We are pleased to introduce a new contributor to our pages - Hilary Bird. The following excerpts, in her own words, are from the very first Bird Droppings:
“I was born in the City and County of Bristol, Great Britain on 7th January 1948.
My given name was Anneliis Meikar. Nine weeks later I was adopted and became Hilary Bird. Fifty years later I found my blood family in Estonia.... When I came to Estonia (in February 2002) I started writing to my close circle of friends (the “Class of 71” of the letters) because I hardly spoke Estonian and felt the need to communicate what was happening to me. It was, after all, unusual. How many other people did I know who bunked off to another country in middle age to try and recover fifty years of lost cultural heritage?
I am a sociable creature with a large circle of friends. Gradually, as those friends started to ask me how I was getting on I started to widen my circle of correspondence (mostly conducted on the internet) and circulation has now reached circa 100 chums, many of whom clamoured for more and asked why don’t I write a book. So, here it is.
I called my letters ‘Bird Droppings’ because of the daft pun on my name and because my experience of Estonia has strengthened my natural inclination to regard life as a serious business but that some aspects of the whole rag bag should not be taken too seriously."
From BD number 69: Thule
One of my winter books was Joanna Kavenna’s ‘The Ice Museum’ . Kavenna went north in search of the land of Thule. She travelled to places that have been connected with Thule, often in the footsteps of earlier writers and travellers - Richard Burton, William Morris, Anthony Trollope and the Norwegian Polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. She met poets writing epics, Inuit musicians, the head of the Saami parliament, Polar scientists and, in Estonia, interviewed Lennart Meri. The myth of Thule also has a sinister side. Nazi mystics searched all over the world for a historical Thule, which they believed was the ancient homeland of the Aryan race. Kavenna met with some 'war children' in Norway - the children of Nazi attempts to foster a new ‘pure’ Aryan race. Finally, the comments by American scientists working in the Thule base in Greenland, are rather ominous. Recommended!
Thule was first mentioned by the Greek geographer and explorer Pytheas of Massalía (present-day Marseille) in the 4c BC. Pytheas claimed that Thule was six days north of the island of Great Britain and the northernmost country in the world, ‘where the sea thickens’. He also claimed that the midsummer sun never set there. Candidates for Thule are the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Iceland, or Saaremaa, Estonia.
Procopius (c. 500 - c. 565), a prominent Byzantine scholar (from modern day Palestine) and often held to be the last historian of Late Antiquity, tells us more about Thule. In Procopius, Thule was a large island in the north inhabited by 25 tribes, 6 days sail north of the UK. It is clearly Scandinavia since several tribes are easily identified, such as the Geats (Gautoi or Ostragoths) and the Finno-Ugric Saami (Scrithiphini). He also wrote that when the Heruls (or Eruli), an East Germanic people migrated to Scandinavia, they passed the Varni (another German tribe) and the Danes and then crossed the sea to Thule, where they settled beside the Geats.
In the Middle Ages, the name was sometimes used to denote Greenland, Svalbard (the most northern town in the world) or Iceland, such as in the 11c ‘Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church’ (riveting title) by Adam of Bremen. In modern history a municipality in North Greenland was formerly named Thule and the predecessors of modern Inuit Greenlanders were called ‘the Thule People’. In 1953 the territory was taken for a US Air Base and the population was forced to resettle to Qaanaaq, 67 miles to the north.
South Thule, along with Bellinghausen and Cook is a collection of the three southernmost islands in the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic. The island group is uninhabited territory and one of the 14 territories in the world that are under the sovereignty of the UK. They are not classed as part of the UK, although the inhabitants of all but one have full British citizenship. The territories are the last remaining possessions of a British Empire on which, once, the sun never set. Incursion without permission by Argentina was one of the flashpoints of the1982 Falklands War.
Fabian Gottlieb Thaddeus von Bellingshausen (1778–1852) was born on Saaremaa, another candidate for Thule! He served as a imperial naval officer and commanded the second Russian expedition to circumnavigate the globe, during which Bellingshausen became one of the first people to see the continent of Antarctica.
Bellingshausen enlisted as a cadet in the Imperial Russian Navy at the age of 10 and graduated from naval academy aged 18. He rapidly rose to the rank of captain in the navy. He was a great admirer of Captain James Cook and served in the first Russian circumnavigation of the earth on the vessel Nadezhda (Hope) in 1803-06. His career continued with command of various ships in the Baltic and Black Seas. When Tzar Alexander I authorised an expedition to the south polar region, Bellingshausen was selected to lead it. He left Portsmouth in 1819 with two ships, Vostok and Mirnyi, and crossed the Antarctic Circle (the first to do so since Cook) on January 26, 1820. On January 28, 1820 the expedition discovered the ice fields of the Antarctic mainland. In the 1980s Bellingshausen's records were compared with those of other claimants by British polar historians and it was concluded that Bellingshausen was the discoverer of the much sought-after Terra Australis, rather than the Royal Navy's Edward Bransfield on 30 January 1820 or the American Nathaniel Palmer on 17 November 1820. During the voyage Bellingshausen also visited the South Shetland Islands, and discovered and named Peter I Island and a peninsula of the Antarctic mainland which he named the Alexander Coast but which has more recently borne the designation of Alexander Island. The expedition went on to make discoveries in the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean. He returned to Kronstadt in 1821 to no great acclaim. Bellingshausen fought in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–1829 and attained the rank of admiral. He became the military governor of Kronstadt (from 1839) and died there in 1852.
Now, back again to Thule and Saaremaa. Was Thule in Estonia? In ‘Silverwhite’ Lennart Meri, as in his other works, uses documentary sources and scientific research combined with imagination. ‘If geography is prose, maps are iconography,’ said Meri. Silverwhite is based on ancient seafaring records and, according to Meri; it is possible that the story of Thule derives from Estonian legends that tell of the creation of a crater lake on Saaremaa 7500 years ago. When the Greeks came to Saaremaa they were asked where the sun went to rest and pointed to the Kaali crater, saying ‘Tuli, tuli’ (Fire, fire). It’s pronounced Too-lay in Estonian and is very similar to Thule – Thoo-lay in Latin. Interesting.
On a less elevated level Thule is much loved by rockers and Goths. Ultima Thule is the name of a Swedish and an Estonian rock band, the name of a 1971 single by the German rock band Tangerine Dream and in 1996 ‘Starfire upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule’, was an album by the Brit ‘epic barbarian war metal’ band, Bal-Sagoth. Thule also turns up regularly in Swords and Sandals, comic strips. In ’Prince Valiant’, the title character is ‘Prince of Thule’ and in the Spanish comic strip ‘Capitán Trueno’ the girlfriend of the eponymous captain is a Viking princess from Thule whilst, in the Japanese manga animated film ‘Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa’ (2005), the baddies are members of the Thule Society.
Finally, taking the tone up a tad, Vladimir Nabokov worked on a story entitled ‘Ultima Thule’, aspects of which eventually came to be essential parts of his novel ‘Pale Fire’.
Bird Droppings from Estonia