Finding Thule: The Uncharted Lands of the North

Updated on April 3, 2017
Chris Pinard profile image

My primary interests center around the folklore, customs, history, and mythology of the Celts, the Germanic speaking peoples, and the Slavs.

Classical References to Thule

Many might call it the Hyperborean Atlantis; Thule was an island that was said to dwell to the extreme north of Europe. All throughout the classical period and well up through the middle ages Thule was thought my many to be a reality, for others it was simply a legend. As with many things in the ancient world, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Legends were often based on reality.

Pytheas of Massilla (Present day Marseilles) was the first to record testimony of Thule. Pytheus wrote a firsthand account of his travels, which were titled “On the Ocean”. Unfortunately this work is now lost to us. Strabo and other ancient scholars quoted this work extensively, from which we can gather information about this mysterious island. Strabo quotes “it is six days north of Britain, and is near the frozen sea.” If one were looking for the physical location of the island, it would be necessary to determine roughly the amount of mileage one could cover in a day within a vessel of that time. This voyage occurred during the fourth century BC. Ships of the day could theoretically cover 10-15 miles an hour if they had a favorable wind. Taking this as an estimate, if the miles per hour were consistent over the 24 hour period for the entire six days, one could theoretically travel as far as 1,440 miles. That is quite the distance. This would be more than adequate to bring Pytheus to locations as far as Greenland, Iceland, or the upper reaches of Scandinavia.

Locations of Thule

All of the aforementioned locations have supporters for them being the "real" location of Thule. However, if one were to look at the primary sources, what would the most likely location be? Pliny the Elder quotes Pytheas in his Natural History. In this work Pliny states that Thule has “No nights at all, as we have declared, about midsummer.” This quote gives legitimacy to the notion that Thule was a very real location, and it existed above the Arctic circle (renowned for 24/7 daylight during midsummer). However, this does little to help determine a specified location of Thule, as Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia could all still be quite fitting locations, being that sections of each landmass fall to the north of the Arctic Circle.

Other author’s from later periods located Thule to the North West of the British Isles. This would at first seem to indicate that Thule might be synonymous with Iceland or Greenland. Yet, this poses a distinct problem. In the classical period Iceland had yet to be discovered. If Iceland were to be the correct location, we would have to discredit other sources that state that Thule had an indigenous population. Specifically, Procopius states that Thule was located to the north and inhabited by 25 tribes. Among these tribes are found the Gautoi (which is likely to be the Geats or Goths). If this is indeed the case, we run into another problem of sorts. Simply, if Procopius is correct, then Thule would be Scandinavia and those who located the island to the west of the British Isles would be incorrect.

Picts in Thule

In the third century Gaius Julius Solinus makes reference to Thule in his work Polyhistor. In this work he essentially reiterated much of what had been writen by earlier authors, indicating that Thule was within a five-day and night voyage from Orkney. He also stated that the land was quite fertile and had crops of plenty. This again poses issue with locating Thule in Iceland or Greenland, neither of which would have had crops let alone an population to produce them.

To confuse the matter further, Claudian would conflate Thule with Scotland. In his work titled “On the Fourth Consulship of the Emperor Honorius” he stated, “Thule ran warm with the blood of Picts”. What is somewhat peculiar is that in the same text he states that Hibernia AKA Ireland was Ice-bound. At least in the present day this would not be descriptive of the land we know as Ireland. To further enforce this conflation between Scotland and Thule, Claudian stated that the inhabitants of Thule were Picts. It might be possible that these inhabitants were identified as such because they spoke the same language as the Picts and had similar customs. The identification of Britain as Thule is further evidenced by Silius Italicus, who stated that those who dwelled in Thule were painted blue. Yet, an even more peculiar quote from Eustathius of Thessalonica would appear to indicate that Thule and Britain were indeed synonymous. In his comments on the Iliad, Eustathius mentions that those who lived in Thule were warring with a tribe of little people. This is remarkably similar to the legend from the Mabinogion, that also appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. In the tale of Lludd and Llefelys, there is a plague of little people who invade the land of Britain. These pygmies called the “Coraniaid”. It is likely that this name originated from the Welsh word Corrach which translates to “Stunted”

Pict Warrior
Pict Warrior

Uncharted Island

If we return to the notion that Thule was inhabited, one can find more evidentiary support of in the works of Strabo. In his work Geographica he states that the inhabitants of Thule lived off of millet, fruit, herbs, and roots. This sits in direct opposition to what many might think that early Northern Europeans ate. In the same passage he further mentions that these inhabitants made beverages from grain and honey. This sounds remarkably like ale and mead, regular staples in early Northern Europe. Solinus also commented that the inhabitants of Thule were agricultural.

All things considered, it is quite likely that Thule was a catch all for various locations in the North of Europe. It is impossible to reconcile all of the quotes about Thule into one physical location. As the people of the Mediterranean continued to expand westward and northward, it is likely that Thule shifted locations in the minds of the people and constantly became the next uncharted island.

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