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Fictional island

Classical literature


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Thule (/ˈθ(j)uːl(iː)/; Greek: Θούλη, Thoúlē; Latin: Thule, Tile) was a far-northern location in classical European literature and cartography. Though often considered to be an island in antiquity, modern interpretations of what was meant by Thule often identify it as Norway, an identification supported by modern calculations. Other interpretations include Orkney, Shetland, and Scandinavia. In the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Thule was often identified as Iceland or Greenland. Another suggested location is Saaremaa in the Baltic Sea. The term ultima Thule in medieval geographies denotes any distant place located beyond the "borders of the known world". Sometimes it is used as a proper noun (Ultima Thule) as the Latin name for Greenland when Thule is used for Iceland. The British surveyor Charles Vallancey was one of many antiquarians who argued that Ireland was Thule, as he does in his book An essay on the antiquity of the Irish language. The theory is found repeatedly in Irish literature, with Brendan narratives published widely in Renaissance Europe, with poems about Hy Brasil the namesake of Brazil, and an early epic on Cocaigne written in ancient Irish Englisc, as found in the Kildare Poems.


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Ancient geography

The Greek explorer Pytheas is the first to have written of Thule, doing so in his now lost work, On the Ocean, after his travels between 330-320 BC. He supposedly was sent out by the Greek city of Massalia to see where their trade-goods were coming from. Descriptions of some of his discoveries have survived in the works of later, often sceptical, authors. Polybius in his Histories (c. 140 BC), Book XXXIV, cites Pytheas as one:

who has led many people into error by saying that he traversed the whole of Britain on foot, giving the island a circumference of forty thousand stadia, and telling us also about Thule, 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 jellyfish in which one can neither walk nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak.

Strabo in his Geography (c. 30), Book I, Chapter 4, mentions Thule in describing Eratosthenes' calculation of "the breadth of the inhabited world" and notes that Pytheas says it "is a six days' sail north of Britain, and is near the frozen sea." But he then doubts this claim, writing that Pytheas has "been found, upon scrutiny, to be an arch falsifier, but the men who have seen Britain and Ierne (Ireland) do not mention Thule, though they speak of other islands, small ones, about Britain." Strabo adds the following in Book 5:

Now Pytheas of Massilia tells us that Thule, the most northerly of the Britannic Islands, is farthest north, and that there the circle of the summer tropic is the same as the Arctic Circle. But from the other writers I learn nothing on the subject – neither that there exists a certain island by the name of Thule, nor whether the northern regions are inhabitable up to the point where the summer tropic becomes the Arctic Circle.

Strabo ultimately concludes, in Book IV, Chapter 5, "Concerning Thule, our historical information is still more uncertain, on account of its outside position; for Thule, of all the countries that are named, is set farthest north."

Nearly a half century later, in 77, Pliny the Elder published his Natural History in which he also cites Pytheas' claim (in Book II, Chapter 75) that Thule is a six-day sail north of Britain. Then, when discussing the islands around Britain in Book IV, Chapter 16, he writes: "The farthest of all, which are known and spoke of, is Thule; in which there be no nights at all, as we have declared, about mid-summer, namely when the Sun passes through the sign Cancer; and contrariwise no days in mid-winter: and each of these times they suppose, do last six months, all day, or all night." Finally, in refining the island's location, he places it along the most northerly parallel of those he describes, writing in Book VI, Chapter 34,: "Last of all is the Scythian parallel, from the Rhiphean hills into Thule: wherein (as we said) it is day and night continually by turns (for six months)."

The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela placed Thule north of Scythia.

When scientists of the Institute of Geodesy and Geoinformation Science of the Technical University of Berlin were testing the antique maps of Ptolemy, they recognized a pattern of calculation mistakes which occurred if one tried to convert the old coordinates from Ptolemy into modern geographical coordinates. After correcting for the mistakes, the scientists mapped Ptolemy's Thule to the Norwegian island of Smøla.

Other late classical writers and post-classical writers such as Orosius (384-420) and the Irish monk Dicuil (late eighth and early ninth century), describe Thule as being north and west of both Ireland and Britain. Dicuil described Thule as being beyond islands that seem to be the Faroe Islands, strongly suggesting Iceland. In the writings of the historian Procopius, from the first half of the sixth century, Thule is a large island in the north inhabited by twenty-five tribes. It is believed that Procopius is really talking about a part of Scandinavia, since several tribes are easily identified, including the Geats (Gautoi) in present-day Sweden and the Sami people (Scrithiphini). He also writes that when the Herules returned, they passed the Warini and the Danes and then crossed the sea to Thule, where they settled beside the Geats.

Ancient literature

Virgil coined the term Ultima Thule (Georgics, 1. 30) meaning furthest land as a symbolic reference to denote a far-off land or an unattainable goal.

The 1st century BC Greek astronomer Geminus of Rhodes claimed that the name Thule went back to an archaic word for the polar night phenomenon – "the place where the sun goes to rest". Dionysius Periegetes in his De situ habitabilis orbis also touched upon this subject as did Martianus Capella. Avienus in his 'Ora Maritima' added that during the summer on Thule night lasted only two hours, a clear reference to the midnight sun.

Cleomedes referenced Pytheas' journey to Thule, but added no new information.

A novel in Greek by Antonius Diogenes entitled The Wonders Beyond Thule appeared c. AD 150 or earlier. Gerald N. Sandy, in the introduction to his translation of Photius' ninth-century summary of the work, surmises that Thule was "probably Iceland."

The Latin grammarian Gaius Julius Solinus in the 3rd century AD, wrote in his Polyhistor that Thule was a 5 days sail from Orkney:

... Ab Orcadibus Thylen usque quinque dierum ac noctium navigatio est; sed Thyle larga et diutina Pomona copiosa est.

... Thyle, which was distant from Orkney by a voyage of five days and nights, was fruitful and abundant in the lasting yield of its crops.

The 4th century Virgilian commentator Servius also believed that Thule sat close to Orkney:

... Thule; insula est Oceani inter septemtrionalem et occidentalem plagam, ultra Britanniam, iuxta Orcades et Hiberniam; in hac Thule cum sol in Cancro est, perpetui dies sine noctibus dicuntur ...

... Thule; an island in the Ocean between the northern and western zone, beyond Britain, near Orkney and Ireland; in this Thule, when the sun is in Cancer, it is said that there are perpetual days without nights ...

Early in the fifth century AD Claudian, in his poem, On the Fourth Consulship of the Emperor Honorius, Book VIII, rhapsodizes on the conquests of the emperor Theodosius I, declaring that the Orcades ran red with Saxon slaughter; Thule was warm with the blood of Picts; ice-bound Hibernia [Ireland] wept for the heaps of slain Scots." This implies that Thule was Scotland. But in Against Rufinias, the Second Poem, Claudian writes of "Thule lying icebound beneath the pole-star." Jordanes in his Getica also wrote that Thule sat under the pole-star.

Over time the known world came to be viewed as bounded in the east by India and in the west by Thule, as expressed in the Consolation of Philosophy (III, 203 = metrus V, v. 7) by Boethius.

For though the earth, as far as India's shore, tremble before the laws you give, though Thule bow to your service on earth's farthest bounds, yet if thou canst not drive away black cares, if thou canst not put to flight complaints, then is no true power thine.

The Roman historian Tacitus, in his book chronicling the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, describes how the Romans knew that Britain (which Agricola was commander of) was an island. He writes of a Roman ship that circumnavigated Britain, and discovered the Orkney islands and says the ship's crew even sighted Thule. However their orders were not to explore there, as winter was at hand.

Seneca the Younger writes of a day when new lands will be discovered past Thule. This was later quoted widely in the context of Christopher Columbus' voyages.

Inhabitants of Thule

The inhabitants or people of Thule are described in most detail by Strabo in his Geographica, having preserved fragments of the account of Pytheas, who was an alleged eyewitness in the 4th century BC:

... the people (of Thule) live on millet and other herbs, and on fruits and roots; and where there are grain and honey, the people get their beverage, also, from them. As for the grain, he says, since they have no pure sunshine, they pound it out in large storehouses, after first gathering in the ears thither; for the threshing floors become useless because of this lack of sunshine and because of the rains.

Solinus, in his Polyhistor, repeated these descriptions, noting that the people of Thule had a fertile land where they grew a good production of crop and fruits.

Claudian believed the inhabitants of Thule were Picts. This is supported by a physical description of the inhabitants of Thule by the Roman poet Silius Italicus, who wrote that the people of Thule were painted blue:

... the blue-painted native of Thule, when he fights, drives around the close-packed ranks in his scythe-bearing chariot.

The Picts are often said to have derived their name from Latin pingere ("to paint") and pictus ("painted"). Martial talks about "blue" and "painted Britons", just like Julius Caesar.

Eustathius of Thessalonica, in his 12th century commentary on the Iliad, wrote that the inhabitants of Thule were at war with a tribe whose members dwarf-like, only 20 fingers in height. The American classical scholar Charles Anthon believed this legend may have been rooted in history (although exaggerated), if the dwarf or pygmy tribe were interpreted as being a smaller aboriginal tribe of Britain the people on Thule had encountered.

Middle Ages to nineteenth century

In the early 7th century, Isidore of Seville wrote in his Etymologies that:

Ultima Thule (Thyle ultima) is an island of the Ocean in the northwestern region, beyond Britannia, taking its name from the sun, because there the sun makes its summer solstice, and there is no daylight beyond (ultra) this. Hence its sea is sluggish and frozen.

Isidore distinguished this from the islands of Britannia, Thanet (Tanatos), the Orkneys (Orcades), and Ireland (Scotia or Hibernia). Isidore was to have a large influence upon Bede, who was later to mention Thule.

During the Middle Ages, the name Thule was used first of all to denote Iceland, such as by Dicuil, by the Anglo-Saxon monk Venerable Bede in De ratione temporum, by the Landnámabók, by the anonymous Historia Norwegie, and by the German cleric Adam of Bremen in his Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church, where they cite both ancient writers' use of Thule as well as new knowledge since the end of antiquity. All these authors also understood that other islands were situated to the north of Britain.

Petrarch, in the 14th century, wrote in his Epistolae familiares ("Familiar Letters"") that Thule lay in the unknown regions of the far north-west.

A madrigal by Thomas Weelkes, entitled Thule (1600), describes it thusly:

Thule, the period of cosmography,Doth vaunt of Hecla, whose sulphureous fireDoth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky;Trinacrian Etna's flames ascend not higher ...

Note: Hekla is an Icelandic volcano.

The English poet Ambrose Philips began, but did not complete, a poem concerning The Fable of Thule which he published in 1748.

Thule is referred to in Goethe's poem "Der König in Thule" (1774), famously set to music by Franz Schubert (D 367, 1816), and in the collection Ultima Thule (1880) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In 1775, during his second voyage, Captain Cook named an island in the high southern latitudes Southern Thule.

Edgar Allan Poe's poem "Dream-Land" (1844) begins with the following stanza:

By a route obscure and lonely,Haunted by ill angels only,Where an Eidolon, named Night,On a black throne reigns upright.I have reached these lands but newlyFrom an ultimate dim Thule –From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime,Out of Space – out of Time.

Modern use

A municipality in northern Greenland (Avannaa) was formerly named Thule after the mythical place. The Thule People, the predecessor of modern Inuit Greenlanders, were named after the Thule region. In 1953, Thule became Thule Air Base, operated by United States Air Force. The population was forced to resettle to Qaanaaq, 67 miles to the north (76°31′50.21″N 68°42′36.13″W only 840 NM from the North Pole).

Southern Thule (in Spanish Islas Tule del Sur) is a collection of the three southernmost islands in the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, one of which is called Thule Island. The island group is a part of the British overseas territory of the United Kingdom and claimed by Argentina. The Southern Thule islands were occupied by Argentina in 1976. The occupation was not militarily contested by the British until the 1982 Falklands War, during which time British sovereignty was restored by a contingent of Royal Marines. Currently, the three islands are uninhabited.

The Scottish Gaelic for Iceland is "Innis Tile", which means literally the "Isle of Thule". Ultima Thule was the title of the 1929 novel by Henry Handel Richardson, set in colonial Australia.

Additionally, Thule lends its name to the 69th element in the periodic table, Thulium.

Ultima Thule is also the name of a location in the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky, USA. It was formerly the terminus of the known-explorable southeastern (upstream) end of the passage called "Main Cave," before discoveries made in 1908 by Ed Bishop and Max Kaemper showed an area accessible beyond it, now the location of the Violet City Entrance. The Violet City Lantern tour offered at the cave passes through Ultima Thule near the conclusion of the route.

Fictional characters

  • Davian Thule is one of the characters in the videogame Dawn of War
  • Fictional organizations

  • The fictional "Brotherhood of Thule" is featured as the American branch of the Thule Society in the 1998 video game Black Dahlia.
  • Fictional places and civilizations

  • Thule is one of the Ayewards (i.e., magic-oriented) worlds in Diana Wynne Jones's adult fantasy novel Deep Secret
  • Thule is used in Hal Foster's work, Prince Valiant, as the homeland of the eponymous character
  • Thule is the frozen world passed in episode 5 of the sci-fi television series Space 1999; the moon was inhabited by human survivors of lost Uranus expedition
  • In the video game Wolfenstein (2009), the SS initiates a dig on the site of the ruins of the vanished Thule civilization in North-Rhine Westphalia
  • Thule Station, in the movie The Thing (2012), is the Norweigian camp in the Antarctic, where the story takes place
  • Ultima Thule, in the Fables comics spin-off Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love, is featured as one of the mythical homelands; it is a frozen realm of six-month-long days and nights, inhabited both by humans and intelligent polar bears, and was ruled by a king who would change between the two forms every six months
  • Literature

  • "Ultima Thule" is a short story written by author Vladimir Nabokov and published in New Yorker magazine April 7, 1973
  • Music

  • "Thulean perspective" is the YouTube channel of the Norwegian black metal musician Varg Vikernes
  • "Ultima Thule" is the debut album of the French black metal band Blut Aus Nord
  • Nazi "Aryan" Thule

    Nazi occultists believed in a historical Thule/Hyperborea as the ancient origin of the Aryan race. Much of this fascination was due to rumours surrounding the Oera Linda Book, falsely claimed to have been found by Cornelis Over de Linden during the 19th century. The Oera Linda Book was translated into German in 1933 and was favoured by Heinrich Himmler, though the book has since been thoroughly discredited. Professor of Frisian Language and Literature Goffe Jensma wrote that the three authors of the translation intended it "to be a temporary hoax to fool some nationalist Frisians and orthodox Christians and as an experiential exemplary exercise in reading the Holy Bible in a non-fundamentalist, symbolical way."

    The Traditionalist School expositor Rene Guenon believed in the existence of ancient Thule on "initiatic grounds" "alone". According to its emblem, the Thule Society was founded on August 18, 1918. It had close links to the Deutsche Arbeiter Partei (DAP), later the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, the Nazi party). One of its three founding members was Lanz von Liebenfels (1874–1954). In his biography of Liebenfels (Der Mann, der Hitler die Ideen gab, Munich 1985 - The Man who Gave Hitler the Ideas), the Viennese psychologist and author Wilhelm Dahm wrote: "The Thule Gesellschaft name originated from mythical Thule, a Nordic equivalent of the vanished culture of Atlantis. A race of giant supermen lived in Thule, linked into the Cosmos through magical powers. They had psychic and technological energies far exceeding the technical achievements of the 20th century. This knowledge was to be put to use to save the Fatherland and create a new race of Nordic Aryan Atlanteans. A new Messiah would come forward to lead the people to this goal." In his history of the SA (Mit ruhig festem Schritt, 1998 - With Firm and Steady Step), Wilfred von Oven, Joseph Goebbels' press adjutant from 1943 to 1945, confirmed that Pytheas' Thule was the historical Thule for the Thule Gesellschaft.


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