Heracles or Hercules
And the Greek Alexander
Could speak from great knowledge of precious stones …
WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH
SILIUS ITALICUS, A ROMAN POET and historian of the first century after Christ, has passed on to us a legend in beautiful hexameters according to which the gigantic block of stone in the cave of Lombrives, adorned with a stalagmite hammer, is in fact the sepulchral stone of Hercules.
After stealing Geryon’s cows, Hercules was received by Bebryx, king of the Bebrices, in the “savage mansion.” There, he seduced the king’s daughter Pirène, abandoning her afterwards. She feared the anger of her father, and desiring to have Hercules’ love again, escaped from home. As she walked the paths of the world, ferocious beasts fell upon her. Defenseless, Pirène called out for Hercules’ help, but when he arrived, it was too late; she was already dead. When he saw her he began to weep. His moans made the mountains tremble, and all the rocks and caves echoed Pirène’s name, which he repeated between sobs. Then he buried her. The name of Pirène will never perish because the mountains will always bear her name—the Pyrenees.
The Throne of King Bebryx and the Tomb of Pirène are the names of three magnificent groups of stalagmites in the heart of the cave of Lombrives, on the banks of a lake filled with mysteries. The water falls incessantly on Pirène’s tomb, as if the mountain is weeping for the unfortunate princess. From the roof and the walls hang in a petrified state the garments that she preferred.
Latin authors (among them Pliny) thought that the first inhabitants of Spain were Persians who migrated from the Caucasus. Greek historian Dion Casius wrote that the Bebrices were the first inhabitants of the eastern Pyrenees. According to the Byzantine historian Zonaras, the Greek grammarian Stephanus of Byzantium distinguished two different Bebrice peoples: one that lived on the coast of the Black Sea and another that was settled in the Pyrenees not far from the “Bebrice Sea,” a primitive name for the Gulf of Leon.
Dasqueius, a commentator on Silius Italicus, asserts that the word “Bebryx” is only an adjective and that the king of the Bebrices was named Amykos, a prince who challenged and killed in a boxing match any foreigner unfortunate enough to arrive in his kingdom, until the day Pollux the Argonaut killed him. Festus Avienus, a Roman historian, supports this.
Let’s summarize these sources, and expand them. In the third century B.C., an emigration of peoples from the Caucasus to the West took place: Phoenicians, Persians, Medeans, Getules (actually Berbers of North Africa), Armenians, Chaldeans, and Iberians. This last group found a home on the Iberian peninsula. The Bebrices were part of this people and lived in the area of the Pyrenees that, under Roman domination, belonged to Gallia narbonense in the region of Saint Bartholomew’s and Montcalm Peaks. Thanks to Strabon, a Greek geographer, we know that there were as many gold mines in Spain as in Asia. The gold mines of the Bebrices attracted the Phoenicians (1200 B.C.) and Phocians (600 B.C.). At the beginning of the third century before Christ, the Phoenicians in the so-called Semitic migration founded a new homeland in Syria. We still do not know if from Tyre, their most important city, they were already in contact with the inhabitants of the Spanish and French coasts, or if they arrived there together with the Iberians over land. The most probable scenario is that they began maritime commercial trading from Asia Minor to the western Mediterranean coasts, and from there they returned by sea to Syria with all the riches of the Pyrenean subsoil.
Through Herodotus, we know that a temple was dedicated to “Melkart” (the king of the city of Tyre), and that he was also worshipped as the Phoenician Hercules, the protecting god of navigation and the colonies at the end of the world in the West. The Old Testament calls the god of Tyre “Baal” (lord).
Originally, every god who was believed to inhabit a specific place where he exercised his power, and therefore was of local importance in contrast with other gods, was called Baal. In this way, there was a Baal-Lebanon, a Baal-Chermon, etc. Little by little, Baal-Melkart of Tyre became the “God-Lord” of Phoenicia and Canaan, the “All-Mighty,” the masculine generator, personified in the solar disc. His complement (“wife” as she was called in mythology) was Astarté, the feminine principle, receptive, enlightened, and personified by the moon.
An inscription uncovered in Malta gives Hercules the title of protoguide.² It is well known that the cult of ancestors and mythology almost always has the same starting point. Consequently, we could suppose that a Phoenician prince may have served as a model for Melkart. Could this Hercules-Melkart have led his people from the Caucasus to Tyre or from Tyre to the West? We cannot prove it, and it doesn’t really interest anybody. The only thing that matters is the fact that the Iberians had a Hercules-Melkart who was their proto-guide and they received orders from Tyre’s colonists.
In very remote times, the cave of Lombrives, where the legendary tomb of Hercules is located, was consecrated to Ilhomber, the Iberian Hercules.³ This local god of the Iberians, more precisely of the Bebrices, who was also called Bel (Baal) under the influence of Greek colonists, was converted into A-bel-lio (Apollo).
Phoecaea was a Greek colony on the Ionic coastline of Asia Minor. Its inhabitants, known as Phocians, were engaged in maritime commerce with the Iberians, other continental Greeks, and the citizens of Argos. Apparently, circa 600 B.C., they managed to overtake the colonial preponderance of the Phoenicians, and assumed the exploitation of the metal mines of the Pyrenees for themselves. When Phoecaea fell under the pressure of the Persian tyrant Harpagon in 546 B.C., they abandoned their homeland in Asia Minor and fled in ships to their western colonies, above all to Massilia (Marseille), Portus Veneris (Port Vendres in the French Roussillon), Kerberos (Cerbère, on the Spanish border), and present-day Monaco, where they built a temple to Heraclius Monoikos.
The tale of the Argonauts is the oldest epic poem of the Greeks. Not only is it the most ancient of the Greek mythological legends that we have, it is an amalgam of primitive Greek colonization and Hellenic ancestor worship—Homer assumed that everyone knew it as fact—and it also provides us with interesting geographic concepts of the ancient Greeks.
Fifteen sailors equipped with fifty oars set out across the sea from Argos aboard the ship Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. The best known among them were Hercules, Orpheus, Castor, Pollux, and Jason. After many twists and adventures (like the combat with Amykos, the king of the Bebrices) they arrived at Colchis where, with the help of Medea the bewitched sorceress, they stole the Golden Fleece which they found hanging from a branch of the sacred oak tree.
This shows that there were ancient Greek authors who knew about the existence of the Bebrices in Asia Minor and the Pyrenees, and who associated them with the legend of the Argonauts. What meaning could the conquest of the Golden Fleece have?
Let’s take a leap through the centuries to the Middle Ages, following the destruction of the original Mediterranean civilizations, when the center of intellectual gravity had moved north.
What were those innumerable alchemists searching for when they mixed mysterious ingredients in their retorts and tried with mystical incantations to achieve the “great work”?
The Philosopher’s Stone, or what others called the Golden Fleece!
What was Parsifal seeking in Wolfram’s poem that was referred to as “the Grail”? A stone!⁴ The Lapsis exillis (Lapsis ex coelis)—the “Desire for Paradise”!
For some, paradisal pleasure consists in the possession of everything beautiful and precious the world has to offer. For others, Paradise can be found closer to the stars.
Some alchemists who sought the Philosopher’s Stone wanted to transform low-quality metals into gold. By contrast, the truly expert alchemists transferred their secret formulas to the realm of the spirit. For them, inferior metals were nothing other than human passions that had to be revalued. Instead of gold, they expected to find God. In the legend of the Argonauts in Nonnos, the navigators see a “cup” float on the “Mountain of the World with the tree of lights.”
The Argonauts found the Golden Fleece, and they were summoned like demigods to the stars with their prize. Hercules prepared to become a god, between the “Lyre” and the “Crown.” Castor and Pollux awaited the “Coachman” to take them to the supreme altitudes of the sky. And the Argo,which carried the precious relic beyond the sea, was transported as a charm to the radiating Milky Way of the boreal hemisphere of the heavens, where together with the “Cross,” the “Triangle,” and the “Altar,” it irrefutably proved the luminous nature of the eternal God. The triangle symbolized the holy trinity; the cross, the divine sacrifice of love; and the altar, the table of the Last Supper where, on the night of the first Holy Thursday, stood the chalice of rebirth.
In truth, I tell ye: he who is not born again
Cannot see the Kingdom of God.
Undeniably, there were alchemists who sought gold, the “Great King”; others sought God. There were astrologers who wanted to find in the stars the science of tomorrow, and three of them were led by a star to Bethlehem, where in a cave, the Word of God had become a man. It is also said that a pagan astrologer read the mystery of the Grail in the stars:
Flegetanis, the heathen saw
With his own eyes in the constellations things
He was shy to talk about,
Hidden mysteries that trembling revealed it:
He said there was a thing called the Gral.
Whose name he had read clearly in the constellations
WOLFRAM VON ESCHENBACH⁵
The celestial archway rotates from east to west. The moon and the stars move during the night, replacing the sun, the star of Helios: Apollo.
Apollo was the god of pure solar light who freed the Earth in the springtime from the claws of winter; for this he was also known as the soter (savior) who purified the dead sinner and led him to redemption at the entrance to the luminous land of souls. This god brought help and benediction. In a boat pulled by swans, he reached the land of the Hyperboreans. The clouds sang like the rainfall. The trickling of the water was the song of nature. For this reason, Apollo was the magister of the muses, and his attributes were the lyre and the laurel, whose branches formed the crowns of poets.
When the rays of the springtime sun warm the Earth, humidity in the form of vapor rises to heaven. These vapors and fogs were always seen as oracles because their rise and fall foretold the weather. For this reason, Apollo was also a god with the gift of prophecy. To be a poet and prophet is the same thing.
Alkaios de Mitilene, a contemporary of Sappho, said of Apollo:
When Apollo came to the world, Zeus gave him a golden miter, a lyre, and a chariot drawn by swans, and sent him to Castalia, the well in Delphi, to preach justice to the Hellenes. Apollo disobeyed, and led his swans to the land of the Hyperboreans. When the inhabitants of Delphi learned what had happened, they composed a paean, placed choruses of children around the tripod, and pleaded with the god to dignify them with a visit.
The Hyperboreans were the chosen people of Apollo. Pious, with pure customs, they lived happily. They lived in the forests of their country, where the sun and fertility reigned, and the temperatures were agreeable. They nourished themselves solely with fruits. They never killed an animal, knew no war or quarrels. When they were tired of life, they sought their freedom in the never-ending waves of the sea. Apollo was their supreme god. The “Radiating One” came to them in a golden chalice “similar to a star whose splendor reached the sky.” Apollo loved the Hyperboreans from the first day when the waves of the sea carried to their hospitable coasts that chest where his mother Semele had placed him. From then on, year after year, he came to them, “transported from wave to wave in that marvelous concave litter that Hephaistos had worked in precious gold; a litter that transported him, asleep, on the surface of the waters …”⁶
In a mystical casket where objects for the cult of Apollo were discovered two hundred years ago close to Palestine in the mountains of Sabina, an engraved scene depicts the combat of the Argonauts with Amykos, the King of the Bebrices.⁷ Yet again we find ourselves confronted with the Argonauts, Apollo, the Golden Fleece, and the Bebrice Amykos and his sacred cup.