Islands in the West: Classical Myth and the Medieval Norse and Irish Geographical Imagination 
by Matthias Egeler.
Brepols, 357 pp., £100, October 2018, 978 2 503 56938 3
Show More
Show More

Medievalstories of paradisal islands had common tropes: the temptations of delicious food and delicious women; magical flora, like golden fruit trees; improbable constructions – ships made of crystal or bridges made of glass. A persistent theme is the unheeded warning. Characters are told not to kill cattle, not to eat the food offered by the host, not to come ashore, not to steal, not to cross the bridge of glass. In most cases, a nameless member of the band of adventuring men (they’re always men) will ignore this and meet a grisly fate, living out his days with a gaping hole in his body or being burned to ashes by a magical cat.

The story of the tenth-century king Gormo in Saxo Grammaticus’s History of the Danes, written around 1200, brings together many of these motifs. Gormo and his men embark on a sea voyage in search of wonders (mirabilia) and come to ‘further Bjarmia’, arriving at a black-walled city guarded by savage dogs. In its centre is a rock chamber with a roof of spears, a floor of snakes and – just as hideously – ‘three women with broken spines’. Gormo and his men fail to heed the warnings given them by their guide, Thorkillus, and try to steal the treasures they find in the chamber. The treasures transform into dangerous animals; many of the men are killed.

Earlier in the tale, the men arrive at an island full of cattle. Thorkillus warns them not to slaughter too many; they disobey him and their ships are overrun with spectres (monstra) to whom they are forced to sacrifice some of their number. The remaining adventurers encounter a ‘man of huge size’ called Guthmundus, who offers them dinner, and then his 12 beautiful daughters. They resist the food, but four of the men succumb to the daughters’ charms and promptly lose their minds. Another drowns in a fjord. Saxo Grammaticus notes that this is a reminder of the ‘miserable joke of lust’.

This ‘miserable joke’ is a running theme in Norse and Irish tales. In the eighth or late seventh-century echtra known as Connlae’s Journey into the Otherworld, Connlae the Red meets a woman who invites him to the síd, or elf-mound, of Bóadag. This place, she promises, is populated only by ‘women and maidens’. Connlae can’t resist and sets sail in the woman’s crystal ship. He is never seen again. In the Voyage of Bran, a mysterious woman appears in the hall of the Irish king. She tells Bran of an island inhabited by ‘many thousands of varicolour-clad women’. Bran determines to find this place and sets out with a group of companions. On reaching the ‘Land of Women’, they are welcomed into a large hall. Each man is partnered with a woman and provided with food that tastes exactly as he desires. They spend a year in this place, but it feels longer and eventually one of the men begs to return home. As they approach the Irish shore, they see many people gathered together but recognise none of them. These people tell Bran they have heard of him in ancient stories. The homesick man leaps from the boat and turns to ashes.

These two tales fall into a specific category of medieval Irish immramma, or sea-voyage texts, which we might call ‘hero’ tales. Another category has a more ascetic bent: it’s the hero tale, but with monks. Or rather, the monks are the heroes. In these stories, a group of monks puts to sea in a boat with only ‘providence their guide’. Perhaps the most famous example is the early ninth-century Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot. Brendan sets off with a company of monks in search of the ‘promised land of the saints’, which he has been told lies to the west of Ireland. On the way, he encounters many strange islands, including one with an active volcano and one that swims away from him. Another island is inhabited by birds whose beating wings sound like bells and who sing antiphonal psalms. It transpires that these birds are fallen angels.

In Islands in the West, his book about geographical myths of the northwest Atlantic, Matthias Egeler discusses an episode in which Brendan and his companions come to the island of Paul the Hermit. Paul is 140 years old and has not eaten for sixty years (before that he was brought food by an obliging otter). He is clothed only in his own snow-white hair. He is a peregrinus who left his monastery after following the ghost of the dead abbot to the seashore. Egeler shows that such works are the product of a monastic imagination and that the elements of pre-Christian mythology within them were refashioned for a Christian audience when they were copied by Christian scribes. As any student of Beowulf knows, however, filleting out what may be a remnant of pre-Christian culture is a difficult task.

To reach the magical islands of Irish and Norse literature, all you need is a boat and a thirst for God or adventure, or both. In the earliest Greek texts, Egeler argues, the inhabitants of the so-called Islands of the Blessed are immortal and you only have a chance of reaching them if you are semi-divine or related to the gods by marriage. In Hesiod’s ‘Works and Days’ (c.700 bce), the heroes and demigods of the Trojan War are sent to the Islands of the Blessed, where they enjoy eternal life and three harvests a year. In the Odyssey, Proteus prophesies that Menelaus, Zeus’ son-in-law, will be borne away to a paradise located at the ‘ends of the earth’, on ‘the shores of Oceanus, the sea that encircles the world’.

Egeler finds imagery associated with the transmarine paradise in some of the islands visited by Odysseus. Circe’s island is ‘thickly forested’ and presided over by an immortal woman. It lies close to the land of the dead, at the very ends of the earth, ‘where the houses and dancing places of early-born Dawn are, where Helios rises’. Similarly, Ogygia has a ‘luscious forest of alder, black poplar and cypress’, vines ‘heavy with grapes’, and is found on the outer rim of the world. It is home to the nymph Calypso who offers to make Odysseus her husband, a proposal that brings with it a promise of immortality.

By the late sixth century bce, however, the Islands of the Blessed were no longer islands of the eternally living but islands of the dead, and the access requirements had become less exclusive. A skolion (‘hymn’) in Anthenaeus’ Learned Banqueters tells the story of Harmodius, who tried to overthrow a pair of tyrants – Hippias and Hipparchus. He died in the process, but thanks to his noble work made it to the Islands of the Blessed, where he kept company with swift-footed Achilles’. In Pindar’s Second Olympian Ode, the Island of the Blessed (in the singular) is accessible only to those who have completed three cycles of life without abandoning the path of virtue, which sounds more like a punishment than a reward.

Roman concepts of the Islands of the Blessed owe much to the Greeks. In his 16th epode, Horace describes an island beyond the Oceanus which ‘not even the mythical seafarers of old have reached’. Here there are no dangerous wild animals like bears or snakes; crops grow without being sown; vines do not need pruning; and goats come home to be milked of their own accord. Horace’s text was written during the civil wars that followed Caesar’s assassination and the epode proposes a solution – that the ‘better ones among the Romans should board ships and set out over the sea, taking oaths never to return’. It’s easy to see the appeal of this idea.

Writing more than a century later, Plutarch tells a story about the Roman general Quintus Sertorius meeting some mariners from ‘the Atlantic isles’. They describe islands of abundant fertility and temperate climate to him. ‘A strong belief has penetrated as far as the barbarians,’ Plutarch writes, ‘that there is the Elysian plain and the dwelling place of the blessed, which Homer sang about.’ Exhausted by the constant combat of the Sullan civil wars, Sertorius endeavours to find these islands, but fails.

In the Roman period the islands increasingly came to be associated with real locations. The Harmodius skolion is one of a number of texts, including Pindar’s Fourth Nemean Ode and Euripides’ Andromache, as well as earlier works like Proclus’ Chrestomathia, which state that Achilles found a home on a particular ‘White Isle’. This came to be associated with a specific place: Zmeinyj, or the Snake Island, in the Black Sea (known in the classical period as Leuke). In the dialogue On Heroes (212 ce) by Flavius Philostratus, Leuke is described as a lushly wooded place where mortals may land, but never settle. A later Roman account by Arrianus of Nicomedia states that the island is kept clean by considerate birds, who ‘fly to the sea, soak their plumage with seawater, return to the temple and sprinkle the building; then they sweep the floor with their wings’. It is said that Achilles appears in the dreams of those that visit the island. More than two thousand coins have been found in archaeological excavations at Zmeinyj, testifying to the appeal of Achilles’ island cult across the Greek world, but also to the island’s development as a naval base in Roman times. For the Greeks, Zmeinyj was a sacred place where it was forbidden to settle; for the Romans, it was an imperial command centre.

The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela claimed that the Islands of the Blessed could be found opposite the Atlas Mountains and were inhabited by people much happier than those who live in ‘cultivated cities’. He reported that on the islands there were two fountains: ‘Those who have tasted the one are relaxed by laughter unto death; for those affected in this way, the remedy is to drink from the other.’ Ptolemy identified the Canary Islands as the Islands of the Blessed and used them as a reference point for defining the zero meridian. In 1851 the astronomer George Airy identified Greenwich as the prime meridian. Did he believe it was also set on a blessed isle?

The motif of the ‘miraculous transportation’ to a ‘pure and far-off island’ appears to date back to the Sumerian story of the Flood. A fragmentary text describing the fate of King Ziusudra tells of his conveyance to the ‘kur-bal’ – which seems to mean ‘over-seas country’ – of Dilmun. Dilmun also appears in the story of the Sumerian gods Enki and Ninhursag. There it is described as a place of no predatory or crop destroying animals, no darkness or old age, and where no dirges are sung. In the Akkadian ‘Standard’ version of the Epic of Gilgamesh from the end of the second millennium bce, Gilgamesh sets off to visit Utnapishtim, the only man to survive the Flood. He travels through a shining grove of jewels and meets an alewife called Siduri who tells him that Utnapishtim is living in a land beyond the sea. Gilgamesh sails there, using his loincloth to catch the wind. After he arrives, he is set a series of tasks, including staying awake for six days and seven nights (he fails) and diving for the plant of life, which grows under the sea. The promise of immortality is destroyed by a snake, which eats the plant while Gilgamesh is in the bath. He returns home and ‘has to content himself with the glory of his city and the splendour of its strong, ancient ramparts, forgoing any hope of immortality’.

Some of the most intriguing parts of Egeler’s book explain the way medieval island myths interact with archaeological evidence, historical events or more recent history. Adam of Bremen’s 11th-century History of the Bishops of Hamburg describes a land in the northern ocean home to vines and fruits ‘which have not been sown’. Beyond this place, the ‘sea is congealed’ (‘mare concretum est’). Adam expresses a sense of disquiet about the reliability of this account. But such a place might have some basis in fact. Butternuts were found in an archaeological excavation in L’Anse aux Meadows, a Norse settlement on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland dating to roughly 1000 ce. They must have been brought from a site at least a thousand kilometres south, where wild grapes would also have grown. Butternuts and grapes ripen at the same time; Norse settlers seem to have visited a place that had both. And, of course, a partially frozen sea could easily be described as ‘congealed’.

Egeler’s is a fact-rich and occasionally theory-heavy book. Reading it sometimes feels like sailing through a ‘mare concretum’, but for the intrepid explorer it offers the opportunity to encounter a naked hermit, a magical alewife or a Roman general in search of some peace. Egeler reaches back into prehistory but rarely moves forward into the more recent past. I wonder what effect the mythology of the Islands of the Blessed might have had on the colonial mentality in centuries closer to our own. We might see parallels in contemporary politics. Did a fixation with (blessed) island status seep into our national consciousness? Having given up the imperialist hope of finding blessed isles elsewhere, have we come to imagine our island as one of fertile abundance, whose leaders can work magic?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences