AskDefine | Define Thule

Dictionary Definition



1 a town in northwestern Greenland; during World War II a United States naval base was built there
2 the geographical region believed by ancient geographers to be the northernmost land in the inhabited world [syn: ultima Thule]

User Contributed Dictionary


Proper noun

  1. the ancestors of the Canadian Inuit
  2. the northernmost location of the ancient world

Extensive Definition

Thule (IPA: /ˈθuːli/, enPR: thōōʹlē; Greek Θούλη, Thoulē; also called Thile, Tile, Tilla, Toolee, or Tylen) is in classical sources a place, usually an island. Ancient European descriptions and maps locate it either in the far north, often northern Great Britain, possibly the Orkneys or Shetland Islands, or Scandinavia, or, in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, in the west and north, often Iceland or Greenland. Another suggested location is Saaremaa in the Baltic Sea.
Ultima Thule in medieval geographies may also denote any distant place located beyond the "borders of the known world." Some people use 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, after his travels between 330 BC and 320 BC. He supposedly was sent out by the Greek city of Massalia to see where their trade-goods were coming from. Descriptions of some of his discoveries have survived in the works of later, often skeptical, authors.
For example Polybius in his Histories (c. 140 BC), Book XXXIV, cites Pytheas as one "who has led many 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 land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jellyfish in which one can neither walk nor sail, 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, "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, 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,: "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)."
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) 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

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."
Early in the fifth century AD Claudian, in his poem, On the Fourth Consulship of the Emperor Honorius, Book VIII, rhapsodizes on the conquests of the emperor Theodosius, declaring that the "Orcades [Orkney Islands] 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, Claudian writes of "Thule lying icebound beneath the pole-star."
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 (c. AD 524) 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, was describing how the Romans know that Britain (which Agricola was commander of) was an Island. He talks of how a Roman ship circumnavigated Britain, and discovered the Orkney Islands. He says the ship's crew even sighted Thule, but their orders were not to go there and explore, as winter was at hand.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

During the Middle Ages the name was sometimes used to denote Greenland, Svalbard, or Iceland, such as by Bremen's Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church, where he probably cites old writers' usage of Thule.
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.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.
The Andalusian merchant, that returns
Laden with cochineal and China dishes,
Reports in Spain how strangely Fogo burns
Amidst an ocean full of flying fishes.
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

Modern use

A municipality in North Greenland was formerly named Thule after the mythical place. The Thule People, a paleo-Eskimo culture and a predecessor of modern Inuit Greenlanders, was 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. Hunting activities here are described in the January 2006 National Geographic. (76 31'50.21"N, 68 42'36.13"W 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. The island group is overseas territory of the United Kingdom and uninhabited.
The Scottish Gaelic for Iceland is "Innis Tile", which means literally the "Isle of Thule".
Thule lends its name to the 69th element in the periodic table, Thulium.
In Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Ultima Thule is the name given to a location thought to be the terminus of the Main Cave passage, until a route through breakdown was pioneered in 1908 by Max Kaemper and his guide Ed Bishop. The name appears on Kaemper's 1908 map of Mammoth Cave. The Violet City Lantern Tour route passes through Ultima Thule near the very end of the tour.

"Aryan Thule"

Nazi mystics believed in a historical Thule/Hyperborea as the ancient origin of the Aryan race. 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 in 1919. It had close links to the Deutsche Arbeiter Partei (DAP), later the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, the Nazi party). One of its three founder 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 Dr 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." This was later used as the plot for the 1991 Doc Savage comic mini-series, The Monarch of Armageddon written by Mark Ellis and an Indiana Jones novel.
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