Home » Horizons » Magnetic north: tales of whirlpools, giants, temperate seas and a huge lodestone


A glance at the North Pole and its mythology, from whirlpools and giants to the indrawing sea and the Rupes Nigra.


Clearly, tales of a vast, treacherous whirlpool somewhere in the region of the northern coastlands of Europe have a factual basis. Indeed, the world's three greatest vortices can be found here: the Saltstraumen strait at Bodø and the infamous Moskstraumen in the Lofoten archipelago, the latter appearing in works by Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne, both lie in wait for unwary travellers along the Norwegian coast, while the Corryvreckan (Coire Bhreacain) is a peril lying between Scotland and Ireland. Meanwhile, those those intrepid Norse voyagers who tracked the North American coast just might have gotten wind of the Old Sow, lying off Deer Island and Moose Island at the point of collision between Passamaquoddy Bay and the Bay of Fundy.

The rather evocative term used to describe such phenomena is maelstrom, derived rather suitably from the Norwegian malstrøm, which is composed of two words Dutch origin words: stroom, cognate with the English term "stream"; and the verb malen, meaning "to grind," and sharing a root with the English "mill" - a comparison which may become clearer as we proceed.


The vortex of Corryvreckan may appear in the work of Adomnán of Iona, whose famous Vita Columbae features a certain Charybdis Brecani as menacing sailors in the vicinity of an island named Rechru [1.5]. While this Rechru is to be identified with Rathlin Island off the Irish coast, where an overfalls bearing the name of Slough-na-more can be found, the similarity of the two names suggests a connection. Perhaps the name was translated to the current location in the wake of the settlement of the Scottish lands of Dál Riada. It is also well worth noting that, though ignored in the standard Latin version, vast vortices appear in the seagoing descriptions of St. Brendan's travels from the Irish material.

But that is not of primary interest here. More foreboding is the use of the descriptive Classical term Charybdis to describe the phenomenon. Charybdis also appears in the work Paulus Warnfredi, a.k.a. Paulus Diaconus, who, having described the location of the Scritobini, likely the Sámi of northern Scandinavia [1.5], cites Virgil and notes that the term can be applied to whirlpools [1.6]: -

Not very far from the shore of which we have spoken, toward the western side, on which the ocean main lies open without end, is that very deep whirlpool of waters which we call by its familiar name "the navel of the sea." This is said to suck in the waves and spew them forth again twice every day, as is proved to be done by the excessive swiftness with which the waves advance and recede along all those shores. A whirlpool or maelstrom of this kind is called by the poet Virgil "Charybdis." [...] Ships are alleged to be often violently and swiftly dragged in by this whirlpool (of which indeed we have spoken) with such speed that they seem to imitate the fall of arrows through the air, and sometimes they perish by a very dreadful end in that abyss. But often when they are on the very point of being overwhelmed they are hurled back by the sudden masses of waves and driven away again with as great speed as they were at first drawn in.

He continues: -

They say there is another whirlpool of this kind between the island of Britain and the province of Galicia, and with this fact the coasts of the Seine region and of Aquitaine agree, for they are filled twice a day with such sudden inundations that any one who may by chance be found only a little inward from the shore can hardly get away. You may see the rivers of these regions falling back with a very swift current toward their source, and the fresh waters of the streams turning salt through the spaces of many miles. The island of Evodia (Alderney) is almost thirty miles distant from the coast of the Seine region, and in this island, as its inhabitants declare, is heard the noise of the waters as they sweep into this Charybdis.

Paulus' "navel of the sea" is likely the Moskstraumen, which we braved previously, and which lies off the western coast of Nordland, in part of Norwegian Sápmi.

About the original Charybdis, Homer has this to say: -

Odysseus, you will notice the other cliff is lower, only a bow-shot away, and a great fig-tree with dense leaves grows there. Under it divine Charybdis swallows the black waters. Three times a day, she spews them out, and three times darkly sucks them back again.
- Homer, Odyssey [12.101-107].

Charybdis' vast elemental powers also feature in a fable of Aesop, which Aristotle mentions in order to dismiss: -

Aesop's [...] story was that Charybdis had twice sucked in the sea: the first time she made the mountains visible; the second time the islands; and when she sucks it in for the last time she will dry it up entirely.
- Aristotle, Meteorology [2.3].

Charybdis' companion is the fearsome and monstrous Scylla, who dwells on the cliff opposite Charybdis, which is so high that its "sharp peak towers to the wide heavens" [Odyssey 12.73-74]. Vast rockfaces in the vicinity of terrifying whirlpools will feature later on in our journey. But for now, we remain with Odysseus on his travels, braving Charybdis once again before we come to the "navel of the sea."

But my heart aches for Odysseus, wise but ill fated, who suffers far from his friends on an island deep in the sea [ὀμφαλός ἐστι θαλάσσης].
- Homer, Odyssey [1.48-50].

Interestingly, Plutarch places Ogygia west of Britain, close to the confined Cronus, whose name is often applied in Classical sources to the northern seas. Psst... I've got more to about this mysterious land, and its ruler Calypso, but not here.

To end this section, we press on with the Norwegian king Haraldr harðráði's intrepid mariners towards the north, to discover the ends of the sea. There's a narrow escape from the abyss: -

The most enterprising Prince Haraldr of the Norwegians lately attempted this [sea]. Who, having searched thoroughly the length of the northern ocean in ships, finally had before his eyes the dark failing boundaries of the savage world, and, by retracing his steps, with difficulty barely escaped the deep abyss in safety.
- Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum [4.39].

This notion of a "failing world" is most interesting, and brings to mind a much earlier explorer's report of a region seemingly in a perennial process of formation (James S. Romm flirts with such an idea before discounting it). It is to this fellow that we now turn our course.


Pytheas was a Greek who hailed from the colony city of Massalia, modern Marseilles, who, as a young man in about 325 BC, made the perilous voyage from his home city, perhaps via Burdigala (Bordeaux), to invesigate the mysterious land of Bretannikē, which lay off the north-western coast of Europe. Bretannikē is, of course, modern Britain (whose modern inhabitants includes yours truly), and was known, however dimly, to the Mediterraneans for a couple of centuries by that point, having first been noted by Himilco the Carthaginian, who visited the neighbouring Hierni of the "Holy Island" of Ireland.

Pytheas' mission may have been to secure preferred access to and contacts with the British tin trade, which was of interest to the explorer, who details mining and smelting in what is now Cornwall and transport to the island of Ictis (possibly St. Michael's Mount). However, his efforts extended much further than this, and included a circumnavigation of Bretannikē and a further exploration of the seas to the north of it: he would be the first Classical luminary to give notice of the presence of an even more mysterious land, Thoulē, to the north of Bretannikē, as well as "the frozen ocean, called by some the Cronian Sea" a day's sail from there.

In addition to Pliny (quoted in the last sentence), Strabo adds some more details from Pytheas' account, if only to ridicule it for its implausibility (if only he knew...). This passage contains some intriguing details: -

[A]fter asserting that he travelled over the whole of Britain that was accessible Pytheas reported that the coast-line of the island was more than forty thousand stadia, and added his story about Thule and about those regions in which there was no longer either land properly so-called, or sea, or air, but a kind of substance concreted from all these elements, resembling a sea-lung — a thing in which, he says, the earth, the sea, and all the elements are held in suspension; and this is a sort of bond to hold all together, which you can neither walk nor sail upon. Now, as for this thing that resembles the sea-lungs, he says that he saw it himself, but that all the rest he tells from hearsay. That, then, is the narrative of Pytheas, and to it he adds that on his return from those regions he visited the whole coast-line of Europe from Gades to the Tanaïs.
- Strabo [2.1.4].

We leave Pytheas to head back home, with a detour via the Baltic Sea (the trade in amber would have been another interest for the great and the good of 4th century BC Massalia) to the mouth of the Mentonomon (Vistula) and the island of Abalus. We still have business in Thoulē, in particular with a miller whose grindstone is located in the very benthic depths of the great abyss.

Fenja and Menja working at Grótti.


At the time during which the LORD assumed the weakness of the flesh, when Augustus instituted the Pax Romana, the Danes were coalescing in their isles as a nation under the rule of Skjöldr and his descendants, holding sway at Lejre on Zealand. One of their earliest kings was one Fróði, who oversaw a period of Augustan peace in Northern Europe which for ever afterwards would bear his name, the Fróðafrið. For thirty years would Fróði's Peace hold, an idyllic age which was magnified by the comparison of the tragic, blood-stained times of war to come.

Among his other accomplishments, Fróði enjoyed good relations with his neighbours, including the Swedes to the east, who, like the Danes, were developing into a kingdom, in their case centred upon the storied fane of Uppsala.

Of course, the history of the Danes and Swedes are oft intertwined and nigh always complicated, and even in this early period, things were no different. Fróði's contemporary was Fjǫlnir, who would later meet his end in a vat of mead during a return visit. From Fjǫlnir, Fróði was keen to purchase a pair of íviðjur named Fenja and Menja, who he planned to put to work in a mill he was in the process of building back in Denmark.

This was to be no ordinary mill: the millstones, a gift from a mysterious fellow by the name of Hengikjöptr, were rumoured to be able to produce anything the owner wished. The name of the mill was Grótti, and no man, not even the strongest of the Danish warrior host, could move it an inch. That would be where Fenja and Menja would come in handy.

Fjǫlnir, probably glad to be rid of a couple of potentially-troublesome gýgjar, agreed to the purchase, and soon Fenja and Menja were busied grinding gold, peace and happiness for Fróði.

Unfortunately, gold, peace and happiness may be good for most people, but when they are ground out at the expense of workers' rights, things can go a little awry, as Fróði soon discovered: the disgruntled giantesses, forced to work in abject conditions unceasingly, began uttering prophecies of doom for the Danes, in the form of the Grottasöngr. Eventually, Fenja and Menja liberate themselves from service by producing an armada led by Mýsingr the sækonungr, who took them and Grótti, asking them to grind salt. The ships sank and a maelstrom or whirlpool emerged as the sea rushed through the centre of the millstone.

Thus, was the sea made salty, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when the LORD walked among His people Israel.

Of course, giants and giant-kin apppear to be quite important in the legends surrounding the mill. It ought to be recalled that their immediate progenitor Bergelmir the son of Þrúðgelmir, a grandson of Aurgelmir, a.k.a. Ymir, survived the deluge resulting from his slain grandfather's bleeding out aboard a lúðr with his wife. A lúðr can be interpreted as part of a mill. The family of Skjöldr shared a similar origin. Furthermore, Friðfróði contemporary Fjǫlnir was the son of none other than the god Freyr and his giantess bride Gerðr!

Old English sources mention Skjöldr as Scyld or his father Scēafa coming ashore from a northern sea by boat. Scēafa, regarded as a Langobard ruler in Widsið, is said by the chronicler Æthelweard to have alighted on an island on a boat: -

This Scef came in a light boat to an island of the ocean which is called Scani, arms around about him, and he was a very young boy, unknown to the dwellers in the land. But he was accepted by them and cared for like one of their own kind, and afterwards they chose him as king...

Meanwhile, the great poem Bēowulf states of Scyld: "[p]uny and frail he was found on the shore," aboard the ship īsig ("icy," rather obviously), and was given parallel funeral rites: -

They decked his body no less bountifully with offerings than those first ones did who cast him away when he was a child and launched him alone out over the waves.

Nigh on a thousand years hence, a certain Snæbjörn, perhaps the same who first cast eyes on Greenland, sang the following stanza, which associates the mill Grótti with another ancient prince, this time the Jute Amlóði, who is better known as the archetype for William Shakespeare's Hamlet: -

They say nine brides of skerries
Swiftly move the Sea-Churn
Of Grótti's Island-Flour-Bin
Beyond the Earth's last outskirt, -
They who long the corny ale ground
Of Amlódí (Amlóða mólu); the Giver
Of Rings now cuts with ship's beak
The Abiding-Place of boat-sides.

Ægir, Rán and their nine lovely daughters.

Who, you may ask, might these "nine brides of the skerries" be? Well, the most obvious candidates are the nine daughters of wealthy Ægir (who, in his guise of Hlér, may lend his name to Lejre, and may be the Gymir who fathered Gerðr) and his fearsome spouse Rán, namely: Blóðughadda; Bylgja; Drǫfn/Bára; Dúfa; Hefring; Himinglæva; Hrǫnn; Kólga; and Uðr/Unn. It is also worth noting that Ægir has his grain associations, being the brewer of the most widely-known ale in the north. Nine maidens of surpassing beauty also feature in Irish place-lore: -

Rúad, son of Rígdonn, son of the king of Fir Murig, mustered the crews of three ships to go over sea to have speech with his foster-brother, the son of the King of Lochlann. When they had got halfway across they were unable to voyage in any direction just as if an anchor was holding them. So then Rúad went out over the ship's side that he might know what it was that was stopping them, and he turned under the vessel. Then he sees nine women, the loveliest of the world's women, detaining them, three under each ship. So they carried Rúad off with them and he slept for nine nights, one with each of the women, on dry? ground or on beds of bronze. And one of them became with child by him, and he promised that he would come again to them if he should perform his journey.

Then Rúad went to his foster-brother's house and stayed with him for seven years, after which he returned and did not keep his tryst truly, but fared to Magh Muirigh. So the nine women took the son (that had been born among them), and set out (singing, in a boat of bronze,) to overtake Rúad, and they did not succeed. So the mother then kills her own son and Rúad's only son, and she hurled the child's head after him; and then said everyone as if with one voice: "Is Ollbine, Is Ollbine, i.e., It is an awful crime, It is an awful crime." Hence Inber Oillbine (the estuary of the Dilvin River at Malahide).

The significance of this passage is perhaps most keenly felt in the fact that the trip Rúad makes is to Lochlann, which was used as a name for Norway in Irish sources (among other things). Other Irish echoes of this northern mill may be found in that species of Irish tale known as the immrama. The Eóganachta hero Máel Dúin encounters a miller on the mysterious island of Inber Tre-Cenand, where all that is begrudged is ground, while the nature of the mill is even clearer in the tale of the Uí Corra: they meet the "big, surly [?], rough, jet-black, tanned, hideous" Miller of Hell.


An intrepid German traveller, the eponymous hero of the Herzog Ernst, in his peregrinations comes to a marvellous and perilous stretch of sea. I defer to Malcolm Letts, who contributed an article in Notes & Queries dated to the 10th August 1946 on the subject: -

The Duke (i.e. Herzog Ernst) and his companions, navigating in some unknown region of the Euxine, fall within the fatal attraction of the Magnetic Mountain. The ship sailed by a high mountain, the slopes of which appeared to be thick with the masts of ships. The ship's company rejoiced, thinking that they had reached a haven where they could rest, but one of the pilots climbed the mast, and having recognised the Magnetic Mountain, announced that they were in the fatal Lebermeer and that their doom was sealed. The masts they saw were the masts of ships which had preceded them. Nothing remained but to die of hunger. The Duke and his companions commended themselves to God, and instantly the ship, drawn by an unknown force, crashed through the forest of rotten masts and foundered on a rock. The travellers climbed on to the other ships, which were thick with gold, silver and precious stones, but they could see no land. One by one they died of starvation, the bodies being placed on deck to be carried off by griffins to feed their young. Seven of the ship's company survived with only half a loaf of bread between them. Finally Count Wetzel suggested a way of escape. They should sew themselves into ox-skins and lie down on the deck. The griffins would then carry them off to their nests, and there was a chance that they might thus reach land. Duke Ernst and another were carried off first. The griffins tore at the skins, but could not penetrate them, and at last Duke Ernst and his companion freed themselves and escaped to the woods. Four others followed, but one, having lost his courage, was left to die in the ship.

While the immediate context - i.e. the Euxine or Black Sea - may suggest a region in the near Orient, the presence of the Magnetic Mountain within this Lebermeer or "Liver Sea" point rather more to the extreme north. The "high mountain" echoes Scylla's abode from the Odyssey, and other classical accounts may lie behind other elements in the tale, most notably the griffins. The archaic Greek traveller and proto-shaman Aristeas of Proconnesus, for example, wrote in his Arimaspeia the following account, as paraphrased by Herodotus [4.13.1]: -

This Aristeas, possessed by Phoebus, visited the Issedones; beyond these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspians, beyond whom are the griffins that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreans, whose territory reaches to the sea.

These Hyperboreans are obviously a northern people, dwelling as they do beyong the blasts of Boreas, identified as the north wind blowing chill weather from the direction of Thrace. The Hyperboreans came to be widely-famed in Greek lore, but that's a tale for another time.

Letts proceeds to give an etymology for the Liver Sea, in that "the water was 'livered' or thick so as to impede navigation," which immediately reminds one of the "sea-lung" described in the far north by Pytheas.

Similar marine perils appear in a number of other works featured on the site, such as the travels (and travails) of St. Amaro in the Mar Quajado and La Mer Dégringolade in the tale of the Welshman Madoc ap Owain Gwynedd, whose proximity to the "Magnetic Mountain" is signalled by Madoc's having to use antler in place of iron in the building of his vessel. St. Brendan also comes upon the Lebermeer in Dutch and German versions of his story.


The Libersee also features in an account of an expedition to the north which was written up by Adam of Bremen. This account concerns a number of Frisian noblemen who set out from the Wirraha (Weser) to test the hypothesis that a direct northward journey from there would meet with no land, only that particular stretch of claggy ocean. They do in fact find land, after a fashion - and far more than they bargained for: having passed the Orkneys and spent some time on Iceland, they set off northwards again: -

Of a sudden they fell into that numbing ocean's dark mist which could hardly be penetrated with the eyes. And behold, the current of the fluctuating ocean whirled back to its mysterious fountainhead and with most furious impetuosity drew the unhappy sailors, who in their despair now thought only of death, on to chaos; this they say is the abysmal chasm - that deep in which report has it all the back flow of the sea, which appears to decrease, is absorbed and in turn revomited, as the mounting fluctuation is usually described.

This abyss is named Ghimmendegop, i.e. Ginnungagap, in a 15th century scholion on this verse. Anyhow, our intrepid heroes (some of them, at least) manage to make their way out of this mortal peril: -

As the partners were imploring the mercy of God to receive their souls, the backward thrust of the sea carried away some of their ships, but its forward ejection threw the rest far behind the others. Freed thus by the timely help of God from the instant peril they had had before their eyes, they seconded the flood by rowing with all their might.

An expression in the Frisians' sister tongue of English is "out of the frying pan, into the fire." Were we not at sea in the frozen northlands at this precise juncture, that would be appropriate. As it is, it almost sounds alluring. But our Frisians had terrors aplenty before they could turn their prows back towards their low-lying lands: -

No sooner had the mariners escaped the peril of darkness and the land of frost than they unexpectedly came upon an island fortified like a town by very high cliffs which encircled it. When they disembarked there to explore the place, they found men lurking in underground hollows at midday. Before the entrances lay a countless number of vessels of gold and of metals of a kind considered rare and precious by mortals. When they had taken as much of the treasure as they could carry away, the happy oarsmen returned quickly to their ships.

"But, Graham," I hear you ask: "surely treasure aplenty is a good thing, right?"

Maybe, dear reader, but, I pray, read on. Things are never too good to be true in tales such as this: -

Of a sudden they saw coming behind them the amazingly tall men whom our people call Cyclops. Before them ran dogs exceeding the usual size of these quadrupeds, who in their attack seized one of the comrades and in a twinkling tore him to pieces before their eyes. The rest, however, took to the ships and escaped the peril. The giants, as they said, followed them, with vociferations, almost out to the high sea.

After this decidedly Homeric turn of events, the remainder of the expedition manage to find their way home, suitably chastened, desperate to impart their knowledge to Alebrand, Archbishop of Bremen, and likely also keen to change any soiled breeches or hose. These savage giants would find their way onto the medieval map and consciousness as inhabitants of Riseland, and were perhaps also encountered by Irishmen such as St. Brendan and Máel Dúin. Their fame reached as far as Sicily and the lands of the Arabs: Muḥammad al-Idrīsī writes of the island variously known as Sahalia, as-Shasland or R.slānda: -

Formerly it had three large cities and was well populated, with ships landing and remaining there in order to purchase amber and stones of diverse colours; but, following revolutions and wars which occurred in those days, the majority of its inhabitants perished.

When the English developed designs on the New World, inevitably King Arthur got involved, also encountering enormous fellows on the island of Grocland: -

That great army of Arthur's had lain all the winter (of 530 A.D.) in the northern islands of Scotland. And on May 3 a part of it crossed over into Iceland. Then four ships of the aforesaid land had come out of the North. And warned Arthur of the indrawing seas. So that Arthur did not proceed further, but peopled all the islands between Scotland and Iceland, and also peopled Grocland. (So it seems the Indrawing Sea only begins beyond Grocland). In this Grocland he found people 23 feet tall, that is to say of the feet with which land is measured.

In a striking example of parallelism, Arthur's forces also met with a race of much smaller people: -

And near here, towards the north, those Little People live of whom there is also mention in the Gestae Arthuri. And there borders on it besides a beautiful open land. And this land lies between the Province of Darkness and the Province of Bergi. But between each of these Provinces and these lands lies an Indrawing Sea. And this Province (? the open land) has a mountain border of over 72 French miles by land. These facts and more about the geography of the North are to be found in the beginning of the Gestae Arthuri etc.

This "beautiful open land" is still sought by the more quixotic members of the human community to this very day, on the authority of no less a man than Admiral Richard E. Byrd!


The account of King Arthur's expedition in the far north is found in correspondence between the famed mapmaker Gerhard Mercator and the Welsh polymath Sir John Dee, written during 1577. It continues: -

The islands adjacent to the North Pole were formerly called Ciliae, and now the Septentrionales: among them is North Norway. And there are many small rivers, some two, some one, some three kennings wide, more or less: and they are called "indrawing seas" because the current always flows northwards so strongly that no wind can make a ship sail back against it. And here it is all ice from October to March. And in these latitudes the mountains reach up to the clouds, and are almost all rock bare of vegetation. And it is almost always misty and dull weather. And it is well known that beyond 70 or 78 degrees of latitude there is no human habitation. Moreover this 78th parallel goes in a circle round the Arctic Pole, in the form of a high mountain range.

These "indrawing seas" would go on to feature in a mysterious, almost legendary, account of travels in this region, namely the Inventio Fortunata, ascribed to English Minorite in around AD 1360 and known primarily during Mercator and Dee's day through the work of Jacobus Cnoyen, a Brabantian, who paraphrased - and likely misconstrued - the Inventio in his Itinerarium. Even the "English Minorite" is an enigma, beyond being based in Oxford and of the Franciscan order, in the service of Edward III. He may not even been an Englishman at all, rather a man of Ireland named Hugh. Richard Hakluyt's suggestion that he was Nicholas of Lynn is likely mistaken, as Nicholas was but a boy when the alleged voyage took place.

Anyhow, I digress. Mercator proceeds with something of an epitome of the Inventio, beginning thus: -

This monk said that the mountain range goes round the North like a wall, save that in nineteen places the indrawing channels flow through it, whereof the widest is not above 12 French miles across, the narrowest 3/4 mile. And through the narrowest no ship would be able to go, because of the strong rush of the water. The mountain range is surrounded by sea except in North Norway, when the Norwegian mountain range reaches it for a width of about 17 miles. And right under the North Star, opposite Norway, there lies a fair level land which is uninhabitated, where many beautiful [...]

This tantalising section is, sadly, lacunose. Thereafter, Mercator continues: -

[I]n the east there stretches out an arm of land which is nearly all wooded. And narrows continually, (the farther north?) the more, so that it is not more than one mile wide where it meets the mountain range. Otherwise no land touches the circumference (of mountains) anywhere. But in many places the sea is so narrow that one can see the far side.
And the mountain range covers a breadth of eight miles (?).

This wooded peninsula is presumably a part of "North Norway," also known as Dusky Norway, which: -

[L]ies over against the country called the Province of Darkness (or Obscure Province): in Latin Provincia Tenebrosa. Concerning it, however, there is nothing written in Marco [Polo]. And this Province of Darkness is [the most western bound] of the Grand Cham's land. And between this Province and Dusky Norway there is only 12 miles of sea.

The precise location of "North Norway" in a region further west than Norway proper may be hinted at in the nature of the inhabitants: -

And in the whole circle (said the Minorite) there is no habitation, except on the east side where in that narrow land (isthmus) already mentioned there were 23 people not above 4 feet tall [...] whereof 16 were women. This Monk said that in two other places further inland he found a great piece of ship's planking and other balks which had been used in big ships besides many trunks of trees which at some earlier date had been hewn down. So that he could say with certainty that there had formerly been habitation there but the people had now gone. And that the country where they (the pygmeys I believe he means) lived was more than 6 degrees broad (that is to say 20 days' journey) and one could cover the distance on foot, and it was 10 degrees long, that is 33 days' journey. Also there lay there (said he) an Indrawing Sea of 5 channels gathered together which came through the mountain range out of the 19 channels mentioned. And this Indrawing Sea is 12 French miles wide, and measures across about 4 days' journey.

This land, of long-forgotten carcasses of ships, signs of abandoned habitations and small people, seems eerily similar to what one may have expected to find in Greenland during the middle of the 14th century. However, the references to the "Grand Cham's land" would suggest otherwise. Further west, there are more of these "indrawing seas": -

And at the west of the aforesaid country is another Indrawing Sea into which 3 more channels go out of the aforesaid. And that channel which they (the ships I believe are meant) had entered also flowed therein. And all these channels which turn tortuously when they come out of the mountains drive ships immediately ashore. But whatever channels flowed straight into the innermost seas, into which the 19 channels gather, in these ships must of necessity be carried current wise (i.e. inwards) and become lost.

One is reminded of the tales of the Moskstraumen and similar phenomena, which brings us to a contemporary description by Ivar Bardsson, writing of his travels to Greenland in 1364, who states the following: -

To the north of the west Bygd is a great mountain called Hemelrachi, beyond which no man may sail without peril of his life, on account of the numerous whirlpools in that sea.

Detail of Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina.

Back to Mercator's missive: -

Also, said this Minorite, these innermost seas number four: and the one which lies on the west side was quite 34 French miles broad. And on the other side of this sea was the best and healthiest land in all the North. Also he said that the sea which lay on the east side could never be frozen because so many channels united there. And it was narrow besides, so that the current was very strong. But that the one which ran on the west side used to freeze almost every year: and remained frozen sometimes for three months. And in that land he had seen no signs of habitation. But in a country which lay to the North opposite it, he had recognized planks of ships and tree trunks. All these four countries are high open lands (i.e. plateaus) except some mountains four fathom [sic] high. There are many trees of Brazil wood.

Such descriptions are reminiscent of the Norse remarks on Markland, and doubtless led to the conceit that there was an open sea around the North Pole with a surprisingly temperate clime. Now, however, (and after another lacuna), we come to the ultimate end of the Indrawing Seas: -

In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool [...] into which there empty these four Indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is 4 degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic stone. And is as high as (the clouds?) so the Priest said, who had received the astrolabe from this Minorite in exchange for a Testament. And the Minorite himself had heard that one can see all round it from the Sea: and it is black and glistening. And nothing grows thereon, for there is not so much as a handful of soil on it. That was the writing and words of the Minorite, who has since journeyed to and fro five times for the King of England on business. They are to be found in a book called Inventio Fortunae, of which the Minorite himself was author. The foresaid Priest said also to the King of Norway that in the country where he dwelt not six times a year did it rain: and even that was drizzle, lasting not more than 6 or 7 hours.

This mighty magnetic island is the Rupes Nigra of the mapmakers and the northern iteration of the magnetic mountain. Now all that remains is to consider the statements of Mercator and his predecessor Johann Ruysch on their maps of the north. Ruysch fusnishes us with the following remarks: -

Detail of Johann Ruysch's map.

We read in the book De Inventione Fortunatae that beneath the Arctic Pole there is a high rock of magnetic stone 33 German miles in cicrumference.
The indrawing sea surrounds this (rock), flowing as if in a vessel that lets water down a hole (i.e. a funnel).
There are four surrounding islands of which two are inhabited. But they are bordered by huge mountains twenty-four days journey across, which forbid human habitation.
Here the indrawing sea begins. Here the ship's compass does not hold, nor can ships containing iron turn back.

He also provides names for the four islands encircling the Rupes Nigra: -

  • Aronphei
  • Insula Deserta
  • Hyperborei Europe
  • Insula Deserta

With regards to Aronphei, Taylor notes the presence of a "Fei Arumfeie alias Cibes," a pair of semicircular islands around a central straight channel which, from the remainder of the Latin legend, appear to correspond to the Island of Demons off the Canadian coast, itself a likely revivification of Satanazes, Antillia's northern companion. Aronphei itself, according to Taylor, corresponds to Mercator's island of the pygmies who bear a resemblance to the Scraelings of Greenland. Their origins may ultimately lie in the conflation of the Arimaspoi, enemies of the griffins living opposite the Hyperboreans, with the Argippeans of Scythia, described by Herodotus as follows [4.23.2-5]: -

[T]here are men inhabiting the foothills of high mountains, who are said to be bald from birth (male and female alike) and snub-nosed and with long beards; they speak their own language, and wear Scythian clothing, and their food comes from trees. The tree by which they live is called "Pontic"; it is about the size of a fig-tree, and bears a fruit as big as a bean, with a stone in it. When this fruit is ripe, they strain it through cloth, and a thick black liquid comes from it, which they call "aschu"; they lick this up or drink it mixed with milk, and from the thickest lees of it they make cakes, and eat them. They have few cattle, for the pasture in their land is not good. They each live under a tree, covering it in winter with a white felt cloth, but using no felt in summer. These people are wronged by no man, for they are said to be sacred; nor have they any weapon of war. They judge the quarrels between their neighbors; furthermore, whatever banished man has taken refuge with them is wronged by no one. They are called Argippeans.

Latin writers appear to have begun this conflation, with Pliny the Elder locating the Arimphæi, "a race not much unlike the Hyperborei," who extend to the Riphæan Mountains, in which dwell the griffins of Aristeas [6.7, 14], while Pomponius Mela places them, apparently, north of the Caucasus [1.13].

Detail of Gerhard Mercator's map.

Mercator, for his part, describes the northern lands as follows: -

This channel has five mouths (entries) and because of its narrow swift current it never freezes.
Here live pygmies, at most 4 feet tall, who are like those in Greenland called Scraelings.
This channel is entered by 3 mouths and remains frozen for three months every year. It is 37 leagues long.
This island is the best and healthiest of the whole north.
The Ocean rushes in between these islands by 19 mouths and makes 4 channels by which it is incessantly carried northwards & there disappears into the bowels of the earth.

The "the best and healthiest" island, in combination with the ancient tale of the Hyperboreans, doubtless led to the notion of the open polar sea, which we will shortly discuss. But first, a brief detour or two.

Thereafter the progeny of Bethach s. Iarbonel the Soothsayer s. Nemed were in the northern islands of the world, learning druidry and knowledge and prophecy and magic, till they were expert in the arts of pagan cunning.

Momentarily, we trace our steps back to the remarkably-green turf or Ireland, home in days gone by of the remarkable Tuatha Dé Danann and their cloud ships. Before reclaiming their ancestral homeland from their relatives and foes the Fir Bolg, they spent time learning their craft from great and wise teachers in the aforementioned northern islands, whose cities are given the following names and descriptions: -

  • Falias, home of Morfessa, from whence came the Lia Fáil;
  • Gorias, home of Esras, origin of the spear of Lugh;
  • Findias, home of Uiscias, from whence came Núada's Claidheamh Soluis or "Sword of Light; and
  • Muirias, home of Semias, and origin of the Dagda's Cauldron.

One further remarkable tale of the northern lands may be found in the Icelandic þáttr af Halli geit. This describes the exploits of a nomadic, tiny, (relatively-)modern-day Ýmir surviving amidst frozen wastes by no more sustenance than the milk of an animal, in this instance a goat. Mountains and forests appear in the story of intrepid Halli: -

He alone succeeded in coming by land on foot over mountains and glaciers and all the wastes, and past all the gulfs of the sea to Gandvík and then to Norway. He led with him a goat, and lived on its milk; he often found valleys and narrow openings between the glaciers, so that the goat could feed either on the grass or in the woods.

Halli had, apparently, set off from Greenland! This tale is tentatively cited by that magnificent latter-day Halli, Fridtjof Nansen, as evidence for the belief in an eastern extension of Greenland as far, perhaps, as the "Farther Bjarmaland" of Novaya Zemlya, while J.R. Enterline (cited above) supposes a possible westward course, which would be an amazing feat indeed.


No less an explorer than Christopher Columbus was apparently keen to get his hands on a copy of the Inventio. An avid reader, Columbus' notions of the Atlantic, and subsequently his interpretation of his discoveries, was dependent on medieval literature such as the account of Marco Polo, of which he owned and keenly annotated a copy. One subject which was of interest to "The Most Magnificent And Most Worthy Lord - The Lord Grand Admiral" was the far north. That he tried and (so far as we can tell) failed to secure a copy of the Inventio is apparent from a letter written by John Day around the turn of the year 1498, whose failure to provide Columbus with it led to a profuse apology. Some time earlier, perhaps in 1477, Columbus made the journey to what is presumably Iceland. A letter, epitomised by his son Ferdinand, contains some interesting notices, which read as follows: -

In the month of February, in the year 1466, I sailed one hundred leagues beyond the island of Tile, the southern portion of which is seventy-three degrees removed from the equinoctial, and not sixty-three, as some will have it; nor is it situated within the line which includes Ptolemy's west, but is much further to the westward; and to this island, which is as large as England, the English come with their wares, especially those from Bristol. And at the time I went thither the sea was not frozen, although the tides there are so great that in some places they rose twenty-six fathoms, and fell as much. It is, indeed, the fact that the Tile, of which Ptolemy makes mention, is situated where he describes it, and by the moderns this is called Frislanda.

Aside from the mention of the name Frislanda, made famous (or, perhaps more appropriately, notorious) by Nicolò Zen's 1558 map and description of the north, the most important notices are Columbus' knowledge of Ptolemy, as well as his interest in the tides - not to mention the far west. It is also striking that "the sea was not frozen" in February, the height of winter, and this fact may have increased speculation about a temperate area with an open sea further to the north than the icy Libersee and its frosty ilk.

Though Columbus, if he ever intended such a venture, never followed through with a voyage towards the North Pole, the idea had gained new life by 1527, when the Englishman Robert Thorne, then based in Seville, pondered upon the possibility of his country's seeking to exploit northern routes to the Spice Islands, suggesting that these would be quicker and safer than the new Portuguese route around Africa. Sadly, this never got past the "pipe dream" phase of development: England was, at that time, under the backwards-looking rule of Henry VIII, whose failure to follow up on his father's commissioning of John Cabot's explorations was exacerbated by religious turmoil following the failure of his marriage to his Spanish queen within a few years. Thorne, though, can claim to be the intellectual father of the later English - and, subsequently, Dutch - endeavours to find routes in the north, initially to Muscovy and beyond.

Around 1652, another Englishman, Joseph Moxon, was in Amsterdam, pursuing his interest in cartography and mathematics. He fell in with an old salt in an alehouse, a Dutch native with experience of the Spitsbergen (which the English of that time insisted on calling Greenland, another hold-out from the Halli geit days) whaling grounds, and was party to a conversation between this fellow and another mariner, who told him a likely tale. Reminiscing some twenty-two years later, Moxon, now Hydrographer to the restored monarch Charles II, recorded the following: -

Being about 22 years ago in Amsterdam, went into a Drinking-house to drink a cup of Beer for my thirst, and sitting by the publick Fire, among several People there hapned a Seaman to come in, who seeing a Friend of his there, who he knew went in the Greenland Voyage, wondred to see him, because it was not yet time for the Greenland Fleet to come home, and ask'd him what accident brought him home so soon: His Friend [...] told him that their Ship went not out to Fish that Summer, but only to take in the Lading of the whole Fleet, to bring it to an early Market, &c. But, said he, before the Fleet had caught Fish enough to lade us, we, by order of the Greenland Company, Sailed into the North-Pole, and came back again.

An astonished Moxon has to know more, and interrogates the recently-returned sea-dog: -

Whereupon (his Relation being Novel to me) I entred discourse with him and seem'd to question the truth of what he said. But he did ensure me it was true, and that the Ship was then in Amsterdam, and many of the Seamen belonging to her to justifie the truth of it: And told me moreover, that they sailed 2 degrees beyond the Pole. I askt him, if they found no Land or Islands about the Pole? He told me No, there was a free and open Sea; I askt him if they did not meet with a great deal of Ice? He told me No, they saw no Ice. I askt him what Weather they had there? He told me fine warm Weather, such as was at Amsterdam in the Summer time, and as hot.

Moxon, somewhat apologetically, explains the reasons why his account is a little light on detail: -

I should have askt him more questions, but that he was ingaged in discourse with his Friend, and I could not in modesty interrupt them longer. But I believe the Steer-man spoke matter of fact and truth, for he seem'd a plain honest and unaffectatious Person, and one who could have no design upon me.

No design indeed: we must bear in mind that, during 1652, the First Anglo-Dutch War was in the process of breaking out. However, Moxon is a decent authority, gaining the respect of Charles II despite his earlier Puritan leanings, so I for one am willing to take him at his word.

Another who did likewise was one Captain John Wood, who set out for the Pole in 1676 to seek a passage to the east of Spitsbergen. He was, needless to say, stymied by walls of ice. This prompted him to withdraw the benefit of the doubt from Moxon and his peers, accusing reporters of an open sea of wilfully misleading navigators and their funders, their expensive and dangerous ventures being little but fools' errands.

A century later and the chattering classes of Georgian England (our homeland being a world leader in somewhat offbeat and inevitably erroneous ideas) were dropping their Ming teacups when the fantastically-named Hon. Daines Barrington furnished the esteemed Royal Society with his case for an Open Polar Sea. One corollary from this was the Phipps expedition to the north, which included a certain Horatio Nelson on the crew as midshipman. This fifteen-year-old adventure-hungry lad allegedly distinguished himself by picking a fight with a polar bear! Nicknamed Na-polarbear Bonaparte! Seriously!

Well, that's what an old sailor once told me during a drinking session in Amsterdam around the turn of the millennium.....

Last of all, we consider two great explorers who have already been mentioned in dispatches. Firstly, Fridtjof Nansen, whose expedition aboard the Fram saw his crew deliberately cast themselves to the mercy of the ice for three years is regarded by the eloquent John K. Wright as having dealt the Open Polar Sea theory its final doom: "The theory of an Open Polar Sea [...] was already mortally striken before 1880: Nansen gave it the coup de grâce."

Secondly, that great American hero Richard E. Byrd, around whom so much mythology associated with both poles circulates like bees about a flower (or, perhaps, wrecked hulks around the Rupes Nigra), whose exploits have given a new impetus for those who propound bizarre theories about a temperate Arctic region leading inevitably into the Inner Earth. Byrd's supposed diary for February and March 1947 contains a flight log which gives credence to the notion that we live on the shell of a hollow planet, as well as a source for the "UFO" phenomenon: -

0915 Hours - In the distance is what appears to be mountains.
0949 Hours - 29 minutes elapsed flight time from the first sighting of the mountains, it is no illusion. They are mountains and consist of a small range that I have never seen before!
1000 Hours - We are crossing over the small mountain range and still proceeding northward as best as can be ascertained. Beyond the mountain range is what appears to be a valley with a small river or stream running through the center portion. There should be no green valley below! Something is definitely wrong and abnormal here! We should be over Ice and Snow! To the portside are great forests growing on the mountain slopes. Our navigation Instruments are still spinning, the gyroscope is oscillating back and forth!
1005 Hours - I alter altitude to 1400 feet and execute a sharp left turn to better examine the valley below. It is green with either moss or a type of tight-knit grass. The Light here seems different. I cannot see the Sun anymore. We make another left turn and we spot what seems to be a large animal of some kind below us. It appears to be an elephant! NO!!! It looks more like a mammoth! This is incredible! Yet, there it is! Decrease altitude to 1000 feet and take binoculars to better examine the animal. It is confirmed - it is definitely a mammoth-like animal! Report this to base camp.
1030 Hours - Encountering more rolling green hills now. The external temperature indicator reads 74 degrees Fahrenheit! Continuing on our heading now. Navigation instruments seem normal now. I am puzzled over their actions. Attempt to contact base camp. Radio is not functioning!

Just when things seem as though they could not get any weirder, they take a turn towards the decidedly more weird, replete with more superflous exclamation marks aplenty: -

1130 Hours - Countryside below is more level and normal (if I may use that word). Ahead we spot what seems to be a city!!!! This is impossible! Aircraft seems light and oddly buoyant. The controls refuse to respond!! My GOD!!! Off our port and starboard wings are a strange type of aircraft. They are closing rapidly alongside! They are disc-shaped and have a radiant quality to them. They are close enough now to see the markings on them. It is a type of Swastika!!! This is fantastic. Where are we! What has happened? I tug at the controls again. They will not respond!!!! We are caught in an invisible vice grip of some type!
1135 Hours - Our radio crackles and a voice comes through in English with what perhaps is a slight Nordic or Germanic accent! The message is: Welcome, Admiral, to our domain. We shall land you in exactly seven minutes! Relax, Admiral, you are in good hands. I note the engines of our plane have stopped running! The aircraft is under some strange control and is now turning itself. The controls are useless.

The diary entry continues with a rather lurid tale of an advanced civilisation of German speakers living within the hollow pole. They are led by a shadowy figure known as the Master, who welcomes Byrd to "the domain of the Arianni, the Inner World of the Earth." Byrd is sent back with a message, which he duly delivers to the higher echelons of the US military and President Harry S. Truman, only to be "ordered to remain silent," predictably enough.

While the Hollow Earth is a story which is best placed elsewhere, suffice to say that the mysterious realm of Agartha or Asgartha, said to derive from ancient Indian records, is patently nothing more than a cipher for the Norse Ásgarðr, its advanced inhabitants none other than the Norse gods cosplaying as nabobs, East India Companymen.

Sir Graham