The Greeks, while inventing cool stuff like democracy and baklava, were the New York hipsters of the ancient Mediterranean, constantly complaining about the lack of sophistication of their neighbors, and the absence of good gyros outside Athens. Basically, you were Greek, or you were a savage, illustrated rather succinctly and obnoxiously by the Greek idiom from antiquity pas mē Hellēn barbaros (“whoever is not Greek is a barbarian”). In fact, the term “barbarian” derives from the Greek barbaros, thought to have been onomatopoeia for incoherent “babbling” (as in, speaking bad Greek), and probably originating in an even older proto-Indo-European source, as ancient Indian Sanskrit has a similar term barbaras (“stammering”). The Greeks looked down on the Persians, the Illyrians, the Dacians, and pretty much everyone inside and outside the Balkans (primarily due to their various autocratic leaders, non-fluency in the Greek language, and general lack of foresight to have not been born Greek). This makes their consistently positive attitude across hundreds of years towards a mythical northern utopia called Hyperborea, reputedly populated by giants that lived for a thousand years especially puzzling. The second fact that any examination of the Hyperboreans brings to light is just how fragmentary our knowledge of the ancient world is, as countless scholars of antiquity refer to commonly known texts that we have either lost completely or have only partially reconstructed from the quotations of scholars of only slightly lesser age. Could a population of thousand year old giants have formed a socially advanced civilization in of the northern reaches of Asia long before what we regard as Classical western antiquity, and vanished without a physical trace, leaving only vague references and cultural memories among their neighbors?
Tracking evidence regarding the existence of the Hyperboreans is like playing a historical game of telephone, doubly complicated by the fact that there was a great deal of disagreement among ancient and classical scholars as to where exactly Hyperborea might be located. Personally, I find it a little disconcerting that a race of giants blessed with longevity might have been happily living north of Thrace (or maybe Siberia or the British Isles, according to some scholars) long before Homer wrote The Iliad, and the reason we don’t know about them is that nobody seems to remember exactly where they hung out, papyrus has an annoying tendency to rot, and invaders have always had this excruciatingly irritating habit of burning libraries because (1) nothing erases your enemies from the face of the Earth more effectively than torching everything they’ve ever known; (2) literacy is a fairly modern phenomenon, without which a library is basically a warehouse for kindling, and (3) libraries (and apparently librarians) burn really well. To examine the Hyperboreans is to read a litany of forgotten works and obscure references to books nobody has seen or read in a least a millennium or two.
Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) assures us that Greek poet Hesiod (around 700 B.C.) wrote about the Hyperboreans (of which we have only a few fragments – one of which happens to be “of the well-horsed Hyperboreans-whom Gaia the all-nourishing bare far off by the tumbling streams of deep-flowing Eridanos”), as did Homer in a lost work called Epigoni, but a Homeric hymn to Dionysus does mention “As for this fellow we men will see to him: I reckon he is bound for Aigyptos or for Kypros or to the Hyperboreans or further still”, and poet Aristeas (7th Century B.C.) is rumored to have commented on them in a lost poem called Arimaspea. Three hundred years before Herodotus, it seems there were quite a few important folks writing about the Hyperboreans, and it is our good fortune that Herodotus had an obsessive-compulsive attention to detailing his sources, and amidst accounts of nasty monsters and uncouth tribes, he calls out the Hyperboreans as especially civilized.
There is still another account, which has obtained credit both with the Greeks and barbarians. Aristeas the poet, a native of Proconnesus, and son of Caustrobius, relates, that under the influence of Apollo he came to the Issedones, that beyond this people he found the Arimaspi, a nation who have but one eye; farther on were the Gryphons, the guardians of the gold; and beyond these the Hyperboreans, who possess the whole country quite to the sea, and that all these nations, except the Hyperboreans, are continually engaged in war with their neighbours. Of these hostilities the Arimaspians were the first authors, for they drove out the Issedones, who did the same to the Scythians: the Scythians compelled the Cimmerians, who possessed the country towards the south, to abandon their native land. Thus it appears, that the narrative of Aristeas differs also from that of the Scythians (Herodotus, Histories Book 4, Ch 1, XIII).
Greek lyric poet Pindar (522-443 B.C.) devoted a few lines to how awesome the Hyperboreans were noting a few oft repeated points that they were worshippers of Apollo (which might have been an interpretation of a sun-worshipping religion) and led an idealized life of peace and harmony in stark contrast to the barbarians that surrounded them. Pindar also makes reference to numerous well known myths that involved culture heroes visiting Hyperborea, including the story of Phaethon (the son of Helios), a quick stopover by Perseus on his way to round up some nymphs (which is not a bad way to spend a Saturday), and two separate visits by Heracles, during one of which he was looking for Atlas (the dude that holds the world up). Interestingly, Heracles goes to Hyperborea looking for Atlas, since early folklore suggested that the titan Atlas stood in Hyperborea, since that was the central point around which the constellations revolved, more or less what religious scholar Mircea Eliade would have termed the axis mundi (“center of the world”), or rather the pre-eminent link between heaven and earth.
But the remotest point that lies
Open to human enterprise
Their course has gained, well skilled to sweep
The wide expanse of glory’s deep;
But not along the wondrous way
To Hyperborean crowds can ships or feet convey.
Of old, as at their sacred feast,
Whole hecatombs appeased the god,
The steps of an illustrious guest,
Perseus, their habitation trod;
Whose festivals and songs of praise
Apollo with delight surveys;
And smiles to see the bestial train
In wanton pride erect and vain.
Yet never will the impartial Muse
To dwell with minds like these refuse:
Around them move the virgin choirs,
The breathing flutes and sounding lyres;
And twining with their festive hair
The wreath of golden laurel fair,
With temperate mirth and social glee
They join in solemn revelry.
(Pindar, 10th Pythian Ode, excerpt)
Most ancient writers, while they differed widely on the actual location of Hyperborea, seemed to agree that the Hyperboreans themselves were blessed with extreme longevity. Greek geographer Strabo (64 B.C.-24 A.D.) pointed this fact out, deriving his depiction from the earlier ethnographer Megasthenes (350-290 B.C.), noting that earlier scholars, writers, and poets similarly agreed.
With respect to the Hyperboreans, who live to the age of a thousand years, his description is the same as that of Simonides, Pindar, and other mythological writers (Strabo, Geography, Book 15, Ch. 1, 57).
We do have fragmentary accounts of Hyperborean culture and very specific, if contradictory identifications of where the land of Hyperborea was actually located. Hyperborea was described as a land of eternal spring (they harvested two grain crops a year), somewhere between the river Okeanos and the Rhipaion mountains, with a major river called Eridanos flowing north to south.
The land is generally noted as north of Thrace, Scythia, Istria, Celtica, Italy, and Greece, and directly south was reputed to be Pterophoros, a land of eternal winter. One major problem in figuring out where the Hyperborean homeland was has to do with the fact that nobody can seem to agree where the mythical Rhipaion Mountains actually were. Homer said somewhere around Dacia. Sophocles and Simonides of Ceos said north of Thrace. Hecataeus of Miletus said adjacent to the Black Sea. Pindar maintained it was near the Danube River. Heraclides Ponticus and Antimachus argued that they were talking about the Alps in modern day Switzerland. Aristotle said north of Scythia. Hecataeus of Abdera identified it as somewhere like Britain. Simmias of Rhodes said Iran. Posidonius thought it referred to the Western Celts, but Pomponius Mela placed the Hyperboreans in the Arctic Circle. Ptolemy said Hyperborea was located on the North Sea (which was frequently referred to as “The Hyperborean Ocean”).
The Hyperborean people were said to be free from hard work, old age, disease, and war, governed by a theocracy of three God kings, descended from Boreas (the god of the North Wind), continuously undertaking a musical celebration of Apollo, often joined in their singing by swans. Curiously, the Hyperboreans are strongly associated with both the origins of many prophets and seers, and the founding of Delphi, and its world renowned oracle, as detailed by 2nd Century A.D. Greek geographer Pausanias.
But the most generally received opinion is that Phemonoe was the first prophetess of the god and first sang in hexameters But Boeo a woman of the country in a hymn which she composed for the Delphians says that the oracle of the god was instituted by Olen and others who came from the land of the Hyperboreans and that Olen was the first to give oracles and sing in hexameters The verses of Boeo run thus: “Here verily a mindful oracle was established/By Pagasus and divine Agyieus sons of the Hyperboreans” (Pausanias Ch. 10, 5:7).
Diodorus Siculus (around 60 B.C.) gave a detailed description of the Hyperboreans, and his speculations as to their origins suggest that in the distant past the Hyperboreans migrated from northern Asia to what scholars assume to be a reference to the British Isles, from whence they returned and renewed an ancient friendship with the Greeks.
Now, since we have thus far spoken of the northern parts of Asia, it is convenient to observe something relating to the antiquity of the Hyperboreans. Amongst them that have written old stories much like fables, Hecateus and some others say, that there is an island in the ocean over against Gaul, (as big as Sicily) under the arctic pole, where the Hyperboreans inhabit; so called, because they lie beyond the breezes of the north wind. That the soil here is very rich, and very fruitful; and the climate temperate, insomuch as there are two crops in the year. They say that Latona was born here, and therefore, that they worship Apollo above all other gods; and because they are daily singing songs in praise of this god, and ascribing to him the highest honours, they say that these inhabitants demean themselves, as if they were Apollo’s priests, who has there a stately grove and renowned temple, of a round form, beautified with many rich gifts. That there is a city likewise consecrated to this god, whose citizens are most of them harpers, who, playing on the harp, chant sacred hymns to Apollo in the temple, setting forth his glorious acts. The Hyperboreans use their own natural language; but of long and ancient time have had a special kindness for the Grecians, and more especially for the Athenians and them of Delos. And that some of the Grecians passed over to the Hyperboreans, and left behind them divers presents, inscribed with Greek characters; and that Abaris formerly travelled thence into Greece, and renewed the ancient league of friendship with the Delians. They say, moreover, that the moon in this island seems as if it were near to the earth, and represents in the face of it excrescences like spots in the earth. And that Apollo once in nineteen years comes into the island; in which space of time the stars perform their courses, and return to the same point; and therefore the Greeks call the revolution of nineteen years the Great Year. At this time of his appearance (they say) that he plays upon the harps, and sings and dances all the night, from the vernal equinox to the rising of the Pleiades, solacing himself with the praises of his own successful adventures. The sovereignty of this city, and the care of the temple (they say) belongs to the Boreades, the posterity of Boreas, who hold the principality by descent in a direct line from that ancestor (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Bk 2., Ch. 3).
Ultimately, if we piece together all the fragments, we have a long-lived race of sun-worshipping psychic giants from a civilized land somewhere in northern Asia or northern Europe, and despite the fact that the Greeks were busy hating on everyone else, they had a special place in their heart for these sophisticated monstrosities. It didn’t help clear up matters much when Mediterranean culture eventually bumped into the Scandinavians, who heard the descriptions of the Hyperboreans, and said, “well, I guess that’s us then”, and Hyperboreans got a further bad rap when the occult societies like the Thule that bled into Nazism picked up on the idea of an advanced polar culture that was that was the source of most of the cool things about civilization. Warmed their little Teutonic hearts, it did, although they seemed to have completely missed the message about peace and harmony. Other scholars have suggested that the hypothetical common Indo-European civilization that spawned the similarities in ancient cultures and languages ranging from Europe to India was actually the Hyperboreans. This is the entertaining part about history. We tend to assume that we have a relatively good fix on what was occurring in the world by the time people started writing things down. We get a lot of interesting physical clues from archaeologists as well. Unfortunately, the amount of information that has been lost since somebody decided that ink on paper was a little more efficient than a stone tablet and chisel is astounding. And archaeologists need some idea where to look in order to identify interesting remains of lost civilizations, or even where to look to prove that there was no lost civilization. Ultimately, the main conclusion that we can come to is that the amount we don’t know about human history far exceeds the amount that we do know. Who’s to say that urbane giants didn’t wander the steppes long before anybody had the good sense to keep detailed records, or even if they did keep detailed records, some pyromaniac barbarian didn’t use them to warm his feet, depriving us of a more detailed view of our strange origins. We are educated in the context of our own culture, which rejects mystery as nothing more than entertainment, but what if Fredrich Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ was correct when he exhorted us to reconsider the uniqueness of our modernity, saying, “Let us face ourselves. We are Hyperboreans; we know very well how far off we live. ‘Neither by land nor by sea will you find the way to the Hyperboreans’—Pindar already knew this about us. Beyond the north, ice, and death—our life, our happiness. We have discovered happiness, we know the way, we have found the exit out of the labyrinth of thousands of years. Who else has found it? Modern man perhaps? ‘I have got lost; I am everything that has got lost,’ sighs modern man. This modernity was our sickness: lazy peace, cowardly compromise, the whole virtuous uncleanliness of the modern Yes and No. … Rather live in the ice than among modern virtues and other south winds! We were intrepid enough, we spared neither ourselves nor others; but for a long time we did not know where to turn with our intrepidity. We became gloomy, we were called fatalists. Our fatum—abundance, tension, the damming of strength. We thirsted for lightning and deeds and were most remote from the happiness of the weakling, ‘resignation.’ In our atmosphere was a thunderstorm; the nature we are became dark—for we saw no way. Formula for our happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.”
As we microwave our dinners, work diligently in our cubicles, cheer our favorite sports teams, and exude confidence that we understand the universe, our history, and our place in it, what if we are simply wrong, and we are repeating patterns of societal evolution that are neither unique nor novel? Did giants (in both the social, physical, and intellectual sense) once walk the earth? Blithely observing that we search for monsters, when in fact we ourselves are the monsters doesn’t quite capture the fact that we are not necessarily the monsters of today, rather we will eventually and unavoidably be the forgotten monsters of the future. Our unwillingness to accept the possibilities of a distinctly unknown past are directly related to our fear for how we will be thought of (or not thought of) in the future, or as science fiction great J.G. Ballard said, “I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again…the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.”
Diodorus, Siculus. The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian, In Fifteen Books. London: Printed by W. McDowall for J. Davis, 1814.
Herodotus. Herodotus. 4th ed. London: F.C. and J. Rivington, 1821.
Pausanias, active approximately 150-175. Pausanias Description of Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University press, 1918.
Pindar. Pindar. London: Printed by A.J. Valpy, H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1830.
Strabo. The Geography of Strabo. London: H. G. Bohn, 1856.