Traditionally, the Pillars of Hercules are the promontories that flank the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. The northern Pillar is the Rock of Gibraltar. The Southern Pillar has been disputed but is generally thought to have been either Monte Hacho in Ceuta or Jebel Musa in Morocco. Indeed, from the time of Erastosthenes (c. 250 BCE) the Pillars have been exclusively associated with the Strait of Gibraltar.
Why the association with Hercules? According to Roman mythology, 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 to form the Strait of Gibraltar.
However, it is important to note that Plato does not refer to mountains, he uses the term stelai in the text, (from Greek: στήλη), and its singular stele. These are standing stones bearing inscriptions, often used as markers for an event or place, rather than supporting columns of a building. They are certainly not mountains.
Is there any evidence of stele near the Strait of Gibraltar? Actually, there is.
In earlier Greek mythology, when Heracles (Hercules) had to perform twelve labors, one of them was to fetch the Cattle of Geryon of the far West and bring them to Eurystheus. A lost passage of Pindar quoted by Strabo is the earliest 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.”
Gades (originally Gadir or Agadir, meaning Walled City), is modern day Cádiz in Spain, close to the Strait of Gibraltar. Founded c. 1100 BCE by the Phoenicians from Tyre, it was the earliest western most fully functioning city. At the south end of the city stood a temple dedicated to a Phoenician god named Melqart, meaning "King of the City". At the temple is a pair of pillars dedicated to the god as the "Pillars of Melqart". According to Herodotus, Hercules and Melqart were synonymous. Indeed, many ancient writers refer to Melqart as the Tyrian Hercules. This then would seem to firmly establish that the Pillars of Melqart were in fact the Pillars of Hercules, at the Strait of Gibraltar.
However, there is a problem. Melqart was the principal god of the Phoenician city of Tyre. Indeed, Herodotus visited Melqart’s temple in Tyre and was shown two pillars there, one of gold, the other of emerald. According to the priests these pillars had been standing for 2000 years, placing their construction to c. 2700 BCE.
Tyre is in Lebanon, at the opposite end of the Mediterranean, in the east. To complicate matters further, pairs or standing columns have been found at other temples dedicated to Melqart in Tunisia at Carthage, in Spain at Gades, Ebusus, and Carthago Nova (New Carthage), and in Morocco, at the ancient Phoenician city of Lixus.
Indeed this lends support to the fact that prior to 250 BCE, the Pillars of Hercules were not fixed. Indeed, Paulino Zamarro has identified 13 locations that classical writers had identified as the Pillars of Hercules, and it is this uncertainty that has allowed Atlantis scholars to pick and choose their location.
For example, according to Aristotle, the Pillars of Heracles were also the “Pillars of Briareus”. Plutarch places Briareus near Ogygia.
What was Ogygia? Ogygia (Ancient Greek: Ὠγυγίη ), was an island mentioned in Homer's Odyssey, Book V, as the home of the nymph Calypso, the daughter of the Titan Atlas, also known as Atlantis(Ατλαντίς) in ancient Greek. It was here that Calypso held Odysseus for seven years, preventing him from returning home to Ithaca. Ogygia is associated with the Ogygian deluge and with the mythological figure Ogyges, in the sense that the word Ogygian means "primeval", "primal", and "at earliest dawn", which would suggest that Homer's Ogygia was a primeval island.
So where was Ogygia? That too is problematic. One possible location for Ogygia is in the Ionian Sea. Some have identified either Ogygia or Phaeacia with Atlantis. While a long-standing tradition begun by Euhemerus in the late 4th century BC and supported by Callimachus, endorsed by modern Maltese tradition, identifies Ogygia with the island of Gozo, the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago. Indeed, Scylax of Caryanda describes the Maltese Islands as lying to the east of the Pillars of Heracles, and Dicaearchus also appear to also support a location near Malta.
The Pillars of Hercules and Atlantis all in one spot? On the face of it, Gozo does appear to be synonymous with Ogygia, and therefore synonymous with Atlantis, and would support W.K.C. Guthrie, and Joseph Warren Wells’ separate close readings of Plato that note that the island of Atlantis was situated close to the Pillars of Heracles, implying proximity, and another key ingredient in identifying any proposed location with Atlantis.
Indeed, Aristotle also wrote that, “Outside the pillars of Heracles the sea is shallow owing to the mud, but calm, for it lies in a hollow.” This is not a description of the Atlantic Ocean, although it could be a description of areas around Malta. However, Aristotle’s description could just as easily be describing the English Channel and the North Sea. To complicate matters further, that Ogygia can be identified with Malta is far from settled. Aeschylus called the Nile - Ogygian, and Eustathius the Byzantine grammarian said that Ogygia was the earliest name for Egypt, while both Strabo and Plutarch were critical of the work of Polybius on the geography of the Odyssey, Strabo proposed that Scheria and Ogygia were located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
“At another instance he, Polybius, suppresses statements. For Homer says also, 'Now after the ship had left the river-stream of Oceanus' and, 'In the island of Ogygia, where is the navel of the sea', where the daughter of Atlas lives; and again, regarding the Phaiakians, “Far apart we live in the wash of the waves, the farthermost of men, and no other mortals are conversant with us.” All these clearly suggest that he composed them to take place in the Atlantic Ocean."
And indeed, although Plutarch places the Pillars of Hercules near Ogygia, he does not equate Ogygia with Malta either, but rather places the island in the Atlantic.
“First I will tell you the author of the piece, if there is no objection, who begins after Homer’s fashion with, an isle Ogygian lies far out at sea, distant five days’ sail from Britain, going westwards, and three others equally distant from it, and from each other, are more opposite to the summer visits of the sun; in one of which the barbarians fable that Cronus is imprisoned by Zeus, whilst his son lies by his side, as though keeping guard over those islands and the sea, which they call ‘the Sea of Cronus. The great continent by which the great sea is surrounded on all sides, they say, lies less distant from the others, but about five thousand stadia from Ogygia, for one sailing in a rowing-galley; for the sea is difficult of passage and muddy through the great number of currents, and these currents issue out of the great land, and shoals are formed by them, and the sea becomes clogged and full of earth, by which it has the appearance of being solid.”
The passage of Plutarch has created much controversy. W. Hamilton indicated the similarities of Plutarch's account on "the great continent" and Plato's location of Atlantis in Timaeus. Kepler in his Kepleri Astronomi Opera Omnia estimated that “the great continent” was America and attempted to locate Ogygia and the surrounding islands.
In 1685, Wilhelm von Christ was convinced that the continent was America and states that in the 1st century sailors travelling through Iceland, Greenland, and the Baffin Region reached the North American coast. In 1909, G. Mair suggested that the knowledge of America came from Carthaginian sailors who had reached the Gulf of Mexico.
Compounding this problem is the fact that the Greeks also used the Pillars of Heracles to mark a whole host of other sites, some even outside the Mediterranean, for example the Canary Islands in the Atlantic and the Strait of Kerch dividing the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov. Other locations mentioned by the Greeks include the Strait of Bonafaccio between Corsica and Sardinia, the Strait of Messina between mainland Italy and Sicily, the Greek Peloponnese, the mountainous coast of Tunisia, and the Nile Delta. Strabo also records that Alexander the Great built an altar and ‘Pillars of Heracles’ at the eastern limit of his Empire.
In fact, the Romans were just as guilty of moving the pillars and attributing them to the North. Tacitus states that it was believed that the Pillars of Hercules were near the Rhine in Frisian territory, while Drusus, brother of Tiberius, step-son of Augustus implies perhaps the Baltic, or the sound between Denmark and Sweden. The location is never made clear. While Pliny the Elder records that in Sogdiana in modern Uzbekistan there was reputed to be an altar and ‘Pillars of Heracles’, Apollonius Rhodius, located the Strait of Heracles in ancient Syrtis Minor, now the Gulf of Gabés, and in the 4th century AD, Roman writer Servius, wrote “Columnas Herculis legimus et in Ponto et in Hispania.” Translation: through the Columns of Heracles we go within the Black Sea as well as in Spain.
Is it any wonder then that Atlantis scholars have been able to propose to such a wide variation of locations for Atlantis?
Sergio Frau places the Pillars of Hercules in the Strait of Sicily, while Siegfried and Christian Schoppe identify them with the Strait of Bosporus and the entrance to the Black Sea. Angelos G. Galanopoulos and Edward Bacon propose that the Pillars of Heracles were associated with Melos, one of the Cyclades or Cape Maleas, the eastern promontory of the Gulf of Laconia. Nicolae Densusianu proposed the Danube, in ancient Dacia, modern Romania. Arysio Santos claimed that “there was only one real pair of pillars: the ones that flank Sunda Strait in Indonesia”, although he does list nine other sites as having been mentioned by ancient writers, while R. McQuillen and Hossam Aboulfotouh, suggest Canopus, situated in the west of the Nile Delta, as the location of the ‘Pillars of Hercules’.
However, all of these proposals take a distinctly Greek and Roman approach to the question, and fundamentally miss an important point. Plato clearly states that the story of Atlantis was handed down by priests in ancient Egypt, and that he is using Greek names for foreign gods, so that his audience might understand them. Herodotus (Hist. Bk II.44) refers to Heracles as a god of the Egyptians ‘from time immemorial’.
With that being the case, is there an Egyptian equivalent to Hercules?
In fact, there are two: the Egyptian gods Shu, and Khonsu.
Khonsu was associated with the moon. His name means 'traveler' and along with Thoth marked the passage of time. Khonsu was instrumental in the creation of new life in all living creatures. At Thebes he was known as The Maker of Men’s Destinies. He also had the titles Embracer, Pathfinder, and Defender, as he was thought to watch overnight travelers. As the god of light in the night, Khonsu was invoked to protect against wild animals, increase male virility, and to aid with healing. It was said that when Khonsu caused the crescent moon to shine, women conceived, cattle became fertile, and all nostrils and every throat was filled with fresh air. In Egyptian cosmogony, Khonsu is described as the great snake who fertilizes the Cosmic Egg in the creation of the world.
Khonsu’s reputation as a healer spread beyond Egypt; a stele records how a princess of Bekhten was instantly cured of an illness upon the arrival of an image of Khonsu. King Ptolemy IV, after he was cured of an illness, called himself "Beloved of Khonsu Who Protects His Majesty and Drives Away Evil Spirits". His cult centers were at Memphis, Hibis and Edfu. However, Khonsu also had a significant temple complex at Karnak. The temple was known as Ipet-isut; most select of places. It is a city of temples built over a 2000 yea rperiod, and dedicated to the Theben triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu.
The significance of Karnak is that if the priests of Sais were referring to actual pillars of Khnosu, Karnak has some of the biggest pillars on Earth. The great temple at the heart of Karnak is so big; St Peter's, Milan and Notre Dame Cathedrals could be lost within its walls. The Hypostyle hall at 54,000 square feet, had 134 columns, and is still the largest room of any religious building in the world. In addition to the main sanctuary there are several smaller temples and a vast sacred lake.
So what lies beyond the ‘Pillars of Khonsu’?
Karnak faces northwest, and sits on the Nile. But a very short distance away to the east sits the Red Sea. Karnak’s pillars are covered in carvings that depict tales of gods and kings, including voyages down the Red Sea to the land of Punt, as just one example. The Red Sea is a narrow sea that opens up into a much larger body of water eventually leading to the Indian Ocean, and in many respects matches the description of the water way leading to Atlantis.
However, there is another notable temple to Khonsu that has only recently been rediscovered, in the sunken city of Heracleum, 6.5 km offshore in the Gulf of Abu-Qeer, close to modern day Alexandria. Heracluem was Egypt’s gateway to the Mediterranean before it sank in around 800AD, and, it should be noted, was named after Heracles.
However, even after all this, equal weight must given to the Egyptian god Shu, the other Hercules.
As Jennifer Lynn Larson points out in “Ancient Greek Cults: a guide”, "Herodotus connected Heracles both to Phoenician god Melqart and to the Egyptian god Shu."
Shu means dry, parched, withered, emptiness, and "he who rises up". Shu was the god of the atmosphere, dry air, heat from the sun, light and wind. His duty for all eternity was to separate his children, Nut and Geb (the sky and the Earth), allowing life to flourish. Clearly this is reminiscent of both Atlas, who held the weight of the world on his shoulder, and Heracles, who as part of his 11th Labor, took the weight of the world off Atlas' shoulders and carried the burden so Atlas could retrieve golden apples from the Hesperides.
Interestingly, for such an important deity, there are no known temples dedicated to Shu. However, a stele dedicated to Shu has been discovered in the sunken remains of Heracleum, which is notable because, unlike Khonsu, mythology does speak of the Pillars of Shu. Shu was said to have four pillars, one at each cardinal point, to help him hold up the sky. As Pindar noted, it was the Pillars of Gades that Hercules used to relieve Atlas of his burden in some accounts of the myth.
The comparisons do not end there. Both Shu and Heracles were known for killing serpents. Apep, in Shu’s case, the Hydra in Heracles’s case. And both took on the visual aspects of a Lion. Shu is often depicted with a lion’s head in Egyptian art, while Heracles was often shown wearing the pelt of the Nemean lion for armor.
However, if Shu is the correct cognate, ultimately this does not help either, because, since Shu’s four pillars were placed at the four cardinal points, to lie beyond them would mean that Atlantis could be located anywhere, in any direction.
Anthon, Charles (trans.), Cornelius Tacitus, The Germania and Agricola, and Also Selections from the Annals of Tacitus, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1864., p. 193.
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Erman, Adolf, Die Aegyptische Religion, Verlag Georg Reimer, Berlin, 1909.
Helck, Wolfgang, Kleines Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 1999 ISBN 3-447-04027-0, S. 269f.
Larson, Jennifer Lynn, Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide, Routledge, 2007.
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