Monday, 5 February 2018

The Lusiads by Luís Vaz de Camões.

The Lusiads (Os Lusíadas) is a Portuguese epic poem (though I read the prose translation) by Luís Vaz de Camões. First printed in 1572, it stands alongside Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid in its depiction of a great voyage and the interference of gods and goddesses. 

The heroes of the poem are the Lusiads: the sons of Lusus, who some would claim was the son of Bacchus. Lusus was the founder of Lusitania - ancient Portugal - and the Lusitanians refer to the early Portuguese people. The Lusiads, therefore, essentially means the Portuguese. It was written in the early years of the Age of Discoveries in which many European explorers travelled extensively, and the Portuguese were some of the earliest explorers discovering the Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores, the coast of Africa, and the route to India. In The Lusiads de Camões writes on the discovery of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer who was the first to reach India by sea paving the way for Europeans to extend their empires (and, it should be said, to encroach on others). 

The poem is divided into ten cantos and in the first de Camões refers to Virgil and Homer:
Let is hear no more then of Ulysses and Aeneas and their long journeyings, no more of Alexander and Trajan and their famous victories. My theme is the daring and renown of the Portuguese, to whom Neptune and Mars alike give homage. The heroes and the poets of old have had their day; another and loftier conception of valour has arisen.
He then describes the gods watching over the Portuguese and, as in so many works of Ancient Greece and Rome, they are divided: Venus favours the Portuguese and vows to help them, but the jealous Bacchus sees their voyage as encroaching on his own territory. Vasco da Gama, meanwhile, has already arrived in the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) and Bacchus flies down, disguises himself as a local, and implores the Muslim population to attack whilst making the fleet believe the leader of the Moors is a good man, and the population includes in it many Christians. Venus intervenes however and they are saved, and they continue on their journey to Melinde in Kenya.

In the third Canto de Camões, using da Gama as a mouthpiece, narrates the history of Portugal beginning with the myth of Lusus and Viriathus - Lusus being the founder of Portugal and Viriathus who fought against the Romans in the Second Century B.C. He then describes many a heroic battle which resulted in victory for Portugal, and describes the key events in the reign of Dom João II (1481-95), and the voyage of King of Melinde from Lisbon to Melinde.

By the sixth canto de Camões returns to the voyage; the explorers have left Kenya and are heading to India. Bacchus, with the help of Neptune and the sea gods, again plot to scupper the plans, causing a storm so powerful the fleet would sink. As they make their plans da Gama tells the story of the Twelve Men of England (Os Doze de Inglaterra) in which twelve Portuguese knights avenge the honour of ladies who were insulted by twelve English knights. The storm then strikes and da Gama prays to God, but it is Venus and the nymphs who save them. In Canto VII they reach India, and there they are greeted by a Muslim man, Monçaide, and are summoned by King Samorin. In the palace they are welcomed and de Camões describes the paintings of great Portuguese figures in history. But Bacchus is not finished with his schemes and so appears in a vision to convince them that da Gama and the explorers are a threat. The Lusiads are then arrested but are eventually freed after they promise to sell all their goods. Eventually, after further plotting from the Muslims and help from Monçaide, they leave Calicut and arrive on an island created by Venus and filled with Nereids to reward them. da Gama meets and falls in love with Tethys, who prophecies a great future for Portugal and Portuguese explorers. 

The Lusiads is a great story filled with adventure and daring. Naturally the first thing one thinks of when reading it is the Odyssey and Aeneid, but there's also a little of Spenser in this in its concern to tell and celebrate the history of Portugal. An interesting aspect of The Lusiads is how Christianity and the Pagan gods are both portrayed as powerful beings, but it was the Greek and Roman gods I enjoyed the most as it reminded me of some of the best stories of the 5th Century B.C. I loved reading this, it's a wonderful reading experience and a pleasant introduction to Portuguese literature and history.

2 comments:

  1. i've seen the title but never read it... it was kind of hidden in a blind spot in my head, i think... I'll look for it... at the moment i'm ensconced in "The Consolidator" by DeFoe... it's a riot...

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    1. Not come across that one, but I do like Defoe. I'll look out for it :)

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