What kind of Thule am I?

I’m off to Iceland soon, a trip booked early this year.  I hope to see the Northern Lights.  Considering the cost, I really hope to see the Northern Lights.  But man proposes, and God disposes, and it will be very well in either case.

This evening I was wondering if there was any classical angle to Iceland, and I found myself remembering Antonius Diogenes, The incredible wonders beyond Thule.  This is a Greek novel of unknown date, preserved now only in Photius’ Bibliotheca, codex 166.  I made a translation of this from the French here long ago.

I don’t know anything about the classical idea of “Thule” at all.  I find a certain amount in the Wikipedia article, which gives a series of classical sources including Strabo and Pliny.

I have doubts that any classical traveller ever made it so far as Iceland, however.


9 thoughts on “What kind of Thule am I?

  1. Pythias of Marseille in the 4th century BC went out west of the Pillars of Hercules to discover the location of the Bronze Islands (Kassiterides Nesoi) where bronze came from that was central to the prosperity of his city state. We could say that he is the discovered of Britain just as Captain Cook is the discoverer of Australia, there were people living in these places already. He then set out Northwest and discovered another island, twice the size of Britain which he named Thule but had to turn back because he reached ice limit. There is debate if Thule was Iceland (which is Northwest of Britain but smaller) or Scandinavia (which is twice the size of Britain but to its Northeast). Pythias along with Nearchus, Alexander the Great’s admiral, are the most famous and celebrated of ancient Greek mariners

  2. The identification of Thule is discussed by archaeologist Barry Cunliffe in a nice book on Pytheas. He has strong arguments against the Norway thesis, and has pretty convincing arguments why people in northern Scotland might know that there was a big island up north (e.g., the flight of sea gulls). Ancient technology was sufficient, he says, because Roman coins have been found (in a closed context), so at least one Roman ship visited the place. Perhaps by incident, but the trip was possible.

    Have a good trip, dear Roger. Don´t forget Jules Verne´s book about the Journey to the center of the earth, which starts at the Snæfellsjökull.

  3. Enjoy beautiful Iceland! Take a hot springs bath while you’re there! (Actually, I gather all the hot water in the capital is heated by hot springs or something, so that might not be hard.)

    And you can watch Astropia on Amazon Prime, etc., if you want to rent a funny, cute Icelandic movie about gamers and fannish people. Might give you a feel for the local terrain.

  4. Well, of course you’ve got it up on Tertullian.org already! I should have just assumed. 🙂

  5. I do love how one of the necessary pillars of Cunliffe’s Iceland-as-Thule theory (unless Pytheas lied about Thule being populated, or there being severe transcription/criticism errors that renders the passage unuseable anyway) is the “evidence” of coins that postdate his voyage by almost 700 years being found on Iceland, the earliest dated human artifacts found there. The coins – often described as “closed finds” although only one of the coins actually has decent early archaeological context, the one from the Hvítárholt excavation in 1966 (the rest were loose finds or were found in early modern or modern context) – and it was found within a viking age context. Roman coins are hardly rare within other viking age contexts in scandinavia: http://skemman.is/stream/get/1946/5084/15120/2/Badbh.pdf . There have been found no good evidence of pre-9th century human settlement of Iceland – even the supposed irish early medieval settlement has left no tracks whatsoever and must be regarded as unlikely – and it has a far better basis in written sources than Cunliffe’s theory.

    Of course, Pytheas could have discovered Iceland. Heck, he could have discovered the North Pole. But the real evidence for it is weak on the ground. Many of the other conjectural theories (the latest I know of is one by D.Lelgemann et.al., a more thorough cartographic study, has Thule-as-the-island-of-Smøla on the northern part of west Norway: http://www.amazon.de/Germania-die-Insel-Thule-Entschlüsselung/dp/3534237579) are as good or better than Cunliffe’s.

  6. <> “There have been found no good evidence of pre-9th century human settlement of Iceland – even the supposed irish early medieval settlement has left no tracks whatsoever and must be regarded as unlikely.”

    Actually there may just be. Recent archaeological work in Iceland has provided at least some evidence that Irish or Scottish monks visited Iceland at least 70 years prior to the arrival of the Norse: http://www.unreportedheritagenews.com/2010/12/did-scots-visit-iceland-new-research.html

    Also, in response to Roger’s question about the classical notion of “Thule”, I’m not particularly knowledgeable either. But I did note that the Wikipedia entry on Thule is well referenced with quotes from classical sources which mention or describe it, so it’s a good place to look: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thule

  7. Hey, it’s still 9th century 🙂

    I heard earlier this year that the new sediment dating of Kverkahellir was still under review, but it is true that there might be more evidence for those settlements if it pans (or has panned) out. It still doesn’t help Cunliffe’s argument, though.

  8. One of Cunliffes main arguments is that Pytheas sailed 6 days towards north. Well, when sailing from Unst(Shetland)towards north it is “more north” to sail towards Stadt (West cape) than towards Faroe Isl./Iceland. The distance is also longer towards Iceland. Fridtjof Nansens arguments about wind and current also favours Norway. Finally Pytheas mention Barbarians on Thule and honey (direct qvote by Germino)… according to National Museum in Reykjavik there were no people at Iceland 325 BC and there are no bees (at least nowadays).

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