(αἱ τῶν Μακάρων νῆσοι
, the Islands of the Blessed
), one of those geographical names whose origin is lost in mythic darkness, but which afterwards came to have a specific application, so closely resembling the old mythical notion, as to make it almost impossible to doubt that that notion was based, in part at least, on some vague knowledge of the regions afterwards discovered.
In the present case, the opinion embodied in the name will be more fitly discussed under OCEANUS: it is enough to say here that the earliest Greek poetry places the abode of the happy departed spirits far beyond the entrance of the Mediterranean, at the extremity of the earth, and upon the shores of the river Oceanus, or in islands in its midst; and that Homer's poetical description of the place may be applied almost word for word to those islands in the Atlantic, off the W. coast of Africa, to which the name was given in the historical period (Od. 4.563
, foll.):--“There the life of mortals is most easy; there is no snow, nor winter, nor much rain, but Ocean is ever sending up the shrilly breathing breezes of Zephyrus, to refresh men.” (Comp. Pind. O. 2.128
.) Their delicious climate, and their supposed identity of situation, marked out the Canary Islands,
group, and the Azores,
as worthy to represent the islands of the Blest.
In the more specific sense, however, the name was applied to the two former groups; while, in its widest application, it may even have included the C. de Verde
islands; its extension being, in fact, adapted to that of maritime discovery.
The Romans first became acquainted with these islands at the close of the civil wars of Marius and Sulla. Plutarch relates that, when Sertorius was at or near Gades (Cadiz
), about B.C. 82, he found certain sailors lately returned from the Atlantic islands, which were also called the islands of the Blest; who described them as two in number, separated by a very narrow strait, and distant from Africa 10,000 stadia (1000 geographical miles, an enormous exaggeration, if the Canaries
are meant). Watered moderately by rare showers, and refreshed by gentle and moist breezes, chiefly from the west, they not only rendered an abundant return to the cultivator, but produced spontaneously food enough for their indolent inhabitants.
The climate. was temperate at all seasons of the year; and, in short, such were their natural advantages, that even the barbarians identified them with that Elysian Plain and those Abodes of the Happy which had been sung by Homer, and the fame of which had reached to them. Enchanted by these accounts, Sertorius was seized with the desire of fixing his abode in the islands, and living there in peace; but, as the Cilician pirates of his fleet preferred the plunder of better known countries, he was compelled to abandon the design. (Plut. Sert. 8
; Flor. 3.22
.) However, the discovery must have been speedily followed up, if at least the writer Sebosus, whom Pliny quotes in his account of the islands (6.32. s. 37), be the same who is mentioned by Cicero (Cic. Att. 2.14
). Strabo speaks of them in a very cursory way; and the later geographers differ somewhat as to their number and names.
The following table exhibits their statements, as compared with one another, and with the modern names, the order (after the first) being from E. to W.
From this table it will be seen that, besides Autolala, which he expressly distinguishes from the Fortunatae, Ptolemy only reckons six islands as belonging to the group, instead of seven, which is the actual number. Pliny also gives the number as six
(4.21. s. 36, “Deorum sex, quas aliqui Fortunatos appellavere.” ) Instead of accounting for the difference, as above, by supposing him to have omitted Palma,
some modern writers identify this island with his Ἀπρόσιτος νῆσος,
and with the Junonia Minor of Juba; making the Αὐτολάλα
of Ptolemy, and the Purpurariae of Juba, Lanzarote,
with the smaller islands of A legranza
and so excluding Madeira.
Those who desire to pursue the subject further should compare the longitudes and latitudes of Ptolemy with the distances preserved by Pliny from Juba and Sebosus. Of those, respecting the identification of which there is no dispute, Canaria, which is still so called, is said to have obtained its name from the multitude of dogs which ran wild there; the lofty snow-clad peak of Tenerife
shows at a glance the origin of the name of Nivaria; while Ferro
marks the place of the chief meridian from which longitudes were reckoned before the introduction of the practice of computing them from national observatories: the old practice dates from the time of Ptolemy, whose first meridian, however, is drawn through the group, without specifying the exact island. (Ptol. 1.12
. § § 11, 12, et alib.)