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© Lonely Planet Publications
24

History
MYTHOLOGICAL BEGINNINGS

History of the Canary
Islands by José M Castellano Gil and Francisco J
Macíos Martín is a fairly
straightforward summary
of the islands’ past. This
book is published in
various languages by
the Centro de la Cultura
Popular Canaria.

We can’t pinpoint the date of the discovery of the islands now known as the
Canaries, but we can say with certainty that they were known, or at least
postulated about, in ancient times. In his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, Plato
(428–348 BC) spoke of Atlantis, a continent sunk deep into the ocean floor in
a great cataclysm that left only the peaks of its highest mountains above the
water. Whether Plato believed in the lost continent’s existence or had more
allegorical intentions remains a matter of conjecture. In the centuries since
Plato’s death, those convinced of the existence of Atlantis have maintained
that Macronesia (the Canary Islands, the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira)
constitutes the visible remains of the lost continent.
Legend also has it that one of the 12 labours of Hercules was to go to the
end of the world and bring back golden apples guarded by the Hesperides
(daughters of evening), offspring of Hesperis and Atlas, the latter a Titan
in Greek and Roman mythology who gave his name to the Atlantic Ocean
and the Atlas mountain ranges in Morocco. Hercules supposedly had to
go beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the modern Strait of Gibraltar) to reach
the paradisiacal home of these maidens. Hercules carried out his task and
returned from what many later thought could only have been the Canary
Islands – about the only place to fit the ancients’ description.
Classical writer Homer identified the islands as Elysium, a place where the
righteous spent their afterlife. For all their storytelling, there is no concrete
evidence that either the Phoenicians or Greeks ever landed on the Canaries.
It is entirely possible, however, that early reconnaissance of the North African
Atlantic coast by the Phoenicians and their successors, the Carthaginians,
took at least a peek at the easternmost islands of the archipelago. Some
historians believe a Phoenician expedition landed on the islands in the 12th
century BC, and that the Carthaginian Hanno turned up there in 470 BC.
The expanding Roman Empire defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War
in 146 BC, but the Romans appear not to have been overly keen to investigate
the fabled islands, which they knew as the Insulae Fort...
MYTHOLOGICAL BEGINNINGS
We can’t pinpoint the date of the discovery of the islands now known as the
Canaries, but we can say with certainty that they were known, or at least
postulated about, in ancient times. In his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, Plato
(428–348 BC) spoke of Atlantis, a continent sunk deep into the ocean floor in
a great cataclysm that left only the peaks of its highest mountains above the
water. Whether Plato believed in the lost continent’s existence or had more
allegorical intentions remains a matter of conjecture. In the centuries since
Plato’s death, those convinced of the existence of Atlantis have maintained
that Macronesia (the Canary Islands, the Azores, Cape Verde and Madeira)
constitutes the visible remains of the lost continent.
Legend also has it that one of the 12 labours of Hercules was to go to the
end of the world and bring back golden apples guarded by the Hesperides
(daughters of evening), offspring of Hesperis and Atlas, the latter a Titan
in Greek and Roman mythology who gave his name to the Atlantic Ocean
and the Atlas mountain ranges in Morocco. Hercules supposedly had to
go beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the modern Strait of Gibraltar) to reach
the paradisiacal home of these maidens. Hercules carried out his task and
returned from what many later thought could only have been the Canary
Islands – about the only place to fit the ancients’ description.
Classical writer Homer identified the islands as Elysium, a place where the
righteous spent their afterlife. For all their storytelling, there is no concrete
evidence that either the Phoenicians or Greeks ever landed on the Canaries.
It is entirely possible, however, that early reconnaissance of the North African
Atlantic coast by the Phoenicians and their successors, the Carthaginians,
took at least a peek at the easternmost islands of the archipelago. Some
historians believe a Phoenician expedition landed on the islands in the 12th
century BC, and that the Carthaginian Hanno turned up there in 470 BC.
The expanding Roman Empire defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War
in 146 BC, but the Romans appear not to have been overly keen to investigate
the fabled islands, which they knew as the Insulae Fortunatae (Fortunate
Isles). A century-and-a-half later, shortly after the birth of Christ, the Ro-
mans received vaguely reliable reports on them, penned by Pliny the Elder
(AD 23–79) and based upon accounts of an expedition carried out around
40 BC by Juba II, a client king in Roman North Africa. In AD 150, Ptolemy
fairly accurately located the islands’ position with a little dead reckoning,
tracing an imaginary meridian line marking the end of the known world
through El Hierro.
THE ISLANDS’ ORIGINAL INHABITANTS
The origin of the islands’ first inhabitants has long been a source of mystery,
with theories being volleyed about for decades but none accepted as defini-
tive. Everyone agrees that the Canary Islands had no indigenous population
and that they’ve been inhabited since before the birth of Christ. So the people
living here had to come from somewhere. But the question was, where?
The Spanish conquistadors’ tales of Tinerfeños being tall, blonde and
blue-eyed fostered many convoluted theories about how Celtic immi-
grants from mainland Iberia, possibly even related to the Basques, some-
how made their way to the island. More fancifully, some saw a drop of
Nordic blood in them – did Norse raiding parties land here in the 8th or
9th centuries?
History
History of the Canary
Islands by José M Castel-
lano Gil and Francisco J
Macíos Martín is a fairly
straightforward summary
of the islands’ past. This
book is published in
various languages by
the Centro de la Cultura
Popular Canaria.
© Lonely Planet Publications
24
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