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In Greek mythology the Hyperboreans were a mythical people who lived far to the north of Thrace. The Greeks thought that Boreas, the North Wind,[1] lived in Thrace, and that therefore Hyperborea was an unspecified region in the northern lands that lay beyond Scythia. Their land, called Hyperborea or Hyperboria — "beyond the Boreas" — was perfect, with the sun shining twenty-four hours a day, which - if true - suggests a possible location within the Arctic Circle.

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.
- Pindar, Tenth Pythian Ode; translated by Richmond Lattimore.

Reaching such exotic lands is never easy; Pindar cautioned:

neither by ship nor on foot would you find
the marvellous road to the assembly of the Hyperboreans.

Contents

Legends

Alone among the Twelve Olympians, Apollo was venerated among the Hyperboreans, the Hellenes thought: he spent his winter amongst them.[2] For their part the Hyperboreans sent mysterious gifts, packed in straw, which came first to Dodona and then were passed from person to person until they came to Apollo's temple on Delos (Pausanias). Abaris, Hyperborean priest of Apollo, was a legendary wandering healer and seer. Theseus visited the Hyperboreans, and Pindar transferred Perseus's encounter with Medusa there from its traditional site in Libya, to the dissatisfaction of his Alexandrian editors.[3]

Along with Thule, Hyperborea was one of several terrae incognitae to the Greeks and Romans, where Pliny and Herodotus, as well as Virgil and Cicero, reported that people lived to the age of one thousand and enjoyed lives of complete happiness. Hecataeus of Abdera collated all the stories about the Hyperboreans current in the fourth century BC and published a lengthy treatise on them, lost to us, but noted by Diodorus Siculus (ii.47.1-2).[4] Much of the detail concerning their understanding of the Hyperboreans the Greeks attributed to Aristeas. According to Herodotus (4.13), Aristeas had written a hexameter poem (now lost) about a journey to the Issedones. Beyond these lived the one-eyed Arimaspians, further on there were gold-guarding griffins, and beyond these the Hyperboreans. Hesiod mentioned the Hyperboreans, Herodotus reported, though the text is now lost, "and Homer also in the Epigoni, if that be really a work of his". Also, the sun was supposed to rise and set only once a year in Hyperborea; which would place it above or upon the Arctic Circle, or, more generally, in the arctic polar regions.

In maps based on reference points and descriptions given by Strabo,[5] Hyperborea, shown variously as a peninsula or island, is located beyond France and has a greater latitudinal than longitudinal extent.[6] Other descriptions put it in the general area of the Ural Mountains.

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From east to west: Celts as Hyperboreans

Six classical Greek authors also came to identify these mythical people at the back of the North Wind with their Celtic neighbours in the north: Antimachus of Colophon, Protarchus, Heraclides Ponticus, Hecataeus of Abdera, Apollonius of Rhodes and Posidonius of Apamea. The way the Greeks understood their relationship with non-Greek peoples was significantly moulded by the way myths of the Golden Age were transplanted unto the contemporary scene, especially in the context of Greek colonisation and trade. As the Rhipean mountains of the mythical past were identified with the Alps of northern Italy, there was at least a geographic rationale for identifying the Hyperboreans with the Celts living in and beyond the Alps, or at least the Hyperborean lands with the lands inhabited by the Celts. A reputation for feasting and a love of gold may have reinforced the connection.[7]

Modern interpretations

As with other legends of this sort, selected details can be reconciled with modern knowledge. Above the Arctic Circle, from the time of the vernal equinox to the time of the autumnal equinox, the sun can shine for twenty-four hours a day; at the extremes (that is, the Poles), it rises and sets only once a year, possibly leading to the erroneous conclusion that a "day" for such persons is a year long, and therefore that living a thousand days would be the same as living a thousand years.

Since Herodotus places the Hyperboreans beyond the Massagetae and Issedones, both Central Asian peoples, it appears that his Hyperboreans may have lived in Siberia. Heracles sought the golden-antlered hind of Artemis in Hyperborea. As the reindeer is the only deer species of which females bear antlers, this would suggest an arctic or subarctic region. Following J.D.P. Bolton's location of the Issedones on the south-western slopes of the Altay mountains, Carl P.Ruck places Hyperborea beyond the Dzungarian Gate into northern Xinjiang, noting that the Hyperboreans were probably Chinese[8].

Amber arrived in Greek hands from some place known to be far to the north. Avram Davidson[9] proposed the theory that Hyperborea was derived from a logical (though erroneous) explanation by the Greeks for the fact that embedded inside the amber arriving in their cities by trade with northern, cold countries were insects which obviously originated in a warm climate.

Not aware of the explanation offered by modern science (i.e. that these insects had lived in times when the climate of northern Europe was much warmer, their bodies preserved unchanged in the amber) the Greeks came up with the idea that north countries being cold was due to the cold breath of Boreas, the North Wind. Therefore, should one be able to get "beyond Boreas" one would find a warm and sunny land.

Identification as Hyperboreans

Northern Europeans (Scandinavians), when confronted with classical Greco-Roman culture in the Mediterranean, identified themselves with the Hyperboreans. This idea was especially strong during the 17th century in Sweden, where the later representatives of the ideology of Gothicism declared the Scandinavian peninsula both the lost Atlantis and the Hyperborean land. The north of the Scandinavian peninsula is crossed by the Arctic Circle, north of which there are sunless days during the winter and sunlit nights during the summer. Others have identified Hyperborea with Britain.[10] Diodorus Siculus citing the work of Hecataeus "and certain others" appears to suggest Hyperborea is in fact Britain on account of it being specifically an island in the sea north of Gaul warmed by what could be a reference to the Gulf Stream.[citation needed] Diodorus says,

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.[11]

Western European culture equally self-identified as Hyperborean; thus Washington Irving, in elaborating on Astoria in the Pacific Northwest, was of the opinion that,

While the fiery and magnificent Spaniard, inflamed with the mania for gold, has extended his discoveries and conquests over those brilliant countries scorched by the ardent sun of the tropics, the adroit and buoyant Frenchman, and the cool and calculating Briton, have pursued the less splendid, but no less lucrative, traffic in furs amidst the hyperborean regions of the Canadas, until they have advanced even within the Arctic Circle. [12]

In this vein the self-described "Hyperborean Company" (Hyperboreisch-römische Gesellschaft) were a group of northern European scholars who were studying classical ruins in Rome, founded in 1824 by Theodor Panofka, Otto Magnus von Stackelberg, August Kestner and Eduard Gerhard. Friedrich Nietzsche referred to his sympathetic readers as Hyperboreans in The Antichrist (written 1888, published 1895) "Let us look each other in the face. We are Hyperboreans — we know well enough how remote our place is." He quoted Pindar and added "Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death — our life, our happiness."

The term "Hyperborean" still sees some jocular contemporary use in reference to any groups of people who live in a cold climate. Under the Library of Congress Classification System, the letter subclass PM includes "Hyperborean Languages", a catch-all category that refers to all the linguistically unrelated languages of peoples living in Arctic regions, such as the Inuit.

Hyperborea in modern esoteric thought

H.P. Blavatsky, Rene Guenon and Julius Evola all shared the belief in the Hyperborean, polar origins of humankind and a subsequent solidification and devolution.[13]. According to these esoterists, Hyperborea was the Golden Age polar center of civilization and spirituality; humankind does not rise from the ape, but progressively devolves into the apelike condition as it strays physically and spiritually from its mystical otherworldly homeland in the Far North, succumbing to the demonic energies of the South Pole, the greatest point of materialization (see Joscelyn Godwin, Arktos: The Polar Myth).

The Belarussian writer Ales Adamovich, wrote a book called "The punitive squads : Hyperboreans' life" (1980).

Notes

  1. ^ One of the Anemoi, or "Winds".
  2. ^ J. Rendel Harris, 1925. "Apollo at the Back of the North Wind", Journal of Hellenic Studies 45.2 pp. 229-242.
  3. ^ Perseus: Lin Carter, "Behind the North Wind"
  4. ^ Bezalel Bar-Kochva (1997), "The Structure of an Ethnographical Work", Pseudo-Hecataeus: On the Jews, http://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=ft3290051c&chunk.id=d0e8538&toc.depth=1&toc.id=d0e8019&brand=eschol 
  5. ^ Strabo, 11.4.3.
  6. ^ Fridtjof Nansen. In Northern Mists: Arctic Exploration in Early Times. Frederick A. Stokes co., 1911. Page 188.
  7. ^ See further Bridgman, Hyperboreans. Myth and history in Celtic-Hellenic contacts (2005).
  8. ^ Wasson, R.G.; Kramrisch, Stella; Ott et al., Jonathan (1986), Persephone's Quest - Entheogens and the origins of Religion, Yale University Press, pp. 227–230, ISBN 0-300-05266-9 
  9. ^ Davidson, Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends.
  10. ^ Squire, Charles, Myths & Legends of the Celts, p.42
  11. ^ Diodorus Siculus, Book II, 47-48
  12. ^ Irving, Astoria or Anecdotes of an enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836).
  13. ^ New Dawn: "Hyperborea"

References

  • Portions of this article were formerly excerpted from the public domain Lemprière's Classical Dictionary, 1848.
  • Bridgman, Timothy M. (2005). Hyperboreans. Myth and history in Celtic-Hellenic contacts. Studies in Classics. New York and London: Routledge. 

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