Tartessos: Myths and History

There are words that evoke subconscious images related to ancient myths. Tartessos is one of them. Its reference has been covered with legendary waves that have determined the historical approach to the keys of its culture. When we mention this noun, a hyperbolic cluster of primal stages, immeasurable riches, and lost paradises outline the profile of the people who inhabited the western edge of the known world.

In the historical approach to Tartessos, there are more questions than answers: while some consider it an indigenous population rooted in the southwestern Iberian Peninsula since at least 1200 BC, others think it is the result of a process of acculturation from later orientalizing waves that helped shape a hybrid culture. Some even argue that it is mere mythical fiction. Its abrupt disappearance in the mid-6th century BC only added uncertainties to a subject that requires rigorous research to shed the unreal aura that still envelops many of its aspects.

Book references to Tartessos are abundant: ships to Tarsis are mentioned in the Bible in the First Book of Kings, in the Book of Ezekiel, and in the Book of Jonah. Later accounts by Estesichorus, Anacreon, Hecataeus of Miletus, Herodotus, Ephorus, Pausanias, Strabo, or, above all, Avienus, forged the widespread idea of an immensely rich western kingdom that became the destination of numerous expeditions from the eastern Mediterranean to a land that was a promise for many of these cultures.

The territory of Tartessos had its epicenter in the current provinces of Cádiz, Huelva, and Seville, expanding to neighboring areas such as southern Portugal and the Guadiana Valley, where some of the best-studied sites are located. This culture revolved around a legendary river identified with the ancient Betis, the Tinto, the Odiel, or even the Barbate. In Tartessian times, this was a territory characterized by abundant wetlands, lakes, rivers, and communication routes that facilitated the transport of its main wealth: metalworking operations from the Iberian Pyritic Belt, whose mines of gold, silver, copper, tin, iron, and lead became the engine of its prosperous economy. The transport of these goods from the mines inland to the coastal areas formed a marked network of connections that had metals as its main focus.

The geographic diversity of the space and the scarcity of scientific studies have led to different hypotheses placing the civic center of Tartessian culture in different locations, such as the estuary of Huelva, the surroundings of the ancient Lacus Ligustinus, the vicinity of Gadir, Doñana, the Asta Regia site, or the shores of the drained Laguna de la Janda. There are numerous Tartessian sites beyond the columns that closed the Strait: in the Mesas de Asta, the Carambolo, Carmona, Cerro Salomón, Tejada la Vieja, Berrueco, Cancho Roano, or El Turuñuelo. These last two, located in the province of Badajoz, are providing more scientific information to a question still pregnant with parentheses and ellipses.

Cancho Roano is a site located in the region of La Serena, on the left bank of the Guadiana. In it stands a complex building whose meaning raises disturbing questions. Surrounded by a small square moat, the presence of altars has led to the idea of its condition as a palace-sanctuary or even a temple dedicated to sacred prostitution in honor of Astarte as the goddess of fertility, with some parallels to buildings located in Gadir or Castulo. The construction dates back to the early 7th century BC, and its desolation was not accidental. It is believed that three centuries later, it was deliberately devastated and set on fire in a self-destructive ritual that included the meticulous blocking of doors and windows; this explains the good state of preservation of the interior, where amphorae, stone mills, ceramic and metal vessels, iron weapons, perfume containers, gaming pieces, cavalry accessories, and bronze sculptures have been found, allowing the shaping of the way of life of its inhabitants. El Turuñuelo, a site from the 5th century BC located west of Medellín on the banks of the Guadiana, is providing even more surprises. Testifying to the end of Tartessos, it is a complex structure built on two linked levels by an unusual staircase that connected large vaulted rooms and hidden corridors. It must have suffered a similar fate to Cancho Roano, as an intentional fire has been documented with elements typical of rituals such as apotropaic shells and bones found on a preserved floor, also thanks to the sealing of doors and openings. The presence of twenty sacrificed horses and bulls raises even more questions, which have been endorsed by the recent discovery of five stone busts that seem to be female deities ostentatiously adorned with earrings, hoops, and jewelry similar to those found in other Tartessian treasures such as Aliseda or Carambolo. This finding has shaken the stuttering scientific supports that associated Tartessian culture with aiconic divinities, represented by animals, plants, and sacred stones or betyls.

Very little is known about other aspects of this culture. Very little about its language, probably the oldest written in the Iberian Peninsula. Almost nothing about its religion: notes of a highly acculturated pantheon, adapted to other oriental civilizations, introducing the worship of two great divinities, the feminine Astarte and the masculine Baal or Melkart.

Their form of government was a monarchy, and they were governed by time-honored laws written on bronze tablets of which we know nothing. Their kings are covered by the most suggestive veils of myth. Gerion, their first legendary monarch, his son Norax, Gargoris, or his illegitimate descendant Habis, have no documented or verified real counterparts. We do not know if Arganthonio, the long-lived monarch who ruled such rich territories whose silver production extended to his name, was a real leader or the sum of several. The abrupt disappearance of Tartessos after the Battle of Alalia in the mid-6th century BC has not helped us possess a rigorous reading of a culture that remained an attractive substrate in the population that succeeded it in the rich territories west of the columns of the Strait. The Turdetani were classified by Strabo as the most educated of all pre-Roman Iberian peoples since they knew writing, possessed historical chronicles and poems, and formed a markedly urban and civilized society.

The fact that still imbues the little-investigated Tartessian culture with legendary readings is the myth of Atlantis. Although there are theories that place that territory on the Minoan shores of the Mediterranean or even in much more western locations, since the 16th century, hypotheses have been repeated that place it at the western entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar, the place where in protohistoric times Tartessian civilization was a reference. José Pellicer de Ossau, Fernández y González, Amador de los Ríos, Adolf Schulten, Fernando Sánchez Dragó, Marc André Gutscher, or Richard Freund have postulated with more or less rigor the theory of relating the myth of the lost island to the Tartessian civilization, whose abrupt disappearance and common spaces have only opened doors to many speculations that have settled in the collective imagination with the firmness of invisible geological substrates that are not easy to shake off.

It was none other than Plato, in his Dialogues of Timaeus and Critias, who narrated the story of Atlantis, a great island located at the end of the Mediterranean that disappeared after a violent natural catastrophe occurred after the victory of the Athenians over its valiant inhabitants. According to the Greek version, the island must have originally been an original paradise, a prehistoric Eden of the West teeming with resources like fertile fields, abundant forests, and rich lands containing mythical minerals like orichalcum. In its center was the home of Evenor, one of its earliest inhabitants, who had a daughter, Clito. Poseidon, the god of the sea, to whom the possession of the island had fallen, married her and opened three rings of water that surrounded the residence where they conceived ten children: the eldest, Atlas, gave his name to the mother island, and his brother Gadir to the archipelago of the Gadeiras, in the current bay of Cádiz. For generations of wealth and well-being, its inhabitants fortified the city, planting it with palaces and temples and surrounding it with walls, canals, and moats. This long period of prosperity ended when they began to behave with blatant arrogance and determined aspirations of domination until they were defeated by the Athenians. However, this did not prevent the gods from also punishing the enclave with a great earthquake and a subsequent flood that erased it from maps and turned it into legend.

Probably, Plato's interest in writing the episode of Atlantis had a didactic-moral motivation, although other more tangible ones cannot be ruled out. Earthquakes and tsunamis have occurred on our coasts between Cape Spartel and Cape St. Vincent. The geological cataclysms that could have caused the gap in the Strait, the oriental, Greek, and Arab legends related to a geography and geology where memorable events must have taken place, intertwined a subtle network of relationships in which the legendary and the factual have woven a canvas where it is difficult to discern the real warp from fiction. Definitely, there are occasions when myth has won the game against history.

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