Hyperboreans: Herodotos, Hekataios, Diodoros, and others on a legendary northern people (four century BCE to third century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Hyperboreans: Herodotos, Hekataios, Diodoros, and others on a legendary northern people (four century BCE to third century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified July 3, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=17018.

Ancient authors: Herodotos (mid-fifth century BCE), Inquiries, or Histories 4.32-36; Hekataios (Hecataeus) of Abdera (late fourth century BCE), On Hyperboreans = FGrHist 264 F7-14 (link), as discussed by Diodoros of Sicily (first century BCE), Library of History 2.47 (link); Pliny the Elder (first century CE), Natural History 4.89-91 and 6.33-35 (link); and, Aelian (second-third century CE), On Characteristics of Animals 11.1 (link).

Comments: Gathered here are several authors’ discussions of the Hyperboreans (literally extreme northerners). Herodotos is very skeptical about the stories he has heard (especially from Delians). Nonetheless, he shows us that local populations (rather than merely elite authors) were very interested in the question of far-off peoples and possible relations with them.

Other authors here are somewhat less skeptical for different reasons, with several showing some dependence on Hekataios of Abdera’s (now lost) influential work of the late fourth century BCE on this legendary people. Those who draw on Hekataios present an image of a utopian society to the north beyond the Scythians and other known Pontic peoples. The legends sketch out the ideal lifestyle and piety of this people, but they also tend to emphasize a connection with Apollo and/or the Delos’ sanctuary of Apollo, as had Herodotos’ Delian sources.

Continuing his fondness for utopian islands (as with the extreme western island at this link or the extreme eastern island at this link), Diodoros emphasizes that the Hyperboreans live on an island in the extreme north. While Pliny begins with some hesitancy about this legendary people, he nonetheless refers to supposed offerings made by them at Delos as evidence of their actual existence. Aelian draws just one Apollo-related mythical story from Hekataios and promises more on the Hyperboreans somewhere else (but this is never delivered to us).

Works consulted: J. Dillery, “Hecataeus of Abdera: Hyperboreans, Egypt, and the ‘Interpretatio Graeca,’” Historia 47 (1998): 255–75 (link).

Source of the translations: See lengthy list at end of post.


Herodotos (mid-fifth century BCE)

[Doubts about the Hyperboreans]

(4.32-36) Concerning the Hyperborean people neither the Scythians nor any other inhabitants in these lands [north of the Black Sea] tell us anything, except perhaps the Issedonians. And I think that even they tell us nothing; for if there was anything about Hyperboreans, then the Scythians would have also related this, just like they tell about the one-eyed men. But Hesiod speaks of Hyperboreans and so does Homer in his poem The Heroes’ Sons,​ if that really is a work by Homer.

[Delian stories about Hyperboreans and Apollo’s sanctuary]

But the Delians​ tell much more concerning them than do any others. They say that offerings wrapped in wheat-straw are brought from the Hyperboreans to Scythia. When they have passed Scythia, each people in turn receives them from its neighbours until they are carried to the Adriatic sea, which is the most westerly limit of their journey. From there, they are brought on to the south, the people of Dodona being the first Greeks to receive them. From Dodona they come down to the Melian gulf, and are carried across to Euboia. Each city sends them on to the next city until they come to Karystos. After this, Andros is left out of their journey, for it is Karystians who carry them to Tenos, and Tenians to Delos. In this way these offerings come to Delos.

But on the first journey the Hyperboreans sent two young women bearing the offerings, to whom the Delians give the names Hyperoche and Laodike, sending with them for safe conduct five men of their people as escort, those who are now called “Perpherees” and greatly honoured at Delos. But when the Hyperboreans found that those whom they sent never returned, they were very upset that it should ever be their fate not to receive their messengers back. So they carry the offerings, wrapped in wheat-straw, to their borders, and charge their neighbours to send them on from their own country to the next. The offerings, it is said, come by this conveyance to Delos. I can say of my own knowledge that there is a custom like these offerings, namely, that when the Thracian and Paionian women sacrifice to the royal Artemis, they have wheat-straw with them while they sacrifice.

This I know that they do. The Delian girls and boys cut their hair in honour of these Hyperborean young women who died at Delos. The girls before their marriage cut off a tress and lay it on the tomb, wound around a spindle. This tomb is at the foot of an olive-tree, on the left hand of the entrance of the temple of Artemis. The Delian boys tie some of their hair around a green stalk, and they likewise lay it on the tomb.

In this way, these young women are honoured by the inhabitants of Delos. These same Delians relate that two virgins, Arge and Opis, came from the Hyperboreans by way of the peoples mentioned above to Delos at a still earlier time than the coming of Hyperoche and Laodike. The latter came to bring to Ilithiya the tribute whereto they had agreed for ease of child-bearing. But Arge and Opis, they say, came with the gods themselves and received honours of their own from the Delians. For the women collected gifts for them, calling upon their names in the hymn made for them by Olen a man of Lycia. It was from Delos that the islanders and Ionians learned to sing hymns to Opis and Arge, calling upon their names and collecting gifts (this Olen after his coming from Lycia made also the other and ancient hymns that are sung at Delos). Further they say that when the thigh-bones are burned in sacrifice on the altar, the ashes of them are all used for casting on the burial-place of Opis and Arge. This burial-place is behind the temple of Artemis, looking eastwards, nearest to the refectory of the people of Keos.

Thus far have I spoken about the Hyperboreans, and let that be enough, because I do not tell the story of that Abaris, alleged to be a Hyperborean, who carried the arrow over the whole world, fasting along the way. But if there are men beyond the north wind, then there are others beyond the south. And I laugh to see how many have up until now drawn maps of the world, not one of them presenting the matter reasonably. For they draw the world as round as if fashioned by compasses, encircled by the river of Ocean, and Asia and Europe of a similar large size. For myself, I will in a few words show the extent of the two, and how each should be drawn. . . [omitted following sections].


Diodoros of Sicily (first century BCE)

[Legendary people on an island in the north]

(2.47) Now for our part, since we have thought it was appropriate to make mention of the regions of Asia which lie to the north, we feel that it will not be foreign to our purpose to discuss the legendary accounts of the Hyperboreans.​ Among those who have written about the ancient myths, Hekataios and certain others say that, in the regions beyond the land of the Celts​, there lies in the ocean an island no smaller than Sicily. This island, the account continues, is situated in the north and is inhabited by the Hyperboreans. They are labelled with this designation because their home is beyond the point from where the north wind (Boreas) blows. The island is both fertile and productive of all kinds of crops, and since it has an unusually temperate climate it produces two harvests each year.

[Myths associated with them and connection with Apollo]

Moreover, the following legend is told concerning it: Leto​ was born on this island, and for that reason Apollo is honoured among them above all other gods. In a way, the inhabitants are looked upon as priests of Apollo since they praise this god daily and continuously in song and honour him exceedingly. There is also on the island both a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple which is adorned with many votive offerings and is spherical in shape. Furthermore, a city is there which is sacred to this god, and the majority of its inhabitants are performers on the cithara. These performers continually play on this instrument in the temple and sing hymns of praise to the god, glorifying his deeds.

[Interactions with Greeks and Delians specifically]

We are informed that the Hyperboreans also have a language which is peculiar to them. They are most friendly disposed towards the Greeks, and especially towards the Athenians and the Delians,​ who have inherited this good-will from most ancient times. The myth also relates that certain Greeks visited the Hyperboreans and left behind them there costly votive offerings bearing inscriptions in Greek letters. In the same way Abaris,​ a Hyperborean, came to Greece in ancient times and renewed the good-will and kinship of his people to the Delians.

They also say that the moon, as viewed from this island, appears to be only a short distance from the earth and to have upon it prominent features, like those of the earth, which are visible to the eye. The account is also given that the god visits the island every nineteen years, the period in which the return of the stars to the same place in the heavens is accomplished. For this reason, the nineteen-year period is called by the Greeks the “year of Meton.”​ At the time of this appearance of the god, he both plays on the cithara and dances continuously the night through from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades, expressing in this manner his delight in his successes. The kings of this city and the supervisors of the sacred precinct are called “Boreadians” (Boreadai), since they are descendants of Boreas, and the succession to these positions is always kept in their family.


Pliny the Elder (first century CE)

[Climate and environment of the Hyperboreans]

(4.89-91) Behind these [Ripaian] mountains and beyond the north wind there dwells (if we believe this) a happy people (gens) called the Hyperboreans, who live to extreme old age and are famous for legendary marvels. This is location, it is believed, of the hinges on which the firmament turns and the extreme limits of the revolutions of the stars, with six months’ daylight and a single day of the sun in retirement, not as the ignorant have said from the spring equinox until autumn. For these people, the sun rises once in the year, at midsummer, and sets once, at midwinter. It is a genial region, with a delightful climate and exempt from every harmful blast.

[Lifestyle and customs]

The homes of the natives are the woods and groves. They worship the gods individually and in congregations. All discord and all sorrow is unknown. Death comes to them only when, owing to satiety of life, after holding a banquet and anointing their old age with luxury, they leap from a certain rock into the sea: this mode of burial is the most blissful.


Some authorities have placed them not in Europe but on the nearest part of the coasts of Asia, because those named Attakians (Attaci) are there with similar customs and a similar location. Others have put them midway between the two suns, the sunsets of the antipodes and our sunrise. However, this is quite impossible because of the enormous expanse of sea that comes between. Those who locate them merely in a region having six months of daylight have recorded that they sow in the morning periods, reap at midday, pluck the fruit from the trees at sunset, and retire into caves for the night.

[Supposed evidence of their existence]

Nor is it possible to doubt about this people, as so many authorities state that they regularly send the first fruits of their harvests to Delos as offerings to Apollo, whom they specially worship. These offerings used to be brought by virgins, who for many years were held in veneration and hospitably entertained by the peoples on the route. They did this until, because of a violation of good faith, they instituted the custom of depositing their offerings at the nearest frontiers of the neighbouring people. These people then passed them on to their neighbours, and so on until they finally reached Delos. Later this practice itself also passed out of use. . . [omitted extensive sections].

[Pliny returns to extreme northern peoples, including Hyperboreans]

. . . (6.33-35) Having now completed our description of the interior of Asia let us in imagination cross the Ripaian mountains [most northerly and perhaps imagined mountains] and proceed to the right along the shores of the ocean [i.e. the main ocean that surrounds the entire inhabited world in the imagination of Pliny and others]. The ocean washes the coast of Asia towards three points of the compass, under the name of Scythian ocean on the north, Eastern ocean on the east and Indian ocean on the south. The ocean is subdivided into a variety of designations according to the bays that it forms and the people dwelling on its coasts.

A great portion of Asia however also, adjoining the north, owing to the severity of its frosty climate contains vast deserts. From the extreme north-north-east to the northernmost point at which the sun rises in summer there are the Scythians, and outside of them and beyond the point where north-north-east begins some have placed the Hyperboreans, who are said by a majority of authorities to be in Europe. After that point the first place known is Lytharmis, a promontory of the Celtic region, and the river Karamboukis, where the range of the Ripaian monntains terminates and with it the rigour of the climate relaxes.

[Arimphaeans as parallel to Hyperboreans]

Here we have reports of a people called the Arimphaeans, a people not unlike the Hyperboreans. They dwell in forests and live on berries. Long hair is considered to be disgraceful in the case of women and men alike. Their manners are also mild. Consequently they are reported to be considered a sacred descent group and to be left unmolested even by the savage peoples among their neighbours. This immunity is not confined to themselves but extended also to people who have fled to them for refuge. Beyond them [i.e. to the southeast] we come directly to the Scythians, Kimmerians, Kissians, Anthians, Georgians, and a people of Amazons, the last reaching to the Kaspian (Caspian) and Hyrkanian seas.


Aelian (early third century CE)

[Myths of Boreas and Apollo as cited from Hekataios]

(11.1) The descent group (genos) of the Hyperboreans and the honours there paid to Apollo are sung of by poets and are celebrated by historians, among whom is Hekataios, not of Miletos but of Abdera. Right now, I do not think there is any reason to bring in many other matters of importance which he narrates, and in fact I will postpone the full recital to some other occasion, when it will be more pleasant for me and more convenient for my hearers. The only facts which this narrative invites me to relate are as follows: This god [Apollo] has the three sons of Boreas and Chione as priests. These are brothers by birth, and six forearm-lengths tall. So when at the customary time they perform the established ritual of the previously mentioned god, innumerable swans from clouds swoop down from what are called the Rhipaian mountains and (after they have circled around the temple as though they were purifying it by their flight) they descend into the precinct of the temple, an area of immense size and of surpassing beauty. Now whenever the singers sing their hymns to the god and the harpers accompany the chorus with their harmonious music, at that point the swans join together in unison to chant and never once do they sing a discordant note or out of tune. Rather they chant in unison with the natives who are skilled in the sacred melodies as though the swans had been given the key by the conductor. Then, when the hymn is finished the previously mentioned winged choristers (so to call them) leave after their customary service in honour of the god and after singing and celebrating his praises all through the day.


Source of the translations: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain; C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (passed away in 1954); H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well); A.F. Scholfield, Aelian: On the Characteristics of Animals, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1958), public domain in Canada (passed away in 1969), adapted by Harland.


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