(The Tears of Pyrene)
A lighter hearted (slightly) and shorter article this week, on the classical mythology behind the creation of the Pyrenees. Who else but Hercules could be involved in the raising of this vast mountain chain?
There are in fact two variations to this story, the first being the more commonly repeated version from Silius Italicus’ Punica (Book III, 415 – 441), the latter being found unreferenced on an obscure website (reference provided at the end of the article). As Silius describes the story, courtesy of Hannibal as he makes his way across the Pyrenees:
‘But now Hannibal, throwing a peaceful world into confusion, made for the leafy summits of the Pyrenees. From the eminence of their rain-swept peaks they command a wide prospect and divide Spain from Gaul, making an eternal barrier between two great countries. These mountains took their name from Pyrene, daughter of Bebryx and victim of Hercules. For Hercules, in the course of his appointed Labours, was travelling to the distant land of three-bodied Geryon , when he was mastered by wine in the savage court of Bebryx, and left Pyrene robbed of her maidenhood; her beauty was a cause for mourning. The god (if it is not sinful to believe it), the god was the cause of the poor maiden’s death. For when she gave birth to a serpent she fled at once from the home she loved, in horror and dread of her father’s wrath. Then in lonely caves she mourned for the night when she lay with Alcides , and told his promises to the dark forests; till at last, as she mourned the ingratitude of her ravisher, and stretched forth her hands, imploring the aid of her guest, she was torn in pieces by wild beasts. When Hercules came back victorious, he wetted the mangled limbs with tears; and when he found the head of the maid he had loved, he turned pale, distraught with grief. Then the high mountain-tops, smitten by his cries, were shaken; with loud lament he called Pyrene by name; and all the cliffs and haunts of wild beasts echoed the name of Pyrene, Then, with a last tribute of tears, he laid her body in the grave. And time shall never eclipse her fame; for the mountains retain for ever the name that caused such grief.’
(Italicus, 1961, Vol. 1, p145 – 147).
This is the most commonly repeated version of the story. However, an even more lurid version has been found in the article ‘The Catalans’ Mythical Universe’ by Joan Soler (link at the end of this article):
‘Catalan cosmology describes the formation of the highest mountains by magic or by a mysterious spell: the Pyrenees and, especially, the massis of Canigó: “Olympus of the fairies”. Behold, an evil being set fire to all the forests of fir – Pyrenees is said to come from the Greek “pyr”, fire – in order to trap the damsel Pyrene, daughter of Bebryx, the king of that land; a hero or demigod, assimilated to the Greek Hercules, eventually buries her body and raises an enormous mausoleum of “mountain ranges over mountain ranges” from one sea to the other: the Pyrenees.’
(Soler, 1991, p12)
It has also been said that the tears of Pyrene created the many lakes in the Pyrenees, which is a lovely if rather sad origin for those pristine waters! Interestingly there is a reference to a Celtic city called ‘Pyrene’ by Herodotus in his ‘Histories’ (Book 2, 33), however it refers to the Ister (the Danube) flowing from ‘the land of the Celts and the city of Pyrene through the very middle of Europe.’ It is possible that Pyrene may refer to the hillfort of Heuneburg, which was a major regional centre in the south of Germany on the banks of the Danube. It seems that Pyrene’s name was by no means restricted to the Pyrenees…
Sadly, it is very difficult (or well-nigh impossible without a thorough grasp of the language) to identify any concrete Basque origin myths for how the Pyrenees came to be – although doubtless some traces exist in their folklore – due to the advent of Christianity in their culture trying to stamp out pre-Christian customs and beliefs (unsuccessfully it should be said, more on this in the future). Of course, with the history of human habitation in the Pyrenees dating back to over 600,000 BC, there must have been a whole host of myths that for each group or tribe that told the story of how they came to be and how the landscape around them was born. It is very possible that these tales linked into more common primordial mythic tropes (such as that featured in the previous article) – we may never know, although educated guesses based on cave art and the study of hunter gatherer cultures might just give us clues. The hunt goes on for the myths and legends of Iberian and ‘Celtic’ tribes that inhabited the Pyrenees: the Andosini, Castellani, Ceretani, Indegetae, Sordones and others. Who knows what may be uncovered in their inscriptions – more research is required!
 The stealing of Geryon’s cattle was one of the great Labours of Hercules. Geryon is sometimes associated with Iberia, and according to Strabo his triple-body was located in Gades, modern day Cadiz – Strabo, Geography, Book III, 311.
 The Greek name for Hercules (a Roman term).
Italicus, S. 1961. Punica. Volume 1. Translated from the Latin by J. D. Duff. London: William Heinemann Ltd.
Strabo. 1903. Geography. Volume 3. Translated from the Latin by H. C. Hamilton. London: George Bell & Sons.
Soler, J. 1991. The Catalans’ Mythical Universe. Accessible here: http://www.raco.cat/index.php/Catalonia/article/viewFile/106413/160690