Home » Atlantis: the debrief » Islands of the blessed and cursed


Written by Graham | Created: Friday 2nd 2020 @ 1130hrs

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A survey of the islands across the ocean from Greek mythology.

Present: Interrogator (Third Class) Ветка, interrogating, and Agent Г.


Alright, bucko! You've told me about the conception of the shallow, muddy Atlantic. But what lay across it? Did the Greeks know of the Americas?
In a word, no.
But what about all the evidence for ancient transatlantic contacts?
What evidence?
Oh, come on. Why do you have to be so awkward?
I'm not being awkward. Just asking for evidence.
There's... ah, yes. The Islands of the Blest.
Not America.
Says you, champ.
And then there's Atlantis. Plato says there was a big continent to the west of Europe and Africa, right?
Haven't you been listening to what I've been telling you? Atlantis, if it was anywhere, was where the sea is now. America is not under the sea. Therefore, Atlantis is not America.
Anyway, that's a story for a different interrogation session. For now, we may as well talk about the Islands of the Blest, the Fortunate Isles, the Elysian Fields and other places of that ilk.
Okay. But I'm angry with you. Your cocky attitude. I was warned about this.
That's your bag, dude. I'm going to carry on talking regardless.
Why not? You always do. You love the sound of your admittedly dreamy, sexy English voice.
Right. Well, the Odyssey has the sea god Proteus tell Menelaus that he is bound for the Elysian Fields, ruled over by Rhadamanthys, at the ends of the earth, which is constantly blessed by west winds. Hesiod's Works and Days extends this happy fate to all of the generation of heroes.
Homer, meanwhile, gives something of a road-map to the land of the dead in his description of the souls of the suitors of Penelope, slain by the returning Odysseus: -

So did these ghosts travel on together squeaking, while easeful Hermes led them down [to Erebus, home of the dead] through the ways of dankness. They passed the streams of Oceanus, the White Rock, the Gates of the Sun and the Land of Dreams, and soon they came to the field of asphodel, where the souls, the phantoms of the dead have their habitation.
- Homer, Odyssey [24.12 ff.].

The White Rock in that description is particularly interesting, as Arctinus of Miletus' Aethiopis has Achilles being transported to the White Island by his mother Thetis. This White Island is later placed at the mouth of the Danube, but the earlier conception surely placed it at the extremities of the earth, given its proximity to the Gates of the Sun.
Also, Hellanicus of Lesbos mentions that Poseidon had a son by Celaeno, a daughter of Atlas, named Lycus, whom he settled in the Isles of the Blest. In the same century, Pindar (who also has a subterranean Elysium where the sun shines during our night time) in his 2nd Olympian Ode [68-77] makes mention of the way to these islands: -

Those who have persevered three times, on either side, to keep their souls free from all wrongdoing, follow Zeus' road to the end, to the tower of Cronus, where ocean breezes blow around the island of the blessed, and flowers of gold are blazing, some from splendid trees on land, while water nurtures others. With these wreaths and garlands of flowers they entwine their hands according to the righteous counsels of Rhadamanthys, whom the great father, the husband of Rhea whose throne is above all others, keeps close beside him as his partner.

Pliny the Elder, in one instance, places the Fortunate Isles off the north-western coast of Iberia, noting that they are also termed Islands of the Gods [4.36], while he echoes what had come to be the standard identification of the Isles of the Blest with the Canary Islands in another [6.37]: -

Relative to the Fortunate Islands, Juba has ascertained the following facts: that they are situate to the south in nearly a due westerly direction, and at a distance from the Purple Islands of six hundred and twenty-five miles, the sailing being made for two hundred and fifty miles due west, and then three hundred and seventy-five towards the east. [...] These islands, however, are greatly annoyed by the putrefying bodies of monsters, which are constantly thrown up by the sea.

So much, then, for the Fortunate Isles. Now onto the islands from the various quests and peregrinations of the heroes.
Finally we get to the monster-slaying!
Not quite yet. First of all, Homer's Odyssey describes all manner of strange places, which were soon afterwards localised in the general region of Italy. The most remote western outpost is undoubtedly Ogygia, the home of the nymph Calypso, an enigmatic and fascinating character, who dwells about two-and-a-half weeks' sail from the nearest land, Scheria, where dwell the Phaeacians, themselves far from anyone else.
I should also mention Odysseus' loyal servant Eumaeus, who has an interesting origin story to tell: -

There’s an island called Syrie, you may have heard of, beyond Ortygia, where the sun turns in its course. It is sparsely populated, yet a fine land, rich in flocks and herds, yielding plenty of wine and wheat. Famine is unknown there, and the people are free of the dreadful sicknesses that plague wretched mortals. As the generations of men grow old, Apollo of the Silver Bow visits their cities, with
- Homer, Odyssey [15.403 ff.].

But... isn't that just regular old Syria?
Probably not. You see, Ortygia is generally placed at Syracuse...
Syracuse again? Another blast from Plato's past.
... yes. Orion is said to have died on Ortygia (if not thanks to a huge scorpion on Crete), as early as Homer. He is also associated, like Heracles, with straits, in his case Messina, where he is credited by Hesiod in his Astronomy [F 5] with having built up the promontory next to Peloris.
Another hero who travelled into the ocean was Perseus, who fought the Gorgon Medusa. Hesiod places the Gorgons in the far west: -

And to Phorcys Ceto bore [...] the Gorgones who, beyond the famous stream of Oceanus, live in the utmost place toward night, by the singing Hesperides: they are Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa, whose fate is a sad one, for she was mortal, but the other two immortal and ageless both alike. Poseidon, he of the dark hair, lay with one of these, in a soft meadow and among spring flowers. But when Perseus had cut off the head of Medousa there sprang from her blood great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus so named from the springs [pegai] of Oceanus, where she was born.
- Hesiod, Theogony [270 ff.].

The Cypria, part of the Epic Cycle, names the Gorgons' island home as Sarpedon, and Stesichorus also knows of a "Sarpedonian" island in the ocean.
Didn't he have something to do with locating the Pillars of Heracles.
Indeed. It is his work which established the "real world" location of the fabulous island of Erytheia in the region of Tartessos and Gades. There dwelt the monstrous Geryon, Heracles' opponent, and the son of Chrysaor (mentioned above) and Oceanus' daughter Callirhoe. Nearby, significantly perhaps, was an oracle dedicated to a slightly later hero, a contemporary of Odysseus who fought alongside him at Troy: Menestheus. This man was the king of Athens during that campaign, having succeeded the renowned Theseus.
The area of Tartessos was also associated with primordial struggles between divine powers: the late source Thallus - best known perhaps for his history of the Samaritans - has a confused set of alliances, pitting Ogyges (or Gyges) of Attica (he is more commonly associated with Boeotia) alongside Belus and Saturn (Cronus) against Jupiter (Zeus), resulting in his flight to Tartessus. The name cannot but remind us of Calypso's Ogygia, but may also be associated with Gyes or Gyges, one of the brothers of Briareus.
Similar is the tale of Ophion - the serpentine predecessor of Cronus who was defeated and banished beneath Ogenus (i.e. Oceanus). Otherwise, he was punished by Zeus by having the mountain Ophionion placed upon him, which reminds us of the Ophioussa of the Phocaean explorers. Ophion's wife was Eurynome, otherwise the name of an Oceanid who, along with Achilles' mother Thetis (a creation goddess, perhaps, according to Alcman), gave refuge and succour to Hephaestus beneath the ocean after he was expelled by his mother Hera from Olympus. Eurynome's male counterpart Eurynomus appears as a demon of the underworld in painting.
Anyway, back to Erytheia - whose name is shared with one of the Hesperides according to Hesiod. Geryon was warned of Heracles' presence on the island by a certain Menoetes, a cowherd in the service of Hades, who pastured the infernal deity's kine on the island.
Heracles would lock horns with this Menoetes again...
Wait... they had horns?
Not literally. It's a figure of speech (and a bad pun - cattle, see?). As I was saying, during a subsequent labour, Heracles was tasked with bringing back none other than the fearsome Cerberus from Hades. Whilst in the underworld, he attempts to slay some of Hades' cattle to feed the spirits, whereupon Menoetes son of Ceuthonymus challenges him to a wrestling match. Thanks to Persephone's calling off Heracles, Menoetes gets away with only a few broken ribs. Hesiod tells the story of the similarly named Menoetius, a brother of Atlas, who is struck by Zeus' thunderbolt due to being "outrageous" and full of "mad presumption and exceeding pride." This reminds us of the likes of Eurymedon, ruler of the Gigantes, and ancestor of Homer's Phaeacians.
Another giant who got his comeuppance for his misdeeds was killed by Heracles, the time traveller, during the Gigantomachy, having attempted to purloin the cattle of Helios from Erytheia (they were in Thrinacia in the Odyssey).
"Heracles, the time traveller!?"
Yes. The dude was so badass that the gods decided that the only way to overcome the giants was to summon him from the future!
I have a new-found respect for Greek mythology. Who knew those fusty old classics professors were hiding this sort of thing in their big university libraries...