In 1893, Sir Clement Markham, the noted British historian, published an article entitled "Pytheas, the Discoverer of Britain."
The article attracted world-wide interest because, based on ancient writings, it claimed that a Greek navigator from the colony
of Massalia (today's Marseilles) had circumnavigated Britain in the Fourth Century B.C., had "traveled all over it on foot"
and had written a detailed account of his travels. Furthermore, Pytheas reported sailing northwest of the British Isles for
six days until "an ocean of slush ice and fog so thick one could not sail through" forced him to turn back. During those six
days, aided by the west-flowing off shore currents, could he have gone beyond Iceland to the shores of Greenland? During the
reign of Alexander the Great?
Contrary to the stories told during the dark ages, the doctrine of a spherical earth was common knowledge among the educated
Greeks of the time of Pytheas; and even earlier, among the Babylonians. Around 532 BC, Pythagoras was one of the first to
record that both the earth and its universe are spherical in shape. Later Aristotle, during the time of Pytheas, stated that
the earth's mass is spherical in shape and pointed out: "... those mathematicians who try to compute the circumference of
the Earth say that it is about 400,000 stadia."
Polybius, a Greek historian writing a century after Pytheas, noted that Pytheas, not a wealthy man, must have depended
on the patronage of a wealthy Greek merchant to acquire, outfit and provision his ship. That merchant was undoubtedly interested
in tin ("kassiteros" in Greek) which, when blended with copper, produced the highly prized and valuable "bronze:" the metal
of choice in those years. Used to make all types of tools, coins and ornaments, it was especially prized for the production
of effective weapons that were highly prized by foot soldiers and their leaders.
For centuries, the Kasiterides Islands (British Isles) were well known to the Phoenicians as a principal source of tin.
Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian (484-425BC) had reported that their boats sailed through the Pillars of Hercules (Straits
of Gibraltar), then north along the coast of Gaut to an area now known as Cornwall, England. Pytheas decided to find these
islands on his own, to locate the fabled sources of tin and to search for new deposits. While, ostensibly, his purpose was
to bring back a load of tin for profit, Pytheas had the heart and mind of a true explorer. He was curious, he, wanted to see
and visit the islands of which he had heard rumors, to explore what lay beyond and to return and tell the world of his findings.
As history will be served, two additional attributes played an immense role. First and foremost, because of his training
as a mathematician and astronomer, Pytheas had acquired the important discipline of observing and recording his findings.
Second, as a ships navigator, he had mastered the use of the "Gnomon," an instrument described by Herodotus, borrowed from
the Phoenicians, and brought to Greece during the sixth century (about 575 B.C.) by one named Anaximander.
With it, the ancient navigators were able to navigate away from the sight of land and to perform the astounding calculations
about which we marvel today. In fact, Pytheas was the first person we know by name to have used it to calculate the latitude
of Massalia, which he found to be 43' 1 I' North, almost matching the true figure of 43' 18'North for modern day Marseilles.
The ability to record the precise location of different sites along his travels proved invaluable to him, helped him to establish
the accuracy of his log, and provided the proof needed for modern day historians to confirm his writings.
In order to avoid the Phoenicians, Pytheas reported sailing, slowly and carefully, for five full days from Massalia to
the Pillars of Hercules before turning north to the Kasiterides Isles. He stopped at many points along the way to explore
the area and to refresh the boat's water and provisions. He often traveled inland with his crew, recorded geographical features
and reported the customs and habits of the inhabitants in such detail that it led Sir Clement Markham to declare that Phyteas
was, indeed, the discoverer of Great Britain.
All types of events and strange stories were reported by Pytheas. One such "incredible" story, which he reported, told
him by the inhabitants of northern Scotland, was about the presence of a place to the north where there were only two or three
hours of night during parts of the year, and another place even further north where the sun shone all night long. Another,
was the practice of people living in log and clay houses, storing their grain underground because of the cold, and thrashing
their grain in barns or covered structures rather than on the open fields as was common in the warmer lands bordering the
Mediterranean. Common knowledge today, these stories were considered fantasy in those years.
Traveling north from Scotland, Pytheas encountered a cluster of small islands where he reported seeing large, boat-size
fish, lazily swimming on the surface and loudly blowing out sprays of water. Incredibly as this may have been to Pytheas and
his crew, who had probably never seen a whale before, such pods of whales are common to those waters. He reported sailing
six days northwest towards Iceland (Thule) where he encountered dense fog described as so thick and eerily quiet that the
ship and the sea seemed suspended in a void. He recorded the presence of water and slush ice that "binds all together, and
can be traveled neither on foot nor by boat". This condition would not permit him to go further and forced him to turn back.
It is significant to remember that the Gulf Stream brings a tremendous current of warm water from the Caribbean across
the Atlantic Ocean in a northeasterly direction until it meets the colder air and flow of the Arctic Sea, at which point it
starts its circle back to the west. It seems clear that the relatively short distance northwest from Scotland to Iceland,
compared to the much longer distance from Massalia to the Straits of Gibraltar, prompts one to speculate as to the distance
Pytheas could have sailed beyond Iceland. The five days of slow, cautious sailing from his home port of Massalia to the southern
tip of Spain, covering a distance of about 600 nautical miles, when compared to his longer sail of six days, northwest, towards
Iceland (approximately 500 nautical miles) at a rate of approximately 240 nautical miles per day, would have placed him far
beyond Iceland. When one factors in the push he would have received from the west flowing currents of the Gulf Stream and
the additional benefit of not having to worry about the Phoenicians, we can reasonably surmise that he was close to the shores
of Greenland before the fog and slush ice turned him back. On a clear day he would have been able to see the mountains of
Greenland, to wonder about its inhabitants, and, perhaps, to speculate on the presence of tin. Not until the beginning of
the 20th century and to Arctic explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Vilhjalmur Stefansson were we able to explain and confirm
his descriptions of the many strange and fascinating accounts he had experienced including the strange mixture of fog, air,
ice and water in those wild, windy and frigid seas.
How devastated he must have been when he returned to Massalia to report these wondrous findings only to be greeted with
disbelief and scorn. The writers and historians were content in their dated knowledge that since the ocean ceases being liquid
at such far northern latitudes, there is no way anyone can sail north of Scotland, unless he had an ice boat. Yet, we know
today that he was describing the conditions of that region and the inhabitants of those lands.
Most people argue that it was the Norseman, Lief Ericson, or the Genoese, Christopher Columbus, who should be given credit
for first probing the shores of the "new world." But perhaps it was a much earlier explorer-many, many centuries earlier-narned
Pytheas who deserves the honor. We do not know. But we do know, categorically, that Pytheas, the intrepid Greek sailor and
navigator from Massalia, deserves to join the ranks of Columbus, Ericson and the other great explorers of history. As for
myself, I am convinced that Pytheas traveled to the edge of the "new world" during the time of Alexander the Great!}