Gibraltar straits - Pillars of Hercules

Article about the history of where the Mediterranean sea meets the Atlantic ocean for the explorers from Crete, Italy, Spain, including the Phoenicians and the Romans. For senior couples and mature solo travelers interested in small group educational tour.

1 Nov 21 · 7 mins read

Pillars of Hercules

The Pillars of Hercules is the ancient name referring to the two promontories at the eastern entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, a narrow opening 14 kilometres wide between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean separating the continents of Africa and Europe. The northern pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar (called Mount Calpe in ancient times) at Gibraltar. The location of the southern pillar, Mons Abila, on the African site of the strait is not know for certain, but the two most likely candidates are Monte Hacho in Ceuta (the Spanish exclave on the Moroccan coast) and Jebel Musa in Morocco, eleven kilometres to the west.

Throughout history, up to present times, the Pillars have held a major role in mythology and culture. Believed to have been created by the mythological hero Hercules, the Pillars and their creation myth have since been referenced in literature, art, music, architecture, and even on the coat of arms of Spain.

Strait of Gibraltar

Mythological Significance

The first reference to the Pillars of Hercules appears in ancient Greek mythology, when in around 600 BCE the ancient Greek poet Peisander wrote of the twelve labours Hercules had to perform whilst condemned to serve Eurystheus of Tirynus.

The story begins when the hero Hercules was born, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene. Hera, the wife of Zeus, was appalled to discover her husband’s infidelity and that he had fathered an illegitimate child and was determined to destroy the boy. During one such attempt, she caused Hercules to go mad and slay his wife and three children. Seeking atonement, Hercules travelled to the Oracle at Delphi who told him that to make amends for his crimes he would have to be enslaved by Hera’s champion, Eurystheus, for twelve years and complete twelve labours for him.

These labours were designed to be so difficult so as to be impossible for Hercules to complete. The tenth was to steal the Cattle of Geryon (a giant monster with six hands and three bodies, thought to be invincible) and bring them to Eurystheus. For this, Hercules had to travel to the island called Erytheia in the mythical Hesperides in the far west of the Mediterranean. The Pillars were said to mark the westward extent of his travels and the inhabited world.

Hercules slaying the three-headed Geryon. Scene from the Greek Mythology. Wood engraving, published in 1880

Another Greek poet named Pindar, writing 100 years after Peisander, refers to the Pillars as the ‘gates of Gades‘, asserting they are the farthermost limits reached by Hercules. The actual term ‘Pillars of Hercules‘, however, did not appear until Plato wrote of Atlantis around 400 BCE, placing the mythical island to the west of the Pillars. Even so, their exact geographical position had not yet been precisely defined.

This would happen sometime later when the Romans adapted the original Greek myth. According to Roman authors like Seneca and Pliny the Elder, Hercules, while on his way to the island of Erytheia, had to cross the mountain that was once the god Atlas (turned to stone by Perseus wielding the head of the Gorgon Medusa). Rather than climb the mountain, Hercules smashed through it, splitting it in half. He thereby connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, forming the Strait of Gibraltar, and creating the two Pillars.

Another Roman writer, Diodorus Siculus, held another account of the event. He believed that instead of smashing through the mountain, Hercules actually drew the two promontories together to narrow the strait. He is said to have done so to keep monsters from the Atlantic Ocean from entering the Mediterranean Sea.

In yet another version, Hercules is said to have built the two promontories himself to hold the sky away from the earth and liberate Atlas from his damnation. They were built here to mark the limit of the known world, with nothing further beyond. This belief was held in ancient times through the Middle Ages, only finally disproved with Columbus‘s voyages to the new world.

The Phoenician Tradition

The Pillars of Hercules are also present in the tradition of the Phoenicians, an ancient Mediterranean civilisation which came to prominence in the mid-12th century BCE. The Phoenicians associated the promontories, at each end of the Gibraltar Strait, with the Pillars of Melqart. This was a representation of the Canaanite god Baal of rain, thunder, and fertility.

The Phoenicians were the first civilisation to push through the Pillars of Hercules, with merchant fleets constructing a series of bases along the Atlantic coast of modern-day Morocco, starting with Lixus in the north, then Chellah, and finally Mogador.

They also established colonies northwards, along the coast of modern Spain, including the city of Gades/Gadeira (modern Cádiz) just beyond the strait. Here, they erected a famous temple of the god Melqart. The Greeks and Romans later identified Melqart as ‘Heracles‘ and ‘Hercules‘ respectively. The Greek philosopher Strabo noted that the two tall bronze pillars within the temple were widely thought amongst Greek and Roman to be the true Pillars of Hercules, marking the westernmost extent of the hero’s travels. Accordingly, people travelled here to make sacrifices to Heracles/Hercules. However, Strabo also noted that nothing inscribed on the pillars actually link the site to Heracles/Hercules.

Cultural Influence of the Pillars of Hercules

The Pillars of Hercules have been referenced in and inspired numerous pieces of literature, art, music, and architecture over the years. In Dante’s Inferno, Ulysses and his voyage past the Pillars of Hercules are mentioned. Ulysses justifies going beyond what was considered the western end of the world, in doing so endangering his sailors, as his goal is to gain knowledge of the unknown. Ulysses then spends five months navigating the ocean before eventually detecting the mountain of Purgatory. However, a whirlwind sinks his ship and all on it for daring to approach Purgatory while alive.

The Russian bard Alexander Gorodnitsky named a song after the Pillars of Hercules in 1965. The song, inspired by one of his many sea voyages past the Strait of Gibraltar, makes numerous references to Ulysses’ voyages in the area and other sections of the Odyssey.

The engraved title page of Sir Francis Bacon‘s Instauratio Magna, the second part of his great Nuvum Organum (1620), also depicts a small brave ship passing under the Pillars of Hercules. Along the base is written the motto Multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia (“Many will pass through, and knowledge will be the greater”). The Pillars are used here as a powerful symbol, not just of exploration, but of Bacon’s ideas. His scientific thought and his empirical theories of law reform both went beyond the common-law tradition and acceptance of his peers. Indeed, they defied the ancient warning of the Pillars, “non ultra” (“no further!”)

Title page of Instauratio Magna

More recently, in 2007, the Spanish sculptor Ginés Serrán-Pagán created two works inspired by the mythological significance of the Pillars. The first, ‘The Pillars of Hercules: Abya and Calpe‘, shows Hercules pushing apart two classical columns, representing the separation of the two continents. In the second, ‘The Union of the World: Monument to World Peace’, Hercules is shown pulling the two columns together. The two sculptures are eight metres and high and weigh eight tons each, making them the largest bronze sculptures of classical mythology in the world.

Ginés Serrán-Pagán / “The Union of the World: Monument to World Peace” / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Pillars also influenced the design of Torres de Hercules, twin towers on the Spanish coast at Los Barrios. No tower stood taller than these in Adalusia until the construction of the Cajasol Tower in Seville in 2015.

Coat of Arms of Spain

The Pillars of Hercules appear as supports on each side of the coat of Arms of Spain, accompanied by the motto Plus Ultra, Latin for ‘further beyond’. This implies the Pillars stand as a gateway to the rest of the world, rather than marking the limit of the known world as they had in ancient times.

King Charles V was responsible for incorporating this symbolism, with the Spanish discovery of the Americas having nullified the idea of the Pillars of Hercules as the westernmost end of the inhabitable world. With Columbus’ discovery, he proved that seafaring technology was adapt enough to sail safely into the open ocean to the new world.

Coat of Arms of Spain

Tour of Morocco and the Strait of Gibraltar

You can visit the Strait of Gibraltar and see the Pillars of Hercules with Odyssey Traveller’s Tour of Morocco. During this tour, we explore the city of Tangier, located just about 13 kilometres from Spain across the Strait of Gibralta. This is Europe’s gateway to Africa, which over the centuries has been a haven for artists and writers drawn to its hotbed of culture and spectacular views of the sea. The city itself is shrouded in myth, named after Tinge, Hercules’ lover, and home to the famous Caves of Hercules.

Other highlights on this tour include the various nomadic villages of the Shara that we weave through onboard 4X4 vehicles, as well as the stunning fine sands of Merzouga, We also make a day trip to the spectacular Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou, an impressive feat of Moroccan architecture which you may recognise from such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Then there’s also Meknes, an important heritage site touted to be the Moroccan Versailles, the vibrant Djemma El Fna place in Marrakesh, the Roman ruins of Volubilis, and Chefchaouen – the famous ‘blue town’ in the Rif Mountains.

Travelling from one city to the next on this tour, we watch as desert gives way to lush oases and mountains strike up before the red dunes. We learn about traditional processes, such as leather-making and the extraction of prized Argan oil, the role of Persian carpets, and the symbolism of Mosques. We also meet various kinds of people from Saharan nomads to charming street performers. The colours and patterns of the Moroccan landscape are matched only by the vibrant palettes of its traditional crafts and wares, and delicious flavours of the local cuisine.

morocco ait benhaddou oldies seniors
Ait Benhaddou, Ouarzazate, Morocco

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Morocco published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Morocco:

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