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Life on the Edge:
The Decentered World of Alexander the Great
Lisa Deam

Stories abound in recent times of success gone awry. From congressmen to corporate heads, civil servants to CEOs, our world seems full of superstars who rise to the top, only to fall when they cannot help themselves to a little bit more. Consider, for example, the fortieth governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich. Only the second Serbian-American to be elected governor of any state, he recently was removed from office following federal corruption charges. Former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, for his part, had one of the longest Senate runs in American history before his felony conviction for making false financial disclosure statements. In the corporate world, we have, of course, Enron’s Jeff Skilling. After a heady climb to the top of one of the nation’s most innovative companies, he currently is serving year three of a lengthy sentence for insider trading and fraud.

When we read stories like these—and new ones seem to break almost daily—most of us shake our heads in disbelief. Before their fall, these political and corporate stars ruled small empires, amassing more money and power than most of us will see in a lifetime. It might even be claimed that they did some good in their lofty positions. They had the world at their fingertips—then lost it all in apparent acts of hubris.

These would-be conquerors of our world would do well to heed the lessons of another empire-builder, Alexander the Great—specifically, the character of Alexander as constructed in medieval lore. This Alexander rose to greater heights than a thousand Enrons combined. He conquered the known world, and medieval audiences—especially rulers who wished to enlarge their own kingdoms—loved him for it. In the end, however, Alexander overstepped his bounds. He fell, and fell hard. He became not only a hero but also, to some storytellers, a cautionary tale of a man who gained the world but lost his soul.

map

The medieval character of Alexander appears in numerous eponymous tales and world histories, some in visual form. The story of his rise and fall is nowhere more eloquently told than on the Hereford Map, a map of the world that was made in England around 1300. This map portrays the world as a circle—flat rather than spherical—in which the three inhabited continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia nestle closely together. The River Ocean surrounds these land masses, creating a single, continuous coastline that girds the world. Unlike contemporary renderings of the world, the map’s orientation is to the east rather than the north, so that Asia, the largest continent, sits at the top. And in the precise center of this circular world lies Jerusalem, the city of Christ’s life and death.

The Hereford Map not only features geography; it also turns the global landscape into a theater of world history. Its three continents display over two thousand pictures and inscriptions, many of which relate stories from the seven ages of the world. Some of these stories are sacred, others secular or pagan. As a repository of human history, embellished though it sometimes may be, the map still has lessons to teach us: geography may have changed since the Middle Ages, but people surprisingly have remained the same. Thus Alexander the Great, featured prominently on the map, continues to haunt those of us who travel the world today.

Alexander, in fact, might be called the hero of the Hereford Map. With nine explicit mentions, he appears more than any other historical figure, including Christ himself. Through these inscriptions, the map narrates Alexander’s story in geographical terms. Our hero’s rise and fall is cast as a global conflict, sometimes violent, between the circumference and the center of the circular world. The circumference at first seems to hold the advantage. Indeed, all nine of the map’s Alexander inscriptions lie on or near the round edges of the earth. If we traced them with our finger, we would draw an imaginary arc around roughly half the world. Of these inscriptions, the ones describing Alexander’s military conquests receive particular emphasis. To the map’s north and east, for example, stand the altars Alexander erected to mark the outermost boundaries of his military campaigns. Also in the far east lie three mighty kingdoms, including Porus’s India, which Alexander defeated. And in the south, Alexander’s brightly-colored camp sits on the border of Asia and Africa, probably alluding to Alexander’s subjugation of the African continent.

The Hereford Map also highlights some of Alexander’s noteworthy travels along the edges of the world. To an even greater extent than his military exploits, Alexander’s journeys to exotic locales are constructions of the medieval imagination, tales crafted to explain and to tame the wilder parts of the world. Adjacent to the altars Alexander erected on the world’s northern rim, for example, lies the Marvelous Island, a mysterious site which, according to the Hereford Map, Alexander “did not visit without prayers and pledges” (Westrem 2001, 97). His travels to the far reaches of Asia claimed the greatest hold on medieval audiences. The top of the Hereford Map features one of the eastern sites Alexander visited, the Balsam Tree. This tree plays a role in the legend of Alexander’s visit to the Trees of the Sun and Moon, oracular arbores able to forecast the future.

map

The Hereford Alexander thus roams the circumference of the earth, conquering and exploring. His preference for the world’s rim contrasts with other medieval tales, which send Alexander hither and yon in the terrestrial landscape. In the eleventh-century redaction of the Alexander Romance, for example, the conqueror frequently interrupts his Asian campaigns with trips to more central locations. The Hereford Map, however, seems bent on keeping Alexander on the edge.

In one sense, Alexander’s edginess makes him even more of a hero. Indeed, his outlying adventures underscore his bravery, since they show him willing to face what were, in the Middle Ages, the most dangerous places on earth. Although some locales along the edge hosted marvels, such as the talking Trees of the Sun and Moon, the earth’s circumference also housed creatures almost too strange and terrifying to believe. The southern coast of medieval Africa, for example, was home to the monstrous races, creatures “deformed against kind both of man or of beast or of anything else,” according to the supposedly eyewitness account of fourteenth-century traveler Sir John Mandeville (Mandeville 1964, 32). The Hereford Map shows twenty of these monsters, cut off from the rest of civilization by a narrow branch of the Nile River. To the far right of Alexander’s camp, for example, can be seen a Himantopode, a creature that glides on all fours on long, strap-like feet. Just above this figure lurks a Hermaphrodite, sporting a man’s breast on the left and a woman’s on the right. Some monstrous creatures also inhabited the continent of Asia, especially the eastern extremes where Alexander traveled. In the vicinity of the Hereford Map’s Alexander sites, for example, appear armed Pygmies, Cynocephali—creatures with human bodies and canine heads—and a large Monoculus, a humanoid figure shown lying on its back with its one giant foot extended over its head for shade.

With its monsters and other fantastic creatures, the circumference of the medieval world, at first, seems a place with few redeeming qualities. Not many of us would be willing to follow Alexander there. Yet the edge not only allowed Alexander to show his bravery; it also became the means by which he discovered new lands and peoples (even if he ended up conquering most of them). In other words, by traveling the circumference, the medieval Alexander helped to enlarge the boundaries of the world. Along with travelers like Mandeville, he demonstrates a mindset that, in its willingness to test the limits of what is known, paved the way for the medieval world eventually to become the modern world.

The edges of the world even allowed Alexander to transcend his own self-obsessive quest and become an agent of the greater good. The Hereford Map shows that on the northern rim of Asia, between the Caspian Sea and Cape Boreum, Alexander locked up a terrifying race of people that threatened world security. The map’s inscription reads:

[Here are] all kinds of horrors, more than can be imagined: intolerable cold, a constant blasting wind from the mountains, which the inhabitants call “bizo.” Here are exceedingly savage people who eat human flesh and drink blood, the accursed sons of Cain. The Lord used Alexander the Great to close them off, for within sight of the king an earthquake occurred, and mountains tumbled upon mountains all around them. Where there were no mountains, Alexander hemmed them in with an indestructible wall (Westrem 2001, 69).

This inscription mixes several legends. The “accursed sons of Cain” refer to the monstrous races discussed above; these races frequently were thought to be descendants of Cain and therefore capable of all kinds of decadent behavior. But these cannibals also signify the descendants of Gog and Magog, a race that, according to the Book of Revelation, one day will gather the world’s nations into an army to destroy the people of God (Revelation 20:7–10).

The Gog-Magog inscription lies within the cannibals’ island prison, enclosed on its southern end by the crenelated wall Alexander built. It is the Hereford Map’s lengthiest mention of Alexander, and it alerts us to his high status in the medieval world. Through this episode, the conqueror is allowed to play a key role in Christian history. Despite his pagan pedigree, he becomes no less than an agent of God. Alexander could not have enjoyed this role had he not been willing to brave the earth’s dangerous rim.

In the end, however, the Hereford Alexander became overly partial to the edge. According to the map, he never traveled inland, and thus he missed the most important site the circular world has to offer: its center. On the Hereford Map, the center belongs indisputably to Jerusalem. Defying geographical logic, this city lies in the middle, or navel, of the world, at the precise place where the three continents meet. It is portrayed as a circular, walled city from which rises a ghostly image of the Crucifixion. The map thus centers not merely on the city itself, but on God’s eternal revelation that took place both inside and outside its walls.

In the medieval worldview, Jerusalem provided a source of stability for a dangerous world, especially its edges. Sir John Mandeville, the fourteenth-century traveler who reportedly journeyed to the edge himself, made Jerusalem the focus of his lengthy itinerary. In his travel guide, he discusses the city’s geographical and spiritual primacy:

For he that will publish anything to make it openly known, he will make it to be cried and pronounced in the middle place of a town; so that the thing that is proclaimed and pronounced, may evenly stretch to all parts: right so, he that was former of all the world, would suffer for us at Jerusalem, that is the midst of the world. (Mandeville 1964, 4).

Jerusalem reminded Mandeville—and others—that whatever marvels might be encountered on the earth’s rim, or whatever deeds accomplished there, Christ holds the world’s central position. All journeys and quests should thus pass through the world’s sacred center. Otherwise, the danger of becoming lost on the edge, or in one’s achievements on the edge, could become too great.

As a traveler of the world shown on the Hereford Map, Alexander, too, theoretically can benefit from the safety net of Jerusalem. The center belongs to him as much as to Mandeville or to any other medieval figure. Yet the Hereford Alexander eschews the center: the map consistently shows him as far from Jerusalem as he possibly could be. He is thus the opposite of Mandeville—he traveled the Christian world but did not understand the need for a spiritual anchor to ground his quests. Lacking this center, he was laid open to the dangers of the edge—laid open, in fact, to death itself.

map

In most medieval Alexander legends, the conqueror dies by assassination. In at least one story, however, his death also is linked with his preoccupation with the edge. In the Alexandreis, a twelfth-century epic poem by Walter of Châtillon, Alexander had just defeated Porus of India when he made plans to undertake a quest unlike any he yet had attempted: he aimed to sail the Nile straight to the Garden of Eden, known in the Middle Ages as Earthly Paradise. The Hereford Map does not illustrate this episode. Earthly Paradise, however, appears at the top, or easternmost point, of the map as a circular, walled garden in which Adam and Eve take the forbidden fruit. Below the garden, just outside its closed gate, a sword-wielding angel drives the first parents into the larger world. Medieval viewers of the map may well have envisioned Alexander’s quest when they looked upon the map’s equally dramatic story of Adam and Eve.

In planning to journey to the Garden of Eden—another site on the edge—Alexander transgressed a boundary that should never be crossed, he set his sights on the one place forbidden to all humans since the gate was closed. Those around Alexander saw the folly of his misplaced ambition, but the conqueror himself did not. In the Alexandreis, he brushes aside the reservations of his men with an arrogant proclamation: “Not to provoke the ill will of the gods, the world’s too narrow, and the breadth of earth is insufficient for its only lord. But when I’ve passed beyond this conquered universe, I’ll undertake to open to my followers another world”—by which he means Paradise itself (Walter 1996, 166). Although an agent of God in the Gog-Magog episode, here Alexander believes himself akin to God as he prepares to lead his subjects to heaven on earth.

Not surprisingly, the deities of the Alexandreis do not take kindly to Alexander’s transgression. The goddess Nature (a stand-in for God in the poem) calls Alexander’s planned visit to Earthly Paradise a “siege,” clearly believing that the mighty king means to initiate no mere tour of the garden but an act of war. Not willing to let Alexander succeed, Nature turns to Satan for assistance. “What praise is yours, serpent, what glory, that you cast the first man out, if such a garden should yield its honors up to Alexander?” she taunts the lord of the underworld (Walter 1996, 172). Satan springs into action, enlisting one of his minions to devise a plan immediately to cut short Alexander’s life. Earthly Paradise remains intact—at least until the next Alexander comes along.

Alexander’s brief life has elements of tragedy: Alexander conquered the world, but his untimely death prevented him from ruling the lands he held or enjoying the discoveries he made. By illustrating Earthly Paradise, the Hereford Map hints at the details of the conqueror’s unfortunate demise. It also gives his fall a distinct spiritual and geographical twist. In this cartographic narrative, Alexander is not merely an epic hero who perished before his time; he is a man who chose the edge over the center. Between these two geographical sites lies a vast space of could-have-beens. Had the map’s Alexander traveled, however briefly, to Jerusalem, he could have unearthed a store of humility to guide his steps. He could have abandoned his God complex in the presence of the true God. And, consequently, he could have avoided the fatal mistake of thinking that he had the power and authority to open the gates of Eden. But the Hereford Alexander did not go to Jerusalem. He gained no humility, no eternal perspective on his existence—and therefore he fell. He is a parable of a man who gains the world but loses his center—not to mention his very life.

Alexander’s descendants roam our world today. We love to revile them, those media-hungry superstars who, having climbed to the top, take dramatic missteps that topple them from the edge of the earth. But Alexander’s story speaks even to those of us not destined to be global figures. We ordinary folk may not have futures as world conquerors or national power brokers, but we are all travelers in the world. Whether professors or pastors, students or scholars, we understand the drive to attain new heights of excellence in our chosen work, and we also understand, surely, the temptation to cross forbidden lines as we pursue our goals. To avoid Alexander’s fate, we must all find a center to tether us as we wander.

Even a stay-at-home mother like myself needs to find her center. An heir to the Christian tradition represented by the Hereford Map, I seek Jerusalem in my midst. My day-to-day challenges may seem trivial compared to ruling the world or running a company—or even a classroom—but they require the same attention to sacred geography. Sometimes, I meet life’s challenges like a conqueror. Scurrying around the edges of the earth, I change diapers, convince an unwilling toddler to take a nap, keep a house, and even, on the really good days, carve out a few hours for my second job, writing. Accomplishing all or any of these tasks, I feel as though I have braved a monster or two. But if I do not keep the center of my world in sight—perhaps make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as did so many medieval people—I will fashion myself a second Alexander the Great. Even mothers can storm the Garden of Eden. In their quest to give their children every good gift, they easily can forget that paradise is the one gift not theirs to bestow. When my own supermom status threatens to turn into a God complex, I know of only one course of action: I get out my rope, and I tether myself once again to the world’s sacred center.

But I do not hole up there. If I did, who would change all those diapers? God calls me to take strength from the center, but also to travel the larger world. He may even ask me someday to be his agent on the edge, as he did Alexander the Great. Indeed, the character of Alexander shows me, and all who travel the world with me, that we need both center and circumference. We need the margins to challenge us and the middle to ground us; we need ambition, and we need humility. We need, finally, to know who we are and who God is. The apparent dissonance between center and circumference is thus more of a dialogue—even if, at times, a tense one. We often seem to be caught in the middle, and this is, in fact, an accurate description of our experience of the world. We live and work and make our way in the promising yet perilous space between center and circumference.

From his perch atop the Hereford Map, the character of Alexander bids us be careful as we go. He failed in his quest to negotiate the world, but we need not. We can conquer new lands, and, with a little knowledge of sacred geography, we can live to enjoy them. The Hereford Map can help us. For superstars and ordinary travelers alike, this map models a world kept in perfect equilibrium. It gives us center and circumference, both of which we need to find our path. The map asks us to keep one eye on Alexander the Great, who teaches us to take risks on the edges of the earth, and both eyes on Christ, who centers our precarious existence.

 

Lisa Deam is a writer and art historian who lives in Valparaiso, Indiana.

 

Works Cited

Mandeville, John, da Pian del Carpine Giovanni, Willem van Ruysbroek, and Odorico. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, With Three Narratives in Illustration of It: The Voyage of Johannes De Plano Carpini, The Journal of Friar William De Rubruquis, The Journal of Friar Odoric. New York: Dover, 1964.

Townsend, David, trans. The Alexandreis of Walter of Châtillon: A Twelfth-Century Epic, A Verse Translation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1996.

Westrem, Scott D. The Hereford Map: A Transcription and Translation of the Legends with Commentary. Turnhout: Brepols, 2001.

 

Photographs provided by the Dean and Chapter of Hereford.

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Valparaiso University
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