A Return To Hy Brasil - part 2 of The Quest For Atlantis

Ian R ThorpeStarred Page By Ian R Thorpe, 26th Oct 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/p3ukej7v/
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Mythology

The myth of Atlantis exercises a particularly strong hold on the collective imagination, it is hard to think of another myth that so many people are determined to demonstrate is true. Perhaps this is because the myths of all cultures seem to share a common source. In the civilisation of a lost land maybe?

Trans Atlantic Travel Before Columbus

Before dismissing Hy Brasil as the stuff of Fairy stories it is worth reminding ourselves that the Atlantic Ocean as we know it now is not as it was always known.

Some time ago at the gather.com website I had been writing about the importance of myths and one of the resident science heads barged into the thread and started ranting the usual nonsense about the superiority of science over superstition and magical thinking. One thing he brought up was that the old Celtic and Norse myths about the unknown land to the west are idiotic because 'everybody knows the Americas were unexplored until Columbus, driven by scientific curiosity travelled to the Caribbean and Central America. Well this environment is much more civilized so I don't expect anyone here will be telling me that I am not allowed to indulge in flights of fancy.

But what about that “Everybody knows?” 'Everybody' is wrong as it happens. Firstly Columbus was motivated not by the desire to advance scientific knowledge but by stories of a fabulously wealthy land across the ocean which he hoped to claim for Spain, Copernicus proposed that the world was round and Galileo proved it giving other medieval explorers the idea they could get to the Indies by sailing west. There's more however, the Greeks and Phoenecians had certainly known the world was round and there is evidence their biremes and triremes did cross the Atlantic. And among the few Druidic texts of ancient Britain and Ireland the celestial body we live on is referred to as “our orb”

It is also well known that the Viking Lief Erikssen landed in North America five hundred years before Columbus, in a place he called Vinland, after being blown off course while sailing to Greenland. It is worth noting here just to nail a few of the lies told by climate change scaremongers that at the time Greenland was not the frozen waste it is now but was being colonised by Danish farmers who managed to grow oats and barley, other hardy crops and farm sheep, deer and pigs as well as exploiting the rich fishing grounds.

The well documented voyage of the Irish monk St. Brendan almost a thousand years before Columbus, took him to several mysterious islands, the furthermost of which was probably Newfoundland.

Brendan was an important figure in the development of monastic Christianity in Ireland, he founded several monastic communities and was renowned for his good works. There are now many landmarks and numerous churches named for him. One of these is Brandon Mountain located in the Dingle Peninsula, in County Kerry, the place where his relationship with Hy Brasil began. Brendan had built a small monastic cell to be used as a retreat at the bottom of the ridge. Stories tell that he climbed the hill and had a vision of the Americas. He wrote that the vision inspired him to build a boat and set sail to find this promised land. Brendan of course would have known from Irish myth of magical lands to the west and so it is possible he fell asleep after his arduous climb and dreamed of the pagan myths. He wrote that he believed the land he saw in the vision was Tir na n'Og, or the Land of Eternal Youth, (the Garden of Eden).

Saint Barrind was not as well know as Brendan and his story is consequently less well documented and so more like a fairy story. On hearing of Brendan's voyage Barrind ( Ireland – mysterious world website ) went to seek out the holy man and tell of his own discovery of a mysterious island, a land of plenty, to the west of Ireland.
“"We embarked and sailed, but a fog so thick covered us that we could scarcely see the poop or the prow of the boat. But when we had spent about an hour like this a great light shone all around us, and there appeared to us a land wide, and full of grass and fruit. When the boat landed we disembarked and began to go and walk round that island. This we did for fifteen days — yet we could not find the end of it. We saw no plants that had not flowers, nor trees that had not fruit. The stones of that land are precious stones. Then on the fifteenth day we found a river flowing from east to west. As we pondered on all these things we were in doubt what we should do.

"We decided to cross the river, but we awaited advice from God. In the course of a discussion on these things, a man suddenly appeared in a great light before us, who immediately called us by our own names and saluted us, saying:

"'Well done, good brothers. For the Lord has revealed to you the land, which he will give to his saints. The river there marks the middle of the island. You may not go beyond this point. So return to the place from which you departed.'”

The strange island has been visited by many people for centuries but what is striking about the accounts of Brenda and Barrind is the similarity of their descriptions of Hy-Brasil, which they both dubbed the “Promised Land.”

There are also numerous accounts of British, Irish and French medieval fishermen finding fishing grounds where the fish were so abundant ' a man could walk on them' (a tendency to exaggerate was ever present in medieval travellers tales.) We assume they had visited Newfoundland but that is not proved.

One of the most famous visits to Hy-Brasil was in 1674 by Captain John Nisbet of Killybegs, Co. Donegal, Ireland. Captain Nisbet's ship was in an area to the west of Ireland familiar to the master and his crew when the vessel became shrouded in an impenitrable fog (shades of Stephen King). As the fog lifted, the mariners saw their ship had drifted dangerously close to rocks of the coast of an uncharted island. While getting their bearings, the ship anchored in three fathoms of water, and four crew members rowed ashore to visit the land which they were later told was Hy-Brasil.

They reported spending a day on the island, and talking with an old man who lived there. Upon the return of the crew to Ireland, a second ship set out under the command of Alexander Johnson.

(picture source: Wikimedia Commons)

to read Part 1 of this series click here

These voyagers also found the hospitable island of Hy-Brasil and returned home to confirm the tales of Captain Nisbet and crew.
The last documented sighting of Hy-Brasil was in 1872, when author T. J. Westropp and several companions saw the island appear and then vanish (the inspiration for the vanishing town of Brigadoon?). Mr. Westropp’s claimed to have seen Hy-Brasil three times, but on his final voyage he was accompanied by friends who were able to verify the existence of Hy-Brasil.

The Duns, The Mystery Of The Aran Isles

Photo: Dun Aengus, courtesy of my old friend Colin A Ewing

Researchers and archaeologists have searched in the most likely locations west of Ireland, and there is evidence that islands existed there. Shallow-water shells have been found at Porcupine Bank, somewhat northwest of the most likely location of Hy-Brasil. Even further north, similar shells were discovered in water far too deep for marine bivalves to have flourished at Rockall, a small, uninhabited outcrop to the north west of Ireland that is now protected as a bird sanctuary. It may or may not be significant that Rockall (spoof tourist slogan invented by Royal Navy sailors who must visit to deliver and collect ornithologists, “There's f*** all on Rockall,”) has a legitimate claim to the title of “ smallest continent,” as it is the only part of the North Atlantic tectonic Plate above sea level at high tide.

So, there is evidence of land mass changes in that part of the Atlantic Ocean. And what about the Tsunami shelters.
For hundreds of years the dry stone fortresses, or Dúns (pronounced doons), of the Aran Islands (to which we will return in part three of this mini series) off the west coast of Ireland have perplexed scholars. Anthropologists, archaeologists and all manner of experts from around the world over have tried and failed to explain the enormous stone structures known as Dúns, located on these three small Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.
(Do please take a look at this site even if it is only for the spectacular photose in their fron page slide show)
The best known of these ancient sites, Dún Aengus, is a massive dry stone semi circluar fortress situated on a the edge of a cliff above a sheer drop of around 80 metres to the Atlantic ocean on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands. See picture above.
The most popular opinon is they are forts, but who built forts here, when were they built and why were they built?
Folklore and historic research give credit for building the Dúns to the Firbolgs, one of the earliest tribes to inhabit Ireland, in late Bronze age. Archaeological evidence is inconclusive as inorganic rock cannot be radio – carbon dated and samples of organic material suggest the Duns were occupied over thousands of years with DNA evidence conforming thy were used by the Firbolgs, Fomorians, Tuatha de Danaans and Milesians. More adventurous archaeologists however suggest the Dúns predate all of these peoples and quite likely have been adopted for various uses. It has been proposed however that their original purpose was to provide shelter from Tsunami's.
Firstly we need to look at how the world changes shape and how the spectacular cliffs of Aran and the Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare might have been created. This is obviously speculation because nobody was making notes or taking photographs at the end of the last stone age. Any attempt to explain the Dúns of Aran must start from an understanding of how the local topograpgy was formed.
I have suggested above the Duns might have been built to provide shelter from Tsunamis, but these structures are at the top of eighty metre high cliffs so only the most powerful surges could possibly reach them. Theory shot down, unless of course the cliffs are less than ten thousand years old.
Hang on, I hear you saying again, those cliff are probably hundreds of millions of years old. Well the rocks are but the configuration of the earths crust may not be. Is it popssible that Dún Aengus predates the formation of the Cliffs on Inis Mór and the Irish mainland. Another puzzle for archaeologists is why the semi circular complex was built on the edge of the cliff. Other Duns, further inland, are circular. Many researchers have asked was Dun Aengus built as a fully circular structure and cut in half by cataclysmic forces?
Conventional wisdom suggests it was buit on the cliff edge as a defensive strategy, but who would deply a defence that cuts off your line of retreat. If an enemy attacked from the east, there is nowhere to go.
Scientists and serious scholars always have problems dealing with stories of lost Islands and continents, or magical races of giants and little people, dismissing them as superstitions and fantasies; this is not surprising because having invested many years in building a reputation it would be reckless to put it at risky by saying “well maybe fairies do exist”, or “there could easily be some substance in myths like the magical island of Hy Brasil.
Being a retired Information Technology consultant I suffer no such constraints.
Stories of lost islands have shown great resilience to the efforts of rationalists to dismiss them and remain lodged in folk memories around the world. The islands themselves were mapped and visited until well into the 18th Century when more accurate mapping techniques and exploration confirmed their ethereal nature.
So in the case of Hy Brasil are we dealing with some kind of racial memory? Something that was there once and which now lies buried under the waters of the Atlantic and deep in the psyche of people whose families lived in that region just after the end of the last ice age. We have all, I am sure, at times experienced dreams, the memory of which is so vivid it is remembered more clearly that recollections of real events. There is also serious scientific research into the possibility of reincarnation which focuses on evidence that memories of past lives might have been carried forward . This is entirely compatible with the theory of inseparability or quantum entanglements and the work of maverick biologist Rupert Sheldrake on morphic resonance.

The Edge Of The World, The End Of An Age

Picture: The Duns, at the edge of the ancient world, source flickr

Consider then, at the end of the last ice age the world looked very different. When the glacial maximum was reached about twenty five thousand years ago sea level was almost five hundred feet below where it is today. As the ice and glaciers in Northern Europe and North America melted and retreated, water levels in the Atlantic rose dramatically over the relatively short (in geological terms) period of ten thousand years, leading to loss of land around continental shelves and also of islands in the Atlantic, Hy Brasil amongst them possibly.

Exponents of the relatively new discipline of inundation mapping have found evidence of three great inundations (the last being Noah's flood descibed in the Bible story) described in detail in Graham Hancock's book Underworld (click here for a short overview). Floods and sea-levels caused by melt water is not the full story of our mysterious lost island or the cut in half structure of Dun Aengus. Among geological phenomena associated with glaciation is that of the earths crust sinking and lifting or Isostasy.

The theory is earth’s outer ‘hard’ skin or lithosphere sits on a softer liquid like undermantle, the Athenosphere, that is displaced according to the weight of the land mass above it. (take a childs beach ball or balloon and with palms on the two poles, exert pressure and observe how the poles flatten creating a bulge). When ice several kilometers thick lies on the land, the weight of it causes the rock crust under the ice to sink into the softer Athenosphere flattening the poles and creating a forbulge at about forty five to sixty degrees. Then when the ice melts the planet returns to a regular sphere, quickly at first and then more slowly at a rate of a few centimetres per year for thousands of years. Eventually the land level and stop rising. The whole cycle repeats itself as d.o the ice ages

Britain and Ireland sit right on the forebulge from the last ice age. In Britain the global warming scaremongers are screaming about rising sea levels but what we are seeing is sinking land levels in the south while coasts around the north and Scotland are being lifted as the lithosphere bounces back.

Back to Ireland. After the tipping point of the glacial maximum things began to change quickly. The ice cap melted, water flowed down to the oceans so that volume increased quickly and without the compression of the ice, land levels began to lift.
Geological studies have shown that most of the bounce occurs in the first 4-5 thousand years after an ice age but even so it is impossible to knoe exactly what happened. Ten thousand years however, even at a rate of 1cm per year is plenty of time to raise cliffs of eighty metres and more along a fault line. Bear in mind also that land further out in what is now the Atlantic that was not loaded by ice and would not rebound as it was already at equilibrium level.  In fact as water from the ice sheets flowed back to the ocean it would sink further under the waves.

Ice is not the only factor, water also has weight and causes land below it to sink, this is Hydro-Isostasy. It follows therefore, that land under a deep ocean will not rise as much as land under shallow water. Try to imagine yourself as a coastal dweller around the Irish coast 7,8 or 9 thousand years ago. The interior of the island was densely forested following the disappearance  of the ice sheet in the previous millennium. Ireland was still connected to Britain and Europe as water levels were still a lot lower and the seas had not swamped the connecting land bridges.

At the glacial maximum the coast of western Ireland would have been between twenty and thirty miles west of where the Aran Isles are situated but as the waters rose that coastline would have been creeping eastwards. We do not know exactly when the Duns were built but at some point the sites would have been close enough to the sea to be swamped by a powerful tsunami, but far enough away to be safe from spring tides and storm surges. And as the ocean was an important food source in an era when life was a constant struggle for survival, it was both a friend and an enemy so a certain level of risk was warranted. Humans lived mainly near the coast.

These primitive people had a tradition of sea defence, they built Dúns to defend themselves from the rising sea and from Tsunami which would have followed the regular earthquakes. A close look at the pictures will show how the Duns construction would have been ideal for protecting against surging water.

Is this an explanation for the mystery of Hy Brasil then, the disappearing island is a folk memory of land that was inhabited thousands of years ago. It may be significant that many of the sightings documented by medieval sailors and explorers were experienced after somebody had awoken suddenly from an exhausted sleep or after having been lost and becalmed in a thick sea fog.

The most distinctive geographical feature of Hy-Brasil, is that it appears on maps as a circle, with a channel through the center. The circular perimeter of the island was confirmed by both Saints Barrind and Brendan, who separately walked the shore to determine where the island ended, but never found it. Most likely, they were walking in circles.

Other names for Hy-Brasil: Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), Mag Mell (Land of Truth), Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), and Tir na-m-Buadha (Land of Virtue). Fourteeth and Fifteenth century maps spell Hy-Brasil as Ysole Brazil, Bracir, and Hy Breasail.

Although Hy-Brasil does not have the fame of Atlantis it is certainly a contender for the origins of the Atlantis myth. Lean more when I investigate the Tuatha De Danaans, the pagan gods of pre – Christian Ireland, but we are not done with Hy brasil yet, before we move on there are stories to be told ...

In the final part of this exploration of Hy Brasil we look at folk memories and what light they may throw on the mystery. Then we leave behind Iy Brasil and head out firther into the Atlantic Ocean and deeper into the human psyche in our quest for Atlantis


Eat The King (myth)
Blake's Heaven
Mary Gypsy
What A Pagan Believes
Wales, land of Druids and Dragons
The Druid Path

Terra Incognita
Three Secrets


Atlantis, Celtic, Collective Consciousness, Flood, Folk Lore, Folk Memory, Geology, Greek, Ice Age, Irish, Myth

Meet the author

author avatar Ian R Thorpe
Born Manchester UK, 1948. varied early career from clerk via construction site worker and street trader to I T consultant. Performance poet, broadcaster, fiction writer and essayist on many topics.

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author avatar C.D. Moore
26th Oct 2013 (#)


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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
26th Oct 2013 (#)

absolutely marvellous this...thank you Ian...looking for more of your pages I am...

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
27th Oct 2013 (#)

Ireland does seem to be the place where the fair folk dance and magic lives. No reason it couldn't be hiding Atlantis or any other number of wondrous secrets. Slainte!

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author avatar Nadine May
30th Jan 2014 (#)

What a great informative article. Well done.

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