Hyperborea: Myth and Geography in Ancient Literature

Described as a utopian paradise situated far to the north, Hyperborea is frequently mentioned in various classical texts. This article compiles and examines these references, providing a comprehensive overview of how Hyperborea was depicted in ancient literature.

Hyperborea, derived from the Greek words “hyper” (beyond) and “Boreas” (the North Wind), represents a mythical land of eternal spring and happiness. This article explores the descriptions and significance of Hyperborea in the works of Hesiod, Hecataeus of Abdera, Pindar, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Callimachus, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Pomponius Mela, Pliny the Elder, and Theophanes.

Hesiod’s “Works and Days” (700 BC)

Hesiod I Ascraei quaecumque exstant
Hesiodus Ascraeus, collected writings, 1701
Hesiod I Ascraei quaecumque exstant
Hesiodus Ascraeus, collected writings, 1701

Hesiod provides one of the earliest references to a blessed race living in an idyllic land, which can be associated with Hyperborea. In “Works and Days,” he describes the Golden Age:

“When gods alike and mortals rose to birth, / A golden race the immortals formed on earth / Of many-languaged men; they lived of old, / When Saturn reign’d in heaven—an age of gold. / Like gods they lived, with calm untroubled mind, / Free from the toil and anguish of our kind. / Nor e’er decrepit age misshaped their frame, / The hand’s, the foot’s proportions still the same. / Strangers to ill, they Nature’s banquet prove, / Rich in her fruits, and blest with inoffensive love. / They sank to death, as opiate slumber stole / Soft o’er the sense, and whelm’d the willing soul.”

This description of an idealized past resonates with later depictions of Hyperborea.

Hecataeus of Abdera’s “The Histories” (4th century BC)

The world according to Hecataeus, 
from Bunbury's A history of ancient geography among the Greeks and Romans, from the earliest ages till the fall of the Roman Empire 1879
Hyperborea
The world according to Hecataeus, from Bunbury’s A history of ancient geography among the Greeks and Romans, from the earliest ages till the fall of the Roman Empire, 1879

Hecataeus of Abdera provides a more detailed account of Hyperborea, emphasizing its geographical location and sacred significance:

“Beyond the land of the Celts lies an island no smaller than Sicily. This island is situated in the north and is inhabited by the Hyperboreans, so named because they live beyond the point where the north wind blows. The island is both fertile and productive of every crop, and has an unusually temperate climate.”

“On this island, there is a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple adorned with many votive offerings. The inhabitants are devoted to the worship of Apollo, and it is said that the god visits the island every nineteen years to play his lyre and dance, bringing great joy to the people.”

Pindar’s “Olympian Odes” (476 BC)

 panoramic view of the Acropolis from west in 1751
A view of the west side of the Acropolis taken from the area of Pnyx and the pathway from Theseion to Filopappou Hill.
Depicted from upper left to right: Lecabettus Hill (to the left and behind the Acropolis), the Frankish Tower (on the Acropolis), the Turkish cemetery in Athens (in front of the Acropolis), the Odeion of Herodes Atticus and the Temple of Olympian Zeus (right of the Acropolis)
Hyperborea
 A Panoramic view of the Acropolis from west, 1751
A view of the west side of the Acropolis taken from the area of Pnyx and the pathway from Theseion to Filopappou Hill.
Depicted from upper left to right: Lecabettus Hill (to the left and behind the Acropolis), the Frankish Tower (on the Acropolis), the Turkish cemetery in Athens (in front of the Acropolis), the Odeion of Herodes Atticus and the Temple of Olympian Zeus (right of the Acropolis)

Pindar’s reference to Hyperborea underscores its divine connection, particularly with the god Apollo. In Olympian Ode III, he writes:

“For he is the lord of the Hyperboreans and visits their land, where neither sickness nor bitter old age is known. Both men and women live happily together in constant festivity, and never does sorrow or strife come near this people blessed by the gods. The dances of maidens and the songs of lyres fill their days with joy, while the earth, rich and fertile, yields an abundance of all things without toil. And when the sacred festival comes, they send forth their offerings on a path long-trodden, laden with gifts to honor Apollo at Delos. Thus, they maintain their bond with the god, and their lives continue in endless harmony and delight, under the ever-smiling skies of Hyperborea.”

Herodotus’s “Histories” (450 BC)

Babylonian Marriage Market, Edwin Long 1904
Babylonian Marriage Market, by Edwin Long, 1904

Herodotus provides one of the earliest references to Hyperborea with a blend of myth and skepticism. He describes the Hyperboreans and the sacred offerings they send to Delos:

“If there really are Hyperboreans, then there are also Hypernotians, people who live south of the South Wind.”

“The Delians say that sacred objects are tied up inside a bundle of wheat straws and are transported from the Hyperboreans first to Scythia, then westward as far as possible – that is, to the Adriatic – through a chain of successive neighboring tribes, then south to Dodona (which is the first Greek community to receive them), then to the Gulf of Malia, where they cross over to Euboea, where they are passed from town to town until they reach Carystus, at which stage Andros is omitted, because the Carystians are the ones taking them to Tenos, and from Tenos the objects are conveyed to Delos. So this is how these sacred objects are said to reach Delos.”

Aeschylus’s “Prometheus Unbound” (5th century BC)

The Death of Aeschylus, Tobias Verhaecht 1606
The Death of Aeschylus, by Tobias Verhaecht, 1606

Though primarily focused on the Titan Prometheus, Aeschylus makes a brief mention of Hyperborea in his lost play “Prometheus Unbound,” which survives in fragments:

“Beyond the north wind, in the land of the Hyperboreans, where Apollo roams.”

Callimachus’s “Aetia” (3rd century BC)


The birth of manly virtue, from Callimachus. Fleuron 1725
The birth of manly virtue, from Callimachus, 1725

Callimachus refers to the tradition of sending sacred offerings from Hyperborea to Delos in his elegiac poem “Aetia”:

“There are those who say the sacred offerings of the Hyperboreans, covered in straw, are carried through many peoples’ hands until they reach the temple of Apollo in Delos. This ancient custom is honored by both the Hyperboreans and the Delians, maintaining a bond between these distant lands.”

Strabo’s “Geographica” (7 BC)

Page 370 of “Selections from Strabo. With an introduction on Strabo's Life and Works by ... H. F. Tozer ... With maps and plans”, by Henry Fanshawe Tozer, 1893
Hyperborea
Page 370 of “Selections from Strabo. With an introduction on Strabo’s Life and Works by … H. F. Tozer … With maps and plans”, by Henry Fanshawe Tozer, 1893

Strabo provides a geographical perspective on Hyperborea, blending myth and reality:

“The stories of the ancient mythology tell us that the Hyperboreans live beyond the North Wind, and that they live lives of perfect happiness and have fabulous longevity. They have a land that bears fruits twice a year, and they enjoy the most agreeable climate in the world.”

Diodorus Siculus’s “Bibliotheca Historica” (1st century BC)

Mitellus Ordering a Marble Crow to Be Put on the Tomb of His Former Master, Diodorus Siculus, by Antonio Zucchi, 1768
Hyperborea
Mitellus Ordering a Marble Crow to Be Put on the Tomb of His Former Master, Diodorus Siculus, by Antonio Zucchi, 1768

Diodorus Siculus incorporates various mythological traditions to depict Hyperborea as a land of great happiness and religious significance:

“The Hyperboreans, as they are called, dwell beyond the Riphaean Mountains and are said to live a blessed life in a land that produces fruit twice a year. They worship Apollo more zealously than any other god, and among them, he is held in exceptionally high honour. It is said that Apollo visits their country once every nineteen years and plays upon the lyre and sings and dances continuously from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades. During this time, the god plays upon the lyre and dances continually.”

“The Hyperboreans also send sacred offerings to Delos, wrapped in wheat straw, to honor Apollo. These offerings are passed from one tribe to another, beginning with the Hyperboreans and moving through various Scythian peoples, until they reach the Delians. This tradition is said to have been established in the most ancient times and continues to be observed with great reverence.”

Pomponius Mela’s “De Chorographia” (43 AD)

"Orbis habitabilis ad mentem Pomponii Melae", Mappaemundi, Heft VI. "Rekonstruierte Karten", Tafel 7.
World Map of Pomponius Mela as reconWorld Map of Pomponius Mela as reconstructed by K. Miller 1898
Hyperborea

World Map of Pomponius Mela from “Orbis habitabilis ad mentem Pomponii Melae”, Mappaemundi, Heft VI. “Rekonstruierte Karten”, Tafel 7, as reconstructed by Konrad Miller, 1898

Pomponius Mela describes Hyperborea in his geographical work, emphasizing its favourable climate and the longevity of its people:

“In the remotest part of Scythia, beyond the north wind, there is a region called Hyperborea, where the sun shines continuously throughout the summer and the climate is temperate. The inhabitants of this land are said to live for a thousand years and are free from disease and warfare. Their lives are spent in a state of perpetual happiness and peace. This land is also known for its abundance of resources, producing two harvests each year.”

Pliny the Elder’s “Naturalis Historia” (77 AD)

Tuscum of Plinius, n by Karl Friedrich Schinkel 1842
Hyperborea
Tuscum of Plinius, by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1842

Pliny the Elder offers a detailed description of Hyperborea, emphasizing its idyllic nature and remote location:

“Behind these mountains dwells a happy race, Hyperborei. According to Timagenes, the Romans, who, when they retired from this place, left the Caspian Gates behind them, with many tribes subdued by their arms, did not proceed further, not because of the difficulty of the country, but because the known world had no bounds beyond it. The boundary, which extends no further, is formed by an impassable wall of mountains. Beyond this, and above the Caspian Sea, is the Scythian Ocean, which flows around the Earth, and beyond it are the mountains called Riphæan, the ridge of which forms the northern boundary of the Earth. From this point the parts beyond are hidden by continual snows, and, because of this, the climate is intolerably cold, and there are no other inhabitants beyond this region. It is said that from the Riphæan mountains the northern blasts sweep down, and that the place, being covered with deep snows, is rendered uninhabitable.”

“The Hyperborei are mentioned by many writers, including Hesiod and Callimachus, who have recorded many things concerning them. These people are said to live to an extreme old age, and to possess a most fruitful soil, perpetually fanned by zephyrs and the mildest southern breezes. They have neither quarrels nor diseases among them, and their days are not like those of other mortals. It is believed that the sun rises with them at the vernal equinox and sets not until the autumnal

Hyperborea: Myth or Reality?

The ancient accounts of Hyperborea, while varied, converge on themes that depict it as a utopian realm with divine favor and mythological significance. This mysterious land, consistently located beyond significant northern landmarks such as the Riphean Mountains, raises intriguing possibilities about its actual existence.

Many accounts associate Hyperborea with the god Apollo, suggesting a sacred and possibly immortal population. If the Hyperboreans indeed possess immortality, it is conceivable that they could still exist, hidden behind the cold veil of the North Wind. This enduring fascination invites speculation about whether Hyperborea is more than myth—a timeless sanctuary, perhaps shielded from discovery.

Through these narratives, Hyperborea symbolizes the human longing for an idealized world, blending geography, mythology, and cultural interactions. The possibility of its continued existence fuels our imaginations, challenging us to consider what ancient truths might lie beyond our current understanding. Hyperborea remains a powerful symbol of humanity’s quest for a perfect, harmonious existence beyond the known world.

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