• Niklas Hall

The Pillars of Hercules

Updated: Feb 28, 2019

The Pillars of Hercules was the phrase applied in Antiquity to the promontories that flank the entrance to what is now the Strait of Gibraltar. They are also part of one of the most notable mindset re-framings in history.

According to Greek mythology, when Hercules had to perform twelve labors, one of them (the tenth) was to fetch the Cattle of Geryon of the far West and bring them to Eurystheus. This marked the westward extent of his travels.

Depending on sources, Hercules either smashed the mountain Atlas – splitting it in two and created what we know as the Strait of Gibraltar opening a passage to the Atlantic or narrowed an existing strait to prevent sea monsters moving from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. To make things literal, he then raised two pillars – one on either side of the strait.

Anyway. Marking the end of the known world, renaissance tradition says the pillars bore the warning "non plus ultra" – meaning "nothing further beyond" – serving as a warning to sailors and navigators to venture no further.

Following the discovery of "the new world", Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain (reign 1519-1556) reframed this to "plus ultra" – meaning "further beyond" – and adopted it as his motto. Today, you'll find Charles 5’s motto and the pillars of Hercules in the Spanish coat of arms.

Changing "non plus ultra" to "plus ultra" – turning "boundary" into "entry gate". Pretty clever.


When it's raining in Denmark, people escape the (often) immediate negative feeling by stating that "it's good for the crops". Denmark – always quite (something is missing) the farmers. But this technique is common and well-known. Turning a bad thing on its head to see the positive contribution.

(Cognitive) reframing is a psychological technique that consists of identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts. Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives. In the context of cognitive therapy, cognitive reframing is referred to as cognitive restructuring. Cognitive reframing, on the other hand, refers to the process as it occurs either voluntarily or automatically in all settings.

Thus, framing and re-framing is closely linked to organizational motivations and basic beliefs. And as such, to strategies. In the end, they are – just – belief systems. Some are forged by history, by tradition or by habit – of what used to be true.

In an industrial setup and through much of the 20th century, knowledge has been kept secret to gain a competitive advantage. Thus, relations must be kept private or even secret. The flow of data must be either kept in check or prevented entirely.

Today, the opposite is true. Data must flow. Platforms such as LinkedIn can be used to build and maintain network in an otherwise unprecedented way. All of a sudden, connections in first and second line can be an asset. Because it is transparent.


Re-framing used properly can help organizations formulate new, positive goals and aspirations. It touches on the classic motivation points of avoid/gain.

If one is not entirely certain about the outcome and the implications of this "radical" approach, reframing can help individuals and organizations look at and re-evaluate basic beliefs. Turn things on their head - if nothing else than for the practice. To work on the assumption that if everything we believe about the world is turned around, then what? If this is true, what is then also true.

Also, using the "non plus ultra"/"plus ultra" example, organizations must ultimately decide, whether they are happy keeping inside their current "borders" or if they – in the spirit of Charles 5 – wish to reach" further beyond". If they dare aspired for something more. Venture into the "unknown".

JUST ONE MORE THING On an etymology note, Hispania (Spain) may derive from the poetic use of the term Hesperia, reflecting the Greek perception of Italy as a "western land" or "land of the setting sun" (Hesperia) and Spain, being still further west, as Hesperia ultima. Anyone familiar with the labors of Hercules will know, that he was sent to get the apples from the garden of the Hesperides. A task which he persuaded Atlas – the Titan condemned to hold up the sky for eternity – to help him perform. But that’s another story entire.








Recent Posts

See All