The polar tradition: ancient myth, boreal geography and modern metapolitics

Richard Rudgley
Studied history of religions, ethnology and prehistory at the University of London (SOAS) and the University of Oxford, with a thesis on Central Asia. He is the author of seven books on cultural history and has been translated into thirteen languages. Arktos has recently republished his books Essential Substances, which is about the history of intoxicants in Western civilisation; Wildest Dreams: An Anthology of Drug-Related Literature, which collects writings both ancient and modern describing the drug experience; and Barbarians, which is about the European ‘Dark Ages’. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

“It seems to me that there has been another spiritual stream in the West, parallel to Christianity, that I call the ‘Polar Tradition’.”

Joscelyn Godwin Arktos:The Polar Myth

When considering the sacred aspect of multipolarism the notion of verticality and the mythic dimensions of the enterprise in questionare inevitably introduced.  These elements are to be found at the heart of the neo-Eurasian movement itself — in Alexander Dugin’s worksand most obviously in his founding in the 1990s of the Arctogaia Association think tank, and the publishing house and website of the same name. The word Arctogaia derives from the Greek for ‘northern earth’ and was used early in the twentieth century by the Ariosophist JorgLanz-Liebenfels(1874—1954) in the form Arktogäa to designate a lost polar continent. Under his influence his sometime associate the Austrian mystic Guido von List (1848—1919) also wrote of this lost land. The Arctogaia website describes it as: “a mythical continent, that in former days was situated on the North Pole, but long ago disappeared from physical reality.”

Arctogaia, in vanishing from the world of profane geography, shared a fate with its more well-known counterpart, namely the lost northern continent of Hyperborea. The name Hyperborea (the land of the Hyperboreans) means ‘beyond the north wind’. Even as far back in history as ancient Greece its ethereal status was attested to by Pindar who wrote in his Pythian Odes: “neither by ship nor on foot could you find the marvellous road to the meeting-place of the Hyperboreans.”

Greek literature abounds with references to the Hyperboreans. Sometimes these passages are couched purely in mythical terms whilst others attempt to locate them in a more mundane geography. Hecataeus wrote that ‘the Land of the Hyperboreans lies on the Atlantic sea, opposite the land of the Celts.’ Most sources are vaguer but all agree that Hyperborea is in the far northern zone of the world, whether this was understood to be still part of continental Europe or beyond it, further toward the pole. Others tried to locate the Hyperboreans by reference to other semi-mythical races. Some sources talk of a people called the Arimphians who were said to dwell to the south of the Riphean Mountains.

These mountains were envisaged as a vast stone girdle encircling the earth. To the north of this mountainous barrier was the homeland of the Hyperboreans. This placing of Hyperborea within a circular stone barrier is echoed by the citadel of the mythical Iranian homeland detailed further below.
The Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BC) noted that his own writing on the Hyperboreans was not based on eye-witness accounts of this northern civilisation since neither he nor anyone he knew or had even heard of had actually been to Hyperborea (Histories 4.16). It is said to be a fertile country with a temperate climate and its inhabitants live in a state of perpetual bliss in their utopian country.

They worship Apollo and built circular temples dedicated to him. Although it is possible to draw parallels between the Hyperboreans and the Bronze Age peoples of northern Europe it is clear that most Greek accounts contain more mythic imagery than attempts to plot them on any purely mundane map. The sun-worshipping Hyperboreans also present us with a close parallel to the spiritually enlightened beings of the ancient Iranian tradition.

The oldest sacred texts of the Iranians are known collectively as the Avestaand preserve many parallels with the ancient Vedas of the Indian tradition. This clearly shows that much of the mythology contained in these two sets of scriptures belongs to a common tradition that existed before the Indians and the Iranians split into two separate cultural streams in the second millennium BC. In the Iranian Avestawe are told of a place known as the Airyanem Vaejah– the original homeland of the Aryan-Iranians. Much ink has been spilt trying to find a geographic location for this mythologised place with little agreement among the scholars. Henry Corbin, an orientalist and specialist in the spiritual traditions of Iran, has put forward his explanation for this confusion:

“Those who have attempted to determine its position on geographic maps have run into great difficulties; no convincing solution has been obtained in this way, for the first and good reason that the problem of locating it lies in the realm of visionary geography.”

Corbin goes further, describing it as a primordial and archetypal image. In other words, this lost northern homeland is part of the psychic map of the Indo-European peoples, existing within rather than without — it is to be found not on the map of the earth but the map of the soul.

The ancient Iranian myths tell of Yima, the greatest of mortals, who was commanded by the gods to create a walled city, an enclosure within which the most spiritual beings would take refuge from a lethal winter which was to be released by demonic forces. When this catastrophe had finally passed those humans within the enclosure could re-enter the world outside and populate it anew. This northern paradise of the Iranians is described as a fortified citadel within which both houses and storerooms allow its occupants to survive through these terrible times. Corbin tells us that it has:

“Luminiscent windows which themselves secrete an inner light within, for it is illuminated by both uncreated and created lights. Its inhabitants see the stars, moon, and sun rise and set only once a year, and that is why a year seems to them only a day.”

As has already been mentioned many have searched on maps for this northern paradise, a place that Corbin sees as a spiritual rather than an earthly location. But this passage does seem to preserve some folk memory or knowledge of the earthly realm of the far north. For at the poles there is only one day and one night per year — six months of darkness and six months of light. This apparent evidence for such a folk memory is fascinating but this not to the place to pursue this line of the enquiry. My present interest is to outline the mythical dimensions of this polar paradise.

Some features of this Iranian myth echo those of northern European mythology. Asgard, the home of Odin and the other members of the Aesir family of gods, is a walled and fortified enclosure. The unusual mythical account of a severe and protracted winter that was preserved in Iranian tradition can also be found in the Norse myths. The Fimbulwinter (from the Old Norse fimbulvetr meaning ‘great or terrible winter’) is said to last for three years with no summers to break the harsh monotony.

Throughout this time there are constant snowstorms from all directions and a permanent frost. It is said to herald the coming Ragnarok and in some versions of the myth even to be identical to it.

Corbin sees the lost northern homeland of the Iranians as an archetypal symbol that refers to:

“The threshold of a supernatural beyond: there are uncreated lights; a world that secretes its own light…a shadowless country peopled with beings of light who have reached spiritual heights inaccessible to earthly beings. They are truly beings of the beyond; where the shadow which holds the light captive ends, there the beyond begins, and the very same mystery is enciphered in the symbol of the North. In the same way the Hyperboreans symbolize men whose soul has reached such completeness and harmony that it is devoid of negativity and shadow.”

There are parallels to such myths in the Indian tradition. Hindu myth speaks of the people of the northern sun (the Uttara-kurus) who inhabit a polar paradise and whose perfection is symbolised by their being formed as conjoined twins. One of the most prominent figures in the quest for Indian independence from the British Empire was the nationalist leader BâlGangâdharTilak (1856-1920). In 1897 he was imprisoned as a result of his anti-British stance. Whilst incarcerated he was allowed to spend his time writing on a less seditious subject — thanks to the intervention of the orientalist Max Muller who spoke out on his behalf. The result of this literary labour was a book entitled The Arctic Home in the Vedas (completed in 1897 and published in 1903)in which he proposed that the original homeland of the Aryans was not somewhere in Central Asia (as the then received wisdom would have it) but in the Far North. He claimed that many otherwise inexplicable passages in the ancient Hindu scriptures became clear once this polar homeland was accepted. For example, the mythical imagery of the Vedas speaks of ‘Thirty Dawn-Sisters circling like a wheel’ and the ‘Dawn of Many Days’ that precedes the rising of the sun both of which reflect conditions at the pole.

The archetypal symbol of the Far North has multiple layers of meaning. Fundamental to this symbolism is the underlying idea of a vertical ascent. The Hyperboreans, the perfect beings who dwell at the pole, represent the perfected beings that have attained enlightenment. The spiritual journey that is expressed in these mythical traditions is one of travelling on the way up to the north, the way to enlightenment. In many archaic cosmologies the heavens are symbolised as being held up by a pole or a pillar and we find such beliefs in the Norse tradition. The Old Norse term áss, meaning ‘god’ (hence the Aesirfamily of gods) also means ‘pole’.

Among the pagan Saxons a huge pole or pillar known as the Irminsul was central to their religion. It symbolised the mystical centre of the world and thus its felling by the Christian Charlemagne was seen by them as an act of great sacrilege. As a symbol the Irminsul seems to be closely connected to Yggdrassil, the World Tree of Norse myth and probably to the veneration of poles and tall wooden idols that can be traced back to the Bronze Age. All these symbols show the importance of the vertical axis in the pre-Christian northern worldview. It was by facing to the north that the Norse gods were invoked. The Hyperborean myth was still current at the time of the Vikings. Even as late as the eleventh century the medieval historian Adam of Bremen, when writing about the pagan rites he witnessed in Sweden, repeated the myth that the most northerly people in the world were the Hyperboreans.

Thus it can be seen that in these various ancient Indo-European mythologies a northern homeland and paradise was a common feature. It is clear that this polar myth can be traced back to a number of peoples of prehistoric Eurasia. In northern Europe it was integral to the Germanic myths and, as such, a part of the inner geography of the northern psyche. Hyperborea is the lost continent of the European imagination. In the nineteenth century the archetype of the northern homeland returned with a vengeance. With the rise of modern science the search for the origin cradle of humanity (and more particularly the Indo-European peoples) became a burning issue. No longer relying on the Bible for the answer scientists began to consider a host of alternatives. The almost universal view among today’s archaeologists and anthropologists is that Africa is the birth place of humanity but in the nineteenth century the question was far more open. Central Asia, Scandinavia, India, Tibet, and the North Pole were all championed by different scholars as the homeland of the Indo-Europeans and, in some cases, humanity itself. Those who thought the Indo-European homeland was to be found in the Far North were tapping into the archetypal image of Hyperborea in a way comparable to those that seek the origins of civilisation in Mesopotamia draw on another archetypal land, that of the Biblical Eden.

Unfolding concurrently with this geographical and archaeological scrutiny of archaic myths of a lost homeland were metapolitical and occult currents that evoked the mysterious northern island of Thule. Thule is a word that means little to anyone except those interested in ancient geography or those who are familiar with that branch of modern history that concerns itself with the darker side of occultism and political extremism.

Textbooks on the history of polar research invariably start with an intrepid Greek voyager named Pytheas of Massalia. Around 2,300 years ago he set out from the Greek trading port of Massalia (modern day Marseilles) and made a journey further north than any of his compatriots had ever made, travelling beyond Britain to a location that he named Thule. He recorded these travels in his On the Ocean the original of which has unfortunately been lost to posterity. Various fragments of this lost work still exist as Pytheas was quoted by various other ancient writers such as the well-known geographer Strabo. Strabo and others quoted him largely to mock his, what seemed to them, wild assertions about this undiscovered northern land. Modern commentators have been more willing to give more credence to his account.

Debate still continues as to the actual geographical location of Pytheas’ Thule. Trondheim in Norway, the Shetland Islands and the Faroe Islands have all been put forward as possible candidates but most scholars agree that he was probably referring to Iceland. The fact that Pytheas’ account of his voyage was not widely believed in the ancient world meant that whilst Thule did find its way onto maps of the earth it had another enduring influence, namely in the realm of the imagination. ‘Ultima Thule’ became an evocative symbol for a fabulous land in the far north in the works of Roman poets. The word Thule itself has many variants both in how it is written (Thula, Thyle, Tyle, Tula,Tila among them) and in its suggested meaning.Thule is variously interpreted as meaning ‘resting place (of the sun)’, ‘most remote land’, ‘the furthest place’ and in some instances became identified with Hyperborea.

The old myth of Thule was revived in the early twentieth century in Germany in a new incarnation as a metapoliticaland occult device. In 1918the Thule Society emerged out of the Germanenorden, a secretive nationalist and anti-Semitic quasi-masonic lodge. Entry was subject to strict racial guidelines and questions about skin, eye and hair colour appeared on the forms to be filled in by prospective members, whilst those who were physically handicapped were barred.The clandestine meetings of the Thule Society in Munich were rudely interrupted when in November 1918 Bavaria was suddenly (if peacefully) overtaken by socialist revolutionaries led by a Jewish journalist named Kurt Eisner. This event involved the deposing of the Wittelsbach royal family and it seemed that the Thule Society’s worst nightmare was coming true. The Society’s leader, the occultist and political activist Rudolf von Sebottendorff addressed his assembled brethren the day after this revolution reportedly saying:

“Yesterday we experienced the collapse of everything which was familiar, dear and valuable to us. In the place of our princes of Germanic blood rules our deadly enemy: Judah. What will come of this chaos, we do not know yet. But we can guess. A time will come of struggle…I am determined to pledge the Thule to this struggle. Our Order is a Germanic Order…our god is Walvater, his rune is the Ar-rune. And the trinity: Wotan, Wili, We is the unity of the trinity. The Ar-rune signifies Aryan, primal fire, the sun and the eagle.”

As Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke pointed out these words reveal the influence of Guido von List. The ‘trinity’ of Germanic pagan gods in this particular form was one of List’s innovations and the multiple meanings given to the Ar-rune by Sebottendorff in his speech are drawn directly from List’s work. Goodrick-Clarke also suspects that the name of the Thule Society owes much to List’s indirect inspiration. According to List Iceland was the refuge of Armanist sages (preservers of ancient Germanic wisdom) fleeing the persecution of the Catholic Church.Sebottendorff identified Iceland with Thule. The Thule Society soon became a powerhouse of the political right. Weapons training, counter-revolutionary activity and the infiltration of Communist groups were key aspects of their political agenda. They also played host to a number of individuals who were to become leading Nazis including Alfred Rosenberg and Rudolf Hess. It is also possible to trace another more symbolic link to the Nazi Party. It was a member of the Thule Society named Friedrich Krohn who in 1919 advocated the use of the swastika as the symbol of the National Socialist Party — the forerunner of the Nazi Party. Hitler approved a modified version of Krohn’s design for use as the core emblem of Nazism.

Another important and far-reaching survey of a lost arctic homeland is to be found in the work of
Herman Wirth (1885—1981).Whilst investigating the folk architecture of the Netherlands he came to believe that ancient traditions dating back to a lost northern homeland had been preserved by Frisian craftsmen. This provided the initial inspiration for his magnum opus, a huge volume entitled The Rise of Mankind which was published in 1928. Joscelyn Godwin brought this all but forgotten work a new lease of life by summarising it to the English-speaking world:

“Wirth inhabited that borderland that lies between scholarship and the world of the imagination. Such people, and they are rare, serve an invaluable purpose on both sides of the frontier. They bring to the dry bonesof academic research an infusion from the mythic imagination, while at the same time they exercise objectivity, reason and control in dealing with subjects that often induce delusions, paranoia and inflation…it was important to him that his version of the ‘Rise of Mankind’…should become a trueimage in the collective mind, that is, a myth. His whole motivation for this…was a concern for the spiritual state of Western man. A similar concern prompts me to study and write about him”.

Wirth sought spiritual understanding by delving into the ancient and prehistoric northern world. He believed that prehistoric inscriptions on rocks and on bone and wooden artefacts across the northern hemisphere were examples of a system of symbolic language which he was able to decipher. He claimed that before the last Ice Age Europeans were anything but primitive. He also believed that the earliest human script came from a Stone Age civilisation in the Atlantic-European region and this itself stemmed from an even earlier culture with its long lost homeland located within the Arctic Circle.

This Arctic homeland had to be abandoned with the coming of the Ice Age. Its inhabitants (whom he calls the Arctic-Nordic race) migrated southwards to North America, to the northern Atlantis that then still existed and to northernmost Asia. It was to the remnants of this archaic race that the subsequent civilisations of ancient Egypt, Sumeria and other ancient cultures were ultimately indebted. In propounding this theory Wirth was turning what had become received wisdom on its head. It was not the east but the north that was the origin of true religion and civilisation, the boreal peoples were not barbarians civilised by the more advanced Mediterranean cultures but the heralds of high culture themselves. This axial shift from East to North that Wirth advocates is echoed in our own time in both secular geopolitics and in the latest resurgence of mythic geography.

Under its various names (Artogaia, Hyperborea, Thule, etc.) the lost continent of the North remains a core motif in contemporary metapolitical discourse. The Belgian Jean Thiriart,who wrote of a grand telluric alliance from ‘Dublin to Vladivostok’, has inspired a host of thinkers to advocate a new world power often dubbed Eurosiberia. Among them is Guillaume Faye, one of the most prominent thinkers to have emerged from the French New Right. Whilst his approach is largely focused on the secular (rather than the sacred) in his Metapolitical Dictionary he nevertheless writes: “the concept of Eurosiberia is a ‘paradigm’, that is, an ideal, a model, an objective, one of whose dimensions is a concrete, agitating, and mobilising myth”.A key theme in Faye’s identitarian vision is of an ongoing and massive socio-political conflict between North and South — between native Europeans and immigrants from the south (Africa, the Middle East). In his work the old East-West axiom gives way to a new orientation — namely that of North-South.

This new focus on the North-South axis brings with it a number of key paradigmatic shifts the geopolitical ramifications of which are of seismic proportions. Firstly, if Europe’s core identity is seen to be Northern it can no longer be Western as well  — so in this vision Europe’s identification with what the Western world has become ceases to be (at least from an ideological point of view) and Europe removes itself from the thalassocratic spherein both politically and psychologically terms. Secondly, this shift is from the horizontal dimension (East-West) to the vertical dimension (North-South) implying a sea change from rhizomatic post-modern liberalism to ideas inspired by ancient hierarchies, Indo-European Traditionalism and organic democracies. Thirdly, it is noteworthy than in our own time it is possible to see how the myth of the ancient lost homeland of the north not only continues to be an essential element in contemporary metapolitical circles of Third Way adherents but also can be seen to play an equally axial role amongst seekers of a Fourth Way. The evocation of the polar continent amongst the latter takes place both within the neo-Eurasian Movement proper and in other schools of thought seeking metapolitical and geopolitical solutions from a position that is ‘beyond left and right’. It may also be remarked that this journey beyond left and right represents a further rejection of the horizontal plane in favour of vertical alternatives.

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