The Fortunate Isles

Sabine Baring-Gould

The principal mediaeval fables about the Earthly Paradise set Eden east of Asia. The Ancients had an older tradition of a vast continent called Atlantis in the far West, where there lay asleep the god who had been governor of the universe before being deposed by his son Zeus: Kronos, guarded by the hundred-handed giant Briareus. Atlantis was to the Greeks a land of rivers and woods and soft airs, occupying in their thoughts the position assumed in Christian belief by the Earthly Paradise. The Fathers of the Church waged war against this object of popular mythology, for the Scripture plainly indicated the position of the garden land as 'eastward in Eden' (Genesis ii 8). But in spite of their efforts to drive the western paradise from the minds of men, it held its ground and was believed in throughout the Middle Ages until Christopher Columbus sought and found Atlantis and paradise in the new world, a world in which the theories of the Ancients and of the Mediaevals met: for it was truly east of Asia and west of Europe. 'I am convinced that there [in the lands that I have discovered] is the terrestrial paradise,' Columbus wrote in 1498.

The belief in a western land, or group of islands, was prevalent among the Celts as well as the Greek and Latin geographers, and was with them an article of religion upon which were founded superstitious practices which perpetuated themselves after the introduction of Christianity.

This belief in a western land probably arose from the discovery of unfamiliar and foreign objects -- canoes, timber, nuts, even occasionally bodies -- which were washed up on the western coasts of Europe. (In 1508 a French vessel actually met a boat full of American Indians not far from the English coast: Bembo, History of Venice, vii, p. 257.) Throughout the ages this land beyond the setting sun had been called variously Meropis, the continent of Kronos, Ogygia, Atlantis, the Fortunate Isles, and the Garden of the Hesperides. These conceptions are fully analysed in Humboldt's history and geography of the New World: Humoboldt, Essai sur I'hist. de la Géographie du N. Continent.

The Celts believed that a wall had had to be built in Britain to protect the land from the deadly influence of the other world to the west, and that the fishermen of Brittany were occupied in rowing souls across to this world. Procopius (Ad Lycophr. v 1200) wrote:

Beyond Gaul and nearly opposite to it, but separated by an arm of the sea, lies a ghastly region on which clouds and tempests for ever rest and which is known to its continental neighbours as the abode to which departed spirits are sent after this life. On one side of the strait dwell a few fishermen, men possessed of a very strange character and enjoying singular privileges [i.e., freedom from taxation by the Franks] in consideration of being the living ferrymen who, performing the office of the heathen Charon, carry the spirits of the departed to the island which is their residence after death. At the dead of night these fishermen are in rotation summoned to perform the duty by which they seem to hold permission to reside on this strange coast. A knock is heard at the door of the cottage of the man who is carrying out this singular duty. It is made by no mortal hand. A whispering, as if of a dying breeze, summons the ferryman to his duty. He hastens to his bark on the sea shore, and as soon as he has launched it he sees its hull sink perceptibly in the water in reaction to the weight of the dead with which it is filled. No form is seen, and though voices arc heard the accents are undistinguiahable, as of a man who talks in his sleep.
In the old romance of Lancelot du Lac the Demoiselle d'Escalot directs that after her death her body should be placed, richly adorned, in a boat and allowed to float away before the wind: a trace of the ancient belief in the passage over the sea to the land of the souls which is evident again in the Morte d' Arthur, that romance of a demi-god who was believed in long before the birth of the historic Arthur. When the King was about to die of a mortal wound he was brought by good Sir Bedivere to the water's side:
And when they were at the water's side, even fast by the bank, hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a queen, and they all had black hoods, and they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur. 'Now put me into the barge,' said the king; and so he did softly; and there received him three queens with great mourning, and so these three queens set them down and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head. And then that queen said 'Ah! dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas! this wound on your head hath taken over-much cold.' And so then they rowed from the land, and Sir Bedivere cried 'Ah' my lord Arthur, what shall become of me now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies?' 'Comfort thyself,' said King Arthur, 'and do as well as thou mayest, for in me is not trust to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avalon for to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou never hear more of me, pray for my soul.' But evermore the queens and the ladies wept and shrieked that it was pity for to hear them. And as soon as Sir Bedivere had lost sight of the barge, he wept and wailed, and so took to the forest.
Avalon is the Isle of the Blessed of the Celts. It is the Isle of Apples, a name reminding one of the Garden of the Hesperides in the far western seas, with its tree of golden apples in the midst. According to an ancient poem (Villemarque, Barz. Breiz. i 193) it is a place of enchantment and beauty. There youths and maidens dance hand in hand on the dewy grass, and behind the woods the golden sun dips and rises. A murmuring rill flows from a spring in the middle of the island, and from it the spirits drink and obtain life with the draught. Joy, song and minstrelsy reign in that blessed realm. There all is plenty and the golden age is unending: cows give their milk in such abundance that they fill large ponds at a milking. There too is a palace of glass, floating in the air, and receiving within its transparent walls the souls of the blessed.

This distant isle, apparently so much more beautiful than paradise, became the object of jealous satire among some mediaeval moralists, who nick-named it Cockaigne -- a name referring to the good cooking found there, which seemed justified when one poet extolled it as a place where 'the birds are merrily singing, ready roasted and flying into hungry mouths ... All down the streets go roasted geese, turning themselves; there is a river of wine; the ladies are all beautiful; new clothes are provided every month. A fountain of eternal youth bubbles up, restoring bloom and vigour to all who bathe in it, be they ever so old and ugly.' This mysterious Western Land is in fact called in Irish Thierna na oge, the Country of Youth. The Norsemen called it Greater Ireland. The Portuguese and the Icelanders and the Gaels recited fables about it.

There in the Fortunate Isles, the Celts believed, in radiant halls dwelt the spirits of the departed, ever blooming and beautiful, ever laughing and gay. It is curious how retentive of ancient mythological doctrines about death are the memories of the people. This Celtic fable of the Land Beyond the Sea to which souls are borne after death has engrafted itself upon popular religion in England. A Sunday School Union hymn asks:

Shall we meet beyond the river,
Where the surges cease to roll,
Where in all the bright For-ever
Sorrow ne'er shall press the soul?

Shall we meet in that blest harbour
When our stormy voyage is o'er?
Shall we meet and cast the anchor
By the fair celestial shore?

Shall we meet with many loved ones
Who were torn from our embrace?
Shall we listen to their voices
And behold them face to face?

The popular belief in the transmigration of the soul to bliss immediately after its departure from the body is a venerable Aryan myth but it is not Christian. The Church has consistently preached the resurrection of the body. But the doctrine of the soul being transported to heaven, and of happiness being completed at death, finds no place in the Bible, or the Liturgies of any branch -- Greek, Roman or Anglican -- of the Church Catholic. Yet this was the tenet of our Celtic forefathers, and it has maintained itself in English Protestantism, so as to divest the doctrine of the resurrection of the body of its grasp on the popular mind.

Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (London, 1866).


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