Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) by Hartmann Schedel depicting the Fortunate Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Fortunate Isles or Isles of the Blessed[1][2] (Ancient Greek: μακάρων νῆσοι, makarōn nēsoi)[3] were semi-legendary islands in the Atlantic Ocean, variously treated as a simple geographical location and as a winterless earthly paradise inhabited by the heroes of Greek mythology. In the time of Hesiod, the Fortunate Isles were associated with the concept of Elysium, a utopian location in the Greek underworld thought to be found in the Western ocean on the margin of the known world.[4][5] The number of the islands would later be reduced to one by the poet Pindar.[5]


According to Greek mythology, the islands were reserved for those who had chosen to be reincarnated three times, and managed to be judged as especially pure enough to gain entrance to the Elysian Fields all three times.[6] The Theban poet Pindar reduced the number of the islands to one, describing it as having shady parklands with residents indulging in athletic and musical pastimes, activities that were thought to be the ideal life for ancient Greek aristocracy.[5]


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.[7]

It was from these men that Sertorius learned facts so beguiling that he considered retiring from Roman political life altogether to these islands, but conflicts to come prevented him from pursuing this rumour further.

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 obligatory description—that they "abound in fruit and birds of every kind"—the unexpected detail that, "[t]hese islands, however, are greatly annoyed by the putrefying bodies of monsters, which are constantly thrown up by the sea".

The Isles are mentioned in Book II of A True History by the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata. The author makes fun of the heroes residing there by giving an account of their petty squabbles as presented to the court of the magistrate, Rhadamanthus. He goes on to describe other observations of how the residents occupy their time, using every opportunity to satirise both contemporary life and Greek mythology.

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.[8]

See also


  1. ^ AncientHistoryMaps (1697), Cartes et Tables de la Geographie Ancienne - Sanson, retrieved 2018-03-17
  2. ^ Sanson, Nicolas (1697). "Cartes et Tables de la Geographie Ancienne". Retrieved 2018-03-17.
  3. ^ Hard, p. 116.
  4. ^ Peck, Harry Thurston (1897). Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. Harper & brothers.
  5. ^ a b c Sacks, David (1995). A Dictionary of the Ancient Greek World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-511206-1.
  6. ^ Pindar, Olympian Ode 2. 57 ff
  7. ^ Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, ch. viii.
  8. ^ Wright, John Kirtland (1923). "Notes on the Knowledge of Latitudes and Longitudes in the Middle Ages". Isis. 5 (1): 75–98. doi:10.1086/358121. JSTOR 223599. S2CID 143159033.