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Dispecta est Thule

Published: 5th June 2020

By Shetland archivist, Brian Smith

In 1882 a committee in Lerwick was putting the final touches to their plan for the town’s new municipal building.  They wrote to George Burnett, the Lord Lyon King of Arms, to commission a coat of arms for the burgh.

Lyon worked hard, and in April presented the committee with his design: “Or, in sea proper a dragon ship vert under sail, oars in action, on a chief gules a battle axe argent.

“Above the shield”, he prescribed, “is placed a suitable helmet with a mantling gules doubled argent, and on a wreath of the proper liveries is set for the crest a raven proper.”

 And on an “escrol” above the raven Lyon placed a motto from the Roman poet Horace: Robur et æs triplex, “oak and triple brass”.

 The Lerwick committee liked the arms, but not the motto. They put their thinking caps on, and came up with an alternative. They chose a phrase from the historian Tacitus: Dispecta est Thule. These words, said the Shetland Times, meant “Thule was seen”, “and are the earliest referring to our islands to be found in literature”

They made a small mistake. Tacitus, discussing the career of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola, had written Dispecta est et Thule: even Thule was discerned. Tacitus was suggesting that Agricola, having seized Orkney, had then spotted the most northerly portion of the world. But Lerwick Town Council continued to use the slightly defective motto for the rest of its career.

Tacitus wasn’t the first person to refer to Thule. The explorer Pytheas had allegedly discussed it in the 4th century B.C.  His text has not survived, but the Greek geographer Strabo preserved parts of it, and poured scorn on it. Pytheas had said that Thule was an island six days sailing north of Britain where there was next-to-no sun at the summer solstice.

Other classical writers began to refer to Thule. Virgil imagined “ultima Thule”, the most distant part of the world, obeying Augustus. He imagined farthest Thule falling in conquest to the Roman hero.

And later Seneca the Younger predicted, gloomily, that there would come an epoch “when Ocean will loosen the bonds of the world and the earth lie open in its vastness …and Thule not be the farthest of lands (nec sit terris ultima Thule)”. Virgil regarded the conquest of Thule as desirable, but Seneca thought that it would be a symptom of tyranny.

It should be clear by now that Thule wasn’t always a place, whatever the Lerwick committee thought, especially in its Virgilian sense. But that hasn’t stopped scholars from searching for it.

In 2001 the prehistorian Barry Cunliffe embarked on a hunt for Thule in his The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek. (The book has the even more extraordinary subtitle The man who discovered Britain. Most people know that Britain had been inhabited for thousands of years when Pytheas came on the scene.)

Cunliffe thinks that Thule was Iceland, because Pytheas took six days to sail there from Britain. In other words, he regards Strabo’s conspectus of Pytheas as gospel truth.

He imagines that Pytheas called in at Shetland en route to the north, and headed for the north of Unst. “Perhaps”, he muses, “he returned from [Hermaness] to take shelter in the little homestead at the head of Burra Firth. … Would a man who had come so far and faced so much danger and discomfort turn back now, only six days away from the edge of the world, never to witness its celestial miracles? Surely not. Perhaps he returned south … making for one of the principal homesteads of Shetland, the walled settlement on the island in the loch of Clickhimin …”

I’m afraid that flights of fancy like these are typical of writers about Thule. Nowhere is that more true than in the work of Stan Wolfson. He is a classics master who many years ago decided that Tacitus’s Thule was Shetland, and spent years trying to prove it. The result was his Tacitus, Thule and Caledonia, published in 2008.

Wolfson revisited Tacitus’s phrase dispecta est et Thule, and argued that the Latin verb dispicere doesn’t mean “see” or “discern”, as everyone had thought. For Wolfson it means “inspect thoroughly”. In other words, Tacitus’s fleet didn’t just spot Shetland in the distance; they landed here and made a reconnaissance.

He went further. Tacitus’s Agricola contains a reference to “the Trucculensian harbour”, which had always puzzled commentators. Wolfson proposed an ingenious new reading of the passage: he said that it should read “Tulensem portum”, Thule harbour: in other words Lerwick.

Wolfson’s work has found favour in some quarters. Anthony Birley has accepted it wholesale in his great The Roman Government of Britain (2005). But others have been sceptical. In a recent article David Breeze and Alan Wilkins have cast doubt on Wolfson’s reinterpretation of dispicere, and they are unconvinced by his new reading of the passage about the harbour. Woodman and Kraus, in their new edition of the Agricola (2014), are equally unconvinced.

Sometimes Wolfson’s determination to place Romans in Shetland has comic results. The Roman poet Statius, writing in the first century C.E. about the emperor Domitian, spoke about “Thule round which the ebbing floodtide roars”. Wolfson says that that’s “a good description of Dunrossness”. And a century later the satirist Juvenal wrote about “the recently captured Orkneys and the Britons who are contented with the shortest of nights”. “People living in the Shetland Islands”, Wolfson comments, “are more than happy with the shortest nights, and Juvenal was aware of it”.

Wolfson is not a dispassionate scholar. He is passionate. For some reason he wants Tacitus’s army to visit Shetland, and he uses suspect arguments in favour of that thesis. Wolfson and Cunliffe should grasp that writers about Thule weren’t geographers, or historians, in any modern sense of those words. They were writing literature. A very good example of that must have been the lost late Greek “novel” by Antonius Diogenes, apparently from the 2nd century C.E., entitled “The wonders beyond Thule”.

Even when classical writers wrote like historians, they weren’t historians in our sense of the word. Claudian, who died around A.D. 404, spoke about how in his time Orkney “ran red with Saxon slaughter”, and “Thule was warm with the blood of Picts”. This conjunction of Orkney and Thule must derive from Tacitus, and not from any knowledge Claudian had of northern Scotland.

I return to the Lerwick committee of 1882. The members had no doubt that Thule was Shetland. From the sixteenth century onwards there had been a tendency among scholars to annex the mysterious island for their own nation. The English antiquary William Camden, writing in the 1580s, had looked carefully at Pytheas’ account. Pytheas said, according to Strabo, that Thule was a British island, and Camden liked the idea. As confirmation he pointed out that sailors sometimes called Shetland Thilinsel.

The idea caught on. In 1640 a masque was presented at the court of Charles I. Masquerade du Ciel, written by a Hebrew scholar and physician, and dedicated to the queen, portrayed disputes between Saturn and Mercury about Thule. King Charles had presented the isle to Mercury to live in, but Saturn claimed it. “Thule (with Poets, Ultima Thule)”, the author explained in his programme notes, “is a cold North Isle; most probably that now called Schetland”. He had been reading Camden.

It wasn’t long before people noticed that Foula, Shetland’s own mysterious island, sounded like Thule. In 1613 some officers, visiting Shetland after the fall of Earl Patrick to claim back the earldom lands for the crown, wrote that they had taken a big boat from Waas “to the ile Thoulay” as part of their business. A few years, later in a list of Shetland parishes, we find someone referring to “Thule, ane ile distant 16 myles fra the nearest land”.

As late as 1774 the Orkney scholar-minister George Low liked the idea. Foula, he said, “was the Thule of Tacitus which from its height was easily seen in the circumnavigation of the Orkneys by the Roman fleet. ... How nearly is the name still preserved!”

Thule was an idea rather than an island, except when it is a pub. It refers to a barely attainable territory or space, sometimes with unpleasant features as we near the present. William Godwin, in his novel Caleb Williams, imagines his hero, pursued by an archenemy,  escaping “to Hesperian darkness, and the shores of barbarian Thule”. In Edgar Alan Poe’s story “The pit and the pendulum”, about the Inquisition, the pit is “typical of hell, and regarded by rumor as the Ultima Thule of all their punishments”.

Most ghastly of all was the Nazi Thulegesellschaft, whose protégés thought that it was the Aryan homeland.

There is no use looking for Thule, as Barry Cunliffe and Stan Wolfson do. The Lerwick committee of 1882 fondly thought that it was Shetland, but it wasn’t. Thule is unattainable. As Vincent Cassidy once remarked, Thule’s position “on the fringe of the world was not absolutely secure. The chief reason for its insecurity was that, textually at least, the island was not firmly anchored.”

For a splendid account of how classical societies regarded the geography of the world, see James S. Romm, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought. Geography, exploration and fiction, Princeton 1992. Monique Mund-Dopchie, Ultima Thule: Histoire d’un lieu et genèse d’un mythe, Geneva 2009, looks at how generations of scholars and others have regarded the mysterious island.