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  • Pytheas and the Mysterious Marine Lung October 25, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    Pytheas of Marseille was a Greek sailing captain who, in the fourth century BC, ventured from the comfortable and known Mediterranean out into the northern Atlantic describing what he found there. Later generations believed that Pytheas was a fantasist and decried him. But, from the bits and pieces of Pytheas’ work that have survived – a future Burning Library post, most modern scholars are convinced that Pytheas really did undertake a voyage into the far north. They believe, indeed, that he mapped a previously unknown part of the globe including Britain, Ireland and perhaps the Baltic and Iceland and Scandinavia.

    However, as so often happens with explorers into the unknown Pytheas was uneasy at explaining phenomena that lay far outside his frame of reference. Consider the following passage from the Greek writer Strabo, who had read (and despised) Pytheas and whom Strabo briefly quotes here.

    [Pytheas describes] matters concerning Thule and those places ‘in which neither was earth in existence by itself nor yet sea nor vapour, but instead a sort of mixture of these similar to a marine lung in which’, Pytheas says, ‘the earth and the sea and all things together are suspended, and this [mixture] is as if it were a fetter of the whole existing in a form impassable by foot or ship’. The thing like a lung [Pytheas] himself had seen, but other things he was told by hearsay.’ [Roseman with some adjustments, 125]

    The mysterious ‘island’ of Thule has variously been identified as part of the Baltic, Iceland or, perhaps most credibly, the coast of Scandinavia – what it meant in later centuries is quite another question.

    And in or close to ‘Thule’, Pytheas experienced a peculiar phenomenon where the Mediterranean visitor – already disoriented by tides and other unfamiliar  things – felt the different elements were merging into one. This merging of earth, water and air he compares to a ‘marine lung’.

    English antiquarian Thomas Browne in the seventeenth century noted Pytheas’ mention of the marine lung as proof that Pytheas really had been to the far north. However, almost all other readers since have been confused. Certainly, Beachcombing hasn’t got the foggiest what Pytheas is going on about here.

    There have been suggestions – on the basis of a passage in Aristotle – that the marine lung is a jelly-fish. However, shell-fish are probably being referred to by Aristotle. Perhaps a more satisfactory explanation is that Pytheas was referring to the ‘breathing’ of the sea, which might be a cack-handed Mediterranean attempt at describing tides. Though Pytheas is writing about a particular phenomenon here, rather than a general one.

    Are we dealing with freezing sea fog in an area with drift ice where the elements might be said to merge and where the rocking of the sea gives a sense of ‘respiration’? Perhaps that sense of ‘respiration’ was even added to by the cracking and banging of ice?

    Or are we dealing as many German writers believe with:

     ‘a description  of the Wattenmeer conditions of the Frisian coasts of Jutland. In this area, silty mud from the shallows can be churned up to the extent that the earthy particles are held in suspension. The phenomenon exists at present as far as 20 miles out from the coastline; channels shift constantly, and the area is very hazardous even to boats of shallow draft.’ (Roseman 130).

    Beachcombing tentatively favours freezing fog and drift ice. but wonders if any reader can get closer to uncovering the mystery of what Pytheas actually saw all those centuries ago. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    1st Nov 2010: One of the most unusual acquaintances that Beachcombing made this month was with a Man Called Da-da whose site is as strange as his name. Beachcombing laughed through lunch thinking of some of the pictures that he found there: look out for the Hear Muffs. Anyway Da-da put Beachcombing onto the following phenomenon:‘As a fellow author and former salt, allow me to be your reference here. The ‘Sea Lung’, which I’ve witnessed more than a few times, is an ocean phenomenon, though ‘phenomenon’ makes it seem more mysterious than it is. I didn’t know what it was in my younger days, until I saw it on watch with the skipper. On land, typically, the horizon is easily discernable, esp. when the ground doesn’t move much (which makes oft-foggy Northern California, where I live, a prime location for sighting the rare, ‘LAND LUNG’). At sea, during a storm or during the right foggy/misty, sea/sky conditions (which happen a lot), the sky/sea horizon demarcation is blurred, quite indistinguishable; you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. Indeed, as you try to discern the horizon, you suddenly find yourself sucked in, experiencing the sea as a living thing, with you inside its vastness; consumed by a Brobdingnagian creature that breathes in, breathes out, breathes in, breathes out, your small ship rocks and rolls in sympathy to the waves within its stomach, the beast slowly digesting you in its infinite opacity. It’s no wonder the ancients found it spooky. It’s at the same time much more than that, a reminder of who we really are, where we really are, where we came from – and where we are right now. It also has the unfortunate effect of separating humans into two camps: the seasick, and the iron stomached. (I always ate greasy breakfast burritos during these events to push the former over the edge; they were usu. young, cocky scientists, and consequently begged to be taken down a few pegs.)’ Beachcombing was extremely grateful to Da-da but wondered whether this phenomenon would not have been also present in the Mediterranean as well? Still the writing was enough to get Beachcombing thinking of actually venturing back onto the sea again… Seeing that Da-da has such a gift in images perhaps he could try and illustrate what he has exerienced?