Peripheries and Imaginary Geography

The following text appears on banner no. 9 in the exhibition space.

Images and descriptions of terra incognita, unknown lands located beyond the oikoumene, were broadly present in Greco-Roman literature and art, identifying and mapping regions impossible to reach. Constructed as a compromise between fantasy and reality, terra incognita played on the ancient audience’s familiarity with real geographic and topographic data, combining this informa- tion with invented places. Greek and Roman geographers were fully aware of the composite nature of unknown lands, yet asserted their existence.

These lands were either described as utopias—fictional communities with perfect qualities—or as remote but actual regions bordering the known world. The island of Atlantis was introduced in the fourth-century bce by the Greek philosopher Plato in one of his dialogues, and is possibly the first example of a utopia. Atlantis and all successive utopias never found a proper place on ancient maps. The highly idealized nature of these societies forced Greek writers to envision them as removed from the common world. Consequently, utopias were usually located on islands too remote to be mapped, and their perfect societies lived in idyllic environments defined by a luxuriant nature that constituted an everlasting source of wealth.

Mythical lands—inaccessible to travelers because thought to lie beyond insurmountable natural barriers—are examples of the second type of terra incognita. In contrast to utopias, these realms were marked on most maps since they lay within the limits of the known world. For instance, Hyperborea, the land beyond Boreas (the North Wind), was believed to lie north of Thrace, somewhere north of the Balkan Mountains. Similarly, the western limits known to the ancient world coincided with the Fortunate Isles, possibly the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa. The perceived proximity of mythical lands to the peripheries of the Greek-speaking world or the Roman Empire influenced the ways Greeks and Romans described the actual people living at the fringes. Indeed these populations, mostly sedentary or nomadic tribes, became commonly associated with the legendary peoples and creatures presumed to live in the neighboring imaginary regions. This is attested, for example, in painted scenes on Greek vessels in which griffons and Arimaspeans, legendary one-eyed people believed to live by the modern Carpathian mountains, are depicted as interacting with the Scythians, nomads settled in the Eurasian steppes—the extreme periphery of civilization as conceived by the Greeks and Romans.