In 300 BC the great explorer Pytheas told what would be interpreted by many as a fantastic urban legend of a far off land. After traveling abroad, the Greek explorer wrote about his discovery in an ancient text known as “The Ocean.” The Ocean depicted Britain as a thickly populated island with an unusually cold climate. The people were said to be unusually hospitable and gentle in manner, though with peculiar eating habits. When he returned to share his findings, Pytheas found himself oddly the target of derision amongst his colleagues who considered him a crackpot.
The Ocean is a long lost tome said to contain the only written testimony of the great explorer who discovered the land of the pale giants in the North. When he returned telling fantastic stories of the icy oceans and the land of peace and prosperity, many of his contemporaries relegated his findings to the same realm they would ordinarily cast things such as stories of the Gods and Atlantis. Pytheas was the first Greek to discover what would eventually become one of the greatest empires of the world. So why was it held in such contempt by so many of his fellow discoverers?
Up until the journey had been made to the icy coasts of Britain, the Greeks had only been made aware of the warm waters of the Mediterranean. The very notion of ice floating in the ocean was beyond preposterous to any sensible person of the day.
They weren’t all so skeptical, however. Shortly before the turn from BC to AD, the Greek historian Diodorus teamed up with the acclaimed mapmaker Strabo and they set off to prove the long lost island of Britain did indeed exist. Gathering up only the bravest and most foolhardy, they drew together a ship and set off in search of the long lost kingdom amidst howls of laughter and warnings that the journey would take them off the edge of the world.
So what can we learn today of the 7,000 mile journey of Pytheas and his fellow crewmen? Thule was considered the northernmost tip of the world by many even learned Greeks at the time. And so it was with a great deal of surprise later when the official announcement finally came that the long lost island of Britain did indeed exist along with the peculiar new world that came with it.
It seems the final lesson of the journey of Pytheas is that at the fringe of the current understanding of the universe there will always be those who pour on skepticism. In fact, this seems a healthy activity for any enlightened society (the Greeks did after all give us Plato and Socrates and was largely considered the seat of intellectual thought in many parts of the ancient world. And yet something so fantastic as a world beyond their own was considered too fantastic to ever be believed. Some things, it would seem, never change. And Terra Incognita will always be something to be laughed at.