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Pillars of Hercules

Atlantic Ocean - Punta del Este, Maldonado, Uruguay

Punta del Este, Maldonado, Uruguay

Gibraltar straits - Pillars of Hercules

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers. 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.

Pillars of Hercules

The Pillars of Hercules denote the ancient appellation for the two promontories situated at the eastern entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar. This strait, a mere 14 kilometres wide, acts as the boundary between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, effectively dividing the continents of Africa and Europe. The Rock of Gibraltar, known as Mount Calpe in antiquity, stands as the northern pillar at Gibraltar. The specific location of the southern pillar, Mons Abila, on the African side of the strait remains uncertain, with two primary contenders being Monte Hacho in Ceuta, a Spanish exclave on the Moroccan coast, and Jebel Musa in Morocco, positioned eleven kilometres to the west.

Over the course of history, extending to contemporary times, the Pillars have maintained significant resonance in mythology and culture. Attributed to the legendary figure Hercules, the creation myth of the Pillars has permeated various facets of human expression, manifesting in literature, art, music, architecture, and even finding a place on the coat of arms of Spain.

Strait of Gibraltar

Mythological Significance

The origins of the Pillars of Hercules can be traced back to ancient Greek mythology, where the hero Hercules was tasked with twelve challenging labours as a form of penance. These labours, assigned by Eurystheus, were meant to be insurmountable trials. One of the most renowned tasks was to steal the Cattle of Geryon, a formidable creature residing on the island of Erytheia in the far western reaches of the Mediterranean. It was in this direction that the Pillars of Hercules were said to signify the edge of the known world, marking the extremity of Hercules’ legendary journeys.

Pindar, a Greek poet, later referred to these Pillars as the ‘gates of Gades’, depicting them as the ultimate threshold reached by Hercules in his ventures. The term ‘Pillars of Hercules’ was not coined until Plato mentioned them in relation to Atlantis, siting the island westward of these monumental markers. Despite early mentions, the precise location of these pillars remained ambiguous until the Romans integrated the myth into their own narratives.

Roman adaptations by writers like Seneca and Pliny the Elder depict Hercules carving the Strait of Gibraltar by either cleaving through the mountain that was Atlas or drawing the two separated landmasses together. This action not only linked the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea but also gave rise to the iconic Pillars of Hercules, illustrating the boundary between the two bodies of water.

In another depiction by Roman writer Diodorus Siculus, Hercules is described as using the two promontories to narrow the strait, preventing monstrous entities from the Atlantic from infiltrating the Mediterranean. Alternatively, a different account suggests Hercules erected the pillars to support the sky, symbolizing the limit of the known world at that time, a belief upheld from ancient eras through the Middle Ages until Christopher Columbus‘s expeditions discovered lands beyond this perceived boundary.

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

The Phoenician Tradition

The Phoenicians, renowned for their maritime prowess, revered the Pillars of Hercules, associating them with the Pillars of Melqart, representing the Canaanite god Baal of rain, thunder, and fertility. Pushing through these pillars, Phoenician merchant fleets established bases along the Atlantic coast of present-day Morocco, beginning with Lixus, then Chellah, and finally Mogador. Venturing northward, they founded colonies along the Spanish coast, most notably Gades, known today as Cádiz, where a grand temple dedicated to the deity Melqart stood.

In time, the Greeks and Romans equated Melqart with ‘Heracles’ and ‘Hercules’ respectively. Strabo, the esteemed Greek philosopher, observed that the imposing bronze pillars within the temple were widely believed by both cultures to represent the authentic Pillars of Hercules, symbolizing the farthest reaches of the hero’s legendary expeditions. Pilgrims journeyed to this sacred site to offer sacrifices to Heracles/Hercules. Despite this widespread belief, Strabo pointed out that the pillars themselves bore no inscriptions linking them definitively to the mythological figure.

Cultural Influence of the Pillars of Hercules

Throughout history, the Pillars of Hercules have served as a timeless muse, igniting creativity across various art forms. In Dante’s Inferno, Ulysses ventures beyond these pillars in pursuit of the unknown, a daring quest that leads to both discovery and tragedy. His journey, driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, encapsulates the allure and danger associated with pushing boundaries.

The legacy of the Pillars extends to music, where the Russian bard Alexander Gorodnitsky drew inspiration for a song bearing their name. Referencing Ulysses’ legendary exploits, the song weaves tales of adventure and exploration, mirroring the spirit of the ancient mariner’s odyssey.

In Sir Francis Bacon‘s Instauratio Magna, the Pillars of Hercules symbolize more than geographical landmarks; they embody the essence of intellectual enlightenment and scientific progress. Bacon’s defiance of conventional wisdom, encapsulated in the motto inscribed beneath a brave ship passing the pillars, reflects his pioneering spirit in challenging existing paradigms.

Title page of Instauratio Magna

Contemporary art also pays homage to the Pillars’ mythological significance, as seen in Ginés Serrán-Pagán‘s monumental sculptures. Depicting Hercules’ actions of both separating and uniting continents, these bronze works stand as a testament to the enduring symbolism of the Pillars in shaping perceptions of global harmony and unity.

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

Even in architectural design, the influence of the Pillars is profound, as evidenced by the Torres de Hercules in Spain. These twin towers, reminiscent of the ancient pillars, stand tall along the coast, echoing the enduring legacy of Hercules and his symbolic role in bridging continents both physically and metaphorically.

Coat of Arms of Spain

The incorporation of the Pillars of Hercules into the coat of Arms of Spain is a symbolic representation, flanked by the motto Plus Ultra, meaning ‘further beyond’ in Latin. This symbolism signifies a shift from their ancient role as the limit of the known world to now being viewed as a gateway to the broader world.

King Charles V played a pivotal role in adopting this symbolism, as the discovery of the Americas by the Spanish explorers invalidated the notion of the Pillars of Hercules as the farthest point of the world. Columbus’s expeditions demonstrated the advancement of seafaring technology, proving the capability to navigate safely across the open ocean to the newfound lands.

Coat of Arms of Spain

Tour of Morocco and the Strait of Gibraltar

Explore the iconic Strait of Gibraltar and behold the majestic Pillars of Hercules on an enriching journey with Odyssey Traveller’s Tour of Morocco. Embark on a captivating exploration of Tangier, a city steeped in history located a mere 13 kilometres from Spain across the strait. Serving as Europe’s gateway to Africa, Tangier has long been a magnet for artists and writers enticed by its rich cultural tapestry and breathtaking vistas of the sea. Legend intertwines with reality in this city, bearing the name of Tinge, the beloved of Hercules, and housing the renowned Caves of Hercules.

This immersive tour also delves into the nomadic villages of the Sahara, traversed in rugged 4X4 vehicles, and the pristine sands of Merzouga. A visit to the awe-inspiring Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou, a marvel of Moroccan architecture immortalized in cinematic masterpieces like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Gladiator,” offers a glimpse into the country’s cinematic history. The journey continues to Meknes, a UNESCO World Heritage site often likened to the Moroccan version of Versailles, and the bustling Djemma El Fna square in Marrakesh. Roman ruins of Volubilis, and the enchanting blue-hued vistas of Chefchaouen nestled in the Rif Mountains, further enrich the itinerary.

Transitioning between cities, witness the dramatic shift from desert landscapes to verdant oases and towering mountain ranges punctuating the horizon with their red dunes. Gain insight into traditional artisanal practices such as leathercraft and the production of coveted Argan oil, as well as the significance of Persian carpets and the symbolism imbued in mosques. Interactions with diverse locals ranging from Saharan nomads to charismatic street artists offer a glimpse into the vibrant tapestry of Moroccan society. The kaleidoscopic hues and intricate patterns of the Moroccan terrain harmonize with the vivid displays of traditional crafts and delicacies, enveloping travelers in a sensory feast of colors, textures, and flavours.

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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