The Hyperboreans – a Curious Pilgrimage. Priestesses from Beyond the North Wind.

Priestesses from Beyond the North Wind

“Two damsels…brought the first offerings from the Hyperboreans; and with them the Hyperboreans sent five men, to keep them from all harm on the way; these are the persons whom the Delians call Perpherees and to whom great honors are paid at Delos(…)
“The damsels sent by the Hyperboreans died in Delos, and in their honor all the Delian girls and youths are wont to cut off their hair. The girls, before their marriage day, cut off a curl, and twining it around a distaff, lay it upon the grave of the strangers [the Hyperborean “damsels”]. This grave is on the left as one enters the precinct of Artemis, and has an olive tree growing on it. The youths wind some of their hair round a kind of grass, and, lioke the girls, place it upon the tomb. Such are the honors paid to these [Hyperborean] damsels by the Delians.”
                       Herodotus, Histories, IV.33-34

Our knowledge of Northern Europe before Christ is mostly limited to archaeological finds. None of these early sources make any reference of “Germani”, since all the barbarians in northwestern Europe were assigned the label Keltoi (Celts), making no distinction between language groups and tribes. “Keltoi” was a term used to describe all the people who lived to the North-West of the Classical world. The “Germani” enter the written records of Roman invaders quite late.

The earliest surviving references to what is most likely Scandinavia are from the fifth century BC, such as the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC). An almost mythical concept, the Greeks referred to “Hyperborea” – the Land beyond the North Wind – where the sun shone twenty-four hours a day. Herodotus described how Hyperboreans from the Northwest brought “offerings” abroad, first to the Skythians, an Iranian nomadic people living in the region of the Pontic-Caspian steppe in Eastern Europe. The offerings were not given to the Skythians, but taken to them before they were taken further to the south.

These “offerings”, wrapped in wheaten straw, were carried by two Hyperborean women, who were guarded by five men who were to keep them from harm. The mysterious items were curiously brought from tribe to tribe after tribe until they reached Delos (a Greek island near Mycenae), where the women and their guardians were paid “great honors”. The holy sanctuary of Delos had an important religious position in the Classical world, since Greek mythology relates that it was the birthplace of the solar and lunar sibling deities Apollo and Artemis, and was a place of pilgrimage. The island has revealed many ancient sacred sites dedicated to a goddess, and during the age of Herodotus, the goddess Artemis was the chief deity. Herodotus also claims that the wrapping of offerings in wheat straws was introduced by the Hyperboreans and practiced later by many people when they sacrifice to “queenly Artemis”, a practice that Herodotus himself could testify, as he had seen it himself.[1]

Herodotus´ account is not hard evidence for actual events and religious customs, but it is all we have, and Herodotus obviously used contemporary sources that he himself found credible. In my opinion, the account is in fact credible, if we read carefully and consider the information together with what else we may know about Scandinavian prehistory and its powerful connection with the Mediterranean world. I believe that Herodotus account is one of many that strongly suggests profound interaction between the Northern and Southern parts of Europe in ancient times. It would explain how foreign influences such as Sacred Marriage, labyrinth rituals and Mysteries came to Scandinavia.

Herodotus apparently believed that the people from Beyond the North Wind also worshipped Artemis. Naming the Northern goddess Artemis would be a typical Greek-Roman way of identifying the gods of other people with their own. This kind of identification suggests that an important goddess of the Hyperboeans held certain attributes in common with Artemis. However, if the story is true, it is extremely likely that also the Hyperboreans regarded Greek Artemis as identical with their own goddess, and that they may have been making a pilgrimage to her birthplace.

According to Herodotus, the first Hyperborean envoys did not return to Hyperborea but died in Delos, so that when these mysterious Northerners were to send new “offerings”, they charged their neighbors to send them forward from one nation to another until the items again reached Delos.[2] As I see it, the story suggests that the first visit was a way of establishing cross-cultural religious contact between the various people who worshipped some version of Artemis and Apollo, where the connecting points are the mysterious offerings to the goddess. The female envoys may have been pilgrims to the birthplace of their gods, or even more likely, since the story suggests an organized international effort, priestesses on a religious-political mission on behalf of their people, seeking to establish – or perhaps re-establish – a regular contact between the tribes and their holy sanctuaries.

In my opinion, we may be seeing some kind of religious ritual where the female envoys were priestesses who were charged with the transmission of holy objects to many different Indo-European tribes and nations, a sign of close cultural interaction not only regarding trade, but also regarding religion. According to Herodotus, the Hyperboreans made sacrifice to “queenly Artemis”, bringing offerings to the goddess wrapped in “wheaten straws”, exactly as the offerings that were passed from tribe to tribe were also wrapped in “wheaten straws”.[3]

The concept of holy objects being brought from place to place remind me of later sources describing how different German tribes who had agreed to a confederation of the tribes where they were all known as the Suebi (“One´s Own People”) would gather together in a period of sanctified peace during the annual ritual of the goddess Nerthus whose statue was brought from tribe to tribe accompanied by large processions of people.[4]

Herodotus also reveals that the two women who carried the offerings on a journey from Scandinavia through Europe all the way to the Greek island of Delos were in fact not the only ones or the first ones: it had happened before when two other Hyperborean “virgins” made the same journey, and mysteriously, this happened “at the same time as the gods of Delos” came to the island. This, according to Herodotus, explains why the Hyperborean ladies were worshipped alongside the other deities at the Delian sanctuary, buried in a sacred tomb behind Artemis´s temple, and mentioned in their sacred hymns. The ashes of the thighbones of the second pair of Hyperborean women were burnt upon the altar of the goddess and scattered over the tomb of the first pair. Their grave was placed to the left of the entrance to the temple of Artemis.[5]

Herodotus concludes his tale about the Hyperboreans by declaring that he shall pass by the story of “Arabis, who is said to have been a Hyperborean, and to have gone with his arrow all round the world without once eating” in silence.[6] Clearly, Herodotus regarded that story as pure fiction, whereas he found the story of the Hyperborean ladies who traveled to Delos to become gods there in their own right, as credible, having seen evidence for this event in the cult of Delos in his own time.

There is no way of knowing how visiting priestesses from Scandinavia came to reach a prominent role in the religious cult of a Greek island and whether it had to do with the items they brought as offerings to the goddess, or with powers that the women wielded (or were thought to be wielding). What we are seeing, however, is an indication that religion in Pagan Europe during the Iron Age was sometimes a matter of cross cultural sharing, pilgrimages and tours of divine concord between the tribes.

The Goddess of the Hyperboreans

In Herodotus story, we may find a little insight into the pantheon of early Scandinavians. Herodotus clearly saw a connection between the cult of Artemis and the cult that the Scandinavian women brought from Scandinavia to Delos. As mentioned above, it is likely that the Scandinavians of the time worshipped a goddess who was sufficiently similar to Artemis that both they and the Greeks were prone to identify them as one.

It is a typical feature of the later Norse religion that there is a fluid overlapping between the identities of deities, as Snorri stated:

“How shall Freyia be referred to?…All Ásyniur can be referred to by naming the name of another one and referring to them by their possessions or deeds or descent.”[7]

Snorri also stated that Freyia took upon herself new names and new shapes whenever she came to new people. There is every reason to believe that this late Norse goddess of many shapes and names was part of a very ancient tradition. As suggested by Herodotus account, the Northerners were just as prone to identify foreign deities with their own as Greeks and Romans were.

That the goddess Freyia is similar to Artemis is in many ways true. Just like the Greek goddess, so the Norse goddess has a brother, and the two were often worshipped together as the Lord and the Lady (which is the meaning of their names). Two older sibling deities of the Norse lore who had faded by the Viking Age, but who may have preceded Freyia and Freyr are Sól and Máni – the Sun and the Moon.

In Greek mythology, Artemis is connected to the Moon, wild animals, to wild nature and the hunt, as well as childbirth and midwifery, magic and witchcraft. Her brother Apollo is connected to the Sun and to matters of civilization and rulership. In Norse myths, the Sun is feminine and the Moon masculine, and their later counterparts Freyr and Freyia seem to follow in this trail: Freyia is associated with bright shine, rays of light, gold and flames. We know that the Sun goddess was the dominant Scandinavian deity during the Bronze Age, and that her symbol, the sun disc, was gradually replaced with more anthropomorphic images towards the end of that era, which is exactly the era when Herodotus lived, although he may have been relating an already ancient legend. Freyia´s brother Freyr shares some features with Moon, such as control over the weather, growth and fertility, and is, like Moon, known for his power and potency.

Apart from the solar and lunar gender-switch, Freyia is like Artemis connected to wild animals, wild nature, childbirth, midwifery and the realm of magic, while Freyr, like Apollo, is associated with law, order, ruler-ship, cultivated nature and civilization.

Freyia is a Norse goddess who was preceded by earlier goddesses with various names according to tribe and time period, but who all carry the same important attributes. Among the many Norse goddesses, Freyia stands out as a “great goddess” by the definition of a deity that takes a dominating position in the official, government-sponsored cult, is worshipped by both genders and all classes, is independent in her actions, and has power that stretches into many different spheres, ranging from war to love, fate, birth and death. Commonly, a “great deity” is also one known to appear in multiple shapes and is usually associated with both heaven and earth All this is true for Freyia, who even has a name to go with the role, meaning “sovereign”, “lady”.[8]

By the time that Edda mythology took the form we know today – probably during the Viking Age – many of these goddesses of earlier Germanic and Norse people have been included into the poetical-mythical lore. Many of these names remembered in poetry and in the cult of the dísir where the goddesses were worshipped as a collective and countless names could be recited ritually to invoke them, are old and had either lost importance in the religious cult or never had any importance in Scandinavia, but their names survived, often serving to provide variety in poetical metaphors that describe the Norse goddesses who inherited their functions and their attributes. The fluidity applied to divine identity in Norse poetry, where one deity may easily replace another whenever the meaning of the name chosen may serve to give meaning to the poem, or when a particular function is to be emphasized, strongly suggests a general fluidity in the religious concept of divine identities.

The “Hyperboreans” were probably worshipping a goddess of great prominence, similar to Freyia, but under a different, earlier name. We do not know what they called their own goddess by the time they identified her with Artemis, but it is likely one or several of the predecessors of the goddesses Freyia and Frigg.[9]

[1] Herodotus, Histories, Book IV, chapter 33

[2] Herodotus, Histories, Book IV, chapter 32-36

[3] Ibid

[4] Tacitus, Germania

[5] Herodotus, Histories, Book IV, chapter 35

[6] Herodotus, Histories, Book IV, chapter 36

[7] Snorri Sturlusson, Skaldskaparmál, Prose Edda, in Faulkes, 1997, p.86

[8] Näsström, 1998, p. 79

[9]These two goddesses originated as one goddess, known to the Langobard tribe as the goddess Frija, wife to Wodan. (Origo Gentis Langobardum, in Davidson,1964, p.111)The original unity between Frigg and Freyia will also explain why both goddesses in different sources are married to Óðinn. In Flateyjarbók, Freyia is Óðinn´s wife. According to Snorri, Frigg is Óðinn´s wife, but Freyia is married to “someone named Óðr”, a name which is identical to Óðinn. The name Óðinn is made from the word Óðr and the suffix -(h)inn, signifying “the” (masculine).

5 Responses to The Hyperboreans – a Curious Pilgrimage. Priestesses from Beyond the North Wind.

  1. Great article, Maria I love your work. I hope you continue to contribute to our knowledge of Northern European traditions and mythology. I also have read your books and novels and hope you release others soon. Thank you Wallace

  2. Pingback: Om Hyperboréer, Skade och Vinterns Diser… | Hedniska Tankar

  3. Lykeia says:

    Although most people I know of see a more profound relationship between Freyja and Aphrodite, I have often seen it with the case of Artemis as you have pointed out here. This is not only after years of giving worship to Artemis, but more so after years of devotion to Apollon whom I do associate with Freyr for many reasons. I would like to also mention that the lunar-solar switch is perhaps something quite fluid even in Hellenismos wherein Apollon as many lunar connections, not only his silver bow from which on a moonless night he shed light from for Jason to see by in the Argonautika, but he is also the god of Noumenia, the opening of the lunar month, and his Doric cult (who are often addressed as those who may have brought Apollon’s cult into Hellas from the North) often had major festivals to him culminate on the full moon. You may also be interested to know that pigs and boars were a rather significant offering to him at Eleusis and Arkadia.

  4. Pingback: The Sun and the Moon among the Germanic people « Cradle of Civilization

  5. Pingback: Lokkes Eventyr

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