Written by Graham | Created: Sunday 25th August 2019 @ 1224hrs | Revised: Monday 28th September 2020 @ 1116hrs; Thursday 17th December 2020 @ 2255hrs
The Pillars of Heracles, a mysterious far-off location (from the ancient Greek perspective) commonly identified with the extremities of Europe and Africa on either side of the narrow Straits of Gibraltar, feature prominently in Plato's tale of Atlantis. The Atlantean invasion precipitated a conflict between the peoples outside (west of) and inside the Pillars, which initially went well for Atlantis: all of the land up to Tyrrhenia in modern-day Italy and the borders of Egypt were subjugated, and eventually the ancient Athens stood alone against the might of the western superpower.
But where - and what - were these "Pillars"?
Most probably a slightly-older contemprary of Solon, who Plato credits with bringing tidings of ancient Athens and its vast, imperious enemy to the quarreling city of his birth during the 6th century, Stesichorus was one of the early writers from the West Greek colonies, being closely associated with the Sicilian settlement at Himera. He is best known for having adapted the great mythological sagas normatively celebrated in epic poetry to the relatively new form of Greek lyric, which was then developing under the auspices of the likes of Alcman and the two great bards of Lesbos, Sappho and Alcaeus. Among his many works, Stesichorus produced a work dealing with Heracles' battle with the three-bodied ogre Geryon, with surviving fragments showing that he placed this showdown somewhere in the region of the Tartessus: he refers to the birth of Eurytion, Geryon's cowherd, as having taken place: "hard over against the famous Erytheia, beside the never-ending silver-rooted waters of Tartessus, in the hold of a rock." This immediately brings to mind Hesiod's description of the home of Styx, "glorious house vaulted over with great rocks and propped up to heaven all round with silver pillars," where a tenth portion of Oceanus "flows out from a rock." By now, the mythological scenes of the furthest occident are placed in a barely-known but real location. Stesichorus appears a likely source for the notion of Heracles' erection of pillars in this region: pseudo-Apollodorus states that the hero "proceeding to Tartessus [...] erected as tokens of his journey two pillars over against each other at the boundaries of Europe and Libya" shortly before his encounter with Eurytion and Geryon.
The work of pseudo-Scylax, which was written about the same time as the Timaeus and Critias suggests a Boeotian and Central Greek presence in north-west Africa outside the Pillars, which was by and large forgotten by that stage. Heracles was a hero with Boeotian - specifically Theban - connections: his early exploits (as recorded by pseudo-Apollodorus) include bedding the fifty daughters of the king of Thespiae and the defeat of Erginus, the king of Minyan Orchomenus, who held Thebes under subjection. He was also associated with other regions of Central Greece, most notably Doris, from whence came his descendants to the Peloponnese (with the aid of the Theban Theras), while his death was localised on Mount Oeta. Thus, perhaps these obscure settlers were responsible for plotting the exploits of Herakles on the map of the furthest west.
The first Greek to specifically mention Pillars of Heracles is the Milesian geographer and historian Hecataeus, who was active at around the turn of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. In spite of his stated opinion that Heracles' encounter with Geryon took place "on the mainland around Ambrakia and the Amphilochians" in north-western Greece, the fragments of Hecataeus' work which mention the Pillars of Heracles indicate a location in the far western Mediterranean, thus signifying that the identification was a commonplace by about 500 BC.
Shortly after Hecataeus, the poet Pindar makes use of the concept of the Pillars as a species of liminal boundary, separating the known and orderly world of the Mediterranean from the domain of sea monsters beyond in three of his odes, while a fourth uses "Gadeira" in a similar sense: -
If water is best and gold is the most honored of all possessions, so now Theron reaches the farthest point by his own native excellence; he touches the pillars of Heracles. Beyond that the wise cannot set foot; nor can the unskilled set foot beyond that. I will not pursue it; I would be a fool.
[I]t is not easy to cross the trackless sea beyond the pillars of Heracles, which that hero and god set up as famous witnesses to the furthest limits of seafaring. He subdued the monstrous beasts in the sea, and tracked to the very end the streams of the shallows, where he reached the goal that sent him back home again, and he made the land known.
Through their manly deeds they reached from home to touch the farthest limit, the pillars of Heracles - do not pursue excellence any farther than that!
Beyond Gadeira towards the western darkness there is no passage; turn back the ship's sails again to the mainland of Europe.
Pindar's mention of mud is echoed in a number of other sources, and brings to mind Plato's statement that "the island of Atlantis [...] now lies sunk by earthquakes and has created a barrier of impassable mud which prevents those who are sailing out from here to the ocean beyond from proceeding further" [Crit. 108e-109a], and "the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down" [Tim. 25d]. The statement that Heracles fought sea monsters would refer to his combat against Ladon during his eleventh or twelfth labour, which took him to the west in search of the apples of the Hesperides, with this and other western adventures providing the backdrop of Heracles' construction of the pillars, and the presence of such creatures in the region also appears in Pliny the Elder, who states that the Fortunate Islands "are greatly annoyed by the putrefying bodies of monsters, which are constantly thrown up by the sea" .
Clearly Plato is working with and building on existant material to develop his notion of Atlantis. The region of Tartessus was still little-known by the Greeks, though Herodotus mentions Phocaean [1.163] and Samian [4.152] expeditions (the knowledge gained during which is a likely source for Hecataeus' knowledge of the region).
The area was much better known to the Phoenicians, who had settled in the area around the Straits of Gibraltar and beyond in the centuries prior to the Persian Wars, which form the backdrop to much of Herodotus' history. It has been posited that the notion of a shallow sea beset by seaweed and monsters outside the Pillars represents Phoenician propaganda aimed at deterring Greek ambitions in the region. The Phocaean and Samian contacts with Tartessus have been dated to a narrow window of opportunity for the Greeks between the fall of the Phoenician cities to Persia in c.536 BC and the rise to hegemony of Carthage, newly reinforced by refugees, during the earlier part of the 5th century. Carthage entered into a treaty with "Rome" in 509 BC which allocated Sardinia and Sicily as exclusively Carthaginian spheres of interest. The lack of mention of Spain as being tabu to Rome is likely due to the continued existence of Tartessus, which was destroyed by Carthage and Gadeira, probably in the first half of the 5th century.
Herodotus makes several statements about peoples living outside the Pillars of Heracles. He mentions Libya outside the Pillars twice [4.43; 4.196] and Europe on three occasions [2.33; 4.8; 4.152].
By the time of Herodotus, the association of the Straits of Gibraltar region and the Pillars of Heracles was well established. To quote Thomas Braun: "Herodotus [...] saw no need to explain the name and knew that Gadir lay beyond (4.8)."
Euripides, in his Hippolytus also refers to pillars at the western end of the known world, though he names them as "the great Pillars of Atlas (τερμόνων τ᾽ Ἀτλαντικῶν)" at "the farthest ends of the West" , the "turbulent waters" beyond which are off limits to travellers [742-747].
Herodorus, a sophist from Heraclea on the Pontic coast of modern Turkey, was a prolific writer on mythography, whose fragments show that he made a number of contributions on the subject at hand. Firstly, on Iberia, Herodoros notes that: "[t]here are two groups of Iberians," of whom "one is close to the pillars of Herakles," before enumerating the various Iberian tribes of the south-western portion of the Iberian peninsula [BNJ 31 F 2a]: -
First, those living at the farthest reaches toward the setting of the sun are called Kynetes, and eastward of them are the Gletes, then the Tartesians, and the Elbusinians, and the Mastienians, and finally the Kelkianians, and then the straits.
Of these, the Cynetes are also known to his near-namesake Herodotus, while the Elbusinians or Elbysinoi and Mastienians are known to Hekataeus [BNJ 1 F 41] (NB the former, here termed "Elbestioi," are called "a people of Libya" by Stephanos of Byzantion, Ethnica, s.v. ᾽Ελβέστιοι, who refers to this fragment of Hecataeus).
Herodorus also provides an astronomical explanation of the Pillars which states that Heracles "became a prophet and natural philosopher when he received from Atlas the Phrygian the pillars of the cosmos," signifying that the hero "received by instruction the knowledge of the heavenly bodies" [BNJ 31 F 13, apud Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, 188.8.131.52]. This version of events is developed further in other works: Diodorus Siculus has Atlas teaching Heracles the mysteries of the cosmos in gratitude for the rescue of his daughter from pirates [3.60.2; 4.27.4], while Cornutus regards the Titan as synonymous with the cosmos [On Greek Theology, 26]. Furthermore Servius, in his commentary on the Aeneid, credits Atlas with having enabled Heracles to carry out his monster-killing activities [1.741].
Slightly off topic: Atlas' ethnic epithet of Phrygian [῎Ατλαντος τοῦ βαρβάρου τοῦ Φρυγὸς] would appear to stem from his associations with Tantalus - generally regarded as Atlas' son-in-law - who is often associated with that region. There may also be an element of local patriotism at play here: the legendary founder of Herodorus' home city of Heracleia was Lycus, king of the Mariandynians, who was gifted the region by either Heracles' party or the Argonauts after the defeat of the Bebryces, a "Thracian" tribe whose name may signify some association with the Phrygians.
I shall begin from the pillars of Herakles in Europe as far as the pillars of Herakles in Libya, and as far as the great Ethiopians. And the pillars of Herakles are right by one another, and are distant from one another a voyage of a day. [And two islands are at hand here, which have the name Gadeira. One of these has a city that is distant a day's voyage from the pillars of Herakles.]
- Pseudo-Scylax, Periplus .
The Periplus ascribed to Scylax of Caryanda is a document likely contemporary with Plato's writing the Timaeus-Critias. The document appears to be based in no small part on older sources, with Hecataeus likely being a key font of information.
As shown in the quote above, pseudo-Scylax's scheme for the construction of the document was a guide to the coasts of the Mediterranean, beginning at the European Pillar and continuing on past the African Pillar down along the coast of that continent. As these pillars are placed immediately to the west of the Iberians  and the Carthaginian coast of Libya , adjacent to two islands called Gadeira [1; 111 - "[t]hese are islands towards Europe; of these, one has a city: and the pillars of Herakles are by these, the one in Libya low, but the one in Europe high. And these are capes right by one another; and these are apart from one another a voyage of a day."], it is indisputable that the Pillars were believed to have been located on or near the Strait of Gibraltar. Interestingly, the quote above continues with the following description: "From the pillars of Herakles in Europe there are many trading-towns of the Carthaginians, and mud and flood-tides and open seas."
The Pillars are used in an almost proverbial manner during the 4th century as a far-flung locale: Aristotle [Rhetoric 2.10.5] and Isocrates [Panathenaicus 250] both make use of this device. In addition, the latter [To Philip 122] suggests that the Pillars were set up in part "to mark the bounds of the territory of the Hellenes" by Heracles after his conquest of Troy. As the Greeks had long since colonised the coast of the Black Sea, the logical conclusion to draw from this notice is that far western Pillars are intended. Indeed, Plato [Phaedo 109ab] concurs in defining the Greek world as stretching "between the pillars of Hercules [109b] and the river Phasis."
Much later, Claudius Aelianus [Various History 5.3] also records that the Pillars of Heracles were, according to Aristotle, formerly known as the Pillars of Briareus, the hundred-handed son of Gaia, who guarded the Titans in Tartarus [Theogony 734-735] (and later the sleeping Cronus on a far-western island), whilst Cronus was also associated with the Pillars: the Croatian scholar Tomislav Bilić, reviewing the tradition by which the name of Briareus came to be attached to the Pillars, notes that "initially they were called the Pillars of Cronus." Bilić also reviews the tradition which places this leader of the Titans in the west, ruling over the blessed dead, which appears also in Pindar (Pindar's 2nd Olympian Ode [70-77] mentions a "Tower of Cronus" in the ocean). Notes Bilić: "a statue (or pillars, a tower, etc.) placed on a far-away island in an unknown sea, generally of bronze, represented both in Greek and in other mythologies ‘the ends of the earth’, a limit for further voyages."
The notion of "Pillars" has been suggested as having its origins in Phoenician temples to Melqart, chief deity of Tyre, who was identified in the interpretatio graeca with Heracles. Melqart was represented in his temples by two stelae or pillars, and a major temple to Melqart stood in the city of Gadeira just outside the Pillars. By extrapolation, the pillars came to be identified with the Straits and associated with Heracles who either broke through the straits to afford access of Atlantic waters into the Mediterranean or else narrowed them to prevent the ingress of sea monsters. Complementary eastern pillars, ascribed to Dionysus, were also noted by pseudo-Apollodorus [2.29]. A temple to Poseidon, mentioned in Hanno's account and pseudo-Scylax, was very likely originally dedicated to Melqart, who was identified additionally with Poseidon in terms of his nautical aspect.
On the other hand, in light of the information given above, it is equally probable that the concept of pillars or columns marking the western bounds of the world already existed in Greek mythology. As such, the "Pillars of Heracles," which came to be identified with the Strait of Gibraltar, would never be found.
Additionally, whilst a number of other sites with pillars are named by Strabo [3.5.5], he is in no doubt that the Pillars of Heracles (which, he also notes, were also called the "gates of Gades" by Pindar) should be located in the region of the Straits. His major difficulty with regards to their veracity is their inability to be accurately located. Indeed, far from being suggested as alternative locations for Heracles' monuments, Strabo gives names for most of his examples: -
For instance, the people of Rhegium set up the column - a sort of small tower - which stands at the strait; and opposite this column there stands what is called the Tower of Pelorus. And in the land about midway between the Syrtes there stand what are called the altars of the Philaeni. And mention is made of a pillar placed in former times on the Isthmus of Corinth, which was set up in common by those Ionians who, after their expulsion from the Peloponnesus, got possession of Attica together with Megaris, and by the peoples who got possession of the Peloponnesus; they inscribed on the side of the pillar which faced Megaris, "This is not the Peloponnesus, but Ionia," on the other, "This is the Peloponnesus, not Ionia." Again, Alexander set up altars, as limits of his Indian Expedition, in the farthermost regions reached by him in Eastern India, thus imitating Heracles and Dionysus. So then, this custom was indeed in existence.
Strabo also mentions "two isles, one of which they call Hera's Island" near the Pillars [3.5.3, see also 3.5.5 where Artemidorus is cited as a source], which to some measure corroborates pseudo-Scylax' account of two islands at Gadeira. The notion of the Pillars of Heracles being located on islands is presumably based upon the islands on which Gades was located.
Thus, there is no indisputable evidence to suggest locating the Pillars of Heracles anywhere other than the Strait of Gibraltar in the classical canon. The only other Pillars of Heracles cited in literature appear in Tacitus' Germania  - which places them well outside the Mediterranean and much further north of the Frisian coast: "[w]e have moreover even ventured out from thence into the ocean, and upon its coasts common fame has reported the pillars of Hercules to be still standing: whether it be that Hercules ever visited these parts, or that to his renowned name we are wont to ascribe whatever is grand and glorious everywhere" - and in Maurus Servius Honoratus' commentary on Virgil's Aeneid, which locates Pillars of Heracles in the region of the Pontus.