An A-Z Guide To The Search For Plato's Atlantis


Joining The Dots

Joining The Dots

I have now published my new book, Joining The Dots, which offers a fresh look at the Atlantis mystery. I have addressed the critical questions of when, where and who, using Plato's own words, tempered with some critical thinking and a modicum of common sense.

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HE´RCULIS COLUMNAE (?? ????????? ??????, ?? ????????? ??????, Strab. &c.; ???????? ??????, ???????? ??????, Pind.: Herculeae Columnae, Mel., Plin., &c.: Herculis Speculae, Flor. 4.2: also simply ?????? and Columnae: the Pillars of Hercules), is a name commonly understood now, as it was generally among the ancients, in one particular sense, namely, as denoting the twin rocks which guard the entrance of the Mediterranean (Mare Internum, &c.) at the E. extremity of the Straits of Gibraltar [GADITANUM FRETUM]; of which the one on the N. or European side was called CALPE that on the S. or African side ABYLA But this simple statement is far from containing a sufficient account of the meaning attached to the name by the Greeks and Romans.

Its origin goes hack into the legendary period; and we are herd again involved in the oft-recurring difficulty as to whether the legend was founded on a certain amount of knowledge, or whether, the legend being purely imaginary at first, a positive sense was given to it as geographical discovery advanced. It should be borne in mind that columns, as well as altars, were erected to mark the furthest points reached by conquerors and discoverers [ALEXANDRI ARAE]; and hence, in connection with the mythical expedition of Hercules to the extreme west, such memorials would be sought. In accordance with this view, we find Pillars of Hercules mentioned in other distant regions of the earth to which Hercules was supposed to have penetrated, namely, in the N. of Germany, and the W. extremity of Gaul. (Tac. Germ. 3, 34; Scymn. Ch. 188; Serv. ad Virg. Aen. 11.262, where we have a parallel case in “the Pillars of Proteus” for the borders of Egypt.) Other examples are mentioned in the interesting discussion on this use of columns by Strabo (iii. pp. 170, 171). But there was also another reason to look for columns in those regions; for Aeschylus tells us of the “Pillar of Heaven and Earth,” that is, the pillar which, resting on earth, supported the vault of heaven, and which was upborne by Atlas (Prom. 349, 428). That the Pillars of Hercules were identified by some with those of Atlas is proved by the fact that the former are also called the Pillars of Kronos and of Briareus, deities, like Atlas, of the Titan race. (Aristot. ap. Aelian, Ael. VH 5.3; Hesych. sub voce ??????? ??????; Eustath. ad Dion. Per. 561; Schol. Apollon. 1.165: the Scholiast to Pindar, Pind. N. 3.37, calls them the Pillars of Aegaeon, which is another name of Briareus; and elsewhere Briareus himself is called Hercules, Zenob. Prov. Cent. 5.48.)

But when the ancient writers began to investigate the matter more closely, they were greatly divided in opinion as to where the Pillars were to be sought, what they were, and why they were called by the name of Hercules.


The name is not found in Homer, although the manner in which he speaks of Ulysses’s passage out of the sea into the ocean and back again, seems to imply that he had some knowledge of the Straits.

The earliest distinct mention of the Pillars of Hercules in Greek poetry is by Pindar, who more than once names them as the point to which the fame of his heroes reached, but beyond which no mortal could advance, whether he were wise or foolish; and in one passage he speaks of Gades in the same terms, thus evidently regarding the two positions as closely connected. (Pind. 01. 3.79, Nem. 3.35, 4.112, Isthm. 4.20.) Herodotus, whose knowledge was derived from the records of Phoenician navigation, speaks of the Pillars with perfect familiarity, as of a well-known position, and the tenour of his remarks on those regions leaves little, if any doubt, that he placed them at the Straits. (Hdt. 4.42, 181, 185.) Scylax assigns to them the same position, at the mouth of the Mediterranean; and near Gades. He places them at the distance of a day’s journey from one another, and distinguishes [p. 1.1055]between the Columns in Europe and the Columns in Libya, using the plural by a kind of attraction, for, when he describes them more particularly, he speaks of each in the singular. (Scylax, pp. 1, 51, ed. Hudson; pp. 1, 120, 126, ed. Gronov.) From these testimonies, as well as from the numerous allusions of other writers, it appears that the common opinion had become pretty well established from the time of Herodotus. (Comp. Plb. 3.35; Diod. 4.18; Dion. Per. 64, 454, and Eustath. ad loc.; Palaeph. 52; Philostr. Vit. Apollon. 5.1, 5, &c.) The same thing is evident from numerous passages of Strabo, who, in the course of a very interesting discussion on the whole subject, accounts for the various positions assigned to the Pillars as follows (iii. pp. 169–172). An oracle had commanded the Tyrians to found a colony at the Pillars of Hercules. The settlers sent out for this purpose, on arriving at the Straits, thought they had reached the term both of the inhabited world, and of the expedition of Hercules; and, taking the rocks of Calpe and Abyla for the Pillars of which they were in search, they landed at a spot within the Straits, where stood. in Strabo’s time, the city of the Exitani [SAXETANUM]; but, finding the sacrifices inauspicious, they returned. Another party, sent out some time afterwards, proceeded 1500 stadia beyond the Straits, as far as an island sacred to Hercules, opposite to the spot on the Iberian coast where the city of ONOBA afterwards stood; but, again finding the sacrifices inauspicious, these also returned home. A third attempt had for its result the foundation of GADES Hence it came to pass that some sought the Pillars in the headlands of the Straits, others at Gades, and others at some place even beyond Gades in the Ocean. The general opinion was in favour of Calpe and Abyla; but some, among whom was Artemidorus, took the Pillars to be the small islands near each, of which one was called the Island of Hera, by which he seems to mean the islands off C. Trafalgar, the ancient Junonis Prom., which headland the authors of this opinion seem to have confounded with Calpe. (Comp. the Note to Groskurd’s translation, l.c.) Some even transferred the celebrated rocks called Planetae and Symplegades to the Straits, and identified them with the Pillars of Hercules. Scymnus Chius, who, like Artemidorus, took the Pillars for islands, places them far within the Straits, at MAENACA near the city of the Exitani, above mentioned. (Vv. 142–145).


As to what the pillars were believed to be, Strabo also gives some interesting information. Some took them for rocky headlands, others for islands; the former rising up from the land, the latter out of the sea, like gigantic columns. But others, regarding the custom previously referred to, or even taking the word ?????? literally, looked for cities, or artificial mounds, or columns, or statues, erected either by Hercules himself, to mark the term of his conquests, or dedicated by Phoenician navigators to this their tutelary deity, to record the extent of their discoveries. (Comp. Hesych. sub voce ?????? ?????????.) This literal interpretation, he tells us, prevailed among the Iberians and Libyans, who denied that there was anything at the Straits resembling columns, but pointed out, as the Pillars of Hercules, the bronze columns in the temple of the god at Gades, on which the expenses of building the temple were inscribed. He adds that this opinion was held by Poseidonius, in opposition to the Greeks in general, who considered the pillars to mean promontories. Strabo’s refutation of this opinion is an interesting effort of ancient criticism. (Comp. Strab. i. pp. 21, 32, 47, 49, 51, 52, 56, 58, 64, ii. pp. 67, 68, 71, 78, 79, 84, 86, 89, 90, 93, 101, 105, 108, &e. &c.) Not only the nature, but also the number, of the Pillars was disputed; the common opinion making them two, while others gave the number as one, or three, or four. (Hesych. l.c.?


The true reason of the name must be sought for in the fact that Melcarth, whom the Greeks identified with Heracles, was the tutelary god of the Phoenicians, as well as in the Greek legends respecing Hercules: how far those legends originated in the Phoenician worship, this is not the place to inquire. The view generally taken by the Greeks may be collected from the passages of Strabo just quoted. But the later writers sought for an interpretation from their physical views of the legends of Hercules. One story was that he tore asunder the rocks which had before entirely divided the Mediterranean Sea from the ocean. (Mela, 1.5.3, 2.6.6.) Pliny assigns both reasons (iii. prooem. “Abila Africae; Europae Calpe, laborum Herculis meta: quam ob causam indigenae columnas ejus Dei vocant, creduntque perfossas exclusa antea admisisse maria, et rerum naturae mutasse faciem.” ) The interesting speculations of the ancients, respecting the physical changes resulting from the supposed disruption, especially the opinion, discussed by Strabo, that the Mediterranean had previously been connected with the Red Sea, and that the Isthmus of Suez was formed by the lowering of the Mediterranean through its new outlet, belong rather to other places in this work [ERYTHRAEUM MARE, MARE INTERNUM]: but it may be worth while to point out here that Mela (l.c.) indicates just the opposite opinion, namely, that the Mediterranean was elevated by the influx of the Atlantic; and the same idea is conveyed by Pliny’s phrase of “admisisse maria.” Another legend was that Hercules forced the two rocks into temporary union to make a bridge for the safe conveyance of the herds of Geryon to Libya (Avien. Ora Merit. 326); and another, that he narrowed the Strait, so as to shut out the sea-monsters which had previously made their way in from the Ocean and infested the Mediterranean (Diod. 4.18). It only remains to notice that one of the principal parallels of latitude, by which Eratosthenes and other ancient geographers divided the earth into ???????, was drawn through the Pillars, passing also through the Straits of Messina, Athens, Rhodes, and the Taurus, to Thinae. (Strab. ii. pp. 67, 68, 79, &c. &c.; Schwartz, Diss. de Columnis Herculis, Altorf, 1749, 4to; Gosselin, Rech. sur la Geogr. Syst. des Anc. tome iv. pp. 1–10, Paris, 1813; Humholdt, Kritische Untersuchungen, vol. i. pp. 451, foll.; Ukert, vol. ii. pp. 248, b. foll.) [P.S]