I read a wonderful post, Ancient Maps are Mirrors for the Ancient Psyche, by Amelia Soth on the JSTOR Daily blog. It was about maps from the Middle Ages and how they reflect the beliefs and superstitions of the people that made and used them at the time. Many things that we now take for granted as intrinsic to our reality, were not then presumed to be true. And vice versa. They, too, had their presumptions.
Our Tools Reflect our Beliefs
The article seemed to suggest that humans design tools (such as maps, or today, GPS) which correspond to the dominant worldview at the time. GPS, for example, is based on the principle that our world today is measurable and finite, rational and logical,. And more or less completely knowable, given the right instruments. This mindset encourages us to travel and explore.
Ancient maps were based on the premise that the wider world, beyond what the locals knew, was treacherous. Full of monsters and demons. This fostered a different mindset: perhaps we’d better stay home.
Seeking to Know
In our own time, we have tools that assist us, in our perpetual pursuit of knowledge. Cell phones, equipped with search engines, deliver the world’s databases to our fingertips. Wherever we happen to be, we can instantaneously satisfy our desire to know.
Even a few years ago, this was not possible. You had to have a book. You had to know which book. And you had to have the prior knowledge, the experience, the expertise, that allowed you to comprehend it.
That meant that knowledge was usually acquired second-hand, through an intermediary, or expert. Specialists preserved and enhanced the knowledge base most precious to them. We went to specialists for anything beyond the most commonplace information.
Now, much of this cloistered information is available to all. Servers around the globe now “serve” as the world’s largest libraries, housing much of the world’s information. Information that once, a mere millennium ago, was hidden from all but a chosen few.
When Knowledge is Lacking
Another observation in this article is the idea that where knowledge is limited, something else must take its place.
The edges of the maps Ms. Soth describes show demons, monsters, and oddly misshapen humans. These last ones were thought to be a product of their climates, which were considered “intemperate. As in, too hot or too cold, compared to the Mediterranean, the home of the map’s creator. “Mediterranean”, which derives from medius “middle” + terra “land.” It is a term from the 16th century, according to the Oxford Dictionary in Microsoft Word.
The center of the known world.
We are all familiar with the principle, that we can’t abide a vacuum of knowledge. We lie awake in a dark bedroom, listening to unfamiliar, barely noticeable noises, and imagine all sorts of creatures scurrying about, or people breaking in, to do us harm. Our cell phone dies, on the way home from work or play, and we become convinced that this is the instant, when the car will break down, or someone will try, in vain, to call us from the hospital.
Long ago, in the eleventh century, according to the article, people believed that at the edge of the world, not so very far away, there lurked a constant danger. Gog and Magog, monsters “with long fingernails like knives,” were held back from humanity only by a wall, which they scratched down to nothing each day, and God rebuilt each night.
Ms. Soth phrases it beautifully:
In this way, the End of the World becomes not just a temporal, but also a geographical reality.
Our two most linear concepts in the western world, Time and Space, coincide in this image. The end could come at any time, but for God physically holding it back.
She sums it up:
The Apocalypse sits at the edge of the world, waiting for its day to come.
A chilling worldview, indeed.
No Judgment in My Apocalypse
Coincidentally, I just recently watched a show from National Geographic, The Story of God with Morgan Freeman: Apocalypse. In it, the host goes on a journey to explore the principle of the Apocalypse, throughout time, through the lens of a number of different religions.
I will probably have to watch the show many times, to truly understand all the different positions taken, on the subject. But that of the Buddhist priest was, by far, the most charming. He talked a bit about Time with Mr. Freeman, and how time was a series of changes from this to that, not so much an ending or a beginning. The idea of the end of time was something considered in Buddhism, he said, but not so much the “judgment day” part of it. No judgment in his apocalypse.
Perhaps this is another way of considering the “end” of time: as a destination. As in, “What end could he possibly have in mind?” What purpose? What goal? Is this what we should consider, when contemplating the “end” of our days? We are so used to hearing “The End” in our fairy tales, that we cannot conceive of time as being anything but linear, with a start and a stop. We Westerners find it hard to conceive of time as being perpetual. An infinite journey. A change of state, like steam to water to ice, yet with the same chemical composition. underlying each transformation.
Beyond are Monsters and Demons
The reason I bring this up, now, may very well be the same reason these types of articles are showing up in my feed, and shows on my TV. Not to discount the horrors experienced by those in other parts of the world, but people in my country are a spoiled bunch and are not used to this. In the last few weeks in the U.S, we have lived through an extraordinary series of disasters. Apocalyptic, you might say.
Hurricanes, one after the other, with people in multiple states and territories of the US, still picking up the pieces. A mass shooting of epic proportions, shrouded in mystery and steeped in a callousness that defies comprehension.
It is during times like these, that people evoke the Apocalypse. When people begin to think that God might just forget, to build up that wall against Gog and Magog, one of these nights.
The maps in the article depict the notion, that the Apocalypse is nigh, in time and space. The people of the time believed in it, both as a physical presence and as an unavoidable eventuality. The ancient idea, that storms and natural disasters carry God’s wrath, persists well into our own times. Mr. Freeman cites Hurricane Katrina as one recent example, of such claims being made.
Natural disasters, mass shootings, and other aberrant behavior act as an impasse, standing in the way of our eternal quest toward a rational, logical explanation for all that is. When events that defy rationality occur, we, too, feel that we have come to the edge of the “knowable” world, if not to its end. We do not understand. We do not know. And so, perplexed, we build a wall of belief at the edge of the void.
For what lies beyond are monsters and demons.
For another rambling philosophical essay read The Grand Hotel Abyss. For my rant for travel and against isolationism, read Who Only England Know.
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