Mythical Geography in Antique Maps

Old maps are filled with inaccuracies--rivers running a wrong course, cities placed incorrectly, coastlines lacking bays, and mountains, lakes and islands missing completely. The mistakes in old maps are one of the primary aspects which makes them interesting to us, and much of the history of cartography is the history of the correction of these errors. One category of cartographic error consists of what are called ‘geographic myths.’ These are geographic features that appear on the map but not on the earth; cities where none ever were, islands where there are but waves, lakes and rivers where there is dry land, and kingdoms of non-existent kings. Geographic myths populated most areas of the world and the history of exploration is filled with expeditions in search of chimeras that existed only on the map.
There were many reasons for the creation of these myths.... Delusions: many of the non-existent cartographic features came from beliefs with no real evidential basis, deriving from folk tales, legends, lies and hypotheses. Illusions: some myths were derived from the mis-perception of evidence. A cloud on the horizon might be seen as an island, or a native village perceived as a large, rich city. Confusions: other geographic myths were the result of evidence being jumbled or misinterpreted. A cartographer might misplace a lake from one region to another or an explorer might see a bay as a long-sought-for strait.
Once ‘on the map,’ geographic myths were very hard to get rid of. As Henry R. Wagner said, “There is nothing that has such an air of verisimilitude as a map.” Failure to find one of these non-existent places or first-hand evidence that one of them was non-existent would not always lead to their banishment from the map. They would often simply be moved to another place or the evidence would be ignored. Some of these myths lasted for over a century despite evidence of their imaginary nature. Whatever their source or longevity, these geographical myths had a profound impact on the history of exploration and the story of discovery cannot be told without an understanding of these cartographic features.

California Island
Perhaps the most famous geographic myth is California shown as an island. The earliest maps of North America showed California as a peninsula, based on the reports of Francisco de Ulloa who explored the Bay of California in 1539. The famous maps by Gerard Mercator and Abraham Ortelius showed a correct depiction of California in the late sixteenth century, but that was to change early in the following century.
In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino sailed up the California coast, and Father Antonio de la Ascension wrote a journal of the voyage. Ascension claimed that California was separated from the American continent by the “mediterranean Sea of California.” It is not clear where Ascension got this notion, but this claim led to the mapping of California as an island beginning in 1622 with a small map on the title page of Antonio de Herrera’s Descripcion de las Indias Occidentales. The first folio maps to show this myth were by Abraham Goos’ in 1624 and by Henry Brigg’s in 1625. However, it wasn’t until the more important commercial Dutch publishers accepted the insularity of California that this notion achieved universal acceptance. The first of these influential insular renderings was by Jan Jansson, whose map of North America from 1636 graphically displayed this myth, and this was soon followed by all other major publishers such as Nicolas Sanson, Guillaume Blaeu, Pierre Duval, and Herman Moll.
California was depicted on maps as an island for over 100 years, even after Father Kino established its penisularity about 1705. Beginning with Delisle’s map of America in 1722, some cartographers began again to show a peninsular California, but many cartographers continued to depict it as an island. Finally in 1747, Ferdinand VII of Spain issued a royal edict declaring California as part of the mainland, and soon after that insular California finally disappeared from the map.

Friesland Island
A 16th century work, entitled De I Commentarii del Viaggio, purports to tell of the travels of Nicolo and Antonio Zeno. This volume gave an account of a 14th century voyage by the Zeno brothers in the Northern Atlantic. They were supposed to have sailed extensively in these relatively unknown waters, including to the new lands of Frisland, Icaria, Estotiland, and Drogio, the latter two of which were associated with the American continent.
Nicolo Zeno, a descendant of the Zeno brothers, supposedly found the manuscript along with a map, which he published in Venice in 1558. It was claimed that this showed that it was not the Genoese Christopher Columbus who had discovered America, but the Venetian Zeno brothers a century before. In the map, Frisland and Icaria are islands near Greenland, Estotiland is part of the North American continent, and Drogio is a large island nearby, perhaps Nova Scotia. It is now generally thought that this volume was a complete fabrication, but it was widely accepted as true when first issued.

The original map was published in 1558 and this was followed in 1561 by another version issued by Giordano Ruscelli, also from Venice. Gerard Mercator, in his seminal world map of 1569 included the Zeno geography, and this depiction was followed closely by Abraham Ortelius in his influential map of the Northern Atlantic in 1573. The non-existent lands of the Zeno brother's account, then, were spread widely to most other cartographers of the late sixteenth century.

The most interesting of these mythical lands is Frisland, which Mercator included in a separate inset on his 1595 map of the North Pole. This non-existent island led to considerable confusion in the mapping of Greenland and Baffin Island in the following centuries. Martin Frobisher, in his important exploration of 1576, reported "sight of a high and rugged land." What he had sighted was the coast of Greenland, but as he was following Mercator's map of the world, he though he had seen Frisland (which he claimed for England in the name of Queen Elizabeth). When he then got to Baffin Island, he thought he was at Greenland, and so the reports of all his explorations around Baffin Island were ascribed to Greenland. Thus it was that for many years "Frobishers Strait" (which interestingly is actually a bay) was put at the southern tip of Greenland rather than on Baffin Island. Frisland, which was accepted by most cartographers during the following century, appeared as late as the eighteenth century on a map by T.C. Lotter

Prester John African Kingdom
In the 1130s, under the leadership of Imad ad-din Zengi, Turkish power became a serious threat to the Crusader kingdoms in the Holy Land. This caused these kingdoms to seek aid from Western Europe, and around 1145, Hugh, Bishop of Jabala, was sent to meet Pope Eugenius to ask for help. Otto von Freisingen, Bishop of Freising, recorded in his Historia de Duabus Civitatibus (1158) that Hugh told the Pope about Prester John, a Christian priest and king whose kingdom was in the extreme Orient, beyond Persia and Armenia. Prester John was supposed to be a descendent of the Magi and a possessor of great wealth. It appears that Hugh talked to the Pope about Prester John because rumors had been circulating in Europe that he was going to come to the rescue of the Crusader kingdoms and Hugh wasn't to emphasize that this would not happen as Prester John was cut off from the Middle East by the Tigris River.
In 1165, a (forged) letter allegedly from Prester John was delivered to Emperor Manuel Comnenus of Byzantium. Manuel forwarded the letter to Emperor Frederic Babarous of the Holy Roman Empire. The forgery was quite clever, for the forger had obviously read Otto von Freisingen's report and he repeated many of the same stores and further played upon the hopes and fears of the Europeans vis-à-vis the infidel Turks. The letter caused a sensation and not only were copies circulated widely, but excepts were even put to song.

Excerpts from letter
"...I, Prester john, who reign supreme, surpass in virtue, riches and power all creatures under heaven. Seventy kings are our tributaries. I am a zealous Christian and universally protect the Christians of our empire, supporting them by our alms. We have determined to visit the sepulchre of our Lord with a very large army, in accordance with the glory of our majesty to humble and chastise the enemies of the cross of Christ and to exalt his blessed name."
"For gold, silver, precious stones, animals of every kind and the number of our people, we believe there is not our equal under heaven."
"If again thou askest how it is that the Creator of all having made us the most superpotential and most glorious over all mortals-does not give us a higher dignity or more excellent name than that of Priest (Prester), let not thy wisdom be surprised on this account, for this is the reason. We have many ecclesiastics in our retinue of more dignified name and office in the Church, and of more considerable standing than ours in the divine service. For our house-steward is a patriarch and king; our cup-bearer is an archbishop and king; our chamberlain is a bishop and king; our archimandrite, that is chief pastor or master of the horse, is a king and abbot. Whereof our highness has not seen it repugnant to call himself by the same name and to distinguish himself by the order of which our court is full. And if we have chosen to be called by a lower name and inferior rank, it springs from humility."

The only official response to the letter was that Pole Alexander III sent out a Papal emissary in 1177 with a letter for Prester John, carried by his physician, Magister Philippos, but nothing was ever heard of what became of him. Years later, in the mid-thirteenth century when Asia was opened again to Europeans by the ascendancy of the Tartars, the great search began to find this Prester John, a search which was very important opening up Asia and re-establishing ties with China. Though he was never found, his legend continued throughout the middle ages, with Kings and Popes sending off letters at different times seeking his help and dreams of his riches filling the heads of many.

Historical basis to the legend
The Khitai were a tribe that had ruled much of China in the late 10th century as the Liao Dynasty. As their dynasty collapsed, in 1124, a body of the imperial family escaped to Central Asia, where they established a new empire over the Turkish tribes, called Kara-Khitai (or "Black Cathay"--Black being a term of honor at the time). In 1141, in their expansion to the west, they met the eastward reaching kingdom of the Seljuk Turks of Persia. In a battle fought Sept. 8-9, 1141, at Qatawan (Katvan), near Samarkand, Yeh-lü Ta-Shih (or Yeliutashi), ruler of the empire of Kara-Khitai, defeated Sultan Sanjar, the Seljuk Turk ruler of Persia.
Reports of this great victory over the Turks reached the Crusader kingdoms soon thereafter and included was the rumor that Yeliutashi was a Christian. This appears to be somewhat unlikely, with the Kara-Khitai perhaps being confused with the Keraits, a Christian-Nestorian tribe from central Asia.

Prester John's move to Africa
By the 14th century, all searches for Prester John and his kingdom in Asia had turned up empty. Rather than give up on this hopeful and glamorous legend, however, Europeans decided that they must have been looking in the wrong region and they turned their eyes on the interior of Africa. This was spurred by the fact that there was an actual Christian kingdom there, the Nestorian kingdom of Abyssinia or Ethiopia. Mysterious Abyssinian pilgrims sometimes visited the Holy Land, though their kingdom was rumored to be bordered by inaccessible mountains. What better place to put the Kingdom of Prester John? Eastern Africa was sometimes conflated in European thinking with the "Indies," and so here must be that great Christian King in the East. The Portuguese sent several expeditions to make contact with this kingdom and the reports which came back further confirmed the belief that finally Prester John had been found. Thus the venerable legend moved to a new continent, and it was in Africa that Prester John's Kingdom was thought to lie when the earliest printed maps made their appearance. The legend eventually passed from common belief, but not before leaving a few maps illustrating this wonderful myth.

Illusions, Delusions, and Confusions: Mythical Geography in Antique Maps

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