Pillars of Hercules

Pillars of Hercules
The Pillars of Hercules — Gibraltar (foreground) and North Africa (background)

The Pillars of Hercules (Latin: Columnae Herculis, Greek: Ηράκλειες Στήλες, Spanish: Columnas de Hércules) was the phrase that was applied in Antiquity to the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. The northern Pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. A corresponding North African peak not being predominant, the identity of the southern Pillar has been disputed through history,[1] with the two most likely candidates being Monte Hacho in Ceuta and Jebel Musa in Morocco.

Modern conjectural depiction of the lost western section of the Tabula Peutingeriana, showing a representation of the Pillars of Hercules (Columne Ercole).
The Pillars of Hercules Monument at Jews' Gate, Gibraltar depicting the Ancient World.



According to Greek mythology adopted by the Etruscans and Romans, when Hercules had to perform twelve labours, one of them was to fetch the Cattle of Geryon of the far West and bring them to Eurystheus; this marked the westward extent of his travels. A lost passage of Pindar quoted by Strabo was the earliest traceable reference in this context: "the pillars which Pindar calls the 'gates of Gades' when he asserts that they are the farthermost limits reached by Heracles."[2]

According to Plato's account, the lost realm of Atlantis was situated beyond the Pillars of Hercules, in effect placing it in the realm of the Unknown. Renaissance tradition says the pillars bore the warning Nec plus ultra (also Non plus ultra, "nothing further beyond"), serving as a warning to sailors and navigators to go no further.

According to some Roman sources,[3] while on his way to the island of Erytheia Hercules had to cross the mountain that was once Atlas. Instead of climbing the great mountain, Hercules used his superhuman strength to smash through it. 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 Gibraltar and the other is either Monte Hacho or Jebel Musa. These two mountains taken together have since then been known as the Pillars of Hercules, though other natural features have been associated with the name.[4] Diodorus Siculus,[5] however, held that instead of smashing through an isthmus to create the Straits of Gibraltar, Hercules instead narrowed an already existing strait to prevent monsters from the Atlantic Ocean from entering the Mediterranean Sea.

Pillars as portals

The Pillars appear as supporters of the coat of arms of Spain, originating from the famous impresa of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was King of Spain in the years following the discovery of the Americas. It bears the motto Plus Ultra (Latin for further beyond), encouraging him to ignore the ancient warning, to take risks and go further beyond. It indicates the desire to see the Pillars as an entrance to the rest of the world rather than as a gate to the Mediterranean Sea. It also indicates the overseas possessions that Spain had.

One of the commonly held theories about the origin of the Dollar Sign derives it from the above personal device, which appeared on the Spanish Dollar from which the American one was derived - thus, the two vertical lines on the Dollar Sign ultimately represent the Pillars of Hercules.

Coat of arms of Cádiz

Phoenician connection

Beyond Gades, several important Mauritanian colonies (in modern-day Morocco) were founded by the Phoenicians as the Phoenician merchant navy pushed through the Pillars of Hercules and began constructing a series of bases along the Atlantic coast starting with Lixus in the north, then Chellah and finally Mogador.[6]

Near the eastern shore of the island of Gades/Gadeira (modern Cádiz, just beyond the strait) Strabo describes[7] the westernmost temple of Tyrian Heracles, the god with whom Greeks associated the Phoenician and Punic Melqart, by interpretatio graeca. Strabo notes[8] that the two bronze pillars within the temple, each eight cubits high, were widely proclaimed to be the true Pillars of Hercules by many who had visited the place and had sacrificed to Heracles there. But Strabo believes the account to be fraudulent, in part noting that the inscriptions on those pillars mentioned nothing about Heracles, speaking only of the expenses incurred by the Phoenicians in their making. The columns of the Melqart temple at Tyre were also of religious significance.

Dantes' Inferno

In Inferno XXVI Dante Alighieri mentions Ulysses in the pit of the Fraudulent Counsellors and his voyage past the Pillars of Hercules. 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 sights the mountain of Purgatory but encounters a whirlwind from it that sinks his ship and all on it for their daring to approach Purgatory while alive, by their strength and wits alone.

The title page of Sir Francis Bacon's Instauratio Magna, 1620

Sir Francis Bacon's Novum Organum

The Pillars appear prominently on the engraved title page of Sir Francis Bacon's Instauratio Magna ("Great Renewal"), 1620, the foreword to his Novum Organum. The motto along the base says Multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia ("Many will pass through and knowledge will be the greater").


  1. ^ Strabo summarizes the dispute in Geographia 3.5.5.
  2. ^ Strabo, 3.5.5; the passage in Pindar has not been traced.
  3. ^ Seneca, Hercules Furens 235ff.; Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus 1240; Pliny, Nat. Hist. iii.4.
  4. ^ "Close to the Pillars there are two isles, one of which they call Hera's Island; moreover, there are some who call also these isles the Pillars." (Strabo, 3.5.3.); see also H. L. Jones' gloss on this line in the Loeb Classical Library.
  5. ^ Diodorus 4.18.5.
  6. ^ C. Michael Hogan, Mogador, Megalithic Portal, ed. Andy Burnham, 2007
  7. ^ (Strabo 3.5.2–3
  8. ^ Strabo 3.5.5–6

Coordinates: 36°0′N 5°21′W / 36°N 5.35°W / 36; -5.35

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Pillars of Hercules — Pillars of Her|cu|les the Pillars of Hercules two very tall rocks on either side of the Strait of ↑Gibraltar, a narrow area of sea at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. According to ancient Greek stories, the rocks had been moved apart by… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • Pillars of Hercules — two headlands on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar, one at Gibraltar (ancient CALPE) & the other at Ceuta (ancient ABYLA) or Jebel Musa, on the coast of Africa …   English World dictionary

  • Pillars of Hercules — the two promontories on either side of the eastern end of the Strait of Gibraltar: the Rock of Gibraltar in Europe and the Jebel Musa in Africa; fabled to have been raised by Hercules. Also called Hercules Pillars. * * * Two promontories at the… …   Universalium

  • PILLARS OF HERCULES —    See HERCULES, THE PILLARS OF …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • Pillars of Hercules — /ˌpɪləz əv ˈhɜkjəliz/ (say .piluhz uhv herkyuhleez) noun the two promontories on opposite sides of the eastern end of the Strait of Gibraltar; the Rock of Gibraltar in Europe, and the Jebel Musa in Africa, supposed to have been raised by Hercules …   Australian English dictionary

  • Pillars of Hercules — noun the two promontories at the eastern end of the Strait of Gibraltar; according to legend they were formed by Hercules • Instance Hypernyms: ↑geological formation, ↑formation • Part Holonyms: ↑Strait of Gibraltar • Part Meronyms: ↑Gibraltar, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

  • Pillars of Hercules — geographical name the two promontories at E end of Strait of Gibraltar: Rock of Gibraltar (in Europe) & Jebel Musa (in Africa) …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Pillars of Hercules — promontories flanking the Straits of Gibraltar Abyla in Africa facing Gibraltar in Europe …   Eponyms, nicknames, and geographical games

  • Pillars of Hercules — two promontories on opposite sides of the Strait of Gibraltar …   English contemporary dictionary

  • Pillars of Hercules — Pil′lars of Her′cules n. pl. anq the two promontories on either side of the eastern end of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Rock of Gibraltar in Europe and the Jebel Musa in Africa …   From formal English to slang

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