Hyperborea: Mythological Land beyond the North Wind in Ancient Greece


A detail of a red-figure pottery vase showing Boreas, the god of the North Wind in Greek mythology. From Attica, 440-430 BCE. (Cabinet des médailles, Paris) / Photo by Carole Raddato, Flickr, Creative Commons

Hyperborea was thought of as an earthly paradise of eternal youth and abundance.


By Mark Cartwright
Historian


Introduction

Hyperborea was, in Greek mythology, the land located to the far north of the known world and was so remote it was considered even beyond the North Wind. There a legendary race known as the Hyperboreans lived and worshipped the sun god Apollo. Hyperborea was thought of as an earthly paradise of eternal youth and abundance, but so inaccessible was this far-off land to ordinary mortals, the Greeks believed that only semi-divine heroes like Hercules were capable of ever visiting there. Hyperborea crops up in many Greek legends, usually to explain the otherwise unexplainable appearance or disappearance of legendary figures and objects. The historical origin of Hyperboreans may well have been peoples living north of the Black Sea or the Iron Age Celts living along the Danube river who we know had trade contacts with the Mediterranean cultures at least as early as the 6th century BCE. Another candidate for Hyperborea is Celtic Britain. Wherever Hyperborea was located in the minds of the Greeks, it symbolised, like Atlantis, the Amazons, and Centaurs, a mysterious and little-known culture that existed at the very edge of the world they knew.

Location

A detail of a black-figure pottery vase showing the god of the North Wind Boreas blowing Odysseus across the sea. Theban, 4th century BCE. (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England) / Photo by Carole Raddato, Flickr, Creative Commons

The Greeks believed that a legendary race they called the Hyperboreans lived in the far north of the known world. Indeed, they were thought to live beyond the North Wind. The name, therefore, likely derives from Boreas, the god of the icy North Wind in Greek mythology. Such is the difficulty of reaching this mysterious and distant land, the Greeks believed that the only people capable of ever getting there were semi-divine heroes like Hercules and Perseus.

The remoteness of Hyperborea does not necessarily mean the Greeks considered it to be the Arctic region. A much more likely candidate is either that part of Eurasia above the area populated by the Scythians (north of the Black Sea) or central Europe north of the River Danube. The former, with its entirely unknown peoples or the latter, with its temperate climate and forests quite different from those the Greeks were familiar with would both have inspired fanciful tales in the Greek imagination. Both of these regions traded with Mediterranean cultures, notably amber (originally from the Baltic), slaves, and furs. Yet another possibility for the origin of the Hyperboreans is Celtic Britain (see the final section below on the Celts).

Hyperborea in Hesiod and Pindar

The first mention of the Hyperboreans comes from a fragment (no. 150) of Hesiod’s Catalogue, written sometime in the late 8th century BCE or early 7th century BCE. Another early source is the Greek writer Pindar (c. 518 – c. 448 BCE), who noted in his Pythian Odes (no. 10) that Apollo lived some parts of the year in the land of the Hyperboreans, specifically the winter months, and he describes this place as a sort of paradise of eternal youth and plenty:

Neither by ship nor on foot could you find the marvellous road to the meeting-place of the Hyperboreans. Once Perseus, the leader of his people, entered their homes and feasted among them, when he found them sacrificing glorious hecatombs of donkeys to the god. In the festivities of those people and in their praises Apollo rejoices most, and he laughs when he sees the erect arrogance of the beasts. The Muse is not absent from their customs; all around swirl the dances of girls, the lyre’s loud chords and the cries of flutes. They wreathe their hair with golden laurel branches and revel joyfully. No sickness or ruinous old age is mixed into that sacred race; without toil or battles they live without fear of strict Nemesis. Breathing boldness of spirit, once the son of Danae went to that gathering of blessed men, and Athena led him there. He killed the Gorgon, and came back bringing stony death to the islanders, the head that shimmered with hair made of serpents.

In an Olympian Ode (no. 3), Pindar tells how Hercules visited the Hyperboreans after he chased a doe across the Danube and he then brought back the olive trees he planted at the site of Olympia in readiness for the first Olympic Games.

..the olive which once the son of Amphitryon [Hercules] brought from the shady springs of the Danube, to be the most beautiful memorial of the Olympian contests, when he had persuaded the Hyperborean people, the servants of Apollo, with speech. With trustworthy intentions he was entreating them for a shady plant, to be shared by all men and to be a garland of excellence in the grove of Zeus which is hospitable to all…He saw that this garden [at Olympia], bare of trees, was exposed to the piercing rays of the sun. And so his spirit prompted him to travel to the land of the Danube where the horse-driving daughter of Leto had received him when he came from the mountain-glens and deep, winding valleys of Arcadia; through the commands of Eurystheus, compulsion from his father urged him on the quest of the doe with the golden horns, which once Taÿgete had inscribed as a sacred dedication to Artemis who sets things right. Pursuing that doe he had also seen that land beyond the cold blasts of Boreas; there he had stood and marvelled at the trees, and sweet desire for them possessed him, to plant them around the boundary-line of the horse-racing ground with its twelve courses.

Hyperborea in Herodotus

Possibly what Herodotus believed the world looked like (5th century BCE). / Bibi Saint-Pol, Public Domain

In the Histories of the Greek writer Herodotus (c. 484 – 425/413 BCE), the location of Hyperborea is described as follows:

Above the Issedones…live the Arimaspians, one-eyed-men; above them dwell the gold-guarding griffins; and above the griffins, the Hyperboreans, whose land extends all the way to the sea. With the exception of the Hyperboreans, all these peoples, beginning with the Arimaspians, attacked their neighbours in successive waves.

(4.13)

Here, Herodotus is describing the peoples who live in the unknown lands north of the Black Sea, but the precise location of the Issedones and Arimaspians is not known. Herodotus elaborates on the Hyperboreans a few pages further on:

But about the Hyperboreans, neither the Scythians nor any other inhabitants of this region have anything to say, except perhaps for the Issedones; but I suppose they say nothing about them either, since if they did, the Scythians would repeat it, just as they do the Issedones’ account of the one-eyed men.

(4.32)

Macedonian Gold Stater, 359-336 BCE. O: Apollo, R: Charioteer. (Alpha Bank Numismatics Collection, Kerkyra, Corfu) / WHE, Creative Commons

Fortunately, Herodotus goes on to describe one group who do seem to know about the Hyperboreans, the people living on the sacred island of Delos in the Greek Cyclades, not coincidentally, the birthplace of Apollo in Greek mythology and the location of a major sanctuary to the god.

But the Delians have by far the most to say about them. They tell how the Hyperboreans send sacred offerings bound in stalks of wheat to Scythia, and these offerings are received in succession by each neighbouring country until they are brought as far west as the Adriatic Sea [and from there ultimately to Greece]…But initially the Hyperboreans sent two girls to carry the offerings. Their names, according to the Delians, were Hyperoche and Laodike. The Hyperboreans also sent along with them an escort of five of their men for their safety; these men are now called Perpherees and are granted high honours on Delos. But the girls and men sent by the Hyperboreans did not return home again, and the Hyperboreans, perturbed and afraid that if they continued to send others they would never get them back again either, wrapped their offerings in stalks of wheat, took them to the borders of their land, and laid a strict obligation upon their neighbours to send them on to the next people.

(4.33)

Herodotus goes on to say that the young people of Delos continue to cut their hair in honour of the Hyperborean virgins who had died on their mission:

Before marriage, the girls cut off a lock of their hair, wind it around a spindle, and place it upon the tomb. The tomb is located within the sanctuary of Artemis to the left of the entrance, and has an olive tree growing over it. All the boys, too, wind some of their hair around a plant shoot and set it on the tomb.

(4.34)

The whole tone of Herodotus regarding Hyperborea is rather sceptical, and he concludes his brief treatment of them with the following comment: “If there really are Hyperboreans, then there are also Hypernotians” (4.36), Hypernotians being people who live south of the South Wind.

Associated Legends

Curiously, despite the demise of the race as they met the stony gaze of Medusa in Pindar’s ode, some Greeks believed that the last resting place of the Hyperboreans was the island of Delos. Such an association might have been a confusion of Herodotus’ story about Hyperborean ambassadors or it was created to enhance the prestige of Delos and improve its standing against its great rival as the foremost pan-Hellenic religious site: Delphi, site of Apollo’s oracle. Delos features in another curious snippet concerning Hyperborea. According to Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Apollo’s mother Leto was not a goddess (the conventional Greek view) but was a she-wolf who came to Delos from the land of the Hyperboreans.

A panorama of the archaeological site of Delos, one of the most important religious sanctuaries in the Greek world and a major trading centre in the 1st and 2nd century CE Roman world. / WHE, Creative Commons

The Hyperborean connection to Delos is also mentioned in Axiochus, a work often attributed to Plato (c. 429 – c. 347 BCE) but not thought by modern scholars to have been written by the Greek philosopher. The text states that the nymphs Opis and Hecaerge brought bronze tablets from Hyperborea to Delos, which described the journey of the soul after death to the Underworld (371a). Herodotus also mentions a pair of similar names – Opis and Arge, the first two Hyperborean virgins who bring offerings to Delos (Histories 4.35).

The Hyperboreans crop up in another legend, this time involving Croesus, the 6th-century BCE king of Lydia who, in one version of the story, was saved from his funeral pyre by Apollo and magically transported to the land of the Hyperboreans. Indeed, the fabled land far to the north became a handy place where unexplained losses ended up, in other words, lost forever to the world as we know it. For example, the first temple at Delphi was thought to have somehow been acquired by the Hyperboreans, as was the arrow of Apollo, which was thought to have magical healing properties.

Abaris the Hyperborean

We do have a specific figure from Hyperborea mentioned in ancient sources: Abaris the Hyperborean. A legendary figure, Abaris, lived in the 6th century BCE, and it was believed he had contact with the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (l. c. 571- c. 497 BCE). He is mentioned by name in Plato’s dialogue Charmides (158b), although nothing is said of him besides that he has great charm. Herodotus also briefly mentions him or rather refuses to mention him: “I shall not tell the story of Abaris, said to have been a Hyperborean who went around the whole world carrying an arrow and eating nothing” (Histories, 4.36). In much more modern Irish mythology, Abaris was considered one of the earliest druids. Scholars today believe he was most likely an ascetic holy man or shaman from Central Asia, a place as mysterious and far-flung for the ancient Greeks as Hyperborea.

The Celts

In later antiquity, Hyperborea became associated with the by-now-better-known tribes in central and western Iron Age Europe, particularly the Celts. However, even before this, there were relatively sophisticated peoples living around the Danube in southern Germany, contemporary with Archaic Greece. Was then Pindar speaking of the early Celts when he mentions Hercules crossing the Danube on his way to Hyperborea? Certainly, the forests of central Europe would match Pindar’s description as a place with marvellous trees. The burial sites of these early Celts do sometimes contain examples of art and objects likely made or inspired by the Greek and Etruscan Mediterranean cultures, strong evidence there was contact between cultures in northern and southern Europe in the 6th century BCE or even earlier.

A 5th century BCE drinking cup (kylix) from Attica which was imported and then repaired using gold by Celtic craftworkers. (Historisches Museum, Bern) / Photo by Xuan Che, Flickr, Creative Commons

An alternative location for Hyperborea is not Celtic central Europe but Celtic Britain. The Greek writer Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century BCE, quotes information from the earlier Greek writer Hecataeus of Abdera (c. 360-290 BCE) on the subject of the Hyperboreans:

Of those who have written about the ancient myths, Hecataeus and certain others say that in the regions beyond the land of the Celts there lies in the ocean an island no smaller than Sicily. This island, the account continues, is situated in the north and is inhabited by the Hyperboreans, who are called by that name because their home is beyond the point whence the north wind blows; and the island is both fertile and productive of every crop, and since it has an unusually temperate climate it produces two harvests each year. Moreover, the following legend is told concerning it: Leto was born on this island, and for that reason Apollo is honoured among them above all other gods; and the inhabitants are looked upon as priests of Apollo, after a manner, since daily they praise this god continuously in song and honour him exceedingly. And there is also on the island both a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple which is adorned with many votive offerings and is spherical in shape.

The Hyperboreans also have a language, we are informed, which is peculiar to them, and are most friendly disposed towards the Greeks…They say also that the moon, as viewed from this island, appears to be but a little distance from the earth.

(Library, Book 11:47)

Is the island here described Britain and the spherical temple Stonehenge? Certainly, the much longer days of a northern summer could explain the Greek belief that the Hyperboreans enjoyed perpetual sunshine. It would also explain the connection with a particular worship for Phoebus Apollo in his guise as the sun god, which seems to be connected with the Hyperboreans wherever they were placed geographically. Probably, we will never know exactly where Hyperborea was for the ancient Greeks, and perhaps even they shifted its location over time to suit their increasing awareness of different peoples living further and further beyond their own familiar world of the Mediterranean.

Bibliography


Originally published by the World History Encyclopedia, 03.11.2021, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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