Saturday 14 March 2020

Abaris of Hyperborea and his magic arrow

They say that there was a plague throughout the whole world, and Apollo ordained to the Greeks and barbarians who had come to consult his oracle that the Athenians should make prayers on everyone’s behalf. And many races sent embassies to them. And they say Abaris came as ambassador of the Hyperboreans, in the 53rd Olympiad (568-565 BCE).
A bunch of legendary mystics pop up in late Archaic and early Classical Greece. Abaris is easily the most colourful. Yet not many people have heard of him. So, I must admit, there aren’t really any modern myths here that need dispelling -- unless it’s that a few modern occultists apparently imagine he was a historical magician (examples: 1, 2, 3). He wasn’t, just to be clear! But the stories about him are wonderfully weird.
John Raimondi, Abaris (1992). Bronze sculpture in the collection of the accounting firm Vitale, Caturano & Co., Boston. Source:
(The constellation Sagitta) is an archer’s arrow, said to be Apollo’s. With it Apollo killed the Cyclopes, the makers of Zeus’ thunderbolt; he killed them because of Asklepios. Then he hid it in Hyperborea, which is where he has a winged temple. ... It was enormous. Heracleides of Pontos also (says) in his On Justice that a certain Abaris went around riding on it. Afterwards Apollo turned it into a constellation, as a memorial of his battle.
-- Eratosthenes, Catasterisms 29 (~ Heracleides fr. 51c Wehrli)

Abaris rode on the arrow, and in this way crossed impassable places, like rivers, lakes, marshes, mountains, and so on. And, the story goes, he recited that the arrow performed purifications, and it drove off plagues and storms from cities that saw fit to give him assistance.
-- Iamblichus, Pythagorean life 91

‘Salmoxis, firing arrows through the crowd’ -- that is, Abaris of Hyperborea. As Herodotus says, this Abaris came from the Hyperboreans. They are north of and inland from the Scythians. This Abaris was divinely inspired and went around Greece with an arrow, and gave various oracles and prophecies. The orator Lycurgus says in his Against Menesaechmus that there was a plague among the Hyperboreans, and Abaris went and took employment with Apollo. Abaris learned oracles from him, and took the arrow of Apollo as a token and went around Greece prophesying.
-- gloss on Gregory of Nazianzus, ii.2.7 To Nemesius 274 (Gaisford 1812.i: 50-51)
The Gregory scholion comes from Bodleian MS E. D. Clarke 12, fol. 173. The passage in Gregory is at xxxvii.1572 Migne. Gregory’s line is καὶ Γετικὸς Ζάλμοξις ὀϊστεύων δι’ ὁμίλου; the scholion rephrases it as Σάλμοξις ὁ διὰ πλήθους τοξεύων. Gregory refers to Abaris and his arrow elsewhere, as a pagan who could fly, in Oration 43.21, xxxvi.524b Migne. (The Lycurgus is not preserved; part of this scholion appears as Lycurgus fr. 14.5a ed. Conomis.)


Abaris is fictional, but there were real books supposed to have been written by him. The Suda, a Byzantine encyclopaedia, lists five titles (α.18):
  • Scythine oracles
  • Marriage of the river Hebrus
  • Purifications
  • Theogony
  • Apollo’s arrival in Hyperborea
The Suda says Apollo’s arrival was verse, and the Theogony was prose, but there’s doubt over the first three depending on how you punctuate the text. On the one hand, ‘in prose’ looks like it refers to all of the first four; on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine literary oracles being delivered in prose (unlike real oracles, which were almost invariably prose).

Does this seem odd, the idea of real texts with a fake author? If so, you’re in for an educational treat, because this kind of thing is all over the place in Archaic Greece.

Take Orpheus. Orpheus was the son of Apollo and one of the Muses, Calliope. He visited the Underworld, he was one of the Argonauts, and his songs could charm all living creatures and even rocks and rivers. And yet ... we have chunks of poems attributed to him, some dating to the 6th century BCE.

Then there’s Linus, who competed in a musical contest against Apollo. Or Epimenides, a prophet who supposedly went to sleep for half a century. Or Musaeus, or Olympus, or Terpander. They’re all clearly mythical -- but we have pieces of their poetry.

You can see the same trend even with some major poets whose work survives in much better shape. There were detailed, completely fictional, biographical traditions about Homer and Hesiod, Sappho and Solon, and others. Now, some of these poets were surely historical individuals. In some sense, at least. But the stories about their lives are almost pure legend. But those legends also pop up in the surviving poetry. Homer’s blindness, Hesiod’s meetings with the Muses and Homer, Sappho’s love affair with Phaon ... they all scream ‘fictional embellishment’, but they’re also right there in the poems.
Homer’s blindness: Hymn to Apollo 166-173; Demodocus as narratorial self-insertion in Odyssey 8. Hesiod’s meeting with the Muses: Theogony 22-34; contest with Homer: Works and days 650-659. Sappho’s love affair with Phaon: frs. 211(a), (b.i), (b.iii). See further Gainsford 2015: vii-x.
That should provide a cue on how to interpret what we’re told about Abaris. The texts were real -- but it’s the texts that created the character’s backstory.
Did you know Abaris pops up in ancient magical papyri? Except, um, he doesn’t: that’s completely made up.
And, just like Orpheus and Solon, the texts existed at an early date. The quotations at the top from Iamblichus and Gregory of Nazianzus come from centuries later, but older stories do exist -- they just aren’t as detailed. A lost poem by Pindar mentioned Abaris in some connection with Croesus (fr. 270 Maehler). Herodotus mentions Abaris as a footnote to his account of Hyperborea, but he rejects the story as cheap trash --
And that is the end of my account of Hyperborea. For I’m not reporting the story of Abaris, who is said to be Hyperborean. I’ll only mention that he carried his arrow around the world without eating.
-- Herodotus, Histories 4.36
And Plato mentions Abaris together with Zalmoxis, in passing, as two northern mystics known for their magic spells (Plato, Charmides 158b-c).

Our sources disagree on when Abaris was supposed to have been around. Two of them put Abaris’ arrival in Greece in the 560s BCE, one in the time of king Croesus of Lydia (nowadays dated to 547/6 BCE), one in the 730s BCE. Another has him take classes from Pythagoras in Italy on his way home to Hyperborea. All pure fiction, so don’t put any stock in them. For the real books ascribed to Abaris, Dowden suggests a date of around 530-510 BCE (Dowden 2016).
568-565 BCE: Hippostratos, FGrH 568 fr. 4 (reported by Harpocration s.v. Ἄβαρις); Suda α.18 s.v. Ἄβαρις. In the time of Croesus: Pindar, fr. 270 Maehler (reported by Harpocration). 736-733 BCE: unnamed others (reported by Harpocration). Meeting with Pythagoras: Iamblichus, Pythagorean life 90-93 and 135-136.


But neither on foot nor by sea could you discover
the fabulous way to the gathering of the Hyperboreans. ...
Apollo always takes special delight in their feasts and worship,
and laughs to see the beasts’ upright arrogance.
Nor is the Muse a stranger to their customs: everywhere
maidens whirl in the dance to the loud lyre and the pipes’ strident voice.
At their merry feasts they bind golden laurel in their hair;
disease has no place among that holy people, nor ruinous old age,
but they live without toil or battle, avoiding Nemesis’ severe judgement.
-- Pindar, Pythian ode 10.29-45 (tr. Verity)
This rosy picture is obviously fictional, and probably based on another obscure mystic, Aristeas of Proconnesus. But Greeks of the 5th-4th centuries BCE adopted Hyperborea as a name for a real place. The name literally means ‘beyond the north wind’. Most of our sources use the name to refer to the region north of Scythia, or southern Ukraine, which was familiar to Greek colonists on the Black Sea. If the name was used by people who actually went that far north, they presumably would have thought of Hyperborea as extending to Belarus and western Russia. Later writers sometimes treat Hyperborea and Scythia as the same thing. Still others identify Hyperborea with the land of the Cimmerians. (See further Dowden 2016, commentary on T 1.)
Not this Cimmerian, though. Mind you, if we had a film about Abaris with voice-over narration by Mako, I definitely wouldn’t complain. Fantasy authors like Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Lin Carter, and Fritz Leiber made the most of names like ‘Hyperborea’ and ‘Cimmeria’ -- mysterious and far-off, but also semi-real. Unfortunately, they just had to go on and tie them to the idiosyncratic 4th century fiction of Atlantis.
Eratosthenes, that colossus of ancient geography, went badly astray in identifying Hyperborea with the island of Thule. The Greeks’ only source of information on Thule was Pytheas of Massalia, who visited the island sometime in the 4th century BCE. Eratosthenes devised a north-south meridian that went from from Syene to Alexandria, then Rhodes, a city near Byzantium, then Olbia (a Greek colony in south Ukraine), and finally Thule. This has led some commentators to try and place Thule in the Baltic. But Pytheas’ Thule seems more likely to have been further west: perhaps one of the island groups north of Scotland, the Shetlands or the Faroes (see in particular Ptolemy’s badly warped idea of Scotland’s geography and its relationship to Thule, conceived as a small island).

The texts

We don’t have substantial evidence about the literary output of ‘Abaris’. What little there is can be found in just two modern editions: Kinkel’s edition of epic fragments (1877: 242-243), and Jacoby’s Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, now supplanted by Brill’s new Jacoby (FGrHist 34 = Dowden 2016).

Alas, there’s very little hope of ever recovering any lost Greek text from before the Hellenistic period. The books that turn up in places like Lucius Calpurnius’ library, in Herculaneum, are almost inevitably going to be contemporary, or by major figures like Aristotle. The only minor pre-Hellenistic work that has ever been discovered in a relatively intact ancient copy is the Derveni papyrus, and that was a tremendous fluke.

The only real idea we can get of the content of Abaris’ works is:
  • The backstory itself: this must originate with Abaris. The catch is, from around the 300s BCE onwards we see Abaris’ backstory being contaminated by stories about other mystics: the link to Zalmoxis that we find in Plato, and to Pythagoras in later authors like Iamblichus. Sorting out which is which isn’t always straightforward. But the link to Aristeas, at least, seems to originate with Abaris himself. Dowden suggests the idea of Hyperborean origins was based on Aristeas’ account of Hyperborea.
  • I’d say the most likely candidates for authentic elements of the backstory are:
    • Apollo hides his arrow in Hyperborea, in a winged temple (Eratosthenes)
    • Apollo sends a worldwide plague, and Athens invites embassies (including Abaris), and makes prayers on the world’s behalf at the Proerosia festival (Suda; sch. Ar. Knights 729)
    • Abaris wears Scythian clothes but shows a good character (Himer. Or. 23.4-8; Str. 7.3.8)
    • Abaris delivers oracles predicting earthquakes, plagues, and astronomical events (Ap. Hist. mir. 4)
    • Abaris drives off plague from Sparta forever (Ap. Hist. mir. 4; Paus. 3.13.2; Iamb. VP 92)
    • Abaris flies across rivers and swamps on Apollo’s arrow
  • A passage in Philodemus’ On piety (F 1 Dowden) says that according to Abaris, Kronos and Rhea were the parents of the gods, by contrast with other poets like Homer and Pindar.
  • A fragmentary papyrus that deals with literature (F 2 Dowden = p. Oxy. 1611) mentions Abaris in connection with the names of ethnic groups far to the north, Issedonians and/or Assedonians.
(For the record I doubt that the references in Heracleides of Pontus, frs. 74 and 75 Wehrli, have anything much to do with the 6th century Abaris.)

In addition to these, I have suspicions about a couple of other isolated phrases that we find in the literary sources.

1. διὰ πλήθους τοξεύων. The third passage that I quoted near the start, the gloss on Gregory of Nazianzus, uses a different phrasing from Gregory’s line. Gregory’s line was καὶ Γετικὸς Ζάλμοξις ὀϊστεύων δι’ ὁμίλου, ‘And Getic Zalmoxis, firing through the crowd’; the gloss says Σάλμοξις ὁ διὰ πλήθους τοξεύων, meaning much the same, but with different words for ‘crowd’ and ‘firing’.

As a whole the gloss’s version is unmetrical. But the last three words, διὰ πλήθους τοξεύων, can work as part of a hexameter. And the idea of someone firing arrows has nothing to do with what we know of Zalmoxis -- but it has everything to do with Abaris.

I suspect these three words could be a quotation from Apollo’s arrival among the Hyperboreans. Maybe they could have been used in connection with Apollo’s slaying of the Cyclopes. More likely, I think, they could be to do with Apollo sending the worldwide plague that was the occasion for Abaris’ visit to Greece.

As a final note, διὰ πλήθους may not mean ‘through the crowd’ as in Gregory’s version: ‘in a swarm’ is another possible interpretation, suggesting a mass of arrows.

2. Ἀβάρις. The Suda entry for Abaris ends with an odd linguistic description of his name.
κλίνεται δὲ Ἄβαρις, Ἀβάριδος, τοὺς Ἀβάριδας, καὶ κατὰ ἀποκοπὴν Ἀβάρις.

The name declines Abaris, Abaridos; accusative plural Abaridas, and giving Abarīs by apocope.
Abaris, Abaridos is the standard way of indicating how a Greek noun can change its form. ‘Apocope’ means omitting a syllable. But why is the Suda giving plural forms? Why would anyone be writing about ‘Abarises’?

I think the answer again lies in scansion, and in the syncopated form Abarīs. Abaridas could never fit in a hexameter poem. But Abarīs, with two short syllables and one long, could. (Consider also that the form might originally have been Ἀβάρεις, which was a homophone of Ἀβάρις by the Hellenistic period: might the correct declension have been Ἄβαρις, Ἄβαρεως?)

The idea of a poem talking about ‘Abarises’ is an oddity. Bear in mind that Abaris’ backstory must have been a large component of his works. We can speculate that he might have said something along the lines of ‘Apollo has sent many Abarises through the ages’, or ‘Sparta will need no more Abarises in future’, and so on. Yes, that’s only speculation. But I find it very hard to imagine any other reason to be talking about ‘Abarises’, plural -- let alone for using a form of the name that is clearly designed for use in a poem.

There are several other mystics that we could turn our attention to in future posts: Aristeas, who gave the first (fictional) description of Hyperborea; Anacharsis, a Scythian philosopher who tried to introduce Greek customs to the Scythians and was killed; Zalmoxis, who became a Thracian divinity.

What I think sets Abaris apart is the flavour of excessiveness and oneupmanship. He seems like a conscious attempt to outdo the mystics I just mentioned: ‘Zalmoxis was Thracian? Pfft, hardly north at all. Anacharsis was Scythian? Ha, we’re going to look beyond the north. Aristeas wrote about Hyperborea? Well, my guy comes from there!

Well -- that, and his habit of flying around on Apollo’s magic arrow. Anyone who’s ever tried playing at being a witch and actually sitting on a broomstick knows just how ... uncomfortable it is.
A much more comfortable way to fly: ‘... A TRULY MAGNIFICENT BROOM! / With seats for the witch and the cat and the dog, / A nest for the bird and a shower for the frog.’ J. Donaldson and A. Scheffler, Room on the broom (Macmillan, 2001).
Further reading on Abaris: see especially Burkert 1972: 141-150; Dowden 2016; Zhmud 2016.