Middle Earth


Kurt Hollander on how we might see our place in the heavens if we put the Equator at the centre, in Aeon:

Though he never actually crossed it, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras is sometimes credited with having first conceived of the Equator, calculating its location on the Earth’s sphere more than four centuries before the birth of Christ. Aristotle, who never stepped over it either and knew nothing about the landscape surrounding it, pictured the equatorial region as a land so hot that no one could survive there: the ‘Torrid Zone’. For the Greeks, the inhabited world to the north — what they called the oikumene — existed opposite an uncharted region called the antipodes. The two areas were cut off from one another by the Equator, an imaginary line often depicted as a ring of fire populated by mythical creatures.

First created in the 7th century, the Christian orbis terrarum (circle of the Earth) maps, known for visual reasons as ‘T-and-O’ maps, included only the northern hemisphere. The T represented the Mediterranean ocean, which divided the Earth’s three continents — Asia, Africa, and Europe — each of which was populated by the descendants of one of Noah’s three sons. Jerusalem usually appeared at the centre, on the Earth’s navel (ombilicum mundi), while Paradise (the Garden of Eden) was drawn to the east in Asia and situated at the top portion of the map. The O was the Ocean surrounding the three continents; beyond that was another ring of fire.

For the Catholic Church, the Equator marked the border of civilisation, beyond which no humans (at least, no followers of Christ) could exist. In The Divine Institutes (written between 303 and 311CE), the theologian Lactantius ridiculed the notion that there could be inhabitants in the antipodes ‘whose footsteps are higher than their heads’. Other authors scoffed at the idea of a place where the rain must fall up. In 748, Pope Zachary declared the idea that people could exist in the antipodes, on the ‘other side’ of the Christian world, heretical.