic mythology).

The mysterious island

For seven years, Brendan pilgrimaged the seas aboard a run-down currach made of animal skins. As you would expect from any epic seafaring tale, he and his companions face all sorts of dangers. For example, arriving on a small island on Easter Sunday, Brendan and his fellow sailors celebrate Mass. All goes well until the “island” wakes up. Soon they realize they have stepped onto the back of a sea monster and must flee at full speed.

According to the epic, Brendan discovered paradise somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean in 512 CE. He and his fellow monks spent fifteen days on the island, celebrating mass and enjoying its lush vegetation, abundant wildlife, and perpetual sunshine. The saints gathered there greeted the crew and sent them back to tell everyone the good news –that paradise really does exist. The island then disappeared behind a thick fog.

The legend of Brendan the Navigator was one of the most famous sagas of the Middle Ages, and its text was copied and adapted many times. As a result, the island of paradise was located almost everywhere, from the Faroe Islands to the equator. But somehow it was in the Canary Islands (the 16th century’s favorite port of departure to America) that the legend survived to this day.

The “real” Brendan evangelized Ireland and Scotland, and although the current liturgical calendar does not actually celebrate his feast day, he is commemorated on May 16. He is considered the patron saint of boatmen, sailors, travelers, elderly adventurers, whales, the U.S. Navy, and canoeing.

Myth or truth?

Many have tried to pinpoint the true location of the legendary paradise, but none have succeeded. The most notable attempt was that of the Italian architect Leonardo Torriani, who visited the Canary Islands between 1584 and 1588 on behalf of Philip II to advise on the improvement of their fortifications. This cartographer described the island of Saint Brendan based on the testimony of sailors who claimed to have seen it and even landed on it, but he never personally verified the validity of these stories.

In the 1970s, the British explorer Tim Severin, famous for reconstructing Marco Polo’s voyage, decided to reconstruct St. Brendan’s voyage using a boat made from the same materials as the one the saint would have used. For 13 months, he sailed through the Hebrides, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland all the way to Newfoundland, proving that the trip was feasible and that many of the places described in the Navigatio were similar to those he had encountered. This led some scholars to believe that the “Promised Land” could have been America and that St. Brendan was the first European to set foot there.

Scientific verification is impossible, but the mythical trip has certainly inspired explorers like Magellan, writers like Tolkien, classical composers (Shaun Davey’s Brendan Voyage), and even video games –be sure to check out Assassins Creed: Valhalla.

Passport to Ireland’s Medieval Pilgrim Trails


This post is also available in: Español Italiano

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