One of the most peculiar texts that Beachcombing has ever read is the description of the Island of Cronos – the titan pictured here with thanks to Goya – in Plutarch (c. 120 AD). Much has been made of this island and attempts to fix it on the map have been undertaken frequently: some have said that it is one of the Hebrides, some have said Stonehenge (hmmmm), some Lundy, some Glastonbury, others Greenland or Iceland and some an Amerindian temple in New England (no really). The discussion begins.
Well, I am but the actor of the piece, but first I shall say that its author began for our sake — if there be no objection — with a quotation from Homer:
An isle, Ogygia, lies far out at sea,
a run of five days off from Britain as you sail westward; and three other islands equally distant from it and from one another lie out from it in the general direction of the summer sunset. In one of these, according to the tale told by the natives, Cronus is confined by Zeus, and the antique Briareus, holding watch and ward over those islands and the sea that they call the Cronian main, has been settled close beside him, The great mainland, by which the great ocean is encircled, while not so far from the other islands, is about five thousand stades from Ogygia, the voyage being made by oar, for the main is slow to traverse and muddy as a result of the multitude of streams. The streams are discharged by the great land-mass and produce alluvial deposits, thus giving density and earthiness to the sea, which has been thought actually to be congealed. On the coast of the mainland Greeks dwell about a gulf which is not smaller than the Maeotis and the mouth of which lies roughly on the same parallel as the mouth of the Caspian sea. These people consider and call themselves continentals and the inhabitants of this land because the sea flows around it on all sides; and they believe that with the peoples of Cronus there mingled at a later time those who arrived in the train of Heracles and were left behind by him and that these latter so to speak rekindled again to a strong, high flame the Hellenic spark there which was already being quenched and overcome by the tongue, the laws, and the manners of the barbarians. Therefore Heracles has the highest honours and Cronus the second.
This is incredibly dense so let us give our interpretation: it would also be useful to have the Greek typed up, but this is a long day… To get to the Isle of Cronos you have to sail westwards off Britain five days to Ogygia [Ireland?] and then another five days to a second island and five more days to a further island and five more days to a fourth island. We are speaking about twenty days sailing to the west then: Iceland would work but it is in the wrong direction. If we take this as a geographical text – Beach would be very sceptical – then the Caribbean perhaps fits the bill. In any case, on one of these islands – five, ten or fifteen or twenty days sailing – Cronos is imprisoned. Beyond these islands is another continent ‘the great mainland’ which Greeks believed encircled the ocean and where a colony of Greeks is said to be based! Beach has little patience with the idea that there were established links between the New World and the Old World in classical times, but he is always surprised that diffusionists don’t use this text more. Plutarch then describes a peculiar ritual carried out by Europeans, perhaps Britons.
Now when at intervals of thirty years the star of Cronus, which we call ‘Splendent’ but they, our author said, call ‘Night-watchman’, enters the sign of the Bull, they, having spent a long time in preparation for the sacrifice and the expedition, choose by lot and send forth a sufficient number of envoys in a correspondingly sufficient number of ships, putting aboard a large retinue and the provisions necessary for men who are going to cross so much sea by oar and live such a long time in a foreign land. Now when they have put to sea the several voyagers meet with various fortunes as one might expect ; but those who survive the voyage first put in at the outlying islands, which are inhabited by Greeks, and see the sun pass out of sight for less than an hour over a period of thirty days, and this is night, though it has a darkness that is slight and twilight glimmering from the west.
This seems to be a description of the Arctic north. It is not unparalleled in classical literature but it is interesting to find it here. Are we to imagine an expedition hopping along the icy peninsulas of the north: is that what is meant by Plutarch’s islands?
There they spend ninety days regarded with honour and friendliness as holy men and so addressed, and then winds carry them across to their appointed goal. Nor do any others inhabit it but themselves and those who have been dispatched before them, for, while those who have served the god together for the stint of thirty years are allowed to sail off home, most of them usually choose to settle in the spot, some out of habit and others because without toil or trouble they have all things in abundance while they constantly employ their time in sacrifices and celebrations or with various discourse and philosophy, for the nature of the island is marvellous as is the softness of the circumambient air.
In fact, the gods seems to deliberately prevent some of the worshippers from making the return journey.
Some when they intend to sail away are even hindered by the divinity which presents itself to them as to intimates and friends not in dreams only or by means of omens, but many also come upon the visions and the voices of spirits manifest. For Cronus himself sleeps confined in a deep cave of rock that shines like gold – the sleep that Zeus has contrived as a bond for him – and birds flying in over the summit of the rock bring ambrosia to him, and all the island is suffused with fragrance scattered from the rock as from a fountain; and those spirits mentioned before tend and serve Cronus, having been his comrades what time he ruled as king over gods and men. Many things they do foretell of themselves, for they are oracular; but the prophecies that are greatest and of the greatest matters they come down and report as dreams of Cronus, for all that Zeus premeditates Cronus sees in his dreams and the titanic affections and motions of his soul make him rigidly tense until sleep restores his repose once more and the royal and divine element is all by itself, pure and unalloyed.
Plutarch ends by speaking on one man who came back to Europe and who brings the news of the divinity of the moon to Carthage. The passage above is utterly mysterious and confusing. This passage is, instead, rather beautiful.
Since he had a strange desire and longing to observe the Great Island (for so, it seems, they call our part of the world), when the thirty years had elapsed, the relief-party having arrived from home, he saluted his friends and sailed away, lightly equipped for the rest but carrying a large viaticum in golden beakers. Well, all his experiences and all the men whom he visited, encountering sacred writings and being initiated in all rites to recount all this as he reported it to us, relating it thoroughly and in detail, is not a task for a single day; but listen to so much as is pertinent to the present discussion. He spent a great deal of time in Carthage inasmuch as Cronus receives great honour in our country, and he discovered certain sacred parchments that had been secretly spirited off to safety when the earlier city was being destroyed and had lain unnoticed in the ground for a long time. Among the visible gods he said that one should especially honour the moon, and so he kept exhorting me to do, inasmuch as she is sovereign over life and death, bordering as she does upon the meads of Hades.
What the hell is going on here? Greek masturbatory fantasy geography or a revelation for the ages? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
James writes: ‘first point to make is that this text was written a long-half century after the conquest of Britain by the Romans. It is very credible then that this is based on first-hand or second-hand information from that island. Second, I seem to remember the idea that Demetrius in the text (the talker) may have been the same Demetrius who circumnavigated Britain under Nero. Worth a thought.’ Next comes this text sent by JMM via Larry ‘Lots of good information on Kronos (Cronos, Chronos, Cronus) from the (impressive) Greek Mythology Link website: From which: “Note about Cronos and Chronos The name Chronos appears in several authors such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Pindar, Quintus Smyrnaeus, Cicero and Nonnus. He is identified with Time, but some of them say that he is the same as Cronos (Saturn). Chronos is said to be the father of the HORAE, of Aether and Eros. In this version (Nonnus), the HORAE are regarded as Hours instead of Seasons. Chronos appears as father of Aether (the upper sky) and Eros in the Argonautica Orphica.” And some vague info on Ogygia from the entry on Calypso: ‘After having drifted for nine days, Odysseus was washed up, in the night of the tenth, on the remote Island of Ogygia, the exact location of which, in the western Mediterranean Sea, has been forgotten.’ Thanks to Larry James and JMM