Phantom islands of the Atlantic (book report)

Hoping to find some inspiration for the island-hopping “5DM campaign,” I read Phantom islands of the Atlantic by Donald S. Johnson.  The book is written by an historian and sailor, and discusses seven legendary islands (or groups of islands) that have appeared, for varying terms, on maps of the Atlantic.  Links go to the Wikipedia pages on them so you don’t have to read the book too.  (It’s not a bad read but I skipped a fair amount of the geography and seamanship heavy discussions of where the islands might have been located and which real islands or phenomena might have inspired the stories.)  The maps included in the book include both some reproductions of the originals and some simplified line drawings, which could be useful.

  1. Isle of Demons — not mentioned on Wikipedia: this was confused with an island where Marguerite de la Rocque  and her lover were marooned, and which is described in the Heptameron.
  2. Frisland — where two adventurers become embroiled in wars of conquest on unknown islands
  3. Buss Island — which was thought to be island that sank and occasionally rose again
  4. Antillia, the isle of seven cities — supposedly settled by Iberians fleeing the Visigoths
  5. Hy-Brazil — (I first heard of this in the wonderful film Erik the Viking!) — this one originated in Celtic mythology
  6. St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin companions — who supposedly sailed from Britain to Roma and landed on some phantom islands.  Later explorers would name the Virgin Islands after this legendary figure.  St. Ursula was very popular in the middle ages and the modern Order of  Ursulines were founded in her honor, although the Vatican no longer regards her as a real saint.  This chapter has a good reminder about the trade in saintly relics that were big business in the middle ages.  When a mass grave was identified as that of Ursula and her 11,000 martyrs, there was an explosion of shrines built.  1000 skeletons were shipped out to one location. (The skeletons were probably either a Roman era graveyard or late Roman mass grave; there were not really 11,000 bodies there and they were not all women. Still, a cache of relics like that would be an authentic medieval treasure hoard, if you are bored with gold and silver coins…)
  7. The islands of St. Brendan — This is the longest chapter and mentions a number of islands: The Island of Smiths (possibly volcanic); the Island of Strong Men; many mysterious places like an island with food set out but no inhabitants, a rock with Judas Iscariot stranded on it, a massive crystalline cube that might house New Jerusalem, and many other curiosities and wonders.  Brendan and his companions are also menaced by various monsters and devils, and receive aid from magical birds.  The story is fairly repetitive, in the Medieval manner, but has a lot of details you might steal.

The book also drew my attention to the Ebstorf Map, which I’d never seen before.  Some one needs to redo this in English, or better yet do a version for Greyhawk or some other fantasy world.  This is exactly the sort of map players should have.

Published in: on November 16, 2011 at 9:00 am  Comments (5)  
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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Sold! I want that book.

    And that Ebstorf Map is incredible!

  2. I love that book – highly gameable.

    You’ve read Cpt. Charles Johnson’s “Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates,” of course?

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