Hyperborea: Beyond the North Wind (Part I)

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.

Celtic Warrior Queens: Boudica of the Iceni

In the midst of my study of Celtic history, folkore and mythology for my works of fiction, I’ve come across various intriguing stories and remarkable figures who still are a source of inspiration even to this day.

One such figure is the warrior Queen Boudica, one of the most powerful and fearless women of the ancient world and of the Celtic tribe of the Iceni specifically, who rebelled against the Roman rule to free her homeland. The following post explores her role as Queen of her tribe, the reasons of her rising against the Romans as well as her legacy in the modern era.

Under the influence!

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 8th October 2020, titled Celtic Warrior Women: Queen Boudica of the Iceni by zteve t evans.

Queen Boudica

Queen Boudica, ruler of the Iceni people of Britain, was famous for leading a violent uprising against Roman rule. She was married and had two young daughters whose names are unknown. Her husband Prasutagus had ruled as a client-king of Rome and his realm was roughly the area of modern Norfolk. As a client-king he had entered into an alliance with Rome which allowed him to rule and receive Roman patronage in return for recognizing its overall authority and keeping law and order. When he died he left his kingdom jointly to the emperor and his two daughters, perhaps hoping to avoid trouble. Despite this, his kingdom and property was annexed by Rome and his family…

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From the Cauldron to the Grail (Part IV)

Sir Galahad, the Quest for the Holy Grail by Arthur Hughes

In the first, second and third part of my essay, From the Cauldron to the Grail (Part I), (Part II), (Part III), I concentrated on the subject of the cauldron and its significance in the everyday life, mythology and literature of the Celtic peoples, showcasing the way it features in various Welsh and Irish myths.

I focused on its evolution/transformation to the Holy Grail of the Matter of Britain as it’s explained in the theory put forth by the Scottish journalist, poet, author, folklorist and occult scholar, Lewis Spence, in his magnus opus, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain: one that proposes the sacred vessel is actually the cauldron we read about in Taliesin’a poem, The Spoils of Annwn.

In the fourth and last part, I’ll complete my essay with Spence’s final extrapolation regarding the origins of the Holy Grail and its close association with the Nilotic myth of the Egyptian god Osiris as well as with the way I’ve made use of the cauldron and other similar vessels in my own mythic fantasy novel.

Spence argues with full conviction the Grail legend meshed with that of the divine King and the ”Maimed King” is one and the same with Arthur, his legend of slumbering in an island or cave or in a resting place underneath a mountain of indubitable fame. Arthur is undoubtedly the wounded king who, trasported to the otherwordly isle of Avalon, is taken care of by nine supernatural enchantresses, resembling in this regard the Grail King.

Through his sinful deeds or the wound sustained in his thighs, he suffers the loss of his divine status and the land over which he rules becones barren until he breaks free from his enchantment. The tale of Amangons (about which I wrote in the third part) provides enough proof. In one of the Arthurian myths, wherever Arthur steps, the land becomes sterile for a span of seven years, a storyline related to the maimed/sinful king.

The arc of the holy receptacle was incorporated into the narrative of the divine king and through curious ways reached the British shores at a fairly early period and fused with native Celtic traditions of similar nature such as those of the salmon of knowledge and the Annuvian cauldron. Unquestionably, it has formed part of the mythical material that relates to the cultus and rituals of the divine king.

Throughout The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, Spence explains the reasons why the myth of Arthur bears a strong resemblance to the tradition of the divine king, one that originated in the ancient times of the Nile country. He further stresses the legend of the Holy Grail can be traced back to the same Nilotic myth, which morphed into a melange with the tales of the native British cauldron.

The Nilotic myth was birthed during a terrible period of famine in the island of Elephantine. In the same fashion, another circumstance gave birth to the cauldron when Arthur braved the Annuvian depths and reached the fortress of Caer Pedryvan. Such myth served multiple functions, Spence claims, as it not only brought to life the legend of the Grail but possibly that of others, like the Fountain of Youth in the mythical land of Bimini whose waters the native tribes believed to gift a man with youth and longevity. In some versions of the Holy Grail, when the Fisher King is restored to health, the land once again flourishes and the rivers swell and flow.

All these enduring myths and fables later came to be associated with the Christian narrative of the Grail. Of course, the foundation had already been built in Britain as there existed already such beliefs, the fruit of fusion between Celtic and Egyptian conceptions.

Upon this amalgamation, the later French and English romances were added, all these lays attesting to the mixed descent of the Grail arc. That constitutes sufficient proof for Spence who contends the cultus of Arthur—a blend of British and Egyptian Neo-Platonic notions—must have held considerable sway over the Grail legend, especially considering the identification of Arthur with Osiris.

In a nutshell, the Arthurian cult, it appears, had wholly absorbed the character and attributes of the Egyptian god Osiris and transferred them to the British titular god, as is evidenced by every known segment of his myth.

What I’ve found most refreshing in Spence’s views is that, unlike other scholars and literary figures, he hasn’t made a series of painful and frustrating attempts to ground Arthur and the ancestry of the Holy Grail to historical reality. Even though he acknowledges there existed the cult of Arthur where he was worshipped as a solar and war deity—established by Ambrosius Aurelianus—he dispenses with such ideas from the beginning and dons the lenses of comparative mythology and literary tradition in order to unearth the truth of the matter. And he’s certainly erudite enough and possess a most lucid mind to make a strong case.

Herculean have been all the efforts throughout the centuries to disclose and decode the mystical origins of the Grail. With so many voices opining on the subject, it’s an impossible task to determine who is right and who is wrong. Perhaps every perspective may carry some truth, some more and others less. However, it’s an undeniable fact the majority of those who have seriously studied the Grail legend are convinced of its Celtic lineage.

Cauldrons, cups, dishes and other similar vessels—as has been indicated so far—are a staple of the Celtic literary tradition and mythology, their symbolic significance manifesting in various ways: feritility, wisdom, resurrection, knowledge etc.

My own mythic fantasy novel, currently titled The Fruit of Passion, heavily inspired by the atmosphere and the tales contained in The Mabinogion, couldn’t possibly remain aloof from all that magnificent lore. So, until now, there have been two instances where I’ve incorporated into my own work subplots that revolve around such fabled receptacles.

In the first, Morella, the main character needs to help Anna, a close friend and knightess, who was badly injured in battle against the fairies. Both characters possess the gift of awen, which is the seed of all magic. Anna has healed herself as much as she can through her own magical abilities, but more has to be done to fully regain her former strength.

In comes their former mentor, Cyprianus, who tells them of a faraway island beyond the North Wind that cannot be traced in any map called Hyperborea. Here I made use of the existing legend of the Boreades tribe whom the ancient Greeks identified as Celtic, residing in the Northest corner of the Earth. As I made use of the second branch of the Mabinogi and the Pair Dadeni that plays an important role in the story, marrying the two myths.

The Pair Dadeni, literally the cauldron of rebirth, is a magical cauldron able to revive the dead that originally belonged to a pair of giants: Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his wife Cymydei Cymeinfoll. In my own novel, I rendered the pair rulers of the isle of Hyperborea and guardians of the Pair Dadeni, which is hidden in a double-mouthed, crystal cave. The cauldron of rebirth restores to life people heavily wounded in war or those on the throes of death.

But the cauldron doesn’t function on its own, for next to it I conceived the existence of a cluster of rocks where a stream bubbles, an amethyst goblet wedged into one of the stony clefts. The cauldron’s water possesses cleansing powers. Once the goblet is immersed within, it must be filled with blood and consumed twice for the rest of a person’s life from full moon to full moon.

If the consumer is a wounded warrior, the blood must flow from the veins of the enemy who caused the harm. If someone dying, the blood must flow from the veins of a loved one.

The second instance is actually the pearl-rimmed cauldron that doesn’t boil the food of a coward Arthur coveted in The Spoils of Annwn. Morella, like the British King, braves the depths of Annwn—the otherwordly residence of the dead—in order to reunite with her mother and find the answers she seeks. Before she completes her quest, though, she must pass a test: enter the isle’s ancient temple, encounter the nine otherwordly maidens who tend to the cauldron with their fiery breath and drink from its mead that is the very source of awen and consequently all magic.

Morella drinks the liquor with success, in the process flooded with powerful visions she had never before experienced as a seer, before she recovers and meets with her mother.

Whether in the form of a supernatural cauldron, a mystical cup or a sacred dish, the receptacle of the Celtic myths and legends is an object that still rouses the popular imagination and exerts considerable fascination over our imagined reality.

Perhaps because it represents humanity’s deepest longings and aspirations: the gaining of the world’s knowledge and the mysteries that govern it, the acquisition of wisdom that exceeds mortal boundaries and touches upon the divine, the healing of the body and the flight from death, the love of beauty and the chase of eternal youth.

But above all, the eternal celebration of life through the means of nourishment, abundance and fertility.

From the Cauldron to the Grail (Part III)

GalahadBors and Percival achieve the Grail. Tapestry woven by Morris & Co

In the first and second part of my essay, From the Cauldron to the Grail (Part I), (Part II), I focused on the subject of the cauldron and its importance in the life and mythology of the Celtic peoples, presenting its role in various Welsh and Irish myths. I then started exploring its evolution/transformation to the Holy Grail of the Matter of Britain, shedding light on the theory the Scottish journalist, poet, author, folklorist and occult scholar, Lewis Spence, proposes in his magnus opus, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain.

In the third part, I’ll continue with the discussion of Spence’s theory about the vessel being actually the cauldron featured in Taliesin’s poem, The Spoils of Annwn as well as his views regarding the figures of the knights of the Round Table.

In the beginning of the unfinished fifth verse romance of Chrétien de Troyes, Conte du Graal, we read a story that the general concensus regards as not composed by the author of the main body of the poem. The account refers to the land of Logres, the eastern portion of ancient England, and to a group of female sacred guardians who resided in springs and wells and offered provisions to weary travellers.

King Amangons reigned over that country and he abused one of these maidens, spiriting away her golden cup. In the wake of such violation, these supernatural damsels withdrew from human contact. As a result, the springs dried up, the trees and flowers shrivelled up and died and the whole country turned into a wasteland. In the end, the Court of the ”Rich Fisher”, a centre of mystical origins from which flowed plenty, mysteriously vanished, nowhere to be seen.

Spence explains the passage offers an example of failure of divine kingship and the tragic consequences of such an ill deed. Amangons didn’t hold on to his virtue and personal sanctity, the royal deliquency dooming the entire community by causing the death of the land. The king’s wrongdoing greatly offended the genii of fertility and because of that, his people were subjected to famine.

The news travelled fast and the knights of the Round Table caught wind of Amangons’ shameful act, for his own men had followed suit and treated the maidens with equal disrespect. The knights sought out the Court of the Rich Fisher, a mighty enchanter. The land of the Fisher King was finally discovered by Gawain and Perceval. However, Perceval didn’t question the meaning of the marvels he beheld while he dwelled in the casle. Consequently, he failed to break the enchantment that had condemned the King to be isolated from the rest of mankind.

The knights’ quest and adventures regarding the Fisher King are more fully detailed in the Queste del Graal. The tale recounts how Perceval and Bors reach Castle Corbenic, the resting place of the Grail associated with Celtic legend. Galahad leaves behind his companions in order to undergo the Grail test. A crowned man suffering a wound enters the hall accompanied by the spirit of Joseph of Arimathea which is carried to the table where the Grail rests by a host of angels.

A blood-dripping lance shows, the drops flowing into the holy receptacle. Galahad is advised not to journey from the land before he heals the Maimed King, the latter meant to spend the rest of his days in an abbey after his legs have been restored to health through anointment by the lance’s blood.

At this point, Spence concentrates upon the burning question central not only to the revitalization of the wounded king but to the retrieval of the Grail as well. The story doesn’t specify what the thing to be asked by the knight meant to heal the King was, in order to reverse the effects of the spell that sapped him of his strength. Upon facing the test, Perceval didn’t ask the question, thus failing to pass it and dooming the King to further misery and inaction.

Spence conjectures the ‘’sesame’’ query as he calls it seemed to have been, ‘’Unto whom one serveth of the Grail’’? If such a question was cried out, the Fisher King would unseal his lips and confess certain secret words to the one asking him, offering the very key to unlock the mystery of the Grail.

But if Pervecal’s first venturing to Corbenic didn’t end on a happy note, his second coming didn’t play out the same way. For he remembered his duty and managed to put forth the arcane question. In a German version of the story, Gawain asks himself but seems content with the reply he’s already seen the Grail and doesn’t press for further answers. In the Petit Saint Graal, the writer refuses to reveal the magic words and in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the writer claims the Grail wasn’t a cup but a stone that miraculously offered plenty of food and drink, something which has its origins in various Celtic myths.

In most versions of the romances, the wound the Fisher King has sustained is found on both thighs, the significance of which Spence has explained is symbolic of the King’s sins and the loss of his divine status. In the Mabinogion, Bran suffers a wound in the leg by an arrow. Upon his death, he falls into an enchanted state. His companions sever his head according to his orders, thus rendering him into the state of a sleeping god. In a parallel fashion, his surrogate, Arthur, is wounded and ferried to the otherwordly isle of Avallon in a state hovering between life and death.

The Grail, Spence argues, is nothing else but the cauldron of abundance and inspiration featured so frequently in the body of ancient Celtic literature. The Irish gods, the Tuatha Dé Danan (as I wrote in the first part of my essay) had four treasures in their possession: the Stone of Destiny, the sword of Lugh, his spear, and the cauldron of the god Dagda, which never left anyone hungry. In the Irish account of the battle of Magh Rath, more than one cauldron of similar nature is mentioned which made its appearance in the older Irish literary tradition.

In the Welsh literary tradition of the Mabinogion, in the story of Branwen, we read about Bran’s cauldron, a magical vessel that restored to life the dead warriors placed within it. From a literary perspective, the tale comes from the tenth/eleventh century, but its actual roots are far older than that. And in the story of the bard Taliesin, we read of the cauldron of inspiration, belonging to the enchantress Ceridwen. In the poem The Spoils of Annwn, Arthur braves the depths of the titular otherwordly domain and spirits away a cauldron of similar properties.

The Cauldron of Inspiration, E. Wallcousins

The Welsh scholar and Celticist Sir John Rhys, was of the opinion the Annuvian vessel was one and the same with the Grail, both possessing the same properties of recognizing the undeserving, healing the wounded and sick and proffering supernatural stamina to the soul.

The Spoils of Annwn, a cryptic poem of sixty lines in Middle Welsh in the Book of Taliesin, recounts King Arthur’s descent into the depths of Annwn along with his warrior band in order to steal away the pearl-rimmed cauldron that didn’t boil the food of a coward and benefit from its secret knowledge.

Charles Squire has proven that the Castle of Corbenic of the French romance, the Grail’s repository, is none other than the fortress of Caer Pedryvan, the seat of the cauldron of Annwn. In the French poem, the castle is situated on the other side of the river, a fact that alludes to its otherwordly location. Something which has been further pointed out by Alfred Nutt as the forefront of Celtic story.

Intriguing is the connection Spence makes between the name of ‘’the Fisher King’’ and the ancient Celtic motif of the salmon of knowledge. The Salmon story narrates the early adventures of Fionn mac Cumhaill. In the tale, an ordinary salmon ate nine hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom from nine hazel trees around the well. Thus, the salmon gained all the world’s knowledge. The first person to consume its flesh would be bestowed with wisdom.

Striking similarities with the Grail story are seen in the Scottish Celtic tale of the Story of the Lay of the Great Fool, found in the Popular Tales of the West Highlands. More specifically, it presents many themes featured in the mabinogi of Peredur. Like Peredur, Cumhall’s son grows in the wilderness. He kills his father’s murderer and gains the world’s knowledge when he catches and eats the magic trout. In the end, he wins back his father’s lands.

The common link between this tale with the story of Finn and the salmon of knowledge as well as with that of Peredur in the Mabinogion is generous proof that they all derive from a common source.

In the fourth and last part, I’ll wrap up my essay with Spence’s final conclusions about the origins of the Holy Grail and its association with the Nilotic myth of the god Osiris, a figure whose cult bears many similarities with Arthur, as well as with the way I’ve incorporated the cauldron and other similar vessels into my own mythic fantasy novel.


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