Pytheas : biography

Thule is described as an island of six days’ sailing north of Britain, near the frozen sea (pepēguia thalatta, "solidified sea").Geographica . Pliny adds that it has no nights at midsummer when the sun is passing through the sign of the crab (summer solstice), a reaffirmation that it is on the Arctic Circle. He adds that the crossing to Thule starts at the island of Berrice, "the largest of all", which may be Lewis in the outer Hebrides. If Berrice was in the outer Hebrides, the crossing would have brought Pytheas to the vicinity of Trondheim, Norway, explaining how he managed to miss the Skagerrak. If this is his route, in all likelihood he did not actually circumnavigate Britain, but returned along the coast of Germany, accounting for his somewhat larger perimeter.

Concerning the location of Thule, a discrepancy in data caused subsequent geographers some problems, and may be responsible for Ptolemy’s distortion of Scotland. Strabo reports that Eratosthenes places Thule at a parallel 11500 stadia (1305 miles, or 16.4°) north of the mouth of the Borysthenes. The parallel running through that mouth also passes through Celtica and is Pytheas’ base line. Using 3700 or 3800 stadia (approximately 420–430 miles or 5.3°-5.4°) north of Marseilles for a base line obtains a latitude of 64.8° or 64.9° for Thule, well short of the Arctic Circle. It is in fact the latitude of Trondheim, where Pytheas probably made land.

A statement by Geminus of Rhodes quotes On the Ocean as saying:; Geminus, Introduction to the Phenomena, vi.9. … the Barbarians showed us the place where the sun goes to rest. For it was the case that in these parts the nights were very short, in some places two, in others three hours long, so that the sun rose again a short time after it had set.

Nansen points out that according to this statement, Pytheas was there in person and that the 21- and 22-hour days must be the customary statement of latitude by length of longest day. He calculates the latitudes to be 64° 32′ and 65° 31′, supporting Hipparchus’ statement of the latitude of Thule. And yet Strabo says: Pytheas of Massalia tells us that Thule … is farthest north, and that there the circle of the summer tropic is the same as the ArcticPage 54. Circle.

Eratosthenes extends the latitudinal distance from Massalia to Celtica to 5000 stadia (7.1°), placing the base line in Normandy. The northernmost location cited in Britain at the Firth of Clyde is now northern Scotland. To get this country south of Britain to conform to Strabo’s interpretation of Pytheas, Ptolemy has to rotate Scotland by 90°.

The 5000 stadia must be discounted: it crosses the Borysthenes upriver near Kiev rather than at the mouth.The mouth was further north than it is today; even so, 48.4° is up near Dnepropetrovsk. The Greeks must be allowed some inaccuracy for their measurements. In any case damming has changed the river a great deal and a few thousand years has been enough to change the courses of many rivers. It does place Pytheas on the Arctic Circle, which in Norway is just south of the Lofoten islands. On the surface it appears that Eratosthenes altered the base line to pass through the northern extreme of Celtica. Pytheas, as related by Hipparchus, probably cited the place in Celtica where he first made land. If he used the same practice in Norway, Thule is at least the entire northwest coast of Norway from Trondheim to the Lofoten Islands.

The explorer, Richard Francis Burton, in his study of Thule points out that it has had many definitions over the centuries. Many more authors have written about it than remembered Pytheas. The question of the location of Pytheas’ Thule remains. The latitudes given by the ancient authors can be reconciled. The missing datum required to fix the location is longitude: "Manifestly we cannot rely upon the longitude.".

Pytheas crossed the waters northward from Berrice, in the north of the British Isles, but whether to starboard, larboard, or straight ahead is not known. From the time of the Roman Empire all the possibilities were suggested repeatedly by each generation of writers: Iceland, Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and later Greenland. A manuscript variant of a name in Pliny has abetted the Iceland theory: Nerigon instead of Berrice, which sounds like Norway. If one sails west from Norway one encounters Iceland. Burton himself espoused this theory.