The Fortunate Isles in Greek Mythology
In popular Greek mythology, the Underworld and the Afterlife are considered to be the realms of the Greek god Hades, but in truth, the concept of the Greek Afterlife was a complex one, and an ever evolving one.
The Evolution of Elysium
At one point there was thought to be just one domain of Hades where all the souls of the deceased would reside.
Later on, the Underworld would be subdivided into; Tartarus, the hell-pit area of eternal punishment; the Asphodel Meadows, a region of nothingness and indifference; and Elysium, paradise. Souls would then be judged to decide their eternal fate.
Eventually though, Elysium, or the Elysian Fields as it was also now, was itself sub-divided.
The Concept of Elysium
The Fortunate Isles
In later Greek mythology, Elysium was no longer simply for the heroic, and the single place that was paradise was split into the Lethean Fields and the Fortunate Isles. The virtuous, those initiated in the Mysteries, would go to live for eternity in the Lethean Fields, whilst the heroic would reside upon the Fortunate Isles.
The Fortunate Isles had a number of different names, including the Isles of the Blest, the Isles of the Blessed and the White Island. It is generally assumed that the various names referred to the same place, although even in antiquity, different locations were put forward for the Fortunate Isles.
Ancient writers would tell of the Fortunate Isles being three islands located within the flow of Oceanus, the great earth-encircling river. Residents on the Isles were said to be free from hardship, but were also free from the cold weather of winter, and so it is often said that the Fortunate Isles were either in the locale of the Azores or Cape Verde.
Other locations were also put forward for the location of the Fortunate Isles; alternatives being the mouth of the River Danube, where it met the Black Sea, and in the Aegean.
Getting to the Fortunate Isles
Despite being islands, mortals could not just sail to the Fortunate Isles, and individuals would either have to be judged worthy, or be favoured by a Greek god or goddess and transported directly there.
There is no specific list of the residents of the Fortunate Isles, and many writers in antiquity named one or two individuals; and as a result there are plenty of names missing, although it might be assumed that some were not mentioned because it was obvious that they were there.
The Earliest Residents of the Fortunate Isles
King Rhadamanthus – Rhadamanthus was a son of Zeus and Europa, and brother to King Minos of Crete and Sarpedon. Upon his death, Rhadamanthus was made into one of the three judges of the Underworld, and was also often referred to as the King of the Elysian Fields.
Cadmus and Harmonia - Cadmus was the founding king of the city of Thebes, and he would subsequently marry Harmonia. During the founding of the city though, Cadmus killed a serpent of Ares, and Cadmus and Harmonia would be transformed into serpents themselves. After a period of penance, Cadmus and Harmonia would be transported to the Fortunate Isles.
Peleus – Peleus was another early hero who would spend eternity upon the Fortunate Isles. Peleus was an Argonaut and a Hunter of the Calydonian Boar, the father of Achilles, and even as an old man he protected Andromache. Peleus was said to have been reunited with his estranged wife, Thetis, in paradise.
Medea – The presence of Medea on the Fortunate Isles is puzzling, for although she was a one time wife of Jason, she was also the sorceress who killed her own brother, and her sons by Jason, and would also attempt to kill Theseus.
Alcmene – Alcmene was another female resident of the Fortunate Isles, in life she had been the mortal wife of King Amphitryon, but Zeus would bless her with eternity in paradise, for she gave birth to the favoured son of Zeus, Heracles.
Orpheus and Eurydice - Orpheus was another of the heroes onboard the Argonaut, but is today more famous for his failed attempt at rescuing his wife, Euryidce, from the Underworld. Nevertheless, upon the ignoble death of Orpheus, husband and wife were reunited in paradise.
With early heroes such as Peleus, Orpheus and Cadmus mentioned as inhabitants it is probable that the likes of Perseus, Theseus and Jason, heroes of a similar era, would also find a place upon the Fortunate Isles.
The Elysian Fields
Latecomers to the Fortunate Isles
In Greek mythology, the Trojan War saw the curtain drawn on the time of heroes, and at the walls of Troy, many Achaean and Trojan heroes would perish. Many of these fallen heroes though would find themselves named as residents of Elysium.
Achilles – Achilles was the greatest of all the Achaean heroes, but even he would perish at Troy, hit by an arrow dispatched by the Trojan prince Paris.
The Two Ajaxs – The two Ajaxs, Ajax the Greater and Ajax the Lesser were amongst the most prominent of Achaean heroes at Troy. Ajax the Greater was a noted fighter, but would fall on his own sword before Troy fell, whilst Ajax the lesser was killed upon his voyage home, this Ajax having committed sacrilege during the taking of Troy.
Menelaus – Menelaus was one of the commanders of the Achaean forces, and famously was the husband of Helen; Helen’s abduction of course being one of the main causes of the Trojan War.
Hector – It was not just Achaean heroes who could be found on the Fortunate Islands, for the defenders of Troy were also beloved by the gods. Hector, the son of King Priam, was the greatest of Trojan warriors, but he would be killed by Achilles.
Memnon – Memnon was another defender of Troy, and was a mortal loved by Zeus, he too would be killed by Achilles.
Diomedes – Some heroes would survive the war at Troy, but for their heroic deeds would still be found on the Fortunate Islands, one such hero being Diomedes. After the war Diomedes would make a new home in Italy, living into old age.
Neoptolemos - Neoptolemos was the son of Achilles, and whilst he fought at Troy, he too would survive the fighting. Afterwards though, he was killed by Orestes.
Iphigenia – More male than female residents are named as residents of the Fortunate Islands, although Helen is often named, another female named was Iphigenia. Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon, supposedly sacrificed by her father to allow for favourable winds to take the Achaean fleet to Troy.
Penelope, Telemachus and Telegonus – Odysseus is one of the best known Greek heroes, and the central character of Homer’s Odyssey. His wife and sons (one by Penelope and one by Circe) were all present on the Isles of the Blest, although Odysseus is less commonly mentioned as a resident.
Euphorion - The Fortunate Islands were not necessarily just a place for the deceased though, as was shown when Euphorion was born there to Achilles and Helen. Euphorion was said to be mortal, and was alter killed by Zeus, when the god became angered.
Reincarnation and Paradise
The concept of reincarnation would eventually take root in Ancient Greece, and the criterion for admission to the Fortunate Islands changed. Heroes were of course still admitted, but the virtuous could also find themselves living alongside the heroic. The criteria for admission were a successful judgement of worthiness for Elysium on three previous occasions