In the Fortunate Isles, also called the Isles (or Islands) of the Blessed (occasionally rendered as Isles of the Blest) (μακάρων νῆσοι makárôn nêsoi), heroes and other favored mortals in Greek mythology and Celtic mythology were received by the gods into a winterless blissful paradise. According to Greek mythology, the islands were reserved for those who had chosen to be reincarnated thrice, and managed to be judged as especially pure enough to gain entrance to the Elysian Fields all three times. These islands were thought to lie in the Western Ocean near the encircling River Oceanus; Madeira, Canary Islands, Azores, Cape Verde and Bermuda have sometimes been cited as possible matches.
Flavius Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana (v.2) says, "And they also say that the Islands of the Blessed are to be fixed by the limits of Libya where they rise towards the uninhabited promontory." In this geography Libya was considered to extend westwards through Mauretania "as far as the mouth of the river Salex, some nine hundred stadia, and beyond that point a further distance which no one can compute, because when you have passed this river Libya is a desert which no longer supports a population."
Plutarch, who refers to the "fortunate isles" several times in his writings, locates them firmly in the Atlantic in his vita of Sertorius. Sertorius, when struggling against a chaotic civil war in the closing years of the Roman Republic, had tidings from mariners of certain islands a few days' sail from Hispania:
|“||...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.||”|
It was from these men that Sertorius learned facts so beguiling that he made it his life's ambition to find the islands and retire there.
|“||The islands are said to be two in number separated by a very narrow strait and lie 10,000 furlongs ( 2,000 kilometers / 1,250 miles ) from Africa. They are called the Isles of the Blessed. [...]
Moreover an air that is salubrious, owing to the climate and the moderate changes in the seasons, prevails on the islands. 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. Therefore a firm belief has made its way, even to the barbarians, that here are the Elysian Fields and the abode of the Blessed of which Homer sang.
Pliny the Elder's Natural History adds to the obligate description— that they "abound in fruit and birds of every kind"— the unexpected detail "These islands, however, are greatly annoyed by the putrefying bodies of monsters, which are constantly thrown up by the sea".
Ptolemy used these islands as the reference for the measurement of geographical longitude, and they continued to play the role of defining the prime meridian through the Middle Ages. Modern geography names these islands as Macaronesia.
All of this clearly inspired the English writer J.R.R. Tolkien to locate Aman, the Blessed Realm, and, more importantly, Valinor, the land of the Valar and Elves who left Middle-Earth, in the West in his own mythology. In Tolkien's lengedarium, a medieval mariner, Aelfwine (called Eriol by the Elves), found the hidden sea-road to the West, came to Tol Eresseä (the Lonely Isle before the coastline of Aman), and was told the Lost Tales of the first Era's of this World.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Isles of the Blest.|
- Greek mythology in popular culture
- Snake Island (Black Sea), "Isle of the Blessed" in Greek legend.
- Mag Mell
- Tír na nÓg
- Avalon, The Isle of the Blessed
- Aman, the "blessed realm" of Tolkien's works.
- Great Ireland
- Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, ch. viii.
- John Kirtland Wright, "Notes on the Knowledge of Latitudes and Longitudes in the Middle Ages", Isis, 5 (1923): 75–98.