Typus Orbis Terrarum. (Imagem da Terra) ORTELIUS, Abraham 1587: in this 1570 map, Hyperborea is shown as an Arctic continent and described as “Terra Septemtrionalis Incognita” (Unknown Northern Land).
In the fourth part of my essay, From the Cauldron to the Grail, I mentioned that in my current mythic fantasy novel, The Fruit of Passion, which draws heavily from the Celtic tradition and the stories in the Mabinogion, I’ve made use of the ancient myth of Hyperborea in one of my subplots. A wealth of classical sources refer to this strange land, primarily ancient Greek, Roman and Celtic. So, let’s explore where each culture placed this country and how it described its natural environment and its denizens, shall we?
The earliest source can be traced in Herodotus’ Histories (Book IV, around 540 BC). However, the ancient Greek historian himself had written in his works about three much earlier sources that gave an account of the Hyperboreans, two of which belonged to Hesiod and Homer. Homer had supposedly broached the subject of Hyperborea in a lost work of his called Epigoni, if we’re to believe such a work existed at all.
Another reference to the Hyperboreans according to Herodotus was made in a now lost poem, Arimaspea, composed by the 7th-century poet Aristeas. The plot revolved around a jourey to the Issedones (an ancient people of Central Asia at the end of the trade route leading north-east from Scythia, in the region now called the Kazakh Steppe). Beyond these ruled the one-eyed Arimaspians in the foothills of the Riphean Mountains (identified with the Ural Mountains or the Carpathians) who struggled against the gold-guarding griffins, and beyond these dwelled the Hyperboreans, whose land Herodotus presumed to lay somewhere in Northeast Asia.
Other writers, contemporaries of Herodotus in the 5th century BC, like Pindar, Simonides of Ceos and Hellamicus of Lesbos dedicated some brief passages to the Hyperboreans.
According to the ancient Greeks, the Hyperboreans consisted of a race of giants who lived “beyond the North Wind”. One of the Anemoi (wind gods) was Boreas, the god of the North Wind, who resided in Thrace according to the ancient Greek religion. Consequently, Hyperborea was thought of as a land beyond Thrace.
The Hyperborean region was conceived as a heaven of pure bliss where the sunlight remained undimmed twenty-four hours a day, a fact that indicates its possible location within the Arctic Circle during the midnight sun-time of the year. Of course, if we consider the classical Greek poet Pindar and his description, “neither by ship nor on foot would you find the marvellous road to the assembly of the Hyperboreans,” we’re to infer that Hyperborea wasn’t an actual location on Earth but a land of fable, having taken shape and form in a wild flight of fancy, a symbol of a higher sphere of eternal happiness and prosperity akin to the Isles of the Blessed or those of the Celtic otherworld.
In the Tenth Pythian Ode, Pindar highlights the unearthly allure and beauty of Hyperborea:
”Never the Muse is absent
from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry
and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.
Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed
in their sacred blood; far from labor and battle they live.”
Various areas have been suggested as the true residence of the Hyperboreans. Authors of classical antiquity like Apollonius of Rhodes, Ptolemy and Plutarch were focused on the Riphean mountains, though their exact position on the map is uncertain. Roman writers of later periods thought the range in the north of Europe or Asia. Pomponius Mela believed it to be within the Arctic circle while Pliny the Elder identified it with the Ural Mountains. The earliest geographers, according to Noah Webster, thought the Riphean Mountains to refer to the Alps in Switzerland, viewing them as the source of the Danube.
But if opinions were divided regarding the exact region, all sources agreed on one point: the Riphean Mountains were as cold as ice and swathed in snow.
According to the Greek traveller and geographer Pausanias, we read, ”The land of the Hyperboreans, men living beyond the home of Boreas.” Homer pinpointed the residence of the god Boreas in Thrace, so he estimated Hyperborea north of Thrace in Dacia. A belief also shared by Sophocles, Simonides of Ceos and Callimachus.
However, other writers held different opinions. Hecateus of Miletus claimed the Riphean Mountains were adjacent to the Black Sea while Pindar argued the abode of Boreas, the Ripheam Mountains and Hyperborea all lay near the river Danube.
On the other hand, Heraclides Ponticus along with Antimachus established the region of the Riphean Mountains in the Alps and identified the Hyperboreans with the Celtic tribe of the Helvetii who resided just beyond them. Aristotle was convinced the Riphean Mountains existed on the borders of Scythia and Hyperborea was further north. Others, Hecateus of Abdera among them, believed Hyperborea to be the isle of Britain.
If one were to read further sources of later dates, it would become evident that the Riphean Mountains, the home of Boreas and Hyperborea didn’t remain fixed on one place but constantly changed location, though all indicated the northern areas of Greece or southern Europe. The ancient Grammarian Simmias of Rhodes associated the Hyperboreans with the Massagetae, an ancient eastern Iranian nomadic tribal confederation who was spread in the steppes of Central Asia, north-east of the Caspian sea in what is now Turkmenistan, western Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan, essentially a branch of Scythian culture.
Posidonius believed the Hyperboreans to be one and the same wih the Western Celts while Pomponius Mela envisioned their existence even further in the Arctic. According to reference points and descriptions by Strabo, in maps, Hyperborea is depicted as a peninsula or island and placed beyond the vicinity of France and stretches even further between north and south.
Plutarch, too, was convinced of the Celtic origins of the Hyperboreans, associating them with the Gaulish tribe of the Senones who had stormed and sacked Rome in the 4th century BC in the Battle of Allia. The Stoic philosopher Hierocles recognized the Hyperboreans as the Scythians and the Riphean Mountains as the Ural Mountains. An opinion Clement of Alexandria and other early Christian writers endorsed.
The first to equate Hyperborea to Britain was Hecateus of Abdera in the 4th century BC. In a preserved fragment by Diodorus Siculus we read, ”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 (Boreas) blows; and the island is both fertile and productive of every crop, and has an unusually temperate climate.”
Hecateus of Abdera also tells us that the Hyperboreans had on their island, “a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple which is adorned with many votive offerings and is spherical in shape”. A number of scholars have proposed that this temple the Greek historian and Pyrrhonist philosopher spoke about is none other than Stonehenge. However, Diodorus doesn’t name Britain Hyperborea and doesn’t mention either the race of the Hyperboreans or their spherical temple when describing the island.
Around 90BC, Pseudo-Scymnus wrote in his Periegesis that the wind god Boreas lived on the fringes of Gaulish territory and a pillar was erected in his name on the edge of the sea. Some scholars have regarded this as a geographical reference to northern France and have identified Hyperborea with the British isles beyond the English Channel.
Ptolemy is his Geographia and Marcian of Heraclea in his Periplus both connected Hyperborea to the North Sea, calling it the ”Hyperborean Ocean”. Last, the Irish John Toland, in his 1726 work on the druids, claimed that Diodorus’ Hyperborea was the Isle of Lewis in Scotland and the spherical temple the Callanish stones.
In the second part of my essay, I’ll wrap up with a few legends associated with the land of Hyperborea such as the cult of Apollo and the figure of Abaris as well as some modern interpretations of the Hyperborean myth.