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

Brazilian Folktales: Domingo’s Cat

 

Magical Animal Helpers and Tricksters

Humans have always had a long and beneficial association with animals and animal helpers appear in many fairy tales from around the world.  Sometimes they are tricksters as in this story and sometimes they are teachers or guides that take the hero through difficult situations and very often they are magical.  Presented below is a retelling of a Brazilian fairy tale from Tales of Giants from Brazil, by Elsie Spicer Eells, illustrated by Helen M. Barton, called Domingo’s Cat and has much in common with Charles Perrault’s “The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots, from the 17th century.”

The Story of Domingo’s Cat

The story begins with a man named Domingo who fell upon hard times and had to sell everything he owned just to buy enough food to keep from starving.   After all his possessions had finally been sold he had nothing left in the world except his cat which he loved dearly.  He vowed that come what may he would never sell his cat and that he would rather starve before he let any harm come to it. As it sat upon his lap he told it,  “Have no fear my only friend, I will never let you go or let harm come to you, I will die of starvation first.”

The cat rubbed its head against him and replied, “My good master Domingo, while you have me I will never let you starve.  I am going to go out into the wide world and find both our fortunes. You must put your trust in me.”

Treasure for the King

With that Domingo’s cat jumped down from his master’s lap and ran off into the jungle.  Presently, he stopped and began digging a hole in the ground with his fore paws. He dug furiously throwing up the earth all around and mixed in with the earth were many silver pieces. He gathered some of these up and took them home and gave them to Domingo to buy food.  Then he went back to the jungle collecting the remaining silver pieces and took them to the king.

The next day the cat went out into the jungle and began digging more holes  and this time mixed in with the dirt were pieces of gold. He gathered these up and took them to the king who again was very pleaded with it.   The following day the cat went out into the jungle and again began digging a hole but this time the earth was mixed with many shiny diamonds which he took along to the king.  Again, the king was surprised and very happy with the cat and asked him where he was getting all these riches from.

“It is not me, it is Domingo my master,”  replied the cat.

The Wedding

The king was very impressed and thought that Domingo must be very rich.  Indeed, he thought he must probably be richest man in all his kingdom and therefore just the man to marry his beautiful daughter whom he had been looking for a suitable husband for. Therefore, he suggested to the cat that his master may like to marry her. The cat took the news back to Domingo who agreed he would like to marry the king’s daughter but pointed out that he did not have any clothes anywhere near fine enough to wear to a wedding let alone as the bridegroom to the king’s daughter.

“Don’t worry about that or anything else,”  the cat told him, ” I will take care of everything and make all the necessary arrangements.  Just leave it all to me.” 

The Wedding Suit

The cat ran back to the king and said,  “Your Majesty, I have bad news.  A terrible fire broke out in the tailor’s shop where my master, Domingo was having his wedding suit made and the tailor and his assistants were all burnt to death.  Now everything in the shop is nothing but ashes including Domingo’s wedding suit. I wonder if perhaps you could find him something suitable for such a grand wedding from your own wardrobe.”

The king readily agreed and himself chose the finest clothes and sent them with a servant to Domingo.   After Domingo had put the clothes on he looked very smart and perfectly dressed for such an important wedding but he realized there was a problem.

“I look very fine but I have no splendid palace to take my wife home to after we are married,”  he told his cat.

“Leave it to me,” said his cat, “I will see to it at once.”   and ran off into the jungle until he came to a huge and magnificent castle where a great giant lived.  He banged on the door until the giant came and answered it and then said, “Great giant, will you lend your castle to my master Domingo, please, just for a while?”

The giant snorted and shouted angrily “What me lend my castle to that pauper Domingo? Certainly not!  Go away!”

“I will not go away and I will have your castle,” said the cat and in the blinking of an eye changed the giant into a mouse and pounced upon it and ate it.

The Giant’s Castle

The giant’s  castle was indeed very wonderful and had a beautiful and stately palace. There were rooms marvelously decorated with wonderful words of art and adorned with gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds and rubies and much, much more.  Outside the palace, inside the castle walls, was a beautiful garden filled with wonderful flowers and singing birds and it was indeed a most fitting place for Domingo to bring his new bride home to.

After the wedding a stately carriage took Domingo and his wife to the caste and when they arrived they saw his cat sitting in the window watching for them, but that was the last they ever saw of him because he disappeared into the jungle to look for another kind, penniless master to make rich.  Maybe one day he may find you and then – well, who knows?

© 22/8/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 22nd, 2018 zteve t evans