The Fortunate Isles

One of the most persistent themes in European mythology is that of the Fortunate Isles, a land of happiness, peace, and plenty located somewhere in the west, beyond the setting sun.

It is difficult to say where the legend originated, but the name Fortunate Isles, or sometimes Blessed Isles or Isles of the Blest, was the name given it by the ancient Greeks. Here, favored mortals lived forever in a winterless paradise with the gods and heros of Greek mythology.  

As the tale traveled west, it met and mingled with other similar tales of otherworldly islands, especially with those of the Celts. The Irish had many names for these elusive isles: Hy-Brasil, Tir Nan Og (Country of the Young), Tirfo Thuinn (Land Under the Waves), Tire Nam Beo (Country of the Living), Tirn Aill (the Other World), and Tir Tairngire (the Plain of Happiness). At a certain point in history, all of these islands became synonymous with The Fortunate Isles. Whether homes of faeries, Gods, or the dead, these islands were places where there was no disease or death, no aging, no suffering, no work. There was no need for plowing or sewing because it was always spring and all things grew in abundance, especially the fruit on the trees. Geoffrey of Monmouth's descriptions of Avalon borrowed from this theme, as did Tolkein's Undying Lands. 

Glastonbury Tor, thought to be the fabled Isle of Avalon.

Insula Fortunata (Fortunate Isles), drawn east of the Canaries on this map depicting St. Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk who, according to legend, journeyed deep into the Atlantic. 

Tolkein's Undying Lands, a land of the forever young veiled in a curtain of mist.

Though the Fortunate Isles were a legendary place, like the Elysian Fields or the Celtic Otherworld, many believed it had an actual geographical location. The Romans put it somewhere in the western Mediterranean, near Libya. Later geographers sought it in the Atlantic. The Madeira, Canary Islands, Azores, Cape Verde, Bermuda and Lesser Antilles were all at one time believed to be possible matches for this fabled paradise. The belief that these islands could float across the sea and veil themselves in a magical mist was often cited as a possible reason why they always eluded those who sought to find them.