MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THE MADEIRA ISLANDS

OCEAN CULTURE IN MADEIRA ISLANDS

madeira island lifestyle magazine

Cover art by FACTORY 43

MYTHS & LEGENDS OF THE MADEIRA ISLANDS

Stories of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, legendary and otherwise, had been reported since classical antiquity. Utopian tales of the Fortunate Isles (or Isles of the Blest) were sung by poets like Homer and Horace. Plato articulated the legend of Atlantis. Ancient writers like Plutarch, Strabo and, more explicitly, Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy, testified to the real existence of the Canary Islands.

From these Greek, Irish, Norse, Arab and Iberian seafaring tales – often cross-fertilizing each other – emerged a myriad of mythical islands in the Atlantic Ocean – Atlantis, the Fortunate Islands, Saint Brendan’s Island, Brasil Island, Antillia (or Sete Cidades, the island of the Seven Cities), Satanazes, the Ilhas Azuis (Blue Islands), the Terra dos Bacalhaus (Land of Codfish), and so on, which however uncertain, became so ubiquitous that they were considered fact.

 

GREEKS & ROMANS – TALES OF THE ATLANTIC

In pre-Portuguese times, Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 – 79), called Pliny the Elder, was a Roman philosopher, who was also a naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire, and friend of emperor Vespasian, first mentions certain Purple Islands, the position of which with reference to the Fortunate Islands or Canaries might seem to indicate Madeira Islands.

Plutarch (AD 46 – 119), a Greek Middle Platonist philosopher, referring to the military commander Quintus Sertorius (d. 72 BC), relates that after his return to Cádiz, “he met seamen recently arrived from Atlantic islands, two in number, divided from one another only by a narrow channel and distant from the coast of Africa 10,000 furlongs. They are called Isles of the Blest.” The estimated distance from Africa, and the closeness of the two islands, seem to indicate Madeira and Porto Santo.

 

THE MEDICI ATLAS

Another theory is presented by the mysterious Medici Atlas, suggests that the Madeira Islands had been discovered long before that date by Portuguese vessels under Genoese captains. The Atlas is currently held by the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy.

The Medici Atlas is an anonymous 14th-century set of maps is composed of eight sheets. The first sheet is an astronomical calendar, the second sheet contains an unusual world map, the third, fourth and fifth sheets compose a typical 14th-century portolan chart (covering Europe, North Africa, the Mediterranean and Black Seas), the sixth, seventh and eighth sheets are specialized charts of the Aegean Sea, Adriatic Sea and Caspian Sea.

 

SEA MONSTERS & THE AGE OF DISCOVERY

In the extensive Atlantic history of Portugal there are numerous references to sea monsters, often with names that are even known, such as whales, dolphins and other fish like these. Travels through unexplored seas and lands led men to the encounter of inhospitable nature, faced with different and unique environments.

During the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, Portuguese sailors were faced with new and unknown fantastical encounters with fauna and flora, glimpses of real animals, in the rare and surprising observations of sea creatures, which until then remained a true mystery. Therefore fueling the myths and legends around sea monsters. The tales are based on the historical reality of the Portuguese people, but the real events are also influenced by the mythological gods, angels and saints.

myths and legends of the madeira islands

Illustration from “Livro das Armadas”, an anonymous codex from the 16th century

Between real and imaginary dangers, stories circulated that beyond the horizon there were huge waves of boiling water, chasms and eddies. The ocean hid monsters capable of swallowing whole ships with their garrisons, and from among the foam beautiful mermaids could emerge that rushed the sailors to the sea, the distressing uncertainty of the return. Many of the sea monsters were snake-like, other times they have the form of a dragon and then there were the mysterious mermaids and sirens, bewitching the sailors with their songs, leading them to death.

Despite these fears and challenges, Portuguese sailors still had the courage to explore and discover new worlds. Portugal had one of the longest-lived empires in world history, existing for almost six centuries. The empire began in the 15th century, and from the early 16th century it stretched across the globe, with bases in North and South America, Africa, and various regions of Asia and Oceania.

In Madeira Island, there is one legend in particular about a monster – The Legend of Cavalum. Located in the village of Machico, are the “Furnas do Cavalum”, furnas are large caves dug out of basalt. Local folklore says that these caves are the home of a monster. Cavalum is a devil in the shape of a horse, with bat wings and that lets out fire from the nostrils.

This mystical realm of monsters and men, where fear and caution is always present, these legends and tales are preserved through classical and modern literature, and oral traditions over centuries.

  • “Livro das Maravilhas do Mundo” by João Marderville
  • “Os Lusíadas” by Luís de Camões
  • “O Mostrengo” by Fernando Pessoa
  • “O Medo do Mar nos Descobrimentos” by Paulo Lopes
  • “Livros das Armadas” an anonymous codex from the 16th century

 

VIKINGS

Prior to colonisation by Portugal, there is also a theory that suggests that Vikings in around the 10th or 11th century visited the Madeira Islands. The discovery of mouse bone fragments found in Madeira, along with mitocondrial DNA of Madeiran mice. This archaeological evidence suggests that the islands may have been visited by the Vikings sometime between 900 and 1030.

The idea that this was a Viking ship comes from further evidence about mice on the island. Josep Antoni Alcover of the the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies explained that “The current populations of house mouse Madeira show similarities in mitochondrial DNA with Scandinavia and northern Germany, but not with those of Portugal. Therefore, this second sample analyzed leads us to believe that the Vikings led this mouse to this island home.”

From the 8th to 11th centuries Viking ships explored large parts of the Atlantic world, reaching North America and conducting raids on the Iberia Peninsula. Moreover, other studies have found that mice were transported as stowaways on theses ships.

 

PIRATES

The Madeira Islands suffered violent attacks by pirates and buccaneers, and the cruelest of them all was the one that happened between the 16th and the 27th of August 1617, perpetrated by an Algerian fleet of eight ships. 900 inhabitants were taken to Algiers, leaving behind only 18 men and 7 women who hid in caves in the hills and “matamorras”, which are grain stores that were dug in the floors of some houses.

Their vulnerability was aggravated by the extreme abandonment by the populations, their geographical isolation and the length of the beach that facilitated the attacks and made surveillance difficult. The only remaining surveillance place was from Pico do Facho, which signaling was made by day through bundles of branches and at night by burning torches and bonfires.

pirates in madeira

Forte São José, painting by Frank Dillon (1850)

Military resources were always scarce and the first true bastion of the island, the São José Fort, was built already in the eighteenth century, in the time of Marquês de Pombal. This was joined by two defensive positions in Pico Castelo.

The main purpose of these attacks was to capture Christians to be sold as slaves. Embodied and young men, women in fecund and eligible age, as well as children, were chosen for being an easier carrier of the propagation of faith.

 

THE CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS CONUNDRUM

The exact ethnic or national origin of Christopher Columbus has been a source of speculation since the 19th century. He was an Italian explorer and navigator between 1451-1506. But a recent historical theory suggests that Columbus was not born in Genoa, Italy, but rather was a Portuguese nobleman who adopted the name when he moved to Spain.

The early life of Columbus has never been fully understood, and there are claims that his name and life may have actually been a cover. There are numerous similarities between the life of Columbus and that of one Pedro Ataíde, the latter of whom was supposedly killed in 1476 in a naval battle at Cape San Vincent. Ataíde, surviving by swimming to the shores of the Algarve, may have renamed himself after a French soldier called Culon whom he fought beside in the battle, because the Ataíde surname was persecuted. Which is still a working theory. DNA analysis could be used to solve an identification puzzle going back more than 500 years.

What we do know about Christopher Columbus is that he is credited for completing four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, opening the way for European exploration and colonization of the Americas. His expeditions, sponsored by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, were the first European contact with the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

Later on, he married Portuguese noblewoman Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, daughter of the Porto Santo governor and Portuguese nobleman of Lombard origin Bartolomeu Perestrello. Around 1480, his son Diego Columbus was born. Between 1482 and 1485, Columbus traded along the coasts of West Africa, reaching the Portuguese trading post of Elmina at the Guinea coast (in present-day Ghana).

Before 1484, Columbus returned to Porto Santo to find that his wife had died. He returned to Portugal to settle her estate and take his son Diego with him. He left Portugal for Castile in 1485, where he found a mistress in 1487, a 20-year-old orphan named Beatriz Enríquez de Arana. Beatriz, unmarried at the time, gave birth to Columbus’s natural son Fernando Columbus in July 1488, named for the monarch of Aragon.

In present day Porto Santo, Madeira Islands, you can visit Columbus’s once lived in house which is now a museum with sea exploration and colonial empire exhibits.

 

STAR-CROSSED LOVERS

During the reign of King Edward III of England, lovers Robert Machim and Anna d’Arfet were said to have fled from England to France in 1346. He was an English aristocrat who traded on the Mediterranean, and fell in love with a woman by the name of Anne d’Arfet. She was of a higher social standing than Robert, and the two had to elope from the town of Bristol.

map of island madeira lifestyle

Map of Madeira Islands

Driven off course by a violent storm, their ship ran aground along the coast of an island. After thirteen days they see the island of Madeira, where they land. At this point, however, Anne dies from exhaustion, and Robert follows her a few days later. The crew of the ship make it to North Africa, where they are captured by the Moors. One of their fellow prisoners, called Morales of Seville, is ransomed and sent back to Castile, but on the way back he is captured by a servant of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal. When Prince Henry hears of the story he promptly sends out an expedition that finds the island of Madeira. Later this legend was the basis of the naming of the city of Machico on the island of Madeira, in memory of the young lovers.

Another tale can be traced back to 1507. In this version, Machin survives his lover, and builds an oratory over her grave. He makes it off the island and eventually ends up at the royal court of Castile. Finally, a third version tells of a French merchant by the name of il Macino. This adventurer, known from the writings of Giulio Landi, differs from the other two in two senses: he has no mistress, and he later returns to colonise the island.

Though it is unknown whether the story of Machin is true, the island still carries a reminder of him in the name of the city Machico, which supposedly was named after him.

The Madeira Islands were officially claimed and documented in 1419 by Portuguese sailor João Gonçalves Zarco, when he landed on the island and colonised it for Portugal. And the rest is history.

 

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