Nathan (vovat) wrote,

Support the Planet

You might have heard the probably apocryphal story of the woman who claimed that the Earth stood on the back of a giant turtle, and when asked by a professor what was under that, she replied, "It's turtles all the way down!" The idea of the world resting on a turtle is a common one in mythology, and one that Terry Pratchett adopted for the Discworld series. The best known is probably the model Pratchett uses, which originates in India, and has four elephants standing on the back of the turtle. I've heard of other primitive cosmologies where the world was supported by a giant fish or a lotus flower. Ancient Mesopotamian belief had a disc-shaped world floating in a cosmic ocean. Despite people trying to claim that the Bible refers to a spherical Earth, it actually makes reference to the world being a flat circle held up by pillars. Some cultures considered the world to be square or rectangular, but I don't know of any ancient society realizing it was spherical. The general idea seems to be that people figured there must be SOMETHING beyond the world we know, but had no way of fathoming what it might be, so they either went with something mundane (e.g., water), or something that (at least to us) comes across as rather absurd (like enormous animals). Later, however, the idea of a spherical Earth (which was most famously championed by the Greeks, but could possibly have been devised by other societies independently) came into prominence, and it seems like the majority of the early Church Fathers accepted it. There were exceptions, like the sixth century monk Cosmas Indicopleustes who decided the world we knew was the bottom of a rectangular box and drew a map to that effect, but I get the impression that they were the minority, at least among scholars. There was certainly no question among the educated people of Christopher Columbus' time that the world was anything but spherical; the idea that there was a strong flat-Earth contingent in fifteenth-century Europe is usually credited to Washington Irving, in his fictionalized account of the explorer. This was also after Europeans had begun sailing to the Southern Hemisphere (Marco Polo wrote the first known record of doing so), which some earlier thinkers had thought was impossible, on account of the equatorial regions being unbearably hot. Dante's Divine Comedy had it that there was only one small island in the Southern Hemisphere, located opposite Jerusalem. I tend to doubt that Dante actually believed this, any more than he believed Purgatory was an actual physical mountain, though; he was more likely just using unexplored territory as a convenient setting. A lot of ancient maps had a huge continent, known as Terra Australis, taking up almost all of the Southern Hemisphere. Early Northern visitors to Australia and New Zealand thought that these lands were part of the larger continent.

I have to wonder how a flat Earth would actually work. The idea that you'd fall off the edge was based on a mistaken notion of gravity, although I suppose a larger body beneath the Earth (like, say, an enormous turtle) might cause this to actually happen. With a planet that's simply a disc floating in space, though, would I be wrong in assuming that you'd just automatically walk around to the other side, resulting in a shift in perspective? It's something I've been wondering for some time now.
Tags: bible, discworld, history, mythology

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