Monday, April 23, 2012

Map of the Week 4-23-2012:Ultima Thule

Map of the Island of Thule, (spelled “Tile” on this map) in Scotland, by Olaus Magnus, 1539.  This is a detail of his much larger Carta Marina – a map of the ocean showing the Northern Lands.  For many years, it was commonly thought that Thule was one of the Hebrides Islands in Scotland.  Notice the whales (Balena, Orca) in the foreground.  The Hebrides are still famous for their whales, seals, and sea otters, and there are lots of opportunities for whale-watching boat trips.

            As far as we know, there is no actual place called the Isle of Thule.  It was a captivating idea, started in long ago times, perhaps 2,500 years ago or more, and carried on up to the recent past (maybe until about 300 years ago).  Thule represents a kind of a mythical place at the ends of the earth, as these ends were imagined at the time.  But by about 300 years ago, most of the earth had been explored, documented, “discovered,” or whatever other word you would like to use that is not pejoratively implying that the indigenous people of those parts hadn’t already “discovered” their own lands.  And so, over the years, the location of the Isle of Thule kept slipping further and further north, as more and more lands became known to western civilization.  Originally thought to be one of the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland, it was later thought to be one of the Orkneys to the north of Scotland’s mainland, or one of the Faroe Islands to the northwest, or even Iceland or Greenland, further and further north and west. But for centuries, really up until the early 1700's, there were parts of the Scottish Highlands and the Western Isles that were "less well known to the people of England than either of the Indies," and writers still wondered whether the Hebrides were the mystical lands of Ultima Thule, according to Rachel Hewitt's account in Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey, (2010).  Ultima Thule was described as "those regions in which there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jelly-fish in which one can neither walk not sail, holding everything together."
Eventually, it was realized that Thule didn’t exist, similar to the discarded concept of a huge southern continent linking southern Africa and Asia, and making the Indian Ocean an inland sea, as popularized by Aristotle and Ptolmey.  Terra Australis Incognita, the “unknown lands of the south,” supposedly balanced the land mass of the northern hemisphere, (so that the earth wouldn’t wobble off its axis!) and this imaginary southern continent appeared on maps and globes well into the 18th century.  (Obviously, the 14th century Portuguese explorers who rounded the southern cape of Africa proved that idea wrong, but the name of the imaginary continent was still used as the derivation for Australia’s name, when it was finally “discovered.”)  However, the idea of Terra Australis was not totally discredited until 1814!  But I digress (what else is new.)

An expanded view of the detail above, showing “Insulae Hebrides” (the Hebrides Islands), "Farne" (the Faroes, or perhaps Fair Isle - where Fair Isle sweaters come from), Hetlandia (the Shetlands), and Orcades (the Orkneys). 

In about 320 BC, a Greek geographer, explorer, mathematician, and scientist, called Pytheas, decided to travel from the Mediterranean to “Ultima Thule,” the frozen lands of the most northerly parts of the earth - the ends of the earth, in other words - the ultimate limits of the world, hitherto unknown from direct experience of the Greeks, although they knew of it indirectly from their trade in important commodities such as tin.  Pytheas set out, therefore, to make a journey of scientific discovery, undoubtedly coupled with commercial purposes of opening up the tin market to Greek traders, and to cut out the middle man.  He was most probably the first person from the Greek civilization to visit Scotland; certainly he was the first to record his journey there and pass along his knowledge in written form. 
During the course of his travels, Pytheas also took measurements, estimating the length and breadth of Britain, as well as its coastline circumference, and was accurate to within 400 km of its true distance, (coastline of 7,900 km vs. 7,580 km).  He also calculated latitude along the way with a gnomon (a straight stick stuck into the ground at a 90o angle, with which to measure the length of its own shadow at high noon in proportion to the length of the gnomon, similar to Eratosthenes’ method of calculating the circumference of the Earth in Egypt 100 years later). 
In his book “On the Ocean,” Pytheas entered the latitudes of the places where he used the gnomon, so we have a fair idea of where his travels took him, even though the place names have changed since his day (and in any event he was trying to transcribe local Celtic place names -and sometimes older ones -  into Greek, probably through an illiterate translator, a method that guarantees less than accurate results).  He was, apparently, the first Greek to use the term Britannia for the British Isles.  The last place he seems to have taken a latitude reading was in the Hebrides, which he believed to be the Island of Thule. 
I got interested in Pytheas and the idea of Ultima Thule after reading a book called “The Faded Map: Lost Kingdoms of Scotland,” by Alistair Moffat, where Pytheas and his travels to Thule were mentioned in relation to Pytheas’ interpretation of the standing stones and stone circles in the Hebrides, which would have been already about 2,500 years old at the time of Pytheas’ visit in the fourth century BC, and the civilization of the original builders was long gone or absorbed into subsequent Hebridean populations and cultures.  Pytheas wrote:
“In the region beyond the land of the Celts there lies in the ocean an island no smaller than Sicily.  This island is situated in the north and is inhabited by the Hyperboreans, who are called by that name because their home is beyond the point where the north wind blows.  Worship [of Apollo, by which he probably meant there was a moon cult] takes place in a notable temple which is adorned with many votive offerings and is spherical in shape….They also say that the moon, as viewed from this island, appears to be but a little distance above the earth…The account is also given that the god visits the island every 19 years…At the time of this appearance of the god he both plays on the lyre and dances continuously the night through from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades.” 
The moon does run through an 18.61-year cycle at a particular northern latitude – in the Hebrides – which fits with a lunar cycle of approximately 19 years as reported by Pytheas.  In about 2,900 BC on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides, prehistoric farmers came together to build a spectacular temple – the standing stones at Callanish.  This, then, was likely the spherical temple of the Hyperboeans that Pytheas described with such obvious fascination.  From the elliptical circle of outer stones, alignments run from the magnificent inner group to very particular seasonal configurations of the heavens.  One aims directly at the southern moonset, another to the sunset at the equinox, and a third to where the Pleiades first appear.  But every 18.61 years, the moon appears to those standing in the circle at Callanish to move along the rim of the horizon, “dancing continuously the night through.”  The transit can be seen on clear nights between the spring equinox and the first of May.  May 1st, of course, was an important day in the Celtic year – Beltane - the spring celebration of fertility and awakening from the death of winter, dimly retained in our modern holiday traditions as May Day.  Patrick Ashmore, who excavated at Calanais (the Gaelic form of the place name Callanish) in the early 1980s, writes in his book Calanais: The Standing Stones, (2002): “The most attractive explanation [to the question of why Calanais was built]… is that every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills.  It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth.  Knowledge and prediction of this heavenly event gave earthly authority to those who watched the skies.”
Even though the people who raised the stones and worshipped there were replaced by other cultures through the intervening millennia, when Pytheas landed in the Hebrides he probably heard stories about the Old People who built the henge.  The then-current occupants of the Hebrides during Pytheas’ visit still used the stones as a temple, laid down offerings, and although they honored different gods, the impressive stone circle still had powers and importance in the lives of the people, even through all the periods of profound cultural change. 
Carta Marina, 1539, by Olaus Magnus.  It is a very large map, about 5 ½ feet wide by 4 feet high.  “Magnus' map of the great northland was a fantastic achievement, its stature undeterred by the liberal use of sea monsters and other fanciful creatures.  The detail in the coastlines (as well as the depiction of currents between Iceland and the Faroe Islands) as well as interior features make these among the most detailed maps of the north yet printed in the 16th century.”  From
The National Geographic website has a nice interactive version of this map, (albeit a smaller map, published in 1572) where you can zoom into all the sea monsters and other illustrations.  Some of the detail is a bit different than on the larger map, and of course, all colored maps in those days were hand-colored, since color printing was not available yet, so each map would have been slightly different-looking in terms of coloration, as well. 

Olaus Magnus, whose actual name was Olof Månsson, was a Swedish geographer and cartographer in the early 16th century.  He was also a Catholic archbishop, at an unfortunate time for him in Swedish history - during the Protestant Reformation.  As a consequence of his failure to renounce his faith and become Lutheran, he forfeited all his lands and was exiled, and subsequently spent most of his life in Rome, which is where the “Carta Marina” was created and published.  This map, this Carta Marina of the Northern Lands in 1539, is an incredible work.  The sea monsters and other drawings illustrating the map and giving it context are amongst the best I have seen, and apparently many of them were innovative at the time, and much copied by later cartographers.  I came across a nice write-up about this on a blog, comparing some of his monsters with other cartographers of roughly the same time period, and demonstrating that Magnus’ monsters were created first, in most cases, and the others copied his drawings, embellishing them further in some cases, and in others simplifying them.

This was a creature called “the Island Fish.”  It was apparently so huge that sailors would mistake its back, cresting out of the ocean, for an island, and sometimes disembark on it.  This little group of mariners has not only disembarked on the fish’s back, but has actually started to make a fire on it!  Imagine their surprise when the beast decides to re-submerge! 

In the interests of full disclosure, I recently returned from a little spring break holiday in the Hebrides, and I can attest to the fact that they truly are a world apart, and a pretty wonderful world, at that.  They may not be Ultima Thule, but I can understand how they might have been mistaken for the ends of the earth. As Kevin MacNeil wrote in The Stornaway Way, about growing up in the Hebrides: “We do not live in the back of beyond; we live in the very heart of beyond.”
And here is an old Scottish folk tale, a sort of a creation myth about how the Hebrides were formed: 
Long ago, back in the mist, there was a giant.  He was building a house in the mountains.  He went down to the shore with a creel and collected a number of rocks for his house, and placed them in the creel.  When it was full he swung it up on to his great back, but the weight was too much and the bottom of the creel broke and the stones fell into the sea as he swung it round, and that was how the Hebrides were formed.  From “And the Land Lay Still,” by James Robertson.


  1. What is written on the Thule island? I guess - "his habitat dragons insulare"

  2. Adorable.. It would be wonderful to go for whale watching argyll. It's a rare thing to see a whale an I would love to take the chance to see one in the wild.

  3. BTW, I am not sure of blogger etiquette, but I'm pretty sure lifting someone's entire blog post (several of them, mushed together!) and not giving any credit but rather posting it as if the text represents your own thoughts, well, I'm pretty sure that is not cool. In more disciplined times, it would be considered plagiarism. See what I mean at entry for January 13, 2014. Makes me sad. Map Monkey

  4. Sorry, here is the actual link to the purloined bits and pieces of my posts. Really pisses me off.