Bleak, bleak, bleak are the wastes of Greenland.
With an average temperature chattering between -9 and 7 degrees centigrade the place is pinned to the earth’s crust by a vast ice sheet, which makes the country bow in the middle, forming a basin. Consequently the ice does not flow outwards towards the sea, but makes for the heart of this wild white empire, leaving its sparse human population shivering on the coasts.
What makes a human being want to settle in such a place? Did they commit a crime, that they chose to flee to one of the bleakest habitats the world has to offer us?
Perhaps you just have to be born there. There were prehistoric cultures, paleo-eskimos who dominated the landscape from 2500bc.
And then the Norsemen came. And evidence from ice cores and clam shell analysis has shown that things were better there, in those days. It was several degrees warmer, and the settlers were able to grow trees, plants and barley. Scientists dubbed it the Mediaeval Warm Period, and Greenland was really quite bearable. Three large settlements were formed, with some 400 farms.
But all good warm periods must come to an end, and into this comfortable state of affairs a little ice age must come.
It hit the Norse men hard. Cut off from their ancestors, when the climate became colder the crops dried up and fish became their staple source of food. They became malnourished; there was plague; and the men fought with the Inuits.
The last wedding recorded on the settlements is 1408. Soon after, there was no more heard from the Norseman of Greenland. There had even been a bishopric of Greenland which fell into disuse.
And the story lay fallow in the ice.
Until 18th century missionary Hans Egede got a bee in his thoroughly Lutheran bonnet about the tales of a lost race of his people, who had settled in Greenland in the olden days.
Egede was convinced the colony must still exist. In the early 1700s he gained permission from the King of Denmark to launch a mission to find these men and make them godly once more.
Not only that, but he secured huge sums from Bergen merchants to found the Bergen Greenland Company which was granted extensive powers by the King: to raise taxes, and have its own army and navy, and to administer justice.
Egede was a huge success; he never found his Norse men, only ruined settlements. But he laid the path for future settlers and within a short time the coastline was teeming with settlers once more.
He had a strange sighting in 1734, couple of years before he turned 50. He was on a ship off the coast of Greenland when he sighted a great sea serpent longer than the ship on which he sailed.
He recounts how he “saw a most terrible creature, resembling nothing [we] saw before. The monster lifted its head so high that it seemed to be higher than the crow’s nest on the mainmast.
“The head was small and the body short and wrinkled. The unknown creature was using giant fins which propelled it through the water. Later the sailors saw its tail as well. The monster was longer than our whole ship”.
Sea monsters have always captured our imagination, ever since Scylla herself, the terror of the Aegean and Odysseus’s foe: “Verily,” goes the account,”she has twelve feet, all misshapen, and six necks, exceeding long, and on each one an awful head, and therein three rows of teeth, thick and close, and full of black death.
“Up to her middle she is hidden in the hollow cave, but she holds her head out beyond the dread chasm, and fishes there, eagerly searching around the rock for dolphins and sea-dogs and whatever greater beast she may haply catch…
The images swam in my mind when I stumbled upon a chance picture: something one of our family had researched and left on the screen when I came to it.
It has an exotic sounding name, too: Pelamis. Creature of fathomless depths.
Yet it lives on the surface of the water, hungry for the power of the waves.
The brainchild of Pelamis Wave Power, the serpent is bright orange, a series of great armoured segments which are jointed in customary sea-monster tradition.
The monster is created to face the full force of the waves, taking huge draughts of seawater and the power they harness. In each joint is a system to remove the hydraulic power and a cable leads the power back to the mainland, miles away from the fiery serpent’s lair.
In the old days the ancient sea monsters were all sound and fury. And some ate sailors.
Now, our serpent eats the very sea itself: and sends the power, the cleanest you can get, back to its keepers.