Did Pytheas of Massalia explore the Arctic more than 2,300 years ago?

Meet Pytheas of Massalia, a man who explored the Arctic more than 2,300 years ago

Like many other things in history, things aren’t always as it seems. Curiously, the first Arctic explorer is not who we think.

As it turns out, more than 2,300 years ago, a man called Pytheas of Massalia managed to travel to the Arctic circle and was able to return to tell the story. Pytheas was a navigator, geographer, astronomer, and the first Greek sailing from the Mediterranean Sea into the Atlantic.

However, when he returned home to ancient Greece,  no one believed what he had come across.

Pytheas of Massalia, commonly referred to as Pytheas, is the first known scientific explorer and reporter of the Arctic, polar ice, and countless Germanic tribes.

Pytheas is considered the person on Earth to describe the Midnight Sun— a natural phenomenon that occurs in the summer months in places north of the Arctic Circle when the sun remains visible at the local midnight.

Pytheas traveled where no other man dared. He was a man who lived at a time when the majority of the population believed that the sun was swept by a god into the sky.

His travels made him famous, and Pytheas managed to reach a place on Earth where the sun does not rise all winter.

A place covered by perpetual ice, where the oceans are frozen, and icebergs drift. He was describing the Arctic, but once in Greece, no one believed what he had seen.

He was also the man who introduced the idea of ‘Thule’ in the geographical world.

1599 map by Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz. Image Credit

Thule was considered to be a far-northern location in classical European literature and cartography. Some described it as Norway. In medieval geographies, the term ultima Thule denotes any distant place found to exist beyond the “borders of the known world.”

The history of Pytheas is a rich one, but despite its importance, most of his work and accounts have been lost in time.

Very little is known about his life.

He was, according to Strabo, “a poor man” who traveled north by his own means, without anyone helping him out financially.

Barry Cunliffe tells the story of the ancient Greek seafaring explorer Pytheas from Oxford Academic below:

A man who managed to overcome countless obstacles

If you look back around 2,300 years, you’ll understand why the people of ancient times doubted that a humble navigator could have managed everything Pytheas claimed he had done.

In his historic journey, he traveled north through the Strait of Gibraltar, a geographical location known as the Columns of Hercules at that time.

To cross it, he had to overcome the military blockade put in place by the Carthaginian army at that time.

Somehow, Pytheas and his crew managed to pass through the vast military barricade although nobody knows for sure how he did it.

Modern historians have their theories, although, in fact, they are nothing more than mere speculation.

Either way, the only explanation written by the authors of ancient times is that Pytheas was a liar and none of this ever really happened.

What Pytheas’ voyage may have looked like. Image Credit

Pytheas’ account of his return, however, suggests that somehow he succeeded.

Somehow he managed to sneak through the blockade of the Carthaginian army, continued his route to Britain, and-once there-became the first person to circumnavigate the island.

But little did he know that his journey had barely begun and that what would follow would forever earn him a place in history.

Once in Britain, Pytheas traveled where no man had gone before, beyond the limits of the known world.

Thule and the Arctic Circle

After more than six days traveling through unknown waters, Pytheas saw on the horizon an abrupt and rocky coastline of a land that he called Thule.

No one knows for sure what land he discovered— it could have been Iceland or Norway.

It would be more than a thousand years before another man tried to go where Pytheas had gone.

Pytheas’ testimony about the sky, however, suggests that he actually got near to the Arctic Circle.

The ancient explorer wrote how the stars changed position, reflecting the sky that we could see in the vicinity of Iceland.

Pytheas also wrote how the days got shorter as he traveled north.

He further stated that the land that he had arrived in was inhabited by people who had to fight for their lives in a place where the sun hardly gave light, and few plants and animals could survive.

“There is no night on the summer solstice,” Pytheas reported on his return from the land he called Thule.

This fact, for someone who lived in the fourth century on the shores of the Mediterranean, was an incredible revelation.

Writing about the mythical land of Thule and Pytheas’ journey Strabo wrote:

“… he might possibly seem to have made adequate use of the facts as regards the people who live close to the frozen zone, when he says that … the people 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.”  Via Wikipedia

Pytheas witnessed things that no Greek had ever seen.

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Featured image: Wikimedia Commons

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