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Friday, October 17, 2014

Did the Irish "Discover" the New World? The Tale of St. Brendan

We are just a few days removed from Columbus Day, which celebrates the arrival of Christopher Columbus and crew to the "New World" in 1492.  Of course, any elementary school student can tell you that Columbus was far from being the first person to land in the Americas.  History has proven that others (to include Viking Leif Erikson and possibly even the Chinese) arrived long before the hulls of Columbus' Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria ever touched American soil. 

History is replete with tales (some true, some fictional) of adventurers who braved the waters of the Atlantic and discovered "new worlds" that were full of fantastic plant, animal and even human life. It is likely that we will never truly know which groups of people made their way to the Americas, but what is clear is that the oceans were not vacant of ships of brave people who were willing to try. 

When it comes to verifying these stories, one of the many problems is the fact that the written record was hard to come by.  Prior to the invention of Gutenberg's Printing Press, word of mouth only took stories so far, and most of these stories were just that: stories.  The ability to produce a mass account that was verifiable was extremely difficult to do.  This is why Columbus' story is the most popular (had Columbus sailed just six decades earlier one wonders if his story would have been as well known).

One of the many stories of brave sailors is that of Saint Brendan (c. 484 - c. 577), an Irish monk from the early Medieval period.  Very little is known about the actual man outside of two texts that have survived from both the 8th and 11th centuries, both of which were written several hundred years after Brendan's death, but are likely based on earlier copies.  Brendan was born in Tralee (southwest Ireland) to Christian parents (arguably some of the earliest Christian parents in Ireland) who raised him to become the same.  He was ordained a Priest in the Catholic Church in 512 and dedicated his live to spreading the Christian message throughout his native Ireland and surrounding areas. 

In addition to devoting his life to the church, Brendan was an avid and passionate sailor.  Records reveal that Brendan spent a tremendous time at sea, visiting nearby islands and cities where he converted large groups of people to Christianity and established a number of monasteries. Brendan’s prowess as a navigator of the sea became well known and he was eventually joined by many other sailors and missionaries who augmented his crew and allowed him to venture even further out into the Atlantic

But Brendan's greatest claim to fame comes from the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot and one of the two surviving documents mentioned above),which tells the tale of Brendan's adventures to discover the Garden of Eden.  Brendan had heard the legends regarding the supposed location of the Garden of Eden from St. Barinthus, who claimed to have made the voyage a few years earlier.  The Navigatio Brendani states that Brendan, along with fourteen other brave sailors, fasted for forty days (each person fasting for 2-3 days to total 40 days as a group) and asked God to guide them on their quest for the Garden of Eden.

During their journey, Brendan's crew encounters massive sea monsters and other fantastic sites that astound the reader (is it any wonder why the Navigatio Brendani became a Medieval best seller?).  Brendan & Co. make a number of stops at previously undiscovered islands where they encounter a vast assortment of plant, animal and human life (there is even one occasion in which a talking bird prophecies to the men about their voyage).

Eventually, the crew arrives at what they call "St. Brendan's Island" where they discover the most beautiful land ever.  According to the Navigatio Brendani, the men remain in the land for several days and bask in the abundant fruits, nuts, jewels and other treasures they discovered.  It isn't until they discover an uncrossable river that the men turn back, with their goods in hand, to Ireland where they share their tale of adventure and discovery. Incidentally, it is the tale of St. Brendan's Island that inspired one Walt Disney to offer up his own unique spin on Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio. Disney's depiction of Pleasure Island (which can be seen by clicking here) was the result of his reading about St. Brendan's adventures.

Naturally, the modern reader senses a number of problems with this tale.  It is clearly full of hyperbole and drama that is typical of any medieval adventure saga.  Almost nobody takes the story at face value.  But like any ancient or medieval tale, there is almost always a few kernels of truth.  Is it possible that St. Brendan ventured far out into the Atlantic and discovered an unknown and beautiful land?

A few people think so.

Author and amateur historian Dattatreya Mandal has the following to say on the matter:
So...what lends credence to this incredible conjecture that puts [Brendan]at the pantheon of New World exploration?  Well, quite curiously, the first known European colonists of America are the ones who tantalizingly provide the much needed allusions.  Yes, we are talking about the Vikings themselves.  The sagas of the Norsemen provide numerous glimpses into how they perceived different foreigners; and in various cases, the Irish were seen as sea-faring people with aptitude for exploration.  Celtic mythology also mirrors this appraisal, with fantastical accounts of the famous Irish voyagers like Bran and Maeldun.
The most intriguing contents of these sagas relate to how the Vikings found Irish-sponsored Christian missionaries in Iceland from before the time they colonized the island.  The 'tumble down the rabbit-hole' continues with one special Scandinavian account mentioning the Norsemen meeting with a particular group of Native Americans who had supposedly seen Europeans before their encounter with the Vikings. There are even vague tales in the early medieval sagas that hint at some natives of the New World speaking a derivative of the Irish language.  Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the Vikings under Leif Erikson called the expansive landmass south of 'Vinland' by the name of 'Irland it Mikla (or Greater Ireland).   

In addition, modern day sailor and navigator Tim Severin demonstrated in 1978 that it was indeed possible to make the journey from Ireland to America using the type of boat that Brendan built in his day: 


Of course, the connections made by Mr. Mandal and the voyage of Mr. Severin do not definitively prove anything other than the possibility exists that Brendan and his crew could have ventured as far to the east as the Americas.  Is it likely?  Not really?  But was it possible? Yes.

In the end, we will never know if Brendan and his brave crew ever landed in the Americas or not. Personally, I think it is highly unlikely.  What I take from the saga of St. Brendan is this: exploration and adventure have always been at the heart of the human spirit.  That and it is quite likely that humans have been exploring for longer (and further out) than we probably think.  If I were a gambling man, I would bet AGAINST the idea that St. Brendan landed in the Americas, but I would also bet in FAVOR of the notion that human beings have been exploring (even as far out as the Americas) all the way back to medieval and even ancient times. 

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