Competition year: 2004
About Aisling O' Beirn
Location and ‘way finding’ have been concerns for numerous cultures since antiquity. Astronomy was one of the earliest recorded navigational and time keeping systems used by many ancient cultures.(1) To make and interpret an astronomical observation meant being able to time keep and to time keep meant being able to settle and cultivate the land. Early astronomical observations of heavenly bodies, sometimes millions of light years away, proved crucial for gathering necessary data about the immediate domestic environment. Knowing that the appearance of Sirius signaled the bursting of the banks of the Nile (2)signaled the best time for planting in a fertile and irrigated environment. Here was an early example of using the universal (literally and metaphorically) to inform the local. People could settle, begin building societies and planning for the future. The sciences of astronomy and navigation allowed for this. The door was open for creating new societies and civilisations or new Utopian constructs.
Prof. Allan Chapman proposes that so pragmatically and culturally significant were these early astronomical observations that the civilisations that used them also developed various complex mythologies (3) around them. It is from these mythologies that the ancients got many of their gods and from these same mythologies that we get many of our present day constellations (4). The stars, it seemed provided not only a means to map physical space, but the material with which to chart and navigate spiritual space.
Thus cartography has the potential to ‘myth make’ where slippage can be detected between the physical and the conceptual in both the subject being mapped and the methodology being employed to do the job of mapping. This is especially true if one were to analyse myth from Barthes perspective. He suggests that myth is in fact a form of distortion or glossing over. (5) This model implies a degree of flux.
The relationship between cartography and mythology has both theoretical and concrete implications for navigation as well as understandings of physical and Utopian (or ideological) spaces. If the relationship between myth and science seems to fluctuate does this imply that the relationship between physical and conceptual or Utopian space fluctuate too?
The 16th Cent. Mercator Projection is a document that invites both physical and ideological readings. From a pragmatic, navigational and scientific point of view Mercator, the mathematician who created it, was concerned with producing a flat document where the longitude, latitude or rhomb lines all appear as straight lines.
Following straight lines as opposed to calculating and compensating for curved converging or diverging ones, (as are found on a globe) was obviously of more practical use to navigators and sailors in their endeavors to read nautical charts and plough an accurate course. A more accurate course would have lightly resulted in a shorter round trip and a more profitable colonial adventure. As well having scientific import this map was also of huge economic and ideological worth. The map depicted a direct route to continents that were, for the purposes of colonisation, seen as virgin and unpopulated lands. It allowed the navigator to chart routes to locations to be colonised, where prospective colonists could reinvent themselves both economically and socially outside of Europe (even if at the expense of indigenous populations). Here was an opportunity for colonists to create new Utopian societies far away from ‘Old Europe’.. Does this mean that the document had also the potential to act as a chart to Utopia?