History is marked with obscure references to early Arctic exploration, though rudimentary navigation techniques and unsound geographical concepts make early accounts and maps unreliable at best. Perhaps the first attempt to reach the Arctic belongs to a Greek named Pytheas, who sailed from the Mediterranean to a land he dubbed Thule, which was possibly Norway, Iceland or the Shetlands. Though accounts of Pytheas’ exploits were largely discredited for hundreds of years, the haunting idea of Thule—the possible end of the world, still shrouded in mystery—persisted.
Arctic exploration picked up in the 8th and 9th centuries. Irish monks traveled to Iceland in the 8th and 9th centuries but vikings were the island’s first permanent settlers by the end of the 9th century. The vikings were intrepid explorers, though they left negligible records. Over the course of several centuries, they made it to Greenland, the coast of North America and possibly even Novaya Zemlya and Svalbard. They also established two settlements and various trade routes to the White Sea. However, their lack of proper documentation left much of this terrain to be rediscovered over the course of time.
Over the course of history, Arctic exploration centered around two primary passages: the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage.