Thule – A Mysterious Northern Land

A synopsis of the origins of the location of this enigmatic northern land. Where is Thule? Does it exist?

Thule?, Cedit:ultima0thule.blogspot

Thule?, Cedit:ultima0thule.blogspot

The northern hemisphere is usually associated with mystic, supernatural powers and atmospheric phemonena, such as the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. As in many of the north Atlantic Rim lands and islands, the expectation of the wondrous has inflamed the imaginations of many. Within this far-away, mysterious geography is the legend of a land called Thule (pronounced Too-lay).


Is Thule a real place, or a mystical land in the very far north? Tales of Thule came to be associated with Iceland. Thule/Iceland was described as a phenomenal land full of wonders such as hot springs and erupting volcanoes. Prior to the 19th century, many thought of this northern mystery as hell, purgatory being located within the raging volcanoes in the midst of a frozen wilderness. Conversely, after the 18th century, it came to be known as a land of plenty; fish were caught abundantly and there was plenty of grazing for the production of meat and butter. The legend of Thule has therefore been appraised as being both heaven and hell.

Pytheas of Marseilles

The originator of the legend of Thule was Pytheas of Marseilles, a Greek traveller and scientist, who gave the enigmatic land its name in the 4th century BCE. He was “reputed to have proposed the existence of an inhabited island six days sailing to the north of the British Isles and called it Thule” (O’Donoghue 2004).

An Inhabited Island?

This is where the anomaly of Thule lies. Iceland has no human prehistory. There are none of the megaliths of northern Europe – no reliable archaeological evidence of human habitation at all. Pytheas’ mysterious land, initially identified with Iceland, was in all probability part of the Shetlands, the Faroes or even Norway (Ibid). In the 1st century CE, the son-in-law of the Roman leader, Agricola, whose name was Tacitus, sighted land during his exploration of the northern seas. That he sighted the land only at a distance, as if through fog, lends a fabled mystique to this place. In his subsequent ancient text, the Agricola, Tacitus does not state whether this land was even explored.

A Few Suggestions

As the name of the most northern land supposedly reached in classical times, Thule was the land that all northern countries wished to acquire. Throughout the ages, many northern countries have claimed Thule as their own due to the evidence of classical sources. Because the land has been described as being six day’s sailing north of Pretannike (Britain) and one day’s sailing from the ‘Frozen Sea,’ various claimants to this land have been:

  • Greenland
  • Iceland
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • Norway
  • Baffin Island
  • Shetland
Reasonable Assumptions

All the above-mentioned countries could be contenders for Thule. For example, Iceland’s pack-ice was very close to its coast. Norway is also a very good option for Thule (think of Norway as ‘the north way’). Six days sailing could take a ship to the west coast of Norway from Britain in classical times. In Estonia, it is suggested that Thule is not a place but rather an event. Estonians believed that the word ‘Thule’ comes from the Estonian word for ‘fire.’ Perhaps Shetland is the answer. Foula Island, off the coast of mainland Shetland, can be seen from the Orcadian island of Papa Westray; or even Fair Isle, a tiny island situated between Orkney and Shetland. Or, perhaps Thule is a lost land such as Atlantis. The mystery continues.

Sources: Old Norse-Icelandic Literature Heather Donaghue The Classical Journal. The Problem of Pytheas’ Thule Ideas from an Island in the North

Copyright Doreen Taylor ©


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