Floating Islands Seen at Sea: Myth and Reality (2023)

A floating island—can such a thing exist? Can the chunks of the solid earth on which we stand drift easily about the surface of a body of water? The idea of a floating island seems impossible, something from the realmsnip of fantasy, an invention of poets or mythographers. In this article I will survey some instances of mythical floating islands in the sea, to examine the role that they have played in human thought and literature; and then look at some of the rare accounts of real floating islands seen at sea. This material provides an interesting case study of a situation in which an apparently mythical object has a corresponding reality, but the great differences between floating islands in myth and floating islands in reality clearly indicate the great transformative power of the human imagination. [1]

The first floating island that appears in western literature is that of Aeolus, the god of the winds, in Homer’s Odyssey 10.1-12:

Next we came to the Aeolian island, where dwelt
Aeolus the son of Hippotas, beloved by the immortal gods,
on a floating island, the whole enclosed by a wall
of unbreakable bronze, and a sheer cliff running up to it.
Twelve children had been born to him in his palace,
six daughters, and six sons now in their prime,
and he gave his daughters to his sons to be their wives.
And these beside their dear father and cherished mother
feasted perpetually, with countless good things set before them;
the house was fragrant and rang with the sounds of the feast
during the day, while at night each by his modest wife
slept in blankets on corded bedsteads.

Aeolus, whom Zeus had made keeper of the winds (10.21), entertains Odysseus for a month, and then gives him a magical device that should insure his passage back home to Ithaca: a leather bag into which he puts all of the winds except the West Wind, which carries Odysseus’ ships on their way home. After ten days’ sail Odysseus comes within sight of Ithaca, but then he falls asleep, and his men, thinking that the bag Aeolus gave Odysseus must contain presents of gold and silver, open it, releasing the winds, which drive the ships back to Aeolus’ floating island (31-55). Odysseus asks Aeolus to help him again, but Aeolus sends him away harshly, telling him that it would not be right for him to help one who is clearly hated by the gods (72-75). In this case the island’s mobility seems to imply an advantage enjoyed by Aeolus: since he controls the winds, he can have them move his island wherever he pleases. Or perhaps the mobility is intended to reflect the changeability of the winds themselves.

An ancient commentator on Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica 3.41-43 records the curious belief that all islands were once floating islands [2], thus painting an engaging picture of the early history of the earth, with all of the islands moving about freely.

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The myth that the island of Delos once floated is well known: the island was only fixed in place after Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis there. Perhaps the most evocative account of this myth is in the Anthologia Latina [3]:

Delos, now held in place by solid earth,
once floated on the purple sea
and as the wind urged moved lightly here and there,
tossed about by the waves.
Then the god bound her with twin chains,
with one to Gyrarus, and with the other
fixed her to firm Myconos.

No explanation of the island’s mobility is supplied, but the fixing of the island in place functions as a permanent memorial of a very important addition to the Greek pantheon.

According to the Chinese philosopher Lieh-tzu, who lived in the fourth century BC, the five Chinese mythical paradise islands, which are named Tai-yu, Yuan-chiao, Fang-hu, Ying-chu, and P’eng-lai, all originally floated [4].Here the idea of mobility is invoked to account for the difficulty of locating the islands.

The most famous mythical floating island of the Middle Ages is certainly that encountered by St. Brendan of Ardfert and Clonfert (484-577) during his alleged Atlantic wanderings in search of the Terra Repromissionis or Paradise. According to Chapters 10 and 11 of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani , the oldest extant manuscript of which dates to the tenth or eleventh century, St. Brendan and his men come upon an island. St. Brendan urged his men to land on the island, and they did so, finding it to be rocky, with no sandy shore and just a few trees but no other plants. The monks spent the night in prayer on the island while Brendan remained in the boat; in the morning Brendan ordered his men to sing mass and they did so, and then they brought meat and fish from the boat to the island, and started a fire and put a pot to boil on it. But when the water in the pot was about to boil the island began to move, and the monks ran to the boat, leaving behind everything they had brought ashore, and begged Brendan for protection. Brendan took them aboard and told them that God had revealed to him that the island was in fact the largest fish in the ocean, which always wished to join its tail to its head but cannot because of its great length; the name of the fish is Jasconius (from the Irish iasc, “fish”) [5].

St. Brendan’s islands were believed to be real, and thus are mentioned by Honorius Augustodunensis in his De imagine mundi 1.35 (twelfth century), by Gervase of Tilbury, Otia Imperialia 2.11, and by Domenico Silvestri in his De insulis et earum proprietatibus s.v. “Perdita” (late fourteenth or early fifteenth century). The islands also appeared on several maps [6].The Ebstorf mappamundi (c. 1300) places an Insula perdita found by Saint Brendan, but never thereafter seen by any other man, in the approximate location of the Canary Islands, i.e. the Fortunate Islands of the ancients. Similarly the Hereford mappamundi (c. 1300) has an island in the location of the Canaries which bears the legend Fortunatae insulae sex sunt Insulae Sct Brandani . The islands also appear on the Angelino Dulcert nautical chart of 1339, the Pizzigani chart of 1367 (fig. 1), two charts by Guillem Soler (1380 and 1385), and on two charts by Battista Beccario (1426 and 1435), and also on a chart of the same period attributed to Beccario in the collection of Sidney R. Knafel. [7]

Floating Islands Seen at Sea: Myth and Reality (1)

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Detail of St. Brendan and his islands from the facsimile of the Pizzigani chart of 1367 (Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, MS 1612) published by Jomard in ‘Les monuments de la géographie’.

There has been considerable discussion of the source of the whale-island in Brendan’s voyage. Some have suggested that it comes from a similar episode set in the Indian Ocean from the fourth century Babylonian Talmud [8], or else the First Voyage of Sinbad in the Thousand and One Nights , in which an island is revealed to be a whale when a fire is lighted on it, and it quickly sinks beneath the water, carrying many to their deaths. Buzurg b. Sahriyar ar-Ramhurmuzi in his Livre des merveilles de l’Inde , which survives in a thirteenth century manuscript and was probably written in the tenth century, and which is thought to have been one of the sources of the Sinbad stories, contains a very similar episode involving a giant turtle which sinks underwater when it feels fire on its back [9].The episode of the whale-island also appears in al-Jahiz’s Kitab al-Hayawan ( Book of Animals ) 7.35, written in the ninth century [10]; and al-Qazwini’s Aya’ib al-majluqat wa-gara’ib al-mawyudat ( Book of the Wonders of Creation ), which was written in the thirteenth century, contains an account of a giant sea-turtle mistaken for an island very similar to that in Buzurg b. Sahriyar ar-Ramhurmuzi.

Floating Islands Seen at Sea: Myth and Reality (2)

A ship landing on a whale mistaken for an island in an early thirteenth century bestiary (London, British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 69r, c. 1230-1240).

However, it seems more likely that the source of Brendan’s whale-island was the Physiologus, an anonymous book of animals (but which also describes some stones and trees) written in Greek probably in Alexandria in the third century A.D. [11] Francis J. Carmody, in his attempt to reconstruct the Greek original of the Physiologus by collating the oldest extant manuscripts of the work in various languages, renders the relevant passage from the chapter on the whale thus [12]:

The Physiologus says of the whale that it lives in the sea, and is called the aspido-celeon.... the whale has the appearance of an island; and sailors, not knowing this, think that it is an island; they drop anchor and fix stakes and tie the ships, and descend upon it, and light fires on it to cook food; and when the whale grows warm and feels the burning of the fire, it plunges into the depths of the sea, and carries with it ships and all.—So you, if you are incredulous, and put your faith in the devil, shall be carried by him to the depths of hell.

It is clear that the author of the Brendan narrative has turned this material to a very different purpose, for here the whale is a symbol of the devil, and kills many men, while Jasconius is benevolent and does not sink beneath the water when he feels the fire.

The Physiologus was very popular; by the fourth century had been translated into Latin, and by the ninth and tenth centuries it was widely distributed in Western Europe. Further, it formed the basis of the bestiary, a genre that came into being in twelfth century England and France, and continued to be produced into the fifteenth century. Bestiaries from throughout the history of the genre contain a chapter about the whale which is very similar to the whale chapter in the Physiologus, and many bestiaries illustrate this chapter with an image of a boat and a whale with a fire being lit on its back.

In the Brendan and Physiologus narratives fire is what causes the whale-island to move; curiously there are two other medieval narratives in which fire causes a wayward island to stand still. In the opening of the thirteenth-century Guta Saga we learn that the island of Gotland was originally so bewitched that it sank by day and rose to the surface of the sea only at night, but after Tjelvar brought fire to the island, and it never sank again [13]. And in Giraldus Cambrensis’s Topographia hibernica Book 2, chapter 12, doubts are raised about whether a particular island, presumably to the north of Ireland, is a whale or other monster, or really land, as it had disappeared beneath the waves when approached. A young man shot a red-hot arrow into the island and this magically fixed it in place, so that it never again disappeared. These episodes recall the fixing in place of the isle of Delos.

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A very interesting floating island appears in some of the Grail romances, specifically Lestoire del Saint Graal , Le Livre d’Artus , and Joseph d’Arimathie [14]. This is “L’île Tournoiant” or “L’île Tournoyante,” a mythical island formed of an amalgamation of the four elements following creation, which floated about until it came to a steady position in the western ocean, where it turns in place in sympathy with the rotation of the heavens. Nascien was once miraculously transported to this island; there he sees a ship built by Solomon, and in that ship a sword that had belonged to King David. When Nascien draws the sword it shatters as he is not worthy to hold it; later the sword was repaired, and eventually Nascien came to Britain and became a hermit in the service of the Grail.

Among Native Americans and Canadians a floating island plays a role in Iroquois [15] and Cherokee [16] creation myths, in an Oakinacken story of origins [17], and also in a Hareskin flood myth [18]. According to the Oakinacken myth, in the beginning the people lived on an island in the middle of the ocean, and their ruler, a woman named Scomalt, enraged by her people’s quarreling, drove them to one end of the island and then broke off the piece on which they stood, and pushed it adrift. Only one couple survived on this floating island, and from them descended all of the Oakinacken people. Here the floating island functions as a method to separate primordial good people from bad.

The buoyancy of the islands in mythical accounts of floating islands always adds an element of wonder, and sometimes, as in the case of the île tournoiant , and also perhaps in the case of St. Brendan’s island, that seems to be the only function of the island—that is, it adds an element of the marvelous to the story. But the examples that we have examined show that these islands can have a wide variety of other functions within their narratives. The island’s earlier mobility, contrasted with its current stability, can serve to separate a mythical age of wonders in which islands could move from the historical age, in which islands have fixed locations, as in the cases of Delos and the islands described in the Guta Saga and by Giraldus Cambrensis. Or the island’s mobility can reflect its chief inhabitant’s changeability, as in the case of the island of Aeolus in Homer’s Odyssey; or the island’s inaccessibility, as in the case of the Chinese paradise islands, and also St. Brendan’s island to some extent; or a dramatic separation of one people from another, as in the case of the Oakinacken story of origins.

Featured image: The floating islands near Solhan in the province of Bingöl, Turkey, April, 2001 (photograph by Cafer Orhan).

Part 2 – Factual accounts of floating islands

By Chet Van Duzer

Notes and References

[1] Many additional references on the floating islands discussed here are available in my book Floating Islands: A Global Bibliography, With an Edition and Translation of G. C. Munz’s ‘Exercitatio academica de insulis natantibus’ (1711) (Los Altos Hills: Cantor Press, 2004); and also the PDF publication Addenda (Los Altos Hills: Cantor Press, 2006).

[2] See Carolus Wendel, ed., Scholia in Apollonium Rhodium vetera (Berlin: Apud Weidmannos), 1958, p. 217.

[3]Franz Buecheler and Alexander Riese, eds., Anthologia latina: sive poesis latinae supplementum (Leipzig: in aedibus B. G. Teubneri. 1894-1926), vol. 1.2, p. 173.

[4]Lieh-Tzu, The Book of Lieh-tzu, trans. Angus C. Graham (London: Murray, 1960), pp. 97-98.

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[5]Cornelia C. Coulter, “The ‘Great Fish’ in Ancient and Medieval Story,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 57 (1926), pp. 32-50.

[6]On depictions of the island on maps see W. H. Babcock, Legendary Islands of the Atlantic: A Study in Medieval Geography (New York: American Geographical Society, 1922), pp. 34-49.

[7]Most of these charts are illustrated on the CD that accompanies Ramon J. Pujades i Bataller, Les cartes portolanes: la representació medieval d’una mar solcada (Barcelona: Institut Cartogràfic de Catalunya, 2007).

[8]See Lazarus Goldschmidt, ed., Der Babylonische Talmud (Leipzig : Otto Harrassowitz, 1899-1935) vi, 1133, f. 73b.

[9]See Buzurg b. Sahriyar ar-Ramhurmuzi, Livre des merveilles de l’Inde, trans. Marcel Devic (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1883-1886), pp. 36-37, and also pp. 60-61 and 101-102.

[10]See Miguel Asin Palacios, “El ‘Libro de Los Animales’ de Jahiz,” Isis 14.1 (1930), pp. 20-54, s.v. “ballena.”

[11]See Dora Faraci, “Navigatio Sancti Brendani and its Relationship with Physiologus,” Romanobarbarica 11 (1991), pp. 149-173; and Fremiot Hernández González, “El episodio de la ballena en la Navitatio Sancti Brendani y su precedente en el Physiologus,” Fortunatae: Rivista Canaria di Filología, Cultura y Humanidades Clásicas 5 (1993), pp. 283-307.

[12]See Physiologus: The Very Ancient Book of Beasts, Plants, and Stones, trans. Francis J. Carmody (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1953), chapter 21.

[13]See Guta Saga: The History of the Gotlanders, ed. and trans. Christine Peel (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, University College, London, 1999).

[14]For the episode in the Lestoire del Saint Graal see Oskar Sommer, ed., The Vulgate Version of The Arthurian Romances (Washington: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1908-16), vol. 1, pp. 114-119; for Le Livre d’Artus, see Oskar Sommer, ed., The Vulgate Version of The Arthurian Romances, vol. 7, pp. 299-304; and for Joseph d’Arimathie see the edition by Gérard Gros in Le livre du Graal, ed. Daniel Poirion (Paris: Gallimard, 2001-), vol. 1, pp. 230-233.

[15]See “Creation: The Floating Island,” in the William M. Beauchamp Papers, New York State Library, Albany, NY, Series III, Box 28, Folder 9 (8 pp.; an Iroquois legend recorded by A. C. Parker).

[16] See James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (Washington, D.C.: Govt. Print. Off., 1900), Part 1, pp. 239-240.

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[17] Alexander Ross, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1849), pp. 287-288.

[18]See Émile Petitot, Traditions indiennes du Canada nord-ouest (Paris: G.-P. Maisonneuve & Larose, [1967]; first published Paris, 1886), pp. 146-149.


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