From Metapedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Pytheas (Πυθέας), (ca. 380 BC – ca. 310 BC) was a Greek merchant, geographer and explorer from the Greek colony Massilia (today Marseille, France). He made a voyage of exploration to northwestern Europe around 325 BC. He probably travelled around a considerable part of Great Britain, circumnavigating it between 330 and 320 BC. Pytheas is the first person on record to describe the Midnight Sun, the aurora and polar ice, and the first to mention the name Britannia and Germanic tribes. He may have been the first Mediterranean observer to distinguish between the Germanic and Celtic "barbarian" peoples of northern and western Europe.[1]



Pytheas described his travels in a periplus titled On the Ocean (Περί τού Ωκεανού). It has not survived; only excerpts remain, quoted or paraphrased by later authors, most familiarly in Strabo[2] and Pliny's Natural History, who never saw Pytheas' text at firsthand.[3] Some of them, Polybius and Strabo, accused Pytheas of documenting a fictitious journey he could never have funded. His story is, however, geographically plausible. Pytheas estimated the circumference of Great Britain within 2.5% of modern estimates. There is some evidencereference required he used the Pole Star to fix latitude and understood the relationships between tides and phases of the Moon. In northern Spain, he studied the tides, and may have discovered that they are caused by the Moon. This discovery was known to Posidonius.

Pytheas was not the first person to sail up into the North Sea territories and around Great Britain. Trade between Gaul and Great Britain was routine; fishermen and others would travel to Orkney, Norway or Shetland. The Roman Avienus writing in the 4th century mentions an early Greek voyage, possibly from the 6th century BCE. A recent conjectural reconstruction of the journey Pytheas documented has him traveling from Marseille in succession to Bordeaux, Nantes, Land's End, Plymouth, the Isle of Man, Outer Hebrides, Orkney, Iceland, Great Britain's east coast, Kent, Helgoland, returning finally to Marseille.

The start of Pytheas's voyage is unknown. The Carthaginians supposedly had closed the Strait of Gibraltar to all ships from other nations. Some historians therefore believe that he travelled overland to the mouth of the Loire or the Garonne. Others believe that, to avoid the Carthaginian blockade, he may have stuck close to land and sailed only at night. It is also possible he took advantage of a temporary lapse in the blockade, known to have taken place around the time he travelled.

Cornwall was important because it was the main source of tin. Pytheas studied the production and processing of tin there. During his circumnavigation of Great Britain, he found that tides rose very high there. He recorded the local name of the islands in Greek as Prettanike, which Diodorus later rendered Pretannia. This supports theories that the coastal inhabitants of Cornwall may have called themselves Pretani or Priteni, 'Painted' or 'Tattooed' people, a term Romans Latinised as Picti (Picts). He is quoted as referring to the British Isles as the "Isles of the Pretani."

Pytheas visited an island six days sailing north of Great Britain, called Thule. It has been suggested that Thule may refer to Iceland or Greenland but parts of the Norwegian coast, Shetland and Faroe Islands have also been suggested by historians. Pytheas says Thule was an agricultural country that produced honey. Its inhabitants ate fruits and drank milk, and made a drink out of grain and honey. Unlike the people from Southern Europe, they had barns, and threshed their grain there rather than outside.

He said he was shown the place where the sun went to sleep, and he noted that the night in Thule was only two to three hours. One day further north the "congealed" sea began, he claimed. As Strabo says (as quoted in Chevallier 1984):

Pytheas also speaks of the waters around Thule and of those places where land properly speaking no longer exists, nor sea nor air, but a mixture of these things, like a "marine lung", in which it is said that earth and water and all things are in suspension as if this something was a link between all these elements, on which one can neither walk nor sail.

The term used for "marine lung" (which caused much discussion in the past) actually means jellyfish, and modern scientists believe that Pytheas here tried to describe the formation of pancake ice at the edge of the drift ice, where sea, slush, and ice mix, surrounded by fog. Besides its texture, the appearance[1] of pancake ice is perhaps reminiscent of a group of jellyfish.

After completing his survey of Great Britain, Pytheas travelled to the shallows on the continental North Sea coast. He may also have visited an island which was a source of amber. According to "The Natural History" by Pliny the Elder:

Pytheas says that the Gutones, a people of Germany, inhabit the shores of an estuary of the Ocean called Mentonomon, their territory extending a distance of six thousand stadia; that, at one day's sail from this territory, is the Isle of Abalus, upon the shores of which, amber is thrown up by the waves in spring, it being an excretion of the sea in a concrete form; as, also, that the inhabitants use this amber by way of fuel, and sell it to their neighbours, the Teutones.

The island could have been Helgoland, Zealand in the Baltic Sea or even the shores of Bay of Danzig, Sambia and or Curonian Lagoon which were historically the richest sources of amber in the North Europe (Pliny's Gutones might have been Germanic Goths or Balt Galindians).

Pytheas may have returned the way he came; or by land, following the Rhine and Rhône rivers.

Literary influence

It is clear that Pytheas' own writing, On the Ocean (Περί του Ωκεανού), which has not survived, was a central source of information to later periods, and possibly the only source. The astronomical author Geminus of Rhodes mentions a "Description of the Ocean". Marcianus, the scholiast on Apollonius of Rhodes, mentions a periodos gēs (περίοδος γῆς - a trip around the earth) or periplus (περίπλους - a sail around). As is common with ancient texts, multiple titles may represent a single source, for example, if a title refers to a section rather than the whole. Whether one or many, none of Pytheas' own writings remain, and extant accounts of his voyage are primarily contained in Strabo, Diodorus of Sicily and Pliny the Elder. Pytheas is also a key figure in Charles Olson's Maximus Poems.


  1. Todd, Malcolm (2004). The Early Germans. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2. ISBN 1-4051-1714-1. 
  2. Strabo, like Diodorus Siculus, quotes Pytheas through Poseidonius.
  3. The only ancient authors we know by name who saw Pytheas' text were Dicaearchus, Timaeus, Eratosthenes, Crates, Hipparchus, Polybius, Artemidorus and Posidonius, as Lionel Pearson remarked in reviewing Hans Joachim Mette, Pytheas von Massalia (Berlin: Gruyter) 1952, in Classical Philology 49.3 (July 1954), pp. 212-214.

Books and articles

  • Kavenna, Joanna (2006) The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, ISBN 0-670-03473-8
  • Chanin-Morris, R. (2005) "The Edge of the World", Independent
  • Cunliffe, B. (2002) The extraordinary voyage of Pytheas the Greek: The man who discovered Britain (revised ed.) Walker & Co ISBN 0-8027-1393-9 also in Penguin ISBN 0-14-200254-2
  • Hawkes, C.F.C. (1997) Pytheas: Europe and the Greek Explorers (Oxford:Blackwell)
  • Roseman, C. H. (1994) Pytheas of Massilia, On the ocean: Text, translation and commentary Ares Publishing ISBN 0-89005-545-9
  • Frye, J. & Frye H. (1985) North to Thule: An imagined narrative of the famous lost sea voyage of Pytheas of Massalia in the 4th century B.C. ISBN 0-912697-20-2
  • Chevallier, R. (1984) The Greco-Roman Conception of the North from Pytheas to Tacitus (in Arctic, vol. 37, no. 4, Dec. 1984, p. 341-346)
  • Stefansson, V (1940) Ultima Thule: Further Mysteries of the Arctic
Part of this article consists of modified text from Wikipedia, and the article is therefore licensed under GFDL.
Personal tools