The Mythical Atlantic Islands

Four principal Atlantic archipelagos figure in our story. [An archipelago is an area of water with a cluster of islands in it, like Hawaii.]

  1. The Azores Islands [nine major islands in three clusters]
  2. The Madeira Archipelago [two major islands and a cluster of tiny islands]
  3. The Canary Islands [seven major islands]
  4. Cape Verde Islands [ten major islands]

The Azores lie west of Portugal. The other three groups lie west of North Africa. According to ancient Greek and Roman records, only the Canaries were inhabited when the Portuguese arrived in the 1400s.

As we discussed in the article about Neolithic petroglyphs, some historians are convinced that Bronze Age mariners discovered these islands between 5000 and 2300 BCE. They assert that the ancient petroglyphs found on the British Isles; in Brittany, France; and on the Iberian Peninsula were maps and diagrams recording western exploration and discoveries. Prehistoric man also left images of boats, some with sails.

A petroglyph at the Neolithic passage grave of Gavrinis which dates to c.3500 BCE. Dr. Reinoud M. De Jonge believes it is the oldest surviving drawing of a sailing ship.(1) A petroglyph of a ship on a stone in Michigan near the ancient copper mines, c.2500 BCE. Photo by Dr. de Jonge.(2) Images of boats painted on stones near Alta, Norway, dated to as early as 4200 BCE. (3)

Let’s fast forward 2000 years to historical records. The ancient Greek and Roman writings of Strabo (c64 BCE – c24 CE), Plutarch (46-120 CE), Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), and Ptolemy (90-168 CE) speak of ancient galleys that were capable of sailing as far northwest as Thule [Iceland] and as far southwest as the Fortunate Islands [either the Canary Islands or the Cape Verde Islands]. Pliny the Elder described the Fortunate Islands in great detail. His narration of Hanno the Navigator’s voyage hinted that the galleys may have traveled as far south as the equator.

By the time the Portuguese were searching for a route to the Far East that would avoid the Muslims, myths and legends about islands in the Atlantic abounded. We told you about the myth of Atlantis. We also told you how the Phoenicians and Etruscans circulated rumors to discourage other mariners from traveling outside the Pillars of Hercules.

Even the Phoenicians and the Etruscans thought the Atlantic was a mythical place. Rumors claimed that the air at the far reaches of Oceanus was so weak, it could not sustain normal life. Mariners feared huge whirlpools that sucked ships under. They thought that south of the equator, the sun was so hot it boiled the waters, liquidated all life, and burned a person’s body to black cinders.

Dangerous, diabolical creatures called Antipodes inhabited the opposite side of the world. Monsters living under the sea overturned vessels and devoured the people within. Strange women with eyes that sparkled like green and blue gems, could slay men with a single glance. Giants so tall they walked along the bottom of the sea with their heads and upper bodies above water scooped up vessels with their enormous hands and crushed them like walnuts.

On the other hand, since Egyptian times, the ancients thought there were paradise-like islands to the west, islands filled with treasure and blessed with warm, perfect weather. Those lands were not easy to find. Even if you found them, they were not easy to reach. Some islands were surrounded by sharp coral reefs. Some were veiled in mist. Some were guarded by fire-breathing dragons placed there by the gods.

By the Middle Ages, fact was so mingled with myth that mariners did not know which islands really existed and which islands were phantoms. Here are some of the myths:

The Fortunate Islands or The Islands of the Blessed

We told you in our article about Egypt how the ancients thought the sun-god Ra lived over the western horizon. Pharaohs, if they played their cards right, joined Ra after death. These ‘fortunate’ pharaohs sailed with Ra in his sun-boat to the afterlife, which was a perfect place where the gods and the blessed were privileged to spend eternity. Greek writers Homer and Horace(2) spoke about the Fortunate Islands in their poems. Sometimes they called them the Islands of the Blessed.

There was a commoner’s version of the myth, too. All people, even those who were not kings, were reincarnated after they died. Each life experience allowed him or her to become a better person. If they achieved that goal, he or she was awarded a better life experience in the next life. If after three incarnations, a person gained favor with the gods in some way, such as doing something heroic, that “fortunate person” or “blessed person” was sent to live for eternity on a special island with perfect weather, perfect food, and other perfect living conditions. Everything the blessed person wanted was found on those islands.

Greek writer Flavius Philostratus (c170-c250 CE) was very specific about the location of the Fortunate Islands. Philostratus lived in Athens during the era of Imperial Rome. He wrote that the Fortunate Islands were west of Libya and south of Mauritania, but no farther south because beyond Mauritania there was a desert that would not support a population [the Sahara]. Mauritania was the name that the Romans gave to the northwest corner of Africa. When the Muslims moved there in 711, they named it Marrakesh, which became Morocco in English.

Philostratus was writing before 250 CE. How did he know that the Sahara dessert ended south of Morocco unless the Greeks, Romans, and/or Phoenicians traveled as far as the Cape Verde Islands? That was more than a millennium before the Age of Discovery began in 1420.

Saint Brendan’s Island


German manuscript of St. Brendon and his monks on the whale, c1460 CE.(3)

St. Brendan [aka Brandon and Brandain] was a monk who lived in Christian Ireland about c.510 CE. That was before Christianity had reached its northern limit in the 600s. Father Brendan traveled to Scotland, Wales, Brittany, and other places around today’s British Isles to set up religious communities and found monasteries and churches. He wanted to follow the apostle Paul’s direction to “spread the Gospel.”

In the year 512 CE, Irish fishermen told Father Brendan there were more populated islands west of Ireland. He and fourteen monks loaded up a courragh [an open-decked Irish fishing vessel] and headed west to spread the Gospel there. In the middle of unknown waters, the monks came to a strange island covered in barnacles. It had no sand and no vegetation. Water spouted forth from a blow-hole in the middle of the island that sprayed them with a soft mist.

Suddenly a strange thing happened. The island began to move. When the monks realized they were standing on a giant whale, they jumped back on their ship and paddled as fast as they could. The whale breached, then dove for the bottom of the sea.

Either the whale returned or St. Brendon and his monks came upon another whale [versions differ] that guided them to a beautiful island. [Some versions of the legend say the whale carried the monks on his back.] The monks landed on the beach of the island and stepped ashore. Natives with coppery-colored skin and straight black hair [like American Indians] came forth to greet them. St. Brendon erected a wooden cross on a hill to stake his claim on the island for the Christian Church. Then he and his monks held a mass [Christian religious service] for the pagans. Finally, the Christians got back in their boat [or back on the whale] and returned to Ireland.

St. Brandon told the people of Ireland about the fantastic place he and the monks visited. However, when others went to look for it, they could not find it. Legend said the island had become enshrouded by a thick curtain of mist or fog.

An early story about St. Brendon’s Island was written in Latin in the 9th century called Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abatis [Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot]. It was about a monk named Barino who sailed in search of the island. He had heard it was west of Ireland. Barino reached his destination and, when he returned to Ireland, confirmed the place to be a paradise. Thick woods covered a mountainous terrain. The sun never set. It was always dry. Rivers supplied fresh water, and birds sang sweetly in the many trees. Flowers bloomed everywhere and trees dripped with fruit. [Some people wonder if he had come across the island of Madeira.]

Other versions of the legend claim that St. Brendan’s Island was one of the Blessed or Fortunate Islands. Medieval maps placed St. Brendan’s Island west of Ireland as you can see on the detail of a world map by Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius from 1570. [Hibernia is the Latin name for Ireland. Oceanus Occidentalis means Western Ocean.] S. Brandain Islands is northwest of the man playing a lute who is half sea-serpent. The Island of Brasil lies to his right. We will tell you about that next.


A detail of Septentrionalium Regionum [Region of the Northern Sea] by Abraham Ortelius from his atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum [Theater of the World], Holland, 1570.(4)

St. Brendan became the patron saint for sailors. He is usually drawn with a whale. [Art historians call the whale his attribute, like a symbol]. Brandon’s Hill near the English fishing port of Bristol was named after him. There used to be a chapel there. When ships passed by the hill on their way out to sea the sailors said a prayer to the saint to bless their voyage. Today the Catholic Church celebrates a feast day for St. Brandon on May 16.

During the two hundred years Europeans explored the Atlantic, they often named a newly discovered island St. Brendon’s Island. After they colonized the island, they renamed it something else. As a result, you will see many maps with St. Brendon’s Island drawn on them, each time in a different place. Usually on Medieval maps the island is west of Ireland. That is where medieval mariners went in search for it.

The Isle of Brasil

The legend of the Island of Brasil [aka Ilha de Brazil in Portuguese] also came from Irish folklore. Historians think the legend hints at an earlier discovery of the Azores islands than has been recorded in history books. Like St. Brendon’s island, Brasil was an illusive place west of Ireland somewhere in the Mar del Nort [Northern Sea]. It was cloaked in mist and unreachable except for one day every year. The name Brasil may have come from the Irish word Bress, which meant Blessed. In other words, the Legend of Brasil may have been another version of the Legend of the Blessed Islands.

One version of the legend claims that King Arthur of England [and of Camelot fame] was buried there during the 5th or 6th century after he discovered and claimed Iceland and Greenland for England. Arthur’s sister, Morgan, cast a spell on the island to cloak it in mist and make it impossible to find.

Basque storyteller Lope García de Salazar wrote that the island was “twenty-five leagues off Cape Longaneas.” Cape Longaneas was the Basque name for Cornwall’s Lands End in England. Salazar described how ships from Bristol sighted the “round, small and flat” island, but were perpetually unable to reach it. Sometimes a storm prevented them. Sometimes it simply disappeared.(7)

Ortelius drew another map of the world two years later in 1572. He placed St. Brandain’s Island half way between Ireland and Terra de Baccaloas [Land of the Codfish, an early Portuguese name for Newfoundland].


Detail of Abraham Ortelius’ map of the North Atlantic “Septentrionalivm,” 1572.

Antilla [Opposite Isle] or Isle of the Seven Cities &
Satanazes [Isle of the Devils]

The name Antilla that we now use for the West Indies Islands, probably comes from Anti-Ilha, which literally translated to Opposite or Other Island, as in, the island on the opposite side of the Atlantic. [The name is spelled Antilha in Portuguese and Antylia in Venetian.]

The legend behind the mythical island of Antilla dates back to 712 CE, the year after the Muslims invaded the Iberian Peninsula. Two years earlier, in 710, a Christian king named Roderic became sovereign of the Visigoth Christians in Hispañia [today’s Portugal and Spain]. In 711, the Africans of Morocco, also known as the Moors, began their invasion of the peninsula. There are three versions of the tale regarding what happened to King Roderic.

No matter what happened to Roderic in 712, he was the ‘last king of the Goths.’

The Christian bishops in Braga were desperate to escape the same fate. As the Moorish armies approached, the archbishop of Portucale [today’s Porto and Braga] and six other bishops, loaded their flocks onto a bark and headed west across the Ocean Sea. Perhaps they were seeking St. Brendon’s Island or the Islands of the Blessed. [This was before the Norwegians settled Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland]. Eventually the bishops came to a fertile green island. They established seven cities, one for each bishop. The island became known as Antilla or the Island of the Seven Cities [Ilha das Sete Cidades].

The earliest known map to show the mythical Antilla [Antylia] was drawn in 1424 by Venetian cartographer Zuane Pizigano.(10) He grouped Antylia with another large island he labeled Satanazes [Satan’s Island]. Next to Satanazes, he wrote “this is the island called of the devils.” He drew a small satellite island called Ymana next to Antylia and a small island named Saya next to Satanazes. Pizigano positioned the islands about the same distance west of the Azores as he positioned the Azores from Iberia.

The mystery is, why did Pizigano make the islands so large and so colorful? Historians wonder if he was reporting the discovery of a larger landmass to the west. In 1436, Venetian cartographer, Andrea Bianco labeled the grouping “insulae de novo reperte” [islands newly reported].


Pizigano Portolan, attributed to Zuane Pizigano,Venice, 1424.(9)

Most historians agree that Pizigano’s map is strong evidence that mariners from Genoa or Portugal, or Venice, or maybe China ran into some very large islands or a land mass west of the Azores in or before the year 1424. That was sixty-eight years before Christopher Columbus reached Central America and seventy-three years before John Cabot reached Newfoundland. However, like so much of this history, the identity of those mariners, and the identity of the ‘real’ islands or landmasses that they found, is in question. We will include two of the many theories that have been proposed. Let us know what you think.

Pizigano Portolan with a sketch of the islands by Manuel Luciano da Silva.(11)

Theory No. 1. The islands represent New Zealand, Prince Edwards Island, and Nova Scotia.

The late Manuel Luciano da Silva from Coimbra, Portugal, determined that the latitude lines on Pizigano’s map placed the islands in the North Atlantic. He believed the islands to be Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward’s Island in Canada. He asserted that it was the Portuguese who first discovered those lands, and that when the Spanish named the Caribbean islands Antillas, they stole the discovery rights from the Portuguese.

Theory No. 2. The Islands are Puerto Rico and Guadalupe

In his popular book 1424, author Gavin Menzies explained how Antylia and Satanazes were the Caribbean Islands of Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe. He compared the geography in great detail and proposed that Satanazes was called the Devil’s Island because cannibals lived there. Christopher Columbus encountered the Caribs on Guadeloupe in 1492.  Menzies asserted that the Chinese Treasure Fleets that explored the oceans between 1421 and 1423 were the first to survey the islands. After the fleets returned to China in 1423, Portuguese and Venetian cartographers acquired the Chinese maps. Menzies is convinced that Pizigano’s map proves that the Chinese fleets traveled as far as the eastern seaboard of the Americas.

This does not explain why Pizigano made the islands so large. Could he have been referring to Cuba and today’s Haiti|Dominican Republic [where the Columbus brothers established the first Spanish American colony, Hispañola]?

In 1455, cartographer Bartholomeo Pareto drew Antillia as a large island which is literally on the opposite side of the Atlantic.


Map of the Atlantic Islands by Bartholomeo Pareto, 1455.(12)

In 1489 Genoese cartographer Albino de Canepa drew the portolan shown below. He spells things differently, but displays a lot of interesting information. [We included a link to a higher resolution version of the map in our Notes.] This map was drawn three years before Christopher Columbus, also a Genoese, set sail for America, and four years after Columbus proposed the same voyage to the king of Portugal João II.


Portolan of western Eurasia and Atlantic by Albino de Canepa, 1489.(13)

When Columbus headed west for India, he was certain that Antilla was the next stepping stone after the Cape Verde Islands on his way across the Atlantic. This is confirmed by the globe of the world that Martin Behaim of Nuremberg built in 1492, the same year Columbus sailed. Believing that the next continent west was China, not the Americas, Behaim placed Antilla in the middle of the Oceanus Orientalis [Eastern Ocean] between the west coast of Libia [Africa] and the east coast of Cathay and Manji [China]. [He placed Antilla at a lower latitude than the islands in Theory No. 1 and at a higher latitude than the islands in Theory No. 2.] Behaim also included the mythical island of Sant Brandan, and the ‘real’ island of Japan [using Marco Polo’s nomenclature, Cipangu]. He omitted Satanazes.

Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel [Apple] Globe. Globe created 1492, Drawing 1898.(14)

Do we need proof?

For the purposes of this web site, Pizigano’s map places a bold marker on our time-line. The discovery of the Americas, or her off-shore islands, most likely occurred during or before the year 1424, not 1492. After that year, and for the next few decades, cartographers often grouped Satanazes and Antilla with Ymana and Saya, referring to them collectively as the Antillas.

In 1502, the anonymous artist of the Cantino Planisphere sealed the fate of the name Antilles when he gave it to the West Indies. That is how it has been ever since. The Portuguese, as we shall see, will head northwest and rediscover Newfoundland and then southwest and discover Brazil.

Detail from the Cantino Planisphere, anonymous, 1502.(13)

The island of Bermuda inherited the name Isle of the Devils, at least as a nickname. [Columbus and the Spanish had annihilated the cannibals on Guadeloupe by that time.] Bermuda is surrounded by dangerous razor-sharp reefs that caused many shipwrecks, helping it to inherit the name Isle of the Devils. In our web-book Before Winthrop, we will include the story of the wreck of the SeaVenture on Bermuda in 1609. The SeaVenture was the flagship for one of Jamestowne Colony’s rescue fleets. Birds on the island, known as cahows, emitted an eerie sound at night that confirmed to the castaways that the island was haunted.

Another theory about the name Satanazes is that cartographers morphed the label into the name of a small archipelago between Madeira and the Canary islands called the Savage Islands. As illustrated by Albino de Canepa’s portolan above, the variety of spellings for place-names was as great as the number of cartographers and the number of countries they came from.

Notes

  1. Dr. Reinoud M. De Jonge and Jay Stuart Wakefield, How the Sun God Reached America c. 2500: A Guide to Megalithic Sites. Published by the authors ©2002 MCS Inc. All rights reserved. IBN 0-917054-19-0 MCS Inc, Box 3392, Kirkland, WA USA 98083-3392
  2. Petroglyph of a boat by Dr. Reinoud M. De Jonge and Jay Stuart Wakefield posted to their website How the Sun God Reached America c. 2500: http://www.howthesungod.com.
  3. Petroglyphs from Alta, Norway. Photos licensed by Wikimedia.
  4. Homer lived in ancient Greece sometime between the 12th and 7th century BCE. Horace lived in ancient Rome between 65 and 8 BCE.
  5. Book illustration Manuscriptum translationis germanicae Cod. Pal. Germ. 60, fol. 179v (University Library Augsburg, Germany), c1460 CE. {{PD-old}} Public domain. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/
    File:Saint_brendan_german_manuscript.jpg
  6. Ortelius, Abraham. Detail map from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, “Septentrionalium Regionum” [Region of the Northern Sea], Antwerp, 1570. {{PD-old}} Public domain for USA and Holland. Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/
    Ortelius,_Abraham_Septentrionalivm_regionvm_descrip.jpg
  7. Quoted by David Hunter in his The Race to the New World, p. 17
  8. Ibid. Ortelius, Abraham. Detail map from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
  9. Zuane Pizigano was possibly related to the Pizigano brothers mentioned in other articles.
  10. Pizigano Portolan. Attributed to Zuane Pizigano,Venice, 1424. {{PD-old}} Public domain. Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zuane_Pizzigano
  11. We obtained this information in 2015 from an article “The Biggest Lie of the Cantino Map!”, by Manuel Luciano da Silva, Medical Doctor, August 25 2003. url: http://www.dightonrock.com/thebiggestlieofthecantinomap.htm. Unfortunately, as I write in 2016, Dr. Da Silva’s web site is no longer online. I suspect that after the doctor passed away, there was no one to maintain his web site.
  12. Map of the Atlantic Islands showing Antillia by Bartholomew Pareto - Original sea chart, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4936119. Image source url: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antillia#/media/File:Pareto_1455.jpgBehaim, Martin, Erdapfel [Apple] Globe. Reproduction of the globe of Martin Behaim, Encyclopedia Larousse illustree - 1898 derivative work, Globe created 1492. {{PD-old}} Public domain. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MartinBehaim1492.png
  13. Portolan of western Eurasia and Atlantic by Albino de Canepa, 1489, housed in the James Ford Bell Library. [[PD-old] Public Domain. Image source url: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portolan_chart_by_Albino_de_Canepa_1489.jpg
  14. Behaim, Martin, Erdapfel [Apple] Globe. This is a tracing of the derivative drawing created for the Encyclopedia Larousse,Reproduction of the globe of Martin Behaim, Encyclopedia Larousse illustree - 1898 derivative work, Globe created 1492. {{PD-old}} Public domain. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MartinBehaim1492.png
  15. Anonymous, Cantino Planisphere, 1502. {{PD-Old}} Older than 100 years. Public Domain. Image source url: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9c/Cantino_planisphere_(1502).jpg

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