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Diodorus’ Island February 10, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

Perhaps next to Forgotten Kingdoms Beachcombing should set up a tag on Invisible Kingdoms: realms that very likely only ever existed in the imagination of ancient and medieval writers. There would be Atlantis, of course, the land of Prester John, the Seven Cities of Gold and El Dorado. And to these it would be a cinch to add an island that is without name, but that Beachcombing will christen Diodorus’s Isle given that the Sicilian historian and geographer, Diodorus, is the only writer to describe it.

But now that we have discussed what relates to the islands which lie within the Pillars of Heracles [i.e. the Mediterranean], we shall give an account of those which are in the ocean. For there lies out in the deep off Africa an island of considerable size, and situated as it is in the ocean it is distant from Africa a voyage of a number of days to the west. Its land is fruitful, much of it being mountainous and not a little being a level plain of wondrous beauty.

Diodorus is not the most imaginiative author in the world. But this lack of imagination is often a blessing, because he seems – in his cut and paste way – to have been a fairly faithful recorder of earlier, now lost sources.

And reading thus far it would be reasonable to assume that Dio had come across a reference to the Canaries (though note the singular) or perhaps Madeira or just possibly (???) the Azores. There are, after all, murmurs of these islands in other classical soures (Pliny, Plutarch…).

But wait! There is more. After some blurb about rivers we learn that the island is inhabited and that it has

‘many parks planted with trees of every variety and gardens in great multitudes which are traversed by streams of sweet water; on it also are private villas of costly construction, and throughout the gardens banqueting houses have been constructed in a setting of flowers, and in them the locals pass their time during the summer season, since the land supplies in abundance everything which contributes to enjoyment and luxury’.

Beachcombing doubts that the waud and daub edifices of the Gaunches would have so impressed a Mediterranean visitor. Then the suspicion that we are not dealing with a physical but rather with a mythical location grows in Diodorus’ description of the wilder parts of the island. There are fruit trees of every kind, ‘welcoming glens’, good hunting and

‘the climate of the island is so altogether mild that it produces in abundance the fruits of the trees and the other seasonal fruits for the larger part of the year, so that it would appear that the island, because of its exceptional felicity, were a dwelling-place of a race of gods and not of men.’


It looks very much as if Diodorus has accidentally recorded the mythical Isles of the Blessed in his geography: the modern equivalent of putting down Wonderland or Narnia on an ordinance survey map.

But then Diodorus rounds off with a curious aside that problematises all this. Beachcombing is glad to welcome back his old friends the Carthaginians.

In ancient times this island remained undiscovered because of its distance from the entire inhabited world, but it was discovered at a later period… The Carthaginians, then, while exploring the coast outside the Pillars [the Mediterranean]… and while sailing along the shore of Africa, were driven by strong winds a great distance out into the ocean. And after being storm-tossed for many days they were carried ashore on the island we mentioned above, and when they had observed its felicity and nature they caused it to be known to all men. Consequently the Etruscans, at the time when they were masters of the sea, purposed to dispatch a colony to it; but the Carthaginians prevented their doing so, partly out of concern lest many inhabitants of Carthage should remove there because of the excellence of the island, and partly in order to have ready in it a place in which to seek refuge against an incalculable turn of fortune, in case some total disaster should overtake Carthage. For it was their thought that, since they were masters of the sea, they would thus be able to move, households and all, to an island which was unknown to their conquerors.

So are we back to a historical reality? Well, there are rumours of Carthaginian finds (coins and statues) on Madeira, the Canaries and the Azores. Though unfortunately – at least to the best of Beachcombing’s knowledge: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com – none of these have ever been satisfactorily verified. The most famous are the numismatic treasures of Corvo in the Azores that were either invention or have disappeared. Yes the circumstantial details are exciting – they had Beachcombing licking his lips – but there are so many convincing liars in the world…

(68) ‘In the month of November, 1749, it appears, a violent storm shattered an edifice (presumably submerged) off the coast of Corvo, and the surf washed out of a vault pertaining to the building a broken vase still containing golden and copper coins. These were taken to a convent or monastery (probably on some neighboring island). Some of them were given away as curiosities, but nine were preserved and sent to a Father Flores at Madrid, who gave them to M. Podolyn. Some of them bore for design the full figure of a horse; others bore horses’ heads. Reproductions of the designs were published in the Memoires de la Societe de Gothenbourg and compared with those on coins in the collection of the Prince Royal of Denmark. It seems to be agreed that they were certainly Phenician coins of North Africa, partly Carthaginian, partly Cyrenaican.’

Beachcombing should finish by noting that Carthage’s obsession with secrecy, while a reality, also became a topos in classical texts: like British punctuality or hooliganism in French or Spanish or German descriptions of the Sceptred Isle. Diodorus may have had access to an accurate Carthaginian source. But he may equally have stumbled on and misunderstood a bastard legend about a happy place that the Carthaginians went to when they died. Certainly there seem to be some inconsistencies: the Etruscans, the Carthaginians tell everyone, the worry that Carthaginians will go there…

Still Carthaginians building horse statues on Madeira and sacrificing their children on heights in the Canaries with the golden beaches below…


31 May 2011: Ruth writes in with this consideration: ‘Regarding Diodorus’ Island; I was wondering if those Carthaginians weren’t swept all the way to South America – I’ve been reading in several places about traces of extensive urban habitation across Amazonia. I find it difficult to imagine seafarers mistaking a continent for an island, but even here in Puget Sound I realize that such distinction isn’t so easy – and I have maps!   Didn’t Columbus comment that he had to be looking at a continent because he could (somehow) see the volume of water coming from the Orinoco?  I really don’t have a huge problem with whatever length of time it might take to be swept from Iberia to South America – people are tenacious, and if they did it deliberately, they would be more prepared for a long trip.’ Personally, Beach is suspicious about most pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic visits. However, there is a whole literature of attempts to read classical references in this light including an article by Roy A. Decker ‘The Secret Land’ found in Underground: The Disinformation Guide to Ancient Civilizations, astonishing Archaeology and Hidden History (ed) Preston Peet. If Ruth (or anyone else) Beach will try and get a pdf to her. Thanks Ruth!!