Paradise in Africa: The History of a Geographical Myth from its Origins in Medieval Thought to its Gradual Demise in Early Modern Europe

Paradise in Africa: The History of a Geographical Myth from its Origins in Medieval Thought to its Gradual Demise in Early Modern Europe

By Francesc Relaño

Terrae Incognitae: The Journal for the History of Discoveries, Vol 36 (2004)

Introduction: Much has been written about Paradise, both in the past and in recent times. 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.

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.” 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.” The tradition so settled, continued thereafter through authors such as Pindar (c.511-443 B.C.) and Horace (65-8 B.C.). 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).

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