The Terrestrial Paradise

: Curious Myths Of The Middle Ages

The exact position of Eden, and its present condition, do not seem to

have occupied the minds of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, nor to have

given rise among them to wild speculations.

The map of the tenth century in the British Museum, accompanying the

Periegesis of Priscian, is far more correct than the generality of

maps which we find in MSS. at a later period; and Paradise does not

occupy the place of Coch
n China, or the isles of Japan, as it did

later, after that the fabulous voyage of St. Brandan had become

popular in the eleventh century.[37] The site, however, had been

already indicated by Cosmas, who wrote in the seventh century, and had

been specified by him as occupying a continent east of China, beyond

the ocean, and still watered by the four great rivers Pison, Gihon,

Hiddekel, and Euphrates, which sprang from subterranean canals. In a

map of the ninth century, preserved in the Strasbourg library, the

terrestrial Paradise is, however, on the Continent, placed at the

extreme east of Asia; in fact, is situated in the Celestial Empire. It

occupies the same position in a Turin MS., and also in a map

accompanying a commentary on the Apocalypse in the British Museum.

According to the fictitious letter of Prester John to the Emperor

Emanuel Comnenus, Paradise was situated close to--within three days'

journey of--his own territories, but where those territories were, is

not distinctly specified.

"The River Indus, which issues out of Paradise," writes the mythical

king, "flows among the plains, through a certain province, and it

expands, embracing the whole province with its various windings: there

are found emeralds, sapphires, carbuncles, topazes, chrysolites, onyx,

beryl, sardius, and many other precious stones. There too grows the

plant called Asbetos." A wonderful fountain, moreover, breaks out at

the roots of Olympus, a mountain in Prester John's domain, and "from

hour to hour, and day by day, the taste of this fountain varies; and

its source is hardly three days' journey from Paradise, from which

Adam was expelled. If any man drinks thrice of this spring, he will

from that day feel no infirmity, and he will, as long as he lives,

appear of the age of thirty." This Olympus is a corruption of Alumbo,

which is no other than Columbo in Ceylon, as is abundantly evident

from Sir John Mandeville's Travels; though this important fountain has

escaped the observation of Sir Emmerson Tennant.

"Toward the heed of that forest (he writes) is the cytee of Polombe,

and above the cytee is a great mountayne, also clept Polombe. And of

that mount, the Cytee hathe his name. And at the foot of that Mount is

a fayr welle and a gret, that hathe odour and savour of all spices;

and at every hour of the day, he chaungethe his odour and his savour

dyversely. And whoso drynkethe 3 times fasting of that watre of that

welle, he is hool of alle maner sykenesse, that he hathe. And thei

that duellen there and drynken often of that welle, thei nevere han

sykenesse, and thei semen alle weys yonge. I have dronken there of 3

of 4 sithes; and zit, methinkethe, I fare the better. Some men clepen

it the Welle of Youthe: for thei that often drynken thereat, semen

alle weys yongly, and lyven withouten sykenesse. And men seyn, that

that welle comethe out of Paradys: and therefore it is so vertuous."

Gautier de Metz, in his poem on the "Image du Monde," written in the

thirteenth century, places the terrestrial Paradise in an

unapproachable region of Asia, surrounded by flames, and having an

armed angel to guard the only gate.

Lambertus Floridus, in a MS. of the twelfth century, preserved in the

Imperial Library in Paris, describes it as "Paradisus insula in oceano

in oriente:" and in the map accompanying it, Paradise is represented

as an island, a little south-east of Asia, surrounded by rays, and at

some distance from the main land; and in another MS. of the same

library,--a mediAval encyclopAdia,--under the word Paradisus is a

passage which states that in the centre of Paradise is a fountain

which waters the garden--that in fact described by Prester John, and

that of which story-telling Sir John Mandeville declared he had

"dronken 3 or 4 sithes." Close to this fountain is the Tree of Life.

The temperature of the country is equable; neither frosts nor burning

heats destroy the vegetation. The four rivers already mentioned rise

in it. Paradise is, however, inaccessible to the traveller on account

of the wall of fire which surrounds it.

Paludanus relates in his "Thesaurus Novus," of course on

incontrovertible authority, that Alexander the Great was full of

desire to see the terrestrial Paradise, and that he undertook his wars

in the East for the express purpose of reaching it, and obtaining

admission into it. He states that on his nearing Eden an old man was

captured in a ravine by some of Alexander's soldiers, and they were

about to conduct him to their monarch, when the venerable man said,

"Go and announce to Alexander that it is in vain he seeks Paradise;

his efforts will be perfectly fruitless; for the way of Paradise is

the way of humility, a way of which he knows nothing. Take this stone

and give it to Alexander, and say to him, 'From this stone learn what

you must think of yourself.'" Now, this stone was of great value and

excessively heavy, outweighing and excelling in value all other gems;

but when reduced to powder, it was as light as a tuft of hay, and as

worthless. By which token the mysterious old man meant, that Alexander

alive was the greatest of monarchs, but Alexander dead would be a

thing of nought.

That strangest of mediAval preachers, Meffreth, who got into trouble

by denying the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, in his

second sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, discusses the locality

of the terrestrial Paradise, and claims St. Basil and St. Ambrose as

his authorities for stating that it is situated on the top of a very

lofty mountain in Eastern Asia; so lofty indeed is the mountain, that

the waters of the four rivers fall in cascade down to a lake at its

foot, with such a roar that the natives who live on the shores of the

lake are stone-deaf. Meffreth also explains the escape of Paradise

from submergence at the Deluge, on the same grounds as does the Master

of Sentences (lib. 2, dist. 17, c. 5), by the mountain being so very

high that the waters which rose over Ararat were only able to wash the

base of the mountain of Paradise.

The Hereford map of the thirteenth century represents the terrestrial

Paradise as a circular island near India, cut off from the continent

not only by the sea, but also by a battlemented wall, with a gateway

to the west.

Rupert of Duytz regards it as having been situated in Armenia.

Radulphus Highden, in the thirteenth century, relying on the authority

of St. Basil and St. Isidore of Seville, places Eden in an

inaccessible region of Oriental Asia; and this was also the opinion of

Philostorgus. Hugo de St. Victor, in his book "De Situ Terrarum,"

expresses himself thus: "Paradise is a spot in the Orient productive

of all kind of woods and pomiferous trees. It contains the Tree of

Life: there is neither cold nor heat there, but perpetual equable

temperature. It contains a fountain which flows forth in four rivers."

Rabanus Maurus, with more discretion, says, "Many folk want to make

out that the site of Paradise is in the east of the earth, though cut

off by the longest intervening space of ocean or earth from all

regions which man now inhabits. Consequently, the waters of the

Deluge, which covered the highest points of the surface of our orb,

were unable to reach it. However, whether it be there, or whether it

be anywhere else, God knows; but that there was such a spot once,

and that it was on earth, that is certain."

Jacques de Vitry ("Historia Orientalis"), Gervais of Tilbury, in his

"Otia Imperalia," and many others, hold the same views, as to the site

of Paradise, that were entertained by Hugo de St. Victor.

Jourdain de SA"verac, monk and traveller in the beginning of the

fourteenth century, places the terrestrial Paradise in the "Third

India;" that is to say, in trans-Gangic India.

Leonardo Dati, a Florentine poet of the fifteenth century, composed a

geographical treatise in verse, entitled "Della Sfera;" and it is in

Asia that he locates the garden:--

"Asia e le prima parte dove l'huomo

Sendo innocente stava in Paradiso."

But perhaps the most remarkable account of the terrestrial Paradise

ever furnished, is that of the "Eireks Saga VA-dfA¶rla," an Icelandic

narrative of the fourteenth century, giving the adventures of a

certain Norwegian, named Eirek, who had vowed, whilst a heathen, that

he would explore the fabulous Deathless Land of pagan Scandinavian

mythology. The romance is possibly a Christian recension of an ancient

heathen myth; and Paradise has taken the place in it of


According to the majority of the MSS. the story purports to be nothing

more than a religious novel; but one audacious copyist has ventured to

assert that it is all fact, and that the details are taken down from

the lips of those who heard them from Eirek himself. The account is

briefly this:--

Eirek was a son of Thrand, king of Drontheim, and having taken upon

him a vow to explore the Deathless Land, he went to Denmark, where he

picked up a friend of the same name as himself. They then went to

Constantinople, and called upon the Emperor, who held a long

conversation with them, which is duly reported, relative to the truths

of Christianity and the site of the Deathless Land, which, he assures

them, is nothing more nor less than Paradise.

"The world," said the monarch, who had not forgotten his geography

since he left school, "is precisely 180,000 stages round (about

1,000,000 English miles), and it is not propped up on posts--not a

bit!--it is supported by the power of God; and the distance between

earth and heaven is 100,045 miles (another MS. reads 9382 miles--the

difference is immaterial); and round about the earth is a big sea

called Ocean." "And what's to the south of the earth?" asked Eirek.

"O! there is the end of the world, and that is India." "And pray where

am I to find the Deathless Land?" "That lies--Paradise, I suppose, you

mean--well, it lies slightly east of India."

Having obtained this information, the two Eireks started, furnished

with letters from the Greek Emperor.

They traversed Syria, and took ship--probably at Balsora; then,

reaching India, they proceeded on their journey on horseback, till

they came to a dense forest, the gloom of which was so great, through

the interlacing of the boughs, that even by day the stars could be

observed twinkling, as though they were seen from the bottom of a


On emerging from the forest, the two Eireks came upon a strait,

separating them from a beautiful land, which was unmistakably

Paradise; and the Danish Eirek, intent on displaying his scriptural

knowledge, pronounced the strait to be the River Pison. This was

crossed by a stone bridge, guarded by a dragon.

The Danish Eirek, deterred by the prospect of an encounter with this

monster, refused to advance, and even endeavored to persuade his

friend to give up the attempt to enter Paradise as hopeless, after

that they had come within sight of the favored land. But the Norseman

deliberately walked, sword in hand, into the maw of the dragon, and

next moment, to his infinite surprise and delight, found himself

liberated from the gloom of the monster's interior, and safely placed

in Paradise.

"The land was most beautiful, and the grass as gorgeous as purple; it

was studded with flowers, and was traversed by honey rills. The land

was extensive and level, so that there was not to be seen mountain or

hill, and the sun shone cloudless, without night and darkness; the

calm of the air was great, and there was but a feeble murmur of wind,

and that which there was, breathed redolent with the odor of

blossoms." After a short walk, Eirek observed what certainly must have

been a remarkable object, namely, a tower or steeple self-suspended in

the air, without any support whatever, though access might be had to

it by means of a slender ladder. By this Eirek ascended into a loft of

the tower, and found there an excellent cold collation prepared for

him. After having partaken of this he went to sleep, and in vision

beheld and conversed with his guardian angel, who promised to conduct

him back to his fatherland, but to come for him again and fetch him

away from it forever at the expiration of the tenth year after his

return to Dronheim.

Eirek then retraced his steps to India, unmolested by the dragon,

which did not affect any surprise at having to disgorge him, and,

indeed, which seems to have been, notwithstanding his looks, but a

harmless and passive dragon.

After a tedious journey of seven years, Eirek reached his native land,

where he related his adventures, to the confusion of the heathen, and

to the delight and edification of the faithful. "And in the tenth

year, and at break of day, as Eirek went to prayer, God's Spirit

caught him away, and he was never seen again in this world: so here

ends all we have to say of him."[38]

The saga, of which I have given the merest outline, is certainly

striking, and contains some beautiful passages. It follows the

commonly-received opinion which identified Paradise with Ceylon; and,

indeed, an earlier Icelandic work, the "Rymbegla," indicates the

locality of the terrestrial Paradise as being near India, for it

speaks of the Ganges as taking its rise in the mountains of Eden. It

is not unlikely that the curious history of Eirek, if not a

Christianized version of a heathen myth, may contain the tradition of

a real expedition to India, by one of the hardy adventurers who

overran Europe, explored the north of Russia, harrowed the shores of

Africa, and discovered America.

Later than the fifteenth century, we find no theories propounded

concerning the terrestrial Paradise, though there are many treatises

on the presumed situation of the ancient Eden. At Madrid was published

a poem on the subject, entitled "Patriana decas," in 1629. In 1662

G. C. Kirchmayer, a Wittemberg professor, composed a thoughtful

dissertation, "De Paradiso," which he inserted in his "DeliciA

A†stivA." Fr. Arnoulx wrote a work on Paradise in 1665, full of the

grossest absurdities. In 1666 appeared Carver's "Discourse on the

Terrestrian Paradise." Bochart composed a tract on the subject; Huet

wrote on it also, and his work passed through seven editions, the last

dated from Amsterdam, 1701. The PA"re Hardouin composed a "Nouveau

TraitA(C) de la Situation du Paradis Terrestre," La Haye, 1730. An

Armenian work on the rivers of Paradise was translated by M. Saint

Marten in 1819; and in 1842 Sir W. Ouseley read a paper on the

situation of Eden, before the Literary Society in London.


[37] St. Brandan was an Irish monk, living at the close of the sixth

century; he founded the Monastery of Clonfert, and is commemorated on

May 16. His voyage seems to be founded on that of Sinbad, and is full

of absurdities. It has been republished by M. Jubinal from MSS. in the

BibliothA"que du Roi, Paris, 8vo. 1836; the earliest printed English

edition is that of Wynkyn de Worde, London, 1516.

[38] Compare with this the death of Sir Galahad in the "Morte

d'Arthur" of Sir Thomas Malory.