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The Phantom Islands

Copyright Aaron Thorne 2000

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

Ah, the open ocean. For many years of humanity’s existence, the oceans provided the borders of the world. Even in early medieval times the world was thought to be rather small; bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, bordered to the south by Africa, and bordered to the east by Asia, which touched the other side of the Atlantic. Granted, people living outside of Europe probably had a different view of things, but even the great Arabian mariners from around the turn of the second millennium didn’t know of much more existing in the world. The world was bordered by water, and the water was not easily traversed. But there was land out in the water. It was well known to even ancient mariners that you could find islands in the oceans and seas. You just had to know where they were.

Donald Johnson’s Phantom Islands of the Atlantic describes seven islands (or island groups) that were put on early maps of the Atlantic Ocean but were subsequently removed because no solid evidence of their existence could be found. The book covers the following islands: the Isle of Demons, Frisland, Buss Island, Antillia, Hy-Brazil, the isles of Ursula and her eleven-thousand virgin companions, and the isles of Saint Brendan. Every island or island group has its own tale. Some islands are mundane in origin, and some are fantastical, but every story provides hooks that could be used to spice up any role-playing adventure. This article will consist of two parts. First, I will give a (hopefully) brief overview of the subjects covered in the book. Second, I will explore various ways to use the ideas in the book in your role-playing adventures.

The Book

The first chapter, Mapping the Unknown Seas, covers the problems with early navigation and map-making. It begins with ancient ideas from Pythagoras, Ptolemy, and Aristotle about the shape of the earth and its place in the universe. These ancient philosophers and mathematicians deduced that the earth was round, but not how large it was. The maps from these days are very interesting. Aristotle’s map of the world shows how little was known in his time; only part of Europe and the northern part of Africa are shown, and most of Asia is eliminated. Things got better in the early part of the second millenium, as first the Arabians, followed by the Europeans, began to discover more about their world.

The real problems encountered by these early explorers were in fixing their location while out at sea. Most maps of the time were drawn as art, and were not stringent in getting every minor detail right, which was necessary for navigation. So, navigators had their own set of charts that they would use to fix their position. The book discusses how latitude and longitude standards were set, as well as how mapmakers discovered ways to more accurately draw their maps, including the famous Mercator’s projection, which is still used today.

The first phantom island discussed is the Isle of Demons. There were many stories about this island and its demonic (and animal) inhabitants. The author puts the likely spot for this island somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland, where a number of islands are basically completely covered by birds. To pious Europeans, the noise created by all these sea fowl likely sounded like a band of demons, and walrus and polar bears would be considered bizarre creatures at best, and creatures of hell at worst. But at least the island existed, though in a more mundane form.

The same can also be said of Frisland, which comes from a lone tale about a nobleman who traveled there and helped its king conquer many surrounding islands. This tale did have the advantage of being printed, though, and people have a tendency to put trust in the printed word. Most people who read it believed his tale, but this land was never actually found. The author believes that Frisland was a combination of Iceland and the Faeroe Islands. But at least an actual island existed, which cannot be said for Buss Island, which was likely created by an optical illusion off the coast of Greenland. Buss Island was very persistent in mariners’ minds, however, and was not taken off some maps until the twentieth century. To this day, some people still maintain that Buss Island actually existed, and has since sunk beneath the ocean surface.

Antillia is another completely fabricated land. When the Moors invaded the Iberian peninsula, seven Spanish bishops fled the mainland where they supposedly settled on an island called Antillia. This was on the maps for a while, and was considered to be very sizeable, about two-thirds the size of Portugal. Its founding in story, and not through observation, was hinted at on the maps due to its almost perfectly rectangular shape, which no observed island has ever had. Another oddly shaped island was Hy-Brazil, which comes from Irish folklore. This was the mythical "land of the gods" which could be sometimes seen from the Irish coast. It showed up on maps as a circle cut in two by a river. But it was put on maps for many centuries, though nobody could ever seem to find it. The story of St. Ursula and her eleven thousand virgin companions has her visiting islands in the far reaches of the Atlantic before her untimely martyrdom back in Europe. It was assumed at some point that these were what are now known as the Virgin Islands, which is how they got their name. The last chapter deals with the islands visited by St. Brendan, which is essentially an allegorical, though entertaining, tale. However, such was the power of the tale that islands that St. Brendan visited were put on maps for many years. I should note that the author did not cover the (arguably) most famous of the Atlantic phantoms, Atlantis. In the notes, he writes that Atlantis never showed up on any real maps, and many other books have been written about it, so he decided to omit it.

So What?

The first element that this book provides to assist you in your adventures should be evident by the title of the book. Maps can be wrong. Even the best maps available in your campaign world can be wrong, through no fault of the cartographer; nobody may know what the actual layout of the oceans really is. There may be a number of islands that the mapmaker has heard of from various sailors and merchants, but the mapmaker doesn’t know precisely where said islands really are, and he doesn’t know for sure if the island even really exists. This could be an evil little trick to pull on your players. They might be planning to land on a certain island located on their map to make repairs or forage for supplies. But is the island where their map says it is? Does the island even really exist? Navigational charts were "better" than maps, but who says that each chart had its markings correct?

As far as the difficulties in fixing location, the effect that this could have in your game depends on the technological era that the game world is emulating. For example, the default D&D world seems to be set in a world reminiscent of the 14th or 15th century A.D. Maps of the time in the real world were in no way perfect, and some of them were "stylized" to make them "look better" and were not drawn for navigational purposes. Just try sailing to an island that the cartographer thought "looked better" 100 miles east of where it actually is. This is, of course, why mariners use nautical charts, not maps, to navigate by. But nobody ever bothered to put an "X" to mark treasure on a nautical chart.

The "phantom islands" themselves provide good adventure possibilities. The Isle of Demons would work great in most fantasy games. It could either be populated by actual demons, or it could be one of your world’s own myths, and just be populated by strange animals never seen before. I’m sure that seeing a walrus for the first time was rather frightening for most sailors. Maybe the island uses its "demon power" to actually move around, which could be why the maps never seem to have its location right, assuming that someone actually wanted to go there in the first place. Of course, if the demons (or walruses) held some great artifact, that could get a group of heroes to attempt to locate it.

Frisland is an interesting challenge. It is likely that the Venetian nobleman who "discovered" Frisland made up a good chunk of his story. However, assuming he did land in Iceland, it was inhabited by Vikings at the time, so there could be some truth to the story. Frisland is a good example of what happens when you can’t immediately verify someone’s story about an island they have found. Some people believed in Frisland, and some didn’t. Enough cartographers did, however, to get it put on many influential maps. Some even mapped out the interior of the island, and gave it cities with names. How many phantom islands like this exist in the oceans of your campaign world?

Buss Island is my favorite of the islands given in the book, solely because of the way it stuck in people’s consciousness for so long. One person even got the Hudson Bay Company to pay the English crown real money for ownership of the island. And when the island could not be found, people said that it must have sunk. Even in 1903 someone tried to find the island by taking soundings of the ocean depths. Because of the mysteriousness surrounding the "island"; Buss has potential to be used in a Call of Cthulhu (or similar) campaign set in the proper time period. Why did Buss Island sink? Was it volcanic activity, or something more sinister? Maybe evil creatures had been summoned in a ceremony on the island, and the island was sunk in the ensuing cataclysm. What evil artifacts might be left on the ocean floor? Is something guarding the artifacts? Does anyone dare to find out?

The other islands are of less use, though they could add spice when you put them in your own nautical maps for your game. Hy-Brazil represents a type of "heaven" or paradise, which can only be seen by the righteous. Of course, people did actually see something when they looked West from the Irish shore…. Likewise, the islands visited by St. Ursula and her virgin companions are likely purely mythical. The story of St. Ursula provides little detail about the islands, and probably any islands in the Atlantic could have been visited by them. Lastly, the islands found by St. Brendan, for the most part, sound entirely fantastical. A giant island of crystal? A giant forge floating in the sea? Right. However, the island covered in birds and the island with the giant fruit could conceivably exist. One must realize, though, that Brendan’s islands existed to serve the needs of the story, and not for any other purpose.

I do recommend reading Phantom Islands of the Atlantic if you have any desire to run a nautical campaign. The discussions about maps and navigation are good, and the descriptions of the phantom islands and the stories surrounding them are entertaining and full of ideas for adventures. You might have your players searching for island A. They instead find island B (for whatever reason; storms, bad maps, whatever), but they think it is island A. Or, they find Island A, but the maps put it in a different place than where they actually found it, so they think it is Island B. I believe that these kinds of mistakes are how some phantom islands ended up on so many maps. Mariners found about ten different islands and thought all of them were the Isle of Demons, and Buss Island was a case of seeing an already known land and not realizing it. Remember that for many years navigation on the high seas was an art, and was somewhat inexact at the best of times. Besides, would you rather sail across the Atlantic Ocean or the "Great Green Sea of Gloom" as it was once called? I figured as much.

Editor's Note

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