Friday 22 July 2011

The Four Corners of the Earth

And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

So said Isaiah (11v12) and it's rather odd, because at first sight it would appear to contradict the newfangled theory that the earth is round. When you think about it more, though, it becomes yet odder, because it seems to suggest that the earth is not simply flat, it's square.

So did the ancient Hebrews believe that the earth was square? No. The Hebrew word here is kanaph which means, among other things, quarter. It's the four quarters of the earth: North, South, East and West.

So were the sixteenth century translators of the Bible twisting things to make it look as though the earth was square? No. Back then corner didn't have to mean corner in the modern sense. It could also have this definition from the OED:

...a region, quarter; a direction or quarter from which the wind blows (obsolete)

Winds could come from different corners, meaning quarters or points of the compass. So in the gulling scene in Much Ado About Nothing you can get this exchange:

LEONATO No, nor I neither; but most wonderful that she should so dote on Signior Benedick, whom she hath in all outward behaviors seemed ever to abhor.

BENEDICK Is't possible? Sits the wind in that corner?

It's hard to find any civilisation that ever definitely believed the earth was flat. Not only did the ancients know it was round, but a clever chap called Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth with an error of only 2%.

The Medievals knew it too. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville* (C14th) says clearly that "the world is quite round" and "those men who live right under the Antarctic Pole [star] are foot against foot to those who live right below the Arctic Pole [star], just as we and those who live at our Antipodes are foot against foot." Because antipodes means foot against foot.

Mandeville then writes:

I have often thought of a story I have heard, when I was young, of a worthy man of our country who went once upon a time to see the world. He passed India and many isles beyond India, where there are more than 5,000 isles, and travelled so far by land and sea, girdling the globe, that he found an isle where he heard his own language being spoken. For he heard one who was driving a plough team say such words to them as he had heard men say to oxen in his own land when they were working at the plough. He marvelled greatly, for he did not understand how this could be. But I conjecture that he had travelled so far over land and sea, circumnavigating the earth, that he had come to his own borders; if he had gone a bit farther, he would have come to his own district. But after he heard that marvel, he could not get transport any farther, so he turned back the way he had come; so he had a long journey! Afterwards it happened that he went to Norway, and a gale blew him off course to an island. And when he was there he knew it was the island he had been in before and heard his own language, as the beasts were being driven. That could well be, even if men of limited understanding do not believe that men can travel on the underside of the globe without falling off into the firmament. For just as it seems to us that those men there are under us, so it seems to them that we are under them.

Northwest Airlines 1950's Ad - Four Corners of the Earth - Sold
The truth is out there.

*One of my favourite books.


  1. The story of Mandeville's circumnavigating traveler reminds me of Chesterton's account in Orthodoxy of the man who sets off from Brighton and ends up returning after many days and "discovering" Brighton. Such a man, Chesterton argues, would appreciate with a fitting sense of wonder the place where he grew up.

    J.D. Flanagan

  2. It reminded me of the great scene from The Marx Brothers' Night at the Opera, but I couldn't find it on YouTube.

  3. Jesus was taken up to the highest mountain and from there he could see all of the kingdoms of the world. You could only do that if the earth were flat.