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Did the ancient Greeks discover Iceland before the Vikings?

We know that Norse settlers came to Iceland in the ninth century, and that Irish monks likely lived on the island before that. However, new research suggests that the ancient Greeks discovered the northern island before the year 300 BC.

Andrew Breeze, a lecturer in the University of Navarra’s Department of Philology, says “the Greeks not only reached India with Alexander the Great, but also discovered Iceland with the explorer Pytheas”. In the latest issue of The Housman Society Journal, this expert in historical linguistics attempts to pinpoint the mythical island of Thule, discovered by the Greek explorer and geographer Pytheas.

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He explains how Pytheas describes a voyage across the Atlantic from Massalia (Marseilles) to an island with ice floes near it, which he called ‘Thule’ and which took six days to reach from Britain. Although the original text by Pytheas has been lost, references to his voyage by later authors (Diodorus of Sicily, Strabo, Pliny) have inspired many others to try and locate Thule exactly, as the northernmost point of his odyssey. “For centuries there has been debate on where Thule is. Most people take it as Iceland; others, the Faroes; others again, Norway or the Shetlands”, Dr Breeze explained.

According to Breeze, the key to unlocking the mystery is in a linguistic crux. “It seems that the name which Pytheas gave the island has been corrupted with time, and become unintelligible. ‘Thule’ (or ‘Thyle’) is meaningless; but, if we add the letters M and E between the word’s two syllables, the result is Thymele, and in Greek this means something: it signifies ‘altar, altar-slab’ and is common in the ancient language”, he argues.

In his article, Dr Breeze maintains that “the name Thymele ‘altar-slab’ could have been given by Pytheas thanks to the landscape of Iceland, with cliffs of volcanic rock resembling the massive altars of Greek temples. Probably, when Pytheas and his men set eyes on Iceland for the first time, seeing clouds rise above it and perhaps columns of ash and smoke from volcanoes like Hekla, it reminded him of a temple altar.” He adds that “in the ancient world an altar could be immense. The great altar of Pergamum was forty feet high, and others at Parium and Syracus were said to be six hundred feet long.” He thus has no doubts that ‘Thule’ or Thymele was Iceland. “Greeks all over the world can now feel proud that their nation was the first to tread Icelandic soil”, he concludes.

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Top Image: The island of Thule on the 16th century map Carta Marina

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