Hyperborea is a mysterious land in Greek mythology. Its exact location and nature is uncertain, but it features in various legends from a variety of Greek sources. What we do know is that Hyperborea was supposedly somewhere in the far north. In this article, we will examine the legends and see what we really know about this mysterious land.
What Was Hyperborea Like?
According to Greek mythology, Hyperborea was a mysterious, elusive, almost magical land in which a race of people called Hyperboreans lived. The ancient Greek poet Pindar wrote that there was no sickness or even old age in Hyperborea. They did not even have to toil to sustain themselves. In many respects, it was as if the Golden Age of Man was still in effect there.
Additionally, the people of Hyperborea were supposed to have been peaceful. Pindar, again, notes that the inhabitants of that land lived without battles. He also says that they lived ‘without fear of Nemesis’, Nemesis being the goddess of punishment for the sin of hubris, or arrogance against the gods. Perhaps this means that they had the gods’ eternal favor, or they were simply righteous people who always respected the gods.
Another detail about Hyperborea is that it allegedly possessed marvelous trees. It was, once again, Pindar who noted this detail. He explained that Hercules was so impressed by the trees there that he wanted to take some and plant them in Greece.
What Does ‘Hyperborea’ Mean?
The important detail about this location is actually its name. The name ‘Hyperborea’ comes from the words ‘hyper’, meaning ‘over’ or ‘beyond’, and ‘Boreas’, the Greek god of the north wind. Therefore, the name ‘Hyperborea’ essentially means ‘Beyond the North Wind’.
This helps us to identify where it was. It was somewhere to the north, from the perspective of the ancient Greeks. Interestingly, the god Boreas himself was believed to have lived in Thrace. Therefore, we could logically conclude that the ancient Greeks imagined Hyperborea to be further north than Thrace.
At the same time, the very fact that this place name simply means ‘Beyond the North Wind’ indicates that it may not necessarily have had a fixed location. This descriptive name could potentially apply to lots of different places north of Greece.
Was Hyperborea North of the Black Sea?
One writer who described Hyperborea was the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BC. In one passage of his Histories, he described the ethnic groups who lived in the region north of the Black Sea. He referred to the Scythians and the Issedones, both historical ethnic groups of that region.
However, Herodotus also referred to some mythical groups. For example, in this same passage, he refers to a race of one-eyed people. He also spoke about a race of griffins, creatures with the body of a lion but the head and wings of an eagle. It is here that he also mentions the Hyperboreans.
Interestingly, this places the Hyperboreans in the blurred line between mythical peoples and historical ethnic groups. Herodotus himself appears to express doubt as to whether the Hyperboreans really existed. In one part, he begins a statement by saying: “If there really are Hyperboreans…”
In any case, the key point is that he definitely placed Hyperborea in the area north of the Black Sea, the same general region as the homeland of the Scythians, or perhaps a little bit further north than that.
The Danube River
Before Herodotus, the poet Pindar wrote an account of Hercules journeying to Hyperborea. In this account, Pindar explicitly connects Hyperborea with the region of the Danube River. He notes that Hercules crossed the Danube River while trying to capture a special doe. This river flows through Europe, originating in Germany.
For this reason, some commentators have argued that Pindar’s account places Hyperborea in the land of the Celts. The Celts, after all, did live in central Europe, including the region encompassing the source of the Danube. These same commentators have also argued that Pindar’s reference to impressive trees in Hyperborea would match the large forests in central Europe in ancient times.
However, the major problem with this interpretation is that the Danube River actually goes all across Europe and empties into the Black Sea. Therefore, there is absolutely no reason to assume that Hercules took a westerly direction to cross the Danube. He could just as easily have gone east, crossing the Danube while heading towards the region north of the Black Sea.
Furthermore, the region north of the Black Sea was famous for its trees in ancient times. The Greeks even referred to part of it as Hylaea, meaning ‘Woodlands’. Therefore, there is no issue with assuming that Pindar was referring to the same location as Herodotus.
Why Was This Land Viewed As Divine?
So far, we have seen that the earliest references to Hyperborea seem to have been describing the region north of the Danube River. Herodotus even associates it with some distinct ethnic groups who are known to have existed (as well as some mythical ones). So, it seems that Hyperborea may well have been based on a real place, albeit highly exaggerated and mythologized.
This being the case, why did the ancient Greeks view Hyperborea as a paradisial land? One possibility is the mere fact that it was a land to the far north. During the summer, the length of daylight is much greater in the north than it is closer to the equator.
Wherever Hyperborea really was, it was obviously to the north of Greece. If it was very far to the north, then it may be that the Greeks heard exaggerated stories about how it was always daytime there. This could easily have contributed to it being transformed into the paradisial Hyperborea of myth.