The whole history of geography is a triumph for myths

The whole history of geography is a triumph for myths. America was explored by men who hunted for the Fountain of Youth, and Asia by those in search of a fabulous Prester John. No well authenticated fact ever had the power of these legends to draw men out into the hazards of unknown lands. Explorers are, by their very nature, adventurers. And how could anyone tell which tales were true and which were not? After all, the myth of Prester John was no more remarkable than the truth of Kubla Khan.

Homer had heard of the pigmies, and Hesiod had heard of another group in the opposite direction, men who lived where the Sun shone for half a year at a time but were forced to dwell in darkness between the fall and the spring. He called them "Hyperboreans"--men living "beyond the North" and Herodotus with irrefutable logic said that there must be "Hypemotians" living "beyond the South" as well.

Herodotus was the greatest of geographers in the fifth century B. C.--a time when Ionia was seething with curiosity about the world. A hundred years before, Anaximander of Miletus. had "invented" maps, and they were copied by his townsman, Hecataeus, fragments of whose work still exist. The map of Hecataeus shows the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Black, the Danube, the Nile, the Euphrates and the Indus; he wrote an attempt at systematic geography also, a description of the world and its inhabitants, and perhaps it was this work which fired Herodotus with his boundless enthusiasm.

Much has been said and written about the inaccuracy of Herodotus. Plutarch in a terrific diatribe took up the discussion, "de malignitate Herodoti." He said that Herodotus wrote ill-naturedly and fooled people by his good-natured style. He said that Herodotus danced away the truth. Traditions like that have persisted. Why not? The nineteenth century, reading his descriptions of tunnels and canals, laughed because Herodotus claimed to have seen them himself, and the nineteenth century knew that such things never existed. The twentieth-century archaeologists dug them up. Likewise no one with common sense could believe that men tied the tails of their sheep to little trolley cars to keep them from dragging on the ground. Perhaps not; but disbelief is the fault of common sense. The practice was carried on in central Asia till modern times.

Of course some of his stories are wild--he usually admits that. "As for the tale of Abaris who is said to have gone with his arrow all around the world, I shall pass it by in silence." Such stories were gathered in the market place, along the wharves and docks, from merchants and sailors who tried constantly to outdo one another with their tall tales. But Herodotus listened patiently, and sorted out the material afterward; he was undoubtedly one of the best listeners that the world has ever known and, if ever his curios. ity about a place overcame him, he traveled to see it himself.

His theories as to the shape of the world are a little curious; he had rejected the compass disc of his forebears, but he was still unaware of the spherical Earth; and while he knew that the continents were of unequal size, the shapes he assigned to them are rather disproportionate:

" Europe extends the entire length of the other two and for breadth will not even, I think, bear to be compared with them. As for Libya we know it to be washed on all sides by the sea except where it is attached to Asia."

He was suspicious of the wildest stories, and the too-literal interpretation of imagery--very doubtful if men who lived in mountains really had goats' feet, and he disapproved thoroughly of the story that a Scythian came to Greece and reported at home that the Greeks were all pursuers of every kind of knowledge, except the Lacedaemonians who, however, alone knew how to conversesensibly. But Herodotus wrote the stories down, whether he believed them or not, and therein---curiously enough--lies one of his chief merits.

" Necos, the King of Egypt, (on desisting from the canal which he had begun between the Nile and the Arabian Gulf) sent to sea a number of ships manned by Phoenicians, with orders to make for the Pillars of Hercules, and return to Egypt through them, and by the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians took their departure from Egypt by way of the Arabian Gulf, and so sailed into the southern ocean. When autumn came they went ashore, wherever they might happen to be, and having sown a tract of land with corn, waited until the grain was fit to cut. Having reaped it, they again set sail; and thus it came to pass that two whole years went by, and it was not till the third year that they doubled the Pillars of Hercules, and made good their voyage home. On their return, they declared--I for my part do not believe them, but perhaps others may--that in sailing round Libya they had the Sun upon their right hand."

No comments: