pytheas northern journey
Pytheas northern journey
The voyage of Pytheas to Thule
Stories of the far north go back in time to a mythical past. The Greeks tell of a people called the Hyperboreans who live "beyond the north wind". Boreas was god of the north wind, and the Hyperboreans lived beyond his rule. They are a happy people who do not suffer from usual afflictions. Pindar writes of them: "With shining laurel wreaths about their locks (of hair), they hold feasts out of sheer joy. Illnesses cannot touch them, nor is death foreordained for this exalted race."

Pytheas, the geographer, wished to gain more tangible knowledge of the infinite northern regions. He lived in Massalia, the Greek settlement in southern France (now Marseille). And he discovered that when the sun followed its northern path the days would become longer, since the earth tapers close to the poles. This way of thinking is geocentric and, due to his calculations, Pytheas was able to conclude that the sun would not set at a certain time of year when it travels furthest north.

Pytheas, however, did not settle for theoretical calculations alone. He left on a northern journey, around 350 B.C., and headed for England and Scandinavia. On the Ocean, his volume on conditions at the edge of the world has been lost but some fragments have been retained. Pytheas mentions an island called Thule in his account; this island was claimed to lie to the north of Britannia and at a distance of time that it took to complete a six-day voyage. We do not know where this island was located, but he does say that the sun was above the horizon 24 hours-a-day during a short period of time in the summer. The island must have been close to the Arctic Circle. Ultima Thule has thus become an expression for the far north.

   © University Library of Tromsø - 1999.
The Northern Lights Route is part of The Council of Europe Cultural Routes. The Cultural Routes are an invitation to Europeans to wander the paths and explore the places where the unity and diversity of our European identity were forged.