The unstable sea and its secret sources: an 11th-century voyage of discovery

A few years ago I wrote a book called Impossible Journeys, which was a collection of travellers tales about journeys to places which do not exist. Some of those places are relatively well known; indeed El Dorado has passed into the language as the very definition of a chimeric destination. Others, such as Norumbega and Saguenay in the newly discovered Americas, or the Atlantic island of Buss, have been forgotten.

The idea came to me as I took my son on his umpteenth visit to the dinosaur rooms at the Natural History Museum. Wandering among the remains of these evolutionary cul de sacs, I idly began to wonder about other kinds of scientific dead ends, and started trying to conceive of what a map of the world would look like if it were wiped clean, with all the known points erased and replaced with the many speculative locations from the beginnings of cartography. It sounded like an interesting world to explore. I even coined a term for the exercise: counter-factual geography. (It has yet to catch on.)

Adam of Bremen

It’s a subject that continues to fascinate me, and one that I continue to research. One of the the things that makes it such a compelling subject is the courage and character of those people who were willing to travel into the blank spaces on the map, to risk their lives on hearsay and rumour. I came across this passage the other day, from the 11th-century writer Adam of Bremen. I think it captures very well the perilous idea of travel into what he calls ‘the misty darkness’ of uncharted seas. But more than that, it makes me wonder again about the risk-friendly worldview of men who might have read such an account, and think the dangers worthwhile. Was it really all about the money?

Archbishop Adalbert of blessed memory, told us that in his predecessor’s days, certain noblemen from Frieseland, intending to plough this sea, set sail northwards, because people say there that due north of the mouth of the river Wirraha, no land is to be met with but only an infinite ocean. They joined together to investigate this curious thing, and left the Frisian coast in cheerful song. Then they left Dania on one side, Britain on the other, and reached the Orkneys.

When they had left these behind on the left, and had Nordmannia on the right, they reached after a long voyage the frozen Iceland. Ploughing the seas from this land towards the extreme axis of the north, after seeing behind them all the islands already mentioned, and confiding their lives and their boldness to the Almighty God and the holy preacher Willehad, they suddenly glided into the misty darkness of the stiffened ocean, which can scarcely be penetrated by the eye.

And behold! the stream of the unstable sea there ran back into one of its secret sources, drawing at a fearful speed the unhappy seamen who had already given up hope and only thought of death, into that profound chaos (this is said to be the gulf of the abyss) in which it is said that all the back currents of the sea, which seem to abate, are sucked up and vomited forth again, which latter is usually called flood-tide.

While they were then calling upon God’s mercy, that he might receive their souls, this backward running steram of the sea caught some of their fellows’ ships, but the rest were shot out by the issuing crurent far beyond the others. When they had this by God’s help been delivered from the imminent danger, which had been before their very eyes, they saved themselves upon the waves by rowing with all their strength.

And now being past the danger of darkness and the region of cold they landed unexpectedly upon an island which was fortified like a town with cliffs all about it, They landed there to see the place and found people who at midday hid themselves in underground caves. Before the doors of these caves lay an immense quantity of golden vessels and metal of the sort which is regarded by mortals as rare and precious. When, therefore, they had taken as much of the treasures as they could lift, the rowers hastened back safely to their ships.

They suddenly they saw people of marvellous height coming behind them, whom we call cyclops, and before them ran dogs which suprassed the usual size of these animals. One of the men was caught as these rushed forward and in an instant he was torn to pieces before their eyes. Biut the rest were taken up into  the ships and escaped the danger, although, as they related, the giants followed them with cries nearly into the deep sea.

With such a fate pursuing them, the Frisians came to Bremen, where they told the most revered Alebrand everything in order as it happened, and made offerings to the gentle Christ and his preacher Willehad for their safe return.

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