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

Azorean Folktales: The Gift of Fruitful Words

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By Prianxi [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The following is a retelling of a folktale from the Azores from The Islands of Magic, by Elsie Spicer Eells called The Silent Cavalier – The Story of the Peach Tree.

The Silent Cavalier – The Story of the Peach Tree

There was once a young Flemish cavalier of the order of St. George of Borgonha, by the name of Jesus Maria.  One day he was told by an old wise monk that his destiny was inextricably linked to the sea saying, “The name your were given when you were baptised is Iesvs Maria, but if those letters are transposed they say in Latin, Maris es via.”

The young cavalier thought a lot about this.  When he heard that a new group of islands called the Azores had been discovered and people were being sought to sail over the sea and settle on them he decided he would join them.  Therefore, he boarded a ship that was bound for one of the new islands called Fayal.

When he arrived he soon fell in love with the rugged, rocky coastline and the ravine where a stream of gurgling water ran through.  He was inspired by the ancient crater lake and the view across the sea to where the snowy peak of Mount Pico sat in majestic serenity on the island opposite his.  For these reasons he thought himself very lucky because he saw the island as his destined home.

Love

When he had arrived on the island he had found there were already some Portuguese settlers there and in one family there was a beautiful daughter named Ida.  In the eyes of the young cavalier she was the fairest maiden that had ever lived and he fell head over heels in love with her.

Sadly, this posed a problem that he could not see an answer to.  To be a cavalier of the order of St. George of Borgonha required each member to give a solemn vow of chastity and remain unmarried for life.  Jesus Maria, despite his love for Ida, could not break these solemn vows and yet he could not keep from his mind her pretty face and sparkling eyes, or the feelings they induced.  With breaking heart he decided that the best thing for him to do was leave the island he loved and return to his homeland of Flanders. Thinking back he recalled how at the words of the wise monk he had set off across the sea and how he had come to the island and made it his home and how happy he had once been and decided he could not return to Flanders either.

Mount Pico

Dismayed and unhappy and not knowing what to do he gazed around in despair until his eyes fell upon the snow-clad peak of Mount Pico across the sea on the opposite island.  He admired its majestic, silent dignity and stillness and he gained strength from it and said to himself, “I will be like the mountain silent, strong and magnificent in my dignity. From this moment on I will not speak another word to another soul and then I will not be tempted to break my vows and tell Ida of my love for her. “  

Ida never knew the special place he kept in his heart for her.  As the days went by the young cavalier found it harder and harder not to speak. Whenever he saw her he wanted to pour out his feelings to her.  At last feeling he could not go on like this much longer he decided he would make his home on the main island just over the sea so that he would no longer be tempted.

Therefore, he packed his few belongings into a little boat and sailed across to the island of Pico.  At the foot of the beautiful, silent mountain he built himself a small cabin and there he lived never returning to the island of Fayal and never again setting eyes upon his secret love, Ida.   He never again spoke a word to anyone, but the people called him the good hermit of Pico.

The Gift of Fruitful Words

Nobody ever knew his secret and when he died a peach tree grew from his grave – the symbol of silence.  The leaf of the peach tree is shaped like a human tongue and inside the fruit is the heart shaped stone.  Inside this stone is the seed which planted in the ground will produce a new tree and it is said,

“Words which bear fruit, spring from the heart and it is in silence we learn the gift of fruitful words.”

© 26/09/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright September 26th, 2018 zteve t evans

Azorean Folktales: Peter of the Pigs

This article was first published in Enchanted Conversation Magazine titled Peter of the Pigs on 2nd August 2018, written by zteve t evans.  Big thanks to Leigh W. Smith for her encouragement.

PETER OF THE PIGS

The story of a sharp lad who met someone sharper…
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There was once a very sharp and very clever boy name Peter whose job was looking after the pigs of his master and because of this he was known by all the local people as Peter-of-the-pigs. One day he was visited by a man who asked him to sell him seven pigs.  Peter being very sharp and very clever saw a way he could profit from this so he said,  “I must keep one but I can sell you the remaining six, but only if you chop off their ears and their tails and give them to me.”  The man agreed to the deal and cut of the tails and ears of the six pigs and as he drove them away Peter gleefully put the money in his pocket.Of course this was all very clever business but how was he going to explain the missing pigs to his master?  Well, this is what he did. He took the remaining pig to a sand pit and half buried it in the sand. Then he carefully placed the ears and tails of the six mutilated pigs so that part of them poked out of the sand. Next he ran as fast as he could to his master crying, “Help, help, help, the pigs are stuck in the sand, come quick and help me get them out!”

Azorean Folktales: The Legend of Lagoa das Furnas

The Legend of Lagoa das Furnas

The Azores are a Group of Portuguese islands situated roughly in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. Over the centuries the people evolved their own folklore and traditions that explain certain aspects and features of volcanic landscape.  Lagoa das Furnas (Pond or lake fire) is an volcanic crater, or caldera where local people use natural geothermal steam vents, mud pots, geysers and earth ovens to cook food and for health and recreational purposes.  Dishes such as Cozido das Furnas or Furnace Stew are offered in local restaurants. Presented here is a legend that tells of the disappearance of a village at Lagoa das Furnas on the island of São Migue and explains the origin of these geothermal features.

The Village

The legend tells that there was once a beautiful village where the people were very happy.  Life was so good that they needed to spend little time in working to make a living so they spent most of their hours celebrating and holding big parties.

One glorious morning when the sun was shining and the skies were blue one of the boys of the village went to a nearby lake to draw water for the family household tasks and to give to their animals.  When he had drew some he drank some himself to quench his own thirst but noticed that the water had an unusual salty taste when it normally was fresh and clean.  The boy then experienced a terrifying vision of disaster. This worried him greatly and ran home to tell the villagers and seek their advice.  When he ran into the village waving and shouting about the water the villagers were in the middle of another celebration and were in no mood to listen to him.  Instead they told him he must be having a fit of some kind and carried on with their fun dismissing him as being wrong in the head.

Indeed, no disaster materialized and a few days later the boy returned to the well once again.   Going to the east end of the lake where he normally drew water he dipped his buckets into the lake but to his surprise fish began to jump out of the lake to lay gasping and dying on its shores.  The shocked boy was now fully convinced that something dreadful was going to happen so he ran back home to warn his family and the villagers about what he had seen.  Again the people were busy celebrating and no one took any notice of him, but this time, his grandfather who knew the boy very well did.

His grandfather warned the villagers to stop their celebrations.  He wanted to send the fastest runners in the village to the highest peaks to look all about to see if anything unusual was happening.  From the heights they could look to the north over the sea to see if it was calm or rough or if any bad weather was approaching. They could also look inland over the hills to see if anything was amiss.  The villagers laughed at the old man and carried on with their celebrations and the runners were not sent. As no one would listen the old man decided he would go himself to the highest mountain to see what he would see and along with his grandson he climbed the very highest peak.

The Island of the Seven Cities

At the top the old man and his grandson looked out over the sea and could see great mists on the horizon and emerging from the mists a new land could be seen rising from the sea.  The old man knew this was the Island of the Seven Cities. This frightened him greatly and he and his grandson hurried back to the village to warn the villagers shouting at them to take shelter in the church.  The villagers were still busy having fun and celebrating and the music was so loud no one hear them. Those that did laughed at him or just ignored him.

Two days passed and no disaster came and nothing untoward at all happened. Nevertheless, the boy and his grandfather still remembered what they had seen on the mountaintop as they looked out over the sea.  The old man decided they would take their animals to the market at a nearby town. So they drove their animals to town and spent a few days bargaining and negotiating good prices.  With all business complete they decided to return to their home to the village.

As they approached the village along the same path they had left by they became aware that things were different.  The landscape had changed. There were new hills and mountains and when they reached the place where their village should have been they were shocked and frightened to see that it had gone.  In its place was a lagoon of clear water that bubbled volcanic gas.

Cooking Cornbread

Today the local people will tell you that the people of the lost village continue to live underneath the waters of the lagoon.  The bubbles in the lagoon are when the people are doing their cooking under the lake and the smoke that rises at times from the water is from the cooking pans of the people.  The smell is when they are cooking cornbread in the hidden crevices of the lagoon.

© 02/05/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright 2nd May 2018 zteve t evans

Azorean Folktales: The Girl of Oranges

A folktale from the Azores tells how there was once a Girl of Oranges who lived a solitary and lonely life in a world full of sorrow and dreams.  You see there was once a time when she had been in love with a handsome prince.  They had loved each other with all their hearts and had believed they had been made for each other and were full of happiness and hope for their future together.  Sadly he was taken from her by unfortunate circumstances beyond either his or her control and although life went on for the Girl of Oranges it was never as it had once been.

This had a devastating effect on her and she came to believe that she could never love again.  She looked around and saw lovers walking and holding hands, getting married and raising children and she worried about being on her own for the rest of her life.  It seemed to her the door to happiness had been forever slammed shut and she became anxious and depressed.

She dreamed many dreams and in those dreams created many wonderful scenes of love and came to live in a fantasy world but she could not escape the real world. The strange thing was that the real world she imagined became gray and sad but the beautiful world she dreamed in her dream world never materialized and hope began to fade in her heart.

All around her, she saw many open doors that led into magical realms and many people entered these realms and were happy but as soon as she even thought about entering they were slammed shut.  Despair and despondency fell upon her and she sank into a dark and lonely place keeping herself alive purely by her dreams but she came to no longer believe in love.

Seeing her sadness the gods came to her in one of her dreams and suggested that she go to the oracle to ask her for advice.  She thought that she had nothing to lose and so went to see the oracle seeking her aid.   The oracle was a kindly old woman who had been born with the gift of foresight which she used to help the people.

The girl talked to the oracle about her problem.  The oracle listened to what the girl said and was greatly touched.  She offered her all her sympathy and tenderness and by counseling her wisely and cleverly she succeeded in lifting the spirits of the girl.  Indeed she took her to  another place that was beautiful beyond compare and full of light.  In this place the Girl of Oranges was reborn and she was able to begin to recreate her life again like a beautiful work of art.

The Girl of Oranges looked again at all the doors that had slammed shut and realized that none of those doors had locks and that when she approached one it would open up on its own, or only needed a push.  With this discovery, she began to open the doors and explored the paths beyond and found new and magical places she had never heard of or dreamed about.

One day she opened a door and walked down a narrow path between beautiful flowers and amazing trees and to her wonder she saw lying in the middle of the path a big beautiful orange covered all in gold.  The girl was astounded and ran to the golden orange and excitedly looked at it admiring its beauty.  She looked around but could not find the orangery that it had come from so she went back to the oracle to asked her advice.  The oracle told her that there was a magical and wonderful orangery that the golden orange had come from and that it was a long way down the path from where she had found it.

So she went back through the door and down the path carrying the golden orange in her hand.  She walked and walked and walked along that path and eventually she found the wonderful orangery.  When she found it she discovered that she was suddenly free and knew she was safe.  Looking at the golden orange she carried in her hand she saw that it glowed gently and emitted  a glorious light.  In that light, she saw the face of her beloved and his lips whispered,

                              “Believe!”

© 30/08/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright August 30th, 2016 zteve t evans