THE COSMOGRAPHIA OF ÆTHICUS OF ISTRIA

Transcribed from The Dawn of Modern Geography, Vol. 1 : A History of Exploration and Geographical Science from the Conversion of the Roman Empire to A.D. 900, with an Account of the Achievements and Writings of the Christian, Arab, and Chinese Travelers and Students by C. Raymond Beazley, M.A., F.R.G.S., Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. London, 1897.

¶ …the cosmography of Æthicus of Istria ; which professes to be translated by a priest named Jerome from a Greek original ; which has aroused, like the “Catalogue Geography” of Julius Æthicus, a surprising degree of literary interest; and which, in its present form, seems to be of the seventh century. It will, perhaps, be useful to examine it a little more in detail.

¶ Shadowy as is the alleged existence of this “philosopher;” and doubtful as is the ascription to this Graeco-Scythian Mandeville of either of the works which pass under his proper name, and enjoyed so great a popularity in the Middle Ages—we have at any rate in the production of Jerome the Priest, an apparently original work of the early Christian period. As it stands, this Cosmography of Æthicus of Istria is one of the longest, one of the wildest, and certainly the most obscure and enigmatical among early Christian geographical monuments. The Presbyter who undertakes to abridge and elucidate, and who complains so frequently of the difficulties of his text, is himself the worst offender. Incessantly interrupting his original, real or pretended, by tirades and reflections of his own, he rarely fails to make confusion worse confounded; and many sections of the book in its present state are absolutely unintelligible.

¶ Obviously anxious to identify himself with St. Jerome, he bears in himself a sufficient refutation. He is really a copyist of Isidore and other encyclopredists. The narrative is occupied with the journeys of Æthicus by sea and land, with his observations on the products of the earth and the men of different nations, and with his trading ventures. Himself a Christian neophyte, the Istrian was moreover so illustrious a philosopher, that his native land had become the seat of the learning that had fled from Athens. Whether his reputation was well-founded, may be seen from the contents of the present treatise. Herein he discourses on the fabric of the world; on unformed matter, Paradise, the earth, sea, and sky; on the fall of Satan, and on the Angels; on the table of the sun, the moon, and the stars; on the portals of the heaven and the hinges of the world; and on all the various lands and seas of the inhabited and habitable earth. In his more detailed descriptions, he evidently prides himself especially upon his treatment of the races which the Old Testament leaves unmentioned, and of certain matters not treated in any other writings; and it is on these points where few had specialised, and where his authority was of all the more weight, that his credit was naturally most firmly established. Thus Roger Bacon, in the thirteenth century, quotes “Æthicus the Astronomer” on some of the more recondite details connected with Alexander, with the Amazons, and with the Gog-Magogs; and Walter Raleigh, in the sixteenth, repeats the testimony of “that ancient Æthicus” on the locality of Eden, backed as it was by the weighty affirmation of St. Jerome, who, as translator and editor, had made himself responsible for the statements of the “Scythian Philosopher.” The compiler assures us that many of the Istrian’s narrations had not been repeated by him lest their marvels should cause the pious to stumble. Only facts well ascertained could be allowed in this place ; and, among these, we have a record of the conquests of Romulus I in the Balkan and Danube lands, and of his victories over Lacedremon and over Francus and Vasus, ancestors of the Franks who “built Sicambria.”

¶ Again, the brave deeds of the giant Phyros among the Albanians of Central Asia ; of Alexander when he threw down Jason’s altars lest they should rival his own ; and of Pompey, whose exploits had been recorded by his faithful companion Theophanes, add many surprising details to the ordinary history. Thus, when the Macedonian hero shut up “Gog-Magog and twenty-two nations of evil men” behind his Caspian gates and Wall of iron, the prophecy of Micah was fulfilled—he “contended before the mountains” and “the hills heard his voice, even the enduring foundations of the earth,” for with a loud souud they were plucked out of the ground and piled one upon auother. But far better than this, Æthicus saw with his own eyes the Amazons to the north of the Caspian suckling the Centaurs and Minataurs of that region; and the bituminous lake, mouth of hell, whence came the cement of Alexander’s wall, when he stayed in the city of Choolisma, built by Magog, son of Japhet. In Armenia the philosopher searched in vain for Noah’s Ark; but he saw dragons, ostriches, gryphons, and ants large and voracious as dogs; and he could testify from personal experience that, when rain descended upon Mount Ararat, there was a rumbling that could be heard to the borders of the country. A different quest—for the Garden of Eden—though equally fruitless, brought the explorer to the Ganges; where he was entertained by a hospitable Indian king, fought with hippopotami, and rivalled or even surpassed the exploits of Apollonius ofTyana. From Ceylon or Taprobane, lEthicus sailed round to the North-West by the encircling Ocean, passing on his way Syrtinice (island of the Sirens) the navel of our hemisphere in the Indian Ocean; Ireland, “full of false doctors;” the Isle of Dogs or dog-headed men in the Northem Sea; Bridinno, the land of dwarfs; and the country of the Gryphons, both the goldguarding quadrupeds, and also a people distinguished for music, for war, and for navigation. A little nearer to matter of fact, is our compiler’s mention of the Turks—a people monstrous, abject, idolatrous, with yellow teeth, as befitted the offspring of Gog and Magog. This inviting race is apparently located by Æthicus in Modem Russia, touching the Northern Ocean on one side and the Black Sea on another. Among the pirates of the Northern Ocean Alexander the Great had once lived, to learn from them “the depth of ocean and of the abyss,” and his submarine navigation in those parts is faithfully chronicled by the Istrian traveller.

¶ But besides practical exploration, Æthicus gives us a system of the universe. His sun is a disc which enters by the gate of the East to enlighten the earth, and retires by that of the West in order to return during the night to its starting-point, hidden by thick mists or a great mountain which screens it from human sight, but allows it to impart a fraction of its radiance to the moon and stars. The poles, or hinges of the world, are connected by a mighty line from the extreme of icy cold in the North to the rich, salubrious, and vitalising centre in the South, whence blow the winds that propagate serenity. Æthicus will not allow of any rotation of the earth, which reposes upon the Abyss. Scarcely anyone is more prodigal of earth-navels, or centres, than our Istrian or his abbreviator—the isle of the Sirens, Nineveh, Jerusalem, and the southern extreme of earth, all serve for this in turn,—but we can hardly be surprised at any extravagance here. No ordinary limitations seem to bind the illustrious neophyte, or rather the forger who in all probability first invented this wild original, and then sheltered himself behind the name of the great Latin doctor. Yet the success of his manoeuvre gives more reasonable ground for surprise.

¶ We have been asked to see the hand of Saint Jerome in a work which separates Tullius and Cicero, which refers to the sixth-century poems of Bishop Alcimus Avitus of Vienne; which in its mention of the Turks and other inadvertences clearly belies its pretended fourth-century origin; which bears evidence on every page of a Greek struggling to write impossible Latin; and which—apart from all these inconsistencies—is a libel on the intelligence, the style, and the vocabulary of the author of the Vulgate. Even this was not enough for credulity. Not only was St. Jerome the translator, but Æthicus was a real traveller. His disputes with Aurilius and Arbocrates in Spain, his conversations with Fabius in Athens, his voyages in the Northern Sea were genuine. It was unfortunate he sometimes strayed into fable, but so did many excellent writers; and if he described Babylon in full splendour, Thebes as Pausanias saw it, and Greece in the sense of the Byzantine Empire after the Saracen conquests, these anachronisms were due to the vividness of his historical imagination. After this, it needed little or no assurance to add that Orosius, Solinus, and Isidore copied him—although the copyists rarely failed to give a clearer and simpler account than their supposed original. So have eminent scholars of the nineteenth century bowed before claims which appeared grotesque to Pico della Mirandola in the fifteenth, securing another victory for the time-honoured device of Ctesias and Mandeville, and once more accepting as sufficient evidence of itself the word of one whom we cannot but suspect both of plagiarism and imposture.

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