Mercator Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio

Arctic continent on the Gerardus Mercator map of 1595.

In Greek mythology the Hyperboreans (Ancient Greek: Ὑπερβόρε(ι)οι; Latin: Hyperborei) 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 the north wind. Their land, called Hyperborea or Hyperboria – "beyond the Boreas" – was perfect, with the sun shining twenty-four hours a day, which to modern ears 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.

Early sources


The earliest extant source that mentions Hyperborea in detail is Herodotus's Histories (Book IV, Chapters 32–36),[2] written circa 450 BCE.[3] However, Herodotus recorded three earlier sources that supposedly mentioned the Hyperboreans, including Hesiod and Homer, the latter purportedly having written of Hyperborea in his lost work Epigoni: "if that be really a work of his." Herodotus also wrote that the 7th century BCE poet Aristeas wrote of the Hyperboreans in a poem (now lost) called Arimaspea about a journey to the Issedones, who are estimated to have lived on the Kazakh Steppe.[4] Beyond these lived the one-eyed Arimaspians, further on there were gold-guarding griffins, and beyond these the Hyperboreans.[5] Naturally, Herodotus used to assume the location of Hyperborea somewhere in Northeast Asia.

Pindar, Simonides of Ceos and Hellanicus of Lesbos, contemporaries of Herodotus in the 5th century BCE, also all briefly described or referenced the Hyperboreans in their works.[6]

Location of Hyperborea

The Hyperboreans were believed to live beyond the snowy Riphean Mountains which Homer first referenced in his Iliad (15. 171; 19. 358)[7] or beyond the home of Boreas.

According to Pausanias: "The land of the Hyperboreans, men living beyond the home of Boreas."[8]

Homer placed Boreas in Thrace, and therefore Hyperborea in his opinion was somewhere to the north of Thracian territory, perhaps Dacia.[9] Sophocles (Antigone, 980-987), Aeschylus (Agamemnon, 193; 651), Simonides of Ceos (Schol. on Apollonius Rhodius, 1. 121) and Callimachus (Delian, [IV] 65) also placed Boreas in Thrace.[10] Other ancient writers however believed the home of Boreas or the Rhipean Mountains were in a different location. For example, Hecataeus of Miletus believed that the Rhipean Mountains were adjacent to the Black Sea.[11] Alternatively Pindar placed the home of Boreas, the Rhipean Mountains and Hyperborea all near the Danube.[12] Heraclides Ponticus and Antimachus in contrast identified the Rhipean Mountains with the Alps, and the Hyperboreans as a Celtic tribe (perhaps the Helvetii) who lived just beyond them.[13] Aristotle placed the Rhipean mountains on the borders of Scythia, and Hyperborea further north.[14] Hecataeus of Abdera and others believed Hyperborea was Britain (see below).

Later Roman and Greek sources continued to change the location of the Rhipean mountains, the home of Boreas, as well as Hyperborea, supposedly located beyond them. However all these sources agreed these were all in the far north of Greece or southern Europe.[15] The ancient grammarian Simmias of Rhodes in the 3rd century BCE connected the Hyperboreans to the Massagetae[16] and Posidonius in the 1st century BCE to the Western Celts, but Pomponius Mela placed them even further north in the vicinity of the Arctic.[17]

In maps based on reference points and descriptions given by Strabo,[18] Hyperborea, shown variously as a peninsula or island, is located beyond what is now France, and stretches further north-south than east-west.[19] Other descriptions put it in the general area of the Ural Mountains.

Later classical sources

Plutarch, writing in the 1st century CE, connected the Hyperboreans with the Gauls who had sacked Rome in the 4th century BCE.[20]

Aelian, Diodorus Siculus and Stephen of Byzantium all recorded important ancient Greek sources on Hyperborea, but added no new descriptions.[21]

The 2nd century CE Stoic philosopher Hierocles equated the Hyperboreans to the Scythians, and the Rhipean Mountains to the Ural Mountains.[22] Clement of Alexandria and other early Christian writers also made this same Scythian equation.[23]

Ancient identification with Britain

Hyperborea was identified with Britain first by Hecataeus of Abdera in the 4th century BCE, as in a preserved fragment by Diodorus Siculus:

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.[24]

Hecateaus of Abdera also wrote that the Hyperboreans had a 'circular temple' on their island, and some scholars have identified this with Stonehenge.[21] This is further supported by the fact that Stonehenge has been known as Apollo's Temple[25] since classical antiquity, and Hyperborea in Greek legend was related to Apollo (see Legends below).

Pseudo-Scymnus, around 90 BCE, wrote that Boreas dwelled at the extremity of Gaulish territory, and that he had a pillar erected in his name on the edge of the sea (Periegesis, 183). Some have claimed this is a geographical reference to northern France, and Hyperborea as the British Isles which lay just beyond the English Channel.[26]

Ptolemy (Geographia, 2. 21) and Marcian of Heraclea (Periplus, 2. 42) both placed Hyperborea in the North Sea which they called the "Hyperborean Ocean".[27]


Alone among the Twelve Olympians, Apollo was venerated among the Hyperboreans, the Hellenes thought: he spent his winter amongst them.[28] For their part the Hyperboreans sent mysterious gifts, packed in straw, which came first to Dodona and then were passed from tribe to tribe 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.[29]

Along with Thule, Hyperborea was one of several terrae incognitae to the Greeks and Romans, where Pliny, Pindar 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 BCE and published a lengthy treatise on them, lost to us, but noted by Diodorus Siculus (ii.47.1–2).[30] 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.

The ancient Greek writer Theopompus in his work Philippica claimed Hyperborea was once planned to be conquered by a large race of soldiers from another island (some have claimed this was Atlantis), the plan though was abandoned because the soldiers from Meropis realized the Hyperboreans were too strong for them and the most blessed of people; this unusual tale, which some believe was satire or comedy, was preserved by Aelian (Varia Historia, 3. 18).

Apollonius wrote that the Argonauts sighted Hyperborea, when they sailed through Eridanos.

Physical appearance

Greek legend asserts that the Boreades, who were the descendants of Boreas and the snow-nymph Khoine or Choine, founded the first theocratic monarchy on Hyperborea. This legend is found preserved in the writings of Aelian: "This god [Apollon] has as priests the sons of Boreas (North Wind) and Khione (Snow), three in number, brothers by birth, and six cubits in height [about three metres]."[31]

Diodorus Siculus added to this account: "And the kings of this (Hyperborean) city and the supervisors of the sacred precinct are called Boreadae, since they are descendants of Boreas, and the succession to these positions is always kept in their family."[32]

The Boreades were thus believed to be giant kings, around three metres tall, who ruled Hyperborea.

No other physical descriptions of the Hyperboreans are provided in classical sources.[33] However Aelius Herodianus a grammarian in the 3rd century, wrote that the mythical Arimaspi were identical to the Hyperboreans in physical appearance (De Prosodia Catholica, 1. 114) and Stephanus of Byzantium in the 6th century wrote the same (Ethnica, 118. 16). The ancient poet Callimachus described the Arimasi as having fair hair[34] but it is disputed whether the Arimaspi were Hyperboreans.[35]

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 into 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.[36]

1572 Europa Ortelius

Map by Abraham Ortelius, Amsterdam 1572: at the top left Oceanvs Hyperborevs separates Iceland from Greenland.

Abaris the Hyperborean

A particular Hyperborean legendary healer was known as "Abaris" or "Abaris the Healer" whom Herodotus first described in his works. Plato (Charmides, 158C) regarded Abaris as a physician from the far north, while Strabo reported Abaris was Scythian like the early philosopher Anacharsis (Geographica, 7. 3. 8).

Modern interpretations

As with other legends of this sort, details can be selectively reconciled with modern knowledge. Above the Arctic Circle, from the spring equinox to the autumnal equinox (depending on latitude), the sun can shine for 24 hours a day; at the extreme (that is, the Pole), 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.[37]

Amber arrived in Greek hands from some place known to be far to the north. Avram Davidson proposed the theory that Hyperborea was derived from a logical (though erroneous) explanation by the Greeks for the insects, which apparently originated in a warm climate, found embedded inside the amber arriving in their cities from cold northern countries.[38]

Unaware 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 the coldness of northern countries was due to the cold breath of Boreas, the North Wind. So if one travelled "beyond Boreas" one would find a warm and sunny land.

Identification as Hyperboreans

Northern Europeans (Scandinavians), when confronted with the classical Greco-Roman culture of the Mediterranean, identified themselves with the Hyperboreans, neglecting the traditional aspect of a perpetually sunny land beyond the north. 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. 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.[39]

In this vein the self-described "Hyperborean-Roman Company" (Hyperboreisch-römische Gesellschaft) were a group of northern European scholars who studied 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 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.

Hyperborean Indo-European Hypothesis

John G. Bennett wrote a research paper entitled "The Hyperborean Origin of the Indo-European Culture" (Journal Systematics, Vol. 1, No. 3, December 1963) in which he claimed the Indo-European homeland was in the far north, which he considered the Hyperborea of classical antiquity.[40] This idea was earlier proposed by Bal Gangadhar Tilak (whom Bennett credits) in his The Arctic Home in the Vedas (1903) as well as the German ethnologist Karl Penka (Origins of the Aryans, 1883).[41]

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.[42] According to these esoterists, Hyperborea was the Golden Age polar center of civilization and spirituality; mankind 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).

Robert Charroux first related the Hyperboreans to an ancient astronaut race of "reputedly very large, very white people" who had chosen "the least warm area on the earth because it corresponded more closely to their own climate on the planet from which they originated".[43] Miguel Serrano was influenced by Charroux's writings on the Hyperboreans.[44]

Cultural references

  • George MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind features a feminine version of Boreas, named "North Wind", who takes a sickly boy, "Diamond", to "the back of the North Wind", which she herself cannot enter. More than two chapters are devoted to a description of MacDonald's Hyperborea and how Diamond got there.
  • Dante's Paradise, in his Divine Comedy, is the subject of Hyperborean allusions: it is figured geographically north of Purgatory; and, great and little bears (symbols of the polar north) appear above the summit of Mount Purgatorio.
  • In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Ishmael suggests that, among other things, the painting in the Spouter Inn in Chapter 3 could be "a Hyperborean winter scene."
  • Clark Ashton Smith authored a series of short stories known as the Hyperborean cycle (1931–58). Some elements were borrowed by H. P. Lovecraft in what later became known as the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • The "Hyperboreans" (Hyperboreisch-römische Gesellschaft) were a group of northern European scholars who studied classical ruins in Rome, founded in 1824 by Theodor Panofka, Otto Magnus von Stackelberg August Kestner and Eduard Gerhard.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche referred to those who followed his philosophy as "Hyperboreans" in The Antichrist (translated by Anthony M. Ludovici.)
  • Several of the characters in Ulysses by James Joyce refer to themselves as Hyperborean, referring to their Celtic ethnicity.

See also


  1. One of the Anemoi, or "Winds".
  2. The History of Herodotus, parallel English/Greek: Book 4: Melpomene: 30
  3. Bridgman, Hyperboreans. Myth and history in Celtic-Hellenic contacts, 2005, pp. 27–31.
  4. Phillips, "The Legend of Aristeas: Fact and Fancy in Early Greek Notions of East Russia, Siberia, and Inner Asia" Artibus Asiae 18.2 (1955, pp. 161–177) p 166.
  5. Bridgman, p. 31
  6. Bridgman, p. 61.
  7. Bridgman, p. 27
  8. Description of Greece, 5. 7. 8
  9. Bridgman, p. 29
  10. Bridgman, p. 35, 72
  11. Aristeas of Proconnesus, Bolton, Oxford, 1962, p. 111
  12. Bridgman, p. 45
  13. Bridgman, pp. 60-69.
  14. Meteorologica, 1. 13. 350b.
  15. Bridgman, p. 75–80
  16. Supplementum Hellenistcum, Berlin, 1983, No. 906, 411.
  17. Bridgman, p. 79.
  18. Strabo, 11.4.3.
  19. Fridtjof Nansen. In Northern Mists: Arctic Exploration in Early Times. Frederick A. Stokes co., 1911. Page 188.
  20. Plutarch - Life of Camillus
  21. 21.0 21.1 Bridgman, pp. 163–173.
  22. Bridgman, p. 86
  23. Stromata iv. xxi' Exhortation, II.
  24. Diodorus Siculus, Book II, 47-48
  25. Squire, Charles, Myths & Legends of the Celts, p.42 ff
  26. Lewis Spence, The Mysteries of Britain, 1905.
  27. Bridgman, p. 91
  28. J. Rendel Harris, 1925. "Apollo at the Back of the North Wind", Journal of Hellenic Studies 45.2 pp. 229–242.
  29. Perseus: Lin Carter, "Behind the North Wind"
  30. Bezalel Bar-Kochva (1997), "The Structure of an Ethnographical Work", Pseudo-Hecataeus: On the Jews, 
  31. On the Nature of Animals, 11. 1
  32. Bibliotheca Historica, II. 47
  33. Bridgman, pp.92–134
  34. Hymn IV to Delos, 292
  35. Bridgman, Timothy P. (2005), Hyperboreans: myth and history in Celtic-Hellenic contacts, Routledge, p. 76, ISBN 978-0-415-96978-9, 
  36. See further Bridgman, Hyperboreans. Myth and history in Celtic-Hellenic contacts (2005).
  37. 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 
  38. Davidson, Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends.
  39. Irving, Astoria or Anecdotes of an enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836).
  40. Bennett, John G (December 1963). "The Hyperborean Origin of the Indo-European Culture". Systematics 1 (3). 
  41. Arktos: the Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival, Jocelyn Godwin, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1993, pp.32–50.
  42. Jeffrey, Jason (January–February, 2000). "Hyperborea & the Quest for Mystical Enlightenment". New Dawn (58). 
  43. The Mysterious Past, Robert Charroux, Futura Publications Ltd, 1974, p.29.
  44. Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, NYU Press, 2003.


  • 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 
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Hyperborea. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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