Ultima Thule, Thule

On 1 January 2019, New Horizons space probe passed Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule. Almost every news report of the encounter says that the name means “beyond the edges of the known world.” But that is not exactly the case. Ultima Thule is not a vague, undefined location. It is a specific place in the North Atlantic, although exactly which place it refers to is uncertain to us today and various classical and medieval writers may have used the name to refer to different places. It has been used in the metaphorical sense that the news articles describe, but that’s not the name’s meaning. The metaphorical sense is akin to referring to Timbuktu, a very real place in North Africa, as metaphor for somewhere distant and inaccessible. 

Ultima simply means “farthest” in Latin, and Thule is a place name of unknown origin. So the name simply means that Thule is very far away.

The earliest known reference to Ultima Thule is in Polybius’s account of the voyage of Pytheas, written in the second century BCE. Pytheas supposedly traveled to Thule, an island six days sail north of Britain. Today we’re not sure exactly which place in the North Atlantic Polybius was referring to. It may have been the Shetland Islands, Iceland, or somewhere in what is now Denmark or Norway, but it was definitely a specific, defined location. Pliny, Tacitus, and Virgil also make reference to Ultima Thule. Classical and medieval references to Ultima Thule are to this specific place, although today we aren’t quite sure where that is.

The earliest references to Thule in English dates to the late ninth century. It appears in the Old English translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy:

Oþ ðæt iland þe we hatað Tyle.
(To that island that we call Thule.)

It also appears in the Old English translation of Orosius’s History Against the Pagans, written at about the same time:

Be westannorðan Ibernia is þæt ytemeste land þæt man hæt Thila.
(Northwest from Ireland is that outermost land that man calls Thule.)

So nicknaming 2014 Mu69 Ultima Thule is quite appropriate, even if the name doesn’t really mean “beyond the edges of the known world.”


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s.v. Thule, n.

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