Behind the North Wind

Lin Carter

Never on land or by sea will you find
the marvelous road to the feast of the Hyperborea


To the ancient Greeks, the fabled land of Hyperborea was an idyllic paradise--an Eden of the pagans. They had many stories about Hyperborea - Hercules visited it; Perseus cut off the Gorgon's head there; it was the birthplace of Apollo's grandfather. The best yarn of them all was about a globe-trotting Hyperborean wizard-priest named Abaris who visited Greece, studied magic under Pythagoras, and stopped a plague from destroying Sparta before he returned home.

Homer, who was pretty vague on geographic theory, never mentioned the land of the Hyperboreans, but the historian Herodotus did (IV, 36), and he recorded that Hesiod mentioned it, as did a lost epic in the Theban cycle called the Epigoni.

Among the poets, Pindar prominently featured Hyperborea in his tenth Pythian ode. In the enchanting Richmond Lattimore translation, it was described thus:

"Never the Muse is absent
from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry
and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.
Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed
in their sacred blood; far from labor and battle they live.

The ancient commentators did not think much of this tenth Pythian ode. They called it a failure, and an impertinent one at that - a failure because of the seemingly pointless introduction of Hyperborea into the body of the poem; and impertinent because in flat contradiction to other writers, Pindar said that Perseus killed Medusa in Hyperborea (the other fellows said it had happened somewhere in Libya).

Unfortunately, most of what the Greeks had to say about the Hyperboreans has been lost. At approximately the same time that Plato was making up his history of Atlantis, a younger writer named Theopompus was inventing a wonderful yarn telling of a navy of giants from the unknown continent beyond the world-encircling Ocean River who invaded Hyperborea first and found it so dull and bland that they promptly turned around and sailed home again. Also at that time a youthful historian named Hecataeus of Abdera collected all the current stories about the Hyperboreans and published a lengthy treatise on them, describing their innocent lives of bucolic bliss on a tropic island north of Europe. Hecataeus's book is lost, as is the Meropis of Theopompus alluded to above.1

Homer is rather indirectly, the grandfather of the Hyperborean mythos. While he did not mention Hyperborea in those works which have come down to us, he did initiate the idea of the author's inventing geography to suit the needs of his story by scattering islands like Ogygia and Aeaea around the Mediterranean with a fine disregard for the actual geography of those parts, and by his references to such more-or-less imaginary realms and peoples as the lands of the Cimmerians and the Amazons.

The later writers derived the notion of Hyperborea from early geographical speculations. The Hyperboreans, they said, were beautiful naked people who lived in the far north-the name, Hyperborea, is usually believed to come from ?pe?

Top of Page