When paradise was on the map

Where, 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.”

But where? Medieval writers tended to evade the question, leaving the details up to cartographers, whose decisions over the centuries about where to put paradise have been studied in engrossing detail in recent years by Alessandro Scafi. A cultural historian based at the Warburg Institute, in London, Scafi first addressed the subject in the extensive scholarly compendium “Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth” (2006), and he’s now just released “Maps of Paradise” (2013), a sumptuously illustrated volume intended for a wider audience.

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.

As medieval Europeans began to explore the world and expand their geographical horizons, mapmakers began to site paradise—by its nature a beyond-the-horizon kind of place—in a shifting set of locations. To follow its movements, as Scafi does in “Maps of Paradise,” is to take a tour of the limits of the world as Europeans knew it in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Variously, it appeared on the edges of what we now think of as China, at the extreme of a mistily defined India, in the nether regions of sub-Saharan Africa, as an inaccessibly high mountain, and as an offshore island that lay beyond even farthest east. All of its movements were possible, of course, because east is a relative term—which meant, as one influential 14th-century scholar complained, that it was possible to imagine paradise just about anywhere.

New challenges arose in the 15th century, with the rise of coordinate-based mapping. Paradise now had to have a latitude and longitude. One of the earliest coordinate tables from the period, produced in 1436, made paradise its opening entry and gave it specific coordinates: zero degrees of latitude (the equator) and 180 degrees of longitude, or as far from the beginning of the European west as possible. Which was fine for a while, until it became clear that what actually lay at these coordinates was an empty expanse of the Pacific.

The quest to locate paradise stands in sharp contrast with the attempt to locate hell. Everybody knew roughly where it had to be: down under the surface of the Earth, on the far side of a different unknown—which the genially eccentric Dutch geologist Salomon Kroonenberg provides a guided tour of in his newly translated “Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur,” a survey of both the literary and geological makeup of hell.

The most famous guides to the underworld, of course, are Virgil and Dante, whose poetic imaginings of the place, written almost 1,500 years apart, both still exert a mythic cultural power. But Kroonenberg goes out of his way to show just how extensively both authors derived their ideas about the underworld from the actual Mediterranean environment in which they lived. Those famous nine circles of hell? Kroonenberg locates their source in the layered limestone deposits thrust up from under the Mediterranean when Africa and Europe collided and began closing in on each other. Those underground fires, noxious fumes, and ominous rumblings? The volcanically active environs of Vesuvius and Etna. “Who knows,” Kroonenberg writes, “perhaps the Underworld would have looked very different if classical culture had developed around the North Sea.”

Inevitably, mapmakers were asked to take stock of the various dimensions of the Inferno, as listed by Dante in his poem, and to use them to map hell onto the world. The best-known result, included in one of the earliest printed editions (1506) of “The Inferno,” relied on calculations worked out in Florence at the end of the 15th century. The Accademia in Florence later decided those calculations had to be verified, because new figures had been proposed, and to carry out the job, in 1587 they turned to one of the city’s most promising young mathematicians, none other than the young Galileo Galilei. Embracing the challenge, Galileo determined, in a genuinely impressive display of his abilities, that the earlier calculations were more accurate—and that hell, at least as Dante had described it, occupied a little less than a 14th part of the total volume of the Earth.

Our understanding of the actual underworld has evolved more than a little since then. That’s a point Kroonenberg makes abundantly clear in his book. Inadvertently, he makes another point, too, one that comes across unforgettably if you’ve spent any time pondering the age-old search for paradise. Heaven on Earth, it’s fair to say, will always lie out in the farthest east, just beyond the horizons of the real, but hell is never far away. It’s right underfoot.