By Michael W. Herren
One of the most skilful forgeries of the Middle Ages, the Cosmography of Aethicus Ister has puzzled scholars for over 150 years, not least because of its challenging Latinity. Written at a western centre in the first part of the eighth century, the work purports to be a heavily censored epitome made by St. Jerome of a “cosmography” by an Istrian philosopher named Aethicus. This writer, who is otherwise unknown, describes a flat-earth universe resembling that of Cosmas Indicopleustes, then gives an eye-witness account of his travels to the “isles of the gentiles” in the North and East. There he encounters not only savage races, but also monsters, Amazons, and other figures of mythology. Alexander the Great also figures prominently by immuring the “unclean races,” who will escape to ravage the world at the coming of the Anti-Christ. Not all is fiction. The author’s observations on volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis will interest the scientific reader. The last part deals in coded fashion with contemporary events in the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, and may provide a clue to the author’s origins. The present volume offers a new critical text, the first translation, and a detailed commentary covering every aspect of the work.
Extract: Book 1, Chapter 28 (Munitia may refer to the Shetland Islands)
He describes the northern isle of Munitia. Examining the Dogheaded men there according to his well-known investigative method, he claims that their heads resemble canine heads but the rest of their members – hands, feet – were of the human species and like other races of men. They are tall in stature, savage in appearance, and one finds also unheard-of monstrosities among those whom neighbouring peoples around them call Cainanei, for their women do not bear a very great resemblance to the men. They are a miscreant race, which no history describes except our philosopher’s. And the peoples of Germany, especially their tribute collectors and merchants, affirm that they often come to this island for sea commerce, and they call that people Chananei. These same heathens go about bare-legged, and they treat their hair by smearing it in oil or fat, which gives off a terrible stench; they lead a most filthy life. They eat the forbidden meat of unclean quadrupeds – mice, moles and the like. They have no proper buildings, but make use of poles with felt tent-coverings; their settlements are in wooded and remote locations, swamps and marshy places, cattle are abundant, and there is a good supply of game birds as well as numerous sheep. Ignorant of God, worshipping demons and omens, they have no king. They use tin rather than silver, and they say that it is softer and brighter than silver, indeed silver is not found in those parts unless brought there from elsewhere; gold is found on their shores. The land produces neither corn nor vegetables; there is an abundance of milk, but very little honey. The same philosopher describes all these matters in his record of the heathens.