I read some months ago "The Ice Musem - In search of the lost land of Thule", by Joanna Kavenna, one of those books you wish you could go on reading forever, about the long quest for the northernmost land on earth. This is a short personal account of the fascination I found there for Arctic Islands, Lands and Peoples.
Thule's myth is one of a treasure lost, like Atlantis or the Graal. All started with the adventure of a greek from Ancient Greece, 4th cent. B.C. , born in the colony town of Massalia ( Marseille) : Pytheas was a merchant, a sailor, and a geographer, the first one to describe the sea tides as caused by the phases of the Moon, the first one to estimate the length of Britain's coastline – he was a specialist in the calculation of latitude and longitude. Greeks are not known as great explorers, but Pytheas was to be a pioneer, like Marco Polo, but bound for the North.
Desperately missing tin for production of bronze weapons, the greeks were interested in the mines they knew to exist in South Cornwall. So they sent Pytheas, a skilled sailor who used to keep a precise register of his journeys. He left Marseille by sea around 330 BC , visited the south of Iberia, passed Gibraltar strait, visited Ieron akrōtērion (the sacred promontory of Sagres), and sailed the portuguese coast , then Bordeaux and Nantes, finally arriving at 325 BC to Britain (he was the first to use the name Pretannia), at Cornwall, where he searched and found the tin mines.
He described the people as " civilized" and praised their methods of metal extraction and the flourishing tin trade. He probably visited Stonehenge, then sailed again around Britain, to Scotland and farther , determined to discover any land not figured in his charts, that showed only monsters in those regions.
He visited the Hebrids, Orkneys and Shetlands. He saw "large fishes, the size of a boat, that swimmed slowly on the surface and loudly blowing out sprays of water". And he sailed on six more days to the North, until he found the island they called Thule.
He described the people there as barbarians , meaning teutonic or germanic tribes, who lived on simple land farming – honey, milk and fruits. They showed him the "place where the sun goes to rest". He saw that in winter the sun didn´t even show – darkness lasted fot months. In summer, there was no night. He saw a strange sea, "an ocean of slush ice and fog so thick that it can be traveled neither on foot nor by boat", a sea melted with the sky and the earth in a viscous mass of ice that oscillated with the waves. He sailed away from that "solidified sea" and returned to Marseille. He wrote down his report of a voyage to "the end of the world" in a book, “On the Ocean”, that was later lost forever. We only know quotations from later authors:
"The barbarians showed us the place where the sun goes to rest. Because in this parts the nights are short, two or three hours, and the sun rises short after it sets.”
- quoted by Geminus de Rodes
In greek mythology, there was a people – the Hyperboreans, meaning “beyond the north winds" – of happy and festive character, because they didn't suffer the normal afflictions of mankind; fearing no death or illness, they spent the time in joy and feast. No wonder that these were thought to be the inhabitants of Pytheas' Thule.
Through time, speculation on Thule's real location appealed to the imagination of travellers, poets and men of wisdom. So Thule became a mythical place, an idea evoking at the same time well-being and desire of adventure, and an idea that moved more northernly as arctic explorers reached higher latitudes. A paradise that, like a rainbow, escaped as we aproached.
The question that raised as Pytheas report was known: where exactly was the island of Thule?
Opinions immediatly diverged. For Herodotus (5 BC), in those latitudes "you can see nothing":
"There is a constant fall of white feathers, the air gets thicker and the ground covered with them" .
But Pytheas was respected at the time, his measures supposed accurate and his observations precise. The Romans increased the mistery: first, Virgilius renamed the island as “Ultima Thule”, the remote Thule, the last shadowland of the north. Then Strabo in Geographica (30 DC), scorned Pytheas as a lier and a charlatan that had invented a fictitious journey. Pytheas had placed Thule "six days sailing north of the british isles" , which was impossible, said Strabo, as these islands where the farthest inhabitated land in the world, where people lived in complete misery because of the deep cold. Colder than that, only Ireland – "where sons and daughters sleeped together and eated their parents".... more misery could not exist; then no one can live to the north of that, Strabo wrote. So, Pytheas lied - Thule was just the last of the british isles to the north.
Plyne the Elder, in Naturalis Historia, described Thule in 77 AC as "the farthest land there is notice of", with sunless winters and nightless summers; and placed it at the Arctic Circle. Based on the lost report of Pytheas, he states that the sea crossing to Thule starts at the greater of the Hebrids, which would in 8 days have taken the greek sailor to Norway, at the Trondheim area, just a little below the Circle. This conclusion seems to agree with the coordinates (centered at Marseille) that Pytheas indicated for Thule. At least the latitudes are credible. But longitudes , as we know now, where largely miscalculated at the time.
Anyhow, Thule continued to confuse and let down the geographers who tried to make maps of earth's extreme north, where they drawed a huge unsurpassable river, or a large sea belt from pole to pole...
In the Renaissance era, northern lands were claimed and mapped: Iceland, Scandinavia, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Faroë and at last the Lofoten - but there was never full agreement or precision concerning Thule : the misterious nordic Graal remained an island in the mist, at the entrance of a frozen sea.
Julio Cesar , Cristovão Colombo, Goethe, Edgar Allan Poe - many referred Thule, seduced by the the charm of the unknown. Maybe afterall just a poetic delusion... The victorian era was febrile, anxious to discover new lands and civilizations. From Scotland and Norway , group after group of adventurous tourists departed to North excursions, searching for faraway Thules. Also a nazi society proclaimed Thule, a nordic equivalent to Atlantis, as the cradle of arian race, and inspired Hitler himself...
In the horror of WWII, Thule was for the victorians a kind of Arcady, a refuge from a world in convulsion. Amazed, they discovered the remotest Hebrids, the fiord coast of Norway, Vikings' Iceland, the Faroë and their grass roofed houses.
From the Shetlands to the Svalbard (or Spitzberg) archipelago, from the Faroë even to Greenland, the quest entered the XX century! That's when Robert Peary discovered the extreme north of Greenland in 1900; no more land to the north:
"I feel my eyes finaly rest on Arctic's Ultima Thule" (Cape Morris Jessup)
For 68 years, Cape Morris Jessup remained the northernmost "terra firma" on earth. But in 1968 some piece of land a little higher in latitude was found, and another still 10 years later – the very small gravel islet (15 m x 8 m) , most of the time under water, that was called Oodaag, one of the inuit fellows of Peary.
Oodag, the northernmost piece of solid land on the planet.
Kaali lake, Saaremaa
A new and unexpected candidate has recently claimed to be the true Pytheas' Thule - Saaremaa island in Estonia, where amazing meteor craters exist for centuries; the fact that Pytheas, before returning home, made a tour by the Baltic sea, where he saw amber as “a sea excretion”, is the argument in favour of this location. Maybe the “place where the sun goes to rest” is the crater where the giant meteor fell in flames, around 600 B.C., and a sacred pilgrimage site since then in all the Baltic region.
Though the fascination has cooled to indifference at the end of last century, there are still some people attached to the promise of primordial purity of legendary Thule.
Knud Rasmussen the explorer funded in Greenland, near the Inuit settlement of Avannaa, a base he called “Thule”, in 1910. That is the reason of the denomination “Thule people”, a paleo-eskimo population that preceeded the inuits. In 1953 Avannaa gave place to an american militair base , built during the nazi occupation of Denmark; the base was named “Thule Air Base".
Though it's not unthinkable that Pytheas might have passed Iceland, and had a distant view of Greenlandic mountains, he surely did not reach that far; the general consensus today is that he visited the north coast of Norway, between Trondheim and the Lofoten islands.
Anyhow, Pytheas was the first known great explorer; at the time of Alexander the Great, he travelled to the fronteers of a new world; he brought knowledge of the midnight sun , the aurora, whales and the frozen sea. He deserves a place at the side of Colombo and Marco Polo.
Pytheas of Massalia, Marseille
By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule —
From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime,
Out of Space — out of Time.
Edgar Allan Poe