The Phantom Island of Hy-Brasil (The Brazil That Wasn’t)

One of the items that has been a stalwart feature for the past three decades-and-change of the very basement this website is named after is a replica 16th-century Italian globe/mini-bar. From the outside, it looks like an old globe (if you ignore the rolling cart wheels on the bottom) featuring a copy of an Italian map produced in 1578, but open up the top, and voila – a place to stash your booze in a way that desperately tries to convince your guests that you possess a modicum of refinement. These days you can buy a new copy with the same map and contraspecto for anywhere between US$200 and US$525 depending on how much you feel like overpaying; you can find plenty on Internet auction sites for less. I’ve always felt it just was a nice little piece of 1970s kitsch; I couldn’t have cared less about the bar, I just liked the globe. Anyway, it’s been sitting down there so long that it has long become just part of the scenery, gathering dust in the corner. The other day, however, I caught myself looking at the globe and its 1578 map for the first time in a while (which really deserves an entry of its own, so don’t be surprised to see a story on it one day), picking out place names I recognised and names I didn’t, when I came across one of the more infamous phantom islands in history, the non-existent North Atlantic island of Frisland. That triggered my search for other phantom lands on the replica globe.As the map the replica is taken from dates to 1578, I was surprised to not find Brazil. No, not the country, but the island.

Europae

The island of ‘Brasil’ as depicted by Abraham Ortelius in 1572 off the west coast of Ireland.

Right into the 19th century, the island, variously called Hy-Brasil, Brasil, Brazil, Hi Brasil, Hy-Breasail, Hy Brazil, and Isle of Brazil among other variants, was a regular feature on most maps of the North Atlantic. Most likely, it emerged from Irish myths (Uí Breasail translates to ‘descendants of Breasal’, an old Irish clan; Bressal was also the name of a supposed old king of Munster). ‘Bracile’ first appeared on a 1325 Angelino Dalorto map as a disc-shaped island off the west coast of Ireland split in half by a river. A 1480 Catalan map shows two lands marked ‘Illa de Brasil’, one southwest of Ireland and another one south of Greenland. In this 1597 Giovanni Magini map, ‘Brasil’ is two distinct islands separated by a channel and lying midway between Ireland and the Azores. A Scottish sailor claimed to have rescued castaways trapped by a magician in a castle on the island in 1674, and that the island was inhabited by huge black rabbits.

Ortelius1570

This except from Ortelius’ 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum displayed quite a large number of phantom lands in the North Atlantic, such as Frisland (Friesland), Santana, St. Brendan’s Island (S. Bradain), Estotiland, Green Island (Y Verdo), and Vlaenderen.

It’s hard to say exactly how the myth of the island of Hy-Brasil began, or if it merely represented a piece of land that was poorly charted and later rediscovered and renamed. Some postulate that the island could simply be Porcupine Bank (a shoal 200 km west of Ireland) exposed at extreme low tide; this is where an 1830 chart had ‘Brazil Rock’ located. Others link it to islands in the Azores, or to early knowledge of what would become known as North America (supposedly ‘Brasil’ was one of the lands visited by John Cabot). Supposedly it could be seen in the distance from the Aran Islands, and occasional reports of people claiming to have visited the island persisted right until 1865 (as ‘Brazil Rock’). Mythology enthusiasts, theorists and paranormalists enjoy naming Hy-Brasil as a possible candidate for the site of Atlantis.

And in case you were wondering, the modern-day land of Brazil was named for the brazilwood tree, called brasil in Portuguese (brazilwood extract was prized for its red dye). Some postulate that the mythical island’s name was derived from the tree as well rather than an Irish origin, thus showing how the fake land and the actual land received essentially the same name.

Further Reading

Broome, F. (2001). Hy-Brasil, the other Atlantis. Suite101, 3 July 2001. Available at http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/spirits_magickal_and_mundane/74045. Accessed 28 March 2011.

de Camp, L.S. (1970). Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science and Literature. Toronto: General Publishing Company.

Lane, C. (2010). Mythical Islands: Brasil. Antique Prints Blog, 28 April 2010. Available at http://antiqueprintsblog.blogspot.com/2010/04/mythical-islands-brasil.html. Accessed 28 March 2010.

Murphy, A. (2004). Folklore about Ireland, Hy-Brasil and Atlantis. Mythical Ireland, 4 March 2004. Available at http://www.mythicalireland.com/ancientsites/tara/tara-atlantis.php. Accessed 28 March 2011.

Strange News Daily (2011). The mysterious island of Hy-Brasil: The ‘other’ Atlantis. 20 January 2011. Available at http://blog.strangenewsdaily.net/2011/01/the-mysterious-island-of-hy-brasil-the-other-atlantis/. Accessed 28 March 2011.

Tripzibit (2008). Hy Brasil. Unsolved Mysteries in the World, 22 November 2008. Available at http://unmyst3.blogspot.com/2008/11/hy-brasil.html. Accessed 28 March 2011.

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