Greek mythology features many strange and fantastical locations. One such location was a group of islands known as the Isles of the Blessed. They feature in many ancient Greek records. What do these records tell us? And were the Isles of the Blessed actually real?
The Isles of the Blessed as the Greek Afterlife
The first hint of the concept of the Isles of the Blessed comes from Homer, writing in the seventh century BCE. In the Odyssey, he referred to a paradise location far in the West called Elysium, or the Elysian Fields. However, it was his younger contemporary poet Hesiod who spoke directly about the Isles of the Blessed.
Hesiod explained that these islands were a type of afterlife for the heroes of Greek mythology. Cronus, the father of Zeus, ruled over them. He also tells us that these islands were just next to the shore of Oceanus, the world-encircling river. This fits what Homer said about Elysium.
Pindar, writing in the mid-fifth century BCE, also referred to the Isles of the Blessed. However, he seems to refer to it as a single island rather than a group of islands. Nonetheless, he agrees with Hesiod in making Cronus the ruler. Interestingly, he also makes Rhadamanthus the right-hand man of Cronus. This is compatible with Homer’s description of Elysium, which he referred to as the home of Rhadamanthus.
The Mythological History of the Isles of the Blessed
Most sources about the Isles of the Blessed do not describe the history of the islands. However, there is one fascinating source which does explain their history a bit. This obscure source is called Atlantis, and it was written by Hellanicus of Lesbos in the fifth century BCE. Only a few fragments have survived.
One key fragment states the following:
“Poseidon mates with Kleano; from them comes Lykos, whose father settles him in the Isles of the Blessed, and makes him immortal.”
The same brief account is also found in the later writings of Apollodorus. Kleano is better known as ‘Celaeno’ and Lykos as ‘Lycus.’
According to this, Poseidon settled one of his sons, Lycus, on the Isles of the Blessed. We are not informed of Lycus’ role there, but he presumably had some prominence, perhaps being a ruler. Otherwise, it seems like a superfluous detail to include.
The Isles of the Blessed as Real Islands
Although Greek mythology definitely portrayed the Isles of the Blessed as the afterlife of heroes, various ancient records also attempted to identify them with actual islands. For example, the first-century CE historian Plutarch referred to the Isles of the Blessed. He wrote about Quintus Sertorius, a Roman general who fought in Iberia.
In this account of Sertorius’ career, Plutarch provides extensive information about the Isles of the Blessed. This account presents the isles as real, physical locations. They were supposedly a few days west of Iberia, out into the Atlantic ocean. According to this version, there were actually two islands. Plutarch places these islands some 1,250 miles, or 2,000 kilometers, from the coast of Africa.
Plutarch’s contemporary, Pliny the Elder, also wrote about the Isles of the Blessed. He described them in his Natural History, presenting them as real islands.
Did They Really Exist?
There has been a lot of speculation over the years as to whether or not the Isles of the Blessed were real. Even in ancient times, people tried to connect them with real island groups. For example, one popular suggestion is the Canary Islands. These are in the Atlantic far from the coast of Africa.
Similarly, Madeira and Porto Santo, its neighbor, are in the same general region even further from the coast. They would fit well with the description given by Plutarch of there being two islands.
However, neither of these suggestions takes the distance given by Plutarch into consideration. Plutarch informs us that they were about 2,000 kilometers from the coast of Africa, which is much further away than those islands. This is virtually a perfect fit for the Azores. Nonetheless, there is no clear evidence of any human habitation on the Azores in ancient times. Hence, it is difficult to conclude that any Greek writer could possibly have known about them.
Connection to the Aegean
Interestingly, while the vast majority of references to the Isles of the Blessed place them in the Atlantic, there are at least two notable exceptions. Diodorus Siculus explained that several of the Aegean islands (specifically Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Cos, and Rhodes) were referred to as the Isles of the Blessed.
He provided two possible explanations as to why they were referred to as such. The first is that they were all settled by sons of a king by the name of Macareus. The name means ‘blessed.’ The second is the simple fact that they were exceptional islands. As he explained:“…for being as they are the finest all in richness of soil, excellence of location, and mildness of climate, it is with good reason that they are called, what in truth they are, ‘blessed.'”
Pliny the Elder wrote that Crete was formerly called ‘Macaron,’ which means ‘Blessed.’ This makes Crete another ‘Blessed Island.’
Interestingly, we can discern a connection between the Isles of the Blessed and the Aegean as far back as Homer. He presented it as the home of Rhadamanthus, and Pindar agrees that Rhadamanthus was the joint ruler of the islands along with Cronus. Interestingly, Rhadamanthus appears in various other Greek records as a king of Crete. He was also active on other Aegean islands.
Perhaps, then, the Isles of the Blessed were originally conceived of as otherworldly versions of these real, beautiful islands in the Aegean.