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May 16 Did Brendan discover N. America 1000 years before Columbus?


A book known as Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot) full of exploration, religious symbolism, and strange fantastic tales was written in the 9th Century. Christopher Columbus used it to plan his trips, did this describe the earlier historical voyage of Brendan the Navigator?


After a spate of recent reconstructions and investigations into the voyage it has become Impossible to dismiss it totally as legend, it may describe a successful journey across the Atlantic via Iceland to the East Coast of the American Continent. The book was known widely in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, to the extent that Christopher Columbus used it as a reference to guide and support his assertion that lands were reachable across the Atlantic. Paul Chapman argues that Columbus learned from the Navigatio that the currents and winds would favour westbound travel by a southerly route from the Canary Islands, and eastbound on the return trip by a more northerly route, and hence followed this itinerary on all of his voyages.


Brendan built a currach-like boat of wattle, covered it with hides tanned in oak bark and softened with butter, and set up a mast and a sail. The tradition of being a peregrinatio pro Christo ("exile for Christ"). Where individuals permanently left their homes and put themselves entirely in God's hands is a well attested to tradition in Celtic Monasticism (see pod of May 11). Most of the journeys were Eastward to Scotland or Europe across smaller seas. To journey Westwards across the North Atlantic Ocean is such small boats was a very different challenge. In fact in 1976, adventurer, writer, and historian Tim Severin decided to build a traditional ship and see if it was even possible. Using traditional design and building techniques he fashioned a modern currach, christened it Brendan and set off from Ireland to reach North America. Successful in showing that it could have been done, Severin published a book and an article in National Geographic Magazine, and gave new life to the ancient tale, which many had dismissed as a legend.

When Columbus and others returned from their famous explorations, and opened up a new world to be explored (see pod of May 4) people began to re-examine the story of St. Brendan and look for correlations between its islands and the newly discovered lands to the west. Those who were optimistic, and perhaps influenced by confirmation bias, see possible evidence of the author’s knowledge of far northern sea ice, the vast Eastern Woodlands, and even the low sandy islands of the Bahamas. Some scholars point to the similarities between the written “Voyage” and older Celtic myths as an indication that knowledge of western lands may go back even further, and simply have been re-told with Brendan cast as the lead. The story belongs to the group of Irish romances, the Navigations (Imramma) which seem to be related to the classical body of the wanderings of Jason, Ulysses, and Aeneas.


Of the different versions of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot) there are over 100 manuscripts of the narrative throughout Europe and many translations contain many parallels and inter-textual references to Bran and the Voyage of Máel Dúin. The story begins with Saint Barrid telling of his visit to the Island of Paradise, which prompts Brendan to go in search of the isle (which he thinks is the Garden of Eden). He gathers a group of 14 monks, they fast at three-day intervals for 40 days, and visit Saint Enda for 3 days and 3 nights. 3 latecomers join the group (possibly unbelievers and they interfere with Brendan's sacred numbers. They leave the Kerry Coast. They find an island with a dog, mysterious hospitality (no people, but food left out), and an Ethiopian devil. One latecomer admits to stealing from the mysterious island; Brendan exorcises the Ethiopian devil from the latecomer; and the latecomer dies and is buried. They find an island of sheep, eat some, and stay for Holy Week (before Easter). They find the island of Jasconius, celebrate Easter Mass, and hunt whales and fish. They find an island that is the "Paradise of Birds", and the birds sing psalms and praise God. They find the island of the monks of Ailbe, who have magic loaves, do not age, and maintain complete silence. They celebrate Christmas. They find a "coagulated" sea. A sea creature approaches the boat, but God shifts the sea to protect the men. Another sea creature comes, chops the first into three pieces, and leaves. The men eat the dead sea creature. They find an island of 3 choirs of anchorites (monks), who give them fruit, and the second latecomer remains while the others leave. The sea is clear, and many threatening fish circle their boat, but God protects them. They find an island, but when they light a fire, the island sinks; they realize that it is actually a whale. They find a volcano, and demons take the third latecomer down to Hell. They find Judas Iscariot sitting unhappily on a cold, wet rock in the sea, and learn that this is his respite from Hell for Sundays and feast days. Brendan protects Judas from the demons of Hell for one night. They find an island where Paul the Hermit has lived a perfect monastic life for 60 years. He wears nothing but hair and is fed by an otter. They find the Promised Land of the Saints. They return home, and Brendan dies.


The narrative is characterized by much literary license, e. g., it refers to Hell where “great demons threw down lumps of fiery slag from an island with rivers of gold fire” (perhaps Icelandic Volcanoes) and also to “great crystal pillars” (Icebergs) . In a medieval Dutch version his voyage takes 9 years and the journey began as a punishment by an angel who saw that Brendan did not believe in the truth of a book of the miracles of creation and threw it into a fire. The angel tells him that truth has been destroyed. Brendan's voyages were one of the most remarkable and enduring of European legends, and the question remains… where was the promised land of the Saints that he discovers at the end? And Island of Faroese stamp depicting Saint Brendan, takes up a version that the island he discovered was in the Faroe Islands. Various pre-Columbian sea charts indicated it everywhere from the southern part of Ireland to the Canary Islands, Faroes, or Azores; to the island of Madeira. There is no reliable evidence to indicate that Brendan ever reached Greenland or the Americas. However recently, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution champions the idea that stone-point styles in North America and Palaeolithic Europe are just too similar not to raise the possibility that trans-Atlantic voyages may go back to the very dawn of modern human cultures in Europe and North America.


How did Brendan end his life? He travelled to Wales and then the holy island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland . Kil-brandon (near Oban) and Kil-brennan Sound are named in his honour. Finally he returned to Ireland, and founded a monastery in Annaghdown, where he spent the rest of his life. He is thought to have established churches in Galway and Mayo, and was interred in Clonfert Cathedral. There are numerous songs been written about him and a variety of Novels and poems. He is the patron saint of sailors and travellers. At the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, a large stained glass window commemorates Brendan's achievements. In Ireland a long-distance path - the Brendan way- has been completed in his memory. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a poem called "The Voyage of Saint Brendan", included in his time-travel story "The Notion Club Papers", published posthumously (1992) in Sauron Defeated. He has also been adopted by the scuba diving industry as the Patron Saint of Scuba Divers. Ans in a recent video game Assassin's Creed Valhalla, players can solve many puzzles left by Brendan.