Medical scientist proves hypothesis set by Lennart Meri

Priit Pullerits
, vanemtoimetaja
Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.

Not limited to liking what Lennart Meri wrote and published four decades back, medical scientist Raul Talvik believed it.

In his book «Hõbevalge» (Silver White) dating 1976 and its sequel «Hõbevalgem» seven years later, Mr Meri wrote that four centuries BC the major Ancient explorer Pytheas reached the territory of what is now Estonia. He claimed that the mysterious Thule mentioned by Pytheas was actually Saaremaa.

Even so, when digging into it – just like Prof Talvik the history fan did, five years ago – you will discover that in most discourses the version of the mythical Thule as Saaremaa is not presented. Largely, researchers think Thule is either Iceland, or some islands near coasts of Great Britain or Norway.

Yesterday, the studies by Mr Talvik (80) were presented to the nation, having penned into a thorough work labelled «Teekond maailma ääreni» (Voyage to the Edge of the World) wherein he proves that the Greek explorer Pytheas indeed reached all the way to Saaremaa, as was decades ago claimed by Mr Meri – unlike others who have delved into the topic.

This was no easy feat, as the description of travels by Pytheas has not been preserved. Therefore, later researchers have used texts where other Antique authors talk about the voyage by Pytheas and his observations, and have on their basis arrived at greatly varying conclusions as to where the man actually travelled during the five years. To complicate work for researchers, the place names used by Pytheas are not the same today.

«Shut up and row!»

To begin with, Mr Talvik tried to get a better picture of who Pytheas (who lived about 350–285 BC) actually was. «If I get to know his personality, from there I can guess and derive his activity as well,» he explains.

Based on Antique sources, Mr Talvik ascertained that Pytheas was a simple man, poor, a lower class guy. «Being poor, he had no fleet as some mistakenly believe,» he refutes one assumption. «Fleets weren’t just handed out to people.»

From there, Mr Talvik concluded while building on scarce sources that Pytheas had to have been wise. «When, alone, you embark on a voyage for years thro wild lands – back then, most were Barbarians – and you survive, you must be a good communicator and a friendly man,» he said. «The man had no money. I’m sure they gave him an oar and said shut up and row.»

Using the vast databases on Antique writers, Mr Talvik divided all quotes on Pytheas according to their reliability and verifiability, into three groups. The first, for example, contained such where his own books were quoted, and the second where it was quoted what Pytheas had said. Comparing and analysing the quotes, Mr Talvik also discovered such as were obviously invented. «In one place it is indirectly referred,» he notes, «that Thule is at a place where the day lasts for six months and the night likewise. Meaning the North Pole. This is too much, that Pytheas discovered North Pole.»

A reason why later quotes feature errors and slips is, says Mr Talvik, that the texts were usually copied by slaves. «Largely, they couldn’t care less what they were writing,» he observes. «They merely copied.»

While up to now all the Thule issue dissectors have mainly relied on 17 ubiquitous quotes by Antique authors, Mr Talvik was able in his research to boost that by about 30. That added confidence.

The fateful stumbling stone

Finally, as Mr Talvik had the assumed travel route of Pytheas all put together, he remembers he breathed a sigh a relief. But just for a moment. It all had to be proved.

He found 20 spots visited by Pytheas. Of these, he identified 15 with not much trouble. Five, however, were left hanging, Thule included. And with these, admits Mr Talvik, it got tough. At times, he was in dire straits.

«It was the issue of what Pytheas knew and could do,» he continues, describing the process that followed. «What he could do could be concluded from what he did. But what did he know about astronomy, or geography?»

In lots of analyses, a faulty answer to this question proves the stumbling stone. Because nowadays all researchers know how to calculate the latitudes and longitudes, to say nothing about the knowledge that the Earth is a globe. Two and a half millennia ago, all was otherwise.

Lots of researchers of Pytheas’ voyage have concluded that as he sailed around Britain from there he probably started off for Thule – whether to Iceland or Mid-Norwegian coast. In Prof Talvik, such conclusions cause disbelief as archaeological data says Man only reached Iceland in 9th century as the great travels of the Vikings begun. On top of that, in Antique times they only sailed the ships close to the coastlines and mainly during the day, which will exclude crossing the open seas from Britain to Iceland or Norway or near Greenland.

Resulting from his thorough research and analysis, Mr Talvik arrived at the conclusion that Pytheas reached the Baltic Sea shores. To prove that, he performed complex calculations with ancient seagoing data and maps. Turned out, he found vital pillars in two amber islands of the day, Basilia and Abalus – within a day’s journey from each other – as identified via descriptions by tribes in old-time Scythia and ancient Germans. Abalus falls in the areas of today’s Kaliningrad Oblast, and Basilia on Kurzeme coast. From Basilia to Thule, it remained an about three days’ journey. That’s exactly what it takes to reach from there to Saaremaa, in large rowing boats. To Thule, that is, using the name given it by Pytheas.

«Mr Pytheas was in this habit of giving his own names to places,» smiles Mr Talvik. «Like this town which he named Rich in Doves. When you venture in a land where you know not the languages and can’t speak them, how then do you write where you have been?»

Solid stuff

As related to the Thule mystery, lots of references have made to the quote that Pytheas was in a place where the Sun goes to sleep, and this has undergone varying interpretations. Mr Talvik is supportive of the hypothesis by Mr Meri that Mr Pytheas meant the Kaali meteorite crater which came into being in 900–500 BC. Probably, as Pytheas saw the vast forest burnt down, he named the isle Thule, the Isle of Fire.

Though, according to random calculations by Mr Talvik, Pytheas lived on Saaremaa from nine months to 1.5 years, the knowledge of where Thule actually was got lost soon after he died. Until now, that is, as Prof Talvik probably opened the most convincing chapter in the riddle.

«Seems to me these arguments are hard to fight,» he says. The more so that he wasn’t about to prove boots and all that Thule was the very Saaremaa. «I’m a Lennart Meri fan,» he confesses, «but not to the degree to fake data to force his point.»

All the man did was to go on a search where the mythical Thule was. And was simply taken to Saaremaa, as piloted by the facts and the links.