The Enigma of the Antipodes

The article explains medieval views on the fourth part of the world, the mysterious Antipodes which raised heated debates about their existence, location, and habitation.
The widespread support for the vision of the three parts of the world, so convenient in terms of medieval theology was not comprehensive. The fences of the West European mentality had occasional small openings to peep through at the unknown. Some people believed that in the far south there might be another land and who knows, even inhabitable.

This view was based on the theory of plural worlds developed by classical science. The Greek scientific genius could not be satisfied with the solitary "Circle of Lands" in the northern hemisphere; such concept violated the natural sense of harmony and balance. It had to imagine three additional landmasses; together with our ecumene they occupied four symmetrical "corners" of the earth.

These invisible continents were cut off by the two insurmountable oceanic streams;
- one of them, latitudinal, passed through the equator, forming the so-called equatorial ocean;
- the other one, longitudinal, circulated across the poles.

Ambrosius Macrobius, a Roman statesman and philosopher, who flourished at the early fifth century, comments that the Ocean bisects the earth at the equator "separating us from the people of the southern hemisphere" and forming "two islands on the upper face of the earth and two on the underside".

This "global" theory of the "four-cornered" earth could not ignore the issue of the extent of the habitable world. Many educated people were convinced that any form of life, including human, was possible on each of these enormous strips of land. Such intellectual giants as Pliny the Elder kept on repeating that "men are overspread on all parts upon the earth, and stand one against another, foot to foot". The legend on the "Cotton Map", the earliest English world map, shares this opinion with some reservations, "the whole world is divided into, as it were, four islands which may be inhabited". The mapmaker hides himself behind a hazy assumption; he evidently takes sides with the classical writer but avoids his assertive tone and is inclined to a compromise.

Hopelessly separated by the burning "torrid zone" and the perilous open sea, these disconnected worlds were exposed to the same temperate climate and even stayed the chances for habitation but, alas, were doomed to be detached forever. Another legend on the Turin map of the eleventh century adds a nostalgic tune of separation to its deplorable outcome: "none of us can come to them nor none of them to us".

The classical geography adopted the division of the earth into two hemispheres: the northern and the southern ones, which were further subdivided horizontally into five climatic zones. Scholars discussed the position of the climatic belts, argued about the possibility of the human dwelling, and concluded that the communication between different "civilized spots" was out of the question.

Cicero claims beyond doubt that "the earth’s inhabitants are so cut off that there can be no communication among the different groups". The conventional opinion assumed that the three of these bands were utterly unfit for habitation: two frigid zones around the poles on behalf of their perpetual cold, and the torrid circle along the equator due to its eternal heat. However, the two remaining segments with temperate climate were suitable for accommodation and shared the same, though opposite seasons. Macrobius who represented classical wisdom, concentrates on these "friendly" regions because they contain the potential for human presence and development: "Between the extremities and the middle zone lie two belts… in these alone has nature permitted the human race to exist".

The question was if these legendary continents had contained sizeable strips of land to account for human settlement and whether they had been populated by our own species or by completely different creatures, entirely antipodal to us.

Medieval scholars were specifically focused on one of these hypothetically "inhabited spots", the Antipodes, a strip of land in the southern hemisphere. Macrobius, a free thinker who could afford to ignore the approaching march of Christianity, takes a purely logical approach in his response to the controversy whether the life is possible beyond the edges of the known world: "since we know both East and West are inhabited, where lies the difficulty in accepting that even that part of the world [the south] is lived in?"

Mapmakers of the Middle Ages created a special type of maps to accompany their environmental theories. Zonal maps attempted to reflect an impact of the weather on habitation and to account for the existence of unknown lands and the lack of communication between our ecumene and outside worlds. On such maps the earth was hooped by climatic bands. A zonal map illustrating "Dragmaticon", a treatise on natural philosophy written by William of Conches in Normandy, readily marks the southern hemisphere as "habitable" leaving open the question about the species available in that far off place.

However, two major obstacles prevented potential visitors from exploring this invisible continent: the searing "torrid" zone and the broad equatorial ocean. Both factors discouraged any attempts of communication.

The southern extremes of Africa (that is, Ethiopia) bordered with the "torrid" ring/zone, a magic firewall intended for burning everything and everybody who would dare to approach its fiery confines. The ocean was so vast that it had remained impassable throughout the whole span of human history.

Isidore of Seville, a bishop/saint and the author of the first Christian Latin encyclopedia 'Etymologiae', mentions these barriers for the expansion of man which set a limit on our curiosity and the need for communication. The fourth part of the world, he explains, is found "beyond the Ocean, further inland toward the south", but it cannot be reached "because of the burning heat of the sun". The lack of knowledge transformed this land into the reservoir for all sorts of legends and even placed some monstrous races within its boundaries: "within its borders are said to live the legendary Antipodes". For the Iberian prelate the issue of the unknown southern land could be casually discussed as a theoretical possibility, though no hard evidence had ever been presented. As for any form of human presence, it was merely a poetic whim.

Another famed bookworm, Lambert, a canon of St. Omer, France, combines the two restrains on the further research, in the following picture: "The equatorial sea [Mediterranean] which here divided the [great land masses or continents of the] world, was not visible to the human eye; for the full strength of the sun always heated it, and permitted no passage to, or from, this southern zone".

The official teaching of the Christian church faced a stark problem in the existence of the Antipodes. St. Augustine, one of the Fathers of the Church, considered it necessary to discuss this issue in his masterpiece "The City of God". While presenting the opponents’ views, the bishop of Hippo tries to downplay their line of argument. He claims that the advocates of this conception believe in the habitation of men "on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us" and where "men who walk with their feet opposite ours". In other words, he mixes scientific reasoning - the theory of alternative climates in northern and southern hemispheres - with a popular picture of freaks stepping head over heels to reduce this hypothesis to absurd. The word pun of the "opposite side" and the "opposite feet" foreshadows his outcome that this doctrine is in contradiction with the truth.

Then he puts forward his main argument - If the southern hemisphere is peopled and, according to the Scriptures, all men are descended from Adam, how could some of his descendants possibly reach the Antipodes? One should imagine the sailors of the distant past crossing "the whole wide ocean" and settling in an unknown land. Also, how could the apostles reach their destination without perishing on the way and failing to preach among those lost sheep? For the Christian Orthodox scholar both mental images are absurd. They cannot be confirmed by any historical evidence and serve only the intellectual game to fill in the void of the human presence in the seemingly uninhabitable parts of the earth. Before coming to this rash conclusion, we had better consider much more plausible possibilities. Either the "opposite side" is completely covered by the ocean or, if there is an occasional land, it features a stark landscape. The human logic confronts the reality of the "world upside down".

Nicole Oresme, the French philosopher and prelate, emphasizes this argument comparing the acceptance of the Gospel with the obedience to the "heaven on earth", i.e. the Catholic Church. According to his learned opinion, the residents of the Antipodes are nonexistent since they could neither hear the Gospel nor "be subject to the church of Rome". In other words, Jesus commissioned the apostles to serve as his witnesses throughout the whole world. Their task was to preach the Gospel and baptize all the nations "to the ends of the earth". The disciples were not called to break through environmental barriers and violate the laws of nature. The thorny path of the Church through preaching to repentance to salvation cannot be bypassed by any tricky way.

The medieval church leaders denounced the Antipodes and were ready to apply much more "efficient" measures against their advocates, even though they belonged to ecclesiastical ranks. In 748, Pope Zachary, having heard reports about the heretical views of Vergilius, an abbot from Salzburg, Bavaria, who kept referring to "another world and other men beneath the earth", recommended his excommunication for spreading "perverse and abominable teaching… in opposition to God, and to his own soul’s detriment". For the culprit, who was called "the most learned man of his age" and nicknamed Geometer on behalf of his mastery in math. It was a matter of scientific conscience and he took enormous risk defending his point of view. Evidently, he had powerful patrons because he managed to survive that character assassination and even was elevated to the bishop’s chair later in his career.

Some medieval writers emphasized the difference between our ecumene and Antipodes referring to opposite seasons and the dissimilar constellations. Lambert of St. Omer, a monastery cleric whose encyclopedia presented the digest of his reading, described the Land of the Fabled Antipodes in antagonistic terms: "when we are scorched with heat, [they] are chilled with cold, and the northern stars which we are permitted to discern are entirely hidden from them".

The issue of the human presence on the Antipodes was the Achilles’ heel of any philosophical doctrine, and should be mentioned in very delicate terms. That’s why our encyclopedist speaks about the residents as if they were a queer bird "unknown to the sons of Adam, having nothing which is related to our race…"

On Beatus world map, a different type of the medieval geographic lore, originated from Beatus of Liebana, a Spanish monk, the fourth continent is an inseparable part of the picture of the earth. On a version of this map, Osma Beatus, that is the place where the mapmaker allows the existence of mysterious monstrous races. Their representative, a Sciapod, a one-legged creature, is shielding himself from the blazing sun, nearly pushing it with his enormous foot. The Underworld has eventually received its permanent residents - not necessarily those you can come across in your neighborhood.

The monasteries had raised gangs of intellectuals who were so preoccupied with their library manuscripts that they added the "flowers" of their reading to the pillowcase of the cumulative wisdom of mankind.

Through travelers’ tall tales and ruthless academic feuds, leaked unreliable information about the land in the deep South, unknown to the descendants of Adam, with friendly climate and probably not entirely devoid of human presence. No ship could sail there due to enormous distance and lack of navigation skills and no flesh was able to approach it without being burned dry by the furious equatorial sun.

The Antipodes represented the topsy-turvy world on the fringes of the globe with mild and hospitable climate, similar to ours, but opposite seasons, unfamiliar sky, and reverse shifts of day and night. At daytime, their sun was queerly shining in the north, and at nighttime weird stars, unknown to us, were lit in the sky and showed the way.

The official church was inclined to denounce this teaching because it contained at least two contaminated "pockets": it implied the existence of plural mankind, not necessarily linked with Adam, the single branch of humanity, and it tolerated the existence of the race of people who had never been exposed to the Gospel and consequently, doomed to hell.

The reason for this rejection lay in the geographical lore of the Middle Ages. Medieval scholars admitted two impassable barriers between our "circle of lands" and invisible "lost worlds": the equatorial sea and the "torrid" zone. The authorities offered those in doubt to generate possibilities: the whole or the considerable part of the temperate region could be covered by water; occasional strips of land could contain lifeless landscape; if any form of life were possible, it might not be human. If indeed it were human, it should not be linked to our Adam. Mapmakers understood the message and depicted the Antipodes either void of life or settled by monstrous races. The vicious circle of theology was running idle.
Published: 6/29/2013
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