When paradise was on the map

Toby Lester in the Boston Globe:

ParadiseWhere, exactly, was the Garden of Eden? Few people stay awake at night worrying about that anymore, but for more than a millennium, from the early Middle Ages well into the Renaissance, plenty of serious thinkers, especially in the Christian West, felt compelled to grapple with the question. And not unjustifiably. The Bible, after all, opens by describing Eden as an actual place in the world, located “away to the east” at the source of four great rivers, among them the very real Tigris and Euphrates.

The quest to locate paradise—a word used by the ancient Medians and Persians to mean a walled enclosure, by the early Hebrews to mean an orchard, and by the Greeks and Romans in Egypt to mean a well-watered royal park—began in earnest in the fifth century AD, after St. Augustine made the case for its physical reality. In the centuries that followed, medieval authorities matter-of-factly placed it at the easternmost limits of the world. “Asia includes many provinces and regions,” Isidore of Seville wrote in the seventh century. “I shall briefly list their names and locations, starting with Paradise.” Seven hundred years later, the conventional wisdom hadn’t changed. “The learned conclude,” the English chronicler Ranulf Higden declared, “that the Earthly Paradise is located in the farthest east”…

Starting in the eighth century or so, it seems, medieval Christians began putting paradise on their maps: a tiny walled garden here; four converging rivers there; a cute little Adam and Eve in the nude confronting a serpent. The illustrations—and the audacious idea of putting paradise on a map at all—suggest a fetchingly naive world view. But, as Scafi takes pains to point out in both books, geographical precision wasn’t the goal of most medieval cartography. Instead it involved something much richer and stranger: an attempt to project the full narrative of Christian history onto a geographical backdrop. That’s why paradise had to be on the map. It was the place on Earth where both time and space began. Farthest east, in other words, lay at the temporal and geographical edge of things, where the known abutted the unknown and the unknowable.

Read the rest here.