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St. Brendan’s Shank— Kelly Barnhill

St. Brendan’s Shank— Kelly Barnhill

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St. Brendan’s Shank is a small device

—eight inches long from tip to tip—

made from thirty-seven interlocking

copper globes, circular hinges, a narrow

headpiece (with burrowing snout), and a

winding key connected to a clockwork

interior (silver alloy and iron). The

device itself has an uncannily efficient

winding system—a single turn of the pin

sets its lifelike wriggle in motion for

days, even months, at a time. More than

one biologist has noted the device’s

astonishing mimicry of the movements,

behaviors, and habits of a tiny

subspecies of the Turrilepad, or armored

worm, called the Turrilepus Gigantis,

found in the North Sea and other coldwater locations. Like its prehistoric

cousins, the segmented body of the

Turrilepus Gigantis was covered in a

tough, calcitic armor, had a sharp,

burrowing snout, and exhibited a distinct

lack of fastidiousness when it came to its


The name of the Shank originates

with the brethren of the Order of

Brendan, although not from the saint

himself. St. Brendan (called the

Navigator, the Voyager, and the Bold)

was no inventor, being far more

interested in the navigational utility of

the heavenly stars, the strange insistence

of the sea, and, in one famously

preserved quotation, the curious hum of

his small boat’s leather hull against the

foamy breasts of the ocean’s waves: “So

like the suckling child, I return,

openmouthed, to the rocking bosom of

the endless sea.” He was not a man of

science, nor of medicine, nor of healing.

He was known for his ability to inspire

blind devotion and ardent love in his

followers, who willingly went to the

farthest edges of the known world to

found fortresses of prayer, only to have

their beloved abbott leave them behind.

One such monastery existed for

many centuries on the cliffs of the Isle of

St. Brendan—also known as the Isle of

the Blessed—a lush, verdant island once

inhabited by a strange pre-Coptic

civilization that had since vanished,

leaving only a series of man-made

saltwater lakes that appeared to have

some religious significance. The monks

soon added to the many strange tales

surrounding the place, for it was said

that the monks themselves would never

die unless they left the island.

St. Brendan’s Shank, made of

interlocking copper pieces, with over

thirty springs to keep the pieces in

tension with one another.

It was here that the idea for the

Shank appears to have originated,

although the sophistication of the device

has led to theories of outside collusion.

Some, for example, believe that the

device shows evidence of workmanship

common to the Early Middle Period of

Muslim scientific flowering in the

1200s, specifically the influence of the

(nonmonastic) brothers known as Banu

Musa, and their Book of Ingenius

Devices. Given the amount of traveling

the monks did over the centuries, it is not

impossible that they came into contact

with either the Banu Musa or equivalent.

Whether or not this legend is true, it





development of the Shank followed

eventually from an event in 1078, when

the lonely order on the island found

itself an unwilling host to the unstable

and murderous son of Viking despot Olaf

the Bloodless, King of Jutland. The

arrival of the young Viking on the isle

was recorded in the sagas of a bard

known only as Sigi, who was present

with the Viking entourage accompanying

the prince.

“The son of Olaf, upon hearing

tell of an Isle populated by the


became inflamed by desire to find

the place and conquer its secrets.

The Isle, like a coward, made itself

difficult to find, but the Prince did

give chase through storm, through

mist, and through ice until at last,

the Isle was in our sights. We

arrived with swords in hand,

slicing open the first two monks

who greeted us, as a demonstration

of force and might. It was in this

way that we learned that the



only cheated the death of cowards

and slaves—a death in a bed, a

death of age, a death of sickness.

The death of Men cannot be

cheated, nor can their Magics wish

it away. And nothing, not even their

craven God, is mightier than a

Jutland sword. The monks knelt and

trembled and wailed before us.”

This account is contradicted in part

by the journal of Brother Eidan, abbott

of the order since the departure of their

founder-saint: “The children of the

children of the men who once laid waste

to our homeland arrived upon our shores

unexpectedly. They were tired and

hungry and sick at heart. Our souls were

moved to pity and we welcomed them

with open arms. Their demands seemed

beyond our abilities or strength to fulfill,

but we had no choice but to try, as

otherwise they would have put us all to

the sword.”

The prince suffered from a wasting

disease that Sigi and other chroniclers

had either covered up or had judiciously

neglected to mention—this was the real

reason the prince had come to the

monks’ island. What followed appeared

to consist of a series of ablutions in the

icy waters of the island’s western bay.

The monks told the prince they staved

off death by stripping naked, bearing

their skin to the morning light, and

plunging into the water. Of course, if

their other accounts are to be believed,

any longevity, possible or impossible,

came simply from prayer and from other

essential properties of the island.

Nevertheless, after the young man

stripped, winced, and shivered,

submerging his body every morning for a

full week, a miracle occurred. The son

of King Olaf emerged from the water a

new man, naked and shining, blessed

with strength and health. “My disease is

devoured and vanquished,” he cried, and

the Viking horde gave a halfhearted

cheer. They left the island in a relatively

unpillaged condition. No account tells of

exactl y how the prince was cured,

however, despite the first reference in

the literature to a “creature of healing.”

Nor is there any explanation for the

prince’s eventual death two years later,

except for an obscure fragment from Sigi

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St. Brendan’s Shank— Kelly Barnhill

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