Canary Islands Folklore: Beyond Catholicism

canary islands folklore
“Let the Guanche drums resound / and the conch shells blow, / for the mysterious island is appearing / in the midst of the waves; / here comes San Borondón, / showing up in the mist like a queen / with the surf as suite…”
  • (“San Borondón”, Cabrera/Santamarí)
The Canary Islands have been a major part of Spanish and wider European culture for such a long time that the area is now steeped with folklore, rumour and word-of-mouth stories of heroes, monsters, victories and losses. Due to their location, in between Africa and Spain, a rich tradition of storytelling has created many weird and wonderful tales and suspicions about the islands and their surrounding area. A very popular Aboriginal folklore story dating back to the 15th Century, tells how the Canary Islands, usually considered to consist of 7 islands, actually had a secret 8th island. This 8th islands was reportedly seen to the west of La Palma, El Hierro, and La Gomera. Time and time again, sailors and captains told how they tried desperately to reach the 8th island only to be thwarted by natural phenomenon like high winds, wild storms of dense, opaque mist. By the time the mist had cleared, the secret island had vanished into thin air. The legend claims that a monk from Tralee called Saint Brendan of Clonfert (489-576 DC) is the only recorded man to have reached the shores of the phantom island. Saint Brendan was in the middle of an adventure, sailing the Atlantic Ocean with 14 other monks, on a small wooden boat, barely big enough to hold them all and easily disrupted by the seas and the weather. On this adventure, the monks encountered fire-hurling demons, floating crystal columns, and this secret island, rich in plentiful vegetation; much compared to the Garden of Eden. Saint Brendan and his fellow travellers settled on the island for 6 years, believing it to be the long-sought ‘Promised Land of the Saints’. But then, one day, in the middle of their celebrating mass, the entire island began to move. The men, stunned and frightened, lept back into their boat and sailed away. To their amazement, as they sailed away, they saw the island move in the water like a whale and then completely disappear below the surface. The mythical island is now known as San Borondón, but the Romans had previously called it Aprositus (the inaccessible) and the Portuguese version is Antilia. This phantom island remains firmly in the consciousness of the Canary locals to this day, and many people firmly believe in its existence. And although claims from people saying they have seen or stepped on the island have decreased in the modern ages, the island remains a very active part of the locals’ imaginations. Sightings are still announced, usually from the tops of mountains, where hopeful and expectant children and believers are gazed out across the Atlantic Ocean, only to see the light bounce off moving landmass which then sinks below the sea.