Hyperborea (ancient Greek Ὑπερβορέα) is a legendary paradisiacal land located far to the north by ancient Greek geographers and mythographers. Its inhabitants, the Hyperboreans (Ὑπερβόρε(ι)οι Hyperbore(i)oi), were said to have a particularly close connection with the god Apollo and his cult.
The ancient etymology of the name "beyond the northern" (Boreas was the god of the north wind) is considered scientifically uncertain. Also conceivable is a derivation from northern Greek *βόρις *boris "mountain", which would indicate a residence "beyond the mountains."
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the myth of Hyperborea was received by occultists and far-right esotericists.
Hyperborea in mythology
Phaeton, the son of Helios, is said to have fallen there into nearby Eridanos. His sisters, the Heliades, were said to have been turned into black poplars on the banks of Eridanos, and their tears into amber. In addition to the Heliads, numerous swans also mourned the fallen youth and their funeral song brought the news of the tragic fall to all lands.
Here also echoes the legend of Kyknos, the friend mourning on the banks of Eridanos for the fallen Phaeton, who is transformed into a swan by Apollo out of pity. Here is also the mythological root of the proverbial swan song.
In ancient mythology, Hyperborea, like its southern counterpart, the land of the Aithiopians, was considered a paradisiacal place with a particularly favorable climate and a special closeness to the gods.
Pindar (ca. 522-446 B.C.) describes the Hyperboreans as a blessed people who know neither age nor illness and devote themselves entirely to the service of the Muses with dance, song, flute and lyre. However, it is "neither by ship nor on foot" possible to get there, only gods and heroes succeed in the journey.
To these also Perseus belongs, who, according to an ode of Pindar, participated in the festivals of the Hyperboreans, at which they sacrificed hecatombs of donkeys to Apollo, an otherwise quite unusual sacrificial animal. However, the sacrificing of donkeys to Apollo seems to have been desired only in Hyperborea.
A visitor to Hyperborea from Babylon who, returning home, also wanted to sacrifice donkeys to Apollo, was threatened with death by the latter. The poet Bakchylides (520/516-451 B.C.) reports that Apollo transferred the pious king Croesus, who wanted to take his own life after conquering the city of Sardis, from the funeral pyre to Hyperborea.
The garden of the Hesperides with the golden apples is said to have been in Hyperborea, according to the library of Apollodorus (1st century AD), and Atlas is also said to have carried the celestial vault there, near the northern pole.
In search of the apples, Heracles came there and tricked Atlas into bringing him three of the apples. From there, Heracles brought to Olympia those olive trees from whose branches the prize wreaths of the winners at the Olympic Games were wound.
The Hellenistic author Hecataeus of Abdera (c. 300 BCE) used the myth of Hyperborea to create a utopian model in his novel Peri Hyperboreion (Περί Ὑπερβορείων). The text is lost, but from various fragments it can be reconstructed that Hekataios described a fictional journey from the Caspian Sea into the Okeanos and on to the hyperborean island of Helixoia, which is said to lie north of the Celtic land.
The climate allowed two harvests a year. Their rulers and chief sacrificial priests of the Hyperboreans were the Boreads, giant children of Boreas. At the feast of Apollo, flocks of swans would come from the Ripaean mountains and join in the hymns of the human singers. This part is referred to in the animal histories of Claudius Aelianus (1st/2nd century A.D.).
Hyperborea and the cults of Delos and Delphi
Herodotus (490/480-424 BC) gives the most detailed account of the Hyperboreans. He begins by saying that there is actually no reliable information about the location of the land, but that the sanctuary of Apollo in Delos regularly receives consecration gifts wrapped in wheat straw from the land of Hyperborea.
These gifts made a long journey, passing from people to people: from the Hyperboreans to the Scythians, from there on to the Adriatic, then to the Dodonians, across Greece to Euboea and from there to Delos.
When consecration gifts were sent for the first time, however, they had not been handed from people to people, but Hyperoche (Ὑπερόχη) and Laodike (Λαοδίκη), two maidens from Hyperboreea accompanied by five men (whose descendants were called Perpherees, Amallophoroi or Ulophoroi) had brought the gifts.
The bearers were highly honored in Delos and died there. Until Herodotus' time, the Delian youths and maidens would have honored Hyperoche and Laodike by laying a cut lock of hair on their grave.
But when none of the legation returned to the land of the Hyperboreans, the latter had switched to sending their gifts to Delos through mediating peoples as described. According to Kallimachos, these were not votive gifts wrapped in wheat straw, but sheaves of the firstlings of the grain. The seven messengers had been sent to the land of the Hyperboreans.
Before these seven emissaries, however, two other virgins from Hyperborea named Arge (Ἄργη) and Opis had already come to Delos.
These, however, would not have brought consecration gifts, but the gods themselves to Delos, because they had come to Delos accompanied by Apollo and Artemis-Eileithyia and from there the cult of these gods had spread over the islands and all of Ionia.
The ashes from the thigh pieces of the sacrifice had been scattered on their grave located next to the Artemision.
The two tombs are distinguished by Herodotus: according to him, the tomb (σῆμα "landmark", "tomb" in Herodotus) of Hyperoche and Laodike is located on the left hand side within the sanctuary of Artemis, the tomb of Opis and Arge (θήκη "repository", "container" in Herodotus) is located behind the temple of Artemis.
Two Bronze Age tombs corresponding to the indicated location have been found on Delos. They are tholoi, which show correspondences to Minoan graves from the period Early Minoan III / Middle Minoan I. These graves are remarkable in that they are the only graves found on Delos.
As is well known, in 425/426 B.C. Delos was "cleansed": all tombs on Delos were opened, the bones were taken to the neighboring island of Rheneia, and henceforth no one was allowed to die or be born on Delos.
The fact that an exception was made for these two tombs indicates that they might not be simple tombs, but the heroa of the cultically venerated hyperborean virgins. Accordingly, they are also referred to in the literature.
Opis in particular seems to be closely related to Artemis, since Opis was also an epithet of Artemis. According to Herodotus, the introduction of the cult of Opis and Arge was the subject of the hymns of the legendary poet Olen. Olen also appears in a very similar role in an account by Pausanias (115-180 AD) of the establishment of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi.
In fact, he mentions a Delphic hymn writer named Boio and quotes one of her hymns in which the establishment of the oracle is attributed to the Hyperboreans, among them two named Pagasos and Agyieos.
The first priest of Apollo in Delphi was then Olen, who was also the first to give oracle sayings in the form of hexameters and thus was the forerunner of the Pythia. Pausanias qualifies that the tradition knows of priestesses of Apollo at Delphi.
In Kallimachos of Cyrene (c. 303 - 245 B.C.), the names Loxo and Hekaerge appear alongside Opis; all three are referred to as daughters of Boreas.
From the legends surrounding the victory of the Greeks over the Celtic invaders under Brennus in 279 BC. at Delphi, Pausanias further reports that the spirit figures of legendary warriors mingled with the defenders, including, in addition to Neoptolemos, son of Achilles, who was buried at Delphi, the Hyperboreans Hyperochos (Ὑπέροχος) and Amadokos (Ἀμάδοκος).
Since the sacred olive trees at Olympia also came from Hyperborea, three of the most important religious centers in ancient Greece, Delos, Delphi, and Olympia, are thus linked by myth to Hyperborea.
Hyperborea in ancient geography
Herodotus mentions that the poet Aristeas, in his poem Arimaspeia (Ἀριμάσπεια), which has not survived, told that behind the land of the Issidons, which he visited, lay the land of the Arimaspen, behind these the land of the gold-guarding griffins, and behind these the land of the Hyperboreans, and that all these peoples were constantly at war with each other except the Hyperboreans.
Finally, Herodotus states that the prophet Abaris supposedly came from Hyperborea. All this Herodotus refers to with pronounced skepticism and some derision.
Even more decidedly than Herodotus, Strabon (63 BC-23 AD) denies the existence of Hyperborea, the Ripaea, and similar legendary regions. He thinks that such tall tales, such as Pytheas of Massilia (ca. 380-310 B.C.) had spread, were only taken note of at all because of a lack of geographical knowledge about the regions in question (here the lands beyond the Scythians).
According to Pomponius Mela (1st century AD), the Hyperboreans lived beyond the coast of the Caspian Sea, where the Comarenes, Massagetes, Kadusians, Hyrcanians, and Hiberians resided. They were said to be so long-lived that they voluntarily ended their lives. Day and night lasted half a year each for them.
Diodorus (1st century B.C.), who bases himself on the writing "On the Hyperboreans" of Hekataios of Abdera, reports in a completely different direction. According to this, the Hyperboreans would have inhabited an island situated in the north, on which Leto, the mother of Apollo, had been born.
Apollo was worshipped in Hyperborea more than all other gods. Moreover, there is a sacred district and a huge circular temple of Apollo. Nearby is a city dedicated to the god. The majority of the inhabitants were kithara players who constantly played their instrument and sang hymns to Apollo.
Further Diodorus reports about the connections between the Hyperboreans and the Greeks, already mentioned by Herodotus and existing from mythical time. He states that Abaris came from Hyperborea to the Greeks and that conversely Greeks visited Hyperborea and left there dedicatory gifts with Greek inscriptions.
Finally Diodorus reports that Apollo visited the island every 19 years, because then the stars were again at the same place.
He completes this vague statement by a reference to the Metonic cycle named after the Greek astronomer Meton - after 19 solar years almost exactly 235 lunar months have passed, so that calendar counts based on solar years and lunar months synchronize again after this cycle has expired. The god then dances at the autumnal equinox until the Pleiades rise (about midnight) and plays the kithara.
Much less skeptical than Herodotus or Strabon is Pliny the Elder (23/24-79 AD). According to him, beyond the river Tanais (of the Don) and the Maiotis lake (of the Azov sea) the Arimaspen settled.
After that one comes to the already known Ripaea Mountains, behind which a region called Pterophoros ("feather-bearing") has to be crossed, because there it is always dark and cold and snow constantly falls in large, feather-like flakes (hence the name). Behind it finally the country Hyperborea is found.
There is the axis on which the firmament turns. The people there grow old fabulously, there is no worry or quarrel, the mild climate makes houses unnecessary, people live in woods and meadows and die only when they throw themselves off a certain rock, old and full of life, after a banquet with friends.
There the sun rises only once a year, at midsummer, and sets at midwinter, not - Pliny emphasizes - as some ignoramuses claim, at the vernal or autumnal equinox. It is said that one sows there in the morning, at noon the grain, in the evening the tree fruits harvests and spends the night in caves.
He leaves no doubt about the existence of Hyperborea, because finally it is documented several times that the Hyperboreans sent offerings to Delphi and Delos every year.
Symbol of the far north
In modern times, Hyperborea was long used merely as a symbol for the far north. The Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) referred to the North Atlantic between Iceland and Greenland as "Oceanus Hyperboreus" on his 1572 map of Europe.
Although Diodor's account is based on the novel of Hecataeus, i.e. a fictional text, it became the basis of various attempts to locate the land of Hyperborea in the real world. In the process, it was repeatedly identified with Britain, and the round temple of the Hyperboreans mentioned in the sources was said to be the megalithic stone circle of Stonehenge.
It is difficult to determine when this assumption was first made. Among the proponents of the thesis were the German prehistorian Carl Schuchhardt (1859-1943) and, before him, the geographer Wilhelm Sieglin (1855-1935).
Starting in the 1960s, Gerald Hawkins (1928-2003) and Alexander Thom (1894-1985) interpreted Stonehenge as an archaeoastronomical instrument. They also tried to establish a connection between the 56 so-called Aubrey holes of Stonehenge and the Metonic cycle, which can be considered remarkable in connection with the statements of Diodor.
In 1975 also the ancient historian and ancient orientalist Emil Forrer (1894-1986) assumed that the British Isles had been the land of the Hyperboreans. These theories are still disputed.
Because of the apparently existing description of a polar night by Pliny, as it was also described by Pytheas, one thought to be able to identify Hyperborea with Thule, which was visited by Pytheas, but its location is also more than unclear. Scandinavia thus also became possible localizations of Hyperborea.
At the end of the 1940s the German Atlantis researcher Jürgen Spanuth (1907-1998) localized Hyperborea on the Kimbrian Peninsula and located its southern part in the area of today's Friesland.
Thereby he argued with the statement of ancient Greek writers that the Hyperborean country was the only country where amber was extracted. The central sanctuary of the "Hyperborean Apollo" described in the classics he made out to be on the Stollberg near Bordelum.
In the 1950s, the Dutch linguist Albert Joris van Windekens (1915-1989) argued that the Hyperboreans were a primitive cultural community that had lived in the Macedonian-Thracian region and had been reinterpreted in Archaic and Classical times as a mythical people of the North.
The legend of a culture-bearing people in the far north has been propagated by occultists since the 19th century. The French Martinist Antoine Fabre d'Olivet (1768-1825) claimed that there were four races of people: A black one in Africa, a red one in America, a yellow one in Asia and a white one in Europe and India, descended from the Hyperboreans.
These would have originally settled around the North Pole, which is therefore also considered as "cradle of mankind". In this he relied, among others, on the Swedish polyhistor Olof Rudbeck, who in the 17th century believed he could locate Atlantis in Sweden.
Fabre d'Olivet's speculations subsequently combined with the original linguistic thesis of Aryans, a supposedly highly evolved race whose original homeland was often considered to be Hyperborea.
This thesis was further developed by the Russian theosophist Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), who taught that the Aryans were the fifth root race of mankind, the Hyperboreans, on the other hand, the second: gigantic, half-human monsters with little intellect, who had propagated themselves by budding unthinkable time ago.
Blavatsky's somewhat meager statements about Hyperborea were embellished after her death by Theosophists like Annie Besant (1847-1933) and William Scott-Elliot (died 1930): According to them the Hyperboreans, because they possessed only an etheric body, were exclusively visible to "practiced occultists".
Similar insights, which he claims to have gained by extrasensory means, were spread by the founder of anthroposophy Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) at the beginning of the 20th century. The Italian right-esotericist Julius Steiner (died in 1930) was the first to spread this theory.
The Italian right-wing esoteric Julius Evola (1898-1974) claimed that in a Golden Age godlike Northmen had ruled in the polar region. From there they had been driven out by a cosmic catastrophe and had spread their heroic-masculine initiation cult, in whose center the sun worship had stood, over the whole earth.
Thereby they would have come into conflict with the matriarchal culture of the southern peoples, who would have worshipped the moon and the earth. Evola links this legend of a hyperborean descent of (European) mankind with the allegedly likewise hyperborean Holy Grail, which for him is the symbol of a re-establishment of a god-kingdom in Europe.
The French pre-astronaut Robert Charroux (1909-1978) describes in his Livre des secrets trahis (1964) the Hyperboreans as culture-bringing extraterrestrials from Venus and contrasts them with the Hebrews as enemies.
The Chilean anti-Semite Miguel Serrano (1917-2009) links this story with the theory of the hollow earth: The Hyperboreans would have withdrawn into the hollow interior of the earth to protect themselves from the devastating consequences of a pole reversal.
In addition he draws it to the interpretation of 1 Mos 6,4 EU, according to which "sons of God" are supposed to have begotten giants with human women, the legendary Nephilim: With it the Cro-Magnon men racially superior to the Neanderthals are meant; but only the Aryans would have preserved the memory of their origin in the sign of the "black sun".
He contrasts them with the Jews, who would try to thwart the re-establishment of the Hyperborean glory by means of a world conspiracy. In the German-speaking world, these anti-Semitic interpretations of the myth of Hyperborea have been further coloured by the right-wing extremist trivial writer Wilhelm Landig (1909-1997) and the right-wing esotericist Jan Udo Holey (b. 1967).
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) considered Hyperboreans to be a symbol of solitude, sublimity, and spiritual beauty. In the 1888 writing The Antichrist, Nietzsche uses Hyperboreans as a template of identification to emphasize his standing beyond modern society as an "untimely man" and to express his reclusiveness:
"We are Hyperboreans, - we know well enough how apart we live. Beyond the north, the ice, the death - our life, our happiness... We discovered happiness, we know the way, we found the exit from whole millennia of the labyrinth. Who else found it? - The modern man, for example? I don't know out nor in; I am everything that doesn't know out nor in" - sighs the modern man.
We were sick of this modernity, - of the rotten peace, of the cowardly compromise, of the whole virtuous impurity of the modern yes and no."
In this way, Nietzsche emphasizes that his philosophy is a philosophy for the few.
In the fantastic horror literature of H. P. Lovecraft and other authors of the Cthulhu myth, Hyperborea is described as a prehistoric civilization on Greenland
In the fantasy film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (Great Britain 1977), Hyperborea is the destination of the voyage.
In the Hyborian Age imagined by Robert E. Howard, in which the adventures of the barbarian hero Conan take place, there is a country called Hyperborea.
In the novel The Dark Tower by Stephen King, the boy Jake, one of the main characters of the story, is referred to several times as a "Hyperborean wanderer" by a bookseller named Towers. Possibly this is a reminiscence of H.P. Lovecraft, an avowedly great role model of King.
Hyperborea appears in the computer games Rome: Total War and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis.
The metal band Bal-Sagoth from England often tells of a fictional land called Hyperborea in their songs. The depiction from Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos acts as a model.
German electronic musicians Tangerine Dream also released an album titled Hyperborea in 1983.
The 1997 album Substrata by Norwegian ambient musicians Biosphere features a song called Hyperborea, which incorporates quotes from the Twin Peaks series.
The US nintendo-core band Horse the Band released the album A Natural Death in 2007, the first song of which bears the name Hyperborea.