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Iambulus’s Island March 3, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

**Beachcombing dedicates this post to author and Diodorus scholar Ed Murphy (After the Funeral) who inspired the following**

Ancient historian, Diodorus Siculus (obit 1st cent BC) has appeared before on this blog for his description of a mysterious island out in the Atlantic. However, Diodorus, at the end of his second book, also wrote about an island in the Pacific: Iambulus’s Island (as Beachcombing will call it). As so often in his work Diodorus is valuable here not because of his acumen (unusually for a Sicilian he had but little) but, rather, because he uncritically quotes lost sources: in this case a text by a certain Iambulus who had had a very unusual adventure in the Red Sea.

There was a certain Iambulus who from his boyhood up had been devoted to the pursuit of education, and, after the death of his father, who had been a merchant, he also gave himself to that calling; and while journeying inland to the spice-bearing region of Arabia he and his companions on the trip were taken captive by some robbers. Now at first he and one of his fellow-captives were appointed to be herdsmen, but later he and his companion were made captive by certain Ethiopians and led off to the coast of Ethiopia. They were kidnapped in order that, being of an alien people, they might effect the purification of the land. For among the Ethiopians who lived in that place there was a custom, which had been handed down from ancient times, and had been ratified by oracles of the gods, over a period of twenty generations or six hundred years, the generation being reckoned at thirty years; and at the time when the purification by means of the two men was to take place, a boat had been built for them sufficient in size and strong enough to withstand the storms at sea, one which could easily be manned by two men; and then loading it with food enough to maintain two men for six months and putting them on board they commanded them to set out to sea as the oracle had ordered. Furthermore, they commanded them to steer towards the south; for, they were told, they would come to a happy island and to men of honourable character, and among them they would lead a blessed existence. And in like manner, they stated, their own people, in case the men whom they sent forth should arrive safely at the island, would enjoy peace and a happy life in every respect throughout six hundred years; but if, dismayed at the extent of the sea, they should turn back on their course they would, as impious men and destroyers of the entire nation, suffer the severest penalties.

Diodorus explains how Iambulus finally arrived on the happy island: that has variously been identified as Madagascar and Sri Lanka and ‘Polynesia’. And how ‘after remaining among this people for seven years… Iambulus and his companion were ejected against their will, as being malefactors and as having been educated to evil habits.’ Then landing in India, he made his way to Persia and then finally back to the Mediterranean where he told his tale to the marvelling Greek world.

And what marvels! Iambulus’s island – that was, btw, perfectly circular in an Atlantean fashion – had men with two tongues (or perhaps divided tongues?) who were able to simultaneously hold two conversations, shared everything and who ate sweet snakemeat. Their children were brought up in ideal clans, where the reader gathers there were no arguments, and the Iambulians lived to about one hundred and fifty years without illness. Bad things didn’t ever seem to happen among the Iambulians but if you did accidentally cut off your hand there was a remedy. Large tortoise-like animals had an extraordinary potent blood that was ‘like glue’ and that would stick your hand back onto your aching body.

At this point the reader will have understood that the problem is not where Iambulus’ island is: but how, on earth, Diodorus fell for an early Greek Gulliver’s Travels. The normal ‘misunderstandings’ when travellers tell their tales through a chain of Chinese Whisphers are not relevant here given that the author of Diodorus’ source, Iambulus, claimed to be the witness to these Shrangri-La shennanigans. The only ever mention in antiquity – in Lucan – is to dismiss Iambulus (in the nicest possible way) as a fantasist.

Probably as later scholars – and this is the point that Ed Murphy makes in his edition: The Antiquities of Asia: A Translation with Notes of Book II of the Library of History of Diodorus Siculus – Diodorus was attracted to the credible frame of the tale, which contrasts so convincingly with the soft-yolky centre. Even Beachcombing, hoary old sceptic that he is, hesitated when he read about the details of spice-dealing Arabia and the Ethiopians purifying their lands… But then he got to the double speaking, split tongue Iambulians and almost choked on his pipe.

This, then, is fantasy read as history: think thirtieth-century historians taking H.G.Wells as a serious source for ‘contemporary’ events. (‘And then the Martians attacked London…’).  There is even the convention that the travellers need to be expelled, found in so many utopias from Homer to Swift.

It is too early in the morning to get all utopian so Beachcombing has simply included here a pdf link for the full Iambulus Episode. May it bring happiness to those who search for it. Beachcombing fell into a wretched melancholy upon reading about those distant, merry lands.

Any other opinions on Iambulus’s Island: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com