“True Paradise under the Ethiop Line
Much has been written about Paradise, both in the past and in recent times.1 A wide range of questions have consequently been addressed, including such “esoteric” issues as the nature of the flora and fauna in Eden, the dimensions of the marvelous Garden of Delights, the exact chronology and the amount of time which Adam and Eve were allowed to spend there, and even the language which was spoken in Paradise at this early period of human history. But, overall, the principal point which has traditionally attracted the attention of scholars is the problem of its location. Where was Paradise to be found? In this regard, a considerable number of different locations have been proposed. Besides its traditional whereabouts in the East, as Genesis (2.8) seems to suggest, one can find scholars arguing for the idea that Paradise was located in the West Indies (Americas), Mesopotamia, Armenia, the Holy Land, and even at the North Pole.2
The idea of Paradise in Africa does not seem to have direct support from the Scriptures. It is therefore necessary to assume that there might have existed other factors which tended to represent such a location in medieval imagery. To identify these features is the principal aim of the first part of this study. To begin with, one must take into account the proximity to the African shores of the Fortunate Isles (now the Canary Islands) as well as other similar myths of pagan origin. Celtic culture had already placed some of its most holy sites in this region, but it was mainly through Greek Antiquity that the idea became a commonplace in Western thought. In Homer’s Odyssey (9th century B.C.) we are told of the Elysian Fields, situated in the Atlantic Ocean at the south-western limits of the habitable world. The idyllic climatic conditions can be summarized in the following passage: “No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor even rain, but ever does Ocean send up blasts of the shrill blowing West Wind that they may give cooling to men.”3 Similarly, Hesiod (8th century B.C.) places, “along the shore of deep swirling Ocean,” the islands of the Blessed, where, “happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year.”4 The tradition so settled, continued thereafter through authors such as Pindar (c.511-443 B.C.) and Horace (65-8 B.C.).5 But with the advent of Christianity and the overwhelming authority of the Bible, the arguments supporting paradisiacal islands in the Atlantic lost much of their force. And yet Saint Brendan’s wandering quest for the Land of Promise in these latitudes shows that the Greek-Celtic tradition had not completely vanished during the Middle Ages. At the very end of the period, the possibility of identifying the Fortunate Iles with the Terrestrial Paradise is echoed by Pierre d’Ailly in his Imago Mundi (1410).6
About the time that Horace composed his Epodes, Diodorus Siculus recorded in his Library of History the voyage of a certain Iambulus who set out to sea from the coast of Ethiopia southwards (i.e. Western and Southern Africa). After having sailed in this direction for over four months, he finally reached a “Happy Island” at the latitude of the equator. Owing to the fact that the day there was always the same length as the night, the climate in this island was most temperate and the inhabitants suffered neither from heat nor from cold. Hence the fertility of the soil, the generous nature and idyllic conditions of life in this part of the world, which Diodorus Siculus describes in detail.7 So, contrary to Aristotle and a number of other classical authors, the equatorial latitudes were not always conceived of as a “torrid zone” which could not allow human habitation on account of the intense heat.8 Diodorus Siculus’s narrative shows that this could even be the ideal site for a pagan analogy of the Garden of Delights.
Within Christian culture, the idea of Paradise at the equator was also present in a number of authors.9 So much was this so, that Thomas Aquinas (1224-74) felt the necessity of considering this possibility in his Summa Theologica, though in the end he did not commit himself to either being for or against this view.10 But others, like his contemporary Bonaventure of Bagnorea, were fully convinced of such a location.11 It should be noted however, that the latter two tended to be exceptions to the rule. In line with the zonal theory of Antiquity, the most commonplace belief during the Middle Ages was that the heat would scorch those seeking to dwell in equatorial latitudes.12
The fact that it was not generally agreed that the equator was the most suitable place where the fair nature of the Garden of Eden could thrive did not prevent a number of medieval scholars from projecting the location of Paradise still further southwards. As is well known, two of the main conditions to be observed for the location of Paradise were remoteness and difficulty of access. Few places would therefore seem more appropriate in this regard than the world of the Antipodes, separated and unreachable from the ecumene by the presumed existence of a fiery scorching belt.13 On the other hand, there is also the “argument of reversal.” Since in the final analysis, if Christianity is no other than the resultant off-spring issuing from the forerunner ancestors Adam and Eve after the Fall, it makes sense, from a symbolical point of view, to place the Garden of Eden at the antipodes of the place where mankind was compelled to live after committing original sin. This explains, at least in part, Dante’s location of Paradise at the summit of a mountain diametrically opposite Jerusalem.14 But Paradise was not imagined at the Antipodes only from a poetic or metaphorical point of view. Gervase of Tilbury (c. 1160-1235) and Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175-1253) echoed this hypothesis from a purely geographical perspective.15
An additional element which tended to support the location of Paradise in Africa more precisely was the commonplace identification of the Nile with the Gihon, one of the four rivers flowing from the Garden of Eden.16 This identification is already suggested in the Scriptures.17 And so as early as the first century of the Christian era, the equivalence of both denominations is made ultimately clear in Flavius Iosephus’s history of the Jews.18 From then onwards, it was repeated over and over again by almost every author dealing with the great African river. It should be noted, however, that the identification of the Gihon with the Nile could still be harmonized with the location of Paradise in Asia, for all hypothetical obstacles arising from such a conception were easily overcome by recourse to the theory of subterranean watercourses. In other words, it was possible to think that the river originated from Paradise in the East, that it then disappeared in the Ocean, and that it sprang up once again from the ground on the shores of the Red Sea, finally entering Upper Egypt after flowing westward.19 But in the long run, when cosmographers realized the difficulties of attributing a common source to the four rivers of Eden, the traditional identification of the Gihon with the Nile would allow the location of Paradise in Africa, particularly when combined with other pieces of evidence such as the shifting geography of Prester John’s kingdom.
The fabulous realm of Prester John was represented in medieval imagery as a Paradise in itself. According to the text of his famous Epistola, the land which he rules “streams with honey and is overflowing with milk. In one region grows no poisonous herb, nor does a garrulous frog ever croak in it, no scorpion exists, nor does the serpent glide through the grass, nor can any poisonous animals exist in it or injure anyone.”20 In another part of his vast dominions, there is a river issuing from Paradise which contains emeralds, sapphires, carbuncles, topazes, chrysolites, onyxes, beryls, sardonyxes, and many other precious stones.21 Gold, silver, spices, strange animals and marvels of every kind, including horned men, Sagittari, Satyrs, Pygmies, Cynocephali, Giants, Monoculi and Cyclops, are not uncommon either.22 The Epistola also tells of a certain spring which immediately recalls the myth of the Fountain of Youth: “If anyone has tasted three times of this fountain, from that day on he will feel no fatigue, but will, as long as he lives, be as a man of thirty years of age.”23 And most important of all, this marvellous fountain is associated, as would often be the case in Western literature later on, with the location of the Garden of Eden.24 The text of the Epistola says specifically that the spring bubbles up at, “scarcely three days’ journey from Paradise, out of which Adam was driven.”25 From this it was possible to infer that, wherever Prester John might dwell, Paradise could not be far away.
As is well known, Prester John’s kingdom was traditionally placed in the East, but from the second decade of the fourteenth century onwards, the quest for the fabulous Christian ruler was pursued throughout Africa.26 It was not fortuitous that this shift of geographical localisation coincided in time with the envisaging of the idea that Paradise might also be located in Africa.
The concurrence of one or more of the above mentioned factors led to the conceiving of Paradise in Africa, but, even when placed in this part of the world, scholars did not entirely agree on the exact location. A few examples will illustrate that the Garden of Eden was envisaged in every part of African geography. In the authoritative chronicle of Gomes Eanes de Zurara (c.1415-74) there is mention, together with other voyages along the West African coast in the time of the Infante Dom Henrique, of the large expedition commanded by Lançarote (1445). Concerning a certain point on the Saharan Atlantic coast, not far from Cape Blanco (20˚ 46' N), Zurara reproduces the account of a council held by the Portuguese captains following a number of slave raids. The question debated was whether the caravels should then turn back to Lisbon with the Moors captured so far, or if they should continue southwards to the “land of the Negroes.” Every captain gave his opinion, and this is what Alvaro de Freitas said: “Let us press on to wherever you wish to go, be it even to the Terrestrial Paradise.”27 It is difficult to assess to what extent Zurara reproduces Freitas’ exact words, but even if one assumes that he does not, the above-mentioned passage shows that Paradise somewhere in Guinea was part of Portuguese imagery.
The Guinean location of Paradise was partly supported by the fairly common notion of the Gihon-Nile as a twofold river, consisting of an eastern and a western branch which became a single stream in Egypt. The idea of a western branch of the Nile was already present in early authors of Antiquity. Herodotus (5th century B.C.) was probably the first to hint at it.28 He was followed thereafter by Pliny, Solinus and Pomponius Mela.29 In the Middle Ages, we see this theory reflected in the works of Orosius and Isidore of Seville, and under their influence it appears in most subsequent authors.30 It is thus not surprising that when Alvise da Ca’ da Mosto reached the mouths of the Senegal in 1455, he saw in the African river a western branch of the Gihon which would eventually lead to Paradise.31
Further down, at the southern extremity of Africa, the idea of Paradise was also present. An early example of this location occurs in the Libro del conosçimiento (c.1350-60), a popular book of travels written by an anonymous Franciscan Friar, a native of Castille. Like many other scholars of his time, the author echoes the theory of the twofold Nile. He names the western branch “rio del oro,” which is no other than the Senegal. And then with regard to the origins of this river, the anonymous Friar states that it rises, “in the lofty mountains of the Antarctic Pole, where, it is said, is the Terrestrial Paradise.”32 One may immediately notice that the expression “it is said” suggests some uncertainty as to the personal commitment of the Spanish Franciscan to this view, but later on, other scholars would take a stand on the same idea with its full consequences. As late as 1543, the Venetian Aluigi di Giovani still drew the attention of the reader to the fact that Table Mountain (at the Cape of Good Hope) used to be designated as the Terrestrial Paradise.33 Besides, there is the definite evidence of Albertin de Virga’s mappamundi (1411or 1415).34 The Garden of Eden is there shown at the southernmost tip of Africa in the form of two concentric rings which give rise to the four rivers mentioned in Genesis.
But by far the most commonplace location of Paradise in Africa was in Ethiopia. To my knowledge the first to hint at this hypothesis was the Dominican friar Jordanus Catalani, who reports in his Mirabilia descripta (c.1330) that, “between this India [Tertia] and Ethiopia is said to be, towards the east, the Terrestrial Paradise.”35 Two of the main reasons which fostered this notion of an Ethiopian Paradise concerned the general misconception regarding the geography of the three Indies and, as already noted, the migration of the Prester John legend to Africa. Both elements are present in Jordanus Catalani and they also occurred in most of the subsequent authors who conceived of an Ethiopian Garden of Eden. The most outstanding example is the Catalan World Map at Modena (c.1450-60) (figure1).36 Paradise is there depicted in Ethiopia, not far from Prester John’s kingdom, at the latitude of the equator. It appears as a delectable place harbouring the image of Adam and Eve, the tree of life in between them, and just below the latter, the fountain which then divides into four rivers that go forth and water the world. There is also the depiction of nine other trees denoting the leafy Garden of Eden. And finally, there are six “monts de diamants” acting as a ring of fire which flares up to heaven and are said to be the guardians of the Terrestrial Paradise.37 The overall picture, with the exception of the Paradise location, is much in line with Isidore of Seville, who is explicitly quoted in an adjoining legend (see figure 2).38
The image of Paradise in Ethiopia was so firmly rooted in late medieval culture that even when the vast India Tertia shrank into Abyssinia and the momentum of the legend of Prester John began to recede in Renaissance imagery, the land of Ethiopia still retained in certain cases a paradisiacal flavour. The Portuguese chronicler João de Barros (1496-1570), while perfectly aware of the crude reality which his fellow countrymen had found in Abyssinia in relation to the Ethiopia of Prester John, still portrayed the country in terms of a “paradise of natural delights.”39
In short Paradise could be found in almost every region of African geography. But despite this unstable location, there is a common feature in all medieval representations of Paradise in Africa: its precise site is invariably the summit of a very high mountain. Certainly this is not an exclusive characteristic of the African Paradise. There are many reasons for choosing high mountains as the site of Paradise irrespective of its African location. First of all, it should be noted that high mountains have always played an important role in the location of holy sites – not necessarily as Paradise – in very different cultures.40 Within the Christian tradition, the idea of placing the Garden of Eden at the summit of a mountain is already present in the Scriptures.41 Besides, Paradise on high mountains provided medieval scholars with an easy convincing explanation of why the waters of the Flood had failed to reach it.42 An additional argument was that high mountains fulfilled the condition of being an unattainable place for men, as Paradise was thought to be. Finally, the summit of a lofty mountain was a suitable location for those who conceived Paradise as a place between the earth and the heavens.43
These reasons could obviously be harmonized with the traditional setting of Paradise in Asia. John Mandeville, for example, places Paradise in the East and says that, “it is the highest land in the world.”44 At the same time. however, there were other authors who believed in Paradise in the East without this being associated with a high mountain.45 But when Paradise was located in Africa, there was not much room for ambiguity. Only the altitude of a mountain, and hence the decreasing temperature, could counteract the torrid heat traditionally attributed to Africa, in order to create the mild climate prevailing in the Garden of Eden.
How high might the mountain of Paradise be, is a problem which here deserves attention. According to the Book of Genesis (7.19), the Deluge covered “the highest mountains beneath the heavens.” And yet, most medieval scholars conveyed the impression that the waters did not reach to the Garden of Eden. It was thus necessary to assume that the mountain of Paradise rises far up towards the heavens and to the stars. In the Libro del conosçimento it is said that half of the mountain of Paradise is “over the horizon,” so that at the top it is never either cold or dark.46 Similarly, Fazio degli Uberti’s metric verses say of the mountain of Paradise that it reaches to “the first heaven.”47 But taking the Aristotelian division of the cosmos as a paradigm, the most commonplace way of expressing this extraordinary altitude was to say that the mountains of Paradise touched the circle of the Moon. This is for instance the case, among others, for Peter Lombard, Alexander Neckam, Gervase of Tilbury, Bartholomew Anglicus and John Mandeville.48
The merging of the notion of Paradise reaching to the moon’s orbit with the ongoing tradition of Paradise located in Africa, would lead medieval scholars to identify the Mountains of Moon in Central Africa as the precise site of Eden. In the fanciful pilgrimage of Arnold von Harff (1496-9), for example, the author claims to have climbed the Mountains of the Moon and that there he found the Terrestrial Paradise.49 A similar identification occurs in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and in the commentaries on the Psalms by Jacob Pérez de Valencia.50 Finally one can see this idea graphically displayed in the anonymous chart known as Kunstmann II, (c.1502) and in the 1512 Atlas (chart 4) of Vesconte Maggiolo (see figure 3).51
To sum up, we have seen Paradise successively placed in the west, south and east of Africa. Now, with the representation of the Garden of Delights in the Mountains of the Moon, which were normally set at the heart of the continent, all possible locations of the African Paradise have been identified.
From the sixteenth century onwards, exegetical work on the Book of Genesis acquired a new dimension. Every single detail was made the object of a careful re-examination and began to be studied in depth with unparalleled rigour and erudition. To establish from the Scriptures the precise chronology of the Creation or to determine the exact moment at which original sin came about, became an obsession. In so doing, Renaissance scholars soon put an end to some of the fantastic speculations of medieval authors with regard to the location of Paradise. One of the first assumptions to be dropped was the idea of Paradise at the summit of a mountain reaching to the circle of the Moon. The Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden (c.1299-1363) had already refuted this idea on logical and astronomical grounds: “for nature - he said - will not suffer that, neither will reason”.52 Similarly, the anonymous Portuguese author of the Orto do Esposo (end of fourteenth century) and Pierre d’Ailly (1410) stressed in their works that the notion of Paradise being so high that it touched the Moon’s orbit should be just taken as a hyperbolical expression.53 Later on, one can find the same line of argument in Gregorius Reich’s Margarita Philosophica (1503).54 But the most conclusive rebuttal of the idea of Paradise placed in the circle of the Moon would come at the end of the century with John Hopkinson’s Synopsis Paradisi (1593). Based on Ptolemaic astronomical calculations, the English orientalist demonstrates in this work that for a mountain to rise to the Moon’s orbit, it would be necessary for its base to extend over at least half of the earth’s surface.55 Since this conclusion seemed to be ridiculous in the face of the most basic evidence gained through empirical experience, the idea of Paradise placed at such an altitude vanished very quickly, as did, consequently, its location in the Mountains of the Moon.
One the other hand, with the arrival of European embassies in Abyssinia from the first quarter of the sixteenth century onwards, and the consequent first-hand awareness of the local Monophysite practices at variance with the Roman religious canons, together with the manifest proof that the Ethiopian King Lebna Dengel (1508-40) was unable to face alone the Muslim incursions into his country, the legend of an all-powerful Prester John ruling a marvelous country of infinite riches was seriously undermined. Taking into account the above-mentioned association of his mythical kingdom with Paradise, the arguments in favour of an African location of the latter lost also much of their force. Certainly, it is always possible to find an anachronistic author upholding out-of-date theories. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Dominican friar Luis de Urreta still believed in an Ethiopian Prester John and reported the existence of a hortus deliciarum at the summit of Mount Amara which had all the characteristics of Paradise.56 By then, however, the mainstream of contemporary thought held that the Garden of Delights was no longer to be found in Africa.
The idea of Paradise still endured for some time, but rather than being conceived as a geographical reality, it was progressively assumed to be an historical reality destroyed by the Flood. Where at first it had been characterized by a distance in geographical space, it now became increasingly put at a distance in time. Within this framework, the African Paradise could easily be substituted, as was the case from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, for other locations such as Mesopotamia and the Holy Land. On the other hand, if Paradise was only an historical reminiscence, there was no reason for including this feature in contemporary maps, unless they were deliberately conceived of as historical maps. Alternatively, the “Lost Paradise” could also be found by reconsidering its allegorical nature. The climate of opinion of the period is well illustrated by Abraham Ortelius who, after discussing the various sites of Paradise in the past, says in the English edition of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1606): “By Paradise I do thinke the blessed life to be understood.”57
* I want to thank professor W. G. L. Randles for correcting the English of an earlier draft of this paper and for making a number of suggestions as to the contents.
For a general overview of the different scholars and issues
relating to Paradise, see Arturo Graf, Miti, Leggende e Superstizioni
del Medio Evo, vol. I (Bologna, 1964), p. 1-238; Jean Delumeau, Une
histoire du Paradis: Le Jardin des Délices (Paris, 1992). More
recently, see also Alessandro Scafi, The notion of earthly paradise
from the Patristic era to the fifteenth century, Ph D. Thesis
(University of London, 1999).
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