The Hyperborean Problem

Hyperborea will be known to you if you're a Conan the Barbarian fan.  What is less well known is that this fantasy land might have existed for real.

Hyperborea in Greek means "beyond Boreas".  Boreas was the name of the cold north wind that blew across central Europe.  So Hyperborea is a land far to the north, beyond the cold. (Which is how it ended up being stolen for Conan).

At first glance Hyperborea has about as much reality as Atlantis.  There isn't a shred of archaeological evidence for any such place. 

The difficulty is that, unlike Atlantis, a lot of very credible men talk about Hyperborea as if it exists.  Herodotus says that Hesiod wrote about the Hyperboreans.  Unfortunately that piece of Hesiod has been lost, but Hesiod was Europe's first non-fiction author.  If Hesiod wrote about them, then he thought they existed, rightly or wrongly.

There's also an archaic poem that talks about Hyperboreans, that probably wasn't written by Homer but which is the same sort of time period.

Herodotus himself provides the best evidence, with a short tale that is quite bizarre.  Apparently the Hyperboreans decided to send gifts to the sacred isle of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and possibly the most holy sanctuary in all of Greece. 

Their gifts were carried by two young women, who were sent on the long journey with five male warriors to protect them.  The young women died while on Delos.  It's not clear what killed them, but disease rather than violence is kind of assumed since the women were greatly honoured.  Herodotus states point blank that their tomb is on the left as you enter the temple of Artemis at Delos, and that teenage boys and girls sacrifice to them. 

Now this is a very precise detail!  There might not be two Hyperborean women in that tomb, but the Greeks think there are.  If you ever visit Delos, by the way, you'll be able to go to exactly where the tomb was, because the ruins of the Artemis temple are well known.  Just walk to the entrance and look left.  Sadly there's nothing there now, but you'll also be standing on a spot where Herodotus himself certainly stood.

Herodotus states that when the Hyperboreans realized that their emissaries might not return, they decided to continue to send gifts every year, but to pass them on from one people to the next.  To protect their gifts the Hyperboreans wrapped their gifts in sheathes of wheat.  Then they gave the gifts to their neighbours, with a request to hand them on to the next people to the south.

The Hyperborean Gift thus turned into an international game of pass-the-parcel.  The gift was handed along until it reached Delos.  Multiple authors speculated about the paths the gift took, in an attempt to work out where exactly was this Hyperborea.  The ancient people themselves were none too sure.

But what is undeniable is that the gifts were arriving from somewhere!  Herodotus states, very clearly, that the Hyperborean Gift was still turning up on Delos right up to his present day.

This is a detail impossible to ignore.  Herodotus first "published" his work at the Olympics of 440BC.  There were obviously people from Delos present.  If the gift was not turning up as described, they surely would have put up their hands and pointed out that he was wrong.  It doesn't absolutely prove that Hyperborea existed.  But if not, then someone was playing a strange game (which might be the case).

I think the general consensus among sane people is that the whole thing is a myth.  Personally I have trouble getting past the apparent fact that the gift was arriving in classical times.  Yet Herodotus himself seems doubtful.  I speculate that a quite different and probably well-known tribe was sending the gift and being mislabeled Hyperborean.  But either way, there's a puzzle there for someone to solve!


Taryn Tyler said...

Ah, but myth is just another kind of truth. I didn't know about Hyperborea. Thank you for sharing :-)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Taryn, welcome to the blog!

Yes, you're right, and when it comes to ancient Greece, a lot of things that people thought were myth turned out to be real, Troy being the standard example. On the other hand, a few things that some modern people are quite sure are true are total nonsense. Atlantis being the saddest example. So it's all a bit of a minefield, I'm afraid.

For Hyperborea, I'm inclined to think there's a kernel of reality.

Sorry about all the H's, by the way. After Hyperborea, Herodotus, Hesiod and Homer it was all a bit of an H overload.

AvenSarah said...

In classic internet fashion, I'm going to ignore the main substance of your post and question you about a mostly unimportant detail. ;)

Hesiod as the first non-fiction author -- I understand why you would say that, and Works and Days (probably) does mostly qualify as non-fiction, but do you think the Theogony does? Is it any more 'non-fiction' than Homer? After all, Hesiod himself says that the Muses teach people to speak truth AND lies... so just because Hesiod apparently mentioned the Hyperboreans, do we have to assume he 'believed' in their existence? (This is an impossible question, I know. How can we talk about what Hesiod 'believed' with any degree of accuracy, and does the word even apply to an archaic Greek talking about myth?)

Gary Corby said...

Okay, challenge accepted! This is probably worth it's own post, but here goes...

I claim that if Hesiod were alive today, he'd be writing for the Dummy's Guide books. Works And Days is The Dummy's Guide To A Post-Mycanaean Gentleman's Life. It's clearly designed to tell people how to run their lives and their farms. (In a somewhat didactic manner, if I may say so.) It has no story structure and is full of detailed instructions and advice.

Hesiod thinks Works And Days is straight truth. He says so early on. The Evelyn-White translation has the second paragraph as, "Attend thou with eye and ear, and make judgements straight with righteousness. And I, Perses, would tell of true things."

Works And Days must go on the non-fiction shelf.

Theogeny might be a bit more up in the air, but it reads to me like The Dummy's Guide To Why Do We Have All Those Gods And Goddesses, And What Do They All Mean. I'm pretty sure Hesiod would put Theogeny on the same shelf as the Bible. Most libraries have a shelf labeled Religious Texts, just to skirt the fic/non-fic issue. That's where Theogeny goes. In some sense Hesiod might be trying to write a Bible for Proto-Indo-European. The information is obviously very localized to his area, because he not only mentions Hecate but rates her very highly.

As to whether Hesiod believes Theogeny, I can't imagine that he'd write something unless he thought it was true. Theogeny has story structure, but in the same sense that the Old Testament does.

Homer's a completely different fish. He's full of story structure. You read Homer to find out what happens next. You read Hesiod for the instructions.

I'm pretty sure if you invited them both to a party, Homer would dominate the popular end of the room where all the trendy people would hang on his every word. Hesiod would bail up a few people at the other end of the room to give them detailed advice on how to plant grain.

I should point out everything I just said is the opinion of an amateur, of course! But that's the way it reads me to me.

Gary Corby said...

I just thought of one more point. Homer thinks it's his job to entertain people.
Hesiod thinks it's his job to educate them.

Homer's a pro who feels secure in his own talent, but he knows he's only as good as his last panegyric hymn. If he wants to keep on eating he needs to keep producing good stuff. There's even one surviving hymn where he blurbs his services. It reads to me like classic marketing.

Hesiod's an independently wealthy gentleman farmer who doesn't have to worry about sales. He's there to tell people how to Do Things The Right Way. He's probably incredibly dogmatic in real life.

You're dead right of course that we can never really know, but I'd lay money on their personalities. One of the things that makes them both great writers is that they ooze personality.

Now you can tell me I'm crazy!

Karin said...

Hyberborelian greetings from Sweden. What a nice story about the gifts being passed on. I wonder if we could perhaps revive that tradition... On the other hand, with all the Scandinavians going on charter trips to sunny Greece, it seem a bit too easy.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Karin. Yes, Greece is well stocked for visiting Hyperboreans these days. The challenge would be finding someone on Delos to accept the gift. The ruins are awesome, but I'm afraid the sanctuary has seen better days.

Which puts me in mind of another blog post. Stay tuned...