Gerardus Mercator and other guesses on the North Pole


As I’ve mentioned before, there were many inventive and wild ideas as to what would be at the north pole. Inventio Fortunata, meaning “fortunate, or fortune-making, discovery”, is a lost book dating to the 14th century-ish. It contains a description of the North Pole as a magnetic island surrounded by a giant whirlpool and four continents. No direct extracts from the document have been secured but its influence on the overall Western conception of the geography of the Arctic persisted for several centuries. The Hollow Earth theory was also enormously popular as a theory (and, apparently, is still believed by some). An idea first appearing in ancient history, this theory of a world internal to ours and accessible only at the poles was popularized by a number of 18th and 19th century scientists and philosophers, notably John Symmes and Jeremiah Reynolds, one of his followers. Reynolds pushed for an expedition to confirm his theory under John Adam Quincy’s administration, but shortly Andrew Jackson came into office the idea was dissolved. Reynolds did end up making it to the shore of Antarctica using privately raised funds, but the ship was quickly turned around and Reynolds deposited in South America when his crew mutinied.

The Ancient Greeks believed a people called the Hyperboreans lived at the pole in a paradise that could not be reached by other men (not to be confused with Hyperborea, the planet of He-Man). There they lived in the woods without fear of the weather, never had wars and grew to be a thousand years old. When they became tired of life, the Hyperboreans put on a garland of flowers and fell from a cliff into the sea. The Greeks were a bit unique in this Eden-like conception of the pole, although there were those 18th and 19th century minds that supposed a temperate land or open ocean could be found at the pole. Some even went so far as to say that the Pole could be where man first originated, literally a possible location for Eden.


This map of the known northern arctic dates to about 1720 and comes from the “C.G. Zorgdragers Bloeyende opkomst der aloude en hedendaagsche Groenlandsche visschery”, which as far as I can tell with my use of google translate is a book of maps and resources for whalers based in and around Svalbard and Greenland. As you can see, the majority of the arctic was still totally unmapped even to the northernmost-going peoples, the whalers based out of Greenland and Svalbard.

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Bonus map! This one’s a personal favorite. This 1599(ish?) map by Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz mapped Spitsbergen (the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago) for the first time. It’s labelled here as Het Nieuwe Land, which is Dutch for “the new land.” It’s also a beautifully illustrated map. No Hyperboreans, but look at all the adorable whales! Wonderful.


Shelf Life

I am a huge fan of the American Museum of Natural History and a supporter of any archive or collection in their attempts to increase engagement with the greater public. It can be an immense challenge to increase the levels of interest in a collection of historic photographs, but Tumblr and Instagram seem to have greatly helped the spread and popularity of shared historic images. I follow not only the AMNH but many WWI and Arctic themed accounts that post, repost and reblog archival images.

But archives and collections aren’t just made up of images and photographs, they contain audio files, objects, diaries and letters, minerals, bones, flora and fauna of all kinds… anything and everything. Also, it’s not just the photo or object itself that is important, it’s the connections and relationships between objects that is the meat of a collection. The AMNH has started a really well produced internet series Shelf Life in which they explore parts of their vast collection (over 33 million items), bringing in the researchers and caretakers who work within the archives. The website for the show is brimming with extra information for each episode, and you can watch them on YouTube, too.

Ice Sheet

Murray Fredericks is an Australian photographer whose photographic works of Australian salt flats and Greenlandic ice sheets are subtle, beautiful bodies of work. He plays along with the exotic light shows he encounters in these remote locations, and the results are phenomenal.

The image of his that initially caught my eye was the photograph of a sundog, a kind of a halos created when light and ice crystal interact in the atmosphere. They tend to appear as two subtly-colored patches of light to the left and right of the sun, and can occur with mock suns and other sorts of parhelia phenomena. Solar and lunar optical phenomena are common in deserts and near the poles, and have been well recorded by explorers over the centuries. The polar regions of ice fields are deserts, and what may initially appear to be a white, colorless, blindingly bright and mind numbingly dark environments always blossoms over time. After a few days in these strange lands, men report seeing radical shades of violet, green, blue and gold in the ice and snow, and taking great pleasures in watching the sundogs and halos bob and vacillate in the sky.

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