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Friday Five: 5 Fascinating Maps

This week's Friday Five is courtesy of Alex Dally MacFarlane - writer, editor and historian. She's prone to writing stories about maps, atlases and star charts, including some that are coming up in Interfictions Online and the anthologies Phantasm Japan, Upgraded and Gigantic Worlds. Alex is also the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters and the upcoming The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women

The University of Chicago Press has the three volumes of its The History of Cartography free to read online: a fantastic resource for anyone interested in maps. I suspect many SFF fans, particularly fantasy fans, are. Maps appear at the front of many secondary world fantasy novels, and I’ve seen fans talk about their aid in understanding the world. Maps appear less frequently inside other SFF books, such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home; and I yearn to mention the nonfictional Judith Schalansky’s Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will (translated by Christine Lo). Knowing the location of places in relation to each other is vital to our contemporary concept of a map, and to many maps across cultures and histories - but exactly what places are important, what relations, varies.

BaylonianmapsI find maps fascinating. Their variety, in form and content; the ways they attempt to describe, understand and/or control a region or the entire world; their authorship; the ways they are re-drawn by different people.

I want to introduce fantasy and other SFF fans to maps beyond the ones in the fronts of fantasy books. Hopefully you’ll find these five (well, more) maps interesting! And hopefully it will prompt some fans and writers to think about maps in different ways.

Babylonian World Map

There are many surviving Babylonian maps of temples and cities, but only one of the world: the so-called Babylonian World Map, a clay tablet of slightly complex provenance (the surviving tablet is a copy of the lost original, which probably dates to Babylon in the 8th or 7th century BCE; the texts written on it were probably not composed at the same time as each other, but are clearly related).

Its concern is not accurate relational topography as we understand it.

It places Babylon prominently within a circular land, bisected by the Euphrates, with other Mesopotamian regions and cities (eg: Assyria and Urartu) marked by circles. Surrounding this land is an ocean. On its far shore, foreign lands taper into the distance, their distance from the central land given in leagues and in the textual descriptions on the tablet’s reverse: places where “A winged [bi]rd cannot safely comp[lete its journey]” and something is found “which no one can compre[hend]”. The sadly fragmented text also references heroic figures who went to the ends of the earth, such as Sargon.

The map’s concern is Babylon’s place in the centre of the world, with familiar places like Assyria. At the edges of the world lie unfamiliar lands, strange and incomprehensible, where only heroes tread.

It’s an idea of the world that crosses mapmaking traditions, from early Chinese mapmaking to the Mappa Mundi of medieval Christian Europe. It belongs to a time in which distant parts of the world were unfamiliar, perceived through the mindset that here is civilised, there is not. The people of there are accordingly strange or monstrous. I’m sometimes surprised I don’t see more maps like this in secondary world fantasy.

(Starter source is the above link to the British Museum’s highlights page. Academic sources: (1) Wayne Horowitz. 1998. Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. (2) A.R. Millard’s chapter in The History of Cartography [free to read online!] (3) Francesca Rochberg. 2012. The Expression of Terrestrial and Celestial Order in Ancient Mesopotamia, in: Richard J.A. Talbert ed. Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece & Rome.)

333px-Holm1887p250_TrækortAmmassalik tactile maps

I first heard about the Ammassalik tactile maps on that font of splendid knowledge, These are maps carved into coastlines by indigenous people of the Ammassalik coast: the shapes of inlets, outcroppings, islands, glaciers and nunataks (rock exposed in an ice sheet), held in the mitten of someone navigating the coastline by water in the often changeable conditions of East Greenland. They navigate by touch, by feeling their way along the map.

Ammassalik tactile maps sold to Gustav Holm in the 1880s by a person called Kunit are now on display at the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk. A probable copy of Kunit’s work is in the museum of Michigan State University.

I’m a tactile person, so I love these maps. What a way to understand the stark lines of some coastlines, the shore and the sea, the rocks and the ice! A rocky coastline looks (to me) like it ought to be tactile. I love clambering over them.

Imagining other tactile maps is interesting. Tactile maps of my own coastlines. Tactile maps of other worlds, of the stars?

(Starter source: Wikipedia page. Interesting academic article: Peter Whitridge. 2004. Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place” and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11.2: 213-250.)

Catherynne M. Valente, “A Buyer’s Guide to the Maps of Antarctica”

Published in Clarkesworld in 2009, Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Buyer’s Guide to the Maps of Antarctica” is one of my favourite short stories. It is a description of a series of Antarctic maps up for auction, via which the story of their composition - and the rivalry between the two mapmakers, Nahuel Acuña and Villalba Maldonado - is told. The Antarctica of this story is wondrous:

“The legend claims that these Footless Seals can be found on the sometimes-green shores of Isla Graciento, on the long Norwegian flensing plain that occupies most of the island: When the Iron Try Pots left to render Seal Fat are left to boil until Moonrise, it occasionally Happens that a severed Seal Head which has a Certain blue Tinge to its whiskers will Blink and open its Eyes, and with Cunning Hop Away into the surf, carrying the Iron Try Pot with it as a new Body.”

It starts with male mapmakers, but the story complexifies to add women: Suyai Ledesma, a mapmaker and Nahuel Acuña’s partner, and Soledad Maldonado, the daughter of Villalba who ends the story. It is a delightfully detailed story of a way in which maps are more than maps. They are personal, too. They are conflicting.

It is an awkward truth that in Antarctica we can safely locate the strange ends of the earth, as the continent does not seem to have had an indigenous population.

Early maps of space

I’m a historian and a science fiction fan: of course I love early maps of space.

I found one when researching a story about early Japanese maps. In a 7th-8th century CE kofun tomb: “A star chart is painted on the ceiling using gold foil for the stars, which are connected by straight red lines.”

I want to know more about Mariam Al-Ijliya, a woman of 10th century CE Aleppo, Syria, who constructed astrolabes famous for their high quality. From 944-967 CE, she was employed by the city’s ruler, Sayf Al Dawla.

The greatest fun for me comes from seeing these maps. I was recently linked to a Facebook album of pre-Space Age images of the heavens; if you don’t have Facebook, this Pinterest board is similarly excellent. The cross-media zine Verse Kraken recently included a 9th century CE text-image of the constellation Cetus as one of its spurs, prompting four pieces of work that are available to read online. The contemporary creative possibilities of early star maps are endless.

(Sources for early Japanese maps: the Kazutaka Unno chapter and the Kazuhiko Miyajima chapters in The History of Cartography, free to read online! Source for Mariam Al-Ijliya: tumblr pointed me to this brief description.)

Alexander III of Macedon and narrative maps

This is my research area. I’ll try to be brief!

I opened this post with the Babylonian World Map’s idea of the world’s familiar centre and unfamiliar edges. This idea underpins the more fantastical writings about Alexander III of Macedon (“the Great”): a textual tradition slightly simplified into the term “Alexander Romance”. In many of these texts, Alexander has adventures beyond reality: he flies to heaven in a cage/chair carried by eagles, descends to the bottom of the sea, encounters many strange animals and people and marvels (rocks that turn any touchers black, a fish with a lantern-bright stone in its belly). The dehumanisation of distant peoples is a part of this.

This idea of the world is visually drawn in many medieval Mappa Mundi, which include features of Alexander’s legendary adventures. Perhaps most famous among these is the walling up of Gog and Magog, a monstrous race of people with a complex textual history and trajectory.

I argue that here we discard our idea that a map is visual: the narratives of Alexander’s adventures map the world as well as any visual map. They map a world in which Alexander can reach its edges, find fascinating and horrifying people there, and conceal them behind a wall for the world’s protection. Texts and maps are not mutually exclusive. Consider the descriptions on the Babylonian World Map, vital for its understanding.

Consider the possibility of troubling or subverting the map in Alexander’s narratives. The location of Alexander’s Wall moved throughout history, but one key location was in the Caucasus, at Dariel Pass. The textual traditions of history in K’art’li (Georgia), in the Caucasus, included Alexander’s invasion and some problematic elements of it, but not Alexander’s Wall.

Maps are never neutral, as even the most casual student of any period of colonial history will (should) know. Maps control lands. Narrative maps have that power too. Narrative maps can also be re-drawn in small or large ways.

(Sources: the Wikipedia page about the Alexander Romance linked above is a good starting point. For people with academic/ILL library access or a pot of gold, I recommend Z. David Zuwiyya (ed.) A Companion to Alexander Literature in the Middle Ages and R. Stoneman, K. Erickson & I. Netton (eds.) The Alexander Romance in Persia and the East. Both are recent books with many fascinating articles. Many images relating to Alexander’s legends are available with a Google image search. For my angle on the Alexander textual traditions in detail, you’ll have to wait until I’m publishing academically!)