Medieval Latin Science Fiction

Gregory DiPippo

In Ireland, today is the feast of a Sainted monk named Brendan, who is traditionally said to have been born in Clonfert in the year 484, and to have died in 577 at the age of 94. He is sometimes called “the Younger” to distinguish him from another Brendan, of Birr, or “the Elder.” They were both disciples of St Finnian, the founder of one of the first abbeys in the country, Clonard, and belong to the group known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland for their labors in the evangelizing the Irish. As with many of the early Irish Saints, the traditional stories of his life are regarded as historically unreliable. The most famous of these is that he and a group of companions sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean searched for “the Promised Land of the Saints,” or the Garden of Eden, and has given him the nickname by which he is more generally known, “the Navigator.”  The account of the ensuing adventures, known as the “Navigatio Sancti Brendani”, was very popular, and over 100 manuscripts of it survive.

One of the stories in this account (chapter 10 and 11) involves a stop on an island which turns out to be a very unusual place indeed.

… Erat autem illa insula petrosa sine ulla herba. Silva rara erat ibi et in litore illius nihil de arena fuit. Porro pernoctantibus in orationibus et in vigiliis fratribus foras (de) navi vir Dei sedebat intus.

… Mane autem facto precepit sacerdotibus ut singuli missas cantasset et ita fecerunt. Cum ergo sanctus Brendanus et ipse cantasset missam in navi, ceperunt fratres crudas carnes portare foras de navi ut condidissent sale et etiam pisces quos secum tulerunt de alia insula. Cum haec fecissent posuerunt cacabum super ignem. Cum autem ministrassent lignis ignem et fervere cepisset cacabus, cepit illa insula se movere sicut unda. Fratres vero ceperunt currere ad navim deprecantes patrocinium sancti patris. At ille singulos per manus trahebat intus. Relictisque omnibus quae portabant in illam insulam ceperunt navigare.

Porro illa insula ferebatur in oceanum. … Sanctus Brendanus narravit fratribus quod hoc esset dicens, “Fratres, admiramini quod fecit haec insula?” Aiunt, “Admiramur valde, nec non et ingens pavor penetravit nos.” Qui dixit illis, “Filioli mei, nolite expavescere. Deus enim revelavit mihi hac nocte per visionem sacramentum hujus rei. Insula non est ubi fuimus sed piscis. Prior omnium natancium in oceano querit semper suam caudam ut simul jungat capiti et non potest pro longitudine quam habet, nomine Jasconius.”

… Now that island was rocky, and without any grass; there was a thin forest there, and no sand on the shore. But as the brothers passed the night in prayers and vigils off the ship, the man of God (i.e. Brendan) remained within it.

… In the morning, he commanded the priests that they should each sing Mass, and so they did. Therefore, when Saint Brendan himself had sung Mass in the ship, the brothers began to bring raw meat out of the ship to cure it with salt, and also the fish which they had brought with them from the other island. When they had done these things, they set a pot upon a fire, and when they had added wood to the fire and the pot began to grow hot, the island began to move itself like a wave. But the brothers began to run to the ship praying for the holy father’s protection. But he drew each one of them in by the hand, and leaving behind all of the things which they had brought onto that island, they began to sail.

Now the island was being carried out into the ocean … and Saint Brendan explained to the brothers what this was, saying, “Brothers, are you astonished at what this island did?” They said, “We are very much astonished, and the greatest fear has taken hold of us.” And he said to them, “My sons, do not be afraid, for God has revealed to me this night through a vision the mystery of this matter. It was not an island where we were, but a fish. Greater than all the things that swim in the ocean, it is always looking for its own tail so that it may join it to its head, and it cannot because it is so long, and its name is Jasconius.”

(St Brendan watches from the boat as one of the priests in his group of travel companions says Mass on the back of the sea monster. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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