The Polar Regions
The Polar Regions
MYTH AND HISTORY
The Polar Regions Up to 1800
Few things differentiate the Arctic from Antarctica more than the scale and chronological scope of their early human histories. By the year 1800, people had been living, traveling, and hunting north of the Arctic Circle for thousands of years. Only some islands, inland regions, and the extreme far north had no human populations. In contrast, the first recorded sightings of Antarctica did not take place until 1820; the size and hostility of the Southern Ocean barred the presence of people. It would not be until the middle of the twentieth century that the first permanently occupied settlements would be built on the Antarctic continent. While large parts of the Arctic therefore have a history of human occupation stretching into the deep past, at the turn of the nineteenth century the Antarctic continent remained completely unseen and unknown. A case could be made that prior to 1800, everything in Antarctica was myth while the Arctic already had a long human history.
In contemporary western culture, the word "myth" is often used to imply something that is not true while the word "history" is usually assumed to have some relationship to what actually happened. While such a distinction has been widely challenged and would not be recognized by many cultures around the world, it is a dichotomy that retains much of its power, at least in the west. Rather than suggesting a stark distinction between Arctic history and Antarctic myth, a study of the two Polar Regions up to 1800 reveals myth and history to be much more fluid than is often believed. In many parts of the Arctic, the elaborate myths that are told about a place are fundamental to the way people make sense of their environment. It makes little sense in this context to ask what is true and what is not, since myths are a fundamental part of the history. In Antarctica speculation about the existence of a southern continent existed long before the first recorded sighting, and this speculation has become part of the history. In particular, very few books on the history of Antarctica begin without some reference to the classical geographies of Aristotle and Ptolemy that hypothesized the existence of a southern continent. 1
Myths and histories are seldom politically neutral, and the way we perceive the distant past shapes the recent past and the present. By telling stories about Greek and Roman speculation, for example, Europeans have created for themselves a longstanding connection with Antarctica that goes back more than ten times further than the continent's known existence. In the twentieth century, such a historical connection proved politically useful for the European countries that sought to assert their ownership of the southern continent. In both north and south, in the triumphalist stories of Enlightenment explorers such as Captain Cook, the act of exploration is presented as the replacing of the unknown with the known, myth with history. Over time, however, the historical deeds of these explorers often become myths in their own right through frequent retelling and embellishment. 2 In the Arctic, European colonialism often began with the appropriation of indigenous myths. Colonial anthropologists such as Knud Rasmussen sought to rationalize and make sense of Arctic belief systems, rather than taking them purely on their own terms. Colonial powers sought to replace indigenous myths with supposed Christian and scientific truths, thereby creating disconnects with place and the environment and facilitating land removal and political control. Historical resistance to such a process has often focused not on direct competition, but on the perpetuation and valorization of the myths that connect people to the land.
The blurring of myth and history has important implications for the field of environmental history. It highlights the importance of