Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ear Sleepers and Other Peoplers of an Earlier World

One of the myths we still find among our contemporaries (I almost said moderns) is this: that everybody in the past thought the world was flat — that is, before Columbus proved to them it wasn’t. We today are categorically superior thanks to our new knowledge that it’s spherical. Say it loud! We’re modern and proud!* Somehow or another this rough and rude version of scientific history has worked its way into so many people’s brains, it’s pathetic. A few more words on that before we get to the ears... 
(*During the last half of the 20th century, and probably still earlier, historians have been proclaiming this idea, that all pre-Columbians believed the earth was flat, a myth. But it is the nature of certain types of myths that the role they play in a culture is too important to abandon them. Besides, who would ever think to ask a historian about history? Their long involved answers would just provoke perplexity or put you to sleep, right?  But if you have a few minutes to spare and you think I’m talking nonsense about early knowledge of the spherical earth, go see the Stern piece listed below. Then come back.)
I was long eager to get my hands on a copy of McCrindle’s translation of the Christian Topography by Cosmas Indicopleustes, and when at last I did I read the whole thing through in about 20 sittings. You may remember Cosmas. He’s the one who in around the mid-6th century seemed to know a few secrets about the Bos grunniens, a creature known in common parlance as the yak. He calls it the Agriobous. We mentioned this earlier on, in Yaks, a Few Useful Bits.

Cosmas assumed very passionately that Christians had (or more accurately ought to have had) the same superior view of the world he had. Clearly, for Cosmas, it’s shaped like a shoe box, only it is divided into a lower compartment where we live, and a higher compartment where we might go, since Jesus made an opening that we can squeeze through if we do the right things. The altitude of our otherwise flat earth gets higher and higher the further north we go (as you go through the climes, you climb!), and the weather (the clime-ate) gets colder. Somewhere up there in the north is a mountain that the sun and moon revolve around. That’s why sometimes you see these celestial luminaries and, well, sometimes you just don’t. 

I’m afraid my respect for Cosmas went down a few notches every time I heard him blasting the pagans once again for thinking the world is round and for stubbornly refusing to face the undeniable fact it’s a shoe box. About the only thing that saves his book, really, are some brief passages based on his own travels. This Egyptian, who says a lot of interest for Ethiopian studies, I ought to add, made it all the way to Sri Lanka. Unfortunately he didn’t feel it was interesting enough to tell us more about what he saw on his travels, so obsessed was he by his cosmological arguments.

It was only a few years ago I heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama saying to an audience made up of both Tibetans and non-Tibetans that if Vasubandhu, the author of the Abhidharma Treasury, were alive today he would have written his book differently. I’m fairly convinced He meant primarily the 3rd chapter, the one with all that cosmology wrapped around a wee bit of geography. Much of what you find in that chapter is also in Maudgalyāyana’s much older text, the Lokaprajñapti, that may date from a century or two before the Common Era.

Very recently I discovered to my consternation that I wasn’t the first to see the similarities between Vasubandhu’s and Cosmas’ world systems. This had already been the subject of quite a long discussion by none other than the missionary Desideri of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, who was in Tibet at the beginning of the 18th century. I’d like to be able to claim that I’ve read Michael Sweet’s new complete translation of Desideri’s missionary account, but the fact is, although the book is sitting up there on its shelf, I first located the passage through Googlebooks. I will read the book, I promise. But for the moment let me go right to that interesting passage to give you a few tastes of it. It’s too much for me to type, and anyway, I think you ought to go to the book itself. By that I mean the printed one.
[p. 345]
“They [the Tibetans] say that our terraqueous world is not round in the form of a globe, but level, flat, and circular, and at the center of this circle they situate an extremely high and immense mountain called Rirap Chenpo...  Around this mt. or very close to it is the principal, largest, and noblest part of the earth that they call Dzambuling, that is, Asia...
“Dzambuling... is surrounded by seven immense circular seas. In the first of these seas are four vast islands, the first located to the north of dzambuling, the second to the south, the third to the west, anmd the fourth to the east...  They give out the fallacious belief that the seven seas differ from one another in taste and color...  They say that Dzambuling is where the most virtuous human beings are born...  
[p. 346]
“They do not maintain that sun, moon and stars move and rotate in the heavens but rather around Rirap Chenpo., and that it takes a period of 24 hours for the sun to make a complete rotation around it...  
“From the cosmology as described in the Tibetan's books, one is led to the obvious conclusion that the ancient people and pagans of Hindustan, from whom the Tibetans took most of their books, had adopted in its entirety, or nearly so, the system propounded and explained by the 5th-century Alexandrian author Cosmas the Egyptian.  He was also known as Cosmas Indicopleustes, since he had traveled around almost all of India when he was a merchant...  
[p. 347] 
“According to his system the world and the surface of the earth is a quadrangle, such that its longitude from east to west is twice as great as its latitude from north to south.  This is precisely what the Tibetans assert about Dzambuling.  He also holds that the earth so shaped is completely enclosed by high walls...
“In order to explain day, night, and eclipses, Cosmas says that in the extreme north of the quadrangular earth there is a very high and massive cone-shaped mountain around which the sun, moon, and stars revolve. When the sun is on the side facing us, it is visible and day, and when it turns around to the other side of the mountain it is night...”

There are similarities between the two geographies. This is especially so if we ignore the big difference in shape:  Cosmas has a square shoebox shape that is portrayed in an illustration that goes back to an old manuscript version that was recopied, evidently (that means it’s likely this and the other illustrations, even if recopied as we have them, look a lot like the ones Cosmas put in his book):

Depicting the sun in the west and the sun in the east,
circling the northern mountain. I suppose
India would be on your far right.
The dark area would be the seas
with Persian Gulf, etc.

The Indian and Tibetan Buddhist cosmologies are in the round, at least, with most things coming in circles around other things. But if we limit ourselves to the land mass we live on being located to the south of the cosmic mountain — this being the conical mountain around which the sun and moon regularly circle (rather than around the whole spherical earth) — they are in these broad outlines very much the same.  Desideri is right about the generic similarity even if he messed up on a few other things.*  
(*Some are details, but his placing four continents in a circle arrayed around Jambu Island is mistaken; Jambu Island is the southern one among those four continents, and it’s triangular in shape, a not-so minor detail, and yet another difference, of which he is at first aware and then fails to notice:  For Buddhists the world is not square...  Well, a yellow square might be a symbol of the earth element, but that's the earth element, not the world.  The square you see in the chart just below is just Mount Meru seen from above.  We don’t live on it; we live in Jambu Island. Oh, and the cosmology of Vasubandhu is far older than the time of Cosmas, so the idea that the latter must have been copied by the former is totally untenable...)
Mt. Meru surrounded by the continents
(Jambu Island is in the south on your left)
See the “original” at HAR

Everything I’ve said so far is fairly beside the point, as it has so little to do with those Ear Sleepers. First a personal anecdote that might help bring things together (in my head, even if nobody else’s). Way back in nineteen hundred and ninety-two, I remember seeing a display in the lobby of the university library.  There were a bunch of oversized posters commemorating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America by C.C. If you were around then, you will know that there was a lot of justifiable debate about how and in what way various people living in the U.S. would or could or ought to celebrate this occasion.

Standing in front of one of them, I let out an audible gasp. The western world was being berated for (once or now?) thinking that the other peoples in the world were a bunch of ludicrous monsters, people who sleep in their ears, ski on their feet, have eyes in their chests and all that jazz. A group of them was depicted there bigger than life. Clearly it was meaning to tell us that the western world is guilty of the grossest discrimination. Why the gasp? The ignorance took my breath away. The maker of this propaganda (oh, sorry, educational) show didn’t show the least awareness that these alien beings were imported as a group from India by the Greeks,* or that the Greeks passed them on to the medieval western world.
(*It looks like Megasthenes picked up the stories when he was in Pataliputra — that's Patna today — and they were extracted and reviewed later on by Strabo.)
India’s contributions are often neglected or belittled, to be sure, yet I’m not sure India will be all that eager to receive credit in this particular instance. Nevertheless the fact is you do find lists of these unusual peoples in the Indian epic literature, you find them in certain geographical passages in Indian Buddhist literature, and last but not least, you find them here and there in Tibetan literature, both translations and Tibetan compositions.

For a list that was transmitted to us in both Buddhist and Bon texts, look at Figure One, toward the end of the file attached below.  Near the end of Fig. 1, you will see (to translate the Tibetan of some of the ethnonyms): Noseless Flat-Faces, Huge Ears Covering Bodies, Winged Ones, Naked No Body Hair, Human Bodies Walking Hunched Over, and Eyes in Chests. The Eyes in Chests are, of course, the Blemmyes.  You noticed the Enotocoitae, I hope, although the Sciapods aren’t in evidence here for some unknown and probably unknowable reason.

The article (a rather technical one that I do not recommend to any but your most aberrantly Tibeto-logical of personalities) is one about the history of Tibetan geographic conceptions that I wrote and published a long time ago. It is now posted at Tibetological website, on its own page, here (tap on that word here to go there, or tap on the following, either way).

Enjoy yourself with that if you possibly can. If you need me I’ll be snuggling into my own capacious and comfortable ear. If it gets a little chilly, no need for a quilt, I’ll just pull the other one over me. Life is good.

Readings both amazing and necessary

Blo-bzang-yon-tan wrote a piece on a globe kept in Tibet.  There’s even a picture of this globe, which is supposed to have been at Labrang Monastery when Gendun Choephel was there. If you read contemporary Tibetan and your computer displays Tibetan unicode correctly, go study it at the Khabdha site and report back to us in the comments section, if you please. This essay goes quite a bit into the history of flat and globular earth theories, including, I see, the shoe box of Cosmas. I think sa'i go-la ('globe of the earth') is a 20th century expression, but go-la is a quite old borrowing from Sanskrit, where it has the same meaning. In my limited experience go-la is always applied to the sphere of the stars, and even then I don’t know if that usage in Tibetan goes further back than around 1700. As far as pre-Columbian Tibetan science is concerned, I think Stag-tshang Lo-tsâ-ba (1405-1477 or 1488) must have thought of the earth as globe-shaped, otherwise his idea about lunar phases being caused by the shadow of the earth wouldn’t make much sense...  Would it?

Cosmas Indicopleuthes, The Christian Topography of Cosmas, an Egyptian Monk, J.W. McCrindle, tr., Hakluyt Society (London 1897), written in circa 550 CE. If you think you could actually read it on the screen, go here. It’s free.

Carol Delaney, “Columbus’s Ultimate Goal: Jerusalem,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 48, no. 2 (April 2006), pp. 260-292. One of the chief aims of C.C.’s mission was to get enough gold to finance retaking the Holy Land from the Saracens. This is not exactly the story about him that is useful for inspiring young aspiring scientists to daydream about a future life as discoverer. See also Hamdani’s piece listed below.

J. Duncan M. Derrett, “A Blemmya in India,” Numen, vol. 49 (2002), pp. 460-474.

Ippolito Desideri, Mission to Tibet: The Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Account of Father Ippolito Desideri, S.J., translated by Michael J. Sweet and edited by Leonard Zwilling, Wisdom (Boston 2010). Pages 346-348 are the most relevant for today. Here is a story about the book and its author, translator and editor.

Gendun Choephel (Dge-'dun-chos-'phel) wrote what has become for one sector of Tibetans a significant landmark on their path to the glories and wonders of modernization (and no doubt for some an excuse for rejecting everything of worth in their cultural past, that whole modernist polemic... you either buy the whole modern package or, well, you just don’t... we are familiar with the drill). To connect directly to the page of the Tibet Mirror in question, dated 1938, tap here. Click once on the newspaper page and it will be big enough to actually read it. I think it’s worth seeing even if you don’t want to read the Tibetan.

Abbas Hamdani, “Columbus and the Recovery of Jerusalem,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 99, no. 1 (January 1979), pp. 39‑48, at p. 43.

My note: Columbus took with him on his first voyage a Jewish convert to Christianity by the name Luis de Torres to act as an Arabic interpreter. Upon arrival in Cuba, which Columbus thought was China, he sent Luis into the interior thinking he would locate the court of the Mongol Khan and be able to communicate with him. Columbus' explorations grew out of a medieval Christian crusading mentality, and this fact or facet of his character is now generally ignored in favor of the (secular) scientific discovery ideal that we would like to inculcate in our children.
Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, tr. Stephan A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach and Oliver Berghof, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 2010).  Isidore (ca. 560-636 CE) believed the earth was a wheel-shaped disk, which makes him more like a Buddhist than Cosmas was. For his cosmology, see XIV.ii, and for the Panotians of Scythia, “who have such huge ears that they cover all the body,” see XI.iii.19.

Matthew T. Kapstein, “Just Where on Jambudvîpa Are We? New Geographical Knowledge and Old Cosmological Schemes in Eighteenth-Century Tibet,” contained in: Sheldon Pollock, ed., Forms of Knowledge in Early Modern Asia: Explorations in the Intellectual History of India and Tibet, 1500-1800, Duke University Press (Durham 2011), pp. 336-364.

Bacil F. Kirtley, “The Ear-Sleepers: Some Permutations of a Traveler’s Tale,” Journal of American Folklore, vol. 76, no. 399 (April 1963), pp. 119-130. The story is surprisingly widespread all the way to the southern tip of South America, but this author still thinks it most likely that the place it was first recorded, India, must have been the place from which it spread. There are dissenting voices who hold that New World peoples had ideas about their other peoples that were in fact similar, but not borrowed. Then there are those like Mason who see this as evidence of the European monologue, Europeans projecting their own accustomed models of alterity on to the subjectivities of other peoples in the absence of any real or significant communication with them...

Berthold Laufer, “Columbus and Cathay, and the Meaning of America to the Orientalist,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 51, no. 2  (June 1931), pp. 87-103.
From p. 96:  “Pigafetta who accompanied Magalhaens on the first voyage round the world records a story told him by an old pilot from Maluco: The inhabitants of an island named Aruchete are not more than a cubit high, and have ears as long as their bodies, so that when they lie down one ear serves them for a mattress, and with the other they cover themselves. This is also an old Indo-Hellenistic creation going back to the days of the Mahâbhârata (Karnapravarana, Lambakarna, etc.) and reflected in the Enotocoitai of Ctesias and Megasthenes. As early as the first century B. C. the Long-ears (Tan-erh) also appear in Chinese accounts; their ears are so long that they have to pick them up and carry them over their arms.”
Peter Mason, “Seduction from Afar: Europe’s Inner Indians,” Anthropos, vol. 82 (1987), pp. 581-601.

Craig J. Reynolds, “Buddhist Cosmography in Thai History, with Special Reference to Nineteenth-Century Culture Change,” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 35, no. 2 (February 1976), pp. 203-220.
[p. 219]  “The task of rethinking Buddhist cosmography in Siam was accomplished smoothly compared with a similar process underway in Japan, where Buddhists were sometimes hostile to the propositions of Western science. For Siamese Buddhists, the centering of the universe around Mt. Meru never assumed the importance it did for Japanese Buddhists, some of whom defended Buddhist cosmography as late as i88o, fearing that Christianity would undermine Buddhist teaching.”
David P. Stern, “The Round Earth and Christopher Columbus.”  Go there here. It seems the author works* for the Goddard Space Flight Center, and NASA. Here is his homepage, if you are an avid Flat Earther and would like to argue with him directly. (*Wait, now I see he’s retired.)

Strabo's Geography, Book XV, may be read here.

Vesna Wallace, “Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology: A Bibliography.” If you’d like to look into these subjects in Buddhist sources and need some pointers, this is a much recommended bibliographical essay by a professor at Oxford.  Go here. Have a look here while you’re at it.

Rudolph Wittkower, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols, Thames and Hudson (New York 1977).  A classic study in the field of art history, the relevant chapters are 3, “Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters,” and 4, “Marco Polo and the Pictorial Tradition of the Marvels of the East.”

T.V. Wylie, “Was Christopher Columbus from Shambhala?”  Bulletin of the Institute of China Border Area Studies (Taipei), vol. 1 (July 1970), pp. 24‑34. The answer, I suppose, is “Yes.”

Zhang Zhishan, “Columbus and China,” Monumenta Serica, vol. 41 (1993), pp. 177-187.  First appearance of the name of Columbus in a Chinese-language work (one composed by Giulio Aleni) is dated to 1623, where his name in Chinese sounds like Gelong. Later sources call him Kelun, Kelunbo, and in more recent times Gelunbo.  

A Map of 1660, showing the world
according to Tycho Brahe,
Harmonia Microcosmica

- ~ -

"Columbus ('Kho-lom-'bog) he was of the school of thought of those who considered the realm of the world to be rounded or globular. He is the one who was the first to arrive from Yo-rob to the land of A-ri in the year 1492. He put together four rationales for the world being round, and these were checked and tested by the wise. Twelve years after this a man named A-mi-ri-kha made a map of A-ri and named the country after himself so that even now it's called the land of A-mir-kha. A-mer-kha became independent in 1776, and from then until the present year 1980, 204 years have passed. A bell that was rung on the day she got her independence (rang-btsan) is to be seen even today on display in Phi-lâ-tal-phi-ya."

'kho lom 'bog de ni 'jig rten gyi khams zlum po'am ril ril yin pa'i srol byed yin / de nyid yo rob nas 1492 lor a ri'i sar thog mar sleb mkhan yang red / de nyid 'jig rten khams zlum po yin pa'i rigs pa bzhi bkod 'dug / mkhas rnams brtags dpyad gnang / de las lo 12  'jug a mi ri kha / zer ba'i mi gcig gis a ri'i sa khra bzo bzung lung par rang gi ming btags pas / da lta'i bar a mir kha'i yul lung zhes zer / a mer kha'i lung pa 1776 rang btsan byung nas da lta 1980 bar lo 204 song / rang btsan thob pa'i nyin dung ba'i dril bu phi lā tal phi ya'i 'grems ston khang la da lta'ang yod.  

— Sgo-mang Dge-bshes Ngag-dbang-nyi-ma (1907-1990), Works, vol. 6, pp. 573‑574.  

- ~ -

Note:  If any of this inspires or provokes discussion, please do leave a comment. I'm all ears. Really. Even if it’s only to say you despise me for what I’ve written, it will be so much better than all those spam postings I’ve been getting lately. They always have compliments about the blog, but with back-links to web pages selling Italian leather handbags, trips to Tibet and such. I delete them, of course, but being targeted by them makes me a little sad and wastes my time.

Oh, another thing. If the Sciapods are missing from the Tibetan lists there could be a reason for that, and all this time I’ve been laboring under a false etymology for their name. Isidore (XI.iii.23) says, “The race of Sciopodes are said to live in Ethiopia; they have only one leg, and are wonderfully speedy. The Greeks call them skiopodes (shade-footed ones) because when it is hot they lie on their backs on the ground and are shaded by the great size of their feet.” It seems there was some mental juggling and fumbling going on between the people of the antipodes (with feet facing the opposite direction as ours... Isidore found the idea highly unlikely - IX.ii.133), and people who had feet with the toes facing backward, and the shade footed ones who lived in a place so hot we can’t go there and find out more about it. In maps that came after Isidore, lands of people with wide feet were starting to get their own continent in the unknown zone south of sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps the Asians* weren’t yet familiar with this place either. And like (some of) you, I was imagining how they might have been gliding over the snowy hills in their bare feet.
(*“Asia is named after a certain woman who, among the ancients, had an empire in the east. It lies in a third sector of the globe, bounded in the east by the rising sun, in the south by the Ocean, in the west by the Mediterranean, in the north by Lake Moeotis [i.e., the Sea of Azov] and the river Tanais [i.e. the Don]. It has many provinces and regions, whose names and locations I will briefly explain, beginning with Paradise.”  XIV.iii.1.  What a nice place to begin.)

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