Flat Earth

‘Flat Earth’ is an archaic and scientifically disproven conception of the Earth’s shape as a plane or disc. Many ancient cultures subscribed to a flat-Earth cosmography.

A Flat Earth map drawn by Orlando Ferguson in 1893.

The above map has several references to biblical passages as well as various jabs at the “Globe Theory”. However, the idea of a spherical Earth appeared in ancient Greek philosophy with Pythagoras as far back as the sixth century BC. Except many folk of the sixth and fifth century BC retained the flat-Earth model. In the early fourth century BC, Plato wrote about a spherical Earth and by about 330BC, his former student Aristotle had provided strong empirical evidence for a spherical Earth. Knowledge of the Earth’s global shape gradually began to spread beyond the Hellenistic world and by the early period of the Christian Church, the spherical view was widely held, with some notable exceptions. It is a historical myth that medieval Europeans generally thought the Earth was flat and it is said that this myth was created in the seventeenth century by Protestants to argue against Catholic teachings. Despite the scientific fact and obvious effects of Earth’s ‘sphericity’, pseudoscientific flat-Earth conspiracy theories are espoused by modern flat Earth societies and, increasingly, by unaffiliated individuals using social media.

‘Imago Mundi’, a Babylonian map, sixth century BC.

The Babylonian Map of the World (or ‘Imago Mundi’) is a Babylonian clay tablet written in the Akkadian language. Dated to no earlier than the ninth century BC (with a late eighth or seventh date being more likely), it includes a brief and partially lost textual description. The tablet describes the oldest known depiction of the known world. Ever since its discovery there have been a variety of divergent views on what it represents in general and about specific features in particular. The map is centred on the Euphrates river, flowing from the north (top) to the south (bottom). The city of Babylon is shown on the Euphrates, in the northern half of the map. The mouth of the Euphrates is labelled “swamp” and “outflow”. Susa, the capital of Elam, is shown to the south, Urartu to the northeast, and Habban, the capital of the Kassites is shown (incorrectly) to the northwest. Mesopotamia is surrounded by a circular ‘bitter river’ or Ocean, and seven or eight regions, depicted as triangular sections, are shown as lying beyond the Ocean. It has been suggested that the depiction of these regions as triangles might indicate that they were imagined as mountains. In early Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought, the world was portrayed as a disk floating in the ocean. A similar model is found in the Homeric account from the eighth century BC in which it was thought that “Okeanos, the personified body of water surrounding the circular surface of the Earth, is the begetter of all life and possibly of all gods”. The Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts of ancient Egypt show a similar cosmography, where ‘Nun’ (the Ocean) encircled ‘Nbwt’ (“dry lands” or “Islands”). The Israelites also imagined the Earth to be a disc floating on water with an arched firmament above it that separated the Earth from the heavens. The sky was a solid dome with the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars embedded in it. Both Homer and Hesiod, another Greek poet generally thought to have been active between 750 and 650BC described a disc cosmography on the Shield of Achilles.

Possible rendering of Anaximander’s world map.

Several pre-Socratic philosophers believed that the world was flat. One thought that the Earth floated in water like a log, but it has been argued that he actually believed in a round Earth. There were others, with perhaps fanciful ideas. Belief in a flat Earth continued into the fifth century BC and another even believed that the flat Earth was depressed in the middle like a saucer, to allow for the fact that the Sun does not rise and set at the same time for everyone. The ancient Norse and Germanic peoples believed in a flat-Earth cosmography with the Earth surrounded by an ocean, with the ‘axis mundi’, a world tree or pillar in the centre and in the world-encircling ocean sat a snake. There is a a Norwegian didactic text in Old Norse from around 1250 that deals with politics and morality. It was originally intended for the education of King Magnus Lagabøte, the son of King Håkon Håkonsson, and it has the form of a dialogue between father and son. The son asks, and is advised by his father about practical and moral matters, concerning trade, chivalric behaviour, strategy and tactics. Parts of this work deal with the relationship between church and state and explains the Earth’s shape as a sphere in this way: “If you take a lighted candle and set it in a room, you may expect it to light up the entire interior, unless something should hinder, though the room be quite large. But if you take an apple and hang it close to the flame, so near that it is heated, the apple will darken nearly half the room or even more. However, if you hang the apple near the wall, it will not get hot; the candle will light up the whole house; and the shadow on the wall where the apple hangs will be scarcely half as large as the apple itself. From this you may infer that the Earth-circle is round like a ball and not equally near the sun at every point. But where the curved surface lies nearest the sun’s path, there will the greatest heat be; and some of the lands that lie continuously under the unbroken rays cannot be inhabited”. Meanwhile in ancient China, the prevailing belief was that the Earth was flat and square, whilst the heavens were round, an assumption virtually unquestioned until the introduction of European astronomy in the seventeenth century. An English sinologist (a person who studies China) emphasised the point that there was no concept of a round Earth in ancient Chinese astronomy and it seems that Chinese thoughts on the form of the Earth remained almost unchanged from early times until the first contacts with modern science through the medium of Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century. Whilst the heavens were variously described as being like an umbrella covering the Earth (the Kai Tian theory), or like a sphere surrounding it (the Hun Tian theory), or as being without substance while the heavenly bodies float freely (the Hsüan Yeh theory), the Earth was at all times flat, although perhaps bulging up slightly.

An illustration based on that of a twelfth-century Asian cosmographer.

The model of an egg was often used by Chinese astronomers to describe the heavens as spherical, such that ”The heavens are like a hen’s egg and as round as a crossbow bullet, the Earth is like the yolk of the egg and lies in the centre”. The analogy with a curved egg led some modern historians to conjecture that Chinese astronomers were, after all, aware of the Earth’s sphericity. The egg reference, however, was rather meant to clarify the relative position of the flat Earth to the heavens, as in a passage of Zhang Heng’s cosmogony he himself says: “Heaven takes its body from the Yang, so it is round and in motion. Earth takes its body from the Yin, so it is flat and quiescent”. The point of the egg analogy is simply to stress that the Earth is completely enclosed by Heaven, rather than merely covered from above as the Kai Tian describes. Chinese astronomers, many of them brilliant men by any standards, continued to think in flat-Earth terms until the seventeenth century; this surprising fact might be the starting-point for a re-examination of the apparent facility with which the idea of a spherical Earth found acceptance in fifth-century BC Greece. When Chinese geographers of the seventeenth century, influenced by European cartography and astronomy, showed the Earth as a sphere that could be circumnavigated by sailing around the globe, they did so with formulaic terminology previously used by Zhang Heng to describe the spherical shape of the Sun and Moon, i.e. that they were as round as a crossbow bullet.

Semi-circular shadow of Earth on the Moon during a partial lunar eclipse.

Pythagoras in the sixth century BC and Parmenides in the fifth century BC stated that the Earth is spherical and this view spread rapidly in the Greek world. Around 330BC, Aristotle maintained on the basis of physical theory and observational evidence that the Earth was spherical, and reported an estimate of its circumference. This circumference was first determined around 240BC by Eratosthenes and by the second century AD, Ptolemy had derived his maps from a globe and developed the system of latitude, longitude and climes. His Almagest, a second-century work only written in the Greek language was a mathematical and astronomical treatise on the apparent motions of the stars and planetary paths, and only translated into Latin in the eleventh century from Arabic translations. In the first century BC, Lucretius opposed the concept of a spherical Earth because he considered that an infinite universe had no centre towards which heavy bodies would tend. Thus, he thought the idea of animals walking around topsy-turvy under the Earth was absurd. By the first century AD, Pliny the Elder was in a position to say that everyone agreed on the spherical shape of Earth, though disputes continued regarding the nature of the antipodes and how it is possible to keep the ocean in a curved shape.

The Thorntonbank Wind Farm near the Belgian coast with the lower parts of the more distant towers increasingly hidden by the horizon, demonstrating the curvature of the Earth.

The Vedic texts depict the cosmos in many ways, and one of the earliest Indian cosmological texts picture the Earth as one of a stack of flat disks. In these texts, ‘Dyaus’ (heaven) and ‘Prithvi’ (Earth) are compared to wheels on an axle, yielding a flat model. They are also described as bowls or leather bags, yielding a concave model. By about the fifth century AD, the astronomy texts of South Asia, particularly of Aryabhata, assume a spherical Earth as they develop mathematical methods for quantitative astronomy for calendar and time keeping. The medieval Indian texts called the Puranas describe the Earth as a flat-bottomed, circular disk with concentric oceans and continents. This general scheme is present not only in the Hindu cosmologies, but also in Buddhist and Jain cosmologies of South Asia. However, some Puranas include other models. The fifth canto of the Bhagavata Purana, for example, includes sections that describe the Earth both as flat and spherical. During the early period of the Christian Church, the spherical view continued to be widely held, with some notable exceptions. Athenagoras, an eastern Christian writing of around the year 175AD, said that the Earth was spherical. The influential theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine, one of the four Great Church Fathers of the Western Church, similarly objected to the ‘fable’ of antipodes, saying that “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 that 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. 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”. Some historians do not view Augustine’s scriptural commentaries as endorsing any particular cosmological model, endorsing instead the view that Augustine shared the common view of his contemporaries that the Earth is spherical, in line with his endorsement of science in ‘De Genesi ad litteram’.

Ninth-century Macrobian cosmic diagram showing the ‘sphere of the Earth’ at the centre (‘globus terrae’).

Medieval Christian writers in the early Middle Ages felt little urge to assume flatness of the Earth, though they had fuzzy impressions of the writings of Ptolemy and Aristotle, relying more on Pliny. But with the end of the Western Roman Empire, Western Europe entered the Middle Ages with the great difficulties that affected the continent’s intellectual production. Most scientific treatises of Greek classical antiquity were unavailable, leaving only simplified summaries and compilations. In contrast, the Eastern Roman Empire did not fall, and it preserved the learning. Still, many textbooks of the Early Middle Ages supported the sphericity of the Earth in the western part of Europe, though a few of the scholars at that time still thought of the Earth as in the shape of a wheel.

Isidore’s portrayal of the five zones of the Earth.

A possible non-literary but graphic indication that people in the Middle Ages believed that the Earth (or perhaps the world) was a sphere is the use of the ‘orb’ in the regalia of many kingdoms and of the Holy Roman Empire. It is attested from the time of the Christian late-Roman emperor Theodosius II (423) throughout the Middle Ages. However, the word ‘orbis’ means circle and there is no record of a globe as a representation of the Earth since ancient times in the west until 1492, when Martin Behaim, a German textile merchant and cartographer who served King John II of Portugal, was an adviser in matters of navigation and participated in a voyage to West Africa. A recent study of medieval concepts of the sphericity of the Earth noted that “since the eighth century, no cosmographer worthy of note has called into question the sphericity of the Earth”. However, the work of these intellectuals may not have had significant influence on public opinion, and it is difficult to tell what the wider population may have thought of the shape of the Earth, if they considered the question at all.

Picture from a 1550 edition of On The Sphere Of The World, the most influential astronomy textbook of thirteenth century Europe.

Portuguese navigation down and around the coast of Africa in the latter half of the 1400s gave wide-scale observational evidence for Earth’s sphericity. In these explorations, the Sun position moved more northward the further south the explorers travelled. Its position directly overhead at noon gave evidence for crossing the equator. These apparent solar motions in detail were more consistent with north–south curvature and a distant Sun, than with any flat-Earth explanation. The ultimate demonstration came when Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition completed the first global circumnavigation in 1521 and one of the survivors of the voyage recorded the loss of a day in the course of the voyage, giving evidence for east–west curvature. In the seventeenth century, the idea of a spherical Earth spread in China due to the influence of the Jesuits, who held high positions as astronomers at the imperial court. The astronomical and geographical treatise ‘Gezhicao’ written in 1648 by Xiong Mingyu explained that the Earth was spherical, not flat or square, and could be circumnavigated.

Logo of the Flat Earth Society.

In the ninteenth century, a historical myth arose which held that the predominant cosmological doctrine during the Middle Ages was that the Earth was flat. However, subsequent studies of medieval science have shown that most scholars in the Middle Ages, including those read by Christopher Columbus, maintained that the Earth was spherical. In 1956, Samuel Shenton set up the International Flat Earth Research Society, better known as the “Flat Earth Society” from Dover, England, as a direct descendant of the Universal Zetetic Society. The availability of communications technology and social media like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have made it easy for individuals, famous or not, to spread disinformation and attract others to erroneous ideas, including that of the flat Earth. So, to maintain a belief in the face of such overwhelming contrary, publicly available empirical evidence accumulated in the Space Age, modern believers must generally embrace some form of conspiracy theory out of the necessity of explaining why major institutions such as governments, media outlets, schools, scientists, and airlines all assert that the world is a sphere. They tend to not trust observations they have not made for themselves, and often distrust or disagree with each other. For young children who have not yet received information from their social environment, this can mean that their own perception of their surroundings may often lead to a false concept about the shape of the Earth. They can think that the Earth ends at the horizon and that one can fall off the edge. The proper education they receive then helps them to gradually change their false concepts into one of a truly spherical Earth as well as space and other planets.

This week… A quote I like.
“The road to success is always under construction”
~ Unknown.

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