Discovering Ultima Thule

This week’s fly-past of Ultima Thule is a study of ancient history, on both a scientific and a classical reception level. How often does that happen?!


This week’s space news has been the NASA fly-past, by the New Horizons Probe, of the furthest object ever explored in situ, a double object which was nick-named Ultima Thule (its official name has yet to be assigned). Dr Brian May helpfully set this to music:


… while many people offered their own graphic interpretations of the image from the probe:



One of the most interesting features of the last few days, to those of a classical persuasion, has been the public reaction to the name, which has ranged from bafflement to outrage. Mary Beard in the TLS pointed out that to most people ‘Ultima Thule’ is a name that needs explanation – and perhaps a pronunciation guide. Others dived into a Twitterstorm about the Nazi fascination with Thule, as the mythical origin of the Aryan race.

Well, yes. The Nazis were fascinated by the idea of Thule – along with many other Roman ideas, from the fasces to the swastika. This is familiar territory to the scholar of Roman history (I’m currently re-reading A Most Dangerous Book, the brilliant chronicle by Christopher B. Krebs of the reception of Tacitus’ Germania, classed as one of the most dangerous books ever written because of the extent of its influence on the formation of Nazi ideology). There was a Thule Society in inter-war Germany, and it was reputedly a group from which Hitler drew key supporters. And the people who are arguing this week that NASA should not have chosen a name which is known to be popular today with neo-Nazis do have a point worth hearing.

But I’d like to reclaim Ultima Thule from Nazis and neo-Nazis and all the other Nasties (and not just because my favourite Roman historian Tacitus talks about it as being somewhere beyond mainland Britain – so possibly Shetland, where my grandfather came from. Does that make me Thulean?!). I’d like to restore the classical reputation of Ultima Thule, because of its unique brilliance as the Roman expression of uninteresting mystery.

It’s important to recognise that, by and large, the Romans weren’t explorers: they travelled for trade or conquest, but setting sail just to see what was over the horizon was not a common Roman urge. So when the Romans talked about the mysterious land of Ultima Thule, a strange frozen wasteland in the far north where peculiar things happened, they didn’t actually want to find it. It wasn’t (as Mary Beard and Peter Frankopan have pointed out on Twitter) like El Dorado or Timbuktu: people weren’t searching for the mysterious land of Thule to see what was out there. As far as most Romans were concerned, Thule was the Back of Beyond, the Middle of Nowhere, and somewhere to be avoided by any civilised person.

That’s what I love about the Roman conception of Ultima Thule – as well as the mythical land of Hyperborea, which was said to exist beyond the home of the North Wind, and was a land of perpetual sun where a race of peaceful giants lived without ever dying. These places were the ancient world equivalent of scribbling ‘Here be dragons’ on a map. Thule was a tidy (and moveable) place-holder, a way of saying ‘Maybe we don’t know exactly what’s here, but we’re sure it isn’t worth the effort of looking’.

The nick-name ‘Ultima Thule’ was selected for this space object by public vote from a list of 37 nominees, including such classical names as Rubicon, Pharos and Olympus. At first I wasn’t entirely sure the right name had been chosen. Perhaps the name ‘Ultima Thule’ should be reserved for a place that we really can’t be bothered to check out, because it doesn’t have anything that we want. And I know a lot of small children who would have been thrilled to give it the name ‘Olaf’.


But then I looked into it a bit more – with some help from the OU’s Professor of Astrophysics (thanks, Carole!) – and changed my mind. This object is interesting not because it’s any older than the Earth, but because it’s so far from the Sun that it may have undergone very few changes in the 4.5 billion years since the solar system was first formed. When The Times refers to the object, in its headline, as an ‘ancient world’ it’s partly right: the ‘world’ itself may not be any more ancient than ours, but it gives us a way of almost looking back in time, at what our own world might have been before it began to change.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘Ultima Thule’ is a great name for this far-off object. For the Romans, the hypothetical land of Thule was also a window into an earlier time, representing how far they had come: it was the ultimate frozen barbarian wasteland, far from the luxurious baths and underfloor heating of civilisation. For us, this object in space also represents the conditions from which our world has developed. The difference, perhaps, is that we want to know about our Ultima Thule. But is it really a difference? In many ways, we want to learn about this space object so that we can extrapolate and learn more about the formation and early history of our own planet. In other words, this is all about us.

Tacitus – who wrote a book about the German tribes without ever visiting Germany, in order to lecture his Roman readers about what it meant to be Roman – would have understood this kind of interest.

Don’t you just love the way that even space exploration brings us back to Tacitus?!



Links to follow up:

Mary Beard in the TLS 

Summaries by the BBC

…and The Guardian 

…and the Financial Times 

…and The Times 

The Huffington Post on the Nazi objection

I’ll be back next week with some Weekend Reading. Happy New Year, everybody!

3 thoughts on “Discovering Ultima Thule

  1. Fascinating, as someone who is old enough to have sat in front of a black and white tv and watched all the American ‘Moon-shots’ I am still utterly captivated by anything to do with space, and indeed to read about Ultima Thule in conjunction with your reference to Tacitus is truly a hypnotic combination to me !

    Liked by 2 people

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