Thule

Is there, truly, a Thule?

Edgar Allan Poe thought so: in his “Dream-Land,” he begins,

By a route obscure and lonely, 
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE—Out of TIME.

But we know there is no place out of space, out of time. There is no end of the earth. There is no where so far away that we cannot displace it, misplace it, replace it. We can go so far that we want to go no farther, but we will always want others to go farther for us. And when we go around, we come back around.

In ancient days, the people living on the sea between Europe and Africa thought it was the middle of the earth – that’s what Mediterranean means – and the ends were as far away from that as one could get. In 325 BC, around the time that Alexander the Great was expanding the Greek empire eastward, a man named Pytheas, who lived in the western reaches of that empire, in Massalia (now Marseille, France), headed north to see who they were trading with. He reached, he said, the end of the earth, a place so cold that land, sea, and air were all one like a jelly, and in the middle of summer the sun barely set. Of course there were people there already.

Pytheas called the place Θούλη, which would transliterate into English as Thoúlē, but it passed to us by way of Latin to be Thule. Officially, by the dictionary, in English we say it like “thoo-lee” or “thew-lee” or sometimes “thool,” but many people assume the Th is “t” – which it is in languages that don’t have the “th” sound, such as Danish. Pytheas may or may not have made the name up; either way, no one really knows its origin or etymon.

Pytheas, as is now known, improved his travels overmuch in the telling. If he made it to his Thule at all, it was some island off Norway (or perhaps Estonia), still south of the Arctic Circle (as we know from the fact that the sun set at all in midsummer). Or he may just have written down some accounts collected in a tavern. But Thule held onto the popular imagination, calling us into the unknown. Poe would know:

Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;
Lakes that endlessly outspread
Their lone waters—lone and dead,—
Their still waters—still and chilly
With the snows of the lolling lily.

Does that sound like the idealized Canadian north, as represented by painters like Lawren Harris? I think it does.

But everyone knows Thule is in Greenland.

I certainly knew. I knew Thule was in Greenland long before I heard of its mythical connections. In fact, the first time I saw mention of Ultima Thule – it might have been in one of Umberto Eco’s novels – I thought, “Huh? Someone made some myths about this cold town in northern Greenland?”

Well, someone brought myths. Knud Rasmussen did. Knud Rasmussen was part Inuit, born and raised in south Greenland; he went to study down south in Europe, but came back to Greenland and made his name as an Arctic explorer. He gave the name Thule to his northernmost trading post. Of course there were people (Inughuit) already living in the area, as there had been for nearly four millennia; little point having a trading post if there’s no one to trade with. In 1912 Rasmussen set off from Thule to transit the ice cap at the north end of Greenland. He succeeded, and then came back around to Thule again.

Four decades later, the United States Air Force arrived to bring the Cold War to the cold world. The site they chose had people living there, so they chose another site some 60 miles north – not for the air base, for the people. They told them they had four days to get out, so they got out. And then the Americans built the air base where the people had been. 

We can go so far that we want to go no farther, but we will always want others to go farther for us.

Thule Air Base (said the Danish way, with a “t”) is still there. The place farther north where the Inughuit were made to move to is also still where it is. It is home to more than 600 people; it has stores, a hospital, a church, all ranged up a hillside between the sea ice below and the inland ice above and beyond. But there is less ice than there used to be. The world there is changing, rapidly and obviously, thanks to the doings of those of us far to the south. Still, though, it is never what we would call warm, and for four months of the year the average temperature is below –20°C. The forecast for tomorrow is –32°C all day, with zero hours of daylight. On February 13, the sun will rise, briefly, for the first time since October 27. It always comes back.

This town, which was once called New Thule, then just Thule, is now known as Qaanaaq. Indigenous place names in Greenland generally mean something – they name a land feature or a thing that happens there. But Qaanaaq? It seems to mean as much as Θούλη, which is to say, nothing other than the name of the place: “According to the language secretariat for Greenland,” writes one American who now lives in southern Greenland, “Qaanaaq is only a place name and has no literal meaning.” (But The Great Danish says it means ‘caves by the beach’.)

And when Qaanaaq goes, it comes back around, like Rasmussen and like us, and like the sun: It starts out with q at the back of the throat, comes forward to touch the tip of the tongue softly at n, and returns the same way to q. It, too, like Poe, has, at the end, 

wandered home but newly 
From this ultimate dim Thule.

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