The Other Greeks

I was underwhelmed by the approval of the Greek ‘master plan’ yesterday. Brussels loves the brink, the simulated edge of the precipice—but the financial markets know a rigged game when they see one—after all they are themselves competent and assiduous riggers (think Libor and Forex). As a result the euro bounced around the 1.14 position on the dollar, but it was mainly a dead cat bounce.

Two weeks of posturing from Greeks and Germans, the arrogance of British-educated Varoufakis versus the intransigence of Shäuble, while Alex and Angela wisely spared themselves for things to come. In the end, the Greeks are in the same boat as before, and they must be scratching their heads to work out what actually changed and why they voted this government in.

Radicals ain’t what they used to be.

Here’s a Greek radical for you—Pytheas of Massalia. I’m planning to travel to Ultima Thule in a couple of months, but I was mystified, if you excuse the pun, by the origin of the name. Thule sounded like a word from ancient Norse, not something coined by a Greek.

We’re going back in time two thousand three hundred years, to the city of Marseille, on the French Mediterranean coast, in search of a proper radical.

There is evidence that Pytheas sailed west through the Pillars of Hercules into the Mare Clausum of the Romans, even though Carthage imposed a naval blockade on the Straits of Gibraltar. His alternative, which some authors speculate on, would have been to travel by land to the north coast of France, and set sail from there.

However, there are accounts from Eratosthenes and others that refer to southern Spain and Portugal in the early part of the journey. Pytheas is considered the first man to link tidal action to the moon, although it’s hard to imagine that peasants who collected shellfish from beaches would have been unaware of the connection between full moon and spring tide.

The Greek explorer asserted that tides ended at the Cape of Sagres, in Portugal’s SW tip, which is clearly untrue—they ‘end’ at Gibraltar.

He also mentions that the journey from Hieron akrōtērion, or the sacred promontory, to Gades took five days. Gades, the Phoenician name for the city of Cadiz in SW Spain, is one hundred thirty nautical miles from Sagres, the sacred promontory of the Greeks.

The caravels of Columbus logged twenty to thirty leagues a day, so five days would be a stretch. The Greek and Roman trireme was capable of speeds between five and ten knots, so they would cover the distance in a maximum of twenty-six hours. Even considering an eight hour day, that’s still just over three days.

The sailing of ships from the great Mediterranean empires to Iberia is not notable, but Pytheas reached Great Britain, which is unusual but not unheard of—the Phoenicians visited the tin mines of Cornwall one thousand years earlier.

There are no surviving accounts of his journey, so the extent of his exploration of ancient Britain is unknown—even whether he circumnavigated it or traveled inland.

The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus, drawn 1527-39.

The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus, drawn 1527-39.

Debate has centered on the reported distances, measured in stadia. Just as Columbus did not understand he was using the wrong sea mile in his estimates, so too we are unable to accurately convert stadia into present-day measurements—we know one stadium was six hundred feet, but we don’t know the length of that foot.

The great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen made his own calculations of the journey of Pytheas, and concluded the Greek’s estimates of the perimeter of Britain were acceptable, based on the number of stadia sailed per day (560 rather than 1000).

If we use Nansen’s numbers, then Pytheas sailed about forty nautical miles per day—this would also suggest that the journey from Sagres to Cadiz would have taken him three days.

The further back in time we go, the harder it becomes to deal with the quantitative side of a sea voyage.

Decades before Vasco da Gama weighed anchor for India, the Portuguese had a detailed understanding of astronomic positioning along the north-south axis, and had drawn accurate maps to be used at sea. But in 300 b.c. the situation was rather different, and we rely on the sparse descriptive information available, faded by the sands of time.

The conjecture therefore is of an expedition that sailed north along the Iberian western shelf, negotiated the Bay of Biscay, and proceeded past the Irish Sea and northwest coast of Scotland, before heading east for Thule.

Inevitably, there is disagreement as to the location of Thule, the only consensus being that it was the land of the far north, where the sea is a mix of water and pancake ice.

In the first accurate(ish) chart of Scandinavia, made in the early sixteenth century, you will be able to spot Tile, the name given to Thule by the cartographer Olaus Magnus—you will find it by zooming the map above and exploring the islands to the east of Scotland.

I deliberately left this for you to do, because the map as a whole is beautiful—having said that, it does illustrate a different, more primitive level of marine cartography—by the first half of the XVIth century, sea creatures and monsters were gone from Portuguese maps.

The only problem with the island of Tile, or Thule, as marked on the Carta Marina, is it doesn’t exist. On the chart, the Faroe Islands lie northeast of Orkney, Thule to the northwest. In reality, Shetland is northeast of Orkney, and to the northwest are the Faroes.

What the chart actually shows is how poor the cartographic knowledge of the Northern North Sea was at that time.

Thule has variously been considered to be Shetland or Norway. In the Middle Ages, Iceland and Greenland were also candidates. Like other parts of the voyage of Pytheas, the exact location of Thule remains unknown.

It is more worthwhile, then, to remain with Ultima Thule, an apocryphal norseland where the sun shines forever in the summer and never shows in wintertime, a place of northern lights, whose people were described by Pytheas the Greek in words from his lost book.

…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…

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.


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