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Illustration representing an ancient explorer.

Did This Ancient Explorer Make It to The Arctic In 325 BC?


The first arctic explorer isn’t who you think. More than 2,300 years ago, Pytheas of Massalia traveled to the Arctic Circle and back – and, when he came home, nobody believed him.

In a time when most people believed that the sun was dragged across the sky by a god, Pytheas made it to a place where the sun doesn’t rise all winter long. He found a place covered in permafrost, a frozen ocean, and drifting icebergs, and he had to come home and try to explain what he’d seen.

He made discoveries so incredible that they were literally unbelievable – and it took more than a thousand years before we found out he was telling the truth.

An explorer in the Arctic by Andreas Kornerup

An explorer in the Arctic by Andreas Kornerup ( CC by SA 2.0 )

Who Was Pytheas?

Not much is known about Pytheas’s life. He was, we are told, “ a poor man ”, who traveled north on his own dime, without the support of any government. Everything beyond that, though, is speculation. Every word he wrote has been lost to time, and what we know of his journey comes, mainly, from people who didn’t believe him.

Statue of Pythéas by Auguste Ottin (1811-1890) in front of the Exchange in Marseille

Statue of Pythéas by Auguste Ottin (1811-1890) in front of the Exchange in Marseille ( CC by SA 3.0 )

It’s easy to understand why the ancient world would have doubted that a poor sailor could have made the trip Pytheas made. The path north took him through the Strait of Gibraltar, a place the ancient world called the Pillars of Hercules. To get through it, he had to get past a military blockade held by the Carthaginian army.

Somehow, Pytheas and his crew snuck past an entire army – although nobody knows for sure how he did it. Modern historians have their theories, but they’re really nothing more than wild speculation. And the only explanation the ancient world left us was that Pytheas was a liar and none of it ever really happened.

The things he reported back, though, suggest that, somehow, he really did it. Somehow, snuck past an army, went on to Britain and – once there – became the person to circumnavigate the island. And he was only getting started.

The Strait of Gibraltar

The Strait of Gibraltar ( public domain )

The Discovery of Thule

After circling Britain, Pytheas went on north, in search of an undiscovered land the natives promised him was out there. This went against all reason – at the time, it was believed that there was nothing north of Britain but ocean. Pytheas’ trip would take him past the edge of the world.

After six days of sailing, he saw, jutting out of the water, the tall, rocky coastline of a land he called Thule. Nobody knows for sure what country he discovered – it may have been Iceland or Norway . It would be more than a thousand years before any European attempted the trip again.

His records of the sky, though, suggest he really was somewhere near the Arctic Circle. He recorded how the stars overhead shifted, and they reflect the sky you’d actually see from around Iceland. And he recorded how much shorter the days became as he traveled north.

He claims that there were people living there when he arrived – which, if Thule is Iceland, would be incredible, as the country was deserted when it was colonized 1000 years after his journey. These people, he said, had to struggle to live in a place where the sun barely shone and few plants and animals could live. They lived off millet, fruit, and roots, unable to grow much else.

There is no night at the summer solstice ,” Pytheas reported back from Thule. This, for a person living in the 4 th century BC, must have been an incredible revelation. He was seeing something that no Greek had ever seen – a place where the sun didn’t rise all winter long.

A 16th century map of the Arctic

A 16 th century map of the Arctic ( public domain )

The Frozen Ocean

Pytheas had gone further north than any European had ever traveled – but he didn’t stop there. He sailed on, a day’s journey north of Thule, and reached a place he didn’t know how to describe. There was something in the water which he said was not “land properly so‑called, or sea, or air, but a kind of substance concreted from all these elements, resembling a sea-lungs.”

It’s believed, today, that he was trying to describe a sea filled with drifting pancake ice . With no frame of reference to describe it, though, he had to resort to some strange word choices. He called it a “jellyfish-like substance”, which “you can neither walk nor sail upon”.

Blocked by a frozen ocean, Pytheas was forced to turn back. He had already seen things that most people couldn’t even imagine. He’d traveled from the Mediterranean up past the Arctic Circle to a place enveloped in darkness, a place where the very ocean was frozen over.

Doubted In His Own Time

When he returned, hardly anyone believed him. Our best source for his journey is Strabo, a man who hated him so much he couldn’t even write his name without hurling a few insults his way. When he writes his name, he calls him, “Pytheas, who misleads people everywhere ”, or “Pytheas, by whom many have been misled”. At another part, he jokes that asking Pytheas not to lie is like asking a juggler not to juggle.

Iceland wouldn’t be colonized until 800 AD, and the age of exploration wouldn’t come begin until 1400 AD. No European would see what Pytheas saw for over a thousand years.

It would another thousand years before anyone believed him. Today, modern historians have compared his writing to what we know today, and have realized that he described things about the arctic that no Greek who’d never been there could have known.

More than two thousand years after he died, Pytheas has been vindicated. Most historians now believe he was telling the truth – but he would go to his grave treated like a liar, unable to convince the world of what he’d seen.

Top image: Illustration representing an ancient explorer.

By Mark Oliver

References

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History . Translated by John Bostock. London: Taylor and Francis. 1855. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0137%3Abook%3D4%3Achapter%3D1

Hafstad, Vala. “Major Archaeological Find in Iceland”. Iceland Review Online. October 2, 2016. http://icelandreview.com/news/2016/09/15/major-archaeological-find-iceland

McCaskill, Eloise. “Pytheas”. Encylopedia Arctica. Dartmouth College Library. 1951. http://collections.dartmouth.edu/arctica-beta/html/EA15-57.html

Strabo. Geography. Translated by H. L. Jones. Harvard University Press. 1917. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Strabo/home.html

Comments

Birdog's picture

If in fact this quote is true: "circling Britain, Pytheas went on north, in search of an undiscovered land the natives promised him was out there. This went against all reason – at the time, it was believed that there was nothing north of Britain but ocean. Pytheas’ trip would take him past the edge of the world" ... Then it seems obvious that the so called "natives" of Britian (likely of Scandanavian heritage) had already been to the arctic and settled there likely alongside the natives we call Lapps today. This mindset of the reigning superpower "discovering" an area (in this case the Greeks or the claims of Columbus as another example) is nothing more than a continuation of the master narative and therefore excludes the accomplishments of the true indigenous cultures who really "discovered" and settled such places.
All in all Mr. Oliver a fascinating article but it is time to throw off the chains and predisposed claims of dominance and oppression that is ingrained in the historic record and include those who have been excluded. Pytheas accomplished a great feat to be sure but he was far from the first in that epoch to go there.

For the record, according to all sources we have, there was no scandinavians in Britain at the time of Pytheas (around 315 BC), only britonnic and caledonian tribes, which all are celts.

Pytheas told about meeting people in Thule, so we can exclude Iceland that, as far as archeology knows today, was totally unhabited at that time.

So the Thule of Pytheas must be ever Greenland (populated then by the amerindian paleoeskimo of the Dorset culture) or more probably northern Norway (populated by Sami tribes aka Lapps).

Lapps are not sea people, there is absolutely no reason to think at this point that they ever reached Britain, Iceland or Greenland in that era. On the other hand, celts of the british isles were good navigators and Pytheas got some of his informations from them, from his own words.

Laurent, the Dorset culture died out in Greenland about 150 years before the voyages of Pytheas. Greenland was uninhabited at that time. Only Norway fits the description.

Normann, what's your source about this dying of the Dorset Culture 150 years before Pytheas ?

All the sources that I've checked say that there is archeological evidences of Early Dorset in Greenland from 700 BC to 200 AD ( which covers Pytheas time period) and Late Dorset from 800 AD to 1300 AD.

We haven't found trace of Middle Dorset in Greenland yet so it's possible that the island stayed unhabited for of maximum of six centuries between 200 AD and 800 AD, but anyway that's long after Pytheas.

For example :

http://natmus.dk/footermenu/organisation/forskning-og-formidling/nyere-t...

If he describes people and ice bergs, it must have been Greenland.

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