12. The “Silent” Historical Record Speaks: Documents Possibly Describing Pre-Columbian Crossings
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12 The “Silent” His­ tori­ cal Record Speaks Documents Possibly Describing Pre-­Columbian Crossings The palest ink is better than the most retentive memory. —Confucius, circa 500 BC All of the aforementioned forces leading to loss and destruction of records notwithstanding , it may still be asked whether at least some recorded hint of overseas knowledge should not be expected to have survived, had such knowledge existed. Surely, some may say, absolute his­ tori­ cal silence about something so important is completely implausible. Be that as it may, written references to some transoceanic voyages, whether true or fictional, have come down to us. On Papyrus and Parchment: Mediterranean and West European Records Despite frequent assertions to the contrary, in the West there are traditions from ancient and Classical times concerning ocean voyaging and overseas lands. According to the fourth-­ century AD Roman writer Rufius Festus Avienus in Ora Maritima, the Carthaginian Himlico (see below) claimed to have crossed the Atlantic in four months. During the reign of Augustus, Strabo suggested that a “new world” existed in the sea between Europe and India. The narrow-­ Atlantic concept of Krates of Mallos has been described in chapter 1, and such Roman philosophers, historians, and geographers as Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Plutarch (Loukios Mestrios Ploutarxo), Gaius Julius Solinus, and Pomponius Mela advanced the notion of lands to the west of the Mediterranean. The Roman epic poet Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, AD 35–65) averred that just prior to the conqueror’s death Alexander the Great of Macedon had plans to take his forces westward into the Atlantic, to circumnavigate the globe, and to conquer new worlds, a notion also contained in epigrams collected by Seneca the Elder in the first century AD, but Alexander’s counselors are said to have assured him that there was nothing beyond the sea and that in any case the ocean was too holy to be crossed by ships.1 Pre-Columbian Crossings / 131 Pliny the Elder spoke of a frozen sea (mare concretum), which was called the Cronian Sea and lay a day’s sail from Thule (Iceland). In about AD 100, Plutarch , in Moralia, quoted the Carthaginian Sextius Sylla to the effect that “Far o’er the brine an isle Ogygian lies,” five days’ sail to the west of Britain, and that there were, toward the summer sunset, three other isles equidistant from Britain and from one another. The island natives told that, on one of these lands, Cronus had been confined by his father, Zeus.2 Some have proposed that “Cronland” (sometimes spelled “Gronland”), from “Cronus,” is the origin of the name “Graenland”/“Groenland” rather than Eirík the Red’s having coined the “Graenland”/“Groenland” label in the tenth century. In fact, Cronland and Island are mentioned in two documents of the 830s, a century and a half before Eirík’s going to Greenland.3 Plutarch continued his account: Demitrius [of Tarsus] told us [circa A.D. 84] that . . . he himself, by the Emperor’s command, made a voyage of inquiry and observation to the nearest of the deserted islands, which had a few inhabitants, all sacred persons and never molested by the Britons. . . . The “other side,” and “the outermost shores of the world” are here: “To the great continent by which the ocean is fringed is a voyage of about five thousand stades [ca. 612 miles], made in row boats from Ogygia, or less from the other islands. . . .” The sea was slow of passage and full of mud . . . [from] streams the great mainland discharges, forming alluvial tracts and making the sea heavy like land [perhaps coagulated partially frozen seawater and/or Icelandic volcanic ash]. There were supposedly Greeks living on the outer continent. . . . Sylla also reported that every thirty years . . . the Carthaginians outfitted an expedition to these North Atlantic islands where Cronus was a prisoner of sleep. The members of these expeditions relieved others who had sailed there thirty years before to serve the god. Many of these, however, preferred not to leave [this mild-­ aired place of easy living].4 Cyrus Gordon, a Semitic linguist and historian, collated an intriguing suite of comparable accounts in the Greek language.5 He pointed out that ­ Theopompus of Chios (b. ca. 380 BC) “mentions an enormous ‘continent,’ outside the Old World, inhabited by exotic people living according to strange life-­ styles,” that once sent a fleet to the East­ ern Hemisphere.6 The fourth-­ century BC philosopher Aristotle or (more likely) a later member of his...