In search of Hyperborea

The first record of the mystical land of Hyperborea comes from Herodotus (5th century BC). He informs us that there were at least three earlier sources before him, now lost, Homer and Hesiod included. Judging by his writings, it seems that Herodotus had a pretty clear idea of the location of Hyperborea. However, only a few centuries later, this knowledge had vanished without a trace. Hyperborea became a mystical place, with various authors assigning it to the various parts of the map – a tradition still alive today.

“Hyperborea” is a compound word. The first part comes from the Greek “hyper” – over, above. The second part relates to the northern wind, Boreas. Therefore, this name simply means: “land located above the northern wind”.

Hyperborea of the North

So where is this northern wind then? Virtually all ancient sources agree that the home of Boreas was in Thracia or Dacia – on the Balkan peninsula. The real problem lies in the prefix “hyper-“. In other words, in which direction is this “above”?

Numerous ancient authors had searched for Hyperborea north of Thracia, focusing mainly on the meaning of the name. For example, Antimachus of the 4th century BC suggested that Hyperboreans are Helvetii, a tribe that dwelled in the foothills of the Alpes. His contemporary, Hecataeus of Abdera saw it even further, in Britain. Ptolemy (Geographia, 2. 21) and Marcian of Heraclea (Periplus, 2. 42) both placed Hyperborea in the North Sea which they called the “Hyperborean Ocean”.

Around the first century AD, some five centuries after Herodotus, many other famous names had joined the debate. Strabo suggested France. Plutarch also saw Gauls as Hyperboreans. Posidonius saw them among the Western Celts. And Pomponius Mela placed them even further north – in the vicinity of the Arctic, as north as possible.

In a nutshell, no one was truly certain where should we look for it. It also seems that the new theories appeared in direct proportion with the new information on the Northern-European geography.

Hyperborea of the east

But the fact is, Boreas was not really the god of the “northern wind”. The ancient authors were very specific that he rules the direction of north-east. And there were also numerous ancient authors who were looking for Hyperborea in much more eastern regions…

The ancient grammarian Simmias of Rhodes in the 3rd century BC connected the Hyperboreans to the Massagetae. The Massagetae were an ancient Eastern Iranian nomadic tribal confederation, who inhabited the steppes of Central Asia, north-east of the Caspian Sea in modern Turkmenistan, western Uzbekistan, and southern Kazakhstan. They were part of the wider Scythian cultures.

The 2nd century AD Stoic philosopher Hierocles equated the Hyperboreans with the Scythians and the Riphean Mountains with the Ural Mountains. Pliny the Elder had similar views. Clement of Alexandria and other early Christian writers also made the Scythian equation.

And this is where things become really interesting…

Thrace – home of Boreas?

One thing that virtually all ancient sources agree on, is that the home of the wind god Boreas was in Thrace. Now, even today in this region, the name of the north-eastern Adriatic wind is Bora.

On its etymology, Wikipedia states the following:

Greek, Italian and English word is bora. The Serbo-Croatian bura and Slovene burja are not etymologically related to bora. They come from Common Slavic “burja” – storm.

And further:

The same root is in Boreas, the North Wind of Greek mythology. Linguists assume that his name comes from Proto-Indo-European *gworhx- ‘mountain’, which gave Germanic burg/berg.

Interestingly, the author of the above text understands that the names “Bora” and “Boreas” are one and the same. However, not finding a satisfying Greek etymology, he chooses “gworhx-, burg or berg”, meaning “hill”, over the Slavic “burja”, (pronounced burya) meaning “windy storm”. Moreover, it is the South Slavic people that now inhabit the region of Thracia, a homeland of Boreas. Is the author’s statement illogical or malicious, it is hard to tell.

The Wiktionary explanation of the name Boreas (here), also derives it from the word “gora” – mountain. But here this root is labeled as Proto-Slavic. Indeed, this word has the same meaning in Sanskrit, Persian and Slavic languages, so there is no need to label it as “Proto-Indo-European”. The same goes for Slavic “breg” and Germanic “berg”.

Anyhow, the word “bura“, is definitely a more appropriate choice, and it is still alive and well in the Serbo-Croatian language. It means simply north-eastern wind. And as an adjective “buran” it describes something turbulent. From the Wiktionary page on “bura”:

Proto-Slavic *buřa, Serbo-Croatian *bura, Bulgarian, Russian, Slovene burya, … Non-Slavic cognates include Old Norse byrr (“fair wind”), Latin furō (“I rage, rave”), Sanskrit भुरति (bhurati, “to stir, palpitate”).

Now, the fact that this word is common Slavic, and that Sanskrit best describes its meaning means that we should perhaps really look more towards the east. And indeed, there is another Boreas there…

Bura wind in Croatia, Wikipedia commons

Buran, Boreas of the east

We saw that everyone agrees that the home of Boreas was in Thrace. However, there was another ancient north-eastern wind with a similar name, further to the east. His name was Buran. From Wikipedia:

The buran is a wind that blows across Iran and eastern Asia – specifically Xinjiang, Siberia, and Kazakhstan. It is a cold wind, sometimes very strong, characteristic of the steppes of the Sarmatic plain, to the west of the Urals.

So, this other north-eastern wind comes from the steppes of Asia, west of the Urals – the land of Scyths and Sarmatians. Were some of the ancient authors aware of this fact? Could this be the reason that they mention specifically Urals and Scythians? Also, isn’t it interesting that Slavs rank among the descendants of these peoples, and that only Slavic languages still preserve the original word – burja or bura?

Boreas, the horse-god

In Greek mythology, Boreas was closely associated with horses. He was said to have fathered twelve colts after taking the form of a stallion, to the mares of Erichthonius, king of Dardania. Pliny the Elder (Natural History iv.35 and viii.67) thought that mares might stand with their hindquarters to the North Wind and bear foals without a stallion.

Of the same opinion was Aelian. In his work On Animals 4. 6 (Greek natural history C2nd A.D.) we read:

Horse-keepers frequently testify to mares being impregnated by the Wind, and to their galloping against Notos, the South Wind or Boreas, the North. And the same Homer knew this when he said ‘Of them was Boreas enamored as they pastured.’

What we see here is a clear indication that the cult of Boreas was closely related to the horse-keeping culture. Even nowadays, the largest horse-riding nations are located in the Sarmatian plain. In northern Europe, France could still be one of the candidates, but this fact alone takes Britain and the Arctic region out of the equation.

Indeed, ancient Asian coins have striking similarities to those of Celtic Europe and Thrace.

Dzungarian Gate, the true home of Boreas?

The story of Boreas, the personified cold north winter wind of Greek legend who lived in a cave north of Greece, parallels that of the buran, a strong winter wind said to blow into the Kazakh steppe out of a hole in a mountainside in the Dzungarian Gate.

The Dzungarian Gate is a straight valley which penetrates the Dzungarian Alatau mountain range along the border between Kazakhstan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It currently serves as a railway corridor between China and the west. Historically, it has been noted as a convenient pass suitable for riders on horseback between the western Eurasian steppe and lands further east, and for its fierce and almost constant winds. It served as an important pass on the silk road, a road that stretched from the Balkans to China.

Ildikó Lehtinen writes that “the story of the cave of the stormwinds somewhere near the Dzungarian Gate” has been known for 2500 years, by travelers from Aristeas in the classic era, to Giovanni di Piano Carpini in the Middle Ages (before Marco Polo), and to Gustaf John Ramstedt in the 20th Century.

Carruthers reports the story of the buran, a ferocious winter wind said to sally from a hole in the side of a mountain:

Apparently, the natives believed that the northern wind originates in the Dzungarian Gate. Many myths of central Asia describe the cradle of the wind as a “hole in the mountain” or an “iron gate in the lake”. In the Dzungarian Gate, the wind called “ebe’ or “yube” by the locals came out of the extinct volcano, but when it reaches its maximum velocity, the locals call it “buran”.

Wind god Boreas, from Hadda, Afghanistan. Musee Guimet.  Wikimedia commons.

Hyperborea of Herodotus

Now let us go back to Herodotus, whose mention of Hyperborea is the oldest one we have. He describes it behind the land of the Issedones, Armaspians and the gold-guarding griffins. What does it mean?

Herodotus first quotes an even older source – the 7th-century BC poet Aristeas. He wrote of the Hyperboreans in a poem (now lost) called Arimaspea. It is a poem about a journey to the Issedones. Today, scholars assume that this tribe lived in the Kazakh Steppe. They are the same as the Wusun of Chinese sources. Their other names include Asii, and finally Ossetians. As they were the first “exotic” tribe for the Greeks, the whole region of Asia was named after them.

However, for the Issedones, Herodotus states that they are the only ones who might know something about the Hyberborans, although even this is unlikely. (Herodotus, Histories 4. 32 – 36)

Herodotus further states that beyond the Issedoenes lived the one-eyed Arimaspians. Heroditus labels Armiaspians “one-eyed” as he tried to translate their name with Greek words, arima – one and spou – eye. Modern scholars assume that the words are actually Iranic and mean “horse lovers”, from ariama – love and aspa – horses.

There are numerous tribes in this region that could be called “horse lovers”. It is hard to pinpoint them, but their name was probably different in the local language, as even the Iranian name is just a label.

As for the gold-guarding griffins, it is hard to tell what was the tribe in question. But what is sure is that the griffins were one of the favorites motifs of the Scythian art.

Now, Herodotus believed that Hyperborea lies even further, behind these nations. Hyperborea of Herodotus was a land in the northeast, behind the place where griffins guard gold and the North Wind issues from a mountain cave.

Of the same opinion is Pausanias, in his Description of Greece 1. 31. 2. Here he describes the way in which “the first-fruits of Hyperboreans” reach Delos. Starting with the Hyperoborans, each nation hands them over to their neighbors, until they reach Delos. The whole route goes like this: Hyperborans – Arimaspians – Issedones – Scythians – Greeks – Athenians

Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, 7. 10 mentions that in the land of Scythians, there is a place “where Boreas rises, and a cave that bears his name”. The Arimaspians call this place “Earth’s door-bolt”. Obviously, even Pliny believed that the home of Boreas is in the Dzungarian gate?

China – the true Hyperborea?

Hyperborea of Herodotus is a land blessed with eternal spring, the land producing two crops of grain per year, but most of the countryside was wild and covered with beautiful forests – the so-called “garden of Apollon.” Grain was their main source of diet. Back to Wikipedia:

Based on both Herodotus and more modern accounts, scholars such as Carl Ruck, J.D.P. Bolton and Ildikó Lehtinen proposed that Dzungarian Gate is the home of Boreas, the North Wind of Greek mythology. As the people who lived on the other side of this place are described as peaceful and civilized, who eat grain and live by the sea, some authors have identified Hyperboreans as the Chinese.

Indeed, after everything we have seen so far, the connection between China and Hyperborea seems like the most plausible one. But even though the connections are already established by a handful of scholars, they still remain unrecognized and virtually unknown to the general public. Here is a brief summary of the facts:

  1. The earliest of the sources locate Hyperborea on the east, behind the land of the Scythians, griffins and the “horse lovers”. (Eurasian steppe)
  2. The gateway to Hyperborea are the Rihepean mountains. Their location is uncertain, but based on the facts presented so far, they could easily refer to the Dzungarian gate.
  3. Behind this passage lies a land that produces grain (rice), covered in lush forests, and whose inhabitants do not get involved in wars with the rest of the horse-riding tribes, who are always in war with each other.
  4. Besides these facts, very little is known about this land, and even the closest of the tribes are not well informed.

In short, this indeed seems like a description of China from the half of the first millennium BC.

Later on, as the new lands were being discovered to the north, the focus of the ancient authors could have easily shifted towards the more rational explanations. Hyperborea became a label for these newly discovered territories as these explanations seemed more logical than the magical griffins and one-eyed people.

Conclusion

As we saw, the correlations between Hyperborea and China are not new. However, there is something else that remained absolutely under the radar, even to the scholars who proposed these theories. And that is the Slavic connection.

Namely, if we accept the fact that Hyperborea was in China, and that the name of the north-eastern wind comes from the Eurasian steppes, we also have to ask who brought it to Thrace, more than 2500 years ago. Because, if the Serbs and Croats had settled the Balkans only in the 6th century AD, according to the official history, why do all Slavic languages, from Russia to Balkans, have the same word for wind in their dictionary?

Wouldn’t it be more logical to assume that back then, just like nowadays, it was the Slavic people that connected the area stretching from Kazakhstan to the Balkans? Especially if we have in mind that the connections between Slavs and the horse riding Sarmatians are already established.

Moreover, the Massagetae, said to be in the neighborhood of the Hyperboreans, are often connected with the Getae of Dacia, modern-day Romania. The same goes for the ancient Balkan Iaziges, who are often connected to Yuezhi of the east. (article linked below).

And finally, the fact is that the region of the Balkans was the first station of the silk road, that ended in China. Obviously, this ancient highway had witnessed migrations of people since the dawn of time.

Could it be that some of those tribes brought the name of their wind god, and as a consequence, Thrace became his homeland from the Greek point of view?

It is an interesting thought to consider. But what is sure is that even today there are a few toponyms in Balkans that might relate to this ancient story. Here they are:

  1. Horgos, a village on the border of Serbia and Hungary. Etymology is unknown. It sounds like Horgos, the main city-hub of the Dzungarian gate.
  2. Iron Gates, a gorge on Danube. Nobody knows how it got its name. Perhaps as the “iron gates on the lake” were a place where the winds are born? The alternative name is Djerdap, meaning whirlpool, vortex. This is a synonym for “burya”.
  3. Ripanj, a neolithic village near modern-day Belgrade, Serbia. Etymology derived from a large rock, called “ripa”. It sounds like Riphean mountains.
  4. Zeta, a river, plain, and a Serbian medieval state in modern-day Montenegro, on the Adriatic sea. Etymology is unknown. It sounds like Zetes (Ζήτης) – a son of god Boreas.
  5. And maybe the last one is far-fetched, but even the exclusively Slavic given name Boris, whose etymology is unknown, might be related to the Boreas.

Could all of these connections truly be just coincidences or there is so much more about the history of the Balkans waiting to be discovered?

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for all that diligent scholarship. As a northern European, I thought the Hyperboreans might be my ancestors, but from the above it seems almost anybody to the North of Greece could be included at various times by classical authors. It’s all fascinating.

    Can I try you with another one?

    The Brythonic (Welsh) name for ‘a prince’ is ‘vledig’. The Irish Gaelic word is ‘flath’, obviously from the same origin. The flowery Irish manner of addressing a prince passed into the English language as ‘flattery’.

    In Russian the word is ‘Vlad’. Now, how come these very dissimilar languages have the same word for ‘prince’. I attribute it to the stationing of Sarmatian cavalry units in Britannia by the Roman Empire. Having conquered the Sarmatians with difficulty the Romans, admiring the warlike skills of their erstwhile enemies now their subjects, did their usual and recruited them as barbarian legionary auxiliaries to parts of the Empire distant from their ancestral lands.

    The Irish encountered them during their incursions into Roman Britannia and admired them also, particularly for their horsemanship, and probably adopted the name ‘Scot’ in imitation of the name ‘Scyth’, (Sarmatian). The Irish then became ‘Scoti’ to the Romans.

    To my knowledge the name ‘Sarmatian’ is derived from the Greek ‘Sauro’ (dragon) and ‘machia’ ‘fighters’. The ‘dragon’ in question was the deadly grass-fire of the Sarmatian plains in Eastern Europe.

    The Anglo-Saxons, and in particular the Angles, adopted the Sarmatian ancestral dragon-fighting hero George as the patron saint of England.
    Comment?

    • Thank you for this comment, and for becoming a Patreon of Cogniarchae. The word “vledig” is new to me, and without a doubt very interesting. As you are aware, the Slavic name Vlad comes from the verb “vladati” meaning “to rule”, therefore Vlad would be a ruler.
      The Sarmatian connection is quite plausible, as we know that there were indeed Sarmatian cavalry units in Britannia. However, there is another article on this website, in which I speculate that Fomorians, the first people of Ireland according to the Irish lore, could have been Pomorians, Baltic Slavs. That would mean even more ancient connection than the Sarmatians. Other interesting links between Balkans and that region are described in the article on the river Iber, also available on this website.

      I am not sure what is the meaning of the name of the Sarmatians. Your etymology is quite interesting, and it is also new to me. St. George is definitely a relic of the Sarmatian tradition, as his introduction to Christianity comes from the ancient city of Sirmium, modern-day Serbia. This city is named after the Sarmatians. The whole cult was built on the older cult of the Thraco-Sarmatian Heros, and the original purpose was probably astronomical, and relates to the constellation of Aries, together with the neighboring Coetus, the dragon, and Perseus the dragon slayer. The basic idea was that these constellations marked the beginning of spring in the past. In other words, time to get on the horses and start the campaigns.
      St. George was a patron of knights and later crusaders, but the roots of his worship are definitely Sarmatian and they came from the eastern steppes.

  2. Thank you for your kind reception of my antiquarian speculations based on etymology. My education in the West of Ireland was heavily biased in favour of the ancient cultures and languages Gaelic (with some other Celtic), Greek and Latin, with some German, and of course English. I keep seeing startling etymological connections. The ancient Celtic intellectual elite the Druids specialised in memory training so the Irish are noted to this day for the antiquity of their folk-lore, and their fondness for it. Their pre-Roman culture survived until destroyed by the ‘iron armies’ of Henry and Elizabeth Tudor in the 16th and 17thC CE. Antiquarians (‘seanachai’) were a recognised and honoured sub-class, ‘sean’ meaning ‘ancient’ and ‘chai’ denoting ‘skill’, of the Druid Order. Let me therefore throw a few more pebbles into the pool of antiquarian scholarship.

    The ancient European languages and culture are called ‘Indo-European’. Your description of our genetic ancestors reinforces that description. The Neolithic Iranian farmers, migrating preferentially through the fertile valleys of the great mountain chains brought much of our agriculture to Europe, even to the far West.

    The Scyths (proto-Slavic horse-warriors) brought advanced horsemanship to us. I believe my own Celtic North-British ancestors called themselves ‘Scoti’ in admiration of the ‘Scythi’. Many founding kings of the early Scottish nation were called ‘Eochai’, a name meaning ‘horseman’ in Gaelic and pronounced ‘yockee’. Obviously this is the origin of the English word ‘jockey’. To this day the English often call the Scots ‘Jocks’. It is likely that (some of) the people who besieged Troy in the Greek ILIAD, called ‘the Achaians’ also were of this culture. A memorial of the Pharaoh Rameses II says that he repelled invaders including the ‘Achai-vasta’.

    If I may go on. In the ancient Irish manuscript Lebor Gabala Eirinn, the Book of Invasions of Ireland, there is respectful mention of a people called ‘the Feni’ (pron. Fay-nee). The much-used name ‘Fenians’, and even possibly the modern political movement ‘Sinn Fein’ is derived from them. In my childhood their origin was a mystery, though the name of my home county ‘Ciarrai’ (Kerry) the Kingdom of the Black-haired People, should have guided us. It has since become obvious that these are the Phoenicians. They came often to the British Isles (the west, not the east) to trade for metal, especially tin, in the Bronze Age. The name McCarthy (in Gaelic Mac Carthaig, Son of, well, ‘Carthaig’) is still common in Kerry. I had as cousin a priest called ‘Father Carthage’.

    The connection to your suggestion that they crossed the Atlantic to America is obvious. If the North Atlantic passage from Spain to Cornwall and Ireland across the stormy Bay of Biscay way out of sight of land did not dismay them, then the calmer trade-winds passage to America would surely not. And these people were above all maritime traders. They dominated the Mediterranean, which must have included the Adriatic, until the jealous Romans launched their deadly vendetta against them.

    We do not credit our ancestors enough for their skills, science, ingenuity and courage.

    By the way, there is more than one path to America. More of that another time.

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