The Atlantic as Mythical Space: An Essay on Medieval Ethea

by Alfonso J. Garcia-Osuna (Hofstra University)

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Ever since Johan Huizinga‘s reassessment of the medieval mind (‘Herfstij der Middeleeuwen’, 1919) as a passionate intensity, scholars have sought to understand pre-scientific perceptions of nature. Garcia-Osuna’s medieval Ethea captures this point; the hero's moral fiamework and perception strategies reflected their assimilation of society’s communal codes for perceiving, judging, and acting: ‘Those codes are the source of the hero’s supply of implicit knowledge’ (p. 222). At the centre of this study is a reconsideration of the rote of myth in the medieval view of the Atlantic Ocean. Garcia-Osuna proposes that an explanation of reality offered by myth ‘is just as valid as that offered by science in the sense that, as a human social construct, “reality” is effectively intertwined with human experience. ...The legitimacy of myth, then, flows from its ability to supply human beings with a coherent, qualitative method of interpreting reality through metaphorical patterns and symbolic archetypes’ […]

[Extract from book review at 'Irish Historical Studies', Volume 47 Issue 172, pp. 337-354. Reviewer: John B. Roney (Sacred Heart University)]

'The Atlantic as Mythical Space' is a study of medieval culture and its concomitant myths, legends and fantastic narratives as it developed along the European Atlantic seaboard. It is an inclusive study that touches upon early medieval Ireland, the pre-Hispanic Canary Islands, the Iberian Peninsula, courtly-love France and the pagan and early-Christian British Isles. The obvious and consequential ligature that runs throughout the different sections of this text is the Atlantic Ocean, a bewildering expanse of mythical substance that for centuries fueled the imagination of ocean-side peoples. It analyzes how and why myths with the Atlantic as preferential stage are especially relevant in pagan and early-Christian western Europe. It further examines how prescientific societies fashioned an alternate cosmos in the Atlantic where events, beings and places existed in harmony with communal mental structures. It explores why in that contrived geography these societies’ angels and monsters were able to materialize with wonderful profusion; it further analyzes how the ocean became a place where human beings ventured forth searching for explanations for what is essentially unknowable: the origins of the universe and the reason for our existence in it.

List of figures

Isabel Pascua-Febles
University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria


Portolan chart, or the routes of myth
The problem of myth as framework for the acquisition of knowledge
Myth and history
Myth and water
Myth and its domains: the Atlantic’s exceptional reality
Myth and syncretism: immrama, echtrai, and visions
Myth and the identity politics of medieval travel
Medieval sight and perception vs. modern practical judgment

Chapter 1 North
The Greeks’ northern Atlantic
The Norse Atlantic: Niflheim
The symbol
Inis Glora: truth, syncretism and collective subjectivity
Merlin: society and the self

Chapter 2 South
The Canary Islands: fantasy and the imagination
The Spanish discovery of Ireland, or the polarization of reality
Isla Encubierta: the function of mystery
The Periplus of Amaro and the Celtic cultural orbit

Chapter 3 East
Greek underpinnings of medieval mythology regarding the Atlantic
Myth as agent in exploration and in the interpretation of reality
The Bible and geographical uncertainty
Brân: of heads and the composite ethos

Chapter 4 West
Atlantis: a panoptic reflection
Ireland, the “other” Atlantis
The early navigations into the Atlantic
Magical ships and the esoteric substance of travel
U sheen in the Island of Youth, or the trappings of identity
St. Brendan: verisimilitude as social covenant
Prince Madoc of Wales, discoverer of America: the medieval myth that crossed the Atlantic
The Voyage of Máel Dúin: The Legacy of Syncretism
Hy-Brasil (Uí Bhreasail), naughty aliens and the logistics of syncretism

Works Cited

Alfonso J. García-Osuna has a Ph.D. in Medieval and Renaissance Literature from The City University of New York and a Post-Doctoral Certificate from the University of Valladolid (Spain). He is Professor of Romance Languages and in the Irish Studies Program, Professor in the Culture and Education Program and in the Honors College at Hofstra University. García-Osuna is the editor of the 'IAFOR Journal of Arts and Humanities', published six books, including one on the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, published numerous articles on Spanish and Latin American Literatures and op-ed analyses. He has also completed the pilgrimage Road to Santiago, from France to Compostela, seven times.

Medieval Ireland, Medieval Spain, Celts, immrama, echtrai, Ancient Britons, early Christianity

See also

Bibliographic Information

Book Title

The Atlantic as Mythical Space: An Essay on Medieval Ethea





Number of pages


Physical size

236mm x 160mm


22 B&W

Publication date

January 2023