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Thule

5 Apr 2017

Following on from the periscians and the Sciapodes that have cropped up on HH recently, the other day we tweeted the word Thule:

 

 

And it’s another of those unassuming words that has a superb story—and, in particular, a story about Ancient Greek geography—behind it. 

 

To the Ancient Greeks, Thule (which rhymes with duly not rule, incidentally) was the name of the northernmost inhabitable part of the world. The Greek geographer and explorer Pytheas was apparently the first person to describe it, recording its location and appearance in his travelogue On The Ocean in the fourth-century BC. Sadly, much of Pytheas’ work is now lost, but accounts of his travels nevertheless crop up in the works of many of his contemporaries and successors—including this early description of Thule:

 

...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 nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak. He [Pytheas] says he himself saw this jellyfish-like substance, but the rest he derives from hearsay. 

Polybius, The Histories (c. 140 BC)

 

Presumably, Pytheas is here describing the slush-like sea ice found in subarctic waters—but at the time, few people found what he had seen on his voyages to the far north hard to believe:

 

...in determining the breadth of the inhabited world, Eratosthenes says that, beginning at Meroë [on the Nile, in northern Sudan] and measuring on the meridian that runs through Meroë, it is 10,000 stadia to Alexandria; thence to the Hellespont about 8,100; then to the Borysthenes [in modern-day Ukraine] 5,000; then to the parallel circle that runs through Thule (which Pytheas says is a six-day sail north of Britain, and is near the frozen sea) about 11,500 more ... [But] not only has the man who tells about Thule, Pytheas, been found, upon scrutiny, to be an arch-falsifier, but the men who have seen Britain and Ireland do not mention Thule, though they speak of other islands, small ones, about Britain.

Strabo, Geography (c. 7 BC)

 

Orkney, Shetland, Iceland, Greenland, Spitsbergen, and even the northernmost of the Norwegian fjords have all been said to have Pytheas’ descriptions of Thule.

 

 

Whether they’re entirely reliable or not is, in this case, irrelevant—all we need to know is that it is accounts just like these that ultimately inspired the use of the placename Thule as a byword for any extreme point:

 

In his second expedition ... he [Captain Cook] discovered New Caledonia, the largest island in the South Pacific, except New Zealand; the island of Georgia; and an unknown coast, which he named Sandwich Land, the Thule of the Southern Hemisphere.

William Guthry, A New System of Modern Geography (1787) 

 

From there, use of the word steadily grew more figurative, so that by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Thule—or, more often than not, the expression ultima Thule—was being used to refer to any epitome or extreme example of anything and everything:

 

The pseudo-gentleman is, in appearance and manner, the caricature of a fop, the ultima Thule of extravagant frippery. 

The New Monthly Magazine (1828)

 

And it’s chiefly in that sense that the word has remained in albeit infrequent use ever since. 

 

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