Azorean Folktales: Saint Brendan’s Wondrous Island

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Saint Brendan

There are many myths and legends that tell how Saint Brendan the Navigator set sail in a boat with a band of followers to find a wondrous island and eventually succeeded. His followers returned but he did not. Many others after tried to find it but few succeeded.  On many old maps Saint Brendan’s Isle is shown as clear as day, but if you look on any modern ones you will not see it.

They say that  if you sail your  boat beyond the horizon and into the setting sun  you eventually come to a wondrous island kept by a single gardener and the gardener is Saint Brendan.  But to do that requires faith, like he had. He once lived in Ireland but followed his heart and was led to this wondrous place where God spoke to him and  told him he should stay and take care of the plants, flowers and trees. Since his arrival on the island long ages ago only those that have have faith in the good saint have managed to find this marvelous place. 

The following story is a retelling of a tale from the island of Terceira in the Azores originally called, Saint Brendan’s Island –  The Story of a Little Maid who Found  it, and was published in a collection called The Islands of Magic,  Legends, Folk and Fairy Tales from the Azores – by Elsie Spicer Eells and illustrated by E. L. Brock. 

Saint Brendan lived between 484 – 577 AD, and this story tells how he left Ireland to find the wondrous island.  It then moves forward in time to the 15th century to tell how a maiden from the island of Terceira and a young man from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, through their faith in Saint Brendan, made it to the island to join the good saint there.

The Hermit’s Tale

The story begins way back in time in Ireland where a monk by the name of  Saint Brendan lived. One day he received a visit from a hermit who told him all about the most mysterious and wonderful island he had just returned from visiting.   On this marvelous island the sun shone all the time and the birds wore crowns on their heads and had the ability to speak to humans. Brendan could smell the wonderful fragrance of the island which clung to the hermit’s clothes so he believed him.  

The hermit spoke so enthusiastically about the island it piqued the saint’s curiosity.  He yearned to see it for himself and asked the hermit many questions about it. The more he heard the more he wanted to see  to see if all the wonderful things were true that the hermit had told him about. At last the hermit had no more to say but Brendan had heard enough and yearned to visit it  to experience all of the marvels for himself.

That night he dreamed he visited the island and it was every bit as marvellous as the hermit had described. In that dream a voice spoke to him saying, 

“On this wondrous isle there was no one else but God who could hear is prayers so he could speak from the pureness of his heart and with faith his prayers would be answered.”

Therefore, the next morning,  he gathered together a small group of his most devoted disciples and told them about the marvellous island and his desire to find it.  Despite the dangers his disciples were also fascinated by the place and having faith in him were keen to accompany him on his quest.

The Voyage of Saint Brendan

They built a large coracle of wattle, skins and tar and fitted it  with oars and a sail and enough seating for them all. They loaded the craft with as much food, water and necessary items that it could safely carry.  

They all realised it would be a difficult and dangerous voyage but they had faith.  After saying their goodbyes to the large crowd of family, friends and well-wishers who had come to see them off they set sail across the wild Atlantic Ocean to find the wonderful island.   The crowd on the shore waved them goodbye but secretly many feared they would never see them again. 

Saint Brendan and his followers sailed the wide uncharted ocean facing many dangers and having many adventures but sustained by faith they sailed on.  Back home in Ireland people looked out for their return. After two years of absence people feared the worst as they looked across the sea hoping to see their return.  After five years they were completely forgotten.

Return of the Voyagers

After they had left Saint Brendan and his followers had trusted in the Lord and allowed the wind and currents to take them where they would.  After seven years the small vessel carrying the forgotten voyagers appeared on the horizon off the Irish coast where they had set out from. As the small craft sailed in from the blue a small crowd gathered at the harbour both pleased and astounded to see the intrepid voyagers again.  

Of course, everyone wanted to know all about the voyage and their adventures but were disconcerted to see that Saint Brendan was not among those that had returned.  They asked earnestly about his well-being were told that the adventurers had found the wondrous island and it was every bit as wonderful as the hermit had said. Furthermore, they told the people that Saint Brendan had stayed behind as he had been instructed by God to become the  gardener of the island and ensure it thrived and remained fertile for those faithful enough to find it in the vastness of the open sea.

The Wondrous Island

The people wanted to know all about the island and the disciples told them of all the wonders they had seen and experienced while they were there.  If anything they spoke more enthusiastically than the hermit who had first spoken to Saint Brendan.  Many people, like Saint Brendan before them, were overcome with curiosity and desire to visit the island see the wonders for themselves.  The disciples urged them to go and many set out on the voyage and spent many years at sea in search of the wondrous place. None of them ever  found it and returned forlornly to their home in Ireland on the shore of the wild Atlantic.

From what was said by those who accompanied Saint Brendan the island was a floating Island and floated from place to place making it difficult to find and  only those who had faith would be successful. They also said that Saint Brendan will not die but remain on the island caring for it.  

Maria’s Dream

That is the story of how Saint Brendan found the Wondrous island and happened many centuries ago.   We must now move forward to the 15th century to the island of Terceira in the archipelago of the Azores in the vastness of the wild Atlantic Ocean.

On this island there lived a young maid named Maria.  She had been told all about Saint Brendan and the marvelous island by an old monk.  Like the good Saint before her she had been enthralled by the island and highly impressed by the faith of Saint Brendan.  She was fascinated by everything she heard about it and prayed each morning and night to the good Saint for guidance. 

She would often dream of walking under the beautiful trees as he told her all about the wonderful place.   In one dream he took her to a mountaintop where she could look across the sea towards her home. He told her,

“In  this place there was no one else but God and himself who could hear her prayers so she could speak from the pureness of her heart and with faith her prayers would be answered.”

In the waking world she would often walk the hillside of Monte Brasil looking out across the sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of that enchanted place. Sometimes she would sit and gaze wistfully across the water letting her imagination take her there.

The Arrival of Vitale

One day a caravel anchored off Terceira. It had sailed from Rhodes carrying a young man named Vitale and in his possession he carried sacred relics of Saint Brendan that his grandfather had passed on to him. He was on a quest to seek out and find the wonderful island of Saint Brendan and had called in at Terceira on his way.   Proudly displayed upon his doublet was an eight pointed star and a scarlet silk band with the motto “By Faith” boldly displayed upon it. Indeed,  it was by faith alone that he had set out upon the mission of his life for he had no idea how he would accomplish it.

When Maria heard of his arrival and the sacred relics he bore she rushed down to the ship to see him for herself.   She was extremely impressed with the way he carried himself and his good looks, but was overwhelmed by the passion he showed for his quest and she quickly fell in love with him. Indeed she revered him as if he had been the good Saint himself and would sit quiet and still with her dark eyes downcast not caring to glance at him while he told of his quest for the Saint and the Wondrous Island.

The young man in turn was fascinated by this demure young maiden and confessed his love for her.  Willingly, he gave her his grandfather’s sacred relics and asked that in return she might speak her true feelings towards him.   Maria replied, “To speak my of my love for you in full and in truth I would need to be in a place where God alone could hear me. Only then could I speak from the purity of my heart.” 

A Jealous Suitor

You see  this was true for Maria because on Terceira there lived a young man of the island who had long admired her.  He was the son of the Lord of the district and for a long time he had been infatuated by her beauty and her manner.  He had begged her for her hand in marriage several times but each time she had demurely and sensitively declined.  She hated having to do it but she could not marry a man she did not love. Now she was worried because she knew that if her unwanted suitor ever found out about her love for Vitale he would fly into a jealous rage and feared what he would do.  Indeed she had good cause to fear for Terceira was a small island with a close knit community and it was not long before her unwanted suitor heard of her relationship with Vitale. 

Rushing to her in a jealous rage he demanded that she marry him immediately.  Maria sensitively and with all kindness gently told him she could not. Angrily he told her, “If you do not marry me I shall have my father lock you in the tower of Saint Louis on the hillside and there you shall stay until you change your mind!’

  ‘I am sorry,” she replied, “but I would prefer to remain locked in the tower for the rest of my days than be your wife.  Why can you not see it and just leave me in peace with my relics of Saint Brendan?”

The Tower of Saint Louis

This further enraged the young man and he had her marched to the tower of Saint Louis where she was locked in its uppermost chamber.  Although small and bare the chamber at least had a window where she would sit and look down upon the city of Angra below.

“All my life I have prayed to the blessed Saint Brendan and loved God.  Now my world has been destroyed by unwanted love!’ she cried in despair.

With that despairing cry which rang out over the city below, the earth shook and trembled and the great stone tower quivered as if was but paper.

Not far from the tower two beautiful white doves were perched on the branches of a cedar tree.

“Look at the tower,” said one, “It will surely fall and the fair maid who weeps inside will die.”

“She shall not die!  Let us rescue her,” said the other , “and take her to a place of safety.”

As they flew into the air the earth shuddered and the tower began to fall and Maria stood weeping in fear at the window.  Faster than the wind the doves swooped down and each clasping one of Maria’s hands carried her through the air as the falling tower collapsed.

Over the treetops, over the rooftops and churches of Angra they carried her and out across the sea.  They continued flying over the horizon and into the setting sun and through the dark night until the sun came up in the morning. 

Saint Brendan’s Wondrous Isle

With the growing light Maria could see they were heading towards an island shrouded in morning mist.  As they drew closer the mist lifted and upon a silver shore there was someone who appeared to be waiting.  Carried by the doves she could see that the island was abundant with the most beautiful trees and gorgeous flowers.  As they descended, she saw that it was a truly wondrous place. As the doves gently set her down before the waiting figure to her joy and wonder she saw that it was Saint Brendan and that he was the gardener of the island.

Back on Terceira the earthquake had caused great damage to the city of Angra and the Tower of Saint Louis had been completely destroyed.  Everyone thought poor Maria had been buried in the rubble and mourned. Vitale had been grief stricken and without her saw his life on the island as being empty and devoid of purpose. 

Therefore he took to his caravel and set sail resuming his quest to find the blessed Isle of Saint Brendan.  For long days and nights he sailed through foul and fine weather until he sailed into a bank of thick fog. He could see no more than a foot before him whichever way he looked. Having no idea of his direction he allowed his ship to drift with the current.  Eventually, sustained by faith alone, he came through the fog to find himself looking at a beautiful sunset. As he looked he saw the clouds descending from heaven to earth like a long white ladder.  

Further on in the distance he saw an island with a silver shore and a green and beautiful land beyond. In his heart he knew this was Saint Brendan’s wondrous island and current took his vessel gently to the shore.  As he approached he saw his beloved Maria standing with her arms outstretched towards him, smiling and her eyes shining. All around her there glowed a gentle auro of pure white light. Stepping ashore, he ran to her outstretched arms and as he approached she said, 

“At last, in this place  I can speak my love for you  from my heart with no one but God and Saint Brendan and you, my dear Vitale, to hear!”

© 03/10/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright October 3rd, 2019 zteve t evans

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