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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(adj.) located in or coming from the very far north

painting of the aurora borealis

An intriguing word cropped up on HH the other day:

Which raised this excellent and equally intriguing question:

And that equally intriguing question has an equally intriguing answer.

Etymologically, the hyper– of hyperborean is the Greek word for “above” or “over”, as in words like hyperbole, hyperglycaemia and hyperventilate. The borean part simply means “northern” (as in aurora borealis), and it derives from the name of Boreas, the god of the north wind in Greek mythology.

To the Ancient Greeks, consequently, the adjective hyperborean referred to anyone or anything who lived or came from the land “beyond the north wind”—but we can be even more specific than that.

According to Homer’s Iliad, the god Boreas inhabited Thrace, a region in the far northeast of Greece on the Black Sea that today also covers parts of modern-day Bulgaria and Turkey. And beyond Thrace supposedly lay a legendary utopian land known to the Greeks as Hyperborea. There, there was no disease nor famine, and no one ever aged or fell ill. It was a land of utmost perfection, where the sun shone perpetually, twenty-four hours a day. And where, presumably, everyone had very thick curtains.

The fact that Hyperborea was a land of perpetual sunlight has led some classicists to believe that it might have been at least in part inspired by stories of the Arctic summer, but it is just as likely that it was a purely fictional invention and nothing more. The Greek poet Pindar, for instance, once wrote that Hyperborea could be reached “neither by ship nor by foot”.

Whether based on a real place or not, it was this mythical land that was the original “extreme north”: the adjective hyperborean originally referred to anyone who dwelt in or came from Hyperborea, and hence came from “above” or “beyond” Thrace. Over time, however, the use of the word became less restrictive and more figurative, and since the early 1600s writers in English have been using it more loosely to refer to anything or anyone of the far north.

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