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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Portugal's Epic (Os Lusiadas) by Camoes: Navigators, Kings and Gods

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

ARMcollective's cover of The Lusiadas (Canto VII). The canto is prefaced with a synopsis by writer Jose Luis Peixoto.


Imagine medieval times when maps displayed dragons, mermaids and sea monsters in unexplored areas to denote potential danger.

At that time, most people did not venture out of their villages, much less their continents.

The Portuguese, however, launched the Age of Discovery when they sailed out of Lisbon. They were the first continental Europeans to travel to the Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores and, then, the coast of West Africa. In 1498, the sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope was established by Vasco da Gama, who is one of the narrators in the fantastical poem, Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads), by Luis Vaz de Camoes.

June 10th is the Day of Portugal, Camoes, and the Portuguese Communities. It is a national holiday that commemorates the death of Camoes in 1580.

“Published for the first time in 1572, Os Lusiadas is widely regarded as the most important work of Portuguese literature. It is included on the shortlist of major universal literary narratives, alongside those of Dante, Homer and Virgil. In 10 cantos, Camoes narrates the history and achievements of the Portuguese nation, centered mainly on the discovery of the sea route to India by Vasco de Gama, and builds one of the greatest landmarks of Portuguese culture, establishing myths that are still present in the Portuguese imagination and its former colonies,” wrote the writer, Jose Luis Peixoto, in a preface to it.

A century and a half after his death, Voltaire called Camoes the "Portuguese Virgil". The French Enlightenment writer cited: “Adamastor, the giant of the Cape of Storms, appears to them, walking in the depth of the sea; his head reaches to the clouds; the storms, the winds, the thunders, and the lightnings hang about him; his arms extended over the waves. He is the guardian of that foreign ocean, unploughed before by any ship. He complains of being obliged to submit to fate, and to the audacious undertaking of the Portuguese, and foretells them all the misfortunes they must undergo in the Indies.”

Also, Voltaire recalled, “the enchanted island, called the Island of Bliss, which the fleet finds on its way home, just rising from the sea, for their comfort, and for their reward. . . . There a supernatural power brings in all the beauties, and presents all the pleasures which nature can afford, and the heart may wish for; a goddess, enamored with Vasco de Gama, carries him to the top of a high mountain, from whence she shows him all the kingdoms of the earth and foretells the fate of Portugal.”

The more contemporary Peixoto wrote the seductive Blank Gaze and The Piano Cemetery. The Alentejo native recently published Almoço de Domingo, a novel inspired by the memories of Delta coffee owner, Rui Nabeiro, who died in March 2023. Peixoto wrote a synopsis of each of the cantos of Os Lusiades, which was followed by the poem in a series of 10 slim paperbacks illustrated with graffiti by ARMcollective and distributed in Expresso newspapers in 2013.

Peixoto opens the collection:

"The weapons and the barons are assigned, etc.? Be calm. Be calm.


"Without time, ideas don't want to appear. It is absolutely certain that the poet knew this simple truth. The words of his great poem carry much time, much history and many stories. Perhaps that's why the poet got along with people who understood the breadth of time: navigators, kings and gods.


In Portuguese:

“As armas e os barões assinalados, etc? Calma, calma. Mais devagar.

“Sem tempo, as ideas nao querem aparecer.

“De certeza absoluta que o poeta conhecia esta verdade simples. As palavras do seu grande poema transportam muito tempo, muita historia e muitas historias. Talvez fosse por isso que o poeta se dava com gente entendida no tamanho do tempo: navegadores, reis e deuses.


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