The Problem of Mayda, an Island Appearing on Medieval Maps

The Problem of Mayda, an Island Appearing on Medieval Maps

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The Problem of Mayda, an Island Appearing on Medieval Maps

By William H. Babcock

Geographical Review, Vol. 9, No. 4 (1920)

Introduction: Of all the legendary islands and island names on the medieval maps, Mayda has been the most enduring. The shape of the island has generally approximated a crescent; its site most often has been far west of lower Brittany and more or less nearly southwest of Ireland; the spelling of the name sometimes has varied to Maida, Mayd, Mayde, Asmaida, or Asmayda. The island had other names also earlier and later and between times, but the identity is fairly clear. As a geographical item it is very persistent indeed. Humboldt about 1836 remarked that, out of eleven such islands which he might mention, only two, Mayda and Brazil Rock, maintain themselves on modern charts. In a note he instances the world map of John Purdy of 1834. However, this was not the end; for a relief map published in Chicago and bearing a notice of copyright of 1906 exhibits Mayda. Possibly this is intended to have an educational and historic bearing; but it seems to be shown in simple credulity, a crowning instance of cartographic conservation.

If Mayda may, therefore, be said to belong in a sense to the twentieth century, it is none the less very old, and the name has sometimes been ascribed to an Arabic origin. Not very long after their conquest of Spain the Moors certainly sailed the eastern Atlantic quite freely and may well have extended their voyages into its middle waters and indefinitely beyond. They named some islands of the Azores, as would appear from Edrisi’s treatise and other productions; but these names did not adhere unless in free translation. The name Mayda was not one of those that have come down to us in their writings or on their maps, and its origin remains unexplained. It is unlike all the other names in the sea. Perhaps the Arabic impression is strengthened by the form Asmaidas, under which it appears (this is nearly or quite its first appearance) on the map of the New World in the 1513 edition of Ptolemy. But any possible significance vanishes from the prefixed syllable when we find the same map turning Gomera into Agomera, Madeira into Amadera, and Brazil into Obrassil. Evidently this map maker had a fancy for superfluous vowels as a beginning of his island names. He may have been led into it by the common practice of prefixing “I” or the alternative “Y” (meaning Insula, Isola, Ilha, or Innis) instead of writing out the word for island in one language or another.

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