in search of Thule
I went in search of Thule, (pronounced too-lee) with Joanna Kavenna, thanks to the British Council library, Colombo. I wish the Council offered a facility to place our comments on the books we read, which could be useful for the other library members and even other readers around the world. The book is 'The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule' published in 2005, but had taken nine years to reach us here, perhaps longer than it had taken Kavenna to search for Thule.
Kavenna speaks about many people who had gone in search of Thule before her. It all began probably with Pytheas, the Greek explorer who travelled north around 330 BC to 320 BC. But Strabo the geographer, and historian considered Pytheas as "an arch falsifier'. Since these early times, the elusive Thule has interested many explorers and we are still searching.
Ultima Thule came to be considered as any distant place or unknown region or the extreme limit of travel and discovery during the early days when modes of travel were very limited. Yet today Thule means many things to many people, which has no relevance to the original Thule or the Ultima Thule. There are many business organizations using Thule as a brand name or for their business ventures and the United States named an air force base also as Thule. There is a Swedish rock band calling themselves Ultima Thule.
Among the more recent researchers is Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher, ecologist and mountaineer, who climbed mountains but did not consider it important to reach the summit or count the number of summits he had reached.
This book is not just about a journey through to the North Pole, but also an odyssey through the writings of all the philosophers, historians, adventurers, writers and poets who had visited all the spaces which had been considered or identified as Thule.
We meet Hyperboreans, "a mythical ancient tribe of the far North, a people who knew neither war nor injustice, neither age nor disease; they supped with divinities and invited Apollo over for a dance and dinner...an immortal race.." The myth of Hyperboreans had gradually merged with Thule.
The Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen went in search of Thule, as the ultimate limit of human exploration, the Ultima Thule, while on his expedition to conquer the Arctic.
She writes of gaps in the old myth of Thule, which "meant that Thule could be formed and reformed, depending on your anxieties and predilections.... a myth that could be made to fit, tailored and snipped at the edges, parts of it swept away....". How true this could be of all myths that have come down to us, and how true about human history too, we are making it fit what ever frame we want. Kavanna hints at the Germans who formed the Thule Society and tried to claim that Thule as the Pure Land, of the pure Aryans.
The author met the Sámi, who were more often called the Lapps, in Karasjok, a village by the Finnish border. "We were never Aryans. But our ancestors were in these regions for thousands of years, even before the Nordic tribes came." These people have also been called, Wildlappmanni, Scrithinfini, Scritobini and Screrefinni, and had been mentioned by Tacitus and Procopius.
The first post-independent president of Estonia, Lennart Meri, who rekindled the argument that Pytheas had not gone North, but arrived at the Gulf of Finland and that Thule is Estonia. He believes that Pytheas was referring to a meteorite which had fallen on Estonia and the resultant conflagration. The place where 'the sun went to rest'. In Estonian, Tuli means 'fire'! Meri believes it fell on the island Saaremaa where a lake was formed. For President Meri "Thule had been a thing, not a place.....it was an event when the sun fell from the sky." For it was a "piece of national memory, a national dream, forgotten during the [German] occupation."
Kavanna probably found her Thule, in the "languid summer evenings in Iceland,... a nature church, with everyone bowing to the scenery, ...with a cult of silence of pure white plains and unpopulated mountains..."
There were others who wanted to shift Thule further North, to Greenland. In 1910 Knud Rasmussen had established a trading post in Greenland and called it Thule, and the people who lived there as Thule Inuit. Then with the start of the Cold war, the U.S. built an Air base at Thule, realizing that it was equidistant between New York and Moscow.
The search for Thule "...was simply to satisfy humanity's thirst for knowledge....the spirit of humanity will never rest till every spot of these regions has been trodden, till every enigma has been solved". That is the story of mankind. "Thule represented all the explorers and writers imagining and traveling and trying to understand".
Kavenna's last stop was Svalbard (former Spitsbergen). The very strict rules and regulations to protect the country, her environment, natural resources and all life, as enforced in Svalbard is a lesson for all of us, all over the world, and we could really have our own Thule then. "The edicts were so strict that Svalabard became an invented reality,.....the Governor had environmental necessity on his side, sacrificing the interests of humans to the abiding beauty of the rocks..."
In the past historians, adventurers, scientists searched for Thule. Today the scientists in Thule (Svalabard) are trying to calculate the future, says Joanna Kavanna at the end of her own adventure, perhaps in search of her own Thule. We would never know if Pytheas invented Thule to fill the empty space in all our minds or if Thule had ever existed.