It is said that Abaris did not take any food from the earth and that he flew through the air on his arrow, the gift of the god Apollo, cured diseases through chants, and freed the world from a plague.
“They say there was a plague all over the world, and Apollo ordered the Greeks and barbarians who had come to consult his oracle that the Athenians should pray on behalf of all. And many races sent embassies to them. And they say that Abaris arrived as ambassador of the Hyperboreans, in the 53rd Olympiad (568-565 BC) ».
A large group of legendary mystics appears in late Archaic Greece and early classical Greece. Abaris is easily the most colorful because of the strange stories around him, yet not many people have heard of him.
«(The constellation of Sagitta) is the arrow of an archer, it is said that it belongs to Apollo. With it, Apollo slew the Cyclopes, the creators of Zeus’ thunderbolt; he killed them for Asclepius. He then hid it in Hyperborea, which is where he has a winged temple. (…) It was huge. Heraclides of Pontos also (says) in his On Justice that a certain Abaris was riding on it. Later, Apollo turned it into a constellation, in memory of his battle.
– Eratosthenes, Catasterisms 29 (~ Heracleides fr. 51c Wehrli).
“Abaris rode on the arrow, and in this way crossed impassable places, such as rivers, lakes, marshes, mountains, etc. And, the story goes, he recited that the arrow carried out purifications and chased away plagues and storms from the cities that considered it opportune to help him ».
– Iamblichus, Pythagorean Life , 91.
«As Herodotus says, this Abaris came from the Hyperboreans. They are to the north and inland of the Scythians. This Abaris was divinely inspired and ran across Greece with an arrow, and gave various oracles and prophecies. The orator Lycurgus says in his Contra Menesaecmo that there was a plague among the Hyperboreans, and Abaris went to work with Apollo. Abaris learned oracles from him, took Apollo’s arrow as a sign and went through Greece prophesying.
– Gloss on Gregory of Nazianzus, ii.2.7 A Nemesius 274 (Gaisford 1812.i: 50-51).
Between myth and reality
Abaris is a character that is supposed to be fictional, however, he is credited with the authorship of several real books. La Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedia, lists five titles:
- Scythian oracles .
- Marriage of the river Hebrus .
- Purifications .
- Theogony .
- The arrival of Apollo to Hyperborea .
The idea of real texts with an unreal author seems strange. However, these kinds of things are everywhere in archaic Greece.
Take Orpheus for example. Orpheus was the son of Apollo and one of the Muses, Calliope. He visited the underworld, he was one of the Argonauts and his songs could enchant all living creatures and even rocks and rivers. And still, we have fragments of poems attributed to him, some dating back to the 6th century BC.
Then there is Linus, who competed in a musical contest against Apollo. Or Epimenides, a prophet who supposedly slept for half a century. Or Musaeus, Olimpus, or Terpander. Everyone is torn between history and myth, but we have fragments of his poetry.
The same trend can even be seen with some important poets whose work survives in much better condition. There were detailed, completely fictional biographical traditions about Homer and Hesiod, Sappho and Solon, and others.
Now some of these poets were surely historical figures. In a sense, at least. But the stories about their lives are almost pure legend. But those legends also appear in surviving poetry. Homer’s blindness, Hesiod’s encounters with the Muses and Homer, Sappho’s love story with Phaon, etc., all stories that scream “fictional embellishment,” but they are also there in the poems.
That should provide a clue as to how to interpret what we are told about Abaris. The texts were real, but it is the texts that created the character’s backstory.
And, like Orpheus and Solon, the texts existed at an early date. The quotes at the top for Iamblichus and Gregory Nazianzus come from centuries later, but there are older stories that just aren’t that detailed. A lost poem by Pindar mentioned Abaris in some connection with Croesus (fr. 270 Maehler).
Herodotus mentions Abaris as a footnote to his Hyperborean account, but dismisses the story as “pure rubbish”:
And that is the end of my story of Hyperborea. Because I’m not reporting the story of Abaris, who is said to be Hyperborean. I’ll just mention that he carried his arrow around the world without eating.
– Herodotus, Histories 4.36.
And Plato mentions Abaris in passing along with Zalmoxis (the main divinity of the Thracian people of the Getas), as two northern mystics known for their magical spells (Plato, Charmides 158b-c).
Our sources also disagree on when Abaris was supposed to have been present. Two of them place the arrival of Abaris in Greece in the 560s BC, one in the time of King Croesus of Lydia (today it dates from 547/6 BC), another in the 730s BC. taking classes with Pythagoras, in Italy, on his way home to Hyperborea.
But neither on foot nor by sea could you discover
the fabulous path to the gathering of the Hyperboreans.
Apollo always takes particular delight in their feasts and worship,
and laughs at the conceited arrogance of the beasts.
Nor is the Muse alien to her customs: everywhere
the maidens turn in dance to the sound of the sonorous lyre and the strident voice of the flutes.
At their merry parties they tie golden laurel in their hair;
sickness has no place among these holy people, nor ruinous old age,
but they live without effort or battle, avoiding the severe judgment of Nemesis.
– Pindar, Ode Pythia X, 10.29-45.
This image seems fictitious and is probably based on another obscure mystic, Aristeas de Proconeso. But the Greeks of the 5th-4th centuries BC adopted Hyperborea as the name for a royal place. The name literally means “beyond the north wind.” Most of our sources use the name to refer to the region north of Scythia, or southern Ukraine, that was familiar to Greek settlers in the Black Sea. If the name was used by people who actually went that far north, they would presumably have thought that Hyperborea extended to Belarus and western Russia.
Later writers sometimes treat Hyperborea and Scythia as the same. Others identify Hyperborea with the land of the Cimmerians.
For his part, Eratosthenes, that colossus of ancient geography, identified Hyperborea with the island of Thule. The only source of information from the Greeks about Thule was Pytheas of Masalia, who visited the island sometime in the 4th century BC.
Eratosthenes devised a north-south meridian running from Aswan to Alexandria, then Rhodes, a city near Byzantium, then Olbia (a Greek colony in southern Ukraine), and finally Thule. This has led some commentators to attempt to place Thule in the Baltic.
But it seems more likely that the Thule of Pytheas was farther west: perhaps one of the island groups north of Scotland, the Shetland or the Faroe Islands (see in particular Ptolemy’s mis-deformed idea of the geography of Scotland and its relationship with Thule, conceived as a small island).
We have no substantial evidence on the literary output of Abaris. What little there is can be found in just two modern editions: Kinkel’s edition of Epic Fragments (1877: 242-243) and Jacoby’s Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, now supplanted by Brill’s New Jacoby (FGrHist 34 = Dowden 2016) .
Unfortunately, there is very little hope of recovering any Greek text lost before the Hellenistic period. The books that appear in places like the library of Lucio Calpurnio, in Herculano, will almost inevitably be contemporaries or of important figures like Aristotle. The only minor pre-Hellenistic work that has been discovered in a relatively intact ancient copy is the Derveni papyrus, and it was a tremendous fluke.
The only real idea we can have of the content of Abaris’s works is the backstory itself. The problem is that, from approximately 300 BC onwards, we see that it is contaminated by stories about other mystics: eg the link with Zalmoxis that we find in Plato and with Pythagoras in later authors like Iamblichus.
Determining which is not always easy. But the link to Aristeas, at least, seems to have its origin in Abaris himself. Dowden suggests that the idea of Hyperborean origins was based on Aristeas’s account of Hyperborea.
Arguably the most likely candidates for authentic backstory elements are:
- Apollo hides his arrow in Hyperborea, in a winged temple (Eratosthenes).
- Apollo sends out a world plague and Athens invites ambassadors (including Abaris) and makes prayers on behalf of the world at the Proerosia festival (Suda; sch. Ar. Knights 729).
- Abaris wears Scythian clothing but shows good character (Himer. Or. 23.4-8; Str. 7.3.8).
- Abaris offers oracles that predict earthquakes, plagues, and astronomical events (Ap. Hist. Mir. 4).
- Abaris drives away a plague from Sparta forever (Ap. Hist. Mir. 4; Paus. 3.13.2; Iamb. VP 92).
- Abaris flies through rivers and swamps with Apollo’s arrow.
- A passage from Philodemus On Piety ( F 1 Dowden ) says that, according to Abaris, Cronos and Rhea were the fathers of the gods, in contrast to other poets such as Homer and Pindar.
- A fragmentary papyrus dealing with literature (F 2 Dowden = p. Oxy. 1611) mentions Abaris in connection with the names of ethnic groups far to the north, Isedonians and / or Sieges.
On the other hand, the entry for Suda, already mentioned at the beginning of this article, ends with a strange linguistic description of its name.
κλίνεται δὲ Ἄβαρις, Ἀβάριδος, τοὺς Ἀβάριδας, καὶ κατὰ ἀποκοπὴν Ἀβάρις.
«The name declines Abaris, Abaridos; Accusative plural Abaridas, and giving Abarīs for apocope ».
Abaris, Abaridos is the standard way of indicating how a Greek noun can change its form. “Apocope” means to omit a syllable. But why is Suda giving plural forms? Why would anyone write about “Abarises”?
We believe that the answer is again in scansion (the division of the verse into its different components) and in the syncopated form Abaris. Abáridas could never fit in a hexameter poem. But Abaris, with two short and one long syllable, could.
The idea of a poem that talks about “Abarises” are a rarity.
Keep in mind that Abaris’s backstory must have been an important component of his works. We can speculate that he might have said something like “Apollo has sent many Abarises down through the ages,” or “Sparta will need no more Abarises in the future,” and so on. And although this is just speculation, it is very difficult to imagine any other reason to be speaking of “Abarises”, in the plural, much less to use a form of the name that is clearly designed to be used in a poem.
Some writers on the Druids have suggested that Abaris was identical to ‘Abhras’, who, according to ancient Irish legendary history, traveled from Ireland to distant countries, and after a long time returned to Scotland, where he stayed for seven years, bringing a new system of religion – probably based on Pythagoreanism.
Some 18th-century writers have also identified Abaris with Bladud, the mythical king of the British, who supposedly practiced the arts of divination and magic, although there is little evidence to support the connection to Abaris or even the historical existence of Bladud.
Beyond all this, and in the blurred line between myth and reality —very blurred the more remote the time—, it is worth wondering if Abaris really existed as such or if he was the mixture or archetype of several characters, perhaps «shamans “Or” priests “from a distant northern land.
The truth is that, like a medieval witch on her broom, she seemed to be transported on the arrow of a god.