“…Of the fairest glories that mortals may attain, to him is given to sail to the furthest bound. Yet neither ship nor marching feet may find the wondrous way to the gatherings of the Hyperborean people.Yet was it with these that Perseus the warrior chief once feasted, entering their homes, and chanced upon their sacrifices unto the god, those famous offerings of hecatombs of asses; for in their banquets and rich praise Apollon greatly delights, and laughs to see the rampant lewdness of those brutish beasts. Nor is the Mousa (Muse) a stranger to their life, but on all sides the feet of maidens dancing, the full tones of the lyre and pealing flutes are all astir; with leaves of gleaming laurel bound upon their hair, they throng with happy hearts to join the revel. Illness and wasting old age visit not this hallowed race, but far from toil and battle they dwell secure from fate’s remorseless vengeance…”Pindar: Pythian Ode 10. 27 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.)
Once a year, Apollo – the solar son and youthful aspect of Zeus – was believed by the Greeks to leave Hellas and go far to the north to visit a place they called Hyperborea. Like the departure of Persephone/Kore, this probably represented the darkest month, and at Delphi, Pythian Apollo’s oracle closed down for this period, the god being believed absent and away travelling.
This land of Hyperborea was believed by the ancient Greeks to lie for all intents and purposes due north on the far shores of world-encircling Okeanos, so it was therefore a place where strange and ancient things might be discovered and glimpses of purer and holier ancient ways of life might be had. By the same association it lay in closer proximity to the aether or spiritual world among which the dead and the divine spirits dwelled. In some Greek legends (e.g. – Perseus) it was a place you had to pass through in order to reach the most remote spacially and temporally remote ‘Cronian’ regions, the lands of giants, gorgons and harpies, far away in the time before memory, after the world had just begun. As pretty much all peoples north of Macedonia were referred to as ‘barbarians’ by the ancient Greeks, it is fair to say that far alien Hyperborea sometimes functioned as a narrative form for an ‘acceptable’ face of barbarism: Like Plato’s Atlantis and Plutarch and Homer’s Ogygia, it provided a hypostasis of man’s universal exotic barbarian past, portrayed as living by higher philosophical ideals more akin to an idealised theocratic Athenian society. Contrast this with the often violent reality of interactions with ‘barbarians’ closer to home: Hyperboreans were an ancient form of ‘noble savages’.
The solar god Apollo was deemed (as with many of his kind) to have a place of resort far away which he retreated to in winter, as befits the seasonal drama of. Such a belief demonstrates that the cult of Apollon engendered a seperate mythos to the agrarian-chthonic drama of Demeter-Hades-Persephone-Dionysus. Greek historian Herodotus (Histories 4. 32 – 36 : 4thC BCE) explains the connection between Hyperborea and Hellas (more specifically the island of Delos, said to be Apollo’s birthplace):
“… Concerning the Hyperborean people, neither the Skythians nor any other inhabitants of these lands tell us anything, except perhaps the Issedones. And, I think, even they say nothing; for if they did, then the Scythians, too, would have told, just as they tell of the one-eyed men. But Hesiod speaks of Hyperboreans, and Homer too in his poem The Epigonoi, if that is truly the work of Homer.But the Delians [from Delos] say much more about them than any others do. They say that offerings wrapped in straw are brought from the Hyperboreans to Skythia; when these have passed Skythia, each nation in turn receives them from its neighbors until they are carried to the Adriatic sea, which is the most westerly limit of their journey; from there, they are brought on to the south, the people of Dodona [an important Zeus/Apollonian oracle] being the first Greeks to receive them. From Dodona they come down to the Melian gulf, and are carried across to Euboia, and one city sends them on to another until they come to Karystos; after this, Andros is left out of their journey, for Karystians carry them to Tenos, and Tenians to Delos. Thus (they say) these offerings come to Delos. But on the first journey, the Hyperboreans sent two maidens bearing the offerings, to whom the Delians give the names Hyperokhe and Laodike, and five men of their people with them as escort for safe conduct, those who are now called Perpherees and greatly honored at Delos. But when those whom they sent never returned, they took it amiss that they should be condemned always to be sending people and not getting them back, and so they carry the offerings, wrapped in straw, to their borders, and tell their neighbours to send them on from their own country to the next; and the offerings, it is said, come by this conveyance to Delos. I can say of my own knowledge that there is a custom like these offerings; namely, that when the Thrakian and Paionian women sacrifice to the Royal Artemis, they have straw with them while they sacrifice.I know that they do this. The Delian girls and boys cut their hair in honor of these Hyperborean maidens, who died at Delos; the girls before their marriage cut off a tress and lay it on the tomb, wound around a spindle (this tomb is at the foot of an olive-tree, on the left hand of the entrance of the temple of Artemis); the Delian boys twine some of their hair around a green stalk, and lay it on the tomb likewise.In this way, then, these maidens are honored by the inhabitants of Delos. These same Delians relate that two virgins, Arge and Opis, came from the Hyperboreans by way of the aforesaid peoples to Delos earlier than Hyperokhe and Laodike; these latter came to bring to Eileithyia [i.e. Artemis] the tribute which they had agreed to pay for easing child-bearing; but Arge and Opis, they say, came with the gods themselves [i.e. Apollon and Artemis], and received honors of their own from the Delians. For the women collected gifts for them, calling upon their names in the hymn made for them by Olen of Lykia; it was from Delos that the islanders and Ionians learned to sing hymns to Opis and Arge, calling upon their names and collecting gifts (this Olen, after coming from Lycia, also made the other and ancient hymns that are sung at Delos). Furthermore, they say that when the thighbones are burnt in sacrifice on the altar, the ashes are all cast on the burial-place of Opis and Arge, behind the temple of Artemis, looking east, nearest the refectory of the people of Keos.I have said this much of the Hyperboreans, and let it suffice; for I do not tell the story of that Abaris, alleged to be a Hyperborean, who carried the arrow over the whole world, fasting all the while. But if there are men beyond the north wind (Boreas), then there are others beyond the south. And I laugh to see how many have before now drawn maps of the world, not one of them reasonably; for they draw the world as round as if fashioned by compasses, encircled by the Okeanos river, and Asia and Europe of a like extent. For myself, I will in a few words indicate the extent of the two, and how each should be drawn… “
*Film buffs may recall a retelling of the story of Alexander the Great called ‘The Man who would be King’ starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery, set in the British Raj. Connery’s sergeant-major carries a golden arrow as his stick of office…
Callimachus (3rdC BCE) takes up the description of this relationship with Delos’ idealised state:
“… Thou [Delos] art famed as the most holy of islands, nurse of Apollon’s youth. On thee treads not Enyo nor Haides nor the horses of Ares; but every year tithes of first-fruits are sent to thee : to thee all cities lead up choirs, both those cities which have cast their lots toward the East and those toward the West and those in the South, and the Hyperboreans (peoples which have their homes above the northern shore), a very long-lived race. These first bring thee cornstalks and holy sheaves of corn-ears, which the Pelasgians of Dodona [i.e. the famous oracle of Zeus] . . . first receive, as these offerings enter their country from afar. Next they come to the Holy town and mountains of the Malian land; and thence they sail across to the goodly Lelantian plain of the Abantes [i.e. the island of Euboia]; and then not long is the voyage from Euboia, since thy havens are nigh thereto. The first to bring thee these offerings from the fair-haired Arimaspoi were Oupis and Loxo and happy Hekaerge, daughters of Boreas, and those who then were the best of the young men. And they returned no home again, but a happy fate was theirs, and they shall never be without their glory. Verily the girls of Delos, when the sweet-sounded marriage hymn affrights the maidens’ quarters, bring offerings of their maiden hair to the maidens, while the boys offer to the young men the first harvest of the down upon their cheeks… ” Callimachus, Hymn 4 to Delos 275 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.)
It appears from these early accounts that the ‘Hyperboreans’ sent gifts of their ‘first fruits’ (apparently as or within bundles of corn/straw – the accounts vary) to Apollo’s supposed birthplace – the once-floating, formerly mobile island of Delos. This practice was going on as late as the 2ndC CE, according to Pausanias. They also state that two archery-oriented maidens accompanied the archery-oriented Artemis and Apollo to Delos when their mother Leto came pregnant fro Hyperborea: Opis (‘aim’) and Argis (‘distance’) – the Hyperboreiai. Furthermore he mentions the arrow-carrying prophet Abaris the Hyperborean: a holy man from a far-off land who preaches the word of Apollo. The arrow represented accuracy, reach and distance, yet must also have been a symbol of the northeastern steppes tribes (collectively referred to as Scythians, it seems) who were famous throughout the ancient world for their skills in archery and horsemanship. The arrow and the stalk of corn have certain morphological similarities too.
In spite of Herodotus and others’ proposed location of Hyperborea to the northeast above the Black Sea steppes, other authors such as Apollonius of Rhodes (‘Argonautica’, 3rdC BCE) suggest a more conventionally ‘Celtic’ location to the west. Here, he writes of the Argonauts’ return voyage via the lower reaches of the Hyperborean river, ‘Eridanos’:
“… Far on sped Argo under sail, and entered deep into the stream of Eridanos; where once, smitten on the breast by the blazing bolt, Phaethon half-consumed fell from the chariot of Helios into the opening of that deep lake; and even now it belcheth up heavy steam clouds from the smouldering wound. And no bird spreading its light wings can cross that water; but in mid-course it plunges into the flame, fluttering. And all around the maidens, the daughters of Helios, enclosed in tall poplars, wretchedly wail a piteous plaint; and from their eyes they shed on the ground bright drops of amber. These are dried by the sun upon the sand; but whenever the waters of the dark lake flow over the strand before the blast of the wailing wind, then they roll on in a mass into Eridanos with swelling tide. But the Keltoi (Celts) have attached this story to them, that these are the tears of Leto’s son, Apollon, that are borne along by the eddies, the countless tears that he shed aforetime when he came to the sacred race of the Hyperboreans and left shining heaven at the chiding of his father [Zeus], being in wrath concerning his son [Asklepios] whom divine Koronis bare in bright Lakereia at the mouth of Amyros. And such is the story told among these men. But no desire for food or drink seized the heroes nor were their thoughts turned to joy. But they were sorely afflicted all day, heavy and faint at heart, with the noisome stench, hard to endure, which the streams of Eridanos sent forth from Phaethon still burning; and at night they heard the piercing lament of the Heliades (daughters of Helios), wailing with shrill voice; and, as they lamented, their tears were borne on the water like drops of oil.Thence they entered the deep stream of Rhodanos [the Rhone] which flows into Eridanos; and where they meet there is a roar of mingling waters. Now that river, rising from the ends of the earth, where are the portals and mansions of Nyx (Night), on one side bursts forth upon the beach of Okeanos, at another pours into the Ionian sea, and on the third through seven mouths sends its stream to the Sardinian sea and its limitless bay. And from Rhodanos they entered stormy lakes, which spread throughout the Keltic mainland of wondrous size; and there they would have met with an inglorious calamity; for a certain branch of the river was bearing them towards a gulf of Okeanos…. “
This passage should pique the interest of scholars of Apollonian myths, as it contains distinct allusions suggesting a link between the legend of Helios’ son Phaethon (etymologically similar to ‘Python’) whose stolen sun-chariot appears to have crashed into a lake, suggested here to lie in the NW reaches of Europe, in which case it must be a reference to either Iceland or a peat bogland on the Atlantic fringe. The noxious vapours and oily waters (of cthonic-solar putrefaction) flow into ‘Eridanus’ and hence south closer to the ‘known’ world. Apollonius uses it to represent a challenge to the brave Argonauts, yet mentions the legend of the river’s nature was given by the Celts! The Stygian vapours of the rotting Python, slain by Apollo, were of course supposed to be the vapours emitted from the Omphalos at Delphi and inhaled by the Pythian oracle. See my articles on serpents and norse myth for an in-depth look at their symbolic link to rivers and regeneration – needless to say, Greek was an Indo-European language, in which the ‘P’ and ‘K’ sounds often switch: Pthon and Cthon link to this earthy putrefied origin. The river Eridanus therefore seems to be somewhat Stygian in aspect! It is interesting to speculate if the quadriga statue from Delphi was supposed to be a representation of this or simply of a racing quadriga. Phaethon may be
The Greeks certainly used the name Eridanus for the River Po, now in northern Italy and once the interface between Etruscan and Celtic tribes (such as the Boii). However, its mythical entity was connected with Hyperborea. This perhaps illustrates how the ‘barbarian horizon’ influenced Hellenic Greek thinking… Ptolemy (2nd C CE Greek geographer and astronomer) discussed the constellation of Eridanos (near to Cetus, Orion and other mythologically interesting groups associated with the Atlantic mythology): this suggests that it was a ‘sky-river’ befitting the astral ‘reality’ of northern Hyperborea. There are other mythological indications that this was the case:
For instance, Nonnos’ Dionysiaca 23. 380 ff (4thC CE) has the god Dionysos boast:
“I will drag down from heaven the fiery Eridanos whose course is among the stars, and bring him back to a new home in the Celtic land: he shall be water again, and the sky shall be bare of the river of fire.”
This no doubt reflects the old Greek association of Eridanus with the Po River, but yet again frames the legends which place Hyperborea beyond that geographical AND cultural, religiously potent and mysterious northern horizon, from beyond which geese and swans were noted to migrate in the ancient world. The swan in Europe and Eurasia is a bird strongly associated with legend, and indeed makes an appearance in the Greek mythos of Apollo’s Hyperborean servants, the Boreades – sons and daughters of the north wind (Boreas):
“… The race of the Hyperboreans and the honours there paid to Apollon are sung of by poets and are celebrated by historians, among whom is Hekataios, not of Miletos but of Abdera [Greek philosopher C4th B.C.] . . . This god has as priests the sons of Boreas (North Wind) and Khione (Snow), three in number, brothers by birth, and six cubits in height. So when at the customary time they perform the established ritual of the aforesaid god there swoop down from what are called the Rhipaion mountains swans in clouds, past numbering, and after they have circled round the temple as though they were purifying it by their flight, they descend into the precinct of the temple, an area of immense size and of surpassing beauty. Now whenever the singers sing their hymns to the god and the harpers accompany the chorus with their harmonious music, thereupon the swans also with one accord join in the chant and never once do they sing a discordant note or out of tune, but as though they had been given the key by the conductor they chant in unison with the natives who are skilled in the sacred melodies. Then when the hymn is finished the aforesaid winged choristers, so to call them, after their customary service in honour of the god and after singing and celebrating his praises all through the day, depart… ” Aelian, On Animals 11. 1 (2ndC CE)
It is worth remembering that in the myth of Perseus, the Graeae were three wyrd sisters who shared one eye and were tricked by Perseus in order to locate Medusa – they were sometimes portrayed as half-swan. Apollo’s mythological mother Leto has a name similar to Leda – the mortal woman bedded by Zeus in the form of a swan, father Castor and Polydeukes (Pollux) – the Dioskoroi or twins of ‘Gemini’. Callimachus’ hymn to Apollo refers to the swans – sacred to the Muses – who circled over his birth on Delos singing their hymns:
Callimachus, Hymn 4 to Delos 248 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :
“…With music the swans, the gods’ own minstrels, left Maionian Paktolos and circled seven times round Delos, and sang over the bed of child-birth [i.e. of Apollon], the Mousai’s birds, most musical of all birds that fly. Hence that child in after days strung the lyre with just so many strings–seven strings, since seven times the swans sang over the pangs of birth. No eight time sang they : ere that the child leapt forth.”
The legend of Phaethon has a number of versions in which his friend Cygnus/Cycnus turns himself into a swan and plunges into Eridanus in grief for his death. The mournful tone of their song, the whistling noise of their wings, the association with the north and hence the far reaches of Okeanos and the otherworld made swans potent creatures in ancient European myths, as the tale of the Children of Lir from Ireland, and the descriptions of Valkyries as swan maidens from the Norse Edda myths suggest. Apollo’s annual migration to his beloved Hyperborea must have been a parallel metaphor to the migrations of the beautiful white birds…