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Tartessos

by Michael Royston
The Myth Of Tartessos.

The Greeks were fascinated by the notion of a mythical and fabulously wealthy kingdom in the far west beyond the Pillars of Hercules. It was a rich emporium of valuable and precious metals and the luxurious lives led by its inhabitants linked it in their minds to the legends of Atlantis and Hesperides, the Isles of the Blessed, which were located in the same direction and were maybe even in the same place. They called it Tartessos.

Strabo, 58 BC-25 CE, who described it in his Geography was drawing very largely on Herodotos, 484 BCE - 420 BCE, who described in detail the immense wealth and generosity of the Tartessans and particularly of their King Arganthonios, "The Silver One". This included the story of a Greek sailor called Koliaos whose ship was blown off course and landed in Tartessos. After being royally entertained for some months, his ship was loaded up with silver and he was sent home. The story is also told of the Tartessans, in the 6th century BCE, giving the Phocaean Greeks 1 1/2 tons of silver to pay for a defensive wall around their city to keep out the Persians. And yet apart from a few fragments of trade goods in Andalusia in Southern Spain there is neither sign of a Tartessan civilization, nor any indication where the capital city might have been.

The Phoenicians, who were based on some offshore islands near Cadiz, used Tartessan silver to pay tribute to the Assyrians who had captured their hometown of Tyre in the 7th century BCE. One result of this, it is claimed, was the collapse of the bullion market in Babylon. And yet apart from the mines of Rio Tinto which have been producing copper and silver and gold for 5000 years - the oldest mines in the world still to be in production - there is no evidence of this wealth nor what it bought or built.

The Ancient Hebrews had their own myths of the fabulous and even sinful wealth of Tartessos or Tarshish as they called it. In Psalm 72 we can read of the kings of Tarshish bringing presents, in Jonah we can see how Jonah's plans to go to Tarshish so infuriated the Lord that he had Jonah swallowed by a whale as a punishment. In Chronicles, we read of King Jehosaphat building ships to go to Tarshish and the fury of the Lord causing them to be wrecked. In Kings we read of ships of Tartshish bringing the gold to decorate the Palace and the Temple of King Solomon, and in Kings and in Chronicles we can read of these same Ships of Tarshish bringing Peacocks and Apes and Ivory, which can only have been from India!

So not only was Tarshish/Tartessos a legendary place but also their ships were legendary and capable of crossing the Indian Ocean. Tarshish is in fact the only European place mentioned in the Old Testament, yet apart from the 5000-year-old mining town, suggestively named Tharsis, in Andalusia in Southern Spain, nobody knows where Tarshish/Tartessos was located.

Yet it is here in Andalusia that the Pillars of Hercules are located and here that Hercules/Heracles stole the Cattle of Geryon as one of his Ten Labours. And this is the home of the Spanish cult of the Bull as much as Knossos, buried under modern day Heraklion, was the home of the Minoan cult of the Bull. And it is almost certain that the Minoans traded in Tartessan Bronze for over 2000 years, supplying the Sumerians and the Ancient Egyptians and indeed the whole of the Mediterranean basin and beyond.

Today only the ancient mines of Rio Tinto and Tharsis stand as mute witnesses to the past glories of Tartessos. In historical times the Romans made them the main source for financing the construction and expansion of the Empire and that in turn made Merida the nearest town to the mines, the tenth largest city of the Roman Empire, and Julius Caesar tapped their wealth to make good his claim to become Emperor. But before the Romans came to Andalusia, what we know of Tartessos is largely speculation, myth, legend and fable.


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