I came across the word Ogygia (pronounced Oh-gee-uh) this week while reading. Apparently it’s the island home/exile of Calypso. Now in “Pirates of the Carribbean” she is the rather angry goddess of the sea, but in Greek myths she is the daughter of the Titan called Atlas (yes the one that holds the heavens on his shoulders as punishment for defying Zeus). Odysseus stayed with her for a while during Homer’s “Odyssey”. Some think it’s the island of Gozo in the Mediterrean which I visited many years ago on holiday, but I didn’t spot any goddesses. Others think it may be Atlantis.
Which put me on the track of mythical lands across the sea. They appear to be common to many cultures.
The biggie is Atlantis which supposedly lies at the bottom of the Atlantic. It was probably invented around the time of Plato and even then wasn’t treated as a factual location.
The Irish one is Tir na nOg – the Land of Youth which features in many old stories. Every child is taught the story of Oisin and Tir na nOg in school. Again situated in the West (somewhere in the Atlantic) it was the sort of place that you could live in, but if you visited Ireland again and set foot on the ground, all your postponed years would catch up with you.
Another Irish one (possibly a variant of Tir na nOg) was Hy Brasil – this land could be seen from Ireland on one day in every seven years, but otherwise was shrouded in mist. Anyone who’s seen the many islands off the West coast will see how this could be true! It even appeared on many medieval maps. Despite the name, it has nothing to do with a certain country in South America.
The Isles of the Blessed or St. Brendan’s Island were other mysterious island(s) discovered by St. Brendan on his voyages around the Atlantic, this time off the coast of Africa. St. Brendan, also known as The Navigator, apparently discovered America way before Columbus, or so we Irish like to claim. It has been proven that his type of boat could have made the trip he described, but we’ll never know for sure. His island again appeared on maps, including those used by Columbus, and the story went that he and his monks stayed five days while the rest of the crew back on the main boat saw the island disppear into mist for a year.
Some of my favourite authors have enjoyed the concept of mythical lands across the sea. The continent of Four Ecks in Terry Pratchett’s work bears a strange ressemblance to Australia and JRR Tolkien had his Elves pass into the West (to Numenor) to a land of peace and perpetual youth. I’ve read that Tolkien intended Numenor as a reference to Atlantis. Both authors spent a great deal of time and effort in mapping their “worlds”, which is impressive in itself. Perhaps the mark of a good fictional land is that readers want to believe that it really exists?
I think it’s very interesting that so many of these islands lay off the misty West of Ireland coast in a huge sea that people struggled to explore. But even though they’re unlikely to exist, I’m glad they exist in our imaginations. We’d all like a secret island to disappear to now and then, right? If you’re curious about the huge list of fictional islands world wide have a look here.
Until next time, happy reading, writing, and word fooling,