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whither the winds would carry them; nor could they carry them anywhere, for there was nowhere to go, and in the realms of mist no prospect of getting back. Sane men would not attempt a venture out of sight of land, said certain of the doctors. To plan such a journey, it was asserted, was evidence of an unsound mind; to embark upon it was ground for depriving a man of his civil rights.
Idrisi, Mohammedan savant in the service of King Roger of Sicily in the twelfth century and the greatest of Arab geogra. phers, utters the authoritative Arab word upon the sea: “The ocean encircles the ultimate bounds of the inhabited earth, and all beyond it is unknown. No one has been able to verify any. thing concerning it, on account of its difficult and perilous navigation, its great obscurity, its profound depth and frequent tempests; through fear of its mighty fishes and its haughty winds; yet there are many islands in it, some peopled, others uninhabited. There is no mariner who dares to enter its deep waters; or if any have done so, they have merely kept along its coasts, fearful of departing from them.”
Whether this was in some part a literary convention—a gesture of geography—or the expression of an unshakable dread, the sentiment limited the service of Islam to mankind. The Arab coasting trade had reached as far as China and as far down the eastern side of Africa as Zanzibar. But this people, so resourceful on land, never pushed their coasting adventures around the Cape of Good Hope, as Prince Henry and his Portuguese successors did from a farther north on the other side of Africa. Nor did they attempt, as Columbus did, the crossing of a great sea. Nor did they essay, as Magellan did, to prove by a circumnavigation the rotundity of the earth on which their own geographers had spoken with the clearest voices of the Middle Ages. A
group of remarkable legends illustrates the later annals of the western ocean and carries them on to the Columbian adventure. Idrisi tells a story of the eight Deluded Folk, or Lisbon Wanderers, who went out to sea when the wind blew from the east and for more than a month were carried before it. They reached an island supposed to be one of the Canaries, where they found a people who spoke Arabic and who sent them back
when a wind arose from the west. St. Brendan voyaged for seven years among seven islands of the west, according to a story widely circulated in the eleventh century. The tenth-century tale of the island of the Seven Spanish Bishops who had left Spain to escape Moslem rule was revived by a Portuguese ship captain who claimed to have reached the island; but when Prince Henry bade him go back for proofs, the romancer took refuge in flight.
It may have been that the Phænicians made atonement at last for the fables of paralyzing fear which they had spread abroad, and on the outer verge of the Old World in the days of their decline left their secret as a legacy for the bold to profit from. The scene is Corvo, westernmost of the Islands of the Sun, as the Azores were called; and the passage, though from a Portuguese writer of the seventeenth century, refers to events a generation before the Columbian discovery. Says Manoel de Faria y Souza: "On the summit of a mountain called the Crow was found the statue of a man on horseback, without saddle, bareheaded, the left hand on the horse's mane, the right pointing to the west. It stood on a slab of the same stone as itself; beneath it, on a rock, were engraved some letters in an unknown language.”
One explanation of the legend is given by a traveler of the last century, who said that the superstitious folk of the island fancied they saw in a promontory which reaches far into the sea the semblance of a person with his hand stretched out toward the New World. This, they declared, was the work of Provi. dence, and Columbus read the sign aright. But the tale may not so easily be interpreted and dismissed. A hoard of Carthaginian coins, so runs a report which Humboldt accepts, was discovered in Corvo in 1749; and there are other stories of equestrian statues of Carthaginian design erected upon Atlantic islands. Against the utter drama of the legend—the parting gesture of good will of a bold and subtle race of ancient timemay be set another legend, more in keeping with the superstition and fears of the Middle Ages. This was no equestrian statue pointing westward, if the Pizzani map of 1367 was to be believed. It was the figure of a saint with his back to the sunset and his outstretched hand warning mariners away from the unnavigable seas behind him.
The monkish monument was the parable of a twilight time. To the fifteenth century the deep was an eerie domain where the creatures of pagan and Christian story couched upon the ocean floor, showed their unholy shapes among the waves, chattered on desert island strands, and wove their enchantments in the mists. In the north the witches of Lapland raised storms and wrecked the ships that passed their shores. To the south none might sail beyond Cape Bojador on the African Gold Coast. Who did so was turned from white to black, and never came back. There the flaming sword of the sun was laid across the paths of the sea. What was beyond it was boiling brine and air heated into a flame -a landless firmament of water and a starless firmament of sky.
Looking westward, men cowered before visions of the Hand of Satan, thrust upward from far horizons to drag ships into the depths. Or “the wind that blows between the worlds” might carry mariners away on a journey from which was no returning. Or currents, setting always in one direction, might sweep them into illimitable space. If the world was flat, one might sail off its edge. If it was round, its very rotundity would present a sort of mountain up which no ship could climb on the backward voyage. As to the Atlantic races, the mediæval maps told one what to expect. What chance of succor, or agreeable converse, or a profitable traffic from spouting monsters, satyrs, sirens and conch-blowing tritons? Could one warm his hands at the witchfires of the sea?
Out of these gray forebodings the ships of Columbus, with one stout heart and many questioning ones aboard, sailed into the unknown, as vessels move through the sluggish dark before the dawn breeze springs up and the sky reddens toward sunrise. Ere long the caravels were steering among isles fanned by soft breezes and bathed in tropical sunshine, and naked, kindly peoples were hailing the mariners as visitors from the skies. Morning had broken at last upon the western ocean, and in its level rays a path lay sparkling clear across the sea—the path of enterprise, of conquest, of gold, the path of victorious dreams. Along that highway hardy spirits soon would press on great adventures. In the stead of ghost-ridden hearth-keepers, mumblers of old fable, shrinkers from the outer surges, there were men who dared go round the earth in flimsy barks and lead a handful of followers against the haughty empires of the Cordilleras.
If there were no Sargasso Sea there would still have been a legend of one to satisfy the demand of the mind, in a world of change and motion, for a place where there was neither. Conscious of the flight of time, noting the flow of rivers, the wind's wandering, and the climbing and falling of the waves of the ocean, the mind has created realms where time stands still, countries of morning calm and afternoon sunshine, and spaces where the pulse of the sea is asleep. Peace there was in the grave, but what was sought was a paradox-something alive and yet motionless in time and space. There were stagnant pools in the imagination, grotesqueries, junk heaps, a sense of silences and of slow decay that was no decay at all but the serenity of noon in a swamp. The outward symbol of these moods men would have in the world about them.
For uncounted ages that symbol had been a fact of the midAtlantic. People must have known of the Sargasso thousands of years ago, though the memory of the voyages in which they learned of it is no more, and the tales that seem to speak of it are not accepted as facts. Plato had told of the thick waters that rolled over the sunken Atlantis, preventing the passage of ships. When Columbus entered this sea and saw tunny fish playing about his caravels, he remembered a story of Aristotle that certain ships of the Semites, coasting beyond the Pillars of Hercules, were driven before a gale from the east until they reached a weedy sea, resembling sunken islands, among which were tunny fish. On his voyage to Britain Himilco reported that he found vast fields of floating weeds which retarded his vessels and brought them to danger.
The ancient view of the Atlantic was that it was a region of baffling calms and shallow water and mud and seaweed. This was based on Punic reports, and the Carthaginians told such tales of the open seas as would frighten other nations from them.