Ophiussa is the name given to the ancient land where the ocean greets the Tagus river. This name, given by the ancient Greeks, meant land of the serpents and came to be what is known today as Lisbon, my home and the capital of Portugal.
The ancient land was said to be ruled by a Queen, half woman, half serpent. According to legend, she was enchanting, seductive, had bewitching eyes and a soft beautiful voice much like Medusa before the mere sight of her face would turn onlookers to stone. This Queen would climb up a hill and shout to the wind in order to hear her own voice, saying that she was the ruler and that no human would dare to step upon her land or her serpents would suffocate them.
The Queen had her way until the ancient Greek hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca, or as he was known to the Romans, Ulysses, arrived on her land.
During his journey home from the city of Troy, Odysseus had some unbelievable adventures. Throughout his 10 years of wandering, the king arrived at the port in Ophiussa, a land believed to be cursed by the gods and where no man had dared to set foot. It was said that anyone who dared travel to this land was seduced by the Queen and was never to be seen again.
As soon as the Queen laid eyes on Odysseus, she immediately fell for him. After all, he was a suitor to the most beautiful women in the world including Helen of Troy. The Queen did everything in her power to keep him from leaving Ophiussa.
However, the Greek hero, still head over heels for his wife Penelope who he was trying to get home to, pretended to be taken by the Queen’s enchantment so that his men could rest and stock up with supplies before setting sail once more. All this turned out to be in vain of course, because between the Cyclops, the cannibal giants, a six-headed monster, Zeus’s raft and this one guy named Elpenor who died after getting drunk and accidentally falling of a roof, Odysseus was the only one to eventually make it home.
During his time in Ophiussa, Odysseus was overwhelmed with the natural beauty of the land and vowed to one day edify a glorious city, the capital of the World, in his image throughout the kingdom. However, as soon as the ships were stocked and his men were well rested, he fled Ophiussa. The Queen desperately chased after him and it is said that her arms turned into serpents and formed the eight hills of Lisbon as she chased after the Greek hero as he set out to sea.
Historically, there was a group of people named the Ophi who inhabited this land the ancient Greeks called Ophiussa. A Roman poet by the name of Avienus wrote a poem called Ora Maritima which was a poeticised account of the known world’s coastal regions. In this poem, Avienus referenced a people known as the Oestrimni who inhabited the territory which is known today as modern Portugal and Galicia, but they were chased away from their native land after an invasion of serpents which is most likely a reference to the Ophi people who worshipped serpents. Some people even believe that the dragon represented in the old crest of the crown of the Kings of Portugal is influenced by the Ophi, as serpents and dragons are sometimes used interchangeably as the venom of the serpent is said to have a fiery quality similar to the dragon.
The Ophi people may have also influenced several Portuguese fairy tales in reference to the enchanted mouras who were said to be beautiful and seductive beings. In the tales, they often appear singing and combing their long beautiful hair though the legends also often describe them as shape shifters who guard pathways, caves, rivers, castles and treasures.
Almost every old Portuguese town has a tale of an enchanted moura, many of whom possess the form of a serpent. The maiden-serpents are said to promise treasures to those who can set them free from their enchantment.
When the Romans took over the land from 205 BC, they renamed it Olisippo which the Moors then named Olisibona, which over the centuries became Lisboa.
Odysseus may have escaped the enchantment of the land of Ophiussa, but the legend of the origin of one of the world’s most amazing capitals, built on seven hills, has remained. Odysseus is remembered within Lisbon as he has a tower named after his Latin name, Ulysses, in the Castle of São Jorge which overlooks the majestic city which has so many stories to tell.
By Jay Costa Owen
Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.