Most people credit Norseman Lief Erikson or Genoese Christopher Columbus with first probing the shores of the ‘new world’. But it could be argued that an earlier explorer (by many centuries!) actually deserves the honor: PYTHEAS.
In the 4th Century B.C. this intrepid sailor, navigator, geographer and mathematician from Mediterranean Massalia (today’s Marseilles) set out on an extraordinary journey, his ostensible mission to find the islands beyond the Straits of Giibraltar (Hello, Britain!) to locate the source of tin, which when blended with copper became bronze, the metal of choice in those years. The wealthy merchant patrons of Pytheas would also have interest in amber, a gemstone created from fossilized tree resin and prized for its color and beauty, only to be found on far Northern shores.
Scholars of the time were more concerned with important matters: What happened to the sun at night? The stars in the daytime? No one knew, so Pytheas decided to find out, setting sail for the Atlantic Coast of Europe.
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When he finally landed on the shores of Britain, Pytheas encountered phenomena such as tides (unknown to the Mediterranean dweller) and deduced their connection to the moon. After which he circumnavigated the whole of Britain. Then, instead of heading home, he traveled further north to the frozen and unexplored world of the Arctic Circle, whose existence at that time was still theoretical. He eventually found himself on the mythical island of Thule, thought to be the ‘ultimate island before the beyond’.
Once again, Pytheas wound up in history (and Celtic song and folklore), documenting the wonders of this strange world where the sun would not set, and filing the first known report of the fabled ‘Midnight Sun’.
Of course, no one believed him.
This visually beautiful and fascinating film proves beyond a doubt that Pytheas did indeed witness all the marvels he’d claimed, that he did indeed accomplish the first voyages to Britain, the Baltic, and the Arctic Circle, and although his completed journal, ‘On the Ocean’ has been lost to the tides of time, excerpts of it—quoted or paraphrased by other authors such as Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Diodorus of Sicily—place him firmly in the pantheon of history’s most illustrious explorers.
With natural footage, ancient maps and texts, and interviews with leading international scholars, historians, Hellenists, philologists, geographers, mariners, archaeologists, astrophysicists, anthropologists and paleontologists (phew!), one is encouraged to realize the strong connection between magical, religious, and scientific beliefs. This film is essential viewing for the enquiring mind.
‘The Story of Pytheas’ Academic DVD $250. Price includes classroom screening and closed campus streaming.