SLIDE #105

TITLE: World view according to Homer
DATE: prior to 900 B.C.
These slides show reconstructions of the world/earth view held by the early Greek poet Homer. The Homeric conception of the world represented as a flat, circular disc of land surrounded by a continuous ocean-stream remained a popular notion in the Greek world even after many philosophers and scientists had accepted the theory of the sphericity of the earth enunciated by the Pythagoreans and subjected to theoretical proof by Aristotle. In this interpretation the world is like a plateau on the top of a mountain; inside this, close to the surface of the earth, lies the House of Hades, the realm of Death, and beneath it Tartarus, the realm of Eternal Darkness. The plateau of the earth is surrounded by Oceanus, the world river, and from its periphery rises the fixed dome of the sky. The sun, the moon, and the stars rise from the waters at the edge of the dome, move in an arc above the earth, and then sink once again into the sea to complete their course beneath the Oceanus. The atmosphere above the mountain of the earth is thick with clouds and mist, but higher up is the clear Æther with its starry ceiling.

The earliest literary reference for cartography in Greece is difficult to interpret. Its context is the description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad of Homer thought by modern scholars to have been written in the 8th century B.C. Since both Strabo (ca. 64/63 B.C.-A.D. 21 ) and the Stoics claimed Homer was the founder and father of a "geographical science", generally understood as involving both maps and treatises, it is tempting to start a history of Greek theoretical cartography with Homer's description of this mythical shield. If this interpretation is valid, then it must also be accepted that Homer was describing a cosmological map. Although from the Hellenistic Period onward the original meaning of the term geography was a description of the earth, ge, written or drawn (mapping and geographical descriptions were thus inseparable in the Greek world); it is equally clear that Greek mapmaking included not only the representation of the earth on a plane or globe, but also delineations of the whole universe. The shield in Homer's poem, made for Achilles by Hephæstus, god of fire and metallurgy, was evidently such a map of the universe as conceived by the early Greeks and articulated by the poet.

Despite the literary form of the poem, it gives us a clear picture of the various processes in the creation of this great work with its manifestly cartographic symbolism. We are told how Hephæstus forged a huge shield laminated with five layers of metal and with a three-layered metal rim. The five places that made up the shield consisted of a gold one in the middle, a tin one on each side of this, and finally two of bronze. On the front bronze plate we are told that he fashioned his designs in a concentric pattern; a possible arrangement is suggested in the reconstruction provided herein. The scenes of the earth and heavens in the center, two cities (one at peace and one at war), agricultural activity and pastoral life, and "the Ocean, that vast and might river" around the edge of the hard shield denote his intention of presenting a synthesis of the inhabited world as an island surrounded by water. Hephæstus depicted the universe in miniature on Achilles' shield, and Homer, in his poetry, only provides a commentary on this pictorial representation. As with the Thera fresco, which is roughly contemporaneous with the subject of Homer's poem, the juxtaposition on the shield of scenes and actions that in reality could not occur at the same time shows the artist's desire to portray a syncretism of human activity.

In light of the archaeological discoveries of cultures that certainly influenced Homer's poetry, the content of Achilles' shield seems less extraordinary. Homer was writing at a time not much earlier than the first manifestations of what is considered the beginning of Greek science. His poem may be interpreted as the poetic expression of macro-cosmic/micro-cosmic beliefs, held by a society seeking to reconcile a general view of the universe with man's activity within it. Hephæstus, the divine smith, is chosen to give a complete image of the cosmos - earth, sea, and sky together with scenes of human life. The main constellations - Orion, the Hyades, the Pleiades, and the Great Bear - are described, suggesting that a tradition had already developed of using these groups of stars to identify different parts of the sky. The shield includes a representation of the sun and moon shining simultaneously, again in an attempt to integrate a general knowledge of the sky into one depiction. Even in this poetic form we can glimpse the use of a map, almost as a heuristic device, to bring some order into concept and observation and to codify the early Greeks' reflections on the nature and constitution of their world.

At the same time, we should be clear that the map on Achilles' shield was not intended to communicate a literal view of geographical knowledge of the world as known to the early Greeks. The scenes from rural and urban life are arranged on the surface of the shield in no apparent geographical order. They simply present a generalized and metaphorical view of human activity and of the profound interdependence of human beings in spite of the variety and specialties of their pursuits. This human unity is emphasized by the ocean encircling the whole shield, rendering the world an island. Homer depicts no maritime activity in his social microcosm: the ocean seems to be no more than a geometric framework for the knowable inhabited world, a frame work W.A. Heidel considers to be the essential feature of all maps from ancient Greece.

So detailed is Homer's description that, though clearly an imaginary map, Achilles' shield represents a useful glimpse of the early history of efforts to map the world. Probably much of it is conventional, and much also is fanciful. Indeed, it was the subject of ridicule by later writers. Strabo summarized the view:

Some men, have believed in these stories themselves and also in the wide learning of the poet, have actually turned the poetry of Homer to their use as a basis of scientific investigations... Other men, however, have greeted all attempts of that sort with such ferocity that they not only have cast out the poet.... from the whole field of scientific knowledge of this kind, but also have supposed to be madmen all who have taken in hand such a task as that.

But the description no doubt reflects elements present in real maps of the time, many of which were widely used later on. Stars are named and grouped into constellations; the limits of the known world are fixed by means of the ocean, real or imaginary, that encircles the inhabited world; and there is an attempt to give pride of place to human activity in this world scene.

LOCATION: (map only exists as a reconstruction)

*Berthon, S., Robinson, A., The Shape of the World (color)
Dilke, O.A.W, Greek and Roman Maps, pp. 20, 24, 36-7, 55, 62,131.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume One, pp. 131-32.
Heidel, W.A., The Frame of the Ancient Greek Maps, p. 8.
*Landström, B., Bold Voyages and Great Explorers, p. 27. (color)
Wroth, L.C., The Early Cartography of the Pacific, p. 93.


Index of Ancient Maps