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The Mysterious Islands


Source: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

Somewhere--anywhere--in the Atlantic, islands drifted like those
tissues of root and sedge that break from the edges of northern
lakes and are sent to and fro by the gales: floating islands. The
little rafts bearing that name are thick enough to nourish trees,
and a man or a deer may walk on them without breaking through. Far
different were those wandering Edens of the sea, for they had
mountains, volcanoes, cities, and gardens; men of might and women
lovelier than the dawn lived there in brotherly and sisterly esteem;
birds as bright as flowers, and with throats like flutes, peopled
the groves, where luscious fruit hung ready for the gathering, and
the very skies above these places of enchantment were more serene
and deep than those of the storm-swept continents. Where the surges
creamed against the coral beaches and cliffs of jasper and marble,
the mer-people arose to view and called to the land men in song,
while the fish in the shallows were like wisps of rainbow.

It was the habit of these lands never to be where the seeker could
readily find them. Some legends pertaining to them appear to do
with places no farther from the homes of the simple, if imaginative,
tellers than the Azores, Canaries, and Cape Verdes; but others indicate
a former knowledge of our own America, and a few may relate to that
score or so of rocks lying between New England and the Latin shores;
bare, dangerous domes and ledges where sea fowl nest, and where a
crumbling skeleton tells of a sailor who outlived a wreck to endure
a more dreadful death from cold and thirst and hunger. Some of these
tales reach back to the Greek myths: survivals of the oldest histories,
or possibly connected America with the old world through voyages
made by men whose very nations are dead and long forgotten; for the
savages and ogres that inhabited these elusive islands may be European
concepts of our Indians. But in the earlier Christian era all was
mystery on those plains of water that stretched beyond the sunset. It
was believed that as one sailed toward our continent the day faded,
and that if the mariner kept on he would be lost in hopeless gloom.

Perhaps the most ancient story in the world tells of the sinking of
Atlantis. When the Egyptian priest told it to Solon it was already
venerable beyond estimate; yet he recounted the work and pleasures
of the Atlantans, who were a multitude, who drank from hot and cold
springs, who had mines of silver and gold, pastures for elephants,
and plants that yielded a sweet savor; who prayed in temples of white,
red and black stone, sheathed in shining metals; whose sculptors made
vast statues, one, representing Poseidon driving winged horses, being
so large that the head of the god nearly touched the temple roof;
who had gardens, canals, sea walls, and pleasant walks; who had ten
thousand chariots in their capital alone; the port of twelve hundred
ships. They were a folk of peace and kindness, but as they increased
in wealth and comfort they forgot the laws of heaven; so in a day
and a night this continent went down, burying its millions and its
treasures beneath the waters. A few of the inhabitants escaped to
Europe in their ships; a few, also, to America. It has been claimed
that Atlantis may still be traced in an elevation of the ocean floor
about seven hundred miles wide and a thousand miles long, its greatest
length from northeast to southwest, and the Azores at its eastern
edge--mountain tops not quite submerged. As some believe, it was from
this cataclysm that has sprung the world-wide legend of a deluge.

From some of the enchanted lands, perhaps near the American shore,
Merlin went to England, piled the monoliths of Stonehenge on Salisbury
moor, and after gaining respect and fear as a magician and prophet,
sailed back across the waste. The Joyous Island of Lancelot; the island
where King Arthur wrestled and bested the Half Man; Avalon, the Isle
of the Blest, where Arthur lived in the castle of the sea-born fairy,
Morgan le Fee, were probably near the British or Irish coasts.

Many days' sail from Europe was the Island of Youth. A daring Irish
lad reached it, borne by a horse as white as the foam, that never
sank. He paused on the way to slay a giant who held a princess in his
enchantment, and reached, at length, a land where birds were so many
that the trees shook with the burden of them, and the air rang with
their song. There, with his wife and a merry band of youths and maids,
he spent a hundred years--one long joy of killing; for from dawn till
dark the deer met death at his hand, bleeding from the stroke of dart
and knife. A floating spear was found near the shore one day, rusted
and scarred with battle, and as he grasped it memories of old wars
returned to him, so that he was sick with longing to go home and hurl
the cutting metal through the ribs of his enemies and see the good
red flood burst from their hearts. He remounted his white steed and
reached Ireland, careless of the happiness he had left: for those who
deserted the island might never return. He reached his home to find
men grown too small and mean to fight him, which probably means that
he had waxed so great as to make them seem like dwarfs. Appalled at
this change, dismayed at the loss of all chance for battle, he sank
to the earth. His age came suddenly upon him, and he died.

In one of the great Irish monasteries lived St. Brandan, of the holy
brotherhood that tilled the soil, taught the permitted sciences,
copied and illumined the works of the early Christians, fed four
hundred beggars daily, though living on bread, roots, and nuts
themselves, lodging and studying in unwarmed cells of stone. Once in
seven years the people saw from shore the island of Hy-Brasail. The
monks tried to stop its wanderings by prayer and by fiery arrows,
yet without avail. Kirwan claimed to have landed on it, and he
brought back strange money that he said was used by its people. So
late as 1850 Brasail Rock remained on the British Admiralty chart,
to show how hard tradition dies. The appearance of this phantom land
made Brandan long to explore the realm of mystery wherefrom it had
emerged. He hoped to find even the Promised Island of the Saints,
when at last he was able to leave the convent where he had endured so
many hardships and embarked on Mernoc's ship; blessed region where
fruit was borne on every tree, flowers on every bush; region strewn
with precious stones and full of perfume that clung to one's garments
for weeks, like an odor of sanctity.

Seventeen priests set sail in the coracle, or boat of basket work
covered with leather. They had no fear, for they were holy men, and
in those days Christians were immune from peril. Not long before a
company of nuns had been blown across the sea and back again, seated
on a cloak that rode the waves like a ship. After forty days Brandan's
company found a group of islands peopled by courteous natives. Next
they disembarked on what they thought to be a rock to cook a dinner,
but it was no rock; it was a whale, that, feeling the sting of flame
through his thick hide, rushed off for two miles, carrying their fire
on his back. They hastily re-entered their boat before the monster
had gained much headway and ere long reached the Paradise of Birds,
where they enjoyed the music made by thousands of little creatures
with their wings--a music like fiddling. After this came visits to a
den of griffins; to a land of grapes such as the Norsemen told about;
to a mountain country aflame with the forges of one-eyed people, or
cyclops. Twice, on Easter Sunday, they put lambs to death, and so,
being blessed for the sacrifice, were allowed to reach the Island of
Saints, where an angel bade them take all the precious stones they
wished, as they had been created for holy people, but to attempt no
exploration beyond that point. No men appeared; still, in order to
leave the impress of their calling, St. Malo, one of the company,
dug up a giant who had died several years before, preached to him and
baptized him. These reformatory services revived the giant a little,
though he was pretty far gone, and he died again as soon as the priest
stopped preaching. St. Brandan went back to Clonfert, where three
thousand monks joined him in good works, and mendicants swarmed from
all over the land to benefit by their labor. He often told the people
and the brethren of the wonders he had seen in lands Columbus was to
rediscover nine hundred years later, and he dwelt with marvelling on
the mercy of God as shown to Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ,
who was encountered in the northern seas, lying naked on an iceberg in
silent delight. St. Brandan recognized him by portraits he had seen and
hailed him. Judas then told his story; he was roasting in hell when
the Lord remembered that once in Joppa this disciple had thrown his
cloak over the shoulders of a leper who was agonized by a wind that
blew sharp sand into his sores. An angel was sent to tell the doomed
one that for this mercy he would be allowed, for one hour in every
year, to breathe the wholesome air of the upper world, and stretch his
scorched body on the ice. Moved by this tenderness toward the most
despised of men, St. Brandan bowed and prayed, just as Judas, with
despair in his upturned face, slipped down again to the deeps of fire.

Some men of Ross, Ireland, had killed their king, despite his
successful wars against his rival monarchs, some of whose kingdoms were
as large as a township. For this offense the heir to the throne, or his
advisers, decreed that sixty couples should be set adrift on the ocean,
to meet what fate they might. A guard was put along the shore to keep
them from landing again, and an easterly gale blew them quickly out of
sight of their relatives and friends. For years none dared to seek for
them. Conall Ua Corra, of Connaught, had prayed in vain to the Lord for
children, so in anger he prayed to the devil, and three boys were born
to his wife. The neighbors jeered at them as the fiend's offspring,
and harassed them and made them bitter. They said, one to the other,
"If we are really sons of Satan we will justify these taunts," and
collecting all the vicious boys of their village they robbed farmers,
ruined churches, killed men who resisted plunder, and were about to
murder their father when they were warned in a vision of the eternal
punishment they would endure in blazing sulphur pits if they did not
repent. Their father had long regretted his hasty prayer to the evil
one, and had tried to regain the good-will of heaven by industry,
and by giving freely of his substance to the sick and pauperized. By
advice of St. Finnen, to whom they confessed, the boys repaired the
churches they had injured and mourned the victims of their brutality;
yet, as the people doubted their conversion, they resolved to leave
the country and go to some land where they would not be constantly
exposed to the danger of breaking their good resolves by reproaches
and attacks. Where to go? It was suggested by some designing neighbor
that if they were to search for the one hundred and twenty exiles they
would be doing a service to heaven and the world. This suggestion was
promptly acted on. In a frail coracle they swept the sea, discovering
strange lands, in one of which the half-forgotten people of Ross were
found, living so contentedly that few of them cared to go back. The
most exciting incidents of the voyage were the three meetings with
the Island of Satan's Hand, a lone rock in icy waters, where fogs
always brooded. At the will of a malignant demon it changed its place
from time to time, and it was the hand of this monster, a vast, rude
shape looming out of the mist, which endangered all the ships that
passed, for it struck at them,--as it did at the coracle of these
three voyagers,--injuring hulls, tearing sails, or knocking the crews
overboard, when it did not send them to the bottom. If the blow fell
short it made the sea boil and sent billows rolling for a mile. Some
of the shore folk said it was icebergs that the shipmen saw; but
icebergs never sailed so far from the pole, they answered. Despite
its wandering habit, the map-makers eventually agreed on a site for
this rock of the smiting hand, calling it Satanaxio. It can be seen
on charts of the eighteenth century.

A thousand years before Columbus it was reported that tropic islands
had been discovered and ruled by Archbishop Oppas, of Spain, who
was fain to leave his country because he had betrayed his king to
the Moors. He found a race friendly and gentle, sharing with one
another whatever was given to them, as not knowing selfishness. This
prelate burned his ships, that his people might not return, laid off
the largest island into seven bishoprics, and, impressing the natives
into his service, built churches and convents, for there were women in
his company whom he placed in nunneries. This island, which figures
on early maps as Antillia and as Behaim, was known also as the Land
of the Seven Cities, from its seven bishoprics. When Coronado heard
of the pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico, he may have confounded
them with the towns of Oppas, and to this day the seven cities of
Cibola are a legend of our desert. Harold's Norsemen were told by
the wild Skraelings of Maine of a pale-faced people farther south,
who walked in processions, carrying white banners and chanting.

Near Florida was the island of Bimini, with its fountain of youth. Juan
and Luis Ponce de Leon sought it vainly among the Bahamas, then
crossed to Florida and kept up the search among the pine barrens,
the moss-bearded cypresses, the snaky swamps, and alligator infested
rivers. The Indians, strong, active, healthy with their simple,
outdoor life, their ignorance of wine and European diseases, seemed
so favored that the Spaniards believed they must have bathed in the
magic fountain and drank its waters. Green Cove Spring, near Magnolia,
is the one where Luis bathed, hoping that he had found at last the
restorative fountain; but an angry Indian shot a poisoned arrow through
his body, and neither prayers nor water stayed long the little life
that was in him. So the spring is in the unfound Bimini, after all.

Next: The Buccaneers

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