Brendan's Isle


The idea of floating islands which then turn out to be living monsters was first popularized in the original bestiary, the Physiologus, that was compiled in Alexandria in the third or fourth century CE. This was the basis of most Medieval bestiaries and its indiscriminate blend of fact, myth and fantasy helped colour the Medieval European world view almost as much as the Bible, which it rivalled as bestseller. Unicorns, Griffins and a host of other fabulous creatures jostled elephants, apes, giraffes and the like, which to most readers seemed hardly more plausible, and which they were just as unlikely to meet in real life.

Tales from the Physiologus filtered east and west into a host of legends. In the Arabian Nights Sinbad colourfully tells how on his first voyage he came to an island that turned out to be a monster. This happened also to St Brendan and his monks in the celebrated tale of their fabulous Atlantic voyage which, among other things, has been read as suggesting the Irish discovery of America before even the Vikings. According to the story, St Brendan found a glut of strange islands out in the Atlantic, none stranger than this one:

'Their vessel ran aground and the monks, on their master's advice, stepped out into the shallows and tied ropes to either side of the boat so they could drag it ashore. The island was rocky and bare. There was hardly a grain of sand on the beach and just an occasional tree here and there. The monks landed and passed the whole night in prayer in the open. Brendan stayed aboard. He knew perfectly what kind of island it was but kept from telling the others in case they took fright.

'In the morning he told those monks who were priests to say Mass, which they did. Then the monks took from their vessel joints of raw meat and fish which they had brought with them, and sprinkled them with salt. Then they lit a fire and put a cooking pot on it. But when the pot began to boil, the island started to heave like a wave. The monks ran to the boat, begging their abbot to protect them. He dragged them in one by one and they set off, leaving behind everything they had taken ashore. The island moved away over the sea and from two miles and more the monks could still see their fire burning brightly. Brendan asked:
"Brethren, does the island's behaviour surprise you?"
'"We are almost petrified with fright," they replied.
'"Have no fear, my sons. Last night God revealed the meaning of this wonder in a dream. It was no island that we landed on, but that animal which is the greatest of all creatures that swim in the sea. It is called Jasconius."'

But whether by this name (which is simply derived from iasc, the Irish for 'fish') Brendan meant Leviathan, the Midgard Serpent, the Kraken or quite simply a whale, is left for us to guess.