The Curious Case of the Antipodes


In a previous post I looked the universality of Christian belief in respect to potential future contact with extra-terrestrials. I posited that the Christian understanding of angels (especially the traditional explication thereof that understands each individual angel as its own species) involves an a priori acceptance of extraterrestrial races, and since it as such did not pose any particular difficulties for the Christian understanding of the application of the Incarnation nor the universality of Christian belief, further extrapolating that to other (presumably material) species would pose just as little a problem.

As I was preparing to finalize my thoughts, in my research I came across the historical difficulty of the Antipodes, which seemed to present a potential counter-argument to my original thesis. I was going to add an addendum, but it burgeoned out of control and thus merited its own post.

For the ancients, the Antipodes referred both to the other side of their conception of the spherical earth, as well as to the potential inhabitants therein. While many in the modern world are inclined to think that most ancients considered the world to be flat, there was in actuality no dominant consensus. While most philosophers were probably inclined to consider the shape of the earth to be spherical, the way that understanding was cashed out would be rather markedly distinct from the modern conception of the spherical earth (more on this in a bit).

There were actually good reasons (both philosophical and ‘scientific’- as far as the ancients understood science) to acknowledge the earth as a sphere, and for many Christian authors this premise was either taken for granted or seen as an otherwise needless bit of speculation. To be sure, some writers were opposed to a round earth, but the general tenor of Christian reaction to this bit of natural philosophy could be probably best termed as ambivalent.

But back to the antipodes. Some ancient natural philosophers who held to a spherical earth also held to what could be termed a “symmetrical distribution hypothesis;” that is, if the earth is spherical, it would have a relatively symmetrical distribution of everything that makes the earth the earth- trees, water, oceans, mountains, animals, and yes, even humans.

Granted, simply because the earth is spherical it does not necessarily follow that there is a symmetric distribution (as St. Augustine would point out), but in and of itself this particular bit of speculation would not be problematic (neither in natural philosophy nor in theology) if it hadn’t have been for some curious bits of ancient cosmology and physics.

Firstly, ancients didn’t think that things on the other side of the earth would fall off, and while they didn’t have a conception of gravity like we do, they noticed the tendency of things to fall and thus many had what might be termed a top-down understanding of gravity. Thus, while we would conceive of things on the surface of the earth as being attracted from the center, ancients mainly conceived of things on the surface as being attracted from the top down. As such, for many this understanding of attraction would preclude the very possibility of a spherical earth, not because things would fall off, but rather because all those things would essentially be upside down. One Christian author- the eloquent Lactantius- mostly rejected the sphericity of the earth and the possibility of people on the other (down) side of the earth for this reason:

“How is it with those who imagine that there are antipodes opposite to our footsteps? Do they say anything to the purpose? Or is there any one so senseless as to believe that there are men whose footsteps are higher than their heads? or that the things which with us are in a recumbent position, with them hang in an inverted direction? that the crops and trees grow downwards? that the rains, and snow, and hail fall upwards to the earth?” (Lactantius. The Divine Institutes 3.24)

Thus for Lactantius, these Antipodes are an impossibility because of the philosophical and scientific absurdity which their existence would require.

Another curious problem was that the geographical knowledge of the ancients was extremely limited, and this combined with taken-for-granted cosmology and natural philosophy (the ‘science’ of the day) led many to suppose that even if there were another side of the earth, it was of no relevance because it was impossible to get there.

The Antipodes were supposed to be separated from the known world by impassable oceans. Given that ancient ships were not designed for long voyages, this was actually probably true. Secondly, the peculiarities of their understanding of physics led them to believe that there was essentially an equatorial ring of fire which would be impossible for humans to survive the journey through to the other side.

Thus, for many early Christian writers the idea that there were Antipodic humans raised a bit of dilemma on several fronts. The notion of the unity of man (i.e., all humanity is descended from Adam) entailed that if there were Antipodes, they would presumably also be descendants of Adam, as they were men. But if it was impossible to reach the Antipodic side of the earth (given the oceans and the equatorial fire known through natural philosophy), then it would seem to preclude humans from having the ability to traverse to the Antipodes.

Given that much of natural philosophy was taken for granted as the consensus of the day concerning the natural world, the doctrine of the unity of man would seem to preclude acknowledging the possibility of the Antipodes. And since the existence of the Antipodes was only a conjecture (having no substantial evidence, given the paucity of geographical knowledge in the day), St. Augustine proceeds as if they don’t exist:

“But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible.  And, indeed, it is not affirmed that this has been learned by historical knowledge, but by scientific conjecture, on the ground that the earth is suspended within the concavity of the sky, and that it has as much room on the one side of it as on the other:  hence they say that the part which is beneath must also be inhabited.  But they do not remark that, although it be supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form, yet it does not follow that the other side of the earth is bare of water; nor even, though it be bare, does it immediately follow that it is peopled.” (St. Augustine, City of God, 16.9)

With an eye to some of the difficulties presented by the proposed existence of the Antipodes in conjunction with the geographical axioms of the day, he implies that the unity of man would preclude the existence of the antipodes:

“For Scripture, which proves the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, gives no false information; and it is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man.” (ibid.)

It is crucial to note that for St. Augustine the question is not whether the antipodes would be human or not; he clearly states here that if it were possible for men to traverse the globe so as to inhabit the antipodes, then they would as a consequence be descendants of Adam. We are thus left with a kind of mushy scenario here that is not often well captured in the literature on the subject. St. Augustine sees the existence of the Antipodes as not necessarily posing any problem in and of itself for the doctrine of the unity of mankind; rather, the issue is that the current scientific understanding of the day would preclude their existence since they would have had no means of reaching the antipodic regions so as to inhabit them.

Granted, one could argue that St. Augustine could jettison the doctrine of the unity of man in favor of the supposition of the Antipodes dwelling in an inaccessible portion of the globe; the difficulty, however, is that beyond the “scientific conjecture” there was no evidence for the Antipodes in his day. In fact, he rightly points out that from the sheer fact of the earth being a sphere it does not follow that it has a necessarily symmetrical distribution of features. He was, of course, incorrect about the existence of water, land mass and people, but the logic concerning the symmetric distribution is nevertheless correct, and given that there was no other knowledge to fill in what was lacking, his conclusion against the antipodes by means of natural philosophy was not altogether unwarranted, even though ultimately incorrect.

The difficulty with St. Augustine’s further reasoning here is that he fails to consider that the natural philosophy he took for granted as the consensus of the day (the impassible oceans, equatorial fire, top-down gravitational attraction, etc.) might be as equally conjectural. Naturally, the knowledge of the natural world which forms our conception of it is hard to look past, but since he is already willing to grant that the Antipodes would be humans had the supposed impossibility of their existence not been essentially guaranteed by the presuppositions of the day, it is hardly going too far to say that had he been able to consider those presuppositions to be equally conjectural, the potential of the Antipodes would have posed less of a problem; and very probably little to none at all.

In fact, his approach to human phylogeny is to acknowledge that anyone born a man is actually human. In the previous chapter regarding supposed human monstrosities he states:

“But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.” (St. Augustine, City of God, 16.8)

He concludes by noting that one should approach any sorts of questions like these with a fair amount of skepticism (which also characterizes his approach to the Antipodes):

Accordingly, it ought not to seem absurd to us, that as in individual races there are monstrous births, so in the whole race there are monstrous races. Wherefore, to conclude this question cautiously and guardedly, either these things which have been told of some races have no existence at all; or if they do exist, they are not human races; or if they are human, they are descended from Adam. (ibid.)

St. Augustine’s thought on the Antipodes would profoundly shape Christian thinking in this regard, and since the cosmological sciences did not significantly advance for quite some time, many of the presuppositions of natural philosophy regarding the earth and its inhabitants remained nearly the same.

The question of the Antipodes in regards to our original question does rise again in connection with St. Boniface and (potentially) another somewhat well-known saint, the Irish St. Virgilius of Salzburg.

A difficulty arose when Pope Zachary wrote to St. Boniface concerning a certain Virgilius who had purportedly been scheming to obtain a bishopric by lying about Zachary’s absolving him of teaching some error. In other words, this Virgilius was suspected of trying to do an end-around Boniface by claiming that he had been absolved by the Pope of his suspected errors, thus in effect tying Boniface’s hands.

These machinations are interesting in and of themselves, but the salient topic here is this Virgilius’ error, which has bearing on the question of the Antipodes. Very little is known of his teaching in this regard, and the only extant evidence is found in Pope Zachary’s response to Boniface, in which we read that Virgilius is suspected of teaching that

“there is below the earth another world and other men, and also a sun and a moon…” (Letter of Pope Zachary to St. Boniface)

There is a great deal of historical fuzziness surrounding this episode, and not surprisingly so, given the paucity of information. A common interpretation is that this Virgilius was reviving the notion of the Antipodes. The notion of another world being “beneath” the earth might seem an odd circumlocution for referring to the other side of a spherical earth, but within the ancients’ top-down cosmology this sort of nomenclature was actually quite common. Lucretius thus describes the Antipodes, albeit in a distinct manner from Virgilius:

Another part to the world lies under the waters, inaccessible to us;
there there are unknown races of men, and unvisited realms,
drawing a shared light from a single sun. (Lucretius, De rerum natura)

And while many ancients (and those commenting on the ancients) considered the way to the Antipodes impassable, this was by no means unanimous:

Others understand more profoundly, who wish the infernal regions to lie under the earth, as those geographers and geometricians maintain who say that the earth is spherical, held up by water and air. If this be true, it is possible by seafaring to reach the Antipodes- those who seem to us to be below, even as we to them. (Servius, Servii Grammatici qui feruntur in Vergilii carmina commentarii)

St. Augustine’s thought in this regard may seem to solve the dilemma surrounding Virgilius’ apparently problematic teaching, but it must be remembered that his rejection of the Antipodes was based both upon the supposed impossibility of reaching the Antipodes, as well as the corollary that such a geographical reality in the midst of such an impossibility would call into question the brotherhood of man from a theological perspective. Additionally, in other places he fully acknowledges the progeny of the “monsters” and other such vagaries of human natures.

Thus, while no doubt St. Augustine’s though looms large in St. Boniface and Pope Zachary’s mind in regard to Virgilius’ teaching, it doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Concerning the Antipodes, other pagan authors were wont to consider its inhabitants to have some sort of divine pedigree. Hence we read in Axiochus:

…for since the earth occupies the center roof the universe, and the vault of heaven is spherical, the heavens gods took one hemisphere, and this below the other. (Axiochus)

In other words, the inhabitants of the lower hemisphere of the earth are of divine lineage, the gods themselves. For early Christians it was rather axiomatic that if the gods did “exist,” they were actually men who lived ad died and had legends of divinity sprout up around them. Many early Christian apologists employed the tactic of proving from the pagan poets that many of the gods actually had an earthly genesis, and thus could hardly be considered divine and worthy of worship.

Nor in St. Boniface’s day had paganism fully run its course. The intersection of Christianity with Germanic paganism sometimes led to some odd conflation of Christian theology and pagan myth making, where sometimes the gods of pagan belief were essentially transmogrified into saints. Whether this happened on the folk level or was a an evangelization tactic is sometimes fuzzy, but in the case of St. Boniface’s mission it is clear that such compromises were something to be avoided. In correspondence with another bishop, he receives the following advice concerning dialoging with pagans about their gods:

Do not begin by arguing with them about the genealogies of their false gods. Accept their statement that they were begotten by other gods through the intercourse of male and female and then you will be able to prove that, as these gods and goddesses did not exist before, and were born like men, they must be men and not gods. When they have been forced to admit that their gods had a beginning, since they were begotten by others, they should be asked whether the world had a beginning or was always in existence. There is no doubt that before the universe was created there was no place in which these created gods could have subsisted or dwelt. And by “universe ” I mean not merely heaven and earth which we see with our eyes but the whole extent of space which even the heathens can grasp in their imagination. (Letter of Bishop Daniel of Winchester to St. Boniface)

There are a lot of interesting points here, but the relevant one here is that the whole point of this tactic is to demonstrate to the pagan interlocutor that their own beliefs prescribe believing that the gods had a human genesis and thus were not really gods at all but actually men.

Further, for many pagan beliefs in Germanic or Celtic lands the gods were considered to inhabit the underworld, which could be conceived of as either subterranean, or even on the other side of the earth (sometimes the only way to reach such a place was to go underground). Thus, the Christian missionary (such as St. Boniface) could run into a problem in discovering a belief about the Antipodes populated by gods or demigods. This was problematic in a two-fold manner: Firstly, belief in multiple gods was simply right out, hence the tactic proposed above. But secondly, beliefs about the inhabitants of the underworld (in either roof its forms) simply do not melt away with baptism, and thus the gods (who would in Christian view be humans) would have a tendency to become humans who lived on the other side of the world that was nigh impossible to reach; hence St. Augustine’s dilemma all over again.

What the problem of the Antipodes in the case would come down to is that by accommodating the pagan beliefs and baptizing them into Christian theology, an even more fundamental theological difficulty comes to light. This seems to be at the crux of what Virgilius’ run-in with St. Boniface was about. For to hold to his teaching (supposing the information we have about it is accurate) would imply that the brotherhood of men is false, that all men are not subject to original sin, and that Christ only for half of a humanity. The difficulty with an understanding of the Antipodes within an ancient cosmology is that one would have humans are aren’t really humans, a meaningless paradox. And from a theological perspective the baptismal font would mean nothing, since sin does not pertain to all men.

Interestingly, the Irish seemed to have solved the difficulty, not by some sort of theological maneuvering but by leaving the question of the Antipodes unresolved, at least as far as geography is concerned. In other words, some seemed to have done what St. Augustine should have done and left geography out of theology, which actually completely resolves the problem. In the Betha Colaim Chille we find no hint of theological problems with the Antipodes:

He revealed therein much secret knowledge concerning the earthly creation; and among all else that he made known there he said that there are people beneath this earth with their feet above, and that they inhabit the land and country even as we inhabit our land, and that the same God is worshipped by them and us. (Betha Colaim Chille)

And in his Altus proctur, the legendary Collum Cille says:

Beneath the world, as we read, we know that there are inhabitants
whose knee needs frequently in entreaty to the Lord;
and to whom it is impossible to open the written book,
signed with seven seals, concerning the warnings of Christ,
which he himself had unsealed and thereafter stood forth as victor,
fulfilling this own prophecies concerning his coming.

For Collum Cille and those of his tradition, there is evidently no problem with the notion of the Antipodes, since their worship of God is the same as that of all men. The language employed therein seems to indicate that they stand in relation to God in Christ just as the men do; they are not the gods of the pagans since they cannot open the seals of the book of Christ, but rather bend the knees “frequently in entreaty to the Lord.”

What Virgilius conceived of by ‘also a sun and a moon’ is unknown, but since many considered the Antipodes to be shrouded in darkness, it could be that such a statement is merely a way of stating that those inhabitants on the other side of the world experience the sun and moon (and thus seasons) just as the the other does. In this manner, his statement could be in the same vein of Collum Cille, that these denizens of the underworld are men just like us, and worship the same God and make the same entreaties. In this sense, it is possible that this Virgilius really is the same saint of Salzburg, and that such a line of reasoning was his manner of clearing up the questions regarding his teaching.

This is all speculative, of course, but we can see that in regards to the universality of Christianity that even in the face of questions regarding who Christianity is for the same answer is given in two completely different forms.

For St. Augustine all men who have a human nature are men, and thus in the brotherhood of men, tainted by original sin and in need of Christ. His rejection of the Antipodes, while perhaps based upon the extant natural philosophy of his day, was an unfortunate conflation of theology and geography. As aforementioned, given his recommitments regarding the brotherhood of men, it is hardly difficult to imagine him affirming the existence and humanity of the Antipodes if the incorrect cosmology was out of the way. His theological principle is actually quite sound; it is more that the application of it is hindered by an incomplete understanding (and, regrettably, reliance upon) of geography.

The tradition of Collum Cille, it could be speculated, resolves the question by means of a similar theological principle, but applies without as forceful a reliance upon a particular cosmology. That is not to say there is no cosmological underpinning at work here, but rather that the application of the theological principle is made without the same regard for it as earlier generations and thinkers had. It leaves open some of the questions, but manages to maintain the theological principle which, if taken to an extreme in conjunction with an incorrect cosmology, could lead to the unnecessary undermining of that theological principle altogether.

The upshot of all this is that from either perspective, Christian theology maintains the universality-in-particularity of Christianity in regards to the human race, and the curious case of the antipodes seems to indicate- from either approach- that the Incarnation of Christ as man is, as the creed states, “for us men and for our salvation,” no matter what side of the terrestrial sphere one inhabits. For both St. Augustine and the tradition of Collum Cille, the application of the Incarnation- while having cosmic implications- is towards those who have a human nature.

The further application of the principle- especially in regards the myriad speciation of the angels or intelligences- would seem to indicate that the complex question of the antipodes has no little bearing on the state of this principle or its application; as such, extraterrestrial beings are not simply men on the other side of the world; they would not be “men” at all. And since the question of their inclusion of the brotherhood of humanity would be moot, the curious case of the antipodes can perhaps be laid to rest, at least in this regard.

*Note: Much of the research material on the potential Irish traditions concerning the antipodes comes from Ireland and the Antipodes: The Heterodoxy of Virgil of Salzburg, by James Carey, published in Vol 64., No. 1 of Speculum.

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Jason Watson

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