The Isles of the Blessed in Greek Mythology and Reality

The Isles of the Blessed

Ancient Greek scholars believed the Isles of the Blessed could be found over the ocean’s western horizon, where the souls of the meritorious faithful live happily without work before proceeding to one of God’s many mansions.

These islands have been called a variety of names, including the Fortunate Isles, Elysium, and the Elysian Fields.

They carry both mythological and real-world undertones in Greek literature.

In the time of Hesiod, the eighth century before Christ, the Isles of the Blessed were associated with the concept of Elysium, a utopian location in the underworld thought to be found in the western ocean, on the outer margin of the known world.

Homer wrote in The Odyssey, “the deathless ones will sweep you off to the world’s end, the Elysian Fields, where gold-haired Rhadamanthys waits, where life glides on in immortal ease for mortal man; no snow; no winter onslaught; never a downpour there but night and day the Ocean River sends up breezes, singing winds of the west refreshing all mankind.”

Homer clearly makes room for the possibility of visitation to the Isles of the Blest by mortal man, moreover, the “winds of the West” remark serves as an important clue hinting at the potential reality of these islands’ existence.

Purpose in Greek Mythology

The isles were originally set aside as a destination for the most glorious gods to revel in life’s purest joys, however, Pindar reveals that righteous souls were allowed to enter without achieving a great or historic deed.

He explained, “the good receive a life free from toil, not scraping with the strength of their arms the earth, nor the water of the sea, for the sake of a poor sustenance. But in the presence of the honored gods, those who gladly kept their oaths enjoy a life without tears, while the others undergo a toil that is unbearable to look at.”

A few centuries after Homer, Pindar elaborated on the beauty of these Isles of the Blessed in one of his thrénoi:

For them doth the strength of the sun shine below, While night all the earth doth overstrow.

In meadows of roses their suburbs lie, Roses all tinged with a crimson dye.

They are shaded by trees that incense bear, And trees with golden fruit so fair.

Some with horses and sports of might, Others in music and draughts delight.

Happiness there grows ever apace, Perfumes are wafted o’er the loved place.

As the incense they strew where the gods’ altars are, And the fire that consumes it is seen from afar.

Geographic Location

Two more influential Greek minds later documented the islands’ exact location.

Strabo wrote in his best-known work, Geographica that “the Islands of the Blest lie to the westward of most Maurusia [the north-western angle of the African continent], that is, west of the region where the end of Maurusia runs close to that of Iberia [Iberian peninsula]. And their name shows that because those islands were near to blessed countries they too were thought to be blessed abodes.”

Not long after the death of Jesus Christ, Plutarch shared the story of a Roman general caught up in a chaotic civil war that marked the closing years of the Roman Republic.

He shared, “the general, Sertorius received tidings from mariners of certain islands a few days’ sail from Hispania [Spain], they told him of lands where the air was never extreme, which for rain had a little silver dew, which of itself and without labour, bore all pleasant fruits to their happy dwellers, till it seemed to him that these could be no other than the Fortunate Islands, the Elysian Fields.”

The islands were said to be two in number separated by a very narrow strait and lie 10,000 furlongs (1,250 miles) from Africa; an air that is salubrious, owing to the climate and the moderate changes in the seasons, prevails on them.

Plutarch continued, “The North and East winds which blow out from our part of the world plunge into fathomless space and, owing to the distance, dissipate themselves and lose their power before they reach the islands, while the South and West winds that envelop the islands sometimes bring in their train soft and intermittent showers, but for the most part cool them with moist breezes and gently nourish the soil.”

There was little doubt in Plutarch’s mind that the islands described to Sertorius were indeed the Elysian Fields, the isles of the blessed of which Homer sang.

Christopher Columbus’ Awareness of the Isles

Just before Christopher Columbus set sail from the Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa, natives of the island of Hierro claimed that every year they saw land to the west, and natives on the island of Gomera swore the same on an oath.

Stars glistening overhead, the mysterious, moonlit Atlantic Ocean staring back at him, he remembered eight years prior, while failing to convince the king of Portugal to fund his voyage, a man from an island north of his current location begged the king for a ship to go to these lands that were seen there every year, and always in the same way.

A similar story was repeated in the Azores islands, an archipelago west of the Iberian Peninsula.

Reality put an end to Columbus’ musing as locals frantically warned the expeditionary force that three Portuguese caravels had been spotted patrolling the area, the king sent them to capture him and deprive Spain of impending glory.

On the morning of Thursday, September 6th, 1942, in great haste, Columbus departed the port of Gomera and shaped a course for his famous voyage that would unfold into the discovery of America.

Whether he made it back alive or not, he would know the answer to what untold generations of souls who looked unto the endless waters west of Eurasia and Africa curiously wondered.

Real-World Isles of the Blessed?

Columbus was at sea for over a month before he and his crew finally stepped foot on dry land, the Bahamas.

Spoiler alert, there are no islands that match the descriptions of the Isles of the Blessed to be found in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Save for the Azures Islands, which lie 1,124 miles almost directly West of the Straight of Gibraltar, where winds from the Southwest do prevail.

Perhaps the Canary Islands Columbus set sail from were the original Isles of the Blessed. They are about 852 miles roughly southwest of the Straight of Gibraltar, moreover, the winds deriving from the east and pushing west can be felt quite well, which is why Europeans used the archipelago as a jumping-off point for America.

Were the islands even real to begin with or do they remain to be discovered, above or below the sea?

 

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