When discussing underwater lore and legends, Atlantis is an obvious subject of interest. However, the lost island of Hy-Brasil is just as intriguing and has more first-person accounts.
Hy-Brasil is also spelled Hy-Breasal, Hy-Brazil, Hy-Breasil, Brazir and related variations. It may be the reason that the South American country, Brazil, was so named. The central image on the Brazilian flag, a circle with a channel across the center, is the symbol for Hy-Brasil on early maps.
The name of Hy-Brasil may come from the Middle Ages term brazil, which seems to indicate a source of rare red dye. The dye may have acquired its name from the legendary island, or vice versa.
Or, the name Hy-Brasil, also called the Fortunate Island, may originate with the old Irish word, breas, meaning noble or fortunate.
In folklore, this island country takes its name from Breasal, the High King of the World, in Celtic history.
(He may or may not be related to Bresal Echarlam mac Echach Baethlaim, from the stories of Lugh at Tara. He was not St. Breasal, although pre-Christian folklore may be the foundation for that saint’s legends.)
Hy-Brasil was noted on maps as early as 1325, when Genoese cartographer Dalorto placed the island west of Ireland. On successive sailing charts, it appears southwest of Galway Bay.
On some 15th century maps, islands of the Azores appear as Isola de Brazil, or Insulla de Brazil.
After 1865, Hy-Brasil appears on few maps since its location could not be verified.
Regardless of the name or location, the island’s history is consistent: It is the home of a wealthy and highly advanced civilization. Those who visited the island returned with tales of gold-roofed towers and domes, healthy cattle, and opulent citizens.
The lore of Hy-Brasil is equally fascinating. For example, it is shrouded in fog or perhaps beneath the ocean, and appears only briefly, once every seven years.
The island has been visited by many people for centuries. Both Saint Barrind and Saint Brendan found the island on their respective voyages, and returned home with nearly identical descriptions of Hy-Brasil, which they dubbed the “Promised Land.”
One of the most famous visits to Hy-Brasil was in 1674 by Captain John Nisbet of Killybegs, Co. Donegal, Ireland. He and his crew were in familiar waters west of Ireland, when a fog came up. As the fog lifted, the ship was dangerously close to rocks. While getting their bearings, the ship anchored in three fathoms of water, and four crew members rowed ashore to visit Hy-Brasil.
They spent a day on the island, and returned with silver and gold given to them by an old man who lived there. Upon the return of the crew to Ireland, a second ship set out under the command of Alexander Johnson.
They, too, found the hospitable island of Hy-Brasil and returned to Ireland to confirm the tales of Captain Nisbet and crew.
The last documented sighting of Hy-Brasil was in 1872, when author T. J. Westropp and several companions saw the island appear and then vanish. This was Mr. Westropp’s third view of Hy-Brasil, but on this voyage he had brought his mother and some friends to verify the existence of Hy-Brasil.
Researchers and archaeologists have searched in the most likely locations west of Ireland, and there is evidence that islands existed there. Shallow-water shells have been found at Porcupine Bank, somewhat northwest of the most likely location of Hy-Brasil. Even further north, similar shells were discovered at Rockhall.
So, there is evidence of land mass changes in that part of the Atlantic Ocean.
The most distinctive geographical feature of Hy-Brasil, is that it appears on maps as a perfect circle, with a semi-circular channel through the center. The circular perimeter of the island was confirmed by both Saints Barrind and Brendan, who separately walked the shore to determine where the island ended, but never found it. Most likely, they were walking in circles.
Although Hy-Brasil does not have the fame of Atlantis, outside role-playing games, it is a story worth exploring.
Other names for Hy-Brasil: Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), Mag Mell (Land of Truth), Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), and Tir na-m-Buadha (Land of Virtue). Fourteeth and Fifteenth century maps spell Hy-Brasil as Ysole Brazil, Bracir, and Hy Breasail.
- Phantom Islands of the Atlantic, by Donald S. Johnson
- Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, by Peter Berresford Ellis
- Celtic Myth and Legend, by Mike Dixon-Kennedy
You may find other articles from Fiona at her website, Faerie Magick.