ultima Thule: a distant, unknown region at the extreme limit of travel
Years ago I talked with Knud Rasmussen, the great Danish explorer, who in the early twenties had made a trip by dog team from Greenland around the Arctic rim to Nome, Alaska. In our library here at Bluie West Eight [Sondrestrom Air Base] I come on Rasmussen’s book, “Across Arctic America”, and I recall as I read that he told me once of an ice-free harbor on the northwest coast of Greenland, a place called Thule.
Ultima Thule, a mixed Latin/Greek name, became something of a news item at the start of 2019, when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by a Trans-Neptunian Object which at the time was elaborately designated (486958) 2014 MU69—and nicknamed Ultima Thule after a public competition had been launched to find something more catchy and memorable than a string of numbers and letters. The larger lobe of the contact binary object was designated Ultima; the smaller, Thule.* (The object has since been been through a formal naming process and has acquired a definitive name: Arrokoth.)
One of the great entertainments of the television reportage at the time was listening to journalists and scientists utterly failing to find a consistent pronunciation for those two little words. The one I give at the head of the post comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, but every syllable brings with it a pronunciation choice.
Is the first syllable “ull” or “ool”? Then is it “tim” or “teem”? And then “ah”, or a short neutral vowel? Do we start the next word with a “th” (as in thin) or use the Scandinavian pronunciation with a hard “t”? And then is it “ool” or “yule”? And finally, is the last vowel pronounced or not, and if pronounced, does the word end with “lee” or “lay”? So a conservative estimate suggests there are at least 2x2x2x2x2x3=96 options—no wonder I heard four or five during a single news broadcast.
The name is more than 2000 years old. Here’s the first occurrence we know of:
An deus immensi uenias maris ac tua nautae
Numina sola colant, tibi seruiat ultima Thule,
Teque sibi generum Tethys emat omnibus undis
In the introductory section to the Georgics, Virgil prays to a number of gods, including the deceased and deified Julius Caesar, and the quote above forms part of a list of godly things Caesar might get up to in the afterlife. One translation of the passage goes like this:
Or as the boundless ocean’s God thou come,
Sole dread of seamen, till far Thule bow
Before thee, and Tethys win thee to her son
With all her waves for dower
So Virgil is suggesting that Caesar might become an ocean god, with dominion over all the seas, even as far as the most distant land known to the Romans, “far Thule”.
The name Thule itself is 400 years older still, recorded by the Greek navigator Pythias of Massalia—he reported that, after sailing northwards for six days from Britain, he encountered a frozen sea and an island he named Thoule, in a place where there was no night at midsummer. Pythias’ original report is lost, and we know it only from the writings of later authors, many of whom didn’t believe what he said. Roman authors rendered the name as either Tyle or Thule—the latter version is the only one to have survived in English to the present day, but Tyle (and Tile) were still in use until the end of the Middle Ages. And Innis Tìle is still the name for Iceland in Scottish Gaelic.
There are lots of hypotheses about where Pytheas was when he encountered Thule, with Iceland being perhaps the favourite. But for mediaeval map makers, Thule was always somewhere else. Once any given island became a familiar place, it couldn’t possibly be Thule—so Thule became one of several imaginary islands that floated around early maps of the North Atlantic, always tantalizingly out of reach. The map at the head of this post shows one of its later incarnations (as Tile), on Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina of 1572, optimistically marked “Hec insula habet XXX millia populus et amplius“—”This island has more than 30,000 inhabitants”.
As the North Atlantic became better known, Thule gradually disappeared from the maps—only to resurface, improbably enough, in twentieth-century Greenland, as described in the quotation at the head of this post.
In 1910 Knud Rasmussen, the Danish explorer, set up a trading post near the settlement of Pituffik in North Star Bay, at 76½° north latitude on the west coast of Greenland. The area was sparsely inhabited by the most northerly group of Inuit in the world, the Inughuit, whom Rasmussen knew as “Polar Eskimos”. The trading post was officially named Cape York Station Thule, as a nod to its extreme northerly location, but it came to be known as just plain Thule. (Neither Inuktitut nor Danish uses the unvoiced dental fricative “th” sound, so Rasmussen would have pronounced the name with a hard “t”—ˈtuːliː. That pronunciation has carried over, particularly among American English speakers, to the names derived from Rasmussen’s Thule, detailed below.)
Rasmussen mounted numerous expeditions from his base at Thule. On the Second Thule Expedition in 1916 his team, along with Captain George Comer, excavated an archaeological site now called Comer’s Midden, in which they detected the first evidence of the ancestors of the Greenland Inuit people. These proto-Inuit are now called the Thule Culture in remembrance of Rasmussen’s nearby trading post.
Then, during the Second World War, Norwegian aviator Bernt Balchen was tasked with setting up American air bases in Greenland. Having once spoken with Rasmussen about Thule and North Star Bay, Balchen flew over the site in 1942 and identified it as an ideal location, with extensive gravel flats for runways and buildings, and a nearby deep-water harbour. He came back in 1951 to build Thule Air Base, which is still operational—take a look at their Newcomer’s Welcome Package (600KB pdf).
The construction of Thule Air Base drove the Inughuit out of their nearby villages, to resettle farther north in what is now the modern town of Qaanaaq. Which was fortunate, in a way, because in 1968 a B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons crashed in North Star Bay, contaminating their ancestral hunting grounds with plutonium.
Rasmussen, I think it’s safe to say, would not have been pleased.
Having explored the Thule connections in this post, next time I’ll write about words that are related to ultima.
* The choice of the name Thule has caused some controversy, because of its connection to a racist and anti-semitic occult organization called the Thule Society, popular among Nazis before the Second World War. Members believed that the island of Thule reported by Pytheas was a lost Aryan homeland in the far north. I’ve consigned them to a footnote. So should history.