Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/The Terrestrial Paradise
THE exact position of Eden, and its present condition, does not seem to have occupied the minds of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, nor to have given rise among them to wild speculations.
The map of the tenth century in the British Museum, accompanying the Periegesis of Priscian, is far more correct than the generality of maps which we find in MSS. at a later period; and Paradise does not occupy the place of Cochin China, or the isles of Japan, as it did later, after that the fabulous voyage of S. Brandan had become popular in the eleventh century. The site, however, had been already indicated by Cosmas, who wrote in the seventh century, and had been specified by him as occupying a continent east of China, beyond the ocean, and still watered by the four great rivers Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Euphrates, which sprang from subterranean canals. In a map of the ninth century, preserved in the Strasbourg library, the terrestrial Paradise is, however, on the Continent, placed at the extreme east of Asia; in fact, is situated in the Celestial Empire. It occupies the same position in a Turin MS., and also in a map accompanying a commentary on the Apocalypse in the British Museum.
According to the fictitious letter of Prester John to the Emperor Emanuel Comnenus, Paradise was situated close to—within three days’ journey of—his own territories, but where those territories were, is not distinctly specified.
“The river Indus, which issues out of Paradise,” writes the mythical king, “flows among the plains, through a certain province, and it expands, embracing the whole province with its various windings: there are found emeralds, sapphires, carbuncles, topazes, chrysolites, onyx, beryl, sardius, and many other precious stones. There too grows the plant called Asbetos.” A wonderful fountain, moreover, breaks out at the roots of Olympus, a mountain in Prester John’s domain, and “from hour to hour, and day by day, the taste of this fountain varies; and its source is hardly three days’ journey from Paradise, from which Adam was expelled. If any man drinks thrice of this spring, he will from that day feel no infirmity, and he will, as long as he lives, appear of the age of thirty.” This Olympus is a corruption of Alumbo, which is no other than Columbo in Ceylon, as is abundantly evident from Sir John Mandeville’s Travels, though this important fountain has escaped the observation of Sir Emmerson Tennant.
“Toward the heed of that forest (he writes) is the cytee of Polombe, and above the cytee is a great mountayne, also clept Polombe. And of that mount, the Cytee hathe his name. And at the foot of that Mount is a fayr welle and a gret, that hathe odour and savour of all spices; and at every hour of the day, he chaungethe his odour and his savour dyversely. And whoso drynkethe 3 times fasting of that watre of that welle, he is hool of alle maner sykenesse, that he hathe. And thei that duellen there and drynken often of that welle, thei nevere han sykenesse, and thei semen alle weys yonge. I have dronken there of 3 or 4 sithes; and zit, methinkethe, I fare the better. Some men clepen it the Welle of Youthe: for thei that often drynken thereat, semen alle weys yongly, and lyven withouten sykenesse. And men seyn, that that welle comethe out of Paradys: and therefore it is so vertuous.”
Gautier de Metz, in his poem on the “Image du Monde,” written in the thirteenth century, places the terrestrial Paradise in an unapproachable region of Asia, surrounded by flames, and having an armed angel to guard the only gate.
Lambertus Floridus, in a MS. of the twelfth century, preserved in the Imperial Library in Paris, describes it as “Paradisus insula in oceano in oriente:” and in the map accompanying it, Paradise is represented as an island, a little south east of Asia, surrounded by rays, and at some distance from the main land; and in another MS. of the same library—a mediæval encyclopædia—under the word Paradisus is a passage which states that in the centre of Paradise is a fountain which waters the garden—that in fact described by Prester John, and that of which story-telling Sir John Mandeville declared he had “dronken 3 or 4 sithes.” Close to this fountain is the Tree of Life. The temperature of the country is equable; neither frosts nor burning heats destroy the vegetation. The four rivers already mentioned rise in it. Paradise is, however, inaccessible to the traveller, on account of the wall of fire which surrounds it.
Paludanus relates in his “Thesaurus Novus,” of course on incontrovertible authority, that Alexander the Great was full of desire to see the terrestrial Paradise, and that he undertook his wars in the East for the express purpose of reaching it, and obtaining admission into it. He states that on his nearing Eden an old man was captured in a ravine by some of Alexander’s soldiers, and they were about to conduct him to their monarch, when the venerable man said, “Go and announce to Alexander that it is in vain he seeks Paradise; his efforts will be perfectly fruitless, for the way of Paradise is the way of humility, a way of which he knows nothing. Take this stone and give it to Alexander, and say to him, ‘From this stone learn what you must think of yourself.’” Now, this stone was of great value and excessively heavy, outweighing and excelling in value all other gems, but when reduced to powder, it was as light as a tuft of hay, and as worthless. By which token the mysterious old man meant, that Alexander alive was the greatest of monarchs, but Alexander dead would be a thing of nought.
That strangest of mediæval preachers, Meffreth, who got into trouble by denying the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, in his second sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, discusses the locality of the terrestrial Paradise, and claims S. Basil and S. Ambrose as his authorities for stating that it is situated on the top of a very lofty mountain in Eastern Asia; so lofty indeed is the mountain, that the waters of the four rivers fall in cascade down to a lake at its foot, with such a roar that the natives who live on the shores of the lake are stone-deaf. Meffreth also explains the escape of Paradise from submergence at the Deluge, on the same grounds as does the Master of Sentences (lib. 2, dist. 17, c. 5), by the mountain being so very high that the waters which rose over Ararat were only able to wash its base.
A manuscript in the British Museum tells us that “Paradise is neither in heaven nor on earth. The book says that Noah’s flood was forty fathoms high, over the highest hills that are on earth; and Paradise is forty fathoms higher than Noah’s flood was, and it hangeth between heaven and earth wonderfully, as the ruler of all things made it. And it is perfectly level both in length and breadth, There is neither hollow nor hill; nor is there frost nor snow, hail nor rain; but there is fons vitæ, that is, the well of life. When the calends of January commence, then floweth the well so beautifully and so gently, and no deeper than man may wet his finger on the front, over all that land. And so likewise each month, once when the month comes in the well begins to flow. And there is the copse of wood, which is called Radion Saltus, where each tree is as straight as an arrow, and so high, that no earthly man ever saw so high, or can say of what kind they are. And there never falleth leaf off, for they are evergreen, beautiful, and pleasant, full of happiness. Paradise is upright on the eastern part of this world. There is neither heat nor hunger, nor is there ever night, but always day. The sun there shineth seven times brighter than on this earth. Therein dwell innumerable angels of God with the holy souls till doomsday. Therein dwelleth a beautiful bird called Phœnix; he is large and grand, as the Mighty One formed him; he is the lord over all birds.”—(MS. Cotton. Vespas. D xiv., fol. 163.)
The monk who incited S. Brandan to undertake his mythical voyage told him that he had sailed due east from Ireland, and had come at last to Paradise, which was an island full of joy and mirth, and the earth as bright as the sun, and it was a glorious sight; and the half-year he was there slipped by as a few moments. On his return to the abbey, his garments were still fragrant with the odours of Paradise. Brandan also arrived at the same island, and with his companions traversed it for the space of forty days without meeting any one, till he came to a broad river, on the banks of which stood a young man, who told him that this stream divided the world in twain; and that none living might cross it.
In a MS. volume in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is a map of the world, dating from the twelfth century, whereon Paradise is figured as an island opposite the mouth of the Ganges, which flows into the ocean somewhere about where the Amour in reality empties itself.
The Anglo-Saxon poem, “De Phœnice,” in the Exeter book, a translation of the work of the Pseudo-Lactantius, asserts:—
“I have heard tell
That there is far hence
In eastern parts
A land most noble,
Amongst men renowned.
That tract of earth is not
Over mid earth
Fellow to many
But it is withdrawn
Through the Creator’s might
From wicked doers.
Beauteous is all the plain,
With delights blessed,
With the sweetest
Of earth’s odours.”
And then it rambles on in description of its delights, which may be imagined without further quotation.
The Hereford map of the thirteenth century represents the terrestrial Paradise as a circular island near India, cut off from the continent not only by the sea, but also by a battlemented wall, with a gateway to the west.
Rupert of Duytz regards it as having been situated in Armenia. Radulphus Highden, in the thirteenth century, relying on the authority of S. Basil and S. Isidore of Seville, places Eden in an inaccessible region of Oriental Asia; and this was also the opinion of Philostorgus. Hugo de St. Victor, in his book “De Situ Terrarum,” expresses himself thus:—“Paradise is a spot in the Orient productive of all kind of woods and pomiferous trees. It contains the Tree of Life: there is neither cold nor heat there, but perpetual equable temperature. It contains a fountain which flows forth in four rivers.”
Rabanus Maurus, with more discretion, says:—“Many folk want to make out that the site of Paradise is in the east of the earth, though cut off by the longest intervening space of ocean or earth from all regions which man now inhabits. Consequently, the waters of the Deluge, which covered the highest points of the surface of our orb, were unable to reach it. However, whether it be there, or whether it be anywhere else, God knows; but that there was such a spot once, and that it was on earth, that is certain.”
Jacques de Vitry (“Historia Orientalis”), Gervais of Tilbury, in his “Otia Imperalia,” and many others, hold the same views as to the site of Paradise that were entertained by Hugo de S. Victor.
Jourdain de Sèverac, monk and traveller in the beginning of the fourteenth century, places the terrestrial Paradise in the “Third India;” that is to say, in trans-Gangic India.
Leonardo Dati, a Florentine poet of the fifteenth century, composed a geographical treatise in verse, entitled “Della Sfera;” and it is in Asia that he locates the garden:—
“Asia è le prima parte dove l’ huomo
Sendo innocente stava in Paradiso.”
But perhaps the most remarkable account of the terrestrial Paradise ever furnished, is that of the “Eireks Saga Vídforla,” an Icelandic narrative of the fourteenth century, giving the adventures of a certain Norwegian, named Eirek, who had vowed, whilst a heathen, that he would explore the fabulous Deathless Land of pagan Scandinavian mythology. The romance is possibly a Christian recension of an ancient heathen myth; and Paradise has taken the place in it of Glœsisvellir.
According to the majority of the MSS. the story purports to be nothing more than a religious novel; but one audacious copyist has ventured to assert that it is all fact, and that the details are taken down from the lips of those who heard them from Eirek himself. The account is briefly this:—
Eirek was a son of Thrand, king of Drontheim, and having taken upon him a vow to explore the Deathless Land, he went to Denmark, where he picked up a friend of the same name as himself. They then went to Constantinople, and called upon the Emperor, who held a long conversation with them, which is duly reported, relative to the truths of Christianity and the site of the Deathless Land, which, he assures them, is nothing more nor less than Paradise.
“The world,” said the monarch, who had not forgotten his geography since he left school, “is precisely 180,000 stages round (about 1,000,000 English miles), and it is not propped up on posts—not a bit!—it is supported by the power of God; and the distance between earth and heaven is 100,045 miles (another MS. reads 9382 miles—the difference is immaterial); and round about the earth is a big sea called Ocean.” “And what’s to the south of the earth?” asked Eirek. “Oh! there is the end of the world, and that is India.” “And pray where am I to find the Deathless Land?” “Paradise, I suppose you mean,—lies slightly east of India.”
Having obtained this information, the two Eireks started, furnished with letters from the Greek Emperor.
They traversed Syria, and took ship—probably at Balsora; then, reaching India, they proceeded on their journey on horseback, till they came to a dense forest, the gloom of which was so great, through the interlacing of the boughs, that even by day the stars could be observed twinkling, as though they were seen from the bottom of a well.
On emerging from the forest, the two Eireks came upon a strait, separating them from a beautiful land, which was unmistakably Paradise; and the Danish Eirek, intent on displaying his scriptural knowledge, pronounced the strait to be the river Pison. This was crossed by a stone bridge, guarded by a dragon.
The Danish Eirek, deterred by the prospect of an encounter with this monster, refused to advance, and even endeavored to persuade his friend to give up the attempt to enter Paradise as hopeless, after that they had come within sight of the favored land. But the Norseman deliberately walked, sword in hand, into the maw of the dragon, and next moment, to his infinite surprise and delight, found himself liberated from the gloom of the monster’s interior, and safely placed in Paradise.
“The land was most beautiful, and the grass as gorgeous as purple; it was studded with flowers, and was traversed by honey rills. The land was extensive and level, so that there was not to be seen mountain or hill, and the sun shone cloudless, without night and darkness; the calm of the air was great, and there was but a feeble murmur of wind, and that which there was, breathed redolent with the odor of blossoms.” After a short walk, Eirek observed what certainly must have been a remarkable object, namely, a tower or steeple self-suspended in the air, without any support whatever, though access might be had to it by means of a slender ladder. By this Eirek ascended into a loft of the tower, and found there an excellent cold collation prepared for him. After having partaken of this he went to sleep, and in vision beheld and conversed with his guardian angel, who promised to conduct him back to his fatherland, but to come for him again and fetch him away from it forever at the expiration of the tenth year after his return to Dronheim.
Eirek then retraced his steps to India, unmolested by the dragon, which did not affect any surprise at having to disgorge him, and, indeed, which seems to have been, notwithstanding his looks, but a harmless and passive dragon. After a tedious journey of seven years, Eirek reached his native land, where he related his adventures, to the confusion of the heathen, and to the delight and edification of the faithful. “And in the tenth year, and at break of day, as Eirek went to prayer, God’s Spirit caught him away, and he was never seen again in this world: so here ends all we have to say of him.”
The saga, of which I have given the merest outline, is certainly striking, and contains some beautiful passages. It follows the commonly-received opinion which identified Paradise with Ceylon; and, indeed, an earlier Icelandic work, the “Rymbegla,” indicates the locality of the terrestrial Paradise as being near India, for it speaks of the Ganges as taking its rise in the mountains of Eden. It is not unlikely that the curious history of Eirek, if not a Christianized version of a heathen myth, may contain the tradition of a real expedition to India, by one of the hardy adventurers who overran Europe, explored the north of Russia, harrowed the shores of Africa, and discovered America.
Later than the fifteenth century, we find no theories propounded concerning the terrestrial Paradise, though there are many treatises on the presumed situation of the ancient Eden. At Madrid was published a poem on the subject, entitled “Patriana decas,” in 1629. In 1662 G. C. Kirchmayer, a Wittemberg professor, composed a thoughtful dissertation, “De Paradiso,” which he inserted in his “Deliciæ Æstivæ.” Fr. Arnoulx wrote a work on Paradise in 1665, full of the grossest absurdities. In 1666 appeared Carver’s “Discourse on the Terrestrian Paradise.” Bochart composed a tract on the subject; Huet wrote on it also, and his work passed through seven editions, the last dated from Amsterdam, 1701. The Père Hardouin composed a “Nouveau Traité de la Situation du Paradis Terrestre,” La Haye, 1730. An Armenian work on the rivers of Paradise was translated by M. Saint Marten in 1819; and in 1842 Sir W. Ouseley read a paper on the situation of Eden, before the Literary Society in London.
- S. Brandan was an Irish monk, living at the close of the sixth century; he founded the Monastery of Clonfert, and is commemorated on May 16. His voyage seems to be founded on that of Sinbad, and is full of absurdities. It has been republished by M. Jubinal from MSS. in the Bibliothèque du Roi, Paris, 8vo., 1836; the earliest printed English edition is that of Wynkyn de Worde, London, 1516.
- Compare with this the death of Sir Galahad in the “Morte d’Arthur” of Sir Thomas Malory.