Pytheas (Πυθέας), ca. 380 – ca. 310 BC) was a Greek merchant, geographer
and explorer from the Greek colony Massilia Pytheas (Πυθέας), ca. 380 – ca. 310
BC) was a Greek merchant, geographer and explorer from the Greek colony Massilia
Pytheas (Πυθέας), ca. 380 – ca. 310 BC) was a Greek merchant, geographer and
explorer from the Greek colony Massilia (today Marseille, France). He made a
voyage of exploration to northwestern Europe around 325 BC. He may have
travelled around a considerable part of Great Britain, circumnavigating it
between 330 and 320 BC. Pytheas is the first person on record to describe the
Midnight Sun, the aurora and polar ice, the first to mention the name Britannia
and Germanic tribes and the one who introduced the idea of distant "Thule" to
the geographic imagination. He may have been the first Mediterranean observer to
distinguish between the Germanic and Celtic "barbarian" peoples of northern and
Pytheas described his travels in a periplus titled On the Ocean (Περὶ τοῦ
Ὠκεανοῦ). It has not survived; only excerpts remain, quoted or paraphrased by
later authors, most familiarly in Strabo and Pliny's Natural History, who
never saw Pytheas' text at firsthand. Some of them, Polybius and Strabo,
accused Pytheas of documenting a fictitious journey he could never have funded.
His story is, however, geographically plausible. Pytheas estimated the
circumference of Great Britain within 2.5% of modern estimates, and determined
latitude by the length of the shadow of the upright index of a sundial. He
also understood the relationships between tides and phases of the Moon. In
northern Spain, he studied the tides, and may have discovered that they are
caused by the Moon. This discovery was known to Posidonius.
Pytheas was not the first Mediterranean mariner to sail up into the North Sea
territories and around Great Britain. Trade between Gaul and Great Britain was
routine; fishermen and others would travel to Orkney, Norway or Shetland. The
Roman Avienus writing in the 4th century mentions an early Greek voyage,
possibly from the 6th century BC. A recent conjectural reconstruction of the
journey Pytheas documented has him traveling from Marseille in succession to
Bordeaux, Nantes, Land's End, Plymouth, the Isle of Man, Outer Hebrides, Orkney,
Iceland, Great Britain's east coast, Kent, Helgoland, returning finally to
The start of Pytheas's voyage is unknown. The Carthaginians supposedly had
closed the Strait of Gibraltar to all ships from other nations. Some historians
therefore believe that he travelled overland to the mouth of the Loire or the
Garonne. Others believe that, to avoid the Carthaginian blockade, he may have
stuck close to land and sailed only at night. It is also possible he took
advantage of a temporary lapse in the blockade, known to have taken place around
the time he travelled.
Cornwall was important because it was the main source of tin. Pytheas studied
the production and processing of tin there. During his circumnavigation of Great
Britain, he found that tides rose very high there. He recorded the local name of
the islands in Greek as Prettanike, which Diodorus later rendered Pretannia.
This supports theories that the coastal inhabitants of Cornwall may have called
themselves Pretani or Priteni, 'Painted' or 'Tattooed' people, a term Romans
Latinised as Picti (Picts). He is quoted as referring to the British Isles as
the "Isles of the Pretani."
Pytheas visited an island six days sailing north of Great Britain, called Thule.
It has been suggested that Thule may refer to Iceland or Greenland but parts of
the Norwegian coast, Shetland and Faroe Islands have also been suggested by
historians. Pytheas says Thule was an agricultural country that produced honey.
Its inhabitants ate fruits and drank milk, and made a drink out of grain and
honey. Unlike the people from Southern Europe, they had barns, and threshed
their grain there rather than outside.
He said he was shown the place where the sun went to sleep, and he noted that
the night in Thule was only two to three hours. One day further north the
"congealed" sea began, he claimed. As Strabo says (as quoted in Chevallier
Pytheas also speaks of the waters around Thule and of those places where land
properly speaking no longer exists, nor sea nor air, but a mixture of these
things, like a "marine lung", in which it is said that earth and water and all
things are in suspension as if this something was a link between all these
elements, on which one can neither walk nor sail.
The term used for "marine lung" (which caused much discussion in the past)
actually means jellyfish, and modern scientists believe that Pytheas here tried
to describe the formation of pancake ice at the edge of the drift ice, where
sea, slush, and ice mix, surrounded by fog. Besides its texture, the
appearance of pancake ice is perhaps reminiscent of a group of jellyfish.
Alternatively - it is not clear how precisely "those places" are related to the
"waters around Thule" - the description would fit with the Wadden Sea, a
phenomenon Pytheas subsequently encountered and which also must have been
entirely new to him.
After completing his survey of Great Britain, Pytheas travelled to the shallows
on the continental North Sea coast. He may also have visited an island which was
a source of amber or ambergris. According to "The Natural History" by Pliny the
Pytheas says that the Gutones, a people of Germany, inhabit the shores of an
estuary of the Ocean called Mentonomon, their territory extending a distance of
six thousand stadia; that, at one day's sail from this territory, is the Isle of
Abalus, upon the shores of which, amber is thrown up by the waves in spring, it
being an excretion of the sea in a concrete form; as, also, that the inhabitants
use this amber by way of fuel, and sell it to their neighbours, the Teutones.
The island could have been Helgoland, Zealand in the Baltic Sea or even the
shores of Bay of Gdansk, Sambia and or Curonian Lagoon which were historically
the richest sources of amber in the North Europe (Pliny's Gutones might have
been Germanic Goths[verification needed] or Balt Galindians).
Pytheas may have returned the way he came; or by land, following the Rhine and
It is clear that Pytheas' own writing, On the Ocean (Περί του Ωκεανού), which
has not survived, was a central source of information to later periods, and
possibly the only source. The astronomical author Geminus of Rhodes mentions a
"Description of the Ocean". Marcianus, the scholiast on Apollonius of Rhodes,
mentions a periodos gēs (περίοδος γῆς - a trip around the earth) or periplus (περίπλους
- a sail around). As is common with ancient texts, multiple titles may represent
a single source, for example, if a title refers to a section rather than the
whole. Whether one or many, none of Pytheas' own writings remain, and extant
accounts of his voyage are primarily contained in Strabo, Diodorus of Sicily and
Pliny the Elder. Pytheas is also a key figure in Charles Olson's Maximus Poems.
^ Todd, Malcolm (2004). The Early Germans. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2. ISBN
^ Strabo, like Diodorus Siculus, quotes Pytheas through Poseidonius.
^ The only ancient authors we know by name who saw Pytheas' text were
Dicaearchus, Timaeus, Eratosthenes, Crates, Hipparchus, Polybius, Artemidorus
and Posidonius, as Lionel Pearson remarked in reviewing Hans Joachim Mette,
Pytheas von Massalia (Berlin: Gruyter) 1952, in Classical Philology 49.3 (July
1954), pp. 212-214.
^ Strabo i, 4,4 & ii, 5,8 tells us, on the authority of Hipparchus, that Pytheas
reported the length of the shadow of a gnomon in his home town at noon on a
specified date, and that from this information Hipparchus concluded that
Marseille must be on the same latitude as Byzantium.
^ Strabo ii, 4,1.
This site and its contents are not affiliated, connected,
associated with or authorized by the individual, family,
friends, or trademarked entities utilizing any part or
the subject's entire name. Any official or affiliated
sites that are related to this subject will be hyper
linked below upon submission
and Evisum, Inc. review.
Please join us in our mission to incorporate America's Four United Republics discovery-based curriculum into the classroom of every primary and secondary school in the United States of America by July 2, 2026, the nation’s 250th birthday. , the United States of America: We The
People. Click Here