The People of Gibraltar
BC - The Pillars of Hercules


The northern Pillar of Hercules ( 1910s - Allan Stewart) 

If a Gibraltarian were asked by a visiting friend about the Pillars of Hercules his probable response would be - "You are standing on one of them, mate". If they happened to be somewhere on the eastern side of the Rock, a vaguely familiar looking mountain on the other side of the strait would be pointed out and identified as perhaps being the second one. 

This would probably be followed by a short explanation as to how a mythical Hercules had ripped the place apart sometime in the very distant past thereby creating the Strait of Gibraltar. We are not just proud of being British - sometimes we are proud of our classical heritage as well.


The Pillars of Hercules - the classical view  (1450s - Nicolas Germanus - Detail )

The truth is that until I started my research for this essay the above was about the sum total of my own knowledge about the famous Pillars - including the fact that I was not entirely sure as to the actual location of the far less important Pillar - from a Gibraltarians' point of view of course - on the other side of the Strait. I have since realised that I am not alone.

It seems that the person responsible for the myths about Hercules was Peisander of Rhodes, a 7th century BC Greek epic poet who apparently got the story from an unknown Pisinus of Lindus who almost certainly plagiarised it from somebody else. In other words it's a pretty old story.

According to Peisander's version Heracles - the name was later Romanised to Hercules - was advised by the Oracle at Delphi to submit to his cousin King Eurystheus and perform whatever labours he might set him. Of the twelve which he eventually carried out it is the tenth that concerns us here. It involved the capture of the cattle of the monster Geryon which meant that Heracles had to get himself to the island of Gades - today's Cadiz - where apparently Geryon had his cattle ranch.

When Hercules found his passage from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic Ocean obstructed by mountains he simply rent them apart with his sword forming the Straits of Gibraltar. The two bits of mountain that were left over on either side were Gibraltar - Mons Calpe - to the north and Mount Abyla to the south - the Pillars of Hercules. 

But let me nitpick. First of all it is worth noting that the creation of the Pillars of Hercules was not one of his labours. Rather than take the obvious and easier overland route to Cadiz Heracles inexplicably opted to go by sea and created a massive bit of extra work for himself. Another oddity is that although Peisander always went out of his way to depict Heracles wielding an enormous club he had him use a sword for this one. 


Another interpretation - Heracles using neither sword nor club - but simply brute force - to create the two "Pillars"   ( 1634 - Francisco de Zubarán )


This illustration on a recent Gibraltar stamp issue also suggests a hands-on approach

But perhaps the most awkward bit is the use of the words "Pillars" to describe Gibraltar and Abyla - the name of the unimportant one on the other side.  And whichever mountain one chooses to call Mount Abyla on the African coast - and there is a choice of two - they do not look like pillars at all - particularly not el Hacho which is a rather insignificant hill being less than half the height of the Rock of Gibraltar.


Mount Hacho - not the most imposing of hills  - also known by some as Mount Abyla   (old postcard )

Looking up this quirk in various encyclopaedias and elsewhere I have found out that many people consider that the not so nearby but far more imposing Jebel Musa or Apes Hill is a much more likely candidate. The fact that there are ruins on its summit that are thought to be the remains of a temple to Heracles - makes it an interesting alternative.  


Looking south from Gibraltar with Jebal Musa in the distance - Is this the real Mount Abyla?  (1883 - General John Miller Adye)  (See LINK)

The problem is that our ancient classical scholars were very good at describing myths but very poor at geography. For example: the 4th century Ora Maritima which was written by the Latin politician Rufus Festus Avienus mentions the Pillars in some detail.  The book was essentially a traveller's account of Western Europe and much of it was based on a now long lost manuscript known as the Massaliote Periplus. 

The Periplus in turn was written by an anonymous Greek in the 6th century BC and is one of the earliest works to describe the trade links between the people of the Mediterranean and those that lived beyond the Pillars of Heracles. A quote from the Ora Maritima reveals that:
The Pillars of Hercules we have heard are the extremities of one continent and the other. They are in actual fact two paired mountains - Ábila y Calpe. . . .  Calpe is on the Iberian side, Ábila on that of the maurusios. In the barbaric language of the Phoenicians Ábila means a tall mountain. . . on the other hand Calpe is the name given by the Greeks to something that has a hollow appearance and looks like a curved mountain.
The Athenian Euctemon, however, says that there are no mountains . . . He recalls seeing close to the Libyan and European coastline two islands which are known as the Pillars of Hercules. . . .They are completely covered in forests and mariners find them very inhospitable. 
"The Athenian Euctemon" belongs to the 5th century BC and whatever his fame as an astronomer, his geography sometimes left much to be desired. Nevertheless his 'islands' are not that ridiculous. Even today when looked at from the sea from afar Gibraltar does look like an island. His "tall mountain description also points at Jebal Musa as the likeliest candidate for the African Pillar. 

Generally classical writers of the ancient world refused to be swayed as regards the names of the Pillars. This - for example - is what the Pliny the elder, a 1st century AD - Roman author and natural philosopher had to say about it:
At the narrowest part of the Straits, there are mountains placed to form barriers to the entrance on either side, Abyla  in Africa, and Calpe in Europe, the boundaries formerly of the labours of Hercules. Hence it is that the inhabitants have called them the Columns of that god; they also believe that they were dug through by him; upon which the sea, which was before excluded, gained admission, and so changed the face of nature. . . . 
The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela in his Description of the World also wrote much the same thing.
The one on this side they call Abyla, the one on the far side Calpe; together they are known as the Pillars of Hercules. Oral tradition gives us the story of the name: Hercules himself separated the mountains which had once been joined into a continuous ridge, and the Ocean, (the Atlantic) that had previously been shut out by the mountains rushed in and inundated the surrounding area. 
On this side of the Strait, the sea now pours in over a rather broad area . . . . The region is not very well known and is poorly endowed. . .  It is populated with small towns and has small rivers. Its soil is of better quality than in its men; and the inactivity of its people make it even more obscure.
Not very comfortable reading for those who now live in the "region".

It is, however, Avenious, who put the cat among the pigeons when he awkwardly shifts the geography of the Pillars from the Straits to the "island" of Cadiz. 
There is also the city Gadir, (Cadiz) formerly called Tartessus, with its Pillars of the tenacious Hercules, Abyla and Calpe. . . In ancient times, it was a large and wealthy state, now it is a poor, small, and abandoned heap of ruins. We saw nothing to admire here other than ceremonies in honour of Hercules. 
Avienus was mistaken as regards Cadiz. It was not Tartessos. On the other hand, those Pillars, however, may have actually existed - not as mountains but as real Pillars. 


Cadiz and its Pillars of Hercules - (1690 - J.Van Keulen - Detail)  (See LINK

They were reputed by some to have been put there by Hercules himself to commemorate his very own creation of the Straits of Gibraltar - or to use one of its Latin names - the Fretum Herculaneum.  Strabo, however, was extremely doubtful about the authenticity of the Pillars in Cadiz. In fact he had rather strong opinions about them.
Most of the Greeks represent the Pillars as in the neighbourhood of the strait. But the Iberians and Libyans say that the Pillars are in Gades, (Gadir, Cadiz) as the regions in the neighbourhood of the strait in no respect, they say, resemble pillars.  
Others say that the bronze pillars of eight cubits in the temple of Heracles in Gades, on which are inscribed the expense incurred in the construction of the temple, are the real Pillars; and those people who have ended their voyage visiting these and sacrificing to Heracles have noisily spread abroad that this is the end of both land and sea.. . . 
it . . would be right to speak of the 'Gates of Gades'  if the Pillars were conceived of as at the mouth of the straits  . . . But Gades is not situated in such a geographical position. Rather it lies at about the centre of a long coastline that forms a bay. 
The argument that the Pillars inside the temple of Heracles at Gades are in fact those of Heracles appear to me to be even less reasonable. The fame of the name "Pillars of Heracles" prevailed because the name originated, not with merchants, but rather with commanders. Besides the inscription on them does not set forth the dedication of a reproduction but is just a summary of expenses. In my opinion these Pillars should be reminders of Heracles' mighty doings, not that of the expenses of the Phoenicians.
An added distraction is the persistent - if unsubstantiated theory that Tartessos was in fact the lost continent of Atlantis giving rise to the idea that the Pillars were found there rather than in either Cadiz or the Straits


The map shown above represents a section missing from a 13th century Roman world plan known as the Tabula Peutingeriana. It was probably based on a much older one. This section was a reconstruction edited in 1916 by a German historian, Konrad Miller. For unknown reasons he placed the Pillars - Columna Ercole - on an island in the Atlantic just west of the Straits which may represent Atlantis. Gibraltar is identified as Calpis and Cadiz as Gaditana. 


Ruins of the Temple of Hercules - perhaps on what was once Atlantis  (1872 - Leon Sonrel  )

One of the many problems with the myth of Hercules - in so far as it has anything to do with Gibraltar - is that it probably does not refer to Heracles - the original Greek version of the Roman hero - but to some other mythical god or demigod.

During the 12th century AD - for example - the Greek archbishop of Thessalonica Eustathius was peddling the idea that the Pillars had once been known both as the Pillars of Cronus and as the Pillars of Briareus - but gives no reason why. The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography also offers another alternative name - the Pillars of Aegaeon. All these are associated more with the Atlas myth than that of Hercules and all of them are pretty unhelpful as regards explaining what those Pillars were doing in Cadiz.


Hercules wandering about with a couple of pillars - he seems to have left another couple behind   ( 1550 - Heinrich Aldegrever )


A similar theme to that shown on the previous picture  - Hercules carrying a couple of Pillars  with Calpe and Abyla in the background - the artist seems to have forgotten about the  the Strait   ( 1550s - Couly Nouailher )

Strabo in fact probably hit on one possible reason:
. . .the navigation carried on by the Phoenicians, is well known. A little after the period of the Trojan war they had penetrated beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and founded cities as well there as to the midst of the African coast. . .
The Phoenicians were indeed the first Mediterranean people to explore the southern coasts of Iberia and crucially their main God Melqart was identified by the Greeks as Heracles. If those actual pillars in Cadiz ever existed they were meant to celebrate the exploits not of Hercules but of the Phoenician Melqart - in other words those pillars in Cadiz were the Pillars of Melqart. The question is - why Cadiz? Once again Strabo offers a reasonable explanation which I paraphrase below:
An oracle commanded the Phoenicians to found a colony at the Pillars of Heracles. The settlers  . . . on arriving at the Strait thought they had reached the end of the inhabited world and of the expedition of Hercules. Taking the rocks of Calpe and Abyla for the Pillars . . . they landed . .  but finding their sacrifices inauspicious they returned home.  
Another party sent out some time afterwards again found their sacrifices inauspicious and also returned home. A third attempt   . .  resulted in the foundation of Cadiz. So it was that some sought the Pillars in the headlands of the Straits while others did so at Cadiz . 

( 1709 - Cadiz Johannes - Van Keulen - detail ) 

Generally speaking it therefore seems that we have no real idea as to which particular mountain can safely be identified as Mount Abyla - the African Pillar of Hercules. But there is more and that is the rather incongruous idea that there was a sign between the Pillars with the words Nec plus ultra. That "nec" can also be read as "Ne" or "Non".  As it is impossible to believe that a large banner stretching across the Straits ever existed we are left with the possibility that the words appeared on some other ancient representation. A good candidate would have been the Pillars at Cadiz. 

The meaning of this phrase is ambiguous and has been interpreted variously as "There is nothing beyond this point", "Don't go any further" or "It is risky to go beyond this". Whatever it means the Phoenicians obviously cannot have taken these warnings too seriously. The fact that Cadiz lies well west of the Pillars of Hercules must have made them well aware that it was quite possible to travel beyond them.

Herodotus writing about an event that occurred as far back as the 7th century BC makes it clear that it was not just the Phoenicians in Iberia that had grasped this point.
As for Libya, (The continent of Africa) we know it to be washed on all sides by the sea, except where it is attached to Asia. This discovery was first made by Necchos (II) the Egyptian king  . . .  who  . . . sent to sea a number of ships manned by Phoenicians, with orders to make for the Pillars of Hercules, and return to Egypt through them, and by the Mediterranean. 
The Phoenicians took their departure from Egypt by way of the Erythraean Sea, (the Red Sea) and so sailed into the southern ocean . . . and it was not till the third year that they doubled the Pillars of Hercules, and made good their voyage home. Next to these Phoenicians the Carthaginians, according to their own accounts, made the voyage.
One modern local historian William Serfaty has gone so far as to suggest that the Nec Plus Ultra warning was a ploy by the Phoenicians intended to deter Greek and other incursions through the Strait. It is an unlikely theory as the words have come down to us in Latin and are not mentioned anywhere by any of the Greek or Latin classics.

But he has a point as regards Phoenicians keenness in keeping others well away - the classics are full of the horrors of the stormy Atlantic - unknown birds and monsters of the sea some of them half man and half beast and vast squids so large they are unable to swim through the Strait into the Mediterranean.



Sea monster near Gibraltar ( Walter Plitt Quintin )


William Serfaty - "Los fenicios crearon simbologías para paralizar a los griegos y a otros pueblos frente a la entrada del Atlántico" (2004 Andalucia Mitica )

But nowhere are the actual words Ne Plus Ultra to be found. According to the OED it first came into the English Language in the mid 17th century. Its meaning is given as a warning against going on any further and is said to have been "inscribed on the Pillars of Hercules". Then rather illogically its meaning somersaulted into "the point of highest attainment". 

And perhaps this is a good moment to pause and reflect on a quote from the Herculean Straits which was written by Thomas James in 1771 just before he launched into a lengthy and generally incomprehensible discussion on the very early history of the Rock and the Pillars of Hercules:
The reader will observe by the great disagreement of authors, the almost impossibilty of absolutely vouching for the truth of any fact."
I couldn't agree more.