The Voyage of Hanno

“The Voyage of Hanno, King of the Carthaginians, to the Libyan regions of the earth, beyond the Pillars of Heracles...” These are the opening words of the Periplus of Hanno, a Greek translation of a Punic inscription that had been set up in the temple of the chief god of Carthage, Ba’al Hammon.1 In this document the shophet Hanno relates how he conducted an expedition that brought new colonists to four Carthaginian settlements established where the chain of the Atlas reaches the Atlantic and then, having founded a new colony at the Tropic, proceeded from there to explore the coast of Africa as far as the Equator.

Except for a few omissions the document provides data that are precise and permit a detailed reconstruction of Hanno’s voyage. But the interpretation of this precious text has been handicapped by the dogma that the ancients were vague in matters of measurement and used elastic standards. The general view is summarized by one commentator: “The distances are given in terms of day’s sail, a variable unit more than usually uncertain in such strange waters.”2 If this were true Hanno would have composed a useless document, which would have been of benefit only to classical scholars to write upon it equally useless commentaries. But it can be shown that the ancients were extremely careful when they expressed their ideas in writing and, more specifically, that they left nothing to chance when they cut inscriptions.3 The account of Hanno was cut in stone as an inscription and therefore was intended to be open and public. According to its own words, it had been “dedicated in the temple of Kronos, in order to make it known.”4

The purpose of Hanno’s voyage is described thus:

The Carthaginians decided that Hanno should sail outside of the Pillars of of Herakles and found cities of the Libyphoenicians. And he sailed off with a fleet of sixty fifty-oared ships, and a large number of men and women to the number of thirty thousand, and with wheat and other provisions.

Several commentators state that the number of 30,000 colonists, men and women, is a gross exaggeration, whereas it is perfectly reasonable.5

Hanno’s enterprise was so momentous that when the Romans in 146 B.C. razed the capital of the Carthaginians to the ground with such thoroughness that excavators today have difficulty in even tracing its outline, they must have felt that this achievement of their enemies could not be ignored. It is possible that the Romans, when they proceeded to destroy systematically the traces of Carthaginian glory, felt some piety before the inscription of Hanno and had it translated into Greek. The victor of Carthage, Scipio Africanus, sent his friend, the Greek historian Polybius, with an expedition to retrace step by step the route of Hanno. Perhaps the Romans could not believe in the truth and accuracy of Hanno’s report. Perhaps it was the intellectual Polybius, being kept a prisoner by the Romans, and trying to educate them, who asked Scipio to grant him the use of a fleet for the purpose.6 It is significant that Pliny, writing about 250 years after the fall of Carthage, speaks of Hanno’s report (commentarii) which we have, as no longer extant, and being substituted with longer accounts by Greek and Roman writers who expanded it with fabulous material (V. 1. 8).

The Greek of the translation could have been written at the time of Carthage’s fall. It definitely belongs to the Hellenistic age, even though many peculiarities of style, such as the lack of connective particles, must be explained by the influence of the Semitic original. The Greek of the translation can be compared with the Septuagint translation of the Bible; it tries rather laboriously to produce an accurate Greek, but it is sufficiently literal so that we can still appreciate that vivid directness and simplicity of Canaanite literature which we have learned to appreciate in the Old Testament.7 Possibly the Greek translation was introduced in the geographical part of Polybius’ history which must have contained also the account of Polybius’ own voyage that Pliny quotes. In introducing Polybius’ account, Pliny qualifies him as annalium conditor, which suggests that the account was in these annales or chronological narratives.

The essence of Polybius’ report is transmitted by Pliny.8 It can be gathered that Polybius’ report followed verbatim that of Hanno and apparently had the sole purpose of indicating that Hanno was not telling fabulous stories.9 However, whereas Hanno had provided data only in terms of latitude and longitude, Pliny, writing for a less scientific audience, converted the figures into Roman miles measured along the course of the coast.

From Avienus and Pliny we learn that Hanno and his brother Himilko were sent from Carthage beyond the Pillars of Hercules to explore the extreme lands of the world, Himilko being expected to move to the north and Hanno to the south, circumnavigating Africa. According to Pliny (II. 67. 169) Hanno went on a voyage that took him to the limit of Arabia:

Also Hanno, at the time when the power of Carthage flourished, sailed round from Gades as far as Arabia, and published an account of his voyage, just as Himilko, sent at the same time to explore the outer regions of Europe.10

There are those who claim that the expedition mentioned by Pliny is the same one as that reported by Hanno; but Hanno’s inscription does not mention that another expedition was sent at the same time under his brother. Avienus refers to Himilco’s exploration of the northern regions: “The Carthaginian Himilco reports that the voyage can be made in less than four months, as he can testify by his own experience.”11 It is sophistry to argue that Avienus cannot be believed because there is no record of Himilko’s voyage, when nothing of the extensive literature of the Carthaginians has remained, and when Hanno’s report of a previous voyage has survived in a single manuscript.

It seems perfectly sensible that after the success of Hanno’s first enterprise he tried to complete it by going all the way around Africa, while his brother went to the north of Europe; there is no reason to doubt this information, except for the assumption that one would be ascribing too much of a rational soul to the Carthaginians if he believed that they would have engaged in such a methodical process of exploration. Having rejected this statement as preposterous, scholars discount the concomitant statement that Hanno and Himilko were the sons of the shophet Hamilkar who commanded the Carthaginians against the Greeks at the battle of Himera in -480.12 In this battle the Greeks of Sicily defeated the Carthaginians at the very time that the Greeks of the mainland were defeating the Persians at Salamis. When the battle was turning against his side Hamilkar, in a vain last effort to retrieve the situation, threw himself into a fire, hoping to be accepted by the gods as a scapegoat in place of his army. The sons remained faithful to this spirit of fortitude and devotion to public service. Himilco succeeded his father as shophet in 480 B.C.; and it can be presumed that Hanno came into office roughly twenty years later. Thus Hanno was a contemporary of Herodotus, although scholars assign to him dates that range from 570 B.C. to about 450 B.C.13

Hanno begins his narrative at the point where the fleet leaves the Mediterranean: “When we passed through the Pillars we went on and, sailing beyond them for two days, we founded a first city which we called Thymiaterion.” Samuel Bochart recognized that Thymiaterion derives from the Punic Dumathiria, meaning “a plain.” In Arabic dumathir or dumthor means “level ground.” This derivation is confirmed by the sentence that follows: “It is situated in the midst of a wide plain.”

“Afterwards,” the narrative continues, “sailing towards the west, we came to Soloention, a promontory of Libya, overgrown with trees.” Soloention evidently derives from the Hebrew Soloeis, meaning “shore.” Our text does not specify the distance between Thymiaterion and Soloention; yet from the writings of Pliny and others we know that Soloention is today’s Cape Cantin (32°37’N); thus the distance proves to be exactly half a day.

Hanno’s account continues:

Having erected there [Soloention] a temple to Poseidon, we again sailed toward the east for half a day, until we reached a marsh not far from the sea thickly covered with tall reeds. There we saw a great many elephants and other animals pasturing.

There is general agreement that this lagoon is the estuary of the Tensift (32°00’N).

Going beyond the marsh a day’s sailing, we settled cities by the sea named the wall [or fortress] of Karikon and Gytta, and Akra, and Melitta, and Arambi.

It seems that the Carthaginians had reasons for wishing to strengthen their colonies established in that stretch of coast between Mogador and Agadir where the chain of the Atlas abuts the sea.14 This stretch of coast, which is referred to today as Littoral of the Moroccans, was enclosed by two fortified places, situated at the two ends of the Atlas, which received the Punic name agadir. This designation is the equivalent of the Hebrew gader, “wall, fortified town,” and was translated into Greek as teikhos, “wall, fortress.” Today in the Berber language of Morocco, agadir means “fortified town.” The name of Agadir has remained attached to the city at the southern end. The name of the northern gader is still heard in its present name Mogador.15 In our text it is distinguished by an adjective that the Greeks rendered as Karikon. The Greek geographer Ephorus mentions the “Fortress of Karikon” (Karikon teikhos) as “a city of Libya, outside of the pillars of Herakles.”16 Perhaps Karikon is a rendering of a Punic equivalent of the common Hebrew noun for “city,” qiriah which occurs in the name of Carthage itself, “Holy City.”17 Movers understood it as referring to a settlement of Carians, the renowned sea-farers of antiquity, allies of the Phoenicians.

Gytta was understood by Bochart as referring to a place where cattle is raised.18 It may however be another rendering of gader.

Akra apparently derives from Hebro-Phoenician hakra, i.e., fortress.

Melitta is derived from the Hebro-Phoenician melet, meaning cement or concrete.19 It may be a reference to white cement walls of the fortress. The name of the island of Malta is derived from the same root. The geographer Hekataeus, who wrote in the generation before Herodotus, mentions “Melissa, a city of the Libyans.”20

Intriguing is the term Arambi, because Homer in the Odyssey (IV 83-85) presents Menelaos as relating: “I have wondered as far as Cyprus, Phoenicia, and Egypt, I have gone as far as the Aithiopes, the Sidonioi, the Eremboi, and Libya.” The ancients argued on the question where was the land of the Eremboi or Aremboi; some suggested that it was Arabia, which is a poor explanation, but better than the modern one that the Erembians or Arambians were Arameians. I suggest that the Aramboi are the dwellers of the Maghreb, since Herodotus calls the mountainous part of the Maghreb by the name of “midland of the wild beasts” and Hanno speaks of “hostile Ethiopians in a land land populated by wild beasts” in referring to the chain of the Atlas. Hence, Aramboi could be explained by the Hebrew ereb, “place of the wild beasts.” However Bochart understood Arambi as derived from the Hebrew har-anbin, a mountain producing grape-vines.21 One could wonder whether Arambi is Marrakesh which gave its name to the country of Morocco.

It has been suggested that these five settlements are minor centers between Fortress Karikon and Gytta; but it would be more reasonable to infer from the text that they are inland centers on the valley of the Sous which ends at Gytta, i.e., Agadir.22

Having reinforced the Carthaginian colonies of the Atlas, the expedition proceeded southward: “Sailing thence we arrived at the great river Lixos, flowing out of Libya.” Our text does not give the distance between the five cities at the foot of the Atlas and the river Lixos. But since, as is generally agreed, the Lixos can be identified as the Dra (28°45’N), we can conclude that the distance was a day’s sailing. The Dra is the largest river in the area, and marks the southernmost limit of cultivable land. This well corresponds to Hanno’s account. In the vicinity of the river Hanno found

Some nomadic people, the Lixitai, pasturing their flocks: We stayed with them for a while, having become friends.

Above them lived the hostile Aithiopes, in a land populated by wild beasts, divided by great mountains out of which, they say, the Lixos flows. On these mountains live men of different shapes, the Cave-Dwellers. They can run swifter than horses, according to what the Lixitai say.

Taking interpreters from among them, we sailed southward alongside a desert for two days. After this we again sailed toward the rising sun for one day. There, in the innermost part of a bay, we found a small island five stadia in circumference. We settled it, naming it Kerne.

Certainly the area of Kerne was known to the Carthaginians because they would hardly have sent a colony to an unknown place. Later I will show that Kerne was of interest to the Carthaginians because it was 12° to the west of an important salt mine that they used to reach through the Sahara.

As Samuel Bochart was the first to recognize, the name Kerne derives from the Phoenician Khernaa, meaning, the last habitation, corresponding to the Hebrew akharon; in Greek mythology the river Acheron separates “the last habitation” where the souls of the dead dwell, from the land of the living. Hence Kerne became known as ultima Kerne among the Romans. Most scholars identify Kerne with the Island of Herne (23°50’N) in the Western Sahara, near the present town of Dakhla (formerly Villa Cisneros). This identification is no doubt correct,23 and serves to confirm Bochart’s etymology; the suggestion that the name Kerne/Herne may be derived from the Hebro-Phoenician qeren, meaning “horn,” must be rejected, since the Hebrew koph could not be be transformed into a soft h, but a cheth could. The antiquity of the modern place-name Herne has been traced by Carcopino.24

The manuscript states that the island of Kerne has a circuit of 5 stadia, but, as Bochart suggested, this must be an error of transcription for 15, since Pliny (X 8, 22) who always computes 8 stadia to a Roman mile, says “under two miles” on the authority of Cornelius Nepos (VI.35); this well corresponds to the circuit of the Island of Herne.25

Those who have tried to identify Kerne with the island of Arguin, which lies further south enclosed within the promontory of Cap Blanc, have needed to emend the text, since the voyage from the Draa would take considerably longer than the three days allowed by the text.

None of the score of writers who identify Kerne with the Island of Herne (23°50’N) mentions the fundamental fact that it is placed on the Tropic. The Greeks computed the Tropic as being at 23°51’N; it was about 23°45’N in the age of Hanno. It was because Kerne was the most extreme Carthaginian colony and was on the Tropic, that Hanno relates its position to that of Carthage:

We estimated from the sailing that Kerne lay in direct line with Carthage, because it seems that the navigation from Carthage to the Columns of Herakles is the same as that to Kerne.

This passage is the most specific datum for the interpretation of the entire text, but up to now it has not been understood. Carl Kaeppel wonders “If the Greek text means anything at all.” It specifies that one can draw a geodetic square with a side equal to the segment of parallel from Carthage to the Columns of Herakles and a side equal to the difference of latitude between Kerne and the Columns of Herakles. The difference of latitude between Kerne (23°50’N) and the Pillars of Herakles, measured at Ponta Almina (35°54’N), is 12°. Since at latitude 36° the degree of longitude was computed as 4/5 of the basic degree, 12 degrees of latitude are equal to 15 degrees of longitude, the difference between Ponta Almina and Carthage (10°17-18’E).

Because the Phoenicians did not establish any colonies beyond Kerne, the Greeks and Romans assumed that the sea beyond Kerne was not navigable.26

The true voyage of exploration began from Kerne, but the text indicates that the area was known to the people of Lixos, who were engaged as interpreters. After establishing the colony of Kerne, Hanno proceeded to a preliminary exploratory voyage in which he came upon a river called Chretes:

Sailing across a great river, Khretes, we came to a lake. This lake had three islands in it, each larger than Kerne. From there, after a day’s sailing, we came to the innermost part of the lake above which rose great mountains, full of savage men dressed in animal skins, who by throwing stones at us prevented us from landing.

There is wide agreement that this river is the Senegal which can be ascended for about 600 miles by modern ships during the rainy season that begins in May. The Lake mentioned in the narrative may be Lac de Guiers, which connects to the Senegal. Aristotle (Meteorologica I, 13) mentions a river Khremetes “one of the greatest rivers of Libya that flow into the outer sea, where formerly the Nile used to flow.”27 If Khretes is the equivalent of the Hebrew hires or hereth, “forest,” frequently occurring as a geographical name; it means that the river was already known to Phoenician or Punic sailors.28

Sailing thence we came to another river, great and broad, full of crocodiles and hippopotami. Then turning around once more, we went back to Kerne.

Most interpreters identify this river with the estuary of the Gambia, but I would suggest the coastal lagoon formed by the river Siwa, also called Bum, of Sierra Leone. Most of the interpreters have neglected the fact that crocodiles and hippopotami are not found in salty waters: The estuary of the Gambia is salty for a great distance inland. This river must be the same as the one that Pliny calls Bambotum, describing it as “infested with crocodiles and hippopotami” (V. 1. 10). The river Bum or Siwa of Sierra Leone forms a coastal lagoon that opens into the sea at the same point where there ends the She. The opening of this estuary is called Bamba in the Survey Map issued by the British Administration of Sierra Leone. The map of Guillaume Deslisle (Amsterdam, 1792) places there the mouth of a river called Madrebomba. It has been already suggested by Bochart that the name Bambotum of Pliny could be explained by the well-known Hebrew term bihemoth, “hippopotamus.” The fact that localities below Kerne acquired Phoenician names indicates that the area was well frequented by Phoenician traders after Hanno’s expedition, particularly since names of rivers are those that are the most resistant to change.29 The point of which I speak, the Sherbro Entrance, is at 7°23’N 12°32’ W; Polybius, who counts the distances along the coast, places it at 616 miles (= 911 km) from Cape Verde, whereas by opening a compass on a map I have obtained an approximate distance of 950 km.

After returning to Kerne, Hanno set out once more toward the south. It is in the second voyage that Hanno establishes the key geographical points, giving their distance.

From there we sailed south for six days,30 keeping close to the land, inhabited by the Aithiopes, who fled from us, and would not stay. They spoke a strange language which even the Lixitai who were with us did not understand.

Then, on the last day, we observed great mountains covered with forests. There was also a fragrant grove of various species of trees.

This wooded promontory is Cape Verde, the westernmost point of Africa, where today is the major port of Dakar.

The realism and the practical value of Hanno’s account may be evinced by comparing his description of Cape Verde with a modern one: “The peninsula consists of moderately high land rising gradually to the hillocks of Cape Verde; the two highest, Les Mamelles, are 311 and 344 feet high and appear as islets from a distance. Les Mamelles are quite distinct and are covered with stunted vegetation during the rainy season, when they form quite a contrast to the barren coast to the northwards.”31 It follows that Hanno saw Cape Verde in the rainy season from May to September, as it could be expected.

We can compare Polybius’ report through Pliny’s summary, which in its second part reads: “Then there comes a gulf of 616 miles, closed by the promontory of Mount Barce, running to the occident, which is called Surrentium.” The promontory running to the occident must be Cape Verde. To those from the north, the coast that turns to the east after Cape Verde may have appeared as a gulf. By the time of Polybius this promontory had acquired the Punic name of Barce, “lightning,” (Hebrew baraq), the name of Hannibal’s family. As to the term Surrentium, I would tentatively suggest that it may be a Punic name for the western wind.32 Pliny reports that the gulf has a length of 616 miles (= 911 km), that is, extends up to the middle of Sierra Leone, since Polybius’ report measures distances along the coast.

Up to here my interpretations agree quite substantially with the current ones; I have tried only to introduce more precision by considering Hanno’s statements about longitudes and by considering the Punic background of the Greek text. According to ancient standards a day of navigation by sail corresponds to 1_ degrees or 30 Persian parasangs. On the principle that a day of navigation by sail is 1_°, I formulate the following computation:

Pillars of Herakles—35°54’N

2 days = 3°

Thymiaterion = Mazagan—33°16’N

_ day = 0°45’

Soleis = Cape Contin—32°33’N

_ day = 0°45’

Lagoon with reeds = Tensift—32°00’N

1 day = 1°30’

Fortress Karikon = Mogador

Gilta = Agadir—30°25’N

Akra, Melitta, Arambi

1 day = 1°30’

Lixos = Dra—28°46’N

3 days = 4°30’

Kerne = Herne—23°50’N

6 days = 9°

Wooded promontory = Cape Verde—14°47’N


The total is 14 days = 21°. The computation is precise for Kerne and Cape Verde that are the points of main concern.33 The great disagreement concerns the last part of Hanno’s voyage, which is the part of vital interest.

Sailing round these [mountains] for two days, we came to an immense opening in the sea: On each side of it was a plain. From it we saw at night fires which burned now more, now less, on all sides.

The “immense opening” is to be identified with the estuary of the Gêba in today’s Guinea-Bissau which is really immense because it is enclosed by the islands of the Arquipelago dos Bijagos. This must be the same as the river Palsum mentioned by Pliny,34 unless Pliny is referring to another entrance to the Gêba at 11°50’N. Hanno places it at 2 days = 3° below Cape Verde. Those who identify the “immense opening” with the estuary of the Gambia have difficulty in explaining the figure of two days’s journey given in the text, since even by making a day’s sail a flexible unit variable according to local conditions, Hanno’s progress would have been unusually leisurely along this stretch of the coast.

Hanno’s account continues: “Then, taking on water, we sailed onward for five days along the coast, until we arrived at a great gulf which our interpreters said called ‘The Western Horn.’” The Western Horn must be Cape Palmas, the beginning of the Gulf of Guinea. Five days corresponds to 5_°, which well corresponds to the distance between the Gêba and Cape Palmas.

In [this bay] there was a great island and in the island a lake of the sea; in this lake there was another island. Landing there, we saw nothing but forests during the day, and at night many fires burning; and we heard the sound of pipes, and the din of cymbals and drums, and much shouting. Fear seized us, and soothsayers bade us leave the island.

Our text has dropped the number of days of navigation from east to west, from the Western Horn to the great island, but Pliny in his account of Polybius’ voyage mentions that the distance from the Hesperion Promontory to the mountain called Theon Okhema is ten days and ten nights of navigation. According to Hanno, the Theon Okhema was four days’ sailing from the great island, i.e., 6°. This means that the distance from the Western Horn to the great island was six days, or nine degrees.

The description of the Great Island corresponds point by point to the island within the bay of Lagos, which encloses a lake that is also an arm of the sea, with smaller islands within it.

The purpose of Hanno was probably to establish contact with the great culture of Benin, located inland of this landing; but apparently the natives were unfriendly.

Sailing rapidly, we passed by a fiery region filled with vapors, from which great torrents of fire flowed down to the sea. The land could not be approached because of the heat.

We sailed away from there quickly, being struck with fear. Then, having sailed for four days, we sighted at night a land full of flames. And in the midst of it there was a fire higher than the rest which seemed to touch the stars. By day we discerned it to be a mountain of great height named Theon Ochema.

In describing a volcanic eruption from a high mountain towering over the sea Hanno mentions such details as sulphuric fumes and streams of lava. The only volcanic area in West Africa is represented by Mount Cameroon, which is still active today.35 It is located at the deepest point of the Gulf of Guinea, where it rises suddenly from the seashore, reaching a height of over 4000 meters. The peak of Mount Cameroon is at 4°13’N, 9°10’E. almost exactly 6° (equal to four days’ sailing) east of the Great Island of Lagos. Those who have seen it from the sea consider it one of the most impressive sights in the world. The natives call it Mongana-Loba, “Mountain of the Gods,” which well agrees with the Greek Theon Ochema, “Chariot of the Gods,” of our text.36 Hanno could hardly have been more specific and effective in the description of what he saw, but it is the universal agreement among scholars that it is impossible that he may have seen Mount Cameroon: the ancients were too primitive to be able to navigate as far as the Gulf of Guinea. What Hanno described as a volcano would be the Sierra Leone. The interpretation of the text is simple if one rejects the premises that Hanno was a “primitive” and “primitives” could never have navigated beyond Cape Palmas. Those who, not being committed to the rigid dogmas of the academy, as the noted explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, have recognized Mount Cameroon in the mountain mentioned by Hanno, have been greeted with cacchinations.37

The prevailing opinion is that what Hanno saw were bonfires lighted by the natives. It is said that the streams of lava could have been the phosphorescence of leaves (Del Turco). But, if Hanno was a pathological character who lied outrageously or distorted facts beyond all proportions, there is no point in writing monograph after monograph comparing his report with geographical data.

Del Turco improves on the current opinion by suggesting that Hanno saw a forested mountain of the Sierra Leone that at the moment happened to be on fire. The description of the event as a volcanic eruption would have resulted from “the dazzlement of minds devoid of our scientific cognitions.” What, one wonders, are our scientific cognitions of which Del Turco speaks? Perhaps it is his display of technical terms of mathematical geography that obviously he does not understand. Or perhaps it is the sense of responsibility of Del Turco, who for the sake of rhetorical effect states that Hanno’s inscription was cut on a golden table (p. 44). Or perhaps it is the logic of Stephane Gsell who in his monumental history of Africa in ancient times argues that Hanno saw a volcano, but that this volcano was in the Republic of Guinea, even though he admits that according to geologists there could never have been volcanic activities in that part of Africa.38

The course of Hanno’s expedition was retraced in the second century B.C. by Polybius, one of the most careful historians of antiquity, who is quoted by Pliny (VI 35, 197) as having spoken of an imminens mari mons excelsus aeternis ardet ignibus, Theon Ochema dictus—“a mountain of great height, close to the sea, burning with perpetual fires, called Theon Okhema.”39 Did Polybius, too, mistake bonfires for a huge volcano? Or was the forest fire suggested by Del Turco still smoldering three hundred years later?

On the third day after the sighting of Theon Okhema, Hanno came to the Southern Horn:

For three days we sailed thence sailing past torrents of flame, till we arrived at a bay named Southern Horn.

Three days being equivalent to 4_° of latitude, the Southern Horn must be the great estuary of the Gabon. Hanno, because of the volcanic eruption, fled up the lagoon of Fernando Vaz (1°38’ S), which is navigable for many miles inland, up to the vicinity of Lambaréné, where the river spreads into a great lake in which there are numerous small islands.

This interpretation is confirmed by a passage of the geographer Statius Sebosus, quoted by Pliny (VI 36, 201) as stating that there are 40 days of sail from the Atlas to the island of the Gorgons (Hesperidum insula) and one more day to the Horn of Hesperium (the name that later Greek and Roman geographers gave to the Southern Horn).

The account of Hanno’s voyage ends with this observation:

In the recess of this bay [i.e., the Southern Horn] there was an island, like the former one, having a lake, in which there was another island, full of savage men. There were women, too, in even greater number. They had hairy bodies, and the interpreters called them Gorillae. When we pursued them we were unable to take any of the men; for they had all escaped, by climbing the steep places and defending themselves with stones; but we took three of the women, who bit and scratched their leaders, and would not follow us. So we killed them and flayed them, and brought their skins to Carthage. For we did not voyage further, provisions failing us.

Hanno had spoken of having found women with hairy bodies that the interpreters called gorillas. Since the poet Hesiod had spoken of “the Gorgons who live beyond the Ocean, towards the distant kingdom of the night, where there live the Hesperides,” the source of Mela and Pliny identified the last place visited by Hanno, where he saw the gorillas, with the fabulous Island of the Hesperides, here called Island of the Gorgons. It is because of the Hesperides that Statius Sebosus calls the Southern Horn of Hanno by the name of Hesperium, or Western. Pliny makes clear that the cape called by him Hesperium is confine Africae—at the limit of Africa. The figure of 30 days is obtained by counting 30° or 20 days from the Equator to the foot of the Atlas at Agadir and adding 15° or 10 days for the distance east-west along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea.

From the region of the estuary of the Niger Hanno cut across the Bight of Biafra to Cape Lopez, which closes the Gabon at the south. During this navigation he saw Mount Cameroon in eruption. The intention was to stop in the waters of the Gabon, the Southern Horn, which is at the Equator, but apparently the wind was carrying the ashes to the south, so that he stopped further south about the lagoon of Fernan Vaz.

Since interpreters have not recognized that Hanno’s report is a serious scientific document, they have thought that its ending with the mention of the gorillas is a picturesque detail, whereas it concerns the main purpose of the voyage. It has been debated whether Hanno met with chimpanzees or with pygmies; in the text there are arguments for supporting either interpretation. I believe that the ambiguity is in a way intentional. The Pygmies were an object of great interest to the Egyptians, since they lived at the Equator where there are the sources of the Nile. At present Pygmy tribes are found in an area that extends 5° north and 5° south of the Equator, from the great lakes to the sea. For this reason Pygmies are often portrayed on Egyptian monuments, as early as the Old Kingdom. Later they appear on Greek vases. Down to the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the Pygmies were included in the list of the nations that pay tribute to the King of Egypt, because the authority of the Egyptian crown had to extend to the sources of the Nile, to the Equator. Some Egyptian kings had a guard of Pygmies. But, in spite of this, scholars up to a century ago, when they were directly confronted with the facts, dismissed the Pygmies as an imaginary entity; just the fact that the ancients speak so persistently of them was taken as evidence that they were fabulous creatures. In 1863 Vivien de Saint-Martin wrote:

The fable of the pygmies is among the most ancient, and one should say, to account for the credence it has received through all antiquity, that even today it is one of the most widespread and commonly accepted legends of the lands that border on Abyssinia.40

The very fact that the ancients are so persistent in speaking of them was used at the time to dismiss the account of the first European explorers who had seen them. Aristotle had said (Hist. of Animals, VIII): “The cranes go up as far as the lakes of Egypt, where the Nile originates; there the Pygmies live. And this is not a fable, but pure truth.” Since it was assumed a priori that Aristotle could not have known that the Nile originates from the great equatorial lakes, this passage was considered further evidence that the Pygmies were figments of the imagination. Homer (Iliad III 6) had spoken of the Pygmies as living on the shores of Oceanus (the river that continues the Nile along the Equatorial line). What else was needed to prove that the Pygmies did not exist? Hanno needed to bring back some Pygmies as evidence that he had reached the Equator, as Columbus brought back some people that he called Indians and we have called Indians ever since. Pliny (VI 36, 200) reports that two of the hides brought back by Hanno were to be seen in Carthage in the Temple of Juno (Tanit Pne Ba’al, the wife of Ba’al Hammon, or Kronos) up to the destruction of the city by the Romans; his wording, argumenti gratia, makes clear that they were brought back as evidence. This is the reason why Hanno goes into details to explain why he was not able to bring them back alive and returned with the skins of three female specimens. Hanno intended to bring back some Pygmies, but he might have gotten hold of some gorillas. Even though the Pygmies have more body hair than most other Africans, they can hardly be said to have hairy bodies. It is not easy to flay humans and their hides would not be particularly impressive. The behavior of the gorillas who climb on rocks, throw stones, defend themselves by butting and scratching, well fits the habits of gorillas. Those who read Hanno since the Renaissance have understood that he was referring to anthropoid apes, and as a result the term gorilla has entered European languages. To me it is very significant that Hanno, who is detailed in his description, does not refer to the gorillas as speaking. According to what I have been told, the natives of the Gulf of Guinea used to tell that the anthropoidal apes really are humans who pretend not to be able to speak, lest the white man put them to work. It is also significant that Hanno does not speak of the gorillas as being small, whereas he would have stressed the small size of Pygmies. The point is made complicated by the circumstance that the habitat of the gorillas coincides more or less with the territory where the Pygmies dwell.

But Hanno reports that the interpreters, who must have spoken Berber, called the wild humans by the name of gorilla. Since in the Fulani languages the noun for “man” is gorko and its diminutive form is gorel, it appears that the interpreters learned to apply the term gorel to the Pygmies from the Fulani-speaking tribes who lived between them and the land of the Pygmies. Perhaps the interpreters tried to please Hanno by assuring him that the gorillas he had captured really were the gorel, “little men,” he was looking for.

Some further details about Hanno’s expedition may be gleaned from the Argonautica of Dionysius of Mitylene. Since this poem was a geographical epic in which the heroes roam all over the world, the author took the story of Hanno, gave a few twists to it, and included it in his composition. According to Dionysos’ story, as related by Diodorus of Sicily (III. 52-55), the Amazons, after fighting several Numidian and African tribes, founded a city in the morass of Triton, which they called Chersonesos, or Peninsula. The Lake of Triton is the Little Syrtis. The story up to here has simply the purpose of changing the Amazons into Carthaginians. The queen of the Amazons gathered an army of 30,000 foot soldiers and 3,000 horsemen and attacked the city of Kerne in the land of the Atlanteans (i. e., the Berbers) who dwelt in a prosperous country and possessed great cities. They lived along the shore of Oceanus and mythology places the birth of the gods among them. This is the story of the king Hanno who led 30,000 colonists and established the colony of Kerne in the land of the Berbers or Atlantes.

The Amazons captured the city of Kerne, the Atlantean men were massacred and their women enslaved, but later the Amazons made peace with the rest of the Atlantes. Since the Atlantes were attacked by the Gorgons, the queen of the Amazons was asked to invade the land of the Gorgons. They captured 3,000 Gorgons, but the others escaped into the forest. The 3,000 prisoners attacked the Amazons by surprise and killed some of them. As a result the Gorgon prisoners were slain and the Amazons returned to their own country.

It is easy to recognize that we have here a repetition of the story of the three gorillas; but the variation on the story of Hanno provides most valuable information. The Carthaginian king Hanno with 30,000 men attacked the city of Kerne and settled there, but later established good relations with the Atlanteans, that is, the Berbers. The Berbers were in conflict with the Gorgons, that is, the Ful-speaking people in whose language a man is called gork. Since many African tribes are called by the term meaning “man” in their language, the Fulani-speaking tribes were called gorko. But this must not be the name they applied to themselves, since gorko is a singular and the plural is quite different.

The story indicates that the gorko or Ful-speaking people were bordering on the Berbers, and that the expedition of Hanno was directed towards gorko territory. The Carthaginians conducted an expedition against the Gorgons and captured 3 gorillas, whereas the others fled. But the gorillas fought back and were killed. Today the gorko constitute scattered groups in Mauretania, Senegal, Sierra Leone, along the course of the Niger, and in the former French Cameroon; but the evidence of Hanno’s voyage indicates that they were more solidly established in the territory in which they are now a minority. Apparently they occupied a great part of the territory between the Pygmies and the Berbers, so that the Berbers learned to call the pygmies by the Fulani term gorel. Hanno’s interpreters apparently knew Fulani, and his remarks that some of the people of West Africa spoke a language that the interpreters could not understand could mean that they did not understand Mande languages.

As a result the Southern Horn of Hanno was identified with the island of the Hesperides where the Gorgons live. This created a confusion by which the Southern Horn (Cape Lopez) is called Hesperium, the name that Hanno applied to Cape Palmas. The terms Western Horn and Southern Horn apparently were already established ones; they represent the limits of the Gulf of Guinea, of which the Chariot of the Gods is the center. The Southern Horn is at the Equator, at the point at which navigation to the south meets the resistance of the Benguela Current moving up along the coast from South Africa. But Xenophon of Lampakos was somewhat more scientific and observed that the point reached by Hanno was not an island. Hence, he placed the islands Gorgades, the two islands of the Hesperides, two days from the continent against the cape. Most likely he refers to the island of São Tomé which is almost at the Equator (0°01’N to 0°24’N) and is at longitude 6°20’E, about two days = 3 degress from Cape Lopez (9°30’E). There was enough scientific accuracy in Xenophon to observe that the Gorgons were no longer to be seen there: Gorgonum quondam domus, reports Pliny (VI 36, 200). Pliny observed that omnia circa hoc incerta sunt, because Statius Sebosus, combining two versions, placed the island of the Gorgons 40 days from the chain of the Atlas, that is, at the Equator, but identified the island of the Hesperides with the last stop of Hanno (lagoon of Fernan Vaz), placing them correctly one day before what he calls Cape Hesperium (Pliny, VI 36, 201).

Polybius placed Kerne “against Mount Atlas” (Pliny, VI 36, 199); this means that he placed Kerne at the latitude of the Mount Atlas mentioned by Herodotus as being also called the Pillar of the Sky. The Pillar of the Sky is the highest peak of the Ahoggar range which dominates the central Sahara and was used as a geodetic point, being at the Tropic. The Pillar of the Sky was on the line of the geodetic square established by Hanno to link Kerne with Carthage. Pliny states that Polybius is in error when he places the Atlas within the space of 10 days east of Cape Hesperium (Cape Palmas) towards the Chariot of the Gods; Pliny objects that all other writers place the Atlas at the extreme limit of Mauretania (at Agadir) meaning what we call today the Chain of the Atlas. But Pliny (VI 36, 198) further reports that, besides Kerne, Polybius mentioned another island, called Atlantis, and also placed “against Mount Atlas.” from which there are two days of sailing to Cape Hesperium. Polybius included in this context some calculations of latitude and longitude that later generations could not understand. He mentioned a geodetic square in which the northern line was the Tropic from Kerne to Mount Atlas (Pillar of the Sky, Ahoggar) and the eastern side went from this Mount Atlas to an island called Atlantis, which is 2 days = 3° from the western Ethiopians and what the Romans call Cape Hesperium (Cape Lopez). Hence, the Island of Atlantis is São Tomé. That the Island of the Gorgades is the same as the Island of Atlantis is proved by the fact tht both are said to be 2 days’ journey from Cape Hesperion. Since Kerne is at 15°48’ W, there must have been calculated a standard geodetic unit of 20° from it to Mount Atlas of the Ahoggar, considered at 5°48’E.

The value of the degree of longitude at the Tropic must have been considered as 9/10 of the basic degree, which in reality is correct for the latitude of Thebes in Egypt (25°43’N). Herodotus speaks of the Pillar of the Sky as being on the line of Thebes. Hence, 21°36’ of longitude was considered equal to 24° of latitude. The eastern side of the geodetic square went from the Pillar of the Sky to the Equator. In order to obtain a calculation that caused the world to be rational, the position of São Tomé must have been combined with the other island of the Gorgades, Annobom. Annobom (1°35 S, 5°3’E) is against the last stop of Hanno, the place of the gorillas, whereas São Tomé (0°10’N, 6°20’E) is against the Southern Horn; combining the latitude of São Tomé with the longitude of Annobom, there was obtained the geodetic point Atlantis which completes the geodetic square Kerne-Atlas-Atlantis. A calculation of this sort cannot have been performed by Polybius, but it must have been contained in the work of Hanno. Apparently Hanno in order to avoid the eruption of Mount Cameroon returned home by keeping away from the coast and touching first Annobom and then São Tomé. Our text of his report cut out the mention of the return trip and ended with the dramatic story of the gorillas.

In my opinion the question whether the ancients had circumnavigated Africa cannot be solved by deciding a priori whether they had reached an adequate cultural level, but by considering whether there are precise geographical data about the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope.41

Herodotus (IV 43) reports that King Xerxes (-485 to -469) remitted the sentence of death meted upon a relative by the name of Sataspes on condition that he circumnavigate Africa from the west. Sataspes left with an Egyptian ship and an Egyptian crew, but returned without accomplishing his mission on the ground that upon reaching the land of the Pygmies his ship was brought to a standstill and could not proceed any further. As a result the original sentence was executed upon Sataspes.

An expedition like that of Sataspes could not have been sent without the approval of the Carthaginians, since by that time they controlled all the coast from their city at least as far as Soleis. If Hanno had not been the first to reach the Gulf of Guinea, he would have spoken in different terms. It seems reasonable to assume that when king Xerxes heard of the exploit of Hanno, he thought that the moment had come to go one step further and to circumnavigate Africa. The Carthaginians were interested in going as far as there was gold to be acquired, but putting the Gulf of Guinea in contact with the Indian Ocean would have been of great advantage to the subjects of the Persian Empire around the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Herodotus states that Sataspes failed to proceed further after reaching the land of the Pygmies, the Equator, whereas the Phoenicians that came from the east succeeded. This is perfectly reasonable, since Sataspes met the resistance of the Benguela current, whereas this would have helped the Phoenicians all along their trip.

Herodotus (IV 43) indicates that it was after the failure of Sataspes’ voyage that Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian Gulf to the Pillars of Herakles. He declares that he doubts their report that they had the sun to the right, that is, to the north. Since they reported a fact that apparently was against accepted cosmology, it must be a matter of empirical experience. They must have gone below the Tropic of Cancer, whereas the maximum extension of the Oikoumene accepted by a Greek geographer is 24 degrees South.


References

  1. The document is preserved in a single manuscript, dating from the 10th century (Codex Heidelbergensis 398); it was published by Sigmund Gelenius in Basel in 1533.
  2. J. Oliver Thomson
  3. I do not believe in the existence of inscriptions intended to be kept confidential, and have strongly disagreed with epigraphists on the possibility of the existence of cryptic inscriptions. Information intended to be kept confidential was written on tablets which were folded and sealed, with a summary statement written on the outside.
  4. It is true that the Carthaginians aimed at excluding Greek-speaking merchants from their area of trade, but they obtained this result by occupying the key ports along the routes, not by withholding information. The Carthaginians tried to close the Western Mediterranean to the Greeks by occupying Sardinia and Corsica; the First Punic War started when the Carthaginians occupied the straits of Messina and thereby threatened to seal off completely the Western Mediterranean; when the Romans broke the Carthaginian blockade by forcing them to abandon Sicily and Sardinia in the treaty that followed the First Punic War, Hannibal tried to keep the blockade effective by occupying Spain.
  5. The assumption is that the ancients used numbers at random; a history of Carthage even develops what it calls “a psychoanalytic theory of ancient history” to explain the wild use of numbers by ancient writers. Pierre Hubac, Carthage second ed. (Paris, 1952), pp. 122f.
  6. The words of Pliny (V. 1. 9) accepta classe could be understood to have such a meaning.
  7. L. del Turco, who has edited the Greek text with a translation and commentary, has put forth the theory that Hanno set up the inscription in two languages, and that the Greek text is as old as the Punic original. (Annone, Il Periplo Florence, 1958, p. 12). This proves only that Del Turco, who has no respect for the contents of the text, does not give any consideration to its grammatical form either. There are words that are used in a sense occurring only in writers of the Hellenistic age; the systematic use of the aorist tense for the perfect is a certain sign of a late date.
  8. Pliny makes use of his customary technique in which separate data are combined together and short quotations from other authors, often irrelevant or relevant only in terms of a misunderstanding of the original, are intercalated. The method of Pliny is similar to that of students who prepare outlines by underscoring mechanically each fourth or fifth paragraph.
  9. Similar accusations were much later to be leveled against another explorer, Marco Polo.
  10. Et Hanno Carthaginis potentia florente circumvectus a Gadibus ad finem Arabiae eam navigationem prodidit scripto: sicut ad extera Europae noscenda missus eodem tempore Himilco.
  11. Quae Himilco Poenus mensibus vix quatuor, ut ipse semet re probasse retulit enavigantem, posse transmitti adserit.
  12. Iustinus, Pompei Trogi Historiae Phil. Epitomus, XIX.2.
  13. The date of 570 was suggested by Bougainville, Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions, vol. XXVIII, (or is it XVII?] p. 288.
  14. The text implies that these colonies had been established earlier. The founding of Phoenician colonies on the western coast of Morocco at an early date is discussed by Carcopino, Le Maroc Antique, (Paris, 1948); but cf. Rousseaux, “Hannon au Maroc,” Revue Africaine, vol. 93 (1949), p. 175.
  15. Mogador is a Portuguese or Spanish version of the name Amogdul, mentioned by al-Bakri in the eleventh century A.D.; today Mogador is called Sarai, “small enclosure,” by the Arabs. Archaeological explorations of the island of Mogador have revealed traces of Phoenician presence from the second half of the seventh century B.C. to the first half of the sixth. A. Jodin, “Note préliminaire sur l’établissement pré-romain de Mogador,” Bulletin d’Archéologie marocaine, Vol. II, 1957, pp. 9–40 and Mogador, comptoir phénicien du Maroc Atlantique, (Tangier, 1966)
  16. Cited by Stephanus Byzantinus.
  17. In the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament we find the same place called polis Arbok or Kariaqarbok; polis Iareim and Kariaqiareim. Karikon Teikhos is mentioned by Ephorus (fl. 350 B.C.?) fr. 96, in Müller, Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum (Paris, 1849), I. p. 261.
  18. From the Aramaic geth, pl. gitthin. Phaleg,
  19. As Bochart noted, the root melet is found in Jeremiah 43:9 as an expression for cconcrete made from sand and cement.
  20. Cited by Stephanus Byzantinus.
  21. Bochart, Phaleg. Pliny (V, 1) and Strabo mention flourishing viticulture in these regions.
  22. I strongly suspect that the translator misunderstood the Punic text. Perhaps the text spoke of two places called Kariogadir and gave the corresponding names in Berber; in a West-Semitic language an explanation or translation would be introduced by a vau, which the Greeks render by kai in the Semitic phrases that have entered their language.
  23. The case of Herne has been made by E. H. Bunbury, A History of Ancient Geography among the Greeks and Romans from the Earliest Ages till the Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1879), Vol. I, p. 324, and in some detail by Carcopino, Maroc Antique (Paris, 1948). Cf. A. A. Merlin, “La Véritable portée du Périple d’Hannon,” Journal des Savants, 1944, pp. 62-76.
  24. Maroc Antique, pp. 130ff. Müller in his commentary (Geographi Graeci Minores) refers to a marine chart published in Paris in 1852 which mentions Herne by name: Côte occidentale d’Afrique. Partie comprise entre le Cap Bojador et le fleuve de Sierra Leone. Dépôt général de la marine.
  25. According to Pliny, Polybios said that Kerne was 8 stadia, that is, a Roman mile, from the land (Natural History, VI. 199): “Polybius in extrema Mauretania, contra montem Atlantem, a terra stadia VIII abesse prodidit Cernen.” Pliny quotes Cornelius Nepos as saying that it is p. X, “10 miles” from the mainland, (loc. cit.) but probably this is a material error for p. M. “one mile” for 10 stadia.
  26. Scylax, Periplus, Geographi Graeci Minores, ed. by H. H. Müller.
  27. Cf. Nonnus, Dionys. XIII, 347, XXXI, 163; Hesychius and Suidas, s.v.
  28. Bochart suggested a derivation from the Phoenician naar cheremat, “river of vines” and in support of it brought the statement of Scylax about the Ethiopians dwelling inland of Kerne, who cultivate the grape. Cf. H. H. Müller’s comments in Geographi Graeci Minores.
  29. Many rivers of western Europe have Ligurian names; in Japan the names of rivers often predate the arrival of the present population; and the names of rivers are the greatest contribution of the Indians to the present civilization of the United States.
  30. The figure of 2 for the number of days between Kerne and the wooded promontory is the result of an error of transcription; several interpreters propose that the number 12 be substituted. I emend the 2 into 6.
  31. Sailing directions issued by the U. S. Hydrographic Service.
  32. In Hebrew there is a root ZRH, “to scatter,” which forms the name of a wind called mizrah, the wind that scatters the clouds, clearing the sky, and comes from east or north. The name may have been given to an easterly wind under the conditions of that part of the coast of Africa. The Surrentium may have been the wind opposed to the one called today harmattan, “evil one,” which is an oppressive and dust-laden wind blowing from the interior. In that part of Africa the main distinction is between harmattan and the welcome winds from the sea that blow mainly from west and north. The shift in the names of winds is indicated by the circumstance that the French-speaking inhabitants of Dakar refer to the harmattan, blowing from east or north-east, as vent de l’est or scirocco. In Italy and France the scirocco is a wind from the south or south-east.
  33. The computation is confirmed by a passage of the geography of Africa written by Juba of Mauretania in the age of Caesar, quoted by Pliny (VI 34, 175). From the place called in Greek Leuke Akte, “Narrow Cape,” and Latin Drepanum, “Sickle,” (Ponta Almina, the southern Pillar of Herkules), there are 1500 Roman miles = 20° to the island of Malichu (the island of Arguin, at 20°   ’ N, that replaced Kerne as the stopping point in Portuguese times); 225 miles = 3° to Scaeni (the mouth of the Senegal at 18° 20’ N); 150 miles = 2° to the island of Sardanus (Capo Verde) “where the coast turns in an easterly direction towards the Atlantic at the island Atlantis.” The island Atlantis, as I shall indicate later, is the island of Sao Tome, at the Equator, in the Gulf of Guinea.
  34. The Punic name Palsum corresponds to the Akkadian noun pelsu, “breach, breakthrough,” and to the Hebrew root PLS, “to open the way.”
  35. The explorer Richard F. Burton was the first to identify Mount Cameroon as the Theon Okhema of Hanno. See his Abeokuta and the Camaroons Mountains,vol. II (London, 1863), pp. 208-210. R. Hennig’s emendation of Theon Okhema (Chariot of the Gods) to Theon Oikema (Dwelling of the Gods), is probably correct.Terrae Incognitae (Leiden, 1944), Vol. I, p. 93.
  36. Illing, p. 40.
  37. Illing, pp. 39-40, and Mer, p. 53, have followed Burton’s interpretation, as has, more recently, Jacques Ramin, The Periplus of Hanno (BAR Supplementary Series 3, 1976), pp. 72-73
  38. Connaissances geographiques des Grecs sur les côtes africaines de l’ocean, (Paris, 1928). Cf. idem, Histoire ancienne de l’Afrique du Nord, (Paris, 1914-1928).
  39. Cf. Pliny II 90, 238: Maximo tamen ardet incendio Theon Ochema dictum Aethiopum iugum, torrentesque solis ardoribus flammas egerit. Cf. Mela III. 9.
  40. La fable des pygmees est des plus anciennes; et l’on doit dire, pour justifier la creance qu’elle a trouvee dans toute l’antiquite, que meme aujourd’hui c’est une des legendes les plus repandue et les plus universellement affirmee dans les contree qui avoisinent l’Abyssinie.
  41. Maximus of Tyre distorts all data for the purpose of proving that Africa has an immense extension to the south, but he quotes the information that a certain Diogenes was pushed to the south from the Promontory of Aromas (Cape Guardafui, 11° 50’ N)