Taissumani, April 25

Who Named Thule?


Thule Mountain, in northwestern Greenland. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Thule Mountain, in northwestern Greenland. (HARPER COLLECTION)

For those of you who thought Thule was just a car-top, luggage carrier, this column is for you.

The name Thule is usually a place name associated today with Greenland. But it is was not always so.

The name is steeped in antiquity. The first to use it was apparently the Greek explorer Pytheas, who sailed in search of this mythical northern land in the year 330 BC.

The Norwegian explorer and scholar Fridtjof Nansen, in his two-volume work on ancient knowledge of the north, In Northern Mists, describes Pytheas’s voyage succinctly:

“He first came to the north of Scotland, where the longest day was of eighteen hours, thence to Shetland with a longest day of nineteen hours, and then to a land beyond all, Thule, where the longest day was in one place twenty-one hours and in another twenty-two, and which extended northwards as far as the midnight sun and the Arctic Circle.”

Aware that other scholars doubted that Pytheas had made such an incredible journey, Nansen explained:

“There is nothing intrinsically impossible in the supposition that this remarkable explorer, who besides being an eminent astronomer must have been a capable seaman, had heard in the north of Scotland of an inhabited country still farther to the north, and then wished to visit this also.”

Nansen rules out Shetland and Iceland as being the location of what was called Thule, and settled on Norway as being the land that Pytheas had described. Others disagree, claiming that Thule initially referred to the Shetland Islands, and that the name eventually migrated farther north to Scandinavia.

The name itself is a mystery. Some claim a Celtic origin, some Germanic, and some an original Greek derivation. Often the reference was to Ultima Thule – roughly “farthest Thule.”

The name thereby became associated with the most isolated northern locations imaginable. As knowledge of the North Atlantic islands increased, largely through the adventures of the Norse, the name moved to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and eventually to Greenland.

In 1910, Knud Rasmussen founded a trading post in farthest northwestern Greenland, in an area so remote that Denmark had not yet claimed it. It was in fact a no-man’s land.

The purpose of the post was to trade with the Polar Inuit, the Inughuit, who had become dependent first on whalers and then on the American Robert Peary for the provision of trade goods. But Peary had left the region the previous year, never to return.

The Polar Inuit had a small settlement at Umanaq, on North Star Bay, near the base of the mountain that British explorers had called Mount Dundas, but is now known as Thule Mountain. A year before Rasmussen established his post, Greenlandic missionaries had built a Lutheran mission there.

Conventional wisdom has it that Knud Rasmussen named his station the Thule Station. (Its official name was Cape York Station, Thule.) Rasmussen takes the credit for the naming, in the introduction to his classic Across Arctic America:

“In 1910 I established… a station for trading and for study in North Greenland, and to it I gave the name of ‘Thule,’ because it was the most northerly post in the world, — literally, the Ultima Thule.”

But others would disagree with this claim, giving the credit to Rasmussen’s best friend and co-founder of the post, Peter Freuchen. In his autobiography, Vagrant Viking, Freuchen himself noted that “Knud thought of calling the place Knudsminde or Knudshope, but we agreed such a name would be pretentious.”

He then notes:

“I suggested Thule, from the expression ultima Thule which means, of course, north of everything and everybody. Knud agreed, and thus our station was named Thule, since to become world famous.”

Interestingly, though, in another autobiography, Arctic Adventure, Freuchen makes no such claim, referring only in passing to “… the Thule District – as it was named because it is the northernmost in the world…”

And so perhaps the jury will remain out on which of these two friends should have the credit for naming the world’s most northerly trading post in 1910.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].

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