1. Christopher Columbus and the eschatological significance of the discovery of America

1. CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS AND THE ESCHATOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA

At the moment any discovery or unusual phenomenon is attempted to be explained first and foremost through a scientific reasoning. At the end of the 15th century things were quite the opposite: the image of the world was dictated by the religious beliefs, which had to be reconciled with empirical observations, geographical discoveries and astronomical calculations. Everything had to be framed in an all-inclusive religious scheme.

On August 3, 1492, with the support of the Spanish royalty, Christopher Columbus left the port of Palos having under his command three caravels and 120 people. The purpose of his journey was to discover a new maritime route toward the Indies through the west. After more than four months spent on the Atlantic, on October 12, 1492, Columbus stepped on what he thought were the West Indies. He returned to Spain in March 1493, and the success of his discoveries determined the Spanish crown to finance two additional expeditions, in 1493 and 1498. A couple of years later the Italian Amerigo Vespucci demonstrated that Columbus had discovered in fact a new continent. Accordingly, this new continent was named “America,” from the feminized Latin version of Amerigo (other continents also have feminized names). It is true that Columbus did not know he had discovered a new continent, but during the third voyage in 1498 he realized he had discovered a new land. And not just any land, but the land from the proximity of the Garden of Eden.

At the time of Columbus’s voyage there were several views regarding Earth’s shape, size and dimensions. Europe, Africa and Asia – the only continents discovered – were little known and they were not positioned on the maps as they are today. A major challenge was depicting the world together with Eden, from where the first people were banished. The beliefs of Mesopotamia depicted Earth as a flat disk. In the 7th century in his Etymologiae Isidore of Seville reaffirmed this image and stated that the earth is like a “wheel,” with the land divided into three parts and surrounded by waters. Palestine and Jerusalem were place in the center. Isidore said that the Garden of Eden is located in the eastern extremity of Asia (Genesis 2:8), isolated from the rest of the world, but he did not offer other information regarding its exact location. Indeed, at the time Asia was understood differently than it is today,942 but Columbus’s clear intent was to reach the eastern extremity of Asia by travelling west. Other beliefs said that the Garden of Eden was placed on the highest mountain. In the Divine Comedy – Purgatory Dante alludes to the sphericity of Earth, but he depicts the land as a mountain in seven stairs surrounded by waters, with Eden on the last stair, like a ziggurat (pyramid). The spherical Earth was initially promoted by Hellenistic culture and later by astronomical calculations. In the 4th century Lactantius Firmianus virulently criticized the idea of a spherical Earth, depicting it as a fabrication of the pagan philosophers.943 An intermediary conception depicted a pear-shaped Earth – an image adopted by Columbus as well. The Garden of Eden had to be protuberant on Earth’s surface in order to remain untouched by the Flood. The Sun was rising from Eden and on the maps it was placed where now the North Pole is positioned. According to the Bible, the four great rivers of the world were springing from Eden: Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel (Tigris) and Euphrates (Genesis 2:10-14). These were supplying the world’s oceans and seas.

Due to the evident location of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, initially Eden was believed to be hidden in Asia Minor. But this image was reconsidered after the Christian crusaders and pilgrims dissected the region. The development of geographical knowledge moved the place of the Garden of Eden in the most mysterious and inaccessible places, from the banks of the Ganges, on the island of Ceylon, to different locations in Africa. In the 16th century it was America’s turn to host Eden.944

Faithful to the bone, the admiral was convinced that he managed to cross the Atlantic due to a well-established plan of God. But the purpose of this maritime odyssey was revealed only in the third trip. In May 1498, when the Spanish fleet arrived at the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, the admiral experienced an epiphany. The beauty of the place, the water debit and the warm atmosphere – it was thought that in Eden there is always springtime – made him believe that he discovered the exterior part of the Garden of Eden. In a letter addressed to the Spanish monarchs the admiral enthusiastically described the place and clearly expressed his conviction that he had found Eden. He admitted that at the time the four rivers were believed to be the Nile in Africa, the Ganges in China, Tigris and Euphrates in Asia Minor, but he also stated that he had never seen so much fresh water flowing directly into the sea.945

Discovering Eden was a source of joy, because God chose him to fulfill such a great plan, but also a source of concern, because it announced the terrible day of God’s judgment. The only biblical books that describe man’s dwelling in Eden are Genesis and Revelation. And because the regaining of Paradise by man will happen only after the destruction of the old world, Columbus concluded that the end is near: “Of the new firmament and land, which the Lord made, as Saint John writes in the Apocalypse (after what had been said by the mouth of Isaiah), He made me His messenger, and pointed out the way to me.”946

Until the 21st century hundreds of reports, chronicles and exegeses analyzed every aspect of Columbus’s life and journey to America. But a major source about him and his voyage, written by the admiral himself, has remained largely ignored. In the summer of 1501 Columbus sketched his only manuscript for publication purposes, entitled El libro de las profecías (the “Book of Prophecies”). This is a compilation of almost 200 apocalyptic revelations, prophetic texts, biblical passages, commentaries of medieval and ancient authors and his own opinions. The basic structure of the work is composed of 84 folio (10 pages are missing), divided into an introduction and four parts.

The problem the scholars had with El libro de las profecías was one of misunderstanding and credibility. They chose to ignore the text rather than to confront it; accordingly, they have focused on the historical side of Columbus at the expense of the religious one. The truth is that the admiral sincerely believed that God called him for a mission of global importance.947 Written between the third and the fourth voyage, El libro de las profecías links the discoveries of the author to biblical texts such as John 10:15-16 and compares the oceanic voyage with the journey of the Israelites toward Canaan. This image is supported by citations from Augustine, John Chrysostom and Seneca’s Medea. Columbus was motivated by the belief that he has an important role in God’s historical plans. The first thing he made when he arrived in America (Indies) was to stick to the cross of Christ on the shore, a symbol of his sacred mission.948 The spiritual desire of Columbus was to spread the gospel and to initiate a new crusade for the regaining of Jerusalem. There is no telling when this mission became incorporated into a broader eschatological scheme, but it reveals the fact that these kind of thoughts appeared early in the carrier of the admiral and they had been part of his arguments in front of the king and the queen.949

Columbus believed that the secret of his success was due to the gift of understanding offered by the Holy Spirit.950 The admiral never claimed to be a prophet, but he was remarkably well-educated in the Bible, the “foundation of all knowledge.” The most used extra-biblical sources were Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi (he made almost 900 references to this work) and Historia rerum ubique gestarum of Pope Pius II.951

El libro de las profecías was the framework against which the admiral wished his achievements to be seen. The main theme of the book is that an important phase of the apocalyptic prophecy was fulfilled through his discoveries:

The Holy Scriptures testify in the Old Testament, by the mouth of the prophets, and in the New [Testament], by our Savior Jesus Christ, that this world will come to an end: Matthew, Mark, and Luke have recorded the signs of the age; the prophets had also abundantly foretold it… Our Savior said that before the consummation of this world, all that was written by the Prophets must be fulfilled.952

The admiral believed that the discovery of the Garden of Eden is one of the events preceding Parousia, alongside the conversion of the Jews, the rise of the messianic emperor or the rise of the Antichrist from the tribe of Dan. In a letter addressed to the crowns of Spain, he openly expressed his concern with the upcoming end of the world: …


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