By Alberto Majrani, journalist, photographer, and author
Translation by Malena Lagerhorn, author of ILION – the day will come when sacred Troy must die
In a previous post, Iliade e Odissea. Omero raccontò delle saghe nordiche? (in Italian) or The First Documented Mass Murder in History (in English), we saw how the Homeric stories and the classical mythology take on a much more logical and coherent meaning once you move their origin to the Nordics, from where the amber originates, which we find in many Mediterranean archaeological sites. We will now locate the Pillars of Hercules (Herakles stoder, Swedish translation), another of the enigmas that already captivated the ancients: in fact, the traditional location in the vicinity of the Strait of Gibraltar is, as usual, a mere hypothesis with no solid evidence. The Pillars of Hercules should overlook the ocean and be the ultimate limit of the known world, but beyond Gibraltar, the Spanish coast and Africa continue for several kilometers, and in addition there are no natural formations reminding of real columns, but a steep pinnacle of rock. So the ancient geographers had to place them there because they did not know where else to put them. A whole lot has been said and written in recent times about the possible real location of the mythical Pillars of Hercules, even on … columns of this blog; and I think it is now time for me to speak my mind.
But let us start with looking at who was this formidable hero, by the Romans called Hercules and by the Greeks Heracles. He was the son of the god Zeus and a mortal, Alcmene, and was deified after his death. His cult, under various names, had in ancient times spread throughout Europe. Some ancient historians report that there existed two (or perhaps three) similar characters with the same name, from different eras.
Without bothering to list all of his famous twelve labors, we can see that some of them have a strong Nordic location: the huge Erymanthian boar is stuck in snow, the cattle of the monster Geryon recall of the saga of the Danish Gefjon, the apples of the Hesperides grow in the Hyperborean land, e.g. in the far north. In addition, to collect them, Hercules gets help from Atlas, the giant who holds the starry vault: but the firmament apparently revolves around the north celestial pole, so where could Atlas stand to serve as a pin and hold it up, except in the vicinity of the north pole of the earth?
Finally, the story of the Golden Hind of Artemis, a female deer with golden horns that was yoked to the chariot of the goddess Artemis (Diana), which escapes, as well, to the hyperborean lands before being captured by Hercules. Now, the only kind of deer among which the female has horns is the reindeer, the only deer that can be yoked to a cart is also a reindeer (as Santa Claus teaches…), and finally, the typical deer of the far north, where it migrates long distances, is again, the reindeer! And reindeers do not live in Greece, and certainly never have lived there in the past, since no such fossils have been found, and their physiological characteristics are not suitable for the Greek environment. And yes, there is a small bronze statuette from the eighth century BC that represents a deer nursing a kid, so it is without doubt a female, with a nice pair of horns … but this is a stylized representation and does not look like a real reindeer, but it may well be that the unknown artist made it according to the tales of his or her parents or grandparents, without ever actually having seen one.
Regarding the other eight labors there are no certain geographical locations, although they often are set in water-rich areas, such as at rivers and swamps, as are many other “Greek” myths: the names of the places, as usual, may be the result of a transposition. The myths are born of real events and then transfigured by subsequent interpretations and continuous word of mouth: the difficulty is to be able to go back to the real events and to the original locations. In this regard, it can be seen that the cult of Hercules, also called Ogmio (or Ogmios, or Ogma, or Ogham), was widespread in all of Northern Europe, including the British Isles, from the remotest antiquity. So if Hercules was a Nordic god, you will understand why the placement of the Pillars of Hercules in the Mediterranean causes many doubts … simply, they are not in the Mediterranean!
So where could these gigantic columns be, located to the extreme limit of the known world, before the scary jump in the ocean, the “Ocean” river that reminds of the Gulf Stream? Felice Vinci, the author of The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales, think they could match the Faroe Islands, while I believe that the ideal location is the north coast of Ireland, where there is an extraordinary natural formation, known today as the “Giant’s Causeway”, in fact made up by tens of thousands of huge basalt columns! That is, not only by two miserable columns, as they are often represented, but about forty thousand!
According to Irish legend, the columns were built by the giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill, a name that has a strange similarity to Hercules. In fact, this natural wonder dates back to a volcanic eruption that occurred about 60 million years ago, well before humans came along on the face of the earth.
And finally, is it not so that the shallow sandbanks that lie off the coast of the British Isles are the very remains of a certain island sunk in the ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules that so many are searching for? Between 4000 and 3000 BC there was a cold spike that interrupted the long post-glacial climatic optimum. As a result of this little ice age, the sea level remained lower for about a millennium, bringing into the open a vast territory, which geologists call Doggerland, but after that the area was covered by the ocean again. Something similar occurred in the period between 2000 and 1500 BC. Given that, (I’m kidding, of course!), until you can find a doormat that says “Welcome to Atlantis” any place for the location of the mythical lost island works, maybe it is time to take a ride in a submarine over there…
One might object that, according to the story handed down by Plato, Atlantis would however have disappeared suddenly, perhaps because of a catastrophic tsunami, a giant ocean wave, such as those that in 2006 brought death and devastation on the coast of India and in 2011 in Japan. Well, if we look to the north, a thousand kilometers from the Irish coast, we find Iceland, an island of glaciers and active volcanoes. In 1996, the eruption of a volcano, located under the huge glacier Vatnajökull, dissolved about 3 kilometers of blocks of ice, creating a huge lake that, after one month, brought down part of the glacier. An appalling mass of water, ice and mud was poured out and submerged a vast region, fortunately almost uninhabited, destroying everything in its path. It is not hard to imagine that something similar, on a larger scale if it occurred during a cold period, with even thicker ice sheets, may have caused the tidal wave that could have destroyed the Atlantean civilization. Large ash clouds could have brought changes to the climate and unusual optical phenomena in the atmosphere, which can be interpreted as a consequence of divine wrath. Something very similar happened in Santorini, so the two events may have melt together and … confused the imagination of primitive peoples. The very fact that the god of the sea, Poseidon, is called Enosichthon, e.g. “Earthshaker”, makes one suspect that the ancients had correctly connected tsunamis with earthquakes. Recently, a geological study conducted by the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology found that something similar occurred in the Mediterranean about 8000 years ago when a giant landslide of Mount Etna, of 35 cubic kilometers, caused the destructive flooding of several Neolithic villages at the Middle East coasts. In 6200 BC a landslide of a huge mass of ice on the coast of Norway, known as Storegga Slide, caused a catastrophic tsunami that devastated the island that emerged at the time at the center of Doggerland, and had a huge impact on Mesolithic populations. In fact, Plato speaks of a catastrophe that occurred 9,000 years before Solon, which roughly corresponds with the end of the last ice age, but there are no traces of an evolved civilization, similar to that described by him at that time. Of course, one can always argue that even Plato relays a fantasy story, specially created for educational purposes, and that it has no bearing on reality. But as I said, very often, the myths are born of real events or natural phenomena, of which we lose the sense when they are transported out of their original context, temporal and geographical. The question is to what extent Plato’s account, which is the first in history that speaks explicitly of Atlantis, although many similar myths are found a bit of everywhere, to be taken literally. Other colossal landslides have occurred in the northern regions, due to the rapid rise of the whole territory, which occurred with the melting of the heavy ice sheet. Norwegian steep cliffs are the result of what geologists call glacioeustasy; detached heavy blocks of rock, able to cause destructive waves. If Vinci is correct, identifying Scheria with Norway, it could be argued that the “great mountain”, with which the vengeful Poseidon covers the land of the Phoenicians, is the memory of one of these disastrous landslides.
It is also possible that the tsunami was caused by the fall of a large meteorite or comet in the ocean, but that might not have left visible geological traces. An event that would remain as such a testimony is the myth of Phaeton, son of Helios, the sun god, who falls into the river Eridanus when riding astray on his father’s sun chariot, too close to the Earth; the nymphs were crying tears of amber, confirming the much more logical placement of the myth in the Nordics: the term originally refered to a European river (perhaps the Rhone or the Rhine, or another river) and then was believed to be the river Po, with the usual mechanism to designate different locations with similar names. In February 2013, the fall of a meteorite in Russia of about ten meters in diameter has provided a spectacular and disturbing example of what could be the effect of a similar incident. The incandescent meteor crossed the atmosphere at the speed of 54,000 km/h, about 44 times the speed of sound, leaving a trail of smoke hundreds of kilometers long, and disintegrated over the city of Chelyabinsk with an explosion comparable to that of an atomic bomb, shattering all windows, injuring thousands and damaging six cities in the region, and concluded its run in a frozen lake. (Video here.)
For sure, even if we talk about Atlantis as a lost “continent”, an island the size of an entire continent cannot vanish in the course of a few days, without a trace; in addition we cannot use some sort of fantasy-geology to condense time, for geological processes that require hundreds of millions of years! It is possible, however, that there existed a seafaring civilization that lived in coastal areas or on a small island, which was largely swept away by a catastrophic event, and that some of its people survived, maybe in other places, transmitting to their descendants, in the form of myth, days and times gone by. The Neolithic settlement on the Orkney Islands could be remains of this civilization, which because of its importance has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Certainly, nowhere in the world are there any traces of an ancient civilization as technologically advanced as our present one; although some sculptures or graffiti of ambiguous meaning have sparked the imagination of many fans of mysteries; archaeologists have never found objects that were more “modern” than the archaeologists themselves. Unfortunately, there is no ancient tomb where a plastic jar has been found, or a carbon fiber racket, nor a lightsaber! No one, in the old days to the present day, has ever found any object of some strange material that has not already been invented: if someone had found something like that he or she would immediately have become rich and famous!
Returning to the theme of the columns, it is worth taking a look at another very characteristic place: the Scottish island of Staffa, in the Hebrides. On the island there is a cave (Fingal’s cave, the cave of Fingal, another name of the same Fionn) where the surf produces a kind of very impressive howling, inspiring the composer Felix Mendelssohn in his symphonic poem, and in more recent times, even Pink Floyd in a psychedelic song, never published in the official records and part of the long suite entitled Echoes. But what is most noteworthy is the comparison between his appearance and Homer’s description of the monster Scylla:
Skylla lurks inside it – the yelping horror,
yelping, no louder than any suckling pup
but she’s a grisly monster, I assure you.
No one could look on her with any joy,
not even a god who meets her face-to-face…
She has twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down
and six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each,
each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickset,
packed tight – and armed to the hilt with black death!
Holed up in the cavern’s bowels from her waist down
she shoots out her heads, out of that terrifying pit,
angling right from her nest, wildly sweeping the reefs
for dolphins, dogfish or any bigger quarry she can drag
from the thousands Amphitrite spawns in groaning seas.
(The Odyssey, translation by Robert Fagles, ll. 94-107)
Further south, off the coast of Cornwall, lies the archipelago of the Isles of Scilly…
This article is an excerpt from the new book by Alberto Majrani entitled The CUNNING HOMER – Ulysses, Nobody, Philoctetes and the ingenious deception of the Odyssey
The first version of the book (in Italian) can be bought on Amazon.