The earliest appearance of the Iberian Peninsula in literature is in the Greek mythological tales of Heracles. The Greeks claimed that Gadir (today’s Cadiz) was founded by Heracles after his tenth labour, though in reality we know it was established by Phoenicians as a trading post.
In legend Heracles, better known as the Roman figure ‘Hercules’, was set a series of twelve labours to perform. His tenth task was to round-up Geryon’s cattle in the extreme west of the Mediterranean. This involved travelling to the Gates of Gades which meant Hercules went as far to the west as the Greeks then believed existed.
Geryon’s cattle grazed in the garden of the Hesperides (nymphs) which was located within the river island city of Tartessos. Geryon was a fearsome warrior giant, variously described as having three heads and/or three bodies, possibly having six arms and six feet; some accounts suggested he also had wings. Formidably he confronted Hercules with three spears, three shields and three helmets.
However Hercules defeated Geryon quite easily with a single arrow that he had poisoned with the blood of the Hydra. The Greeks go on to suggest a tumulus located near Gades to be Geryon’s final resting place. In the story the tough part of the task for Hercules proved to be getting the cattle back to Eurystheus, a Mycenaean king.
Celebrating his success, the Gates of Gades were renamed the Pillars of Hercules. The pillars were said to bear the inscription ‘nec plus ultra’ or ‘nothing further beyond’, warning sailors to go no further.
The legendary pillars mark the two sides of today’s Straits of Gibraltar, the pillars themselves surmised to be the Rock of Gibraltar to the north (pictured) and either Jebel Musa in Morocco or Mount Hacho in Ceuta to the south. (Ceuta is one of two autonomous cities of Spain (the other is Melila) that are used as a bulwark against the pressure of African emigrants.)
Following the discovery of the New World, Charles I of Spain (aka Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor), adopted the pillars into his coat of arms, adding the words ‘plus ultra’ of ‘further beyond’.
The pillars still sit at the centre of the Spanish flag, la Rojigualda. The flag uses bands of red and yellow based on the old kingdoms of Castile, León, Aragón and Navarre, with the Spanish coat of arms at the centre. It was initially a naval ensign created in 1783 but was formally adopted as the national flag in 1843 by Queen Isabella II and reconfirmed as such by Franco after the Civil War.