The Myth of (Lost) Paradise

Was Christopher Columbus ‘guilty’ of Paradise’s myth renaissance?

All or a majority of religions have exploited the myth of paradise, since time immemorial. In summary: the idea of an earthly or extraterrestrial place (or paradise) where the souls of the excellent live ad eternum. The bad ones go directly to hell, the undecided ones to purgatory and the newborn unbaptized — in the Catholic religion — to the limbo. The last one is a mere border territory.

The idea of paradise was immortalized in a painting dated on the year 1530 by Lucas of Cranach, the Elder (c. 1472–1553). Perhaps the painter captured on the canvas a concept deeply rooted for centuries in the individual and collective memory of human beings.

It is not easy to abandon an old idea. It is challenging curbing an ideological pandemic; for example, among religious fanatics looking for paradise. The paradise is waiting for the martyrs of the unreasonable. It is the essential reason why young fundamentalists exploit their uncertain biographies aboard trains, in restaurants, streets, and around mosques. Self-sacrifice lethal as a response to a fake message.

The Paradise (1530). Lucas of Cranach, the Older. Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna (

In the Christian world, paradise has been considered — until popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — a real space. The old idea, as portrayed in the concept of the original sin, became rooted in the educational foundations of Europe for more than a thousand years. A lot of thinkers and writers sustained the myth.

From Paul of Ephesus to Augustine of Hippo, both fathers of the Catholic Church. A decree of the Council of Trent (1545–1563) in 1546, and, closer to today, the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) have accepted, defended and propagated the idea of pristine sin. The original sin. No wonder it still lingers latent on many heads.

One must consider this educational substrate when analyzing the pre-Columbian New World scenario. Someone could do a survey today posing a single question: What was the prevailing idea about the American continent before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his companions, on the historic first trip to the West Indies in 1492? The most likely answer would be this: it was a paradise. It was heaven on Earth. It is the consequence of the immovable power of the myths.

History narrators have also maintained and fostered this idea. The Jesuit scholar Antonio Rodríguez de León Pinelo (1589–1675), author of The Paradise in the New World (1656), held that the Paraná, the Orinoco, the Amazon, and the San Francisco were the four biblical rivers described in the Holy Scriptures.

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (1472–1566), the admired defender of the native Americans, also contributed to spread the naturalistic idea of excellent lands inhabited by good people displaying great humanity. They — the indigenous — were good Indians, as the friar Las Casas says in his History of the Indies (in Spanish).

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas with indigenous people. Photo: Cristóbal Alvarado Minic.

It is not easy to understand the reasons why the myth of the lost paradise was so widespread. A tale reborn thanks to the genius and the skill — we should also add the luck and the courage — of Christopher Columbus and other men who followed him in time and space, both the geographical one and the one they occupy in the unfinished book of history.

It would not be unreasonable to point out this assumption: the idea was supported from the beginning by the writings of Columbus, and also by the first Spanish chroniclers of the so-called “encounter of the two worlds.”

Like Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and Francisco Fernández de Oviedo, friars and laypeople, considered Amerindians very peaceful people: Good-looking, healthy, hospitable persons. However, from their ideological perspective, natives were idolaters, cannibals (some of them), and sinners (all) by the untiring action of the devil.

On the other hand, and not least essential, it must be added the supposed goodness of the climate of the Tropics, with factors as temperature, quality of the winds, and regimes of rain and drought, as well as the abundant exotic flora and no less exotic fauna.

Besides, the beautiful landscapes found and described by the eyewitnesses helped to create what is today considered an illusion. The myth of paradise or the pristine paradise, as William Denevan — the author of The Native Population in the Americas in 1492 — called it to mean the idea of an America not stained still by man. The belief in an Edenic land not impurified by man and his shortcomings.

This topic may have served some great writers and thinkers to sustain the essential core of their works. Examples are Voltaire and his Candide, or John Milton and his enormous Lost Paradise (1667): “Into a Limbo large and broad, since calld / The Paradise of Fools, to few unknown /Long after, now unpeopl’d, and untrod.” (Lost Paradise, Book III).

The analyses of many ancient documents allow us to have a vision closer to reality, comparing what was initially left written, and later published and disseminated.

The chronicles of direct witnesses (the visitors) written on the spot of the encounter, or years later. And some indigenous codices too, plus numerous academic disciplines unrelated to each other. Notwithstanding, they were all linked in terms of their respective objectives.

The Old World, where Christopher Columbus was born, grew up and lived in the 15th century Europe, was emerging from the darkness of knowledge that clouded reason in the Middle Ages. Then, it arrived, suddenly and unexpectedly, the scientific and cultural splendor of the Renaissance (16th century).

The world was an astrological body divide into two parts, like Italo Calvino’s viscount (The Cloven Viscount): only Europe and Asia existed. Thanks to the exploratory impulse of the rival kingdoms of Portugal (Henry II the Navigator, John II) and Castile and Aragon (the Catholic Kings of Spain), it began to glimpse the reality of other lands and other peoples. The distant countries inhabited by the “Others”.

Those lands were an immense territory crowded by people of dark or saffron-colored skin. It also contained a lot of strange and formidable animals, vast rivers, unfathomable vegetation. The New World was overwhelmed by heat and by a form of rain unknown to the Christians through whose veins it ran pure blood (old Christians).

On the other hand, Africa, the continent explored by Portuguese and Spanish navigators since the 15th century, widened the explorer horizon considerably and expanded the love of sea travel. The number of navigators, sailors, adventurers, outcasts, fugitives from the law, friars, soldiers, scribes, chroniclers, jurists, artisans, farmers, merchants, and shipowners increased considerably.

The mystery of the lands beyond the unknown seas attracted men hoping for a better future. Many people seduced by the songs of Homeric sirens that echoed in the marine horizon. It was also the same for geographers and cartographers. Inside the soul of every European lived a Ulysses.

Inside the soul of every European lived a Ulysses.

The Vatican, with its century-old diplomacy, intervened as a mediator between the two kingdoms, Portugal and Spain, that ruled all seas known to humankind. The pope mediation was necessary to distribute the enormous cake usually cooked in the oven, ever hot, of international relations.

The new design of the world-map began to take a different form. It had to show the immensity of the Terra Incognita from beyond the vast ocean. It settled that this land belonged to the Spanish side, according to the first distribution made by pope Borgia Alexander VI (Bull Inter Caetera of May 3, 1493). And, immediately (on the same day), the pope ratified the document with the bull Eximiae devotionis. The next day he issued a second bull titled Inter Caetera (May 4, 1493).

That one fixed finally the territorial demarcation line one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde islands.

Page of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Biblioteca de Lisboa. Photo: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.

Representatives of both the Catholics Kings, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, and King Joao II of Portugal, signed The Treaty of Tordesillas (Valladolid province, Spain) the year 1494 (June 7). The historical event took place after the publication of pope bulls of 1493. These documents tried to solve the problem of the irregularity of the dividing line between the two hemispheres.

The accord ended up splitting the melon (or pear) of the discoveries in two parts: one half for Spain (the western hemisphere) and the other for Portugal (the eastern one). A few years earlier, Christopher Columbus requested an unsuccessful audience to the King of Portugal, but did not receive him. However, Kings of Castile and Aragon listened to the daring Admiral’s project.

Christopher Columbus wanted to navigate through a new route in search of oriental spices. Even still today, some scholars reasonably assert that Columbus knew reliable and unique information. Perhaps, based on data from an unknown pilot who relayed to him that it was possible to touch land many leagues beyond the Azores Islands (after weeks of sailing with favorable winds).

The Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos, in a beautiful literary exercise (his novel Vigilia del Almirante), plays with the real and imaginary figure of the proto-explorer. In the opinion of Douglas J. Weatherford about Bastos’s book, “Columbus reads America.” The mysterious pilot was the man who informed Columbus, before dying, about the existence of exotic lands beyond the ocean. The novel invites one to ask oneself what is reality and what is fiction.

For his part, Las Casas (referring to Columbus) also says something related to the compilation of his diary of the first trip to Indies. There may indeed have been the shipwrecked pilot of a ship that was swept away by the Atlantic currents. Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas speaks of the surviving pilot of that expedition who arrived in Porto Santo:

“In recognition of the old friendship or those excellent and charitable works, seeing that he wanted to die, he unveiled to Christopher Columbus all that had happened to them. He gave him the directions and paths that they had taken and brought, and the place where this island [Hispaniola] left or had found, which he had written down.”

Other chroniclers abound in this fantastic hypothesis. Inca Garcilaso even identifies it in his Royal Commentaries with a person named Alonso Sánchez de Huelva. Juan López de Velasco informed of such an interesting character (he speaks of him as early as 1547). In 1590, José de Acosta summonsed the pilot mentioned above:

“That sailor, having, by a terrible and impetuous storm recognized the New World, left for the pay of the good lodging to Christopher Columbus, the news of such a great thing.”

But the celebrated Jesuit ignores the name of the intriguing adventurer “Whose name we do not yet know, so that such a great business may not attribute to another author, but God.” Fernando Pizarro Orellana, in his 1539 book Varones ilustres del Nuevo Mundo conceived and written very much in the style of José de Acosta.

Father José Gumilla, in his book Orinoco Ilustrado, added one more factor of confusion. This already convoluted matter worsened by saying that the shipwrecked persons arrived in the island of Madeira (Portugal) and not to La Gomera (Canary Islands, Spain) while pointing out that the pilot was natural from Biscay:

“The ship of the Biscayans, snatched by the winds and seas in the fifteenth century, after hitting the island of Madera, where Christopher Columbus happened to be, which, from the ideas he had conceived and heard from the Biscayan pilot, was ultimately resolved on his first trip and discovery of America.”

Another author, Juan Manzano, has claimed the hypothesis from the expressions contained in Las Capitulaciones de Santa Fe. The certainty of Columbus in the routes to follow, both in the outward journey and in the return trip, and other indicators in whose analysis we cannot entertain ourselves, are far from being proven beyond any doubt.

The idea of the pre-discovery of America is both provocative and debatable. They are as challenging to prove as they are to disprove. The only sure thing is that Columbus, as Las Casas said, twice in his Historia de las Indias:

“He was certain that he would discover lands and people as if he had been there himself” and “He was sure to discover what he had seen as if founding it in a chamber with his key.”

The cosmographic idea of Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1398–1492) also helped Columbus to make the decision. Toscanelli sent him his nautical chart in 1474. In it, he argued that the coast of Asia was about three thousand nautical miles from the Canaries (in reality, there are ten thousand six hundred).

It is worth noting that Genoese Toscanelli, with excellent acuity, supported his criteria based on the works of authors such as Aristotle, Strabo, Favorinus, Roger Bacon, and Albert the Great. All had written about the existence of lands beyond the ocean.

Paolo Toscanelli (1397–1482). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Aristotle related the lands around the columns of Hercules with the regions near India. Between them, only the sea mediated.

Strabo, in his Geography, suggested that by sailing with eastern winds on the western ocean, one could reach the Indies.

The Roman philosopher Favorinus of Arelata, a contemporary of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius (2nd Century D. C.), wrote about the sea called the Atlantic Ocean by the Greeks, or the Great Sea, as people named it in East Asia.

Finally, in the 13th century, Roger Bacon and Albert Magnus made similar contributions.

It is noting that Genoese Toscanelli, with big sagacity, supported his criteria in authors such as Aristotle, Strabo, Favorinus, Roger Bacon, and Albert the Great. All had written about the existence of lands beyond the ocean.

Toscanelli, accepting Marco Polo’s theory on the elongation of the Asian continent, maintained that it was possible to sail directly across the Atlantic to the Indies without having to round the Cape of Good Hope (in South Africa) and cross the Indian Ocean.

There is a notorious controversy about the influence that Toscanelli had on Columbus. The real facts could be as follows: Toscanelli, through his confessor, sent to the king Alphonse V of Portugal (nicknamed The African), a letter and a map to reconstruct the globe of 1492 drawn previously by Martin (von) Behaim (1459–1507), a follower of the Florentine doctor and humanist. Toscanelli ensured the viability of the trip to China from the west, stopping at the intermediate islands of Antilia and Cipango (present-day Japan).

It is unknown how Columbus had access to this letter (from which he copies literal phrases). However, he said that it was sent to him by Toscanelli, or provided by one of his contacts in the Lusitanian court. Toscanelli’s appraisals assumed ultimately or modified by Columbus, contained severe errors.

Columbus embarked in August 1492 in Palos de Moguer (Huelva province, Spain). After thanking the help of two good friars, Fray Juan Pérez and Fray Antonio de Marchena, and the treasurer of Ferdinand the Catholic, the jew Luis de Santángel, he began the first of four transatlantic voyages he made (between 1492 and 1495).

Explorations — and we do not discover anything new here — that definitively changed the history of humanity. On October 12, 1492, the New World officially born. Columbus himself, in a letter announcing his extraordinary discovery, laid the foundations of the old idea (paradise) of the earthly paradise.

Landing Columbus. John Vanderlyn (1775–1852). Capitol Rotunda. Washington.

Columbus was very impressed by the beauty of the landscapes contemplated by his curious eyes. A land that could have been the Paradise, as were the mental drawings placed in the minds of medieval humans. The heaven divulged by the Genesis, and by the Greek theogony of Hesiod (8th century B.C.).

“Once the human race lived on earth without evil and in the shelter of hard labor, free from the painful diseases that lead to death.”

Or the story prevalent in the mythology of the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Chinese or Africa, Iceland, India, and Australia. The Paradise that many, during the Middle Ages, believed situated in India perhaps influenced by the legend of Prest John.

Or Dante’s Paradise situated on an island and top of a mountain, surrounded by a wall and by fire. Or Milton’s paradises.

Either way, a place always situated in a remote region, separated by high mountains or unknown seas, shrouded in mystery.

Columbus was very impressed by the beauty of the landscapes contemplated by his curious eyes.

A land that could have been Paradise, as were drawings placed in the minds of medieval humans.

Modern theories about myths are very numerous and quite complex, too. They can conform to two categories: historical truths or simple fictional stories. Why so many versions?

The coincidence of myths in many different cultures and civilizations may be due to what someone called the psychological unity of the human being. In summary: all human beings think similarly in the final analysis of an idea. This perspective can be a bit bold from a scientific point of view.

It is also possible that in the myth of Paradise, memory is more important than poetry. The memory of what existed is more reliable than the desire of imagination. Perhaps there was a better time and place than those who came later. Of course, both are in the confines of history. Missing.

Until now, humanity has lived at the expense of the myths. Master Jorge Luis Borges left us this formidable sentence in the middle of the poem Posesión del ayer (Los conjurados, 1985):

“There are no other paradises than the lost paradises.”

Medical Doctor (Infectious Diseases specialist/Professor of Medicine) and writer (narrative, theater).

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