Bored in Hyperborea

In Greek mythology, it was said that the land of Hyperborea lay far to the north of the lands the myth-makers knew. The name means “beyond the north wind,” and it was regarded as being to the north of the home of the North Wind Boreas. Since it was outside the North Wind’s territory, the weather was always pleasant. Apparently the Greeks didn’t consider where Boreas was blowing the cold weather FROM. But anyway, Hyperborea is described in the old myths as an earthly paradise, where the people live incredibly long and happy lives. The fact that some sources refer to the days there as being six months long suggests a certain familiarity with the Arctic Circle, but also a misunderstanding of exactly how the six-month days would work. It reminds me of the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he decides to spend his vacation at the North Pole because the days there are six months long. I’m not sure when this element made it into the stories of Hyperborea, but the fifth century BC historian Herodotus was skeptical of the tales, thinking they were based on an outdated model of the world. In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder made reference to the six months of daylight, and how the idea was commonly misunderstood.

The way to Hyperborea from the southern lands is incredibly difficult, being guarded by the Rhipaion Mountains, sometimes associated with the Carpathians. These mountains are the home to the one-eyed Arimaspoi, who are at constant war with the griffins over the gold that the beasts guard.

The main river in Hyperborea was the Eridanos, which came to be identified with both the Po River in Italy and the Danube in Hungary. It was into this river that Phaethon fell to his death after the sun-chariot that he was driving was struck by a thunderbolt from Zeus.

When he died, the Heliades, who were his sisters, mourned so heavily that they turned into poplar trees that bore amber.

Also grieving after Phaethon’s death was his friend Kyknos, who jumped into a lake and became a white swan. After this, all Hyperboreans who tired of living would leap into the same lake and likewise become swans. Eridanus and Cygnus are also both constellations, associated with the Phaethon myth.

Wikipedia reports that Eridanus likely got its name from the Star of Eridu, which was what the Babylonian astrologers called the constellation. Hyperborea was considered to have a special association with the stars, and some stories make it the home of Atlas, although he came to be more commonly regarded as a fixture in northwestern Africa. I also remember one version of the myth of Phaethon that I read in my childhood mentioning the serpent wrapped around the North Pole, which when I look back comes across as an anachronism. Most likely it was a reference to the constellation Draco, a northern stellar formation commonly associated with Ladon, the dragon wrapped around the apple tree in the Garden of the Hesperides.

The Hyperboreans were said to be particular worshippers of Apollo, and their rulers were the Boreades, three giant sons of the North Wind who served as priests to the god.

Some myths associate Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, with Hyperborea, where she befriended a pack of wolves. The far northern land was also thought to trade with Delos, the island where Leto gave birth to her godly twins. The Hyperboreans are able to have two harvests a year, due to their unusual arrangement of days, and apparently olive trees also grow there. At least, Hyperborea is said to be where Hercules went to obtain the sacred olives that he would use to dedicate the first Olympic Games.

There are quite a few references to Hyperborea in more recent popular culture, including its inclusion as one of the countries in the Conan stories, and George MacDonald’s portrayal of it as a picture of Heaven in At the Back of the North Wind. With Christmas coming up, however, what I have to wonder is whether it’s ever been connected to the more recent mythology associated with the Arctic, specifically Santa Claus’s home and workshop being in that region. I am aware that Santa himself probably owes his existence primarily to Norse mythology, but it’s not like pop culture hasn’t mixed mythologies plenty of times before.

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4 Responses to Bored in Hyperborea

  1. vilajunkie says:

    Ok, I’m not sure how accurate this fact is, because I’ve only heard it rarely and I could easily factcheck it using Theoi.com and Wikipedia’s Greek mythology portal, but supposedly the Cimmerians (an actual historical people) were a part of a legend that there was a land at the polar opposite of Hyperborea, either the country that the entrances to Hades was in or somewhere beyond the world ocean, which had six-month-long sunless days and was a cold, barren dystopia.

    • Nathan says:

      Well, the Wikipedia page on the Cimmerians says:
      A “mythical” people also named Cimmerians are described in Book 11, 14 of Homer’s Odyssey as living beyond the Oceanus, in a land of fog and darkness, at the edge of the world and the entrance of Hades. Most likely they were unrelated to the Cimmerians of the Black Sea.

      So it sounds like you’re right, although I don’t know how widespread this myth was. Cimmeria was supposed to be the homeland of Conan the Barbarian, wasn’t it? And in The Colour of Magic, Hrun is said to be from Chimeria, but I’m pretty sure that country has never actually appeared in a Discworld book (although it is on the Mapp).

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