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241

The Mystery Of Thule

Mar 1, 2022
History
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19
minutes

For centuries it was believed to be a mythical freezing island on the edge of the world, too cold to sustain human life.

But now historians believe that they have finally solved the mystery of the freezing island of Thule.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Mystery Of Thule.

[00:00:29] It is said to be an island six days north of Britain, where in the summer there is no night and in the winter there is no light. 

[00:00:39] To this day, there is no agreement on exactly where Thule is, but there are plenty of theories.

[00:00:46] So, in this episode we are going to explore the mystery of Thule, where the story of its existence came from, why agreeing on where it is is so problematic, some ideas about where, or perhaps even what, Thule could be, and ask ourselves whether this mystery will ever be solved.

[00:01:11] OK then, wrap up warm, and let’s get ready to explore the mystery of Thule.

[00:01:19] Our story starts, as many great stories do, with the ancient Greeks.

[00:01:25] Specifically, a Greek geographer, astronomer and explorer called Pytheas, or Pytheas of Massalia.

[00:01:35] Massilia, where Pytheas was based, was a trading port in the northern Mediterranean, in modern day France.

[00:01:44] If you have guessed the modern name of Massalia, well done. It’s now the French city of Marseille.

[00:01:51] But if we go back 2,300 years, to the fourth century BC, it was part of the Greek empire.

[00:02:01] And Pytheas, well, he was a well-respected geographer, astronomer, and philosopher. We don’t know much about his life, but it seems clear that he had a curious mind. 

[00:02:14] At some point between 340 and 306 BC - historians are divided over exactly when - Pytheas set sail north. 

[00:02:27] Of course, sailing from Massalia, or Marseille, he couldn’t go directly north, he needed to go south-west, through the strait of Gibraltar, and then up the Atlantic Ocean. 

[00:02:40] It’s thought that the voyage Pytheas went on was primarily for trade reasons, to make contact with the people in northern France and even further north, and to open up potential trade routes.

[00:02:56] But Pytheas probably wasn’t a trader himself, and given that there is no evidence that the trip was paid for by the city, it wasn’t an official trade mission. Pytheus set sail on a quest to understand what existed further north.

[00:03:16] Now, it’s worth pointing out here that the ancient Greeks did believe that the Earth was round, that it was spherical, and that life existed on Earth thanks to the heat provided by the sun. 

[00:03:30] The Greeks thought that the Mediterranean was the perfect distance from the sun - it wasn’t too hot, and it wasn’t too cold, it was the perfect place to live temperature-wise.

[00:03:45] But while thinking that the Mediterranean is the perfect place might now be a matter of personal opinion, the ancient Greeks thought that if you went too far south, and therefore too close to the sun, it became so hot that human life was literally impossible. 

[00:04:05] And similarly, if you went too far north it was so cold that human life was literally impossible.

[00:04:13] This was the prevailing belief at the time.

[00:04:17] So, off Pytheas goes, northwards.

[00:04:21] Again, historians are divided over his exact route, but it’s thought that he first went to Britain, where he stayed for a couple of years, before heading north again. 

[00:04:34] And here is where, after six days sailing, he reaches a place he calls “Thule”, or as we say in English, Thule. He describes it as an incredibly cold frozen island, where during the summer there is no night, and during the winter there is no day.

[00:04:57] After discovering this frozen island, he continued north until he found a frozen sea.

[00:05:04] He wrote amazing descriptions of this, which actually gives us a clue about where he got to. 

[00:05:12] He described the sea as “Where neither earth, water, nor air exist separately, but a sort of concretion of all these, resembling a sea-lung in which the earth, the sea, and all things were suspended, thus forming, as it were, a link to unite the whole together”.

[00:05:36] I’ll explain this clue shortly, but remember that the term he used was a “sea-lung”.

[00:05:43] Blocked by this icey sea, he could go no further north, and that is where he turned around.

[00:05:51] He returned to Massalia, and wrote a full account of his trip, with all the details that would help someone find the island again.

[00:06:01] His book was called “ta peri tou Okeanou”, literally “things about the Ocean”, but it’s normally translated in English as “Description of the Ocean” or “On the Ocean”.

[00:06:15] So, you might be wondering, why all the mystery if Pytheas provided such specific details?

[00:06:23] Well, the book, like many of the great works at the time, is thought to have been stored in The Great Library of Alexandria, which burned to the ground in 48 BC. 

[00:06:37] No other copies have been discovered, and our only records of Pytheas’s trip come from descriptions of it from other writers, many of whom would get their records of the trip from other, secondary records.

[00:06:54] People who have written about this famous trip include the Greek geographer Strabo, the Greek historian Timaeus and probably most famously the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder.

[00:07:09] And initially, at least, or by many ancient Greeks, Pytheas was thought to be a liar, many people thought that what he described simply couldn’t be true.

[00:07:22] Strabo went so far as to say that Pytheas was, and I’m quoting directly here, “the worst possible liar”.

[00:07:32] Remember, the ancient Greeks believed that life as far north as Britain was impossible, it was far too far from the sun, and would be far too cold for any human beings to survive. 

[00:07:46] And in Pytheas account of the voyage he wrote of perfectly happy, normal-looking people living in Britain, even right at the far north, growing crops and living off the land in a very similar way to how things worked in the Mediterranean.

[00:08:05] People from France, Italy, Spain and Greece might make fun of British weather, and of course it can be quite cold and wet, but it is possible to live there.

[00:08:18] However the Greeks were so fixated on this belief that many simply didn’t believe Pytheas. 

[00:08:27] Historians now agree that Pytheas’s voyage did take place, and that he was not lying.

[00:08:34] The only problem, and this is a pretty big problem, is that we have no original record of his trip. 

[00:08:42] The records we have are all secondary or tertiary records, records from some people who read the original text, the original “On the Ocean”, and from people who have read other people’s writings on it.

[00:08:58] We don’t know the route he took, we don’t know whether he actually ever set foot on Thule, the full descriptions of what he saw are missing, we only have very small pieces of information.

[00:09:12] And this is the real mystery of Thule, and why it has continued to attract attention ever since.

[00:09:21] Thule started to take on a meaning that was even greater than the island itself. 

[00:09:27] The ancient Roman poet, Virgil, coined the term “Ultima Thule”, meaning beyond Thule, and used it to describe something so far away that it was completely unattainable, completely out of reach

[00:09:44] It became this metaphor for a mysterious land, a mysterious island, at the edge of the habitable Earth, and indeed a metaphor for cold itself.

[00:09:57] Even as recently as the 17th century there was a belief in Europe that cold had an origin point, a point where all cold came from, that was far to the north of Europe. 

[00:10:11] And this point was this mysterious island of Thule.

[00:10:16] But if we decide that we do believe Pytheus, that Thule was a real place, and almost all modern historians do believe that his account was accurate, we still have to answer the question, “where is Thule?”

[00:10:34] There are, of course, plenty of theories about where Thule is. 

[00:10:38] One theory has it as Iceland, and Iceland certainly ticks a lot of the boxes.

[00:10:46] It would have taken the kind of ship Pytheas was in approximately 6 days to reach from Britain. It is sufficiently far north that in summer it is never fully dark, and in winter it’s never fully daylight.

[00:11:02] And it is sufficiently close to the Arctic Circle that it’s possible that Pytheas would have sailed further north from Iceland and soon met a frozen sea.

[00:11:14] If you remember his description of the “frozen sea”, Pytheus uses the term “sea lung”. 

[00:11:22] “Sea lung” was another term in Greek for a jellyfish, and it seems probable that Pytheus was describing the phenomenon of what's called “pancake ice”, which looks a little bit like the sea is covered with frozen jellyfish.

[00:11:41] And this “pancake ice” is something that can be found to the north of Iceland.

[00:11:47] Another theory has it being an island off the coast of Norway called Smøla. 

[00:11:53] Smøla is at a similar latitude to Iceland, and so has a similar amount of daylight during the winter and summer months. 

[00:12:04] It’s also close to the Arctic Circle, so the “frozen sea” description could make sense, although the frozen sea is further from Norway than it is from Iceland.

[00:12:17] Other theories include that it was Greenland, Ireland, or even the Shetland Islands, but most people believe that it’s either Smøla or Iceland.

[00:12:29] It is, in many ways, the perfect mystery. 

[00:12:32] There’s just enough information for us to have an educated guess about where it could be, but not enough so that the mystery is ever likely to be completely solved.

[00:12:44] But this hasn’t stopped some people from claiming victory, claiming that they have finally solved the mystery of Thule.

[00:12:54] Indeed, in 2008 a team from the Technical University of Berlin reconstructed the route, and calculated that Thule must certainly have been Smøla, the small island off the coast of Norway. 

[00:13:11] The German team was so confident in its discovery that the team leader wrote to a journalist from Smøla saying “As about this old information there cannot be any doubt anymore. You live on the mystic island of Thule”.

[00:13:31] The residents of Smøla were, as you might imagine, happy to be able to officially claim that they lived on Thule, because it might mean tourists would be attracted to this mysterious island. 

[00:13:45] But, the debate rages on, and given that there are so many different secondary accounts of what Pytheas wrote, it’s impossible to know what he actually saw.

[00:13:58] In one account Pytheas reportedly saw Thule rising strikingly out of the water, and if this is the case it’s much more likely to have been Iceland than Smøla, because Smøla is an island which is only 5km off the mainland and isn’t nearly as imposing as Iceland.

[00:14:21] Certainly the theory that it’s Iceland is favoured by the author of probably the most authoritative book on the matter, a book called Ultima Thule: further Mysteries of the Arctic by a man with the fantastically Scandinavian name of Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

[00:14:41] For Stefansson there is little doubt about the matter, but he acknowledges that the lack of primary information about Pytheas’s trip means it’s very unlikely that we will ever actually know what he was referring to.

[00:14:57] And in many ways, the identity of Thule remaining a secret for eternity is the way it should be.

[00:15:05] What Thule represents is probably more interesting than what it actually is.

[00:15:11] Thule now represents adventure, it represents mystery, it represents the unknown

[00:15:18] It also represents human curiosity and the search for the truth.

[00:15:24] And one person who is often overlooked in the debate about Thule, or at least his achievements are probably underappreciated, is the man who “discovered” it, Pytheus.

[00:15:37] Sure, he isn’t overlooked in terms of not being recognised or named in it, but there are very few discussions about Thule that acknowledge quite the scale of the adventure he embarked on, and how absolutely incredible it must have been.

[00:15:55] So let’s try and do that just for one minute.

[00:15:59] Let’s imagine a man who had grown up in the Mediterranean, and lived a relatively comfortable life in the wealthy trading port of Massalia, modern day Marseille.

[00:16:12] One day he sets off on a boat out of Marseille. It would likely have been the same kind of boat used for sailing from one Mediterranean port to another. The Mediterranean is, as you may well know, a relatively calm sea most of the time.

[00:16:30] Then, imagine him sailing through the strait of Gibraltar, with the large rock to its right. Then up it would have gone, perhaps through the eastern Atlantic or North Sea, bodies of water that can get incredibly stormy.

[00:16:49] The temperature would have kept on dropping, then suddenly after days of sailing a mysterious island appeared out of nowhere.

[00:16:59] As they continued further north, they met a sea made out of ice, and they could go no further.

[00:17:07] And they were doing all of this, to remind you, with no maps or knowledge of where they were going. Their navigational skills would have been excellent, and indeed they managed to make it back to Massalia, but they were going where nobody had ever gone before, or at least no Greek had ever gone before. 

[00:17:29] So, it’s easy to get caught up in the mystery of where or what Thule is and forget about the actual human beings on a tiny boat sailing up to the Arctic Circle and back, but when you think about it it really is quite amazing.

[00:17:47] The wonderful thing about Thule is that it is a mystery to be continually explored but never solved, it’s a metaphor for human curiosity. 

[00:17:58] Sure, we might all have our own ideas, and it is fascinating to try to retrace and imagine this fantastic journey that took place over 2,000 years ago, but the reality is that nobody will ever solve the mystery of Thule.

[00:18:16] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Mystery Of Thule. 

[00:18:23] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that this has shed a little light on this mysterious island. 

[00:18:30] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:18:34] Have you heard the story of Thule before? What do you think the most likely explanation is for its identity?

[00:18:42] And, more interestingly, what does our obsession with finding out its identity tell us about ourselves?

[00:18:49] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:18:54] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:04] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:09] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Mystery Of Thule.

[00:00:29] It is said to be an island six days north of Britain, where in the summer there is no night and in the winter there is no light. 

[00:00:39] To this day, there is no agreement on exactly where Thule is, but there are plenty of theories.

[00:00:46] So, in this episode we are going to explore the mystery of Thule, where the story of its existence came from, why agreeing on where it is is so problematic, some ideas about where, or perhaps even what, Thule could be, and ask ourselves whether this mystery will ever be solved.

[00:01:11] OK then, wrap up warm, and let’s get ready to explore the mystery of Thule.

[00:01:19] Our story starts, as many great stories do, with the ancient Greeks.

[00:01:25] Specifically, a Greek geographer, astronomer and explorer called Pytheas, or Pytheas of Massalia.

[00:01:35] Massilia, where Pytheas was based, was a trading port in the northern Mediterranean, in modern day France.

[00:01:44] If you have guessed the modern name of Massalia, well done. It’s now the French city of Marseille.

[00:01:51] But if we go back 2,300 years, to the fourth century BC, it was part of the Greek empire.

[00:02:01] And Pytheas, well, he was a well-respected geographer, astronomer, and philosopher. We don’t know much about his life, but it seems clear that he had a curious mind. 

[00:02:14] At some point between 340 and 306 BC - historians are divided over exactly when - Pytheas set sail north. 

[00:02:27] Of course, sailing from Massalia, or Marseille, he couldn’t go directly north, he needed to go south-west, through the strait of Gibraltar, and then up the Atlantic Ocean. 

[00:02:40] It’s thought that the voyage Pytheas went on was primarily for trade reasons, to make contact with the people in northern France and even further north, and to open up potential trade routes.

[00:02:56] But Pytheas probably wasn’t a trader himself, and given that there is no evidence that the trip was paid for by the city, it wasn’t an official trade mission. Pytheus set sail on a quest to understand what existed further north.

[00:03:16] Now, it’s worth pointing out here that the ancient Greeks did believe that the Earth was round, that it was spherical, and that life existed on Earth thanks to the heat provided by the sun. 

[00:03:30] The Greeks thought that the Mediterranean was the perfect distance from the sun - it wasn’t too hot, and it wasn’t too cold, it was the perfect place to live temperature-wise.

[00:03:45] But while thinking that the Mediterranean is the perfect place might now be a matter of personal opinion, the ancient Greeks thought that if you went too far south, and therefore too close to the sun, it became so hot that human life was literally impossible. 

[00:04:05] And similarly, if you went too far north it was so cold that human life was literally impossible.

[00:04:13] This was the prevailing belief at the time.

[00:04:17] So, off Pytheas goes, northwards.

[00:04:21] Again, historians are divided over his exact route, but it’s thought that he first went to Britain, where he stayed for a couple of years, before heading north again. 

[00:04:34] And here is where, after six days sailing, he reaches a place he calls “Thule”, or as we say in English, Thule. He describes it as an incredibly cold frozen island, where during the summer there is no night, and during the winter there is no day.

[00:04:57] After discovering this frozen island, he continued north until he found a frozen sea.

[00:05:04] He wrote amazing descriptions of this, which actually gives us a clue about where he got to. 

[00:05:12] He described the sea as “Where neither earth, water, nor air exist separately, but a sort of concretion of all these, resembling a sea-lung in which the earth, the sea, and all things were suspended, thus forming, as it were, a link to unite the whole together”.

[00:05:36] I’ll explain this clue shortly, but remember that the term he used was a “sea-lung”.

[00:05:43] Blocked by this icey sea, he could go no further north, and that is where he turned around.

[00:05:51] He returned to Massalia, and wrote a full account of his trip, with all the details that would help someone find the island again.

[00:06:01] His book was called “ta peri tou Okeanou”, literally “things about the Ocean”, but it’s normally translated in English as “Description of the Ocean” or “On the Ocean”.

[00:06:15] So, you might be wondering, why all the mystery if Pytheas provided such specific details?

[00:06:23] Well, the book, like many of the great works at the time, is thought to have been stored in The Great Library of Alexandria, which burned to the ground in 48 BC. 

[00:06:37] No other copies have been discovered, and our only records of Pytheas’s trip come from descriptions of it from other writers, many of whom would get their records of the trip from other, secondary records.

[00:06:54] People who have written about this famous trip include the Greek geographer Strabo, the Greek historian Timaeus and probably most famously the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder.

[00:07:09] And initially, at least, or by many ancient Greeks, Pytheas was thought to be a liar, many people thought that what he described simply couldn’t be true.

[00:07:22] Strabo went so far as to say that Pytheas was, and I’m quoting directly here, “the worst possible liar”.

[00:07:32] Remember, the ancient Greeks believed that life as far north as Britain was impossible, it was far too far from the sun, and would be far too cold for any human beings to survive. 

[00:07:46] And in Pytheas account of the voyage he wrote of perfectly happy, normal-looking people living in Britain, even right at the far north, growing crops and living off the land in a very similar way to how things worked in the Mediterranean.

[00:08:05] People from France, Italy, Spain and Greece might make fun of British weather, and of course it can be quite cold and wet, but it is possible to live there.

[00:08:18] However the Greeks were so fixated on this belief that many simply didn’t believe Pytheas. 

[00:08:27] Historians now agree that Pytheas’s voyage did take place, and that he was not lying.

[00:08:34] The only problem, and this is a pretty big problem, is that we have no original record of his trip. 

[00:08:42] The records we have are all secondary or tertiary records, records from some people who read the original text, the original “On the Ocean”, and from people who have read other people’s writings on it.

[00:08:58] We don’t know the route he took, we don’t know whether he actually ever set foot on Thule, the full descriptions of what he saw are missing, we only have very small pieces of information.

[00:09:12] And this is the real mystery of Thule, and why it has continued to attract attention ever since.

[00:09:21] Thule started to take on a meaning that was even greater than the island itself. 

[00:09:27] The ancient Roman poet, Virgil, coined the term “Ultima Thule”, meaning beyond Thule, and used it to describe something so far away that it was completely unattainable, completely out of reach

[00:09:44] It became this metaphor for a mysterious land, a mysterious island, at the edge of the habitable Earth, and indeed a metaphor for cold itself.

[00:09:57] Even as recently as the 17th century there was a belief in Europe that cold had an origin point, a point where all cold came from, that was far to the north of Europe. 

[00:10:11] And this point was this mysterious island of Thule.

[00:10:16] But if we decide that we do believe Pytheus, that Thule was a real place, and almost all modern historians do believe that his account was accurate, we still have to answer the question, “where is Thule?”

[00:10:34] There are, of course, plenty of theories about where Thule is. 

[00:10:38] One theory has it as Iceland, and Iceland certainly ticks a lot of the boxes.

[00:10:46] It would have taken the kind of ship Pytheas was in approximately 6 days to reach from Britain. It is sufficiently far north that in summer it is never fully dark, and in winter it’s never fully daylight.

[00:11:02] And it is sufficiently close to the Arctic Circle that it’s possible that Pytheas would have sailed further north from Iceland and soon met a frozen sea.

[00:11:14] If you remember his description of the “frozen sea”, Pytheus uses the term “sea lung”. 

[00:11:22] “Sea lung” was another term in Greek for a jellyfish, and it seems probable that Pytheus was describing the phenomenon of what's called “pancake ice”, which looks a little bit like the sea is covered with frozen jellyfish.

[00:11:41] And this “pancake ice” is something that can be found to the north of Iceland.

[00:11:47] Another theory has it being an island off the coast of Norway called Smøla. 

[00:11:53] Smøla is at a similar latitude to Iceland, and so has a similar amount of daylight during the winter and summer months. 

[00:12:04] It’s also close to the Arctic Circle, so the “frozen sea” description could make sense, although the frozen sea is further from Norway than it is from Iceland.

[00:12:17] Other theories include that it was Greenland, Ireland, or even the Shetland Islands, but most people believe that it’s either Smøla or Iceland.

[00:12:29] It is, in many ways, the perfect mystery. 

[00:12:32] There’s just enough information for us to have an educated guess about where it could be, but not enough so that the mystery is ever likely to be completely solved.

[00:12:44] But this hasn’t stopped some people from claiming victory, claiming that they have finally solved the mystery of Thule.

[00:12:54] Indeed, in 2008 a team from the Technical University of Berlin reconstructed the route, and calculated that Thule must certainly have been Smøla, the small island off the coast of Norway. 

[00:13:11] The German team was so confident in its discovery that the team leader wrote to a journalist from Smøla saying “As about this old information there cannot be any doubt anymore. You live on the mystic island of Thule”.

[00:13:31] The residents of Smøla were, as you might imagine, happy to be able to officially claim that they lived on Thule, because it might mean tourists would be attracted to this mysterious island. 

[00:13:45] But, the debate rages on, and given that there are so many different secondary accounts of what Pytheas wrote, it’s impossible to know what he actually saw.

[00:13:58] In one account Pytheas reportedly saw Thule rising strikingly out of the water, and if this is the case it’s much more likely to have been Iceland than Smøla, because Smøla is an island which is only 5km off the mainland and isn’t nearly as imposing as Iceland.

[00:14:21] Certainly the theory that it’s Iceland is favoured by the author of probably the most authoritative book on the matter, a book called Ultima Thule: further Mysteries of the Arctic by a man with the fantastically Scandinavian name of Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

[00:14:41] For Stefansson there is little doubt about the matter, but he acknowledges that the lack of primary information about Pytheas’s trip means it’s very unlikely that we will ever actually know what he was referring to.

[00:14:57] And in many ways, the identity of Thule remaining a secret for eternity is the way it should be.

[00:15:05] What Thule represents is probably more interesting than what it actually is.

[00:15:11] Thule now represents adventure, it represents mystery, it represents the unknown

[00:15:18] It also represents human curiosity and the search for the truth.

[00:15:24] And one person who is often overlooked in the debate about Thule, or at least his achievements are probably underappreciated, is the man who “discovered” it, Pytheus.

[00:15:37] Sure, he isn’t overlooked in terms of not being recognised or named in it, but there are very few discussions about Thule that acknowledge quite the scale of the adventure he embarked on, and how absolutely incredible it must have been.

[00:15:55] So let’s try and do that just for one minute.

[00:15:59] Let’s imagine a man who had grown up in the Mediterranean, and lived a relatively comfortable life in the wealthy trading port of Massalia, modern day Marseille.

[00:16:12] One day he sets off on a boat out of Marseille. It would likely have been the same kind of boat used for sailing from one Mediterranean port to another. The Mediterranean is, as you may well know, a relatively calm sea most of the time.

[00:16:30] Then, imagine him sailing through the strait of Gibraltar, with the large rock to its right. Then up it would have gone, perhaps through the eastern Atlantic or North Sea, bodies of water that can get incredibly stormy.

[00:16:49] The temperature would have kept on dropping, then suddenly after days of sailing a mysterious island appeared out of nowhere.

[00:16:59] As they continued further north, they met a sea made out of ice, and they could go no further.

[00:17:07] And they were doing all of this, to remind you, with no maps or knowledge of where they were going. Their navigational skills would have been excellent, and indeed they managed to make it back to Massalia, but they were going where nobody had ever gone before, or at least no Greek had ever gone before. 

[00:17:29] So, it’s easy to get caught up in the mystery of where or what Thule is and forget about the actual human beings on a tiny boat sailing up to the Arctic Circle and back, but when you think about it it really is quite amazing.

[00:17:47] The wonderful thing about Thule is that it is a mystery to be continually explored but never solved, it’s a metaphor for human curiosity. 

[00:17:58] Sure, we might all have our own ideas, and it is fascinating to try to retrace and imagine this fantastic journey that took place over 2,000 years ago, but the reality is that nobody will ever solve the mystery of Thule.

[00:18:16] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Mystery Of Thule. 

[00:18:23] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that this has shed a little light on this mysterious island. 

[00:18:30] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:18:34] Have you heard the story of Thule before? What do you think the most likely explanation is for its identity?

[00:18:42] And, more interestingly, what does our obsession with finding out its identity tell us about ourselves?

[00:18:49] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:18:54] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:04] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:09] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about The Mystery Of Thule.

[00:00:29] It is said to be an island six days north of Britain, where in the summer there is no night and in the winter there is no light. 

[00:00:39] To this day, there is no agreement on exactly where Thule is, but there are plenty of theories.

[00:00:46] So, in this episode we are going to explore the mystery of Thule, where the story of its existence came from, why agreeing on where it is is so problematic, some ideas about where, or perhaps even what, Thule could be, and ask ourselves whether this mystery will ever be solved.

[00:01:11] OK then, wrap up warm, and let’s get ready to explore the mystery of Thule.

[00:01:19] Our story starts, as many great stories do, with the ancient Greeks.

[00:01:25] Specifically, a Greek geographer, astronomer and explorer called Pytheas, or Pytheas of Massalia.

[00:01:35] Massilia, where Pytheas was based, was a trading port in the northern Mediterranean, in modern day France.

[00:01:44] If you have guessed the modern name of Massalia, well done. It’s now the French city of Marseille.

[00:01:51] But if we go back 2,300 years, to the fourth century BC, it was part of the Greek empire.

[00:02:01] And Pytheas, well, he was a well-respected geographer, astronomer, and philosopher. We don’t know much about his life, but it seems clear that he had a curious mind. 

[00:02:14] At some point between 340 and 306 BC - historians are divided over exactly when - Pytheas set sail north. 

[00:02:27] Of course, sailing from Massalia, or Marseille, he couldn’t go directly north, he needed to go south-west, through the strait of Gibraltar, and then up the Atlantic Ocean. 

[00:02:40] It’s thought that the voyage Pytheas went on was primarily for trade reasons, to make contact with the people in northern France and even further north, and to open up potential trade routes.

[00:02:56] But Pytheas probably wasn’t a trader himself, and given that there is no evidence that the trip was paid for by the city, it wasn’t an official trade mission. Pytheus set sail on a quest to understand what existed further north.

[00:03:16] Now, it’s worth pointing out here that the ancient Greeks did believe that the Earth was round, that it was spherical, and that life existed on Earth thanks to the heat provided by the sun. 

[00:03:30] The Greeks thought that the Mediterranean was the perfect distance from the sun - it wasn’t too hot, and it wasn’t too cold, it was the perfect place to live temperature-wise.

[00:03:45] But while thinking that the Mediterranean is the perfect place might now be a matter of personal opinion, the ancient Greeks thought that if you went too far south, and therefore too close to the sun, it became so hot that human life was literally impossible. 

[00:04:05] And similarly, if you went too far north it was so cold that human life was literally impossible.

[00:04:13] This was the prevailing belief at the time.

[00:04:17] So, off Pytheas goes, northwards.

[00:04:21] Again, historians are divided over his exact route, but it’s thought that he first went to Britain, where he stayed for a couple of years, before heading north again. 

[00:04:34] And here is where, after six days sailing, he reaches a place he calls “Thule”, or as we say in English, Thule. He describes it as an incredibly cold frozen island, where during the summer there is no night, and during the winter there is no day.

[00:04:57] After discovering this frozen island, he continued north until he found a frozen sea.

[00:05:04] He wrote amazing descriptions of this, which actually gives us a clue about where he got to. 

[00:05:12] He described the sea as “Where neither earth, water, nor air exist separately, but a sort of concretion of all these, resembling a sea-lung in which the earth, the sea, and all things were suspended, thus forming, as it were, a link to unite the whole together”.

[00:05:36] I’ll explain this clue shortly, but remember that the term he used was a “sea-lung”.

[00:05:43] Blocked by this icey sea, he could go no further north, and that is where he turned around.

[00:05:51] He returned to Massalia, and wrote a full account of his trip, with all the details that would help someone find the island again.

[00:06:01] His book was called “ta peri tou Okeanou”, literally “things about the Ocean”, but it’s normally translated in English as “Description of the Ocean” or “On the Ocean”.

[00:06:15] So, you might be wondering, why all the mystery if Pytheas provided such specific details?

[00:06:23] Well, the book, like many of the great works at the time, is thought to have been stored in The Great Library of Alexandria, which burned to the ground in 48 BC. 

[00:06:37] No other copies have been discovered, and our only records of Pytheas’s trip come from descriptions of it from other writers, many of whom would get their records of the trip from other, secondary records.

[00:06:54] People who have written about this famous trip include the Greek geographer Strabo, the Greek historian Timaeus and probably most famously the Roman historian, Pliny the Elder.

[00:07:09] And initially, at least, or by many ancient Greeks, Pytheas was thought to be a liar, many people thought that what he described simply couldn’t be true.

[00:07:22] Strabo went so far as to say that Pytheas was, and I’m quoting directly here, “the worst possible liar”.

[00:07:32] Remember, the ancient Greeks believed that life as far north as Britain was impossible, it was far too far from the sun, and would be far too cold for any human beings to survive. 

[00:07:46] And in Pytheas account of the voyage he wrote of perfectly happy, normal-looking people living in Britain, even right at the far north, growing crops and living off the land in a very similar way to how things worked in the Mediterranean.

[00:08:05] People from France, Italy, Spain and Greece might make fun of British weather, and of course it can be quite cold and wet, but it is possible to live there.

[00:08:18] However the Greeks were so fixated on this belief that many simply didn’t believe Pytheas. 

[00:08:27] Historians now agree that Pytheas’s voyage did take place, and that he was not lying.

[00:08:34] The only problem, and this is a pretty big problem, is that we have no original record of his trip. 

[00:08:42] The records we have are all secondary or tertiary records, records from some people who read the original text, the original “On the Ocean”, and from people who have read other people’s writings on it.

[00:08:58] We don’t know the route he took, we don’t know whether he actually ever set foot on Thule, the full descriptions of what he saw are missing, we only have very small pieces of information.

[00:09:12] And this is the real mystery of Thule, and why it has continued to attract attention ever since.

[00:09:21] Thule started to take on a meaning that was even greater than the island itself. 

[00:09:27] The ancient Roman poet, Virgil, coined the term “Ultima Thule”, meaning beyond Thule, and used it to describe something so far away that it was completely unattainable, completely out of reach

[00:09:44] It became this metaphor for a mysterious land, a mysterious island, at the edge of the habitable Earth, and indeed a metaphor for cold itself.

[00:09:57] Even as recently as the 17th century there was a belief in Europe that cold had an origin point, a point where all cold came from, that was far to the north of Europe. 

[00:10:11] And this point was this mysterious island of Thule.

[00:10:16] But if we decide that we do believe Pytheus, that Thule was a real place, and almost all modern historians do believe that his account was accurate, we still have to answer the question, “where is Thule?”

[00:10:34] There are, of course, plenty of theories about where Thule is. 

[00:10:38] One theory has it as Iceland, and Iceland certainly ticks a lot of the boxes.

[00:10:46] It would have taken the kind of ship Pytheas was in approximately 6 days to reach from Britain. It is sufficiently far north that in summer it is never fully dark, and in winter it’s never fully daylight.

[00:11:02] And it is sufficiently close to the Arctic Circle that it’s possible that Pytheas would have sailed further north from Iceland and soon met a frozen sea.

[00:11:14] If you remember his description of the “frozen sea”, Pytheus uses the term “sea lung”. 

[00:11:22] “Sea lung” was another term in Greek for a jellyfish, and it seems probable that Pytheus was describing the phenomenon of what's called “pancake ice”, which looks a little bit like the sea is covered with frozen jellyfish.

[00:11:41] And this “pancake ice” is something that can be found to the north of Iceland.

[00:11:47] Another theory has it being an island off the coast of Norway called Smøla. 

[00:11:53] Smøla is at a similar latitude to Iceland, and so has a similar amount of daylight during the winter and summer months. 

[00:12:04] It’s also close to the Arctic Circle, so the “frozen sea” description could make sense, although the frozen sea is further from Norway than it is from Iceland.

[00:12:17] Other theories include that it was Greenland, Ireland, or even the Shetland Islands, but most people believe that it’s either Smøla or Iceland.

[00:12:29] It is, in many ways, the perfect mystery. 

[00:12:32] There’s just enough information for us to have an educated guess about where it could be, but not enough so that the mystery is ever likely to be completely solved.

[00:12:44] But this hasn’t stopped some people from claiming victory, claiming that they have finally solved the mystery of Thule.

[00:12:54] Indeed, in 2008 a team from the Technical University of Berlin reconstructed the route, and calculated that Thule must certainly have been Smøla, the small island off the coast of Norway. 

[00:13:11] The German team was so confident in its discovery that the team leader wrote to a journalist from Smøla saying “As about this old information there cannot be any doubt anymore. You live on the mystic island of Thule”.

[00:13:31] The residents of Smøla were, as you might imagine, happy to be able to officially claim that they lived on Thule, because it might mean tourists would be attracted to this mysterious island. 

[00:13:45] But, the debate rages on, and given that there are so many different secondary accounts of what Pytheas wrote, it’s impossible to know what he actually saw.

[00:13:58] In one account Pytheas reportedly saw Thule rising strikingly out of the water, and if this is the case it’s much more likely to have been Iceland than Smøla, because Smøla is an island which is only 5km off the mainland and isn’t nearly as imposing as Iceland.

[00:14:21] Certainly the theory that it’s Iceland is favoured by the author of probably the most authoritative book on the matter, a book called Ultima Thule: further Mysteries of the Arctic by a man with the fantastically Scandinavian name of Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

[00:14:41] For Stefansson there is little doubt about the matter, but he acknowledges that the lack of primary information about Pytheas’s trip means it’s very unlikely that we will ever actually know what he was referring to.

[00:14:57] And in many ways, the identity of Thule remaining a secret for eternity is the way it should be.

[00:15:05] What Thule represents is probably more interesting than what it actually is.

[00:15:11] Thule now represents adventure, it represents mystery, it represents the unknown

[00:15:18] It also represents human curiosity and the search for the truth.

[00:15:24] And one person who is often overlooked in the debate about Thule, or at least his achievements are probably underappreciated, is the man who “discovered” it, Pytheus.

[00:15:37] Sure, he isn’t overlooked in terms of not being recognised or named in it, but there are very few discussions about Thule that acknowledge quite the scale of the adventure he embarked on, and how absolutely incredible it must have been.

[00:15:55] So let’s try and do that just for one minute.

[00:15:59] Let’s imagine a man who had grown up in the Mediterranean, and lived a relatively comfortable life in the wealthy trading port of Massalia, modern day Marseille.

[00:16:12] One day he sets off on a boat out of Marseille. It would likely have been the same kind of boat used for sailing from one Mediterranean port to another. The Mediterranean is, as you may well know, a relatively calm sea most of the time.

[00:16:30] Then, imagine him sailing through the strait of Gibraltar, with the large rock to its right. Then up it would have gone, perhaps through the eastern Atlantic or North Sea, bodies of water that can get incredibly stormy.

[00:16:49] The temperature would have kept on dropping, then suddenly after days of sailing a mysterious island appeared out of nowhere.

[00:16:59] As they continued further north, they met a sea made out of ice, and they could go no further.

[00:17:07] And they were doing all of this, to remind you, with no maps or knowledge of where they were going. Their navigational skills would have been excellent, and indeed they managed to make it back to Massalia, but they were going where nobody had ever gone before, or at least no Greek had ever gone before. 

[00:17:29] So, it’s easy to get caught up in the mystery of where or what Thule is and forget about the actual human beings on a tiny boat sailing up to the Arctic Circle and back, but when you think about it it really is quite amazing.

[00:17:47] The wonderful thing about Thule is that it is a mystery to be continually explored but never solved, it’s a metaphor for human curiosity. 

[00:17:58] Sure, we might all have our own ideas, and it is fascinating to try to retrace and imagine this fantastic journey that took place over 2,000 years ago, but the reality is that nobody will ever solve the mystery of Thule.

[00:18:16] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Mystery Of Thule. 

[00:18:23] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that this has shed a little light on this mysterious island. 

[00:18:30] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:18:34] Have you heard the story of Thule before? What do you think the most likely explanation is for its identity?

[00:18:42] And, more interestingly, what does our obsession with finding out its identity tell us about ourselves?

[00:18:49] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:18:54] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:19:04] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:19:09] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]