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The Terrible Ocean
In some of its moods the sea presents itself as a symbol of eternity. For ages it was more than the symbol; it was eternity itself. Men shrank from contemplation of it, as they might shrink from contemplation of the hereafter. A voyage into its outer spaces was like the voyage of the soul into the shadows that lie beyond life. Still, this conception shapes the imagery and colors the faith of the race. Life is a passage down a river that reaches an immeasurable sea. Death is a journey upon dark waters. The bark of salvation spreads its sails for the pure of heart, and favoring winds waft them to the Beautiful Shore. In the songs of Christendom one hears soft winds blowing over expanses of peaceful water. The earth geography of Homer is the heavenly geography of Bunyan. The Ocean Stream that flowed around the world is the river that flows by the Throne of God.
Classic mythology ties up the sea's infinities with those of time through the medium of the Styx, which was at once a branch of the Ocean Stream and the river that encircled the land of shades. The lake of Avernus which afforded entrance to the nether world, Charon's ferry, the rivers Cocytus, Acheron, and Phlegethon, and the Stygian Pool itself, all gave to a Roman death the aspect of maritime adventure, although underground. The freer Greek fancy placed the Elysium of the soul somewhere in the western ocean, where the sun sank to rest. There were the Isles of the Blessed, or Fortunate Isles, where there was neither rain nor snow, but the shrilly-breathing west wind fanned and watered the land.
Other isles were there, the abodes of formidable men and dangerous women and prodigious animals. But one could get along very well by accepting the fictions of the poets as good enough geography and ethnography without launching maritime expeditions to confirm them. The western ocean offered the
peoples of the Mediterranean no present promise or profit to match its terrors, and to alloy delights that had too spectral a cast. Unlike the Indian Ocean, it was not a great highway of trade. Thick clouds covered it, perpetual darkness reigned upon it. It was an unnavigable morass and a confusion; so said Hesiod, Pindar, and Euripides, voicing the beliefs of their time.
There was one race that without fear put forth upon the sea. This was the Phænicians, and their rich African colony, the Carthaginians. Their adventures beyond the Pillars of Hercules brought profit to them, and they saw to it that the tidings of them should bring dismay to others. A Phænician fleet sent out by Necho, a Pharaoh of the XXXVIth dynasty, seems to have sailed around Africa. About B.C. 500 a Carthaginian fleet under Hanno explored the African west coast as far as the mouths of the Senegal and Gambia. At nearly the same time another Carthaginian fleet under Himilco discovered the British Isles, but it brought back depressing stories. The islands were four months' distant from the Straits of Gibraltar, and the voyage thither was through waters haunted by frightful monsters and thick with entangling seaweed, where wild storms and protracted calms succeeded one another.
These were not true tales, but other nations believed them, and the seafaring Semites were permitted to build up trading stations along the coasts of the outer ocean—in western Africa, in Lusitania, in the Scilly Islands, and in Cornwall. None challenged their monopoly of the tin trade of the Cassiterides. They covered their tracks so that whoever had the temerity to test their fables, or seek to tap their sources of raw material, would not know whither to go. Strabo tells how the Cartha. ginians concealed from everyone the passage to the Tin Islands: "When the Romans followed a certain shipmaster, that they also might find the market, the shipmaster of jealousy purposely ran his vessel upon a shoal, leading on those who followed him into the same destructive disaster. He himself escaped by means of a fragment of the ship, and received from the state the value of the cargo he had lost."
According to Eratosthenes, the Carthaginians went further: “They drown any strangers who sail past on their voyage to Sardinia or to the Pillars.” Thus through piracy, stratagem, and fable they maintained their monopoly on the waters of the west, and for once Greek curiosity played into a rival's hands. Tyrian and Punic marvel tales were elaborated and adorned by the poets of Attica, until everyone felt that a journey beyond the Pillars was a thing not to be undertaken. All that the earlier Greeks knew, even of the western Mediterranean, was that near it was a mountain called Atlas on which the sky rested, and that the world ended at the pillars set up by Hercules.
One Greek was determined to learn more, and see if his countrymen could not also profit from the tin and amber trades. The journey of Pytheas of Massilia, at about B.C. 333, along the coasts of northern Europe is one of the noteworthy scientific expeditions of history. He is the first to speak of Thule. He found where amber came from. He noted that the cereals gradually disappeared as one traveled north, that the northern grain was threshed in barns instead of upon open threshing floors, and that fermented drinks there were made from corn and honey. In a peculiar passage he asserted that beyond Britain there was neither earth, air, nor sea, but a mixture of all three-something like the element which held the universe together. This substance, which he compared to the jellyfish, rendered navigation impossible and led the Romans later to name those waters the Sluggish Sea. The apparently fabulous statement, made on hearsay, has been interpreted as referring to the dense fogs of the northern seas, to the blended effects of mist and light, and to the broken ice or slush that floats there in a translucent state. The reference to the jellyfish may be either to its translucence or its luminosity.
All that Pytheas reported of northern Europe was discredited. How, asks Polybius, could a private individual conduct such a vast expedition with his narrow means? Strabo accuses the Massilian of having forged his tales, “making use of his acquaintance with astronomy and mathematics to fabricate his false narration." His complete vindication is the work of modern scholarship.
The next report of consequence from the outer seas comes nearly three centuries later and was made to Sertorius, the Marian general under whom for a time Spain maintained its
independence of Rome. A tale of the Fortunate Islands—probably of the Canaries—drifted in through the Straits and found the great soldier weary of life in camp and field. Two sailors had arrived from islands which they described as about twelve hundred miles west of the coast of Africa. Rains seldom fell there, they said. The dews watered the earth, which yielded its fruits in abundance without the labor of man. The seasons were temperate, the air was serene and pleasant, and soft winds blowing from the west and south brought days of bright moist weather. Even the barbarians believed that this was the seat of the blessed.
There was that in the jaded commander which lifted to the thought of new horizons. Sertorius, says Plutarch, was seized with a wonderful passion for these islands and had an extreme desire to go and live there in peace and quietness, safe from oppression and unending wars. But the Cilician pirates, who were his allies, wanted not peace, but spoils. So the remainder of his life was spent in wars and government, and the world was denied an adventure instinct with romance and pregnant with the potencies of great discovery.
With the voyage of Polybius in the fleet of Scipio along the west African coast, the campaigns of Cæsar in Gaul and Britain and the reduction of both into imperial provinces, even the incurious Roman became possessed of adequate geographical knowledge of the western coasts of Europe and the waters near them. This knowledge, however, was tinctured with the marvelous, and was not long retained. Strabo, for example, pictures the men of the Scilly, or Tin, Islands as wearing black cloaks and tunics reaching to the feet, and as walking with staves, thus “resembling the Furies we see in tragic representations." He must have meant the Druids.
In the same century in which the legions were withdrawn from Britain, Procopius, the foremost historian of the Eastern Roman Empire, was born. Yet in that century of dissolution most of what the ancient world had learned of the coasts and waters of the Atlantic was forgotten. The western ocean had been a domain over which mists of ignorance and superstition hovered, sometimes rising for a moment of distant vision, sometimes falling like a blank curtain. In the sixth century A.D.
they drew so closely to the shores of Europe that even England was lost behind them. It had ceased to be a Roman province and was become a land of ghosts.
Procopius tells his story with due note of its dreamlike quality; and yet, he says, numberless men vouch for its truth. It is the story of the English Channel become the ferry of souls. The fisher folk on the continental side are subject to the Franks, but pay no tribute, because it is their task in regular turn to transport the souls of the dead to Britain. Those on duty for each night keep indoors until a knocking is heard and a mysterious voice summons them. Arising from sleep, they go down to the beach, where they find strange boats awaiting them. These seem to be empty, but when they seize the oars and push off they find the gunwales only an inch above the water. In silence they make the journey and in an hour find themselves on the opposite shore, although their own skiffs could scarcely cross in a night and a day. When the keels grate on the beach, suddenly the boats ride high on the waves. There is none to greet them, but again a voice is heard, announcing the name and station of the spectral passengers.
Thus the end of the ancient world found men knowing only a little more about the western ocean than they did at the beginning. The chief advance over the Homeric age was that they knew it was an ocean and not a circumfluent river. The old idea was not dead that it was a morass made unnavigable by seaweed and mud, too thick and too shallow for sailing ships to venture upon. This notion was fostered by observing the unfamiliar phenomena of ebb tides, with the long windrows of weed and the wide expanses of muddy flats they laid bare upon the coasts. Plato had deepened the belief and provided a reason for it in his story of Atlantis. “That is the reason,” he concludes, “why the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is such a quantity of shallow mud in the way.'
Men had no such notions, or fears of the open seas to the east, although they were careful not to get too far from their shores. They knew that inhabited lands were beyond them, and that by not impossible shores and islands they could reach these. The Periplus of the Erythræan Sea had full accounts of the