Friday, January 1, 2010

Breaking the Master Narrative, Part 4

I hate to have to be the one to tell you this, but I figure it’s safe. It would have come out eventually and, really, it’s better you hear this from me than some random stranger you meet on the street. Everything you know about history is wrong. There. I said it. And I, for one, am glad I got that off my chest. Now we can begin the healing. Wait, what’s that? Why are you leaving? No, please, stick around, I’m not holding it against you. I learned the same wrong history lessons you did, heard the same conveniently incorrect stories. I believed them, too. I’m not saying I’m better than you and that I understand history better than you can. I’m saying that I got the right story earlier than you and I’m here to help you understand. I’m here to help you adjust. Besides, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I screwed something up, too. Big time. And I’ll share it with you if you just give me a chance. Yeah, see, isn’t that better? Can we begin now? I’m sure you remember the old rhyme: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It’s one of those bits of information that every school child knows. But beyond the simple words there exists the baggage of misconceptions about the meaning of 1492 and the world that Christopher Columbus inhabited. The very first misconception is one you’re probably already aware of. No one was worried that Columbus would reach the edge of the flat world and fall off. They knew the world was round. They knew that eventually he’d make it around to India. It’s what was in between that was mysterious and unknown. And to understand that we must go back two thousand years before Christopher Columbus. Medieval scholars are mostly considered to be people who used the Bible and only the Bible to understand their world. The fall of the Roman Empire had destroyed or suppressed much of the knowledge of the ancients, after all. But one of the ancients continued to have an impact on European thinking: Aristotle. It is from Aristotle that the medieval world created most of its cosmography. Aristotle supposed that the universe consisted of a set of concentric spheres. The four middle spheres were comprised of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. These four elements, in turn, comprised the Earth and were what made Earth the center of the universe. They did this because they were heavier than anything else and, as a result, sank to the middle. The element of earth, being the heaviest, sank to the very center, surrounded, in turn, by water, air, and fire. Beyond the four elements sat the seven heavenly spheres, one for each of the visible planets and the sun. Beyond the heavens sat the firmament, the place upon which the stars were placed. Beyond that was a great void. The Aristotelean cosmology held great appeal for medieval thinkers. It fit with their conception of the Earth as created by god in the book of Genesis. So they took the model and modified it slightly. Instead of the great void proposed by Aristotle they made the area outside of the firmament the realm of god and the Heavenly hosts. Earth itself was built on a Greek system as well. The land mass of the world was surrounded by a vast ocean that was at best dangerous to navigate and at worst deadly to anyone who tried. They took literally the legend of Herakles, who passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and placed pillars to mark the end of safe navigation. This particular construction of the universe and reliance on myth and legend had an interesting side effect. It meant that everything had to have a physical location somewhere in the universe. And in order to understand that we need to go back even farther. To the week of creation itself.
The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. The gold of that land is good; the bdellium and the onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris; it flows east of Assyria And the fourth river is the Euphrates. Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.(Gen. 2:8-15)
We all know how that story goes. But it’s the very end of the story that captured the imagination of certain people.
So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.(Gen. 3:24)
Remember those T and O maps of the world and how they were less concerned with geography than cosmology? Remember how the world started in the east where the sun rises and the sweep of history inexorably moved west to the sun set? Think about the implications to the medieval mind. If you could travel far enough east you could find the Garden of Eden. This wasn’t just idle speculation in the medieval European mind, either. In 1357 a book came out called the Travels of Sir John Mandeville that followed on the heels of the popularity of the travels of Marco Polo. Sir John’s travelogue was inferior to Polo’s for the simple reason that he never existed and whoever actually wrote it never went to the places he claimed to visit. Which is how Sir John managed to find, among other things, the court of Prester John and the end of fast and unnavigable rivers that flowed from Eden itself. Earthly Paradise, it seemed, did exist. It just couldn’t be reached by traveling east. This wasn’t actually as big a problem as it seemed, however. The solution had already been discovered by an Irish monk named St. Brendan during the 6th Century. He made the logical leap to travel westward from Ireland and, in so doing, reach paradise. The Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot was a wildly popular read in medieval Europe. It chronicled his seven year journey, during which he found many islands, encountered a giant whale, and eventually made his way to the Blessed Isle, then returned to tell the tale. It is, in many ways, similar to two other tales. The first tale goes all the way back to Pliny the Elder. There were, he said, a series of islands out in the Atlantic Ocean that were called the Fortunate Islands. It was here that the heroes of old who had pleased the gods were sent to live in idyllic conditions surrounded by calm and welcoming seas. When ancient texts began trickling in to Europe from the Arab lands or were rediscovered in the dusty libraries of ancient monasteries the works of Pliny the Elder were brought back to light. A Genoese expedition in 1346 found a series of beautiful islands off the coast of northern Africa and decided they must be Pliny the Elder’s Fortunate Islands. As such they named the islands as a whole after one of Pliny’s islands: Canaria. We know them today as the Canary Islands. The second tale concerns a legend from Portugal. At the time of the Moorish invasion of the Iberian Penninsula in the early 8th Century an Archbishop named Porto decided to flee from the barbarian invasion. He led a collection of his followers out to sea where they found an island and started seven cities before burning their ships so they could never return. In the early 1400s as the Spanish and Portuguese became more adventurous in their journeys the legend of Porto’s island was brought back in to vogue. Some claimed to have seen the island and its nearby companions. On crew even claimed to have made landfall. When Columbus set out for India he intended to stop on the island for provisions. The name of the mythical island might be one you’ve heard before. It was called Antillia. Yes, that Antillia. The mysterious island that Gavin Menzies found depicted on the Pizzigano Map that he decided must be Puerto Rico and gave proof that someone had found and mapped the New World before Christopher Columbus. And it is with the island of Antillia that I must confess I made a mistake. See, when Menzies found Antillia on the Pizzigano Map and spun that in to his theory that the Chinese had made it around the world he made a mistake. He took that one piece of information and twisted it in ways it was never intended to be twisted. Any further research he did only served to further reinforce his assumptions about what Antillia was because he decided that he had figured something out and he was right but no one else had ever learned what he knew. This is, on the face of it, an absurd conclusion to draw. But in pointing out the absurdity of Menzies’ claims I managed to make the exact same mistake he did. I said there was absolutely no way the Chinese could have discovered Puerto Rico and gotten that information to Europe. I then concluded that Antillia was either a flight of fancy on the part of the map maker, a later addition by some nameless third party, or a mythological location. All of these are easily possible and the third is correct. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that I didn’t do the simplest possible thing. I never bothered to figure out the origins of Antillia. While I was thinking about the Waldseemuller Map I had the idea to see if Antillia was mentioned as an island off the coast of Asia in one of the later maps or, possibly, in the journies of Marco Polo. I figured maybe it was an intentional addition to the Pizzigano Map to show that Asia and Europe weren’t really all that far apart. It was only then that I discovered Antillia was a legendary location that stretched back to the 8th Century. Had Menzies’ been aware of this it would have destroyed the entire idea of the Chinese expedition in 1421 at the start.[1] Had I bothered to do my due diligence I would have been able to conclusively disprove his theory right from the start. More than that, however, the whole thing serves to prove an important point. If you’re going to take someone to task for not doing the proper research, make sure you do the work yourself. Otherwise you’ll be putting some of that egg on your own face. Either way, we’re now standing on the edge of the known world. Think of us as those Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian explorers standing on the western expanse of Europe looking out over the ocean, prepared to discover something new and amazing. We’re about to find out that the world doesn’t look at all like we’ve been lead to believe. ------------------------------- [1]This, of course, assumes good faith and a genial ignorance on Menzies’ part. Considering that Antillia isn’t exactly a legendary place on par with El Dorado or Shangri-La,[2] I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt. [2]Actually, in a way it is. The seven cities of Antillia were later morphed in to the Seven Cities of Cibola, for which Francisco Coronado searched believing they were filled with vast golden riches. It also lends its name to the islands known as the Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. But the point remains that Antillia’s association with the Seven Cities of Gold and the Antilles is esoteric at best. ------------------------------- Random Footnote: There is one piece of information that remains tantalizingly out of reach to me. This is the nature of the other big island that caught Menzies' attention: Satanzes. Menzies, correctly, might I add, identifies "Satanzes" as "Devil's Island." It appears to the north of Antillia in several of the portolan charts ("portolan" being the word for charts designed specifically to identify sea ports. The Pizzigano Map is a portolan chart). It's possible that Satanzes is only in other charts because it appears on the Pizzigano Map, which is also the first map to show Antillia. This explanation, while simple, is hardly satisfying. The only reference I've seen to a Devil's Island outside of the ones in the chart, however, is an early name for Bermuda. The explanation for this is probably fairly mundane, as Bermuda was a nightmare to navigate and apparently the sea birds that called it home made an interesting noise that frightened early sailors. I've seen no connection whatsoever between Satanzes and Bermuda. It was, apparently, not as important as Antillia. Either that or the legends of Satanzes simply did not survive while the legends of Antillia did. Still, it makes me wonder. And since I'm not above advancing bits of pure speculation, I think I'll wonder out loud for a bit. Or, at least, wonder with my fingers. Remember that the medieval European world was oriented from east to west with east at the top and representing the beginning and west at the bottom and representing the end. Further, remember that everything in mythology corresponded to something somewhere in the physical world. Therefore, could Satanzes literally be the legendary dwelling place of the Devil or, alternately, the place where Satan fell to Earth after being cast out of Heaven? There might even be a clue. It comes about two centuries after the Pizzigano Map, but it seems like as good a place to start as any. Let's look at a rather long section ofBook I of Milton's Paradise Lost (the part that draws my attention is in bold face):
Thus Satan talking to his neerest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes
That sparkling blaz'd, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extended long and large
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
TITANIAN, or EARTH-BORN, that warr'd on JOVE,
BRIARIOS or TYPHON, whom the Den
By ancient TARSUS held, or that Sea-beast
LEVIATHAN, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th' Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the NORWAY foam 
The Pilot of some small night-founder'd Skiff, 
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, 
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind 
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night 
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain'd on the burning Lake, nor ever thence
Had ris'n or heav'd his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enrag'd might see
How all his malice serv'd but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc't, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour'd.
Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope their pointing spires, & rowld
In billows, leave i'th' midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears his flight
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn'd
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear'd in hue, as when the force
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from PELORUS, or the shatter'd side
Of thundring AETNA, whose combustible
And fewel'd entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim'd with Mineral fury, aid the Winds,
And leave a singed bottom all involv'd
With stench and smoak: Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.  Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap't the STYGIAN flood
As Gods, and by their own recover'd strength,
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.
Milton, obviously, wouldn't have seen the world through the medieval lens. Europeans had been permanently settled in the Americas for a century and a half by the time Paradise Lost was written. Still, he built the poem around the common language of myth and legend, so it's possible that he was aware of Satanzes as the literal Devil's island and preserved that idea in his epic. It's not much, but it's something to think about...

1 comment:

Harry Rutstein said...

You may not be aware of the thirteenth century Rossi Family maps that confirm the existence of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, the western shores of America two hundred years before Columbus. The Rossi family obtained these maps and written descriptions of their origin from the daughter of Marco Polo and have kept them hidden these past 700 years. Marco Polo received the information about North America from a Syrian sealskin trader who obtained his skins from these places. Marian Rossi showed me these original maps and documents in 1981 at his office in San Jose, Califiornia. He also showed me documents from the F.B.I. that confirmed the age of the vellum on which they were drawn. I was allowed me to make copies. Since that time Mr. Rossi has died but his family transfered some of these documents to the Library of Congress but public access is not allowed. Please contact me if you would like additional information.

Harry Rutstein,
Executive Director,
1501 17th Avenue, Suite 1010
Seattle, WA 98122
Cell: 206-979-5974