After killing Medusa, Perseus took the head of the Gorgon with him to distant lands and reached the western end of the Earth where the sun sets – the land where Atlas the Titan resided and raised magical golden apples. Perseus wished to rest in Atlas’ garden and asked him for food but Atlas – fearing that the hero would steal his magical fruit – refused and sent Perseus away. Perseus then showed Atlas the head of Medusa and the Titan turned into a giant mountain – his hair turning into a great forest, his shoulders into cliffs and his bones into solid rock.

When Hercules had to perform twelve labours, one of them was to fetch the Cattle of Geryon and bring it to Eurystheus. On his way to the island of Erytheia he had to cross the mountain that was once Atlas. Instead of climbing the great mountain, Hercules split it in half using his indestructible mace. By doing so, he connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean sea and formed the Strait of Gibraltar. One part of the split mountain is currently called Gibraltar and the other is the Acho Mountain. These two mountains taken together were since then known as the Pillars of Hercules.

The pillars are also mentioned at some places as portals, or gates to different locations on Earth. When the Carthaginian admiral Himilco was sent to explore the area of the Muddy Sea (a shallow plateau that lies to the southwest of the Pillars) his report included the words “Many seaweeds grow in the troughs between the waves, which slow the ship like bushes {…} Here the beasts of the sea move slowly hither and thither, and great monsters swim languidly among the sluggishly creeping ships” (Rufus Festus Avienus) This description accurately resembles the Sargasso Sea rather than the Muddy Sea.

When describing his circles of hell, Dante mentions Ulysses and his voyage past the Pillars of Hercules (once considered the western end of the world). Ulysses justifies endangering his sailors by the fact that his goal is to gain knowledge of the unknown. After five months of navigation in the ocean, Ulysses detects the Purgatorial but encounters a whirlwind that sinks his ship.

The Russian bard Alexander Gorodnitsky wrote a song under a similar title in 1965, while sailing past the Strait of Gibraltar on one of his many sea voyages. Here is my crude translation of it (to fully understand that you would want to have some knowledge of The Odyssey):


By the Pillars of Hercules

By the Pillars of Hercules, lies my road
By the Pillars of Hercules, where Ulysses sailed so long ago
Do not hurry and cry for me, just wait a bit longer
Do not wear black dresses, do not shed cold tears

Still under a tight sail, we do not sleep in foreign seas
One day I will reach you, I swear, though I do not know when
By the Pillars of Hercules, dolphins warm their backs
And by the two continents, the fires carry our fleet

Still over the black depths, we are tormented by worries
So far from your kingdom, your kingdom of lips and hands
I only ask that for now, my dear, you will not be judged harshly
And that on the wall will hang, my dusty old bow

By the pillars of Hercules, lies my road
Let the gentle southern air knock on your door till morning
Do not hurry to forget, just wait a bit longer
Do not drink sweet wines, do not believe the suitors


Original Russain version:

У геркулесовых столбов

У геркулесовых столбов лежит моя дорога
У геркулесовых столбов, где плавал Одиссей
Меня оплакать не спеши, ты погоди немного
И черных платьев не носи, и частых слез не лей

Еще под парусом тугим в чужих морях не спим мы
Еще к тебе я доберусь, не знаю сам, когда.
У геркулесовых столбов дельфины греют спины
И между двух материков огни несут суда

Еще над темной глубиной морочит нас тревога
Вдали от царства таоего, от царства губ и рук
Пускай пока моя родня тебя не судит строго
Пускай на стенке повисит мой запыленный лук

У геркулесовых столбов лежит моя дорога
Пусть южный ветер до утра в твою стучится дверь
Ты не спеши меня забыть, ты подожди немного
И вина сладкие не пей, и женихам не верь

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