First, a little geography.
If one sails west from the Mediterranean Sea toward the Atlantic Ocean, one must pass between what the Romans called the Pillars of Hercules. These are the two promontories that mark the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. The pillar to the north is the Rock of Gibraltar. The pillar to the south is variously identified as Monte Hacho in Ceuta or Jebel Musa in Morocco.
Why did the Romans call these the Pillars of Hercules? Well, that’s a bit puzzling.
The Greek myth of Heracles tells us that for the tenth of his twelve labors, Heracles had to steal the red-hided cattle of a certain six-legged man named Geryones and bring them back with him to Greece. Geryones lived in Erytheia, the archipelago of islands off the western coast of Spain occupied today by the city of Cádiz. It was, as you might imagine, a long and complicated journey, walking all the way from Greece to western Spain, and herding cattle all the way back.
But what of these pillars? The first reference seems to come from sometime in the early fifth century BC when the poet Pindar wrote that Heracles traveled as far west as the pillars of the “gates of Gades.” In Pindar’s day, there was a temple near the city gates with pillars in honor of the Phoenician god Melqart, whom the Greeks equated with Heracles.
But why would these pillars merit a mention by Pindar? The answer probably lies at the opposite end of the Mediterranean, in the ancient city of Tyre in southern Lebanan. There, in ancient times, was another temple of Melqart. Among its many treasures were two remarkable pillars, one made of solid gold, the other of emerald. These two pillars were brightly lit at night, creating quite a spectacle.
So, the true Pillars of Hercules may well have been pillars at a temple near the city gates of Gades (Cádiz), and these pillars were remarkable because of a famous pair of similar pillars at a temple to Melqart in Tyre.
Maybe. By Roman times, though, there was a fair amount of confusion about where exactly the Pillars of Hercules were. Along the winding trail of time, probably after the core myth of Heracles was well-established, a story evolved that the Mediterranean was originally separated from the Atlantic by an isthmus dominated by Mount Atlas. There was no passage from one to the other. When Hercules arrived at Mount Atlas he did not want to climb over the mountain, so he used his great strength to push through it. Where the mountain once stood, Hercules created a naval passage from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. The pillar left on one side was the Rock of Gibralter, and on the other… well, you get the idea. Clearly, this Hercules is much larger and stronger than the classic Heracles of Greek mythology!
Can we draw any conclusions from this little exercise in geography and fanciful storytelling?
Perhaps the main conclusion is that mapping a myth onto the real world geographically is problematic. Were the Pillars of Hercules just outside the island city of Gades (Cádiz) or on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar? Who can say? It seems a physical map of Heracles’ travels has limited value.
There’s another kind of map that has far more value. It’s the kind of map that lays out the elements of the story in a way that helps us find meaning in it for ourselves. The ancients called this allegorical interpretation, and they applied it liberally – to Greek myths, to epics like the Iliad and Odyssey, even to the Christian Bible. In the next post, I’ll give an outline of an allegorical map for our journey as gay men.
So what about those pillars? Is there an allegorical meaning there?
I like the way fantasy writer and mythologist Robert Jones gives just such a meaning. He uses the two massive stone promontories on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar as metaphors for the extremes in Heracles’ own soul. He sums up the twelve labors thus:
“It should be clear to us now that the twelve labors are steps that Heracles is taking that will eventually lead him to a kind of spiritual awakening or enlightenment. This is the same enlightenment sought after by religious ascetics, occult practitioners, spiritualists and philosophers… We slowly watch the evolution of Heracles’ character. Each of the labors encountered is an aspect of Heracles’ psyche… a negative trait in which he must use the positive to overcome… In this way be bridges the opposing poles of his psyche to find enlightenment through the middle path. This may be the hidden meaning behind the Pillars of Heracles. If you imagine each pillar as a polar opposite of an emotion or character trait (i.e., love and hate), then the waters between them are the middle ground or balance. By sailing between the emotional extremities, one can safely navigate these hazardous waters and reach paradise… That is what this mythic cycle is telling.”
It is in the reconciliation of opposites within ourselves that we find enlightenment. We gay men must navigate between our masculine and feminine energies. We must reconcile our sexuality and our spirituality. Those opposites within us mark the terrain we must traverse. Finding the middle way that encompasses both – that is our challenge.