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Pytheas: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962


(Eloise McCaskill)


Pytheas of Massilia or Marseille (ca. 340-285 B.C.) was a Greek scientist
and navigator who, around the time of Alexander the Great, led the first known
great expedition of geographical discovery through the Strait of Gibraltar, past
Britain, and beyond the Arctic Circle, and gave the Mediterranean world its first
authentic information about the Far North. What we know of him has come to us
in fragments and garbled, and is usually through the medium of later geographi–
cal writers who were ridiculing his report. We have not the precise dates of
his birth, his celebrated voyage to "Thule", or his death. From the fact that
Aristotle does not mention him, but Aristotle's pupil Dicaearchus does, it may
be inferred that the explorations may be placed near or after the death of Aris–
totle in 322 B.C.
Even the scholars of antiquity who ridiculed the travel reports of Pytheas
admitted that he was a great astronomer. From the little that is known of him
he still stands in history as one of the world's greatest geographers. For it
was he who first marked places on the earth by dependable signs from the heavens.
He corrected Eudoxus, who believed that there was a real Pole Star in the heavens
— the one which we call the Pole Star. Pytheas determined that this star was
not at the Pole, and that there was in fact no star located precisely there. But
he did find three stars in that vicinity so placed that if you were to imagine
a fourth to complete the rectangle, then this imaginary star would be approximately
at the North Pole. That he was versatile is shown by his other achievements. He

EA-Biography. McCaskill: Pytheas

could build scientific instruments from the description of others and devise
new instruments of precision. He became the first in known history to measure
accurately the distance of a place from the equator; he fixed the latitude of
Massilia by instruments of which he was the inventor. He was the first among
the Greeks to arrive at any correct notion of the tides, and to note their con–
nection with the moon, and their periodic fluctuations.
It is central to the greatness of Pytheas that scholarship made no more
schoolman of him. In the true manner of Erik the Red and of Drake he steered
for open and unknown seas. It is today the considered verdict of students of
exploration and of navigation that "in spite of" being a true scientist he deserves
to rank as high among the practical sailors of the 4th century B.C. as ever any
sailor has ranked in his own time.
At the time of Pytheas, Massilia, originally a Phoenician trading post,
but since about 600 B.C. a Greek colony, was at the zenith of her wealth and
power. She was trading with the entire Hellenic world and northward deep into
present France. She is thought to have had treaties with nations of the interior;
certainly she was receiving commodities from the north, among them amber, tin
and copper, and furs. The traffic in tin was continuous and thriving, the metal
coming from the mines in Cornwall to the Breton coast and thence by river trans–
port to Massilia. By hearsay or through their commercial agents the Massilians
would then have had considerable knowledge of the British Isles and a desire for
further details. By their overland journeys and northern trade affiliations they
must also have had considerable information of the Baltic coast. Massilia also
maintained a strong army and a large navy, and possibly this military strength
enabled Pytheas to run the blockade of the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar), which
the Carthaginians maintained in jealous guard of their own Atlantic commerce.

EA-Biography. McCaskill: Pytheas

(It has been suggested that the blockade was at this time temporarily relaxed;
a;sp, that because Massilia had refrained from supporting the Sicilian Greeks
in their struggled with Carthage, this power may have winked at the exit of the
Massilian Greeks through the Strait.)
In any event, one suddenly hears, as Malye puts it, "that a Massilian navi–
gator, Pytheas, has doubled the famous Pillars of Hercules, has made without ob–
struction the longest voyage yet known from antiquity and then has returned to
Marseille without difficulty.... What had happened,"
Since Pytheas' own work or works are lost (two titles have come down to
us, On the Ocean and Description of the Earth. which may refer to the same work
and would indicate that he wrote a scientific and philosophical report rather than
a narrative of his explorations), we are dependent on short extracts which have
come to us through the borrowings of one contemporary and of two later scholars
whose works are also lost. The historian Timaeus (quoted frequently by Pliny) is
believed to have used a good deal of information direct from Pytheas.; and the
astronomers Eratosthenes and Hipparchus relied on his statements, as we know from
the criticism of Polybius two centuries after Pytheas. Not only are the writings
of Timaeus, Eratosthenes, and Hipparchus missing, but so also are those books of
Polybius which had the comments of Pytheas. Most of our information, therefore,
is from Strabo, three hundred years after Pytheas, who used extracts from his
predecessors. Strabo was often careless and inaccurate in his quotations; more–
over, he adopted the prejudices of Polybius against Pytheas, adding to them his
own general prejudices and his special dislike of the Massilian.
But, although Strabo refers to Pytheas chiefly for the purposes of discredit–
ing him as a geographer, he did acknowledge his soundness as a mathematician and
astronomer. It is incredible, therefore, that, thus prepared by his own studies

EA-Biography. McCaskill: Pytheas

and furnished with the knowledge of his time, Pytheas should not also have been
a scientific explorer and a close observer when he passed the Pillars of Hercules,
felt his way north along the various coasts of Europe, and returned to Massilia
in something between eight months and three years (the authorities differ). Mark–
ham says of him: "It is probable that there was no other man, in the days of Alex–
ander the Great, who could have prepared for a voyage of discovery by fixing the
exact latitude of his point of departure, and selecting correctly the star by
which he should shape his course."
His voyage may have been a government scientific and commercial expedition,
in which case the city of Massilia would have had no difficulty in furnishing
Pytheas with a worthy vessel or vessels and adequate equipment. Some consider
the ship to have been a trireme; others contend that biremes were more seaworthy
and would have been chosen. Markham says:
"A large Massilian ship was a good sea-boat, and well able to make a voyage
into the northern ocean, She would be from 150 to 170 feet long — the beam of
a merchant ship being a quarter, and of a warship one-eighth the length — a depth
of hold of 25 or 26 feet, and a draught of 10 to 12. Her tonnage would be 400 to
500, so that the ship of Pytheas was larger and more seaworthy than the crazy
little Santa Maria with which, eighteen hundred years afterwards, Columbus dis–
covered the New World."
Such ships were equipped with square sails. Through the auxiliary power of
their oars, they escaped dependence on the wind. In a large trireme there were
usually 54 bottom rowers, 58 middle, and 62 upper rowers, making 174 all told.
The officer in command of the rowers had a lieutenant, and an important person
on board was the piper, by whose music the rowers kept time. Pytheas, then, prob–
ably set out in one or more biremes or triremes, each with a crew of from one to

EA-Biography. McCaskill: Pytheas

two hundred men. It is not known when they sailed.
Leaving Massilia, Pytheas emerged from the Mediterranean through the Strait
of Gibraltar and proceeded to the Sacred Promontory (Cape St. Vincent, Portugal),
then the western limit of the districts properly known to the Greeks. He coasted
northward along the shore of Portugal, and made his first recorded time observa–
tion for a place where the longest day was 15 hours, therefore off Oporto. Usual–
ly the scholars agree upon his course as far as Cape Ortega. Then they differ
on whether he cut boldly across the Bay of Biscay or cautiously followed the
long shore route, for he is not definitely heard from until he reached the island
of Ushant, which he called Uxisama, off the Breton coast. Then he made for England.
Here again the authorities differ. Some think Pytheas went first to Kent
others consider it more probable that he followed the well-established route to
Land's End, Cornwall. Certain it is that he visited both places, for he gave
descriptions of the inhabitants and their manner of living, including their method
of extracting and processing tin, and their boats of wicker-work sewed over with
skin. Pytheas apparently circumnavigated Britain, for he describes the land as
being triangular in shape. As he goes northerly from Kent various points on his
route can be checked by remarks on the length of the day. The observation of a
longest day of 17 hours places him in the neighborhood of Flamborough Head. He
gave the longest day in the most northern part of Britian as 18 hours, and says
that there was a longest day of 19 hours in an inhabited country to the north of
Britain, which would be the Shetlands. From here he apparently set out on his north–
ward course to Thule, which from the surviving fragments would seem to be Iceland,
although this is disputed by various scholars. (For theories of meaning and de–
rivation of word Thule, see Stefansson, Ultima Thule , pp. 25-26. For a complete
discussion of the probabilities as to what Pytheas' Thule was and quoted transla–
tions of the fragments, see the same work.) Without here going into the various

EA-Biography. McCaskill: Pytheas

disputes, it may be mentioned that the other leading theory of his destination,
wupported by Nansen, is northern Norway.
Pytheas is said by Strabo and other writers, who either followed Strabo or
were using the same sources, to have reported Thule as lying north of Britain;
Iceland is north from Britain (a little west of north) while Norway is considered
east from northern Britain. Pytheas locates Thule on the Arctic Circle; Iceland
is so located. On the north coast of Iceland you have the midnight sun itself;
the Pytheas reports say that from Thule the midnight sun could be seen skimming
an ocean horizon to the north for several successive nights at midsummer; this
is as precise a description of what may be seen from the north coast of Iceland
as an intelligent modern traveler would give. Fitting Iceland, this description
does not fit Norway, which extends so far from south to north that there are
dark nights in midsummer at its southern tip while at the northern end the mid–
night sun is seen, not for several days, as given in the Pytheas records, but
for many weeks. Pytheas reports the frozen sea a day's sail north from Thule.
That is reasonable for Iceland; it is preposterous for Norway. Descriptions
linked with Pytheas have Thule rising from the sea, massive, striking. The Nor–
wegian coast would nowhere seem particularly striking to a man like Pytheas who
had already sailed past the Rock of Gibraltar and past other conspicuous Mediter–
ranean and Iberian headlands. But Iceland rises from the sea as a more striking
sight than any Pytheas could have seen in Europe.
The evidence seems conclusive that Pytheas either actually reached Iceland
or obtained from the inhabitants of northern Britain reliable information con–
cerning it. Other evidence too involved for brief discussion might indicate
that he visited both Iceland and Norway before embarking on his homeward course.
The eminence of Pytheas in the field of discovery, as shown by his Thule

EA-Biography. McCaskill: Pytheas

voyage, has never been questioned by anyone who did not first doubt whether
the voyage had been made at all. Today scholars are agreed that Pytheas really
made the journeys which he claimed to have made; doubts are no longer of him
but only concern the adequacy of the record that has been preserved to us.

Broche, Gaston E. Pyth e é as le Massaliote . Paris, 1935.

Malye, Jean "Pyth e é as," Bulletin de l'Association Guillaume Bud e é , Paris, Oct.

Markham, Clements R. "Pytheas the Discoverer of Britain." Geographical Journal ,
June 1893.

Nansen, Fridtjof In Northern Mists . New York, 1911.

Stefansson, V. Ultima Thule . New York, 1940.

Eloise McCaskill
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