Great Island of the Solstice

The Great Island of the Solstice is a mythical paradise in the Atlantic south of Santiago de Compostela. It is written about in an 11th-century Latin text called The Voyage of Trezenzonio to the Great Island of the Solstice. The relationship of the story with medieval Irish narratives, such as the The Voyage of Bran and The Voyage of Brendan makes clear it was largely a fictionalized account. The island is hidden by clouds, reflecting the motif of the magic invisibility of an otherworldly island. Trezenzonio desires to stay on the island but is punished with blindness and leprosy, reflecting the motif of the dangers of staying too long in the otherworld. The putrefaction of Trezenzonio's food the moment he returns to the real world is reminiscent of Irish folklore. W.B. Yeats recounts how the bard Oisín visited an island called Tír na nÓg, the Country of the Young, where both old age and death are unknown. He lived there three hundred years, but when he returned and his feet touched the ground, he turned to ash. Trezenzonio's story is a precursor of the tale of the Island of the Seven Cities, to which seven bishops fled from Spain during the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. (This story is first related in a caption on the oldest surviving terrestrial globe, that of Martin Behaim, dated 1492.) The Great Island of the Solstice appears in one of the Beatus mappaemundi of Burgo de Osma.

Detail of the 11th-century world map. On the left is the lighthouse that Trezenzonio ascended.

The Voyage of Trezenzonio to the Great Island of the Solstice, translation by Chet Van Duzer

Here begins the story of Trezenzonio about the great island of the Solstice. Recording under the light of a flourishing reed, not only the fertility of the soil and the pleasantness of the paradisiacal perfume, but also the sanctity of the habitation of that island—namely that of the great Solstice—I decided to write with a subtle brevity, selecting a few things from many. For if I had elected to describe each thing exactly as it was, I would have run out of time before I ran out of material. Therefore, I shall place in the book of Eucherius a summary of my fortunate experience and the state of the above-mentioned island. 

Because most of the cities of Galicia had been completely destroyed by the perfidy of the Saracens, and had been turned into the lairs of beasts for many years, I, Trezenzonio, with chance as my guide, entered the wastes of Galicia alone. When I had wandered through the whole region, finding not even ruins, I finally came to the Lighthouse of A Coruna. I had seen its high pinnacle from afar and was amazed, and wondering what it might be, I walked towards it, and at last saw what it was. 

I ascended to the top of the tower, in which there was a huge and exceedingly bright mirror. When the sun rose, the bright light from the mirror showed almost everything that was in the sea. Having looked longer than usual with this reflected light, I saw twice, and then a third time, among the most distant waves of the sea, a spacious island. Descending from the lighthouse, I began to plan how I might get to that island. 

After building [a boat] by hard work over many days and abstaining from any type of food except for some wild herbs and game meat, I first prayed to God, alone and prostrate, thus: 

Spare me, Lord, and protect me, for I entrust myself to You and I depend on the benevolence of your judgment. King of Kings and creator of all beings, who extended Your hand to the Apostle Peter when he was drowning at sea, extend to me, a sinner, Your helping right hand and lead me clear of formidable fear and danger to the island which You have deigned to reveal to me. 

At about dawn I boarded the boat; I succeeded in sailing to the mouth of the river Bervecaria, which leads towards the island, and in more or less the middle of the afternoon, I arrived safely there. From the boat I entered a field, and saw the beginning of a small trail which I followed for eight days, and when I reached the end of it, I found a very large and finely built basilica. It was about fifty-one cubits high, sixty-one cubits wide, and three hundred stadia in circumference, with eight apses, four porticoes, and ten sacristies. Among these sacristies were four treasuries, each filled with many valuable things, namely manuscripts and objects for the performance of holy rites. The floor of the church was decorated with crystals, emeralds, hyacinths, and rubies. In the middle of the church was an altar made completely of marble, with a gold base, and a floor of the clearest glass; the altar cloths were of a golden fabric and shone like the sun. Above the altar was the epitaph of Saint Thecla, who was buried there, and in whose name the church had been built. On the right-hand side, there was a sepulchre built of an unknown precious stone, with a marble tablet at its head which bore this inscription: “Here lies Quirillus and his disciple Flavius.” 

I remained on this island alone, procuring the meat of various birds and sheep, and also honey from the innumerable bees; the perfume of the herbs and fruit was indescribable. It was wonderful to live there, where there was neither too much heat nor wearying rain, but perpetual spring, where night was not so dark, as the stars shone bright there and provided clear illumination. But in the whole circumference of the island, both within and without, a dark cloudbank reigns, which no vision can penetrate, except by divinely granted revelation. For the seven years that I lived there, no base thought disturbed me, and neither sadness, nor sorrow, nor hunger, nor danger, nor any impure thought troubled my soul; but always satiety, delight, and happiness held me there. I rejected sleep, except as much as the fragility of human nature demanded. I was insatiable in my admiration of the various wonders I saw in the different parts of the island. I saw choruses of angels singing with one voice day and night; and each year at the rite of Saint Thecla, I saw something even more wonderful, which was a chorus of the blessed singing all through the night. But what good would it do to list individually all of the wonders that I saw? For to describe their beauty would be impossible. But at daybreak, the angels left bread and wine for me above the altar when they departed, and when I ate and drank, my soul was so filled with the scents of all delights that I would remain full for months, and could live without any other sustenance. 

In the interior on the marble column was inscribed the name of the basilica of Saint Thecla, the name of the island of the Great Solstice, and the name of the Bervecaria River. 

After seven years had passed, an angelic voice warned me, as I recall, not once but twice, that I should leave the paradisiacal island, and not remain there any longer—a warning that I was not happy to hear. What then? Refusing in vain to leave, I was struck at God’s command with unendurable leprosy from head to toe, and also with blindness. And thus warned for a third time, I worshipped God and He restored my health. A little boat was shown to me on the shore; I boarded it with some trepidation, and guided by God’s hand, I brought it to the bank of a small river. But the mutton and fish I had brought with me suddenly putrefied the moment I touched land. 

Walking eastwards for fifty miles from there along the seashore, I came to the lighthouse, which was now partly destroyed, and to the city of Caesarea, which was almost completely in ruins. And Galicia, which I had left depopulated, I found now to be at least thinly populated. And so I came to Tuy to see Adelfius, the Bishop of the city, who had freely brought me up like a father does his son, and had taught me from the beginning. 

Source: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00155870802352285