The modern country of Greece has roughly 6,000 islands off its shores. It’s no wonder that so many ancient stories centered on the islands!
Many Greek myths and legends were set on islands that can be easily identified today. Delos, for example, was both a real place and the floating island where Apollo and Artemis were supposedly born.
Other stories, however, took place on more mythical islands. These incredible places featured amazing people, unusual animals, and wondrous landscapes.
Arguably the most famous islands in Greek mythology are those that appear in Homer’s Odyssey. They and their hazards were so iconic that they were used in later works such as the Argonautica and the Aeneid.
Homer was vague in giving details that would allow these islands to be pinpointed on a map. This may have been because Odysseus, the story’s narrator, was lost for most of his voyage or a deliberate choice by the writer to keep these legendary places from being equated with literal sites.
The most famous and enigmatic of the islands in the Odyssey is Aeaea. The location of Circe’s home has been given as several possible islands off the coast of Italy, sites closer to Greece, or as entirely mythical.
According to Homer, Circe’s island was a comfortable place where Odysseus and his crew were, after initially being turned to pigs, welcomed by the goddess for a year. While Odysseus shared Circe’s home, his men lodged in a warm and comfortable cave near the shore.
Odysseus also spent time with Calypso on the island of Ogygia. Like Aeaea, the precise location of this island was never given and has been speculated about by many.
While the only truly unusual features of Aeaea and Ogygia were the magic of the goddesses who lived there, other mythical islands in the Odyssey were far more exotic.
On one of the first islands Odysseus visited, for example, the inhabitants lived off the intoxicating fruit of a native plant. The Lotus-Eaters were so enthralled by the fruit that they thought of nothing else, and Odysseus had to flee the island quickly before his crew was similarly drugged.
While some have said that the giant, cannibalistic Laestrygonians lived on the southern coast of Sicily, the exact location of their city, Telepylos, is not given in the Odyssey.
The island of the cyclopes is not even given a name in the Odyssey. It has often been interpreted as part of Sicily by later historians.
Thrinacia has also been identified by some as Sicily, although others believe it may have been Malta. The legendary island was where the sun god Helios pastured his cattle.
While many of the islands in the Odyssey have been identified as real-world locations, the Isles of the Blessed were far more mythical.
The Isles of the Blessed were seen as barely even belonging to the same realm as earth. While they existed somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, they were also a part of the afterlife.
While earlier Greek thought had held that the Underworld was a uniformly grim and dreary place, later ideas about a more pleasant possibility took hold. Those who lived particularly good lives might find a place in the Elysian Fields, while the truly great would eventually be taken to the Isles of the Blessed.
Those who were judged worthy, it was said, would have a chance to be reincarnated after reaching the Elysium Fields. If they lived good enough lives to attain this paradise three times, they would be rewarded with eternity on the Isles of the Blessed.
The White Island, as this place was also sometimes called, were a place of constant beauty and leisure. The people there enjoyed entertainments, feasts, and material comfort in a land of eternally fair weather.
Because it was so difficult to achieve this honor, only the greatest heroes and kings of Greek mythology were believed to have gone to the Isles of the Blessed. This reward gave them near god-like status and some people believed that they could hear prayers and act as intermediaries with the Olympians.
The Isles of the Blessed were most often said to be ruled by Rhadamanthys, one of Zeus’s sons by Europa. Some, however, claimed that Cronos had been given kingship there after being released from Tartarus.
Some mythical islands in Greek mythology were notable not for their inhabitants, but for the wonders that were found there.
The Greeks believed that the Mediterranean Sea was at the center of the world. The people, plants, and animals there were generally well-known to them and familiar.
The farther away one went from this center, however, more amazing and foreign things could be found. This included not only the strange human races and exotic animals, but incredible places as well.
At least four islands were said to exist in far-off places that were made entirely or mostly of costly materials.
Chryse and Argyre were two islands somewhere in the Indian Ocean that were named for their metals. Chryse was said to be made entirely of gold, chrysos, while Argyre had soil of pure silver, argyros.
Similar islands existed somewhere in the far north. One was made of tin while the other was solid amber.
Some level of belief in these islands persisted for hundreds, even thousands, of years. After Marco Polo reported that Japan was rich in gold and silver, for example, some European mapmakers imagined that Chryse and Argyre were near there.
These islands of riches were based in part by the valuables that the Greek people witnessed coming from what seemed like the edges of the world.
The trade routes of the ancient world connected disparate lands. The Mediterranean was a hub of trade between Northern Europe, Africa, the Near East, and Asia.
From their position on the Mediterranean, the Greeks could see that materials like tin and amber came in large quantities from the north while other riches, like gold and silver, were more plentiful in India or Africa.
They thus imagined that these far-off lands might have huge deposits of these valuable commodities that were not found closer to Greece. Mythical islands of valuable metals and precious gems explained how such large amounts of these goods could come from beyond the familiar regions of the world.
Of course, no island in Greek lore is as famous or notorious as Atlantis. Despite its popularity, however, the story of Atlantis was not one that was widely-told at the time.
All later mentions of Atlantis are based on the works of Plato, who first wrote about the legendary island in the 4th century BC.
Although later thought depicted Atlantis as a socially and technologically advanced society, Plato presented it as the antithesis of what he considered to be ideal. He was a citizen of Athens and, in The Republic Atlantis was antagonistic toward the early founders of his city.
According to Plato, the people of Atlantis launched an attack against what he called “ancient Athens.” For attacking the favored city, Atlantis fell out of favor with the gods and was sunken as a result.
Aristotle believed that Plato, who was his mentor, had invented the island of Atlantis as a philosophical metaphor. Others came to believe that the island had once been a real place, however.
Plato claimed that the island’s city had walls of orichalcum, brass and tin. From this description, more legends grew about the mythical island’s riches and power.
Some people theorized that the island was somewhere in the Mediterranean and that the Pillars of Hercules, Gibraltar, had once been mountains on the island. Others believed that it was further afield in the Atlantic.
In the 1st century BC, one historian wrote that the people of Gaul claimed descent from a lost island nation. They, and later other cultures, were thought by some to be descendants of the surviving Atlanteans.
After the discovery of the New World, for example, some Europeans believed that Atlantis may have been near South America or the Caribbean. Central American pyramids helped to reinforce this belief.
This was in part because, even in the ancient world, many people believed that Plato had learned the story of Atlantis from an Egyptian source. Plato was known to take many of his original tales from foreign influences, and an Egyptian origin would explain the existence of pyramids elsewhere in the world.
In the modern era, a popular theory supposed that the story of the lost empire may have originated closer to Greece, on the island of Crete.
The Minoan civilization of that island predated the Mycenaean Greek culture of the mainland. For several hundred years it was the dominant political and economic power in the region.
The Minoans were largely forgotten, although traces of their culture can be found in the Greek myths of King Minos. When early archaeologists began uncovering the palace of Knossos, which had features like indoor plumbing, they were reminded of the story of Atlantis as well as the tales of King Minos and his Labyrinth.
Many people now believe that the ancient, advanced island of Atlantis may have been inspired by the advanced civilization of Minoan Crete. Plato’s story of the attack on Atlantis may have the same roots as the legend of Theseus, the Athenian prince who was taken to Knossos.
The mythology of ancient Greece features many islands. While some are identifiable as real-world locations, others are more fantastical inventions.
Many of the most well-known mythical islands are named in the Odyssey. Odysseus and his crewmen visit many amazing places during their ten-year journey.
The islands featured in the Odyssey have been discussed by historians and scholars for thousands of years. Several different places near both Greece and Rome have been identified as possible locations for some of the Odyssey’s famous islands.
Islands also played a role in the Greek idea of the afterlife. Truly exceptional heroes and kings could be elevated to a form of immortality on the Isles of the Blessed, where they would enjoy eternal comfort, fair weather, and leisurely entertainments.
Some islands provided Greece with valuable metals and gems. At the far ends of the world, it was said, were islands that provided the world’s trade routes with gold, silver, tin, and amber.
Of course, one of the most famous islands of Greek lore was the lost civilization of Atlantis. First mentioned by Plato, many of his contemporaries believed that he had invented the story to teach a philosophical lesson.
The legend of Atlantis endured, however, and remains popular to this day. People have believed that evidence of the sunken island has been found everywhere from Crete to the pyramids of Central America.