Aristotle was the first to present the theory of a frozen southern pole in his 350 BC treatise, Meteorology. Yet, despite centuries of philosophers, explorers, and speculative cartographers, the continent was not definitively discovered until 1820. It would be nearly a hundred years before meaningful exploration would occur, famously marked by Roald Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole. However, by then, the seeds of Antarctic mythology were already blooming. How did such complex mythos develop so quickly? Simple; it already existed.
In short, Antarctic myths are an amalgamation of long-rejected concepts first employed in relation to its northern counterpart, the Arctic Circle. Of the many elements at play, the legends of Hyperborea and Thule serve as the foundation, bolstered by aspects of Hollow Earth Theory and various lost civilization myths. While today’s mythmakers have incorporated modern mysticism and a healthy dose of ubiquitous UFO conspiracies, the central themes remain the same.
In Greek mythology, Boreas was the god of the North Wind, and Hyperborea translates directly as “beyond Boreas” or beyond the north wind. Herodotus gives us the first detailed description, citing earlier sources such as Homer, Hesiod, and Aristeas. He describes it as a temperate and fertile land populated by a race of ten-foot-tall giants located north of the Riphean Mountains, which sheltered it from the harsh northern climate.
However, there are some problems with Herodotus’ account. First, the Riphean mountains are said to denote the northernmost reaches of the ancient world. This is somewhat of a moving target considering that various authors over the centuries have placed the range anywhere from Northern Greece, Briton, Scandinavia, the Kazakh Steppe, Ural Mountains, and Siberia, to name a few. Then, of course, we have Herodotus himself, the ancient world’s equivalent to Twitter. The man would repost anything with little regard for its factuality.
Nevertheless, the legend of Hyperborea persisted, continuously shifting northward until it could go no further. It was then that the myth began to evolve; now, instead of a paradise beyond the mountains, it became an underground kingdom beneath the mountains. Later iterations get more specific, placing it beneath a mountain of pure lodestone that sits directly upon the North Pole. However, by this time, it was already becoming conflated with tales of Thule.
Running parallel with the legend of Hyperborea is that of Thule. The Greek explorer Pytheas writes in his now-lost book On The Ocean that Thule is an island six day’s sail north of Briton, near the frozen sea. Early historians debated the accuracy and or honesty of Pytheas’ claims. Some took him at his word or even offered their interpretations of where to find Thule. While others, such as Polybius, flat-out called him a liar. Regardless, Thule, or Ultima Thule, became synonymous with far away or imaginary places.
Like Hyperborea, Thule’s location evolved with the expanding familiarity of the region, with theories placing it in Orkney, Greenland, Scotland, and Scandinavia, among other places. Because of the regional associations, elements of Norse and Scandinavian history often become entangled with Thule. For example, much of Nazi occultism has its roots in the Thule Society, a group founded shortly after WWII and later adopted by Hitler himself. Hence, it’s not surprising when it shows up later in Antarctic conspiracy theories.
John Dee and King Arthur
In 1577, Queen Elizabeth’s court astronomer John Dee made one of the boldest, if not bizarre, cases for expanding the English Empire. At the time, many nations were clamoring to control the fabled Northwest Passage, seeking a direct trade route to Asia via the Arctic. The essence of Dee’s pitch to Elizabeth was that the entirety of the arctic circle, including both real and imagined locations such as Thule, Atlantis, and Hyperborea, belonged to England by virtue of the fact that they were previously conquered by King Arthur. As evidence, Dee cites some dubious sources such as the Gestai Arthuri and the Inventio Fortunata, both of which were conveniently lost to history. Dee’s claims were lent immense credibility by his good friend and renowned cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, who himself borrowed from the Inventio Fortunata to create his famous world map.
Obviously, the idea of King Arthur marching to the North Pole and conquering the Hyperboreans or anyone else is patently absurd. Though, at the time was considered a plausible enough excuse for a land grab, even if it never panned out.
Even more remarkable is the fact that Mercator’s world map, which includes these “conquered lands,” was the gold standard of cartography for its day. According to the map, the center of the North Pole was occupied by a massive mountain of lodestone (explaining why compasses point north) surrounded by a swirling sea that was somehow responsible for the ocean’s currents. Bordering this “maelstrom” and oriented to the four cardinal directions were four islands or land masses divided by four massive rivers.
Of course, Mercator never visited the arctic, his description depends almost exclusively on the Inventio Fortunata, a circa 1360 travelogue written by a Franciscan Monk who apparently walked from Oxford to the North Pole. Further, Mercator never actually read the book. Rather, he possessed another writer’s summary of it, which he was unable to provide upon request, claiming that he lost it. So, essentially, he colored in the whole top of the globe based on the cliff notes version of a book that might not have ever existed in the first place.
Mercator would go down as one of the greatest cartographers in history, and his world map would live on for generations, a symbol of over 2000 years of mythology and misinformation.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the cartography of the Arctic Circle was much less a mystery, and the ancient myths of Thule and Hyperborea had largely melted from memory. However, with the discovery of Antarctica, these old myths began to surface again, painting themselves over a new blank and frozen canvas.
One of the principal influences for this was the spiritualist movement that trafficked heavily in ancient wisdom and forgotten lore. Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy movement is a prime example of this. Blavatsky considered Theosophy to be an expression of a “universal religion” practiced by enlightened civilizations called “root races” that were lost throughout the ages. Hyperborean, it so happens, counts among them. Transcending all of this are what Blavatsky calls the ascended masters, who exist on a different plane of existence, though manifest in ours to help guide humanity toward these universal truths.
Atlantis and Lemuria are two more Root Races of Theosophy, which were destroyed in various continental upheavals. This point is noteworthy as the theory of plate tectonics was in its infancy at the time, and Blavatsky borrowed from it in her Lemurian story. Later, in the 20th century, it would be learned that Antarctica was once part of Pangea, albeit 200 million years ago. At the time, Antarctica was temperate, possibly even tropical. The premise is that one of her ancient civilizations drifted along with it and now lies under about a mile of ice.
Of course, Blavatsky isn’t the only one to recycle these old tales. In fact, she is relatively innocent in transposing them to the Antarctic. Just as Herodotus drew from Homer and older sources, modern writers draw from her and those who came before to make a case for their own narratives.
One Last Thing
Some myths are universal, like Bigfoot or Ghosts; they exist in some form in almost every culture. The Hollow Earth Theory is one example that constantly appears in Antarctic mythology. From Hades to Shamballa, every culture has its variation of underground kingdoms. Because of this universal familiarity, it’s little wonder why it’s so easily adapted into Antarctic lore.
In a microcosm, this explains many of the mysteries of Antarctica. They are familiar because they’ve always been there, in some incarnation, recycled through the ages. It’s ironic and a little sad that when confronted with a new, unknown frontier, we chose to define it with the rejected concepts of the past.