Home » Atlantis: the debrief » The Pillars of Heracles
THE PILLARS OF HERACLES
Written by Graham | Created: Sunday 25th August 2019 @ 1224hrs | Revised: Monday 28th September 2020 @ 1116rs
Establishing the true location of the Pillars of Heracles.
Present: Interrogator (Third Class) Ветка, interrogating, and Agent Г.
Alright then, Mr. Know-it-All!
I suspect that's sarcasm rather than flattery. I imagine you'll make a bad pun on the word sarcophagus momentarily.
Sorry. Nothing. Carry on.
I've got something for you to put in your pipe and smoke.
I don't smoke.
Seriously? What's wrong with you? This is the '80s, the olden days. Everybody smoked back then.
You don't. I can't smell any form of smoking tobacco about you.
Mind you, you're probably not old enough. And if you're this interested in Atlantis as a kid, you probably don't have many friends to cadge a tab off.
I already told you. I'm twenty-six.
Anyway, enough with the insults.
Fine by me. Douchebag.
I said enough. You do know we have torture chambers, right? "Enhanced interrogation" we interrogators (third class) call it.
Okay. Sorry. Please carry on. I'm sure you'll stop gloating and get to the point eventually.
Well, Tacitus says that the Pillars of Hercules are somewhere in the vicinity of the mouth of the River Rhine.
Irrelevant. This region is presumed to have been unknown in Plato's day. The earliest Greek in the region was Pytheas, from modern Marseille, and even when he wrote up his experiences, few were willing to give him credit for his exploits.
Yeah? Well... er, some guy with a Latin name... he said the Pillars were on the Black Sea coast of Anatolia.
Irrelevant. That's from a commentary by Maurus Servius Honoratus on Virgil's Aeneid, a poem which wasn't written for more than three hundred years after Plato's death.
Even then, how could a force from that area conquer Europe and Africa from the west, as far as Italy and the borders of Egypt?
Er, okay. Well, check out this quote from Strabo: -
But to deny that the isles or the mountains resemble pillars, and to search for the limits of the inhabited world or of the expedition of Heracles at Pillars that were properly so called, is indeed a sensible thing to do; for it was a custom in early times to set up landmarks like that. 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.
Your point being?
That there were many "Pillars of Heracles" dotted all over the world.
That's not what Strabo says. He is well aware that the Pillars were somewhere in the vicinity of the Strait of Gibraltar. He was merely discussing precisely where. Were they in the temple of Heracles at Gades, or were they the mountains on either side of the Strait, or did the term refer to islands nearby?
In all probability, the term originated from the baityloi, stelae erected in the temple of Melqart (who came to be identified with Heracles) in Gades, part of an aniconic Semitic cult brought to this far reach of Europe by the Phoenician colonists: Melqart was honoured in Gades' metropolis Tyre.
As for these other places Strabo mentions, you seem to have failed to notice that he never refers to any of them as the "Pillars of Heracles."
Not been called that in a while.
... prove to me that you're right.
In terms of their mythological origins, the Pillars of Heracles find a likely precursor in the columns said to be associated with or supported by the titan Atlas according to Homer's Odyssey [1.52-54]: -
malevolent Atlas [...] knows the depths of the sea, and supports the great columns that separate earth and sky.
In his Theogony, Atlas is variously located by Hesiod "at the borders of the earth before the clear-voiced Hesperides" [517-518] or before the home of Night [744-750]. Though originally representing a location at the gates of the underworld, Atlas came to be associated with the west: according to the writer of the Prometheus Bound (traditionally it is ascribed to the Athenian playwright Aeschylus), Atlas was located πρὸς ἑσπέρους τόπους ("towards the west") .
Pillars also feature in Hesiod's description of the home of the goddess Styx, who "lives apart from the gods in her glorious house vaulted over with great rocks and propped up to heaven all round with silver pillars [...] over the sea's wide back" [777-781]. Homer places the river Styx underground [Odyssey 5.185 - κατειβόμενον Στυγὸς ὕδωρ, literally "downward-flowing": cf Theogony 785-787, where the "famous cold water [...] trickles down from a high and beetling rock"], though the Cocytus, a branch of the river [Odyssey 10.514], is located in Erebus, the home of the dead, which is placed in the west [12.81]. Incidentally, Hesiod also connects the Styx with night: "Far under the wide-pathed earth a branch of Oceanus [i.e. the Styx] flows through the dark night out of the holy stream" [787-789].
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 the Geryoneis, 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.
Hesiod is the first author whose work survives to mention Herakles' exploits in Erytheia. In the Theogony, he describes how Geryon was slain "in sea-girt Erythea by his shambling oxen on that day when [Heracles] drove the wide-browed oxen to holy Tiryns, and had crossed the ford of Ocean and killed Orthus and Eurytion the herdsman in the dim stead out beyond glorious Ocean" [289-294].
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.
Well, that's all very interesting, but none of it mentions the Pillars of Heracles specifically.
True, but (in the words of Jimmy Cricket) there's more.
Well, tell me then.
Stop interrupting and I will.
The first Greek that we know of who specifically mentioned Pillars of Heracles is the Milesian geographer and historian Hecataeus, who was active at around the turn of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Hecataeus' mentions of the Pillars of Heracles are contained in fragments which remain of his work, mostly quotations from later authors, and he refers to them as "the Pillars" on one other occasion.
On the European side, he mentions the city of Kalathé, "a polis not far from the Pillars of Heracles. Ephorus calls it Kaláthousa." Kalathé has been variously identified with the site of the modern city of Huelva, at the junction of the Río Odiel with the Río Tinto, or else a site later known as Kaldoûba, "60km inland from Gadir." Another Kalathé is identified by Thomas Braun as the Euboea of pseudo-Scylax , which Braun identifies with the Île de la Galite off the Tunisian coast.
Also in Europe were the Mastiēnoí, a "people near the Pillars of Heracles." Their towns included Mastía, Mainobȏra, Síxos and Molybdínē. Later sources place the Mastiēnoí close to the fabled country of Tartessus, and the names of their towns tally with known ancient ports on the southern coast of Andalusia.
In addition, an African town, Thrínkē, was "in the region of the Pillars." It is thus highly probable that Hecataeus' Pillars of Heracles were already imagined as being in the vicinity of the Strait of Gibraltar.
Maybe Hecataeus was pushing a pet theory of his which placed Heracles in this region.
Certainly not. Quite the opposite: Hecataeus placed the fatal encounter between Heracles and Geryon firmly upon Greek soil: -
And Herakles was not sent to some island called Erytheia beyond the great sea (i.e., Ocean), but Geryones was king of a region on the mainland around Ambrakia and the Amphilochians, and it was from this region of the mainland that Herakles drove away the cattle, a labour by no means considered trivial.
- BNJ 1 F 36, apud Arrian, Alexandri anabasis [2.16.5-6].
No skin in the game, then, on Hecataeus' part. Just evidence that the meeting between Heracles and Geryon was already widely associated with the area around Gades and Tartessos.
Hmmm... I didn't know about that.
Evidently. Anyway, 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: -
Olympian 3: For Theron of Acragas, Chariot Race, 476 BC [42-45]
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.
Nemean 3: For Aristocleides of Aegina, Pancratium, c.475 BC [20-26].
[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.
Isthmian 4: For Melissus of Thebes, Pancratium, c.474-473 BC [11-13].
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!
Nemean 4: For Timasarchus of Aegina, Boys' Wrestling, c.473 BC [69-70].
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 shallows 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, meanwhile, 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.
Any more sources you'd care to mention?
Plenty. I will start with Herodotus, who 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].
In Libya [4.43], he describes an expedition by Sataspes on behalf of Xerxes I of Persia which passed by Cape Soloeis (regarded as the western extremity of Libya at 2.32), and comes to a land populated by a "dwarfish" people, possibly identical with those encountered by the Nasamoneans, an expedition recounted at 2.32. 4.196 describes a curious trade carried out between the Carthaginians and a coastal population, Ethiopians (i.e. Sub-Saharan Africans) according the pseudo-Scylax , who this writer places on an island called Cerne, located seven days' sail from Cape Soloeis (which the writer of the Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax, probably, as stated, a contemporary of Plato working with earlier sources, informs us is home to an altar to Poseidon).
On the European side, Herodotus is rather less clear. The Tartessians inhabit the region outside the pillars and live near to Gadeira, with the Celts also mentioned as living outside the pillars.
Miranda Green provides an overview of the earliest Classical references to the Celts and traces a pattern of north to south displacement whereby the Celts push the Ligures, who inhabited the area around Marseille during the 6th century according to Hecataeus of Miletus, southward towards and into the Iberian and Italian peninsulae, though Timothy Bridgman suggests that some early references to the Hyperboreans have their origins in contacts with Alpine Celts of the Hallstatt Culture. Pseudo-Scylax - who unquestionably places the Pillars at the Straits of Gibraltar - has Ligyes inhabiting the coast between the Iberians (with whom they cohabit the region between Emporion and the mouth of the River Rhône) and the Etruscans [3-4]. Strabo [3.2.15] bears witness to the presence of a people termed Celtici to the north west of the Turdetani, widely seen as successors to the Tartessians, who may be analogous to Herodotus' Celts, though this reflects a later reality.
The pace of the Celtic migration is certainly evidenced by Herodotus' statement if it does indeed place Celts in south western Iberia. However, they are said to live near the headwaters of the Ister (generally assumed to be the Danube), which would be correct: the "Celtic" Hallstatt and La Tène cultures were native to this region in the centuries around the time that Herodotus was writing. However, he describes them living in a city, Pyrene [2.31], whose name suggests that Herodotus has confused the Alps and the Pyrenees. Furthermore, they are said to live near to the Cynesians, the westernmost inhabitants of continental Europe [4.49]. The Cynesians are almost certainly the Conii, the population of the area known to Strabo as Cuneum [3.1.4], in what is now the Algarve region of Portugal.
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)."
Next up is Euripides. In his Hippolytus, he 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].
At around the same time, Herodorus, a sophist from Heraclea on the Pontic coast of modern Turkey and a prolific writer on mythography, was active. Fragments of his work 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: -
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.
- BNJ 31 F 2a.
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, 22.214.171.124]. 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.
So, we're up to the 5th century, right?
Care to mention the 4th?
Oh, you've twisted my arm.
Wait... I did no such thing!
Figure of speech.
Oh, okay. If you'd like your arm twisted, I'm obliged to tell you of our "enhanced interrogation" plan...
Then, please continue. Sorry about the ad break. We don't get too many people signing up in all honesty.
I can't say I'm amazed. Well, then. I've mentioned pseudo-Scylax, the unknown writer of a Periplus or guide to sea journeys whose work was ascribed to the navigator Scylax of Caryanda. Here is how his work is introduced: -
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.]
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 - "These 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."
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's 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.
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 (his 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."
In conclusion, then, 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 Gades 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.
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 are those you mentioned at the beginning of our talk, and appear in Tacitus' Germania  and in Maurus Servius Honoratus' commentary on Virgil's Aeneid, which locates Pillars of Heracles in the region of the Pontus.
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