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The Last Kings of Thule: With the Polar Eskimos, as They Face Their Destiny

The Last Kings of Thule: With the Polar Eskimos, as They Face Their Destiny

About The Last Kings of Thule: With the Polar Eskimos, as They Face Their Destiny

The Last Kings of Thule – One can not know a country by simple science. It is an instrument too exact and too hard … Only the sailor knows the archipelago. So spoke Giono. Thus proceeded the geographer Jean Malaurie who, during twenty years, shares, during repeated missions, the hard life of the Eskimos in privileged places of the Straits of Behring in Greenland.

This rare book, translated into fifteen languages ​​- and which was the subject, under the same title, of a long film on French television – convinces us that ethnology, the science of man, is only possible at the cost of a long presence during which the observer, who is fluent in the language of the people studied, shares closely his activities and even his poverty.

This was the case of Jean Malaurie, chief of expedition at twenty-eight, whom the modesty of his financial means compelled, in this first and daring fourteen-month solitary wintering, to be hunter and driver of sledges; therefore, the intimate and obliged of the Eskimos. “I will be indebted all my life to those who were once called human animals to have been my second and true University.

They confirmed me in this tendency which is specific to them and which allows them to have such an immediate reasoning that it merges with intuition. “

Thus the author, now director of the Center for Arctic Studies in Higher Education and the C.N.R.S. A specialist in the sciences of the Earth, an anthropogeographer, Jean Malaurie makes us seize, in this classic of the polar literature, how an archaic people constitute a whole with the place that it lives, its ground, its climate and its fauna.

By sharing, day after day, the lives of these hunters of seals, walruses and bears, by eating their winter kiviaq, summer birds rotten under the stones, listening during the four months of the polar night their legends of a rare power of resurrection at the limit of surrealism, the reader participates in the life of Jean Malaurie.

In this sharp-eyed observer, surprisingly sensitive, we find the breath of a Father Hue and the emotion of a Jack London. But, a multiple expression of a vast culture, this singular book, without true kinship, undeniably creates a new genre.

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The Last Kings of Thule: With the Polar Eskimos, as They Face Their Destiny

The Last Kings of Thule: With the Polar Eskimos, as They Face Their Destiny


Thule as Tile on the Carta Marina of 1539 by Olaus Magnus, where it is shown located to the north west of the Orkney islands, with a “monster,seen in 1537”, a whale (“balena”), and an orca nearby.

Thule also spelled Thula, Thila, or Thyïlea , is, in classical European literature and maps, aregion in the far north. Though often considered to be an island inantiquity, modern interpretations of what was meant by Thule oftenidentify it as Norway, an identification supported by moderncalculations.

Other interpretations include Orkney, Shetland, andScandinavia. In the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Thule wasoften identified as Iceland or Greenland. Another suggested location isSaaremaa in the Baltic Sea.

The term ultima Thule in medievalgeographies denotes any distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world”. Sometimes it is used as a proper noun (Ultima Thule) as the Latin name for Greenland when Thule is used for Iceland.

Ancient geography

The Greek explorer Pytheas is the first to have written of Thule, doing so in his now lost work, On the Ocean, afterhis travels between 330 BC and 320 BC. He supposedly was sent out by the Greek city of Massalia to see wheretheir trade-goods were coming from.

Descriptions of some of his discoverieshave survived in the works of later,often skeptical, authors. Polybius in his Histories (c. 140 BC), Book XXXIV, cites Pytheas as one “who has ledmany people into error by saying that he traversed the whole of Britain on foot, giving the island a circumference of forty thousand stades, and telling us also about Thule, those regions in which there was no longer any proper landnor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jellyfish in which one can neither walk norsail, holding everything together, so to speak.”

Strabo in his Geography (c. 30), Book I, Chapter 4, mentions Thule in describing Eratosthenes’ calculation of “the breadth of the inhabited world” and notes that Pytheas says it “is a six days’ sail north of Britain, and is near the frozen sea.” But he then doubts this claim, writing that Pytheas has “been found, upon scrutiny, to be an arch falsifier, but the men who have seen Britain and Ierne (Ireland) do not mention Thule, though they speak of other islands, small ones, about Britain.”

Strabo adds the following in Book II, Chapter 5:

Now Pytheas of Massilia tells us that Thule, the most northerly of the Britannic Islands, is farthest north, and that there the circle of the summer tropic is the same as the Arctic Circle. But from the other writers I learn nothing on the subject—neither that there exists a certain island by the name of Thule, nor whether the northern regions are inhabitable up to the point where the summer tropic becomes the Arctic Circle.

Strabo ultimately concludes, in Book IV, Chapter 5, [10] “Concerning Thule, our historical information is still more uncertain, on account of its outside position; for Thule, of all the countries that are named, is set farthest north.”

Nearly a half century later, in 77, Pliny the Elder published his Natural History in which he also cites Pytheas’ claim (in Book II, Chapter 75) that Thule is a six-day sail north of Britain.

Then, when discussing the islands around Britain in Book IV, Chapter 16 [11], he writes: “The farthest of all, which are known and spoke of, is Thule; in which there be no nights at all, as we have declared, about mid-summer, namely when the Sun passes through the sign Cancer; and contrariwise no days in mid-winter: and each of these times they suppose, do last six months, all day, or all night.”

Finally, in refining the island’s location, he places it along the most northerly parallel of those he describes, writing in Book VI, Chapter 34, [12]: “Last of all is the Scythian parallel, from the Rhiphean hills into Thule: wherein (as we said) it is day and night continually by turns (for six months).”

The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela placed Thule north of Scythia.[13]

When scientists of the Institute of Geodesy and Geoinformation Science of the Technical University of Berlin were testing the antique maps of Ptolemy, they recognized a pattern of calculation mistakes which occurred if one tried to convert the old coordinates from Ptolemy into modern geographical coordinates. After correcting for the mistakes, the scientists mapped Ptolemy’s Thule to the Norwegian island Smøla.[5]

Other late classical writers and post-classical writers such as Orosius (384-420 A.D) and the Irish monk Dicuil (late 8th and early 9th century), describe Thule as being North and West of both Ireland and Britain.

Dicuil described Thule as being beyond islands that seem to be the Faroes, strongly suggesting Iceland. In the writings of the historian Procopius, from the first half of the 6th century, Thule is a large island in the north inhabited by twenty-five tribes. It is believed that Procopius is really talking about a part of Scandinavia, since several tribes are easily identified, including the Geats (Gautoi) in present-day Sweden and the Saami (Scrithiphini).

He also writes that when the Heruls returned, they passed the Varni and the Danes and then crossed the sea to Thule, where they settled beside the Geats.

Ancient literature

Virgil coined the term Ultima Thule (Georgics, 1. 30) meaning furthest land as a symbolic reference to denote a far-off land or an unattainable goal.[14]

The 1st century BC Greek astronomer Geminus of Rhodes claimed that the etymology of Thule came from an archaic word for the polar night phenomenon – “the place where the sun goes to rest”.[15] Dionysius Periegetes in his De situ habitabilis orbis also touched upon this subject[16] as did Martianus Capella.[17] Avienus in his ‘Ora Maritima’ added that during the summer on Thule night lasted only two hours, a clear reference to the midnight sun.[18]

Cleomedes referenced Pytheas’ journey to Thule, but added no new information.[19]

A novel in Greek by Antonius Diogenes entitled The Wonders Beyond Thule appeared c. AD 150 or earlier. Gerald N. Sandy, in the introduction to his translation of Photius’ ninth-century summary of the work,[] surmises that Thule was “probably Iceland.”

The Latin grammarian Gaius Julius Solinus in the 3rd century AD, wrote in his Polyhistor that Thule was a 5 days sail from Orkney:

…Ab Orcadibus Thylen usque quinque dierum ac noctium navigatio est; sed Thyle larga et diutina Pomona copiosa est.[20]

…Thyle, which was distant from Orkney by a voyage of five days and nights, was fruitful and abundant in the lasting yield of its crops.[20]

The 4th century Virgilian commentator Servius also believed that Thule sat close to Orkney:

…Thule; insula est Oceani inter septemtrionalem et occidentalem plagam, ultra Britanniam, iuxta Orcades et Hiberniam; in hac Thule cum sol in Cancro est, perpetui dies sine noctibus dicuntur…[21]

…Thule; an island in the Ocean between the northern and western zone, beyond Britain, near Orkney and Ireland; in this way Thule is with the sun in Cancer, in perpetual daylight without night, it is said…[21]

Early in the fifth century AD Claudian, in his poem, On the Fourth Consulship of the Emperor Honorius, Book VIII [22], rhapsodizes on the conquests of the emperor Theodosius I, declaring that the Orcades ran red with Saxon slaughter; Thule was warm with the blood of Picts; ice-bound Hibernia [Ireland] wept for the heaps of slain Scots.” This implies that Thule was Scotland. But in Against Rufinias, the Second Poem [23], Claudian writes of “Thule lying icebound beneath the pole-star.” Jordanes in his Getica also wrote that Thule sat under the pole-star.[24]

Over time the known world came to be viewed as bounded in the east by India and in the west by Thule, as expressed in the Consolation of Philosophy (III, 203 = metrus V, v. 7) by Boethius.

For though the earth, as far as India’s shore, tremble before the laws you give, though Thule bow to your service on earth’s farthest bounds, yet if thou canst not drive away black cares, if thou canst not put to flight complaints, then is no true power thine.[]

The Roman historian Tacitus, in his book chronicling the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, describes how the Romans knew that Britain (which Agricola was commander of) was an island. He writes of a Roman ship that circumnavigated Britain, and discovered the Orkney islands and says the ship’s crew even sighted Thule. However their orders were not to explore there, as winter was at hand.[25]

Seneca the Younger writes of a day when new lands will be discovered past Thule.[26] This was later quoted widely in the context of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.[27]

Inhabitants of Thule

The inhabitants or people of Thule are described in most detail by Strabo in his Geographica, having preserved fragments of the account of Pytheas who was an alleged eye-witness in the 4th century BC:

…the people (of Thule) 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.[28]

Solinus in his Polyhistor repeated these descriptions, noting that the people of Thule had a fertile land where they grew a good production of crop and fruits.[29]

Claudian believed that the inhabitants of Thule were Picts.[30] This is supported by a physical description of the inhabitants of Thule by the Roman poet Silius Italicus, who wrote that the people of Thule were blue painted:

… the blue-painted native of Thule, when he fights, drives around the close-packed ranks in his scythe-bearing chariot.[31]

The Picts are often said to have derived their name from Latin pingere “to paint”; pictus, “painted”. Martial talks about “blue” and “painted Britons”,[32] just like Julius Caesar.[33]

Eustathius of Thessalonica in his 12th century commentary on the Iliad, wrote that the inhabitants of Thule were at war with a dwarf-like stature tribe only 20 fingers in height.[34] The American classical scholar Charles Anthon believed this legend may have been rooted in history (although exaggerated), if the dwarf or pygmy tribe were

interpreted as being a smaller aboriginal tribe of Britain the people on Thule had encountered.[35]

Middle Ages to nineteenth century

During the Middle Ages the name was used first of all to denote Iceland, such as by Dicuil, by the Anglo-Saxon monk Venerable Bede in De ratione temporum, by the Landnámabók, by the anonymous Historia Norwegie and by the German cleric Adam of Bremen in his Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church, where they cite ancient writers’ use of Thule but also new knowledge since the end of antiquity. All these authors also understood that other islands were situated to the north of Britain.

Petrarch in the 14th century wrote in his Epistolae familiares (or Familiar Letters) that Thule lay in the unknown regions of the far north-west.[36]

A madrigal by Thomas Weelkes entitled Thule from 1600, describes it thus: Thule, the period of cosmography,

Doth vaunt of Hecla, whose sulphureous fire Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky; Trinacrian Etna’s flames ascend not higher…[37]

Note: Hekla is an Icelandic volcano. Thule is referred to in Goethe’s poem “Der König in Thule” (1774), famously set to music by Franz Schubert (D 367, 1816), and in the collection Ultima Thule (1880) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Dream-Land” (1844) begins with the following stanza: By a route obscure and lonely, Haunted by ill angels only, Where an Eidolon, named Night, On a black throne reigns upright,

I have reached these lands but newly From an ultimate dim Thule – From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime, Out of Space – out of Time.

Modern use

A municipality in northern Greenland (Avannaa) was formerly named Thule after the mythical place. The Thule People, the predecessor of modern Inuit Greenlanders, were named after the Thule region. In 1953, Thule became Thule Air Base, operated by United States Air Force. The population was forced to resettle to Qaanaaq, 67 miles to the north[38] (76°31′50.21″N 68°42′36.13″W [39] only 840 NM from the North Pole).

Southern Thule is a collection of the three southernmost islands in the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, one of which is called Thule Island. The island group is a part of the British overseas territory of the United Kingdom and uninhabited.
The Scottish Gaelic for Iceland is “Innis Tile”, which means literally the “Isle of Thule”.[40] Ultima Thule was the title of the 1929 novel by Henry Handel Richardson, set in colonial Australia.

Additionally, Thule lends its name to the 69th element in the periodic table, Thulium.

Ultima Thule is also the name of a location in the Mammoth Cave system. It was formerly the terminus of the known-explorable southeastern (upstream) end of the passage called “Main Cave,” before discoveries made in 1908 by Ed Bishop and Max Kaemper showed an area accessible beyond it, now the location of the Violet City Entrance.

The Violet City Lantern tour offered at the cave passes through Ultima Thule near the conclusion of the route.

Popular Culture

Thule is used in Hal Foster’s work, Prince Valiant, as the homeland of the titular character. Nazi “Aryan” Thule

Nazi occultists believed in a historical Thule/Hyperborea as the ancient origin of the Aryan race. Much of this fascination was due to rumours surrounding the Oera Linda Book “found” by Cornelis Over de Linden during the 19th century. The Oera Linda Book was translated into German in 1933 and was favored by Heinrich Himmler.

The book has since been thoroughly discredited. Professor of Frisian Language and Literature Goffe Jensma wrote that the three authors of the translation intended it “to be a temporary hoax to fool some nationalist Frisians and orthodox Christians and as an experiential exemplary exercise in reading the Holy Bible in a non-fundamentalist, symbolical way.”[41]

The Traditionalist School expositor Rene Guenon believed in the existence of ancient Thule on “initiatic grounds” “alone”. According to its emblem, the Thule Society was founded on August 18, 1918.[42] It had close links to the Deutsche Arbeiter Partei (DAP), later the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, the Nazi party).

One of its three founding members was Lanz von Liebenfels (1874–1954). In his biography of Liebenfels (Der Mann, der Hitler die Ideen gab, Munich 1985), the Viennese psychologist and author Wilhelm Dahm wrote: “The Thule Gesellschaft name originated from mythical Thule, a Nordic equivalent of the vanished culture of Atlantis.

A race of giant supermen lived in Thule, linked into the Cosmos through magical powers. They had psychic and technological energies far exceeding the technical achievements of the 20th century.

This knowledge was to be put to use to save the Fatherland and create a new race of Nordic Aryan Atlanteans. A new Messiah would come forward to lead the people to this goal.”

In his history of the SA (Mit ruhig festem Schritt, 1998), Wilfred von Oven, Joseph Goebbels’ press adjutant from 1943 to 1945, confirmed that Pytheas’ Thule was the historical Thule for the Thule Gesellschaft.





[4] Bostock & Riley (1893) page 352 (on “Chapter 30 (16) – Britannia”) assert: “Opinions as to the identity of ancient Thule have been numerous in the extreme.” The notes on Book IV of Pliny in an 1829 translation into French by Ajasson de Grandsagne mention six, which are taken word-for-word in translation by Bostock & Riley (their words in quotes): ―

• “That Thule is the island of Iceland.” Burton (1875) pages 1, 25.

• “That it is either the Ferroe Group, or one of those islands.” Burton pages 22–23.

• “The notion of Ortelius, Farnaby, and Schœnning, that it is identical with Thylemark in Norway.” Burton page 25.

• “The opinion of Malte Brun, that the continental portion of Denmark is meant thereby, a part of which is to the present day called Thy or Thyland.” Fotheringham (1862) page 497.

• “The opinion of Rudbeck and of Calstron, borrowed originally from Procopius, that this is a general name for the whole of Scandinavia.” Grandsagne (1829) page 338: “L’idée de Rudbeck … et de Calstron … due originairement à Procope, qui … a prononcé nettement que sous ce nom était comprise toute la Scandinavie.” The reference is to Procopius Book III No. 4.

• “That of Gosselin, who thinks that under this name Mainland, the principal of the Shetland Islands, is meant. The reference to “Gosselin” or elsewhere “M. Gosselin” and his monumental work dating from the time of the French Revolution is much copied even though miscited. No such geographer existed; the “M.” must stand for Monsieur.

The Library of Congress catalog cites the work as: This four-volume work is rare and inaccessible today. The opinion is said to come from Volume I page 162 under the title Thulé.

Bostock and Riley continue: “It is by no means impossible that under the name of Thule two or more of these localities may have been meant, by different authors writing at distant periods and under different states of geographical knowledge.

It is also pretty generally acknowledged, as Parisot remarks, that the Thule mentioned by Ptolemy is identical with Thylemark in Norway.”

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