Brasil (mythical island)

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Native name:
Hy-Brasil, Hy Brasil, Hy Breasil, Hy Breasail, Hy Breasal, Hy Brazil, I-Brasil
Ortelius 1572 Ireland Map.jpg
Brasil (far left) as shown in relation to Ireland on a map by Abraham Ortelius (1572)
EtymologyUí Breasail: in honour of the descendants of Bresail[1]
LocationMythical, Atlantic Ocean

Brasil, also known as Hy-Brasil and several other variants,[2] is a phantom island said to lie in the Atlantic Ocean[3] west of Ireland. Irish myths described it as cloaked in mist except for one day every seven years, when it becomes visible but still cannot be reached.


The etymology of the names Brasil and Hy-Brasil is unknown, but in Irish tradition it is thought to come from the Irish Uí Breasail (meaning "descendants (i.e., clan) of Bresail"), one of the ancient clans of northeastern Ireland. cf. Old Irish: Í: island; bres: beauty, worth, great, mighty.[1]

Despite the similarity, the name of the country Brazil (Portuguese: Brasil) has no connection to the mythical islands (although J. R. R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" has likened both together).[4] The South American country was at first named Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross) and later Terra de Santa Cruz (Land of the Holy Cross) by the Portuguese navigators who arrived there. After some decades, it started to be called "Brazil" due to the exploitation of native brazilwood, at that time the only export of the land. In Portuguese, brazilwood is called pau-brasil, with the word brasil commonly given the etymology "red like an ember", formed from Latin brasa ("ember") and the suffix -il (from -iculum or -ilium).[5][6][7]

Appearance on maps[edit]

Nautical charts identified an island called "Bracile" west of Ireland in the Atlantic Ocean as far back as 1325, in a portolan chart by Angelino Dulcert. Later it appeared as Insula de Brasil in the Venetian map of Andrea Bianco (1436), attached to one of the larger islands of a group of islands in the Atlantic. This was identified for a time with the modern island of Terceira in the Azores, where a volcanic mount at the bay of its main town, Angra do Heroismo, is still named Monte Brasil.

A Catalan chart of about 1480 labels two islands "Illa de brasil", one to the south west of Ireland (where the mythical place was supposed to be) and one south of "Illa verde" or Greenland.

On maps the island was shown as being circular, often with a central strait or river running east–west across its diameter. Despite the failure of attempts to find it, this appeared regularly on maps lying south west of Galway Bay until 1865, by which time it was called Brasil Rock.

Map gallery[edit]

Searches for the island[edit]

Expeditions left Bristol in 1480 and 1481 to search for the island; and a letter written by Pedro de Ayala, shortly after the return of John Cabot (from his expedition in 1497), reports that land found by Cabot had been "discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found Brasil".[8]

In 1674 a Captain John Nisbet claimed to have seen the island when on a journey from France to Ireland, stating that the island was inhabited by large black rabbits and a magician who lived alone in a stone castle, yet the character and the story were a literary invention by Irish author Richard Head.[9] Roderick O'Flaherty in A Chorographical Description of West or H-Iar Connaught (1684) tells us "There is now living, Morogh O'Ley (Murrough Ó Laoí), who imagines he was personally on O'Brasil for two days, and saw out of it the iles of Aran, Golamhead [by Lettermullen], Irrosbeghill, and other places of the west continent he was acquainted with."

Hy-Brasil has also been identified with Porcupine Bank, a shoal in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 kilometres (120 mi) west of Ireland[10] and discovered in 1862. As early as 1870 a paper was read to the Geological Society of Ireland suggesting this identification.[11] The suggestion has since appeared more than once, e.g., in an 1883 edition of Notes and Queries.[12]

In popular culture[edit]

Irish poet Gerald Griffin wrote about Hy-Brasail in the early nineteenth century.[13]

Margaret Elphinstone wrote a novel, Hy Brasil (2002), about a woman who is sent to write the first-ever travel book on Hy Brasil.

In Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy, the largest island of the Elder Isles, where the titular kingdom is located, is called "Hybras", which the prologue of the first book states to be the in-universe origin for the name of Hy-Brasil.

In the film Erik the Viking, the characters must travel to Hy-Brasil to obtain a magical horn. Fulfillment of a curse leads to the sinking of the island.

Mary Burke's short story uses the myth as an allegory of the breach caused by the Northern Irish Troubles. Mary Burke, “Hy-Brasil” in The Faber Best New Irish Short Stories, 2004-5 Ed. David Marcus. London: Faber & Faber, 2005, 101–05.[14]

In his 1867 poem "Celtic Speech," Lionel Johnson refers to it as "Holy Hy."

Hybrasil are an Irish electronica musical group named after the mythical island.

The island features in Geraldine McCaughrean's fantasy novel The Stones Are Hatching.

Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell includes a song titled "Hy-Brasil" on her 2021 debut album Outside Child.

The building name of the Embassy of Brazil to the Atlantic Island of Barbados (a former British possession), is "Hy Brasil".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b McKillop, James (1998). "Hy Brasil". A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Hy Brasil, Hy Breasil, Hy Breasail, Hy Breasal, Hy Brazil, I-Brasil
  3. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Brazil, or Brasil" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 438.
  4. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. On Fairy Stories (PDF).
  5. ^ "brésil". CNRTL – Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales (in French).
  6. ^ "Michaelis – Moderno Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa" [Michaelis – Modern Dictionary of the Portuguese Language] (in Portuguese).
  7. ^ "iDicionário Aulete" (in Portuguese). Archived from the original on 29 February 2012.
  8. ^ Seaver, K.A. (1995). The Frozen Echo. Stanford University Press. p. 212. ISBN 0-8047-3161-6.
  9. ^ Freitag, Barbara (2013). Hy Brasil: The Metamorphosis of an Island. Rodopi. ISBN 978-9401209106.
  10. ^ Velasco, Francisco; Landa, Jorge; Barrado, Joaquín; Blanco, Marian (2008). "Distribution, abundance, and growth of anglerfish (Lophius piscatorius) on the Porcupine Bank (west of Ireland)". ICES Journal of Marine Science. 65 (7): 1316. doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsn130.
  11. ^ Winsor, Justin (1889). Narrative and critical history of America. Vol. 1. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 51.
  12. ^ Frazer, W. (December 1883), "O'Brazile or Hy Brazile", Notes and Queries, s6-VIII (207): 475, doi:10.1093/nq/s6-VIII.207.475a
  13. ^ Griffin, Gerald (1846). "Hy-Brasail—The Isle of the Blest". In MacCarthy, D. F. (ed.). The Book of Irish Ballads. Dublin: James Duffy. p. 34.
  14. ^ "Review: The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories 2004-5". The Guardian. 27 May 2005.

Further reading[edit]