We stood on the northern hillside of Tenerife, overlooking the Mar de Nubes, the famous Sea of Clouds, which often circles the island’s peaks. I pointed out the peaks of the island of La Palma, which drifted above clouds on the horizon, twin, purple, mysterious humps .
“That reminds me,” my friend said. “The other day from the boat I saw an island, but I wasn’t sure which one it was,” and he described its position. I knew that there should be no island in the direction he indictated, but I also knew exactly what he had seen.
I drew a deep, sharp breath. “You saw the magic island of San Borondon,” I whispered. A tingle of excitement ran down my spine.
It took the Crown of Castille almost a hundred years to seize all of the Canary Islands, most of the 15th century, as the chain succumbed, island by island. The conquerors were aware that throughout history myths and legends had swirled around the archipelago. One maintained that the mountain peaks were all that remained of the lost city of Atlantis. Another claimed them to be the site of the fabled Garden of the Hesperides.
In a time when active volcanoes still struck fear into human hearts, Tenerife was claimed to be the last island to fall in 1496; but was it?
To this day rumors abound of another island, one never found by the Conquistadors, and never conquered by the Spanish crown. Never found because it has the magical power to become invisible, to shroud itself in mists so that we disbelieve what our eyes see, or not to be visible at all to the human eye.
It is said that St Brendan of Clonfert, a 6th century Irish monk was the first person to set foot on this ghostly isle. St Brendan, or San Borondon in Spanish, himself a figure of legend, set sail with fellow monks in a simple vessel of the sort normally used for coastal fishing in those days, a vessel not designed for distant travel. It is claimed by some that the group even reached the shores of the Americas, recording the many wonders discovered along the way, from fire-breathing dragons to miraculous columns of crystal floating on the ocean.
After days and days at sea with supplies run out, dehydrated, hungry and weary, and praying for a safe port at which to land, they saw the mists before them parting, and an island of an emerald green to rival their own Ireland appeared. Thankful, they landed, and finding the island abundant in all the supplies they needed, from fresh sweet water to luscious fruit, they feasted, and then said mass in gratitude to their benevolent god.
It seems, however, that their god was not so generous as they hoped. In the midst of the ceremony the island began to shake and tremble, and fires began to spurt from its steep mountainsides. The monks ran for their flimsy vessel, and set sail once more, fearful as the island disappeared again into the ocean mists.
Another version of the legend tells that the island was actually a gigantic, dozing sea creature, whose awakening scared our adventurers, and others speak of rivers of fire or not-so-friendly natives attacking the landing party.
Although the truths of these legends can never be proven, their substance is clear, rivers of fire or fire breathing dragons could easily be ancient explanations of volcanoes, and crystal columns on the ocean, icebergs. Saint Brendan made it back to his homeland in time, and never returned to the island that now bears his name.
Whether or not there was an additional Canary Island has now been debated for centuries. Its position, if it existed, or exists, was somewhere west of the islands which now comprise the province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife – La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro as well as Tenerife island itself. There are said to be reports of sailors or islanders who have actually set foot on it, but no definitive proof that it ever existed, despite explorations, notably one in the 18th century.
There are stories in Canarian folklore which reference this mythical island, stories which involved dragons and magic gardens, and lives untainted by man’s usual preoccupations. To hear one of these stories told by a good storyteller is to be transported to another place and time, without the aid of moving pictures or even still ones, an expert teller of tales can make you believe in just about anything so long as you are willing.
It is, of course, possible that a volcanic island emerged from the ocean at some point, but that further volcanic activity destroyed it, causing it to sink back into the depths. Me, I prefer to suspend my disbelief and think that what my friends spied on the horizon that day was the missing island.
In my current state of love with Ireland, I also like this connection of Celtic and Canarian folklore. It fits with the feelings I’ve been having over the last three months.