Today is the feast day of Saint Brendon, patron saint of sailors, divers and also whales. He’s a pretty popular saint in his native Ireland, probably second only to Saint Patrick. Though frankly, why people go for Patrick in such a big way when they have a saint like Brendon, I find hard to understand.
Early Irish monks were adventurous souls who loved to set off across the sea in tiny boats, believing that God would take them where they needed to go. Brendan had already travelled quite widely when he met an Abbot named Barrid told him an intriguing tale of how he had ventured west across the sea and visited Paradise.
Brendan built a boat with a hull made from leather stretched over a wooden frame. He gathered together a company of either 14, 16 or 17 other monks and, somewhere between 512 and 530 AD, set off on a voyage of his own. The story of his seven year adventure is pretty amazing. They encountered an island inhabited only by a dog and an Ethiopian devil, an island populated with giant sheep and an island of birds who sang psalms in praise of God. On Easter Day they landed on the back of a whale which they mistook for an island. When they lit a fire it sank beneath the waves. The whale, who was named Jasconius, didn’t bare them any ill will though. The monks celebrated Easter on his back every year for seven years. They met with many fish, birds and sea monsters including one with the head of a cat and horns in it’s mouth. They sailed past a crystal pillar and an island of blacksmiths, who threw fiery rocks at them. They came upon a coagulated sea and fertile islands with giant fruit. On a bare rock in the middle of the ocean, they saw Judas. We are told that this was where he went when he was allowed out of Hell on Sundays. They seem to have revisited some of the islands regularly, so they must have been sailing around in circles. But they did reach the land that the Abbot had spoken of, which became known as Saint Brendan’s Island, and eventually returned home.
The Voyage of Saint Brendon was such a popular tale, not just in Ireland but throughout Europe, that Saint Brendon’s Island appeared on many maps. Its location tended to change a fair bit though. When Columbus first set sail for America, he fully expected to find the island on his way. Its existence wasn’t fully discounted until the nineteenth century. More recently, people have started to believe that it could be a partially true account of an early voyage to America. There are certainly some quite big sheep on the Faroe Islands. The crystal pillar could be an iceberg. The blacksmiths throwing fiery stones could be an interpretation of an active volcano. The sea monster with horns in its mouth could easily be a walrus.
It is widely accepted now that the Vikings sailed to North America. The Vikings have tales of a settlement they call Vinland, which could be in America and they refer to the land to the south of it as ‘Irland it Mikla’ – ‘Greater Ireland’.
In 1976 a man named Tim Severin built a replica of Saint Brendan’s boat. He managed to sail it, with a small crew, from Ireland, via the Faroes, Iceland and past Greenland all the way to America. So such a journey would have been possible. When the leather hull was torn by a lump of ice they managed to stitch on a patch. Such a repair would have been impossible with a wooden or metal ship. They were particularly surprised to find that they were visited on their journey by many whales. It’s quite likely that they thought the big leather boat was some new, odd sort of whale that needed investigating.