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Myth Monday - Hyperborea and the Swans

By November 8, 2010

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Fall of Phaethon
Engraved by Thomas de Leu. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

This week's email included two interesting questions. One writer wants to know about the connection between Hyperborea and Ireland; the other, where people in the Civil War era of the U.S. might have learned about the Sword of Damocles outside of Latin and Greek classes. I started reading about Hyperborea, and have come to realize there is a lot more to it than just another name, like Thule, for a distant, mythological place far to the north of Greece and Rome.

If you've been reading this weekly, Myth-Monday blog for a while, you may have noticed there are a few pivotal people and events. Theseus had a hand in everything and Hercules (Heracles) seems to be related to everyone in mythology. Hyperborea is a pivotal mythological place, somewhat on the order of the god's throne room on Mt. Olympus. Both are associated with real places: a specific mountain, in the case of Mt. Olympus; the Po River, in the case of one of Hyperborea's rivers, Eridanos. Although there is a realistic part, both locations are still fantastic.

Hyperborea crops up in different myths, and even in connection with historical figures, like Pythagoras and Hecataeus of Abdera. The accompanying picture shows the mythological, mortal son of a Titan, Phaethon, falling from the chariot of the Titan sun god, his father, Helios. The story goes that when he fell, he landed in the Hyperborean Eridanos River. Phaethon's sisters mourned his death so profoundly they became amber-shedding poplar trees. As an aside, note that another despairing woman turned into a tree in the vicinity of sometime sun god Apollo -- Daphne. She became a laurel tree.

Apollo and swans are heavily linked to stories about Hyperborea. Swans appear in the river in the picture. A deity flies into the scene on a bird. Apollo rode to Hyperborea in a swan-drawn chariot. Phaethon's friend Cycnus mourned Phaethon, like Phaethon's sisters. Instead of becoming a tree, Cycnus was turned into a swan (Latin for swan, and close to the Greek).

Here is a section of a 1713 public domain translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses that tells of the transformation of Cycnus:

Cycnus beheld the nymphs transform'd, ally'd
To their dead brother on the mortal side,
In friendship and affection nearer bound;
He left the cities and the realms he own'd,
Thro' pathless fields and lonely shores to range,
And woods made thicker by the sisters' change.
Whilst here, within the dismal gloom, alone,
The melancholy monarch made his moan,
His voice was lessen'd, as he try'd to speak,
And issu'd through a long-extended neck;
His hair transforms to down, his fingers meet
In skinny films, and shape his oary feet;
From both his sides the wings and feathers break;
And from his mouth proceeds a blunted beak:
All Cycnus now into a Swan was turn'd,
Who, still remembring how his kinsman burn'd,
To solitary pools and lakes retires,
And loves the waters as oppos'd to fires.

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