The Lusiads

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The Lusiads

by Luís de Camões


An epic poem set in Portugal, Africa, and India and at sea between 1139 to the mid-1500s; published in Portuguese (as Os Lusfadas) in 1572, in English in 1655.


Portugal’s national epic poem, The Lusiads celebrates the Portuguese nation and its discovery of the sea route to India, including a recapitulation of the entire history of Portugal and a competition between Roman gods to promote or foil the expedition.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

The Poem In Focus

Events in History at the Time the Poem Was Written

For More Information

In bold Renaissance fashion, Luís de Camóes (1524?-80) fashioned himself into a scholar, a poet, and a soldier. The following description is found in an anonymous early-seventeenth-century memoir: “That famous poet Luís de Camóes—who, speaking in absolutes, was the prince of them all—was a tall man with broad shoulders and reddish hair. His face was freckled and he was blind in one eye. He was a man of sharp mind, clear judgement and rare wit. He was well-read in the humanities, well-versed in the sciences, skilled at arms, and valiant of spirit” (Lund, p. 170).

Of his otherwise undocumented soldiering, we know that he lost the use of that one eye in Ceuta. Yet if he was ready to defend his own honor or that of others with his sword, it would be his pen that would most indelibly mark history. He was born to a Portuguese family of minor nobility. There is no record of his having officially attended the University of Coimbra. But he had friends and relatives in high places, and in Coimbra he acquired a solid grounding in classical literature just 50 years after the Portuguese reached India. Vasco da Gama’s singular voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, up the East Coast of Africa, and across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, India, is the event that a number of historians have seen as the defining moment of the beginning of modernity. It shrank the globe, thereafter yoking Asia inseparably with western Europe. It pulled commerce out of the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Camóes would apotheosize the event in his epic poem. Although also penning lyric poems and plays (such as the comedy El-rei Seleuco [King Seleucas]), he would forever be linked to the aforementioned epic, winning still unsurpassed renown by skillfully memorializing a grand moment in Portuguese history in a way that reflected the humanist tendencies of his era.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

Henry the Navigator

Portugal is a tiny country squeezed onto the Iberian Peninsula between Spain and the Atlantic Ocean. Its curiosity as well as its economic considerations have caused Portugal to look seaward from as early as the end of the thirteenth century. Among other interests, Portugal wanted to find Prester John, a mythical Christian leader thought to be living anywhere from northeastern Africa to Asia. Establishing contact with such a mysterious Christian leader had long intrigued most of Europe, for he would be an important ally in the Christian crusade against the infidel.

In actual practice, Portuguese overseas expansion dates from at least 1415, when King John I attacked and conquered Ceuta on the northwest coast of Africa. The new possession would be as important as a symbol of the Portuguese presence in Africa as it was as a trading post. King John’s renowned son Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) had participated in the conquest of Ceuta. Although he did not personally do much sailing, Henry showed avid interest in the theory and practice of navigation, especially during the last 20 years of his life from atop the Sagres promontory in southern Portugal. Gradually he fastened on to the idea of finding a sea route to India. Much of his work was carried out in secrecy. Henry engineered a number of navigational improvements including the construction of a sleeker, faster ship known as the caravel. The caravel proved valuable for its ability to sail to windward, making longer voyages possible. Henry also promoted exploration. From about 1420 to 1460 he sent dozens of small armadas further and further down the coast of Africa, convinced that sooner or later he would find a southeast passage to the Orient. In 1441 Antao Goncalves, who had been commissioned by Henry the Navigator to explore the African coast, first brought African slaves into Portugal. Henry subsequently commissioned him to continue his exploration, charging him to seek information about Prester John and about India. By 1488, when Bartolomeu Dias returned to Lisbon, having rounded what was then called the Cape of Storms at the southern tip of Africa, confidence in finding a route to India approached certainty. It was at this point that King John II renamed the tip of Africa the Cape of Good Hope.

Christians and Moors

The Christians had fought the Moors for centuries. In retaliation for the 711 Moorish invasion of Europe, the Christians mounted a Reconquest of the Iberian peninsula that was pursued from the eighth through the fifteenth centuries. Although Portugal had driven the Moors from its territory by the end of the thirteenth century (under the reign of Alfonso III, 1246-79) it was not until 1492 that they were expelled from neighboring Granada in Spain. Over the years up to the time of Camóes, Portugal had both initiated crusades and taken part in campaigns led by Christian allies against the Moors. If Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella were known as the Catholic monarchs, Portugal was considered a no less able and willing defender of the faith. It is not surprising, therefore, that Camóes made a significant part of his storyline the age-old conflict between Christians and Moors, even though the Portuguese had driven the Muslims out of the country more than 200 years earlier. In the 1497 voyage to India, da Gama’s four ships did in fact contend periodically with Moorish hostilities when seamen went ashore for provisions and exploration along the African coast en route to India. The menace was magnified in Camóes’s epic. For a hero in a Christian epic to attain a legendary degree of glory, there had to be an equally legendary “evil” to vanquish. The anti-Christian Moors of the sixteenth century easily filled that role.

At the poem’s mythological level, the Roman goddess Venus represents positive, Christian interests; the Roman god Bacchus, adversary of the Portuguese, represents the dark side, the evil of religious “infidelity” and its stratagems. Bacchus and a number of Moorish princes do what they can to impede the Christian missionary zeal omnipresent in Vasco da Gama’s voyage.

One must remember that fifteenth-century evangelical zeal often took the form of a crusade. Crusaders were much more Christian soldiers than preachers. They used their swords more readily than their Bibles. This form of evangelization sometimes became a “just war” against infidels. The idea was to eliminate resistance, even by bloodshed, establish the Church, and evangelize the inhabitants. Before King John I became fully committed to attacking Ceuta in Africa, he required his best theologians and ecclesiastical lawyers to furnish official guarantees (e.g., documents) that such a move would be “in the service of God,” otherwise there would be no attack. When that was done, Ceuta was conquered, a church was built, and a more docile kind of missionary work was turned over to the Franciscans.

Prince Henry the Navigator was imbued by the spirit of crusade. He was the treasurer of the religious-military Order of Christ on the Iberian Peninsula, founded in 1319 by Portugal’s King Dinis. An initiative blessed by the Pope, it was put together using the knights, properties and wealth of the just-then defunct Knights Templar. Vasco da Gama was also a knight of the Order of Christ. He pointed his tiny fleet, whose sails bore large red crosses symbolic of his order, toward India with that same sober spirit of crusade.


Having originated in Italy, excitement about this rebirth of classical learning was pervasive in Europe by the end of the fifteenth century. The Renaissance proved to be especially significant in two ways. First, it rediscovered a wealth of knowledge by republishing key philosophical, historical, and literary texts of antiquity. Secondly, it placed high value on curiosity and the pursuit of new knowledge. Portugal, which had established its University of Coimbra in 1290, responded favorably to the fertile thought of this period. From a maritime point of view, it led the world in this new age of discoveries. From an intellectual point of view, it followed the lead of Germany’s Johann Gutenberg, establishing presses and a book trade well before the sixteenth century. Henry the Navigator became the epitome of the direction in new science: pragmatic application of theory. The Portuguese discoveries led to significant advances in astronomy, biology, botany, pharmacology, meteorology, mathematics, physics, and, of course, navigation, geography, and cartography. Garcia da Orta, for example, who traveled widely in the far reaches of the new Portuguese empire, published in 1563 his Coloquios dos Simples, a treatise on drugs and medicines used in India, mixed with natural philosophy and based on firsthand observation. It was translated many times during the sixteenth century. At odds with


Renaissance humanism—usually traceable to the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch (in whose work, incidentally, Camóes found inspiration for many of his own lyric poems)—had reached the Iberian Peninsula by the fifteenth century. Its adherents were scholars who avidly searched private and monastic archives for the Greek and Latin classics. The diffusion of the movement was greatly enhanced by the rediscovery and adoption of classical Latin and by the invention of moveable type which made classical texts available to the increasingly literate public. Humanists found in man the measure of existence and embraced any attitude that exalted his relationship to God. They discovered in the texts of antiquity—in the epics of Homer and Virgil, for example—the human qualities and virtues that most appropriately defined this Renaissance man. Humanists used the human portraits that emerged from these texts to plumb the vastness of man’s potential. Reflecting upon the epic event of Vasco da Gama’s voyage, Camóes infused it with a mythological significance not only befitting the event but also exemplary of the new European literary movements for which the rebirth of classical learning had been the springboard:

The Lusiads is in many ways the epic of Humanism. The new vision and the new values which came with the revival of learning found in Carndes a poet singularly fitted to sing of them. He is a Humanist even in his contradictions, in his association of a Pagan mythology with a Christian outlook, in his conflicting feelings about war and empire, in his love of home and his desire for adventure, in his appreciation of pleasure and his desire for adventure.

(Bowra, p. 138)

much of the wisdom of conventional doctors and pharmacologists, Garcia da Orta—precisely because of his apparent challenge to the status quo of medicinal science—was tried and condemned by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in Goa, India. Interestingly, one of the few poems other than The Lusiads published by Camóes during his lifetime appears as congratulatory verse in the prefatory pages of Orta’s book.

Renaissance humanists immersed themselves in the mythologies of classical antiquity. Imagine the excitement of these early scholars, totally absorbed in their own learned discoveries amidst ancient archives, as they gradually filled in the genealogical details of these families of major and minor gods, thereby providing a wealth of material that Renaissance poets would use to their own advantage. In this way Camóes found Adamastor ideally suited to his needs of anthropomorphizing the Cape of Storms—arguably the sea-gate to the Orient through which Portugal had to pass. Adamastor was one of the mythological giants, a son of Tellus. One version asserts that he was turned into the promontory cape as punishment for having fought with the giants against the gods. In his poem, Camóes sets him up as a mythological interlocutor whose own age-old geographical authority attests to the fact that no one has ever before entered his watery domain.

The momentous voyage

On July 8, 1497, da Gama and his crew departed Portugal from a suburb of Lisbon known as Restelo in four ships (the S. Gabriel, the s. Raphael, the Berrio, and a large supply vessel). After brief contact and minor skirmishes with aboriginal people along the southwest coast of Africa, they successfully rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made their way north along the southeast coast of Africa. Scurvy and other illnesses began to take their toll. So did the inevitable shock of opposing cultures. The Sultan of Mozambique presented the first real armed challenge to da Gama and his men. But disaster was averted and the Portuguese sailed further north. On April 7, 1498, they arrived in Mombasa, where they were told that other Christians lived. Delighted, they anticipated going ashore to hear Mass. Instead, 100 men armed with cutlasses unsuccessfully tried to board da Gama’s ship. The next day was Palm Sunday. The King of Mombasa sent pseudo-Christians bearing gifts and might well have lured da Gama’s fleet into the harbor to possible destruction had it not been for an accidental bumping of ships. Fearing their plan had been detected, the Muslim pilots jumped into the sea, inadvertently providing a providential forewarning. Again da Gama escaped.

Seven days later, da Gama’s fleet arrived in Malindi to a much more hospitable reception, perhaps due to the fact that fame of their military prowess had preceded them. Another theory is that the local sultan hoped that the establishment of an alliance with a distant king might mitigate the fealty he owed to Kilwa. In any case, the encounter was a friendlier one. In Malindi the Portuguese finally obtained the pilot who would guide them across the Indian Ocean to Calicut.

On May 20, 1498, da Gama’s fleet anchored off the shore of Calicut. Here they would stay for three months. Not just da Gama, but the whole Portuguese nation had fulfilled the mission for which it had seemed destined. But establishing a toehold in India’s most important west coast trading center was neither immediate nor easy. The zamorin (ruler) who governed Calicut lived with his Brahmin courtiers in a palace outside the city. The entire export trade was in the hands of the Muslim merchants who looked on the arrival of da Gama and his Christians as a serious threat. There was a standoff of sorts. After a symbolic march through town, accompanied by drums, trumpets, and the firing of guns, da Gama managed to meet with the zamorin and explain the purpose of his visit. The parties met in what was most probably a Hindu temple. The Portuguese, who still hoped to find Christians and thought they saw everywhere analogies with their faith, felt sure that the religions in India were some sort of less orthodox evolution of primitive Christianity. Edgar Prestage even surmises that the Portuguese interpreted cries of “Krishna, Krishna!”—the second element of their Trinity—to be “Christ, Christ!” (Prestage, p. 260). Da Gama’s own diary is careful to point out “these [Brahman priests] wore some threads passing over the left shoulder and under the right arm, in the same manner as our deacons wear the stole. They threw holy water over us” (da Gama in Ravenstein, p. 30).

After hard bargaining from equally skeptical parties, da Gama finally obtained a letter from the zamorin addressed to King Manuel requiring coral, silver and gold, and scarlet cloth in exchange for spices and precious stones. A stone pillar brought by da Gama and symbolic of this tentative agreement was erected in Calicut. In late August, da Gama set sail for Lisbon in adverse weather with relatively small stores of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and precious stones. Because da Gama did not produce great quantities of spices upon his return to Lisbon, popular sentiment was unsure that he had even been there. But King Manuel was sure. In fact, he was so convinced of da Gama’s success that he soon began sending word to the crowns of Europe of the Portuguese discovery. Just two days after da Gama’s return, he fired off a missive to the Queen of Castile announcing Portugal’s feat. He sent letters to Rome, as well, seeking thereby to obtain papal recognition of Portuguese pre-eminence in India. He gave to Vasco da Gama the village of Sines with all of its revenues and rights, a substantial annual royal stipend, and bestowed on his brave captain the title of Dom, or Lord. In the words of K. G. Jayne, “the quest for Christians and spices had been accomplished, and Portugal was mistress of the sea-route to India” (Jayne P. 59).

The Poem In Focus

Plot overview

The Lusiads is divided into ten cantos. From Olympus, Jupiter looks down upon Vasco da Gama’s tiny fleet cutting through uncharted seas to discover the sea road to India. Jupiter calls a council of the gods to discuss the implications and problems of this unique Portuguese voyage that promises a vast new eastern horizon to the commercial and missionary interests of western Europe in the face of the rapidly waning Middle Ages. The two most audible voices in that council are those of Venus and Bacchus. Venus, goddess of Rome, champions the Portuguese; Bacchus, god of the Orient, embodies resistance to the Lusitanian endeavor. First named Cape of Storms in 1488 by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias, the southernmost tip of Africa has been renamed Cape of Good Hope by Portugal’s King John II in optimistic anticipation of his country’s successful quest up the east coast of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to Calicut. Da Gama survives the vicissitudes of an 11-month sea voyage down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope. As


1139Afonso Henriques wins Battle of Ourique; sees vision of Christ who promises sponsorship of kingdom
1141Afonso Henriques is acclaimed Portugal’s first king
1290University of Coimbra is established
1300sPortuguese plant pine forest of Leiria (source of future ship lumber)
1415King John I conquers African city of Ceuta
1438Henry the Navigator moves to southern Portugal; continues to commission exploratory expeditions down African coast
1488Bartholomeu Dias rounds Cape of Good Hope
1492Columbus seeks India sailing west; denied Portuguese sponsorship, he sails from Spain, landing on territory he believes to be India
1495King John II dies; Manuel I becomes king and gains the epithet “the Fortunate” because discovery of sea route to India happens during his reign
1498Vasco da Gama discovers sea route to India; arrives at Calicut, India
1500-30Portugal enjoys a monopoly of spice trade
1524Camdes is born
1536Inquisition is established in Portugal
1553Camões begins bureaucratic work in the Orient
1560sCamões writes The Lusiads
1570Camões publishes The Lusiads, commemorating discovery of sea route to India

integral to the poem as his triumph over all the adversity that he encounters en route during an ultimately successful voyage is the mythical competition between Bacchus and Venus, a conflict full of symbolic meaning interwoven through the ten cantos of the poem.

Plot summary

Commissioned by King Manuel I, Vasco da Gama and his crew set sail in 1497 with the express purpose of finding India by sea. Just prior to their departure, a voice of warning is heard from “The Old Man of Restelo,” who rises from the shore. An anonymous yet experienced and venerable man, he personifies popular Portuguese concern that the quest for India may be too dangerous and inevitably disastrous. Soberly yet rhetorically, he asks if a conquest nearer to Portugal—perhaps in North Africa where there were also Moors and riches for the taking—might not be a wiser course. After all, Ceuta was already Portuguese. He reminds da Gama and his crew of the tragic results that befell Prometheus and Icarus, who thought through heroic undertakings to rob, respectively, fire and flight from the gods. He warns against the reckless seduction of Fame and Fortune.

Paying little heed to the old man’s advice, the tiny armada sets sail and retraces the 1488 route of Bartolomeu Dias. As they approach the Cape of Good Hope, da Gama comes “face to face” with the mythological giant Adamastor. Stories, warnings, and prophecies are exchanged. As the Portuguese expedition proceeds where no man has gone before, it does so knowing that it has overcome the natural obstacles of the southern cape; it has beaten Adamastor. As it moves north along the east coast of Africa, Vasco da Gama’s armada encounters problems in Mombasa, but a warmer reception in Malindi.

Faithful to epic tradition, Camóes begins with a proposition: he will celebrate the heroes of Portugal together with its navigation and discoveries. Then he asks the nymphs of the River Tagus for inspiration, and dedicates his poem to Portugal’s King Sebastian. Periodically throughout the cantos, Camões invokes the poetic power and influence of the epic muse of classical mythology Caliope. Also faithful to epic tradition, Camões begins his narration in media res, in the middle of his story, with Vasco da Gama already moving up the east coast of Africa. In the first canto the mythological protagonists Bacchus and Venus appear. At a council on Olympus, and in the presence of Jupiter, Venus gives reasons for regarding the Portuguese highly; and Bacchus makes his opposition to them known.

Venus is a good choice for Portugal’s advocate before Jupiter on several counts. Camões uses her convincing voice to articulate important parallels between Renaissance Portugal and ancient Italy. As she draws these parallels, she enhances the reader’s expectation that the supreme god Jupiter will bless the voyage of Vasco da Gama, even as he blessed the journey of Aeneas from Troy in ancient times. Lisbon bears comparison with Rome. Portugal was once part of the Roman empire (218 b.c.e.-c. 450 C.E.). Like Rome, Lisbon is set on seven hills. Venus reminds Jupiter that of all the modern inheritors of ancient Latin, Portugal has developed a language—Portuguese—that most closely resembles the original source. Likewise, Vasco da Gama has shown more fearless, noble courage in the face of unknown maritime dangers as he attempts to penetrate “seas no other nation had braved” than anyone since Aeneas (Camões, The Lusiads, 5.37.3). Her advocacy before the Olympian father is based on heroic logic and nostalgia.

Bacchus is an excellent adversary. Traditionally the god of Asia, now being approached by Christian Portuguese, he is also a forebear of Lusus, the mythical ancestor of the Lusitanians, or Portuguese (hence The Lusiads), in the genealogy of Roman mythological gods. Bacchus is very jealous of the prestige he has accrued in the Orient and is of course resistant to the threat of intrusion by anyone—especially by his own descendants!

Both Venus and Bacchus intervene in the navigation of the Portuguese, alternately helping and impeding the voyage. Da Gama and his men meanwhile regard their deliverance from peril as blessings from their Christian God. These two main narrative threads—that of da Gama’s voyage and that of the Olympian gods’ intercession on behalf of him and his sailors—progress in a parallel fashion. Aware of what the Portuguese are doing, the gods intercede from time to time, Venus assisting them with favorable winds, Bacchus trying to thwart their advance. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Portuguese sail toward their destination, trusting in their Christian god, knowing nothing of Venus or Bacchus.

In Canto 2, da Gama has his first serious conflict. Historically, this was a conflict with the Moors. Poetically, Camões alleges the collusion of Bacchus in the treachery that threatens the captain, and provides fuller portraits of Jupiter and Venus. The Portuguese journey continues to a more favorable reception in Malindi. In Cantos 3 and 4, da Gama tells the king of Malindi the history of Portugal from pre-Roman beginnings to the mid-fourteenth-century tragic murder of Ines de Castro, the Castilian mistress of Pedro, heir to the Portuguese throne.

It is not until the crucial fifth canto—halfway through the voyage to India, and, symbolically, halfway through the poem—that these narratives intersect. As the Portuguese prepare to round the cape, the rocky tip of the African continent, personified in the craggy personage of the giant Adamastor, speaks thunderingly to da Gama, delivering both a recognition and a warning. The somewhat reluctant recognition is that this brave Portuguese captain and his tiny band are the first ever to enter Adamastor’s waters, learning “secrets and mysteries of the deep, / Where no human, however noble / Or immortal his worth, should trespass” (Lusiads, 5.42.2-4). This is tantamount to an Olympian confession of defeat and an important anticipation of da Gama’s navigational success.

Adamastor’s warning, however, is the promise that from those myriad brave captains who inevitably follow da Gama on successive voyages, shall be extracted the payment of unimaginably tragic shipwrecks and maritime disasters. (Historically this proved to be the case. The poet Camões had the benefit of 60 post-da Gama years of hindsight, all carefully chronicled by historians Diogo do Couto [a personal friend of the poet], Joao de Barros, Garcia de Resende, and others. In fact, for several hundred years, about 20 percent of the ships that sailed annually to India never made it back to Lisbon, resulting in a collection of narratives cumulatively known as the “tragic maritime history of Portugal.”)

Cantos 6-8 relate the tales of the Portuguese arrival in Calicut, the wonders of India, and da Gama’s narrow escape from the treachery of the Muslim merchants by payment of ransom. This event inspires the poet to meditate on the evils of money and gold.

The second time that da Gama’s crew interacts with the Olympians is in Canto 9. Victorious Vasco da Gama, having established commercial relations (albeit tenuous ones) with India, is sailing once again on the high seas, returning to Lisbon and the glory that there awaits him. But Venus, who has often intervened on da Gama’s behalf during the Portuguese voyage, prepares her own reward for him and his sailors. She has arranged for them to find and sail for an Isle of Love that she causes to appear before them in the middle of the ocean—a kind of garden of delights, on which numerous maidens and comely sea nymphs await, each for her Portuguese sailor. This maritime rest and recuperation is the poet’s imaginative and propitious reward for the Portuguese maritime discovery. Included in the narration of the amorous and sensual celebrations on the Isle of Love are prophetic visions of the Portuguese future in the Orient voiced by an attending sea nymph. Through prophecy, the poem praises the post-da Gama efforts of Portuguese governors and military.

This encounter on the Isle of Love achieves two aims. Most obviously it immortalizes the Portuguese sailors, conjoining them with the gods. That same conjugation, however, serves to mor-talize the pagan gods. By linking the mythological gods to Christianity, the Isle of Love raises the issue of an allegorical key that Camões seemed obligated to include in his poem. (The next section treats the problem of allegory.)

By the end of Canto 10, the reader has reviewed the history of Portugal, followed Vasco da Gama on his trip around Africa, appreciated the peculiarities of the sea as recounted from the poet’s own experience, read the poet’s warnings to the Portuguese about their tendencies to stray from the moral high ground, and experienced the intercession of Olympic deities, including a vision of the Ptolemaic cosmos that the goddess Tethys shares with da Gama on the Isle of Love. The reader has also been apprised of the poet’s warnings to the Portuguese, about the perils and uncertainties of life. “Where may frail humanity shelter,” wonders the poet at the end of Canto One; “Briefly, in some secure port, / Where the bright heavens cease to vent their rage / On such insects on so small a stage?” (Lusiads, 1.106.5-8). Canto 6 draws to a close with a meditation on the true value of glory: “So the heart develops a callous / Honourable contempt for titles / And wealth, rank, and money … So one’s judgement grows enlightened, … Studying, as from a great height / Mankind’s pettiness and confusion; / Such a person … [w]ill rise (as he must) to a great position, / But reluctantly, and not through ambition” (Lusiads, 6.98.5-7, 6.99.1-8). The poet concludes the eighth canto with a lamentation on the omnipotence of gold: “Gold conquers the strongest citadels, / Turns friends into traitors and liars; / Persuades the noblest to acts of infamy” (Lusiads, 8.98.1-3). Thus, the poet fleshes out a simple storyline, producing by its conclusion a tapestry of narrative threads—skirmishes with indigenous peoples, national historical exploits, descriptions of sea life as well as life at sea, and meditations on moral and ethical questions—all made salient by expectation and the fulfillment of expectation, prophecy and the fulfillment of prophecy, commitment and the fulfillment of commitment.

Pagan mythology in a Christian epic

It has been established that the plot of The Lusiads is a simple one. Like the astronaut Neil Armstrong, who climbed into his rocket ship, flew to the moon, and returned, Vasco da Gama boarded his boat, sailed to India, and returned to Lisbon. Both were firsts in their day. The story is one of sailing from point A (Lisbon) to point B (India), laying claim for the Portuguese, and returning to point A. But imagine the preparation and the support needed for such a quest. Vasco da Gama does not know where point B is when he sets sail. Da Gama ventured forth into the unknown armed with far less support than a Neil Armstrong, who had the benefit of “mission control” back home. Da Gama left armed only with the cumulative knowledge of Henry the Navigator and company, adding to it the groundbreaking science that he and his pilots gathered even as they sailed. Herein lie the mystery and the eventual thrill of his maritime discovery.

But for Camões, the poet, there had to be a mission control, some deus ex machina, or larger-than-life poetic apparatus, to help explain da Gama’s otherworldly certitude, and his unfailing ability to overcome the obstacles encountered on his voyage. So Camões created Jupiter and Venus to look after Vasco da Gama and his sailors. In spite of his own Christian anchor, and in spite of the Inquisition looking over his shoulder, Camões availed himself of traditional mythological figures to illustrate, and thereby elevate, the da Gama voyage to the mythic proportions that aptly conveyed its place in Portuguese history. The recourse to myth was, moreover, highly appropriate to his European times. Camões was, after all, a Renaissance man.


  1. Camões proposes to write the Vasco da Gama voyage. He invokes the epic muses. He dedicates the poem to King Sebastian of Portugal. Narrative begins in media res (in the middle of the action), with da Gama in the Indian Ocean. First council of the gods. Carndes’s own meditation on the transitory nature of life.
  2. Conflict between Venus and Bacchus. Venus advocates Portuguese cause to Jupiter, who vasco da Gama’s success. Da Gama arrives at Melinde, Africa.
  3. Da Gama tells the history of Portugal to the King of Melinde, focusing on its kings and heroes.
  4. Recitation of Portuguese history continues. Da Gama’s dreams of Portuguese presence in Asia. Old man of Restelo warns of dangers of pride and power.
  5. Flashback to Lisbon. Da Gama’s departure. Details of the sea voyage. Encounter with Ada-mastor. Camões meditates on dearth of worthy poets (like Virgil and Homer) in the world.
  6. Bacchus strategizes with Neptune. Second council of gods. Storm at sea. Da Gama prays for deliverance and is delivered by Venus. Da Gama thanks God. Camdes meditates on true meaning of glory.
  7. Arrival at Calicut; Portuguese introduction to Indian customs and culture.
  8. Recounting of Portuguese heroes. Bacchus seeks to undo Portuguese victory. Camões reflects bitterly on omnipotence of gold.
  9. Isle of Love is given to Portuguese as reward for exploits.
  10. Celebration banquet continues with Portuguese and sea nymphs. Da Gama envisions universe and future. Camões exhorts King Sebastian to do great things.

Did the poet himself ever see his interlacing of mythology in a Christian poem as a dilemma? He is a poet writing in a country very concerned with questions of orthodoxy, newly articulated by the doctrines of the Counter Reformation that flowed from the Council of Trent (1455-63). This is precisely when he is writing his poem. Yet he is also a poet equally committed to the exhilarating possibilities of model classical texts that had re-emerged during the impetus of Renaissance humanism, the postmedieval movement noted for a revival of classical learning, an individualistic and critical tenor, and a gravitation from religious to secular concerns. So how was he to justify a mythological apparatus in a Christian epic without offending the literary and doctrinal censors of the Inquisition?

Camões, as many of his Mediterranean literary peers had done, chose to view mythological deities in allegorical terms. That is, they saw all of pagan mythology as a sort of allegory, preparatory to the advent of Christianity, where the Olympian deities and their intrigues were but prefigurations of God, His angels, the intermediary saints of Roman Catholicism, and Satan and his underworld legions. Still, Camões’s manuscript had to run the inquisitorial gauntlet despite having already been licensed by the king. Apparently one of the censors thought that Camões needed to provide some sort of key for the less-prepared reader who might be led astray. This “key” is provided in two places in the poem. The first seems a bit more awkward than the second, apparently inserted by the poet under some duress, in order for his text to receive the imprimatur of the Holy Inquisition. The second key may have been the only one that he intended to include.

The first is inserted after the sensual Isle of Love victory celebration offered the Portuguese by Venus in Canto 9. In stanza 91 the poet lists all the pagan gods that he has so ingeniously woven into his poem—Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Pallas, Ceres, Juno, Diana, and so on. “All,” he writes, “served only symbolically to enhance the superhuman achievements of the Portuguese. For, as everyone knows, they were never more than inventions of the human imagination” (Bowra, p. 117). As Bowra suggests, “th[is] explanation is worse than an anticlimax; if we treat it seriously, it spoils much of the poem” (Bowra, p. 117). It is like cold water thrown on an epic fire. Was the poet instructed to include such an explanation by the inquisitors who read his manuscript? Perhaps, under the obligation of the Inquisition to explain the gods, he writes his denial in this coarse and rather transparent fashion so that his readers can easily see why it is there.

“Camões’ real explanation,” continues Bowra, “is more profound and more satisfying. It is that his divinities are symbols for different activities of one supreme God, subordinate powers to whom various special functions are allotted”—“’the patronage of the seven spheres / Which by the highest Pow’r to them was giv’n’” (Bowra and The Lusiads in Bowra, p. 118). The heretical question of attributing blessings or evils experienced by da Gama to mythological figures instead of to God and the devil would be revisited. In 1640, a year after his monumental commentary on The Lusiads was published, Manuel de Faria e Sousa was called upon by the Inquisition to address the question of the pagan gods. In a thorough and masterful treatise, he offered numerous “proofs” of what he considered to be Camões’s obvious use of allegory. The treatise identified Jupiter as an allegory for Christ—the same Christ who presented himself to the first king of Portugal at the Battle of Ourique, and was now “choosing Portugal to take His doctrine to India” (Faria e Sousa, p. 3; trans. C. Lund). According to Faria e Sousa, Bacchus was the Devil trying to impede the mission. Venus was the embodiment of militant religious doctrine as well as a “Marian” advocate before God of the righteous desires of man. Mars was equated with St. James, and Mercury with one of the good angels. Faria e Sousa’s eloquent response to the Inquisition, written in 15 days, was successful. The Lusiads would face no more serious Inquisitorial challenges.

Sources and literary context

In the tradition of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, followed by Virgil’s Aeniad, Camões relays the epic tale of the founding of a Portuguese empire and, in Camões’s case, the tale is certifiably true. In his invocation of the epic muse, Camões asks only for sufficient inspiration to be able to give full and adequate treatment to this one story. Though Camões himself believed his epic matter to be far superior to that of the Aeniad, he is not at all hesitant to recognize his debt to Virgil in whom most of the epic poets of the Renaissance found inspiration. In the first canto, Camões includes all the formulaic constituent parts of an epic poem. He begins with a proposition, telling the reader what he will celebrate. Lest there be any doubt about the model he has chosen to follow, his very first line paraphrases Virgil’s familiar line Arma virumque cano (“Arms and the man I sing”): “Arms are my theme, and those matchless heroes, / Who from Portugal’s far western shores” to the eastern boundary of the known world ventured (Lusiads, 1.1-2). Camões thereby acclaims the excellence and prestige of his classical model, even as he sets out to improve upon it. How, he wants to know in Canto 5, can the monstrous Scylla and Charybdis, set down by Virgil’s fanciful imagination, even begin to compare to the real dangers of contrary winds and ship-dashing currents ever present in navigating around the Cape of Storms at the southern most tip of Africa, in the rigors of high seas navigation, or in the monsoon hurricanes of the Indian Ocean? The tale he tells, says canto 1, is greater than any imagined adventure ever written. Although the details of da Gama’s voyage had already appeared in many historical narratives, it was Camões’s epic poetry that would immortalize the importance of the feat.

During his life, Camões produced a rich lyric poetry, writing in the new styles of the Renaissance (sonnets, canzones, sestinas, odes, elegies) that had so recently been brought to Portugal directly from Italy by Sa de Miranda in 1525. He loved the traditional redondilla as well: based in part on his own life, his Babel and Zion is a beautifully composed, Platonically inspired, allegorical redondilla, written during his sojourn in the Orient (probably in the 1560s) in which the poet affirms his own Christian beliefs. Camões uses his lyric poems as autobiographical entries in a kind of lifelong diary of his own repeated misfortunes. In them he expresses the constant reversal of fortune that characterized his life from Lisbon to China and back again. His writings suggest that Camões suffered poverty, unrequited love, and disappointment in his political ambitions and in his aspirations for literary recognition. An admirer of the Italian poets, he shows a Petrarchan love of antithesis in his verse. Camões’s lyric poems were first published posthumously in 1595. Although questions of authorship for a number of these poems have not yet been completely sorted out, it is clear that his poems rank among the finest in Renaissance Europe. But if Camões stood in the company of few as a lyrical poet, he was unique as a sixteenth-century epic poet. The many personal themes of his lyrics (e.g., tragic love, political deception, poverty, and belief in Christ) find resonance in The Lusiads.

Events in History at the Time the Poem Was Written

Camões and the demise of Portugal

Exactly when Camões began to formulate the ideas for his national epic poem is not clear. He had grown up in a Portugal that during his own formative years was one of the richest and most prestigious countries in Europe. His country had enjoyed economic good fortune from the spice trade that it monopolized for several decades. Camões, the Renaissance scholar, gradually became aware of his own gifts and powers as Camões, the poet. No doubt, the challenge of writing his country’s recent impressive achievement beckoned.

By the mid-sixteenth century in Portugal and Spain, young noblemen launched their personal careers by serving their king in one of the proliferating bureaucratic offices of their respective colonial empires. In 1553 Camões left for India to serve his Crown—perhaps very willing, as well, to distance himself from one Gongalo Borges, whom he had wounded in a duel. With a head full of Virgilian poetic structures, he set sail on his odyssey, driven at times by his own spirit of adventure, and at times by the political whims of commanders in the growing kingdom’s far-flung outposts. He experienced the same long sea voyages—replete with the same thrills, natural wonders, and hardships that Vasco da Gama had experienced—as he went first to India, then on to Macau, China (a territory that Portugal has only just now relinquished), and back to Lisbon by way of Africa.

Even in his own lifetime, Camões began to see the empire that had been born of da Gama’s voyage begin to crumble. The sudden influx of wealth had a profound impact on Portuguese society. Investments and speculation increased. The middle class surged. The phrase “waiting for one’s ship to come in [from India]” perhaps was first uttered by Lisbon merchants. The Dutch and English began operating in the Orient, whittling away at Portuguese hegemony, well before Camões’s poem was published.

Much of this change is documented in Garcia de Resende’s Miscellanea, first published in 1545. This book was possibly known to the poet and may have served to help Camões find proper expression in his own moralistic considerations with which he periodically ends his cantos. The Miscellanea is an artful yet astute synthesis of the cultural and moral evolution of Portugal from about 1500-30. The vision of its text is tempered by the maturity of a man who was writing in his late fifties, intuitively contrasting his vision of his contemporary Portugal with that of the Portugal he knew when he was thirty. It is a text in which Resende asks repeatedly, is this the Portugal he knew before Vasco da Gama brought home his first pepper from India? Written in verse, it catalogues the changes, disclosing a “variety of stories, customs, events and things that happened in his time” (Resende, p. 335). Due largely to the sudden influx of wealth, Portugal sees no end of new novelties. The Miscellanea lists the new fruits, vegetables, animals—imagine, trained elephants!—clothing, jewelry, religions, and philosophies, that sprung up in Lisbon as a result of Vasco da Gama’s voyage. But it is principally on the moral front that Resende’s observations, shared by many reflective men in Portugal, may have helped Camões: there is now a Catholic Church persecuted “more by Christians than by Moors”—the wealthy have servants who have servants; there is an increase in lying, cheating, skulduggery; sloth abounds; waste increases. Where are the good old days? Many of Resende’s concerns find echoes in Camões’s meditative sections of The Lusiads.

Royal and general reception

Little documentation survives about the initial reception accorded to The Lusiads in 1572. The question of its influence on King Sebastian is occasionally raised by critics. According to one tradition, Camões himself read his poem to the king. In any event, the king knew about the poem, for he had granted his royal license to have it printed. Though its Camonian exhortation for the king to achieve great deeds may have helped dispel any hesitation in his resolve to carry out his own Christian crusade against the Moors in north Africa, The Lusiads cannot be blamed for Sebastian’s ill-fated campaign of 1578. Camões, along with the majority of the Portuguese nation, watched the rag-tag formation of the royal army during the previous year. Then they were horrified and devastated when news of the Portuguese defeat reached Lisbon. Unmarried, King Sebastian had left no heir to the kingdom. His uncle, Cardinal Henrique, took the throne but died in 1579, when Camdes was ill. The poet, who with the majority of the country now saw Phillip II of Spain poised to claim the Portuguese throne, wrote to a friend “I came back to Portugal not only to die in my country, but with her” (Hart, p. 212). He was right. By 1580 Phillip II held the Portuguese crown and Camões had died.

The Lusiads, on the other hand, gained stature and endured. Before Camões’s death, King Sebastian, in part as a favor to Don Manuel de Portugal, who had befriended the poet, granted an insignificantly small annual pension (the equivalent of $150, according to Burton) to Camões. This three-year “reward” was renewed twice before the poet died. Ever after, despite the fact that it may not have been an immediately resounding success, Camões’s epic has really never ceased to grow in importance and popularity as literature.

During the decade or so following the publication of the first edition of The Lusiads, three more Spanish translations appeared (two in 1580, one in 1591). Perhaps when Portugal lost its sovereignty to Spain in 1580, political reasons prompted the publication of the early Spanish translations. After all, the story of Portugal, told so eloquently by Camões in Portuguese, should also be available in Spanish. Phillip II of Spain had just doubled his empire, annexing to it the vast possessions that Portugal had acquired largely due to da Gama’s voyage. Perhaps these first extramural translations appeared just because The Lusiads was a great epic poem that needed to be known in other tongues. With equal logic, political motivation may be read into the many editions printed in Portuguese during the seventeenth century, some in anticipation of the restoration of Portuguese sovereignty in 1640, some in celebration of it. The poem’s impact was great too. In the wake of Camões’s masterwork, more than 50 distinct epic poems appeared in Portuguese from the end of the sixteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. One of the poems that helped Almeida Garrett inaugurate the Romantic movement in Portugal was entitled, fittingly, “Camões.” The Portuguese romantics loved the story of Ines de Castro—cruelly murdered by King Afonso IV, the father of her lover—so passionately told by Camões in Canto 3.

In 1974, as the socialist revolution that toppled 40 years of dictatorship claimed victory in Portugal, Camões and his epic were threatened by radical students who saw in his work a quintessential capitalism that they considered antithetical to their cause. But the Portuguese love and appreciation for its national poet survived the momentary ideological crisis and the bard is still required reading in the curriculum.

Outside the Iberian peninsula, The Lusiads would be translated into almost every western European language, experiencing an ever-growing popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. England’s William Wordsworth had praise for the poet. His correspondence suggests that he knew The Lusiads through a 1776 translation by William Julius Mickles. Brian Head traced Ca-monian influence in Melville’s prose and poetry, where he found allusions to the Isle of Love, Adamastor, and storms at sea. Head quotes the character Jack Chase in Melville’s novel White Jacket “Camoens! White-Jacket, Camoens! Did you ever read him? The Lusiad, I mean? It’s the man-of-war epic of the world, my lad. Give me Gama for a Commodore, say I—Noble Gama!” (Melville in Head, p. 47).

—Christopher C. Lund

For More Information

Belchior, Maria de Lourdes, and Enrique Martínez-López, eds. Camoniana Californiana. Santa Barbara: Jorge de Sena Center for Portuguese Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1985.

Bowra, Cecil Maurice. From Virgil to Milton. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1972.

Camões, Luís Vaz de. The Lusiads. Trans. Landeg White. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Faria e Sousa, Manuel de. Information en favor de Manuel de Faria i Sousa sobre la acusacion que se hizo en el Tribunal del santo oficio de Lisboa, a los comentarios que escrivio a las Lusiadas del poeta Luís de Camoens. [Madrid?: privately printed, 1640?].

Hart, Henry Hersch. Luís de Camoens and the Epic of the Lusiads. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Head, Brian. “Camões and Melville.” Revista Camoniana I (1964): 36-77.

Jayne, K. G. Wasco da Gama and His Successors 1460-1580. London: Methuen & Co., 1910.

Lund, Christopher C, ed. Anedotas Portuguesas. Coimbra: Livraria Almedina, 1980.

Prestage, Edgar. The Portuguese Pioneers. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967.

Ravenstein, E. G., trans. Wasco da Gama’s First Voyage. In Portuguese Voyages 1498-1663. Ed. Charles David Ley. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1947.

Resende, Garcia de. Cronica de dom João II e Mis-celdnea. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 1973.