Britannia, by William Camden

⌈The Thule of the Ancients.⌉

The Fortunate Islands. Big B BEYOND the Orcades, and above Britain, the old Scholiast upon Horace places the Fortunate Isles, which none but pious and just men are said to inhabit; a Place, celebrated by the Greek Poets for its pleasantness and fertility, and call’d by them the Elisian Fields. elysian But take another account of these Isles from Isacius Tzetzes, a fabulous Greek, in his Notes upon Lycophron. In the Ocean, is a British Island, between the west of Britain, and Thule towards the east. Thither (they say) the souls of the dead are transported. For on the shore of that Sea within which Britain lieth, there dwell certain fishermen, who are subject to the French, but accountable for no tribute, because (as they say) they ferry over the souls of the deceas’d. These fishermen return home, and sleep in the evening; but a little after, hear a rapping at their doors, and a voice calling them to their work. Upon that they presently rise and go to the shore, without any other business, and find boats ready for them, but none of their own, and no body in them; yet when they come on board and fall to their oars, they find the boats as heavy as if they were laden with men, though they see none. After one pull, they presently arrive at that British Island; which at other times, in Ships of their own, they hardly reach in a day and a night. When they come to land in the Island, they see no body, but hear the voice of those who receive their passengers, counting them by the stock of Father and Mother, and calling them singly according to the title of their Dignity, Employment, and Name. After they have unladed, they return back with one stroke. From hence, many take these to be the Islands of the Blessed. Caesar galley That of the poetical Geographer, mention’d by Muretus in his Various readings, is much of the same stamp, viz. that C. Julius Cæsar sail’d thither in a * * Triremi.great Gally with a hundred men on board, and was so much taken with the pleasantness of the place, that he would have settl’d there, but was thrust out by certain invisible Inhabitants, much against his will.

Thule. Solinus places Thule at five days sail from Orkney. An Island, very much celebrated by the Poets, who (as if it were the remotest part of the world) always use it to express a very great distance. Hence Virgil;

Tibi serviat ultima Thule.

Let utmost Thule own your boundless pow’r.


Terrarum ultima Thule.

Thule, thou utmost of the spacious earth.


De conducendo loquitur jam Rhetore Thule.

Nay, Thule’s self now courts her Orator.


Thulem procul axe remotam.

Thule far distant from the Pole.—

And in another place,

Ratibusque impervia Thule,

And Thule where no Ship durst ever steer.


Ignotam vincere Thulem.

To conquer Thule scarce yet known to Fame.

And Ammianus Marcellinus uses this Adage, Etiamsi apud Thulem moraretur; i.e. Tho’ his stay were at Thule; not to mention many others. But one thing I must observe, that Statius, in these Verses, uses Thule for Britain: Thule used Britain.

Cærulus haud aliter cum dimicat incola Thules,
Agmina falcifero circumvenit acta covino

Thus purple Thulians when to war they go,
In Chariots arm’d with Scythes surround the foe.

Also in his Sylvæ, Sylvae

Refluo circumsona gurgite Thule.

And Thule sounding with the neighbouring tide.

Suidas says, it took the name from Thule, a King of Egypt; Isidore, from the Sun; Reynerus Reineccius, from the Saxon word Tell, a limit, as if it were the bound or limit of the north and west. But Sinesius makes it a question, whether there is any such place as Thule; and our Giraldus says, that if there be such a place, it is not yet discover’d; and as for the learned, they vary in their Opinions about it. Many have thought Iseland (condemn’d to a cold Climate, and continual Winter) to be the Thule of the ancients. But Saxo Grammaticus, Crantzius, Milius, Jovius, and Peucerus, are of a contrary opinion. Lib.2. Belli Gothici. I know, Procopius has describ’d that vast Country of Scandia, under the name of Thule. Terrae Pithaeas AEquinoctial equinoctial But if that of the learned Gaspar Peucerus, in his Book De Terræ Dimensione, be true, that Schetland is by the Seamen call’d Thilensell (and I know no reason to except against his testimony) Thule is undoubtedly discover’d, and the Controversie at an end. Schetland. For this Schetland is an Island belonging to the Scots, encompass’d with others of less note; extremely cold, and expos’d on all hands to storms; where the Inhabitants like those of Iseland, use fish dried and pounded, for Bread. And though the north-Pole is not so elevated here, that it has Day continually for six Months together, as Pithæas of Marseilles has falsly said of Thule (for which he is justly reprehended by Strabo, for this is not the case of Iseland it self, where cold and winter are perpetual, and the cold scarce to be endur’d;) yet, that Schetland is the same with Thule, we may believe, First, from the situation of it in Ptolemy: For Thule is plac’d in the sixty third degree from the Æquinoctial by Ptolemy, and so is Schetland. call’d by some Hethland. Again, it lies between Scotland and Norway; where Saxo Grammaticus places Thule, as but two days sail from the point of Cathness; in which Distance Solinus also places it: And Tacitus says, that the Romans spy’d it afar off, as they sail’d by the Orcades in their voyage round Britain. Bergae Lastly, it faces the coast of Bergæ in Norway; and so lay Thule, according to Pomponius Mela, in which author the text is corruptly Belgarum littori, instead of Bergarum littori. For Bergæ, a City in Norway, lies over-against Shetland; and Pliny makes Bergos to be in this tract, which I take to be the small Country wherein Bergæ is seated; as none will deny that Norway is Pliny’s Nerigon.

Thus much may suffice concerning Thule, which is hid from us, as well as it was from the ancients, by Snow and Winter, as a certain Author expresses it. Neither was any of them able to say, which of the Northern Isles they meant, when they talk’d of Thule. As for the length of the Days in that unknown Island; Festus Avienus, where he treats of Britain, translates these Verses out of Dionysius concerning it:

Longa dehinc celeri si quis rate marmora currat,
Inveniet vasto surgentem gurgite Thulen,
Hic cum plaustra poli tangit Phœbeius ignis,
Nocte sub inlustri rota solis fomite flagrat
Continuo, clarumque diem nox æmula ducit

Hence urge your course along the watry road,
You’ll come where Thule swells above the flood.
Here Sol’s bright wheels, when near the Northern Pole,
They cut their way, still sparkle as they rowl.
Not here vain men expect the Light’s return,
But every Night’s a rival of the Morn.

Belgae Bergae Pomponius Mela hath made the same remark. Over-against the coast of the * * Bergæ.Belgae, lies Thule, an Island much celebrated both by the Greek Poets and by ours, by reason the days are very long there, and the nights very short. Though in winter the nights are dark as in other places, they are light in summer; for though the face of the Sun be not seen, the Sun is so much above the horizon, that his light is clearly visible. During the Solstice, there is no night at all; for the Sun being then higher, not only it’s light but the greatest part of it’s body is visible.

⌈As for Shetland (suppos’d before to be the ancient Thule) the nearest part of it is some fourscore miles from Orkney; and the Sea between them is very turbulent and stormy. Of those that are properly called Isles, there are about forty six, with forty Holms, and thirty Rocks; all which go under the general name of Shetland; though each of them has also its particular name. About twenty six are inhabited; others (though large enough) are only made use of for feeding of Cattle. Many of the Gentry came from Scotland, and settled here: but the common people that are natives, are descended from the Norvegians, and commonly speak a corrupt Norse tongue, called Norn. They are generally healthful; living commonly to five, six, or sevenscore years of age. lifespan There are several Obelisks still standing; and many old Fabricks, which are said to have been built by the Picts. They are in the fashion of Pyramids, with a winding pair of stairs within, to the top. Under them, they had Cells all vaulted over; and from the top of them they made a sign by fire, when there was any imminent danger. The ground is clean, and the Soil naturally inclines to a sandy clay. The Product of the Country, is mainly fish, butter, oyl, wool, feathers, beef, tallow, hides, stuff, stockings, with woollen-gloves, and garters. There have been seen at one time in Brassay-sound, fifteen hundred sail of Hollanders. After FaraFara. (an Island lying in the mid-way between Orkney and Shetland,) the first that appears is called Main-land; of which we have treated before.

The Country belongs to the Crown of Scotland; being part of the Stewartry of Orknay, and govern’d either by the Stewart or his Deputy. They have one Presbytery, which meets at Scalloway.⌉

The Sea above these Islands, is term’d the slow, frozen, and icy Sea;The Icy Sea, or Cronium. and is rough and almost unnavigable by reason of great flakes of Ice. It was also call’d Cronium, from Saturn;Saturn a Prisoner hereabouts. for the Ancients had a notion (as Plutarch writes) that Saturn was kept sleeping in a deep cave of Pumice-stone in some British Island hereabouts; that Jupiter had thrown him into a deep sleep, which serv’d instead of fetters; that the Birds brought him Ambrosia, which was so fragrant that all the place was perfum’d with it; and that many Spirits were here in attendance on him, by whom he was serv’d with great diligence and respect. This Fable, if I mistake not, points at the veins of metal (over which Saturn presided,) that lie in these Islands, and are useless only for want of wood to supply Furnaces.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52