Fascinating voyage of Pytheas, did he discover Iceland before the Vikings?

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The first person who was to set foot on the shores of the North Atlantic Island, now called Iceland, remains a mystery. However, it is known that human life began there long after all other habitable areas on earth were occupied. Prehistoric times are a field of archaeological research in other countries, but in Iceland there are no known remains that can indicate human habitation until several centuries. The oldest remains found to date in Iceland are some Roman coins stamped between 270 and 305 A.D., sailors drifted to Iceland from the British Isles around 300 A.D. when Britain was under Roman rule. So far, no other artifacts or evidence of human habitation have been found that could indicate a Roman or anyone else’s visit to Iceland during this time. It is clear that the colonization of Iceland required ships and certain skills in navigation. The sea around the remote island kept it isolated even after the development of coastal shipping and other limited sea voyages to neighbouring countries. It is a common knowledge that Norse settlers came to Iceland in the ninth century, and that Irish monks likely lived on the island before that. However, new research suggests that the ancient Greeks discovered the northern island before them.

In the oldest Greek and Roman literature, the northernmost island in the world is called Ultima Thule or Thule. The meaning of the word Thule is unknown. Thule’s enigmatic and complicated history begins in the fourth century BCE, when the ancient Greek explorer Pytheas left the port city of Massalia—now Marseille, France—in search of new trading opportunities in the Far North. Pytheas arrived at and mapped the coastline of Prettanikē—now the British Isles—and then boldly headed farther north into uncharted territory. And there the journey entered an unworldly realm. He is believed to have learned that within six-days of sailing north from Scotland’s northernmost cape was an island, which intrigued him to investigate its position. It is likely that the city of Massalia funded his explorations, providing ships, crew, and funds to enable him to research and explore the lands of the Mediterranean countries. If Pytheas had been given command of a battleship from the city of Massalia for his expedition, the ship would likely have been about 50 meters long, 6 meters wide, with two decks, about 3 meters laden and 100 to 200 ship crews. Such a vessel would be roughly 400 to 500 gross tonnes according to today’s measurements. This ship would therefore be larger and more seaworthy than the Santa Maria on which Columbus sailed to America and much larger than the Irish leather boats and Viking ships. It was believed that such a Greek warship would be fast, able to cover a distance of 150-160 km in 24 hours in the best sailing conditions. Available information confirms that, with such ship, it will be a 6-day journey for Pytheas from the northernmost tip of Scotland, which he calls Cape Orkas, to the Isle of Thule, which will be in the north of Scotland. Based on Pytheas’ measurements and calculations of the latitude of his position, it can be concluded that he has crossed the Arctic Circle.

After his journey, Pytheas described his voyages from his hometown of Massalia, to Britain and beyond on a complete report titled “On the Ocean.” But the report is completely lost —most likely during the fires that destroyed the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Only odd bits and references survive, mostly in the work of others, especially those that strongly oppose the content of the Pytheas Report: views that contradicted the traditional ideas of the Greek philosophers of the time about the world. But The fact that great scholars of antiquity such as Eratosthenes and Hipparchus treated his scientific observations as reliable, adds to the credibility of his story.

The scientific community has been struggling for centuries to match the northernmost destination of the famous Greek explorer with an exact location, guided by the rare surviving quotations of his work in later writers such as Strabo, Plinius, and Diodorus of Sicily. References to his voyage by these later authors have inspired many others to try and locate Thule exactly. Most people take it as Iceland, others Norway or the Shetlands. An expert in historical linguistics, Dr. Andrew Charles Breeze, attempts to pinpoint the mythical island of Thule. The philology professor at the University of Pamplona, Spain, known for his expertise in historical linguistics, appears convinced that the key to solving the mystery is a linguistic approach to the matter, and contends that the ancient name given to the island by Pytheas has been corrupted through the centuries to the point that it became unintelligible. He points out that Thule meaningless, but with adding the letters M and E between the word’s two syllables, the result is Thymele. In Greek, Thymele means altar and is a common word in ancient Greek. In his paper, the professor supports the idea that “the term Thymele was suggested by the island’s south coast, with high and level cliffs of volcanic rock, seen as resembling a Greek temple’s thymele or altar; perhaps the one in the temple (excavated after World War II) at Marseille, where Pytheas came from. Probably, when Pytheas and his men set eyes on Iceland for the first time, seeing clouds rise above it and columns of ash and smoke from volcanoes like Hekla, it reminded him of a temple altar.

Finally, it has been suggested that Pytheas never sailed to Thule, but only learned of the six-days voyage from Scotland to Thule while sailing along the coast of the British Isles. Pytheas might not even have been the first continental European to arrive on the shores of Britain and Iceland. But he was the first Mediterranean explorer to meticulously explore and describe what he saw in Britain, and the rest of the northern shores of Europe, including islands and the mainland itself. His observations on the way of life of the tribes who lived in these places offered invaluable information to ancient scholars, who used his work as the foundation for their own books. Pytheas was not only an extremely courageous traveller but also a recognized scientist, philosopher, and an accomplished astronomer. He used measurements of the shadow from the Sun to determine its altitude and from there a location’s latitude; he observed the way the sky changed as he moved North, and he speculated on the connection between the ocean tides and the Moon. Pytheas’ scientific talents also made possible one of the first accurate long-distance measurements in the entire world. For example, he not only successfully estimated that Britain’s circumference is approximately 4,000 miles (6,500 km) but he also managed to measure the distance from the northern reaches of Scotland all the way south to his hometown of Massalia. The geographer accomplished this by means of measuring how far he had travelled in one day and keeping a count of exactly how long it had taken him to reach his objective. His estimate, of approximately 1,050 miles (1,690 km) is simply staggering since the distance between the northernmost corner of Britain to today’s city of Marseille is exactly 1,120 miles (1,800 km).

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