St. Brendan and the Original Big Fish Story

Did St. Brendan encounter Jasconius the Living Island? The important thing to remember is that God can't be limited in His creativity.

Edward Reginald Frampton, ‘The Voyage of St. Brendan’, 1908
Edward Reginald Frampton, ‘The Voyage of St. Brendan’, 1908 (photo: Register Files)

Lord, You have made so many things! How wisely You made them all! The earth is filled with Your creatures. There is the ocean, large and wide, where countless creatures live, large and small alike. The ships sail on it, and in it plays Leviathan, that sea monster which You made. (Ps 104:24-26)

There was a time in Catholic circles when the story of St. Brendan landing on an island that turns out to be a sea monster was told with a straight face.

I'm not saying I'm necessarily dismissing the story. I'm merely lamenting the change in our society's Christocentric outlook on life.

This has nothing to do with the acceptance of science vis-à-vis science because science wouldn't be science without such brilliant and devout Catholic scholars as Fr. Georges Lemaître (Big Bang), Abbot Gregor Mendel (genetics), St. Nicholas Steno (stratigraphic dating), Jean-Baptist Lamarck (evolutionary theory), Fr. Nicholas Copernicus (heliocentrism), Louis Pasteur (germ theory), Blaise Pascal (mathematics), André-Marie Ampère (electrodynamics), Bl. Raymond Llull (computer science) and Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (electromagnetism), among hundreds of thousands of other faith-filled scientists.

Rather, it's because modernism makes us presume the supernatural is the last thing we should consider when presented with these kinds of mysteries.

This pseudologic is a complete aberration and misapplication of Ockham's Razor.

This kind of atheistic nihilism isn't the same as a healthy skepticism. After all, how else could we distinguish between truth and atheistic obfuscationism, aliteracy and intentional ignorance?

But, back to the big fish story at hand…

Fifty years after St. Patrick's death on March 17, 461, another Celtic monk continued the saint's work to convert Irish pagans to the Church. St. Brendan the Navigator (AD 488-577) was a native monk and an ol' pal of St. Columba—he of Loch Ness Monster fame

Brendan was born near Tralee in County Kerry and ordained a priest in AD 512. He traveled throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany to evangelize and establish monasteries including an important one at Clonfert where he's buried.

In addition to surviving an encounter with a monster big enough to pass for a small island, Brendan might very well have discovered America―long before Leif Ericsson or Christopher Columbus―according to the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, or the Voyage or Wandering of St. Brendan, a classic example of an immram. This is a genre of Old Irish tales centering around a hero's exploits at sea journey to the Otherworld such as the Mag Mell or Tír na nógImmram are usually moral tales depicting islands far to the west of Ireland.

According to this ancient Irish legend, a monk named Barinthus told St. Brendan that he had just returned from a visit to Paradise―“the land of promise and of the saints”―a land 40-days' voyage from Ireland.

At that, the 93-year-old St. Brendan fasted and prayed for 40 days on a mountain peak on the rugged Dingle Peninsula, in County Kerry, the southwestern most point of Ireland, in order to discern if he should go on a pilgrimage to Paradise. When he made his decision, he gathered to himself anywhere from 18 to 150 other monks, depending upon the source, for a voyage that lasted seven years.

For their conveyance, they used a 36-foot, traditional Irish, leather-covered wicker boat known as a curragh. Their adventures were compiled by a number of authors between AD 700 and AD 1000―a considerable time after Brendan's remarkable journey.

According to the Navigatio, the monks drifted from one island to the next, “following God’s stepping stones,” which might very refer be the string of islands stretching from Ireland to North America.

On Easter Sunday, the intrepid crew landed on a vast island replete with rocks, sandy beaches and trees happy to be able to celebrate Mass on dry land. After their prayers, they lit a campfire to warm themselves but the island, which they believed was terra firma, turned out to be the back of a huge, slumbering beast awakened because of the fire searing into its back.

The island bucked and started to submerge as realization finally hit St. Brendan and the monks beat a hasty retreat back to their boat. The “island” was actually Jasconius, known to the Greeks as Ouroboros and Jörmungandr to the Norsemen―the so-called “World Serpent” who struggles unsuccessfully to put his own tail in its mouth.

As they left the enormous beast, the monks made their way to the fabled island, also known as the “Land of Delight” or “Paradise.”

The boat landed in the midst of a fog on the shores of a lush and luxuriant island which abounded in flowers, fruit and colorful stones. After staying for 40-days, an angel told the men to return home to Ireland having been away for seven years.

Subsequent cartographers referred to this island as “St. Brendan’s Island.”

Their return voyage brought them back to Ireland via a circuitous route. Apparently, Brendan and his monks made it to the Azores off the coast of Portugal and then north to Ireland.

Some historians have suggested that 900 years after St. Brendan, Christopher Columbus visited Dingle, Ireland in order to research firsthand if a trip eastward across the Atlantic Ocean from that latitude could bring him to China.

Many scholars believe St. Brendan didn’t make it all the way to North America but there's the entire matter of the book describing his voyages and the ancient Scandinavian sagas referring to it.

But despite scholars' protestations, Leif Erickson had an Irish connection by way of marriage. His wife, Thjothhild, was the daughter of Jørundur Ulfsson and Thorbjørg Gilsdottir. Jørund's mother Bjørg was granddaughter to Irish king Cerball mac Dúnlainge (Kjarval) through his daughter Rafarta. Thus, it's not inconceivable that Irish sailors, perhaps hardy, adventuresome monks who were already accustomed to sailing around the British Isles and continental Europe, might have made their way to North America.

In addition, several Scandinavian epics, including The Saga of Eric the Red and the Eyrbyggja Saga, refer to the Irish having already visited North America long before the Vikings got there around AD 1000. In these texts, the Vikings referred to the lands south of their settlement in Vinland as “Irland it Mikla,” or “Greater Ireland.”

In the Saga of Eric the Red, the inhabitants of Great Ireland, also known as Hvítramannaland (Old Norse: White Men's Land; Latin: as Hibernia Major) had hair and skin as white as snow and wore white garments. They shouted loud cries, bore long poles and wore fringe on their clothes.

In the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, the saint related stories about floating crystal palaces, mountains in the sea spouting fireballs, little furry men, gigantic sheep, and monsters with catlike heads and horns growing from their mouths.

Without too much difficulties, we can find realistic explanations for the seemingly odd elements in the above account. For example, the crystal pillars to which the story refers could be icebergs. The enormous sheep depicted might be the very large breed of wild sheep native to the Faroe Islands. The little furry men could refer to the native Inuit population of North American and Greenland dressed in thick parkas. The cat-monsters with large teeth could be walruses. In addition, the foul-smelling fireballs could refer to pyroclastic lava from Iceland’s volcanoes. Admittedly, there are no giants in Iceland. The latter could simply be attributed to editorial error or perhaps Irish hyperbole.

In other words―basic blarney.

It's a valid question to ask if St. Brendan possessed the technology possible to make it across the icy North Atlantic. Tim Severin, adventurer, historian and shameless self-promoter, wondered the same question.

Severin was living in Ireland in the mid-1970s and found the tales of St. Brendan irresistible. He had already retraced the voyages of Marco Polo, Ulysses, Sinbad and Genghis and the lure/lore of Brendan was a natural extension of his other voyages. Severin embarked, literally, on exploring the possible route St. Brendan would have taken.

The historical recreationist built a curragh using oxhides prepared in an actual Irish tannery that still used the medieval manufacturing process. He gave it a square mast, typical of 6th century Ireland and, wanting to be completely authentic, asked Irish Bishop Eammon Casey to bless and christen the boat, “Brendan.”

Severin and his crew set out from Ireland on May 17, 1976 following St. Brendan’s “stepping stones”: Aran Islands, Scotland, the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

The 3,500-mile voyage was a perilous one with wild squalls and a perpetually leaky boat which often required the crew to restitch the torn oxhide hull with needle and thread while partially submerged in the freezing North Atlantic waters. Ice floes often scraped the sides of the flexible leather boat causing concern, if not outright panic.

Fifty days after they first shoved off, the intrepid crew of the Brendan landed upon the shores of Peckford Island in the Outer Wadham Group some 150 miles northwest of St. John’s, Newfoundland at 8:00 PM on June 26, 1977. Thus, they proved that St. Brendan and his monks could have made the same trip many centuries earlier using the technology at the time.

But even if the entire story were untrue, Columbus definitely knew about the Navigatio. A map he used when he embarked on his historic voyage in 1492 clearly described a large land mass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean labeled “St. Brendan’s Island.” Many people prior to Columbus tried vainly to look for this island.

Navigatio was among the biggest page-turners of the Middle Ages and became so widely known that cartographers began to include Paradise, recorded as “St. Brendan’s Island,” on maps.

The enormous, island-like sea monster which St. Brendan landed upon with his confreres technically has a proper name―Jasconius. It's also called a “aspidochelone” or “fastitocalon” and played prominently in medieval bestiaries.

This fabled creature is alternatively described as a huge whale or gigantic sea turtle. Either way, it's equipped with vicious-looking spines across the ridge of its back. From a distance, they give the impression of a tree-rimmed island. It uses its island-like look to its evolutionary advantage by enticing hapless sailors onto its back and, once there, submerge thus drowning the men and then having lunch.

The aspidochelone's back appears to be rocky with hills and valleys and even sand dunes. Its name is derived from the Greek word aspis (Greek: shield) and chelone (Greek: turtle.) It's described as a great whale with sand beaches along its edges as it tranquilly rests upon the waves―lying in wait for hapless sailors in need of harbor in a storm. The creature also emits a sweet smell which fish find irresistible―so attractive that they willingly swim into its maw.

Perhaps The Voyage of St. Brendan is just a big fish story. But, that's what people said about the idea that Leif Erickson and his crew — which included a Catholic bishop, by the way — landed in Canada making the Vikings the first people to put North America on the map… literally. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before we start finding ancient 6th century Irish Christian archeological artifacts on this side of the Canadian border.

But if atheist cynics are comfortable insisting that all miracles aren't really miracles at all and, instead, are merely inexplicable for the time being, then why are they so eager to dismiss God and all of the wonders of our world and universe? Perhaps, soon, they'll have proof sufficient to waylay all of their concerns.

One can't argue both sides of that argument without revealing one's contrarianism.

Did St. Brendan encounter Jasconius the Living Island? The important thing to remember is that God can't be limited in His creativity.