Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Polo & Odoric on the Pole Star

        One of the many marvels noted by both Odoric of Pordenone and Marco Polo is the disappearance of the north star, presumably Polaris (α Ursae Minoris), when going south across the equator along the Sumatran coast. In the context of his/their general discussion of Sumatra ('lille de iana la menour'), Polo/Rustichello says:
Sachiez que ceste ille est si toute au miedi que lestoile tramontane ni apt.
        'You should know that this island is so far to the south that the tramontane star never appears.' Here, 'tramontane' refers to the north, originally from the Latin meaning 'north wind' (lit: 'across the mountains', i.e., the Alps). Polo is cited as the earliest source of the modern French spelling of the term in French etymological dictionaries, although in modern French it refers to a wind, not a star.
NASA images of Polaris, the current pole star. This is presumably the same one Polo and Odoric are referring to, although the pole star won't always be Polaris due to axial precession.
        Odoric says more or less exactly the same thing (1331 Old French version):
Je me parti de cele contree et meu alai de uers le midi et ving .1. iournees par la giant mer en une contree qui est apelee lamori et la comencai ie a perdre le veue de lestoile t"smontanie, pour la terre qui la me couuri.
        For which the Yule translation gives: 'Departing from this region [southern India] towards the south across the Ocean Sea, I came in fifty days to a certain country called Lamori, in which I began to lose sight of the north star, as the earth intercepted it.' I'm quite sure the Old French manuscript in the British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, doesn't say fifty days, but rather only one - perhaps I'm missing something in the text, or the word ving doesn't mean 'came' as I had thought. Certainly Malabar isn't one day from Sumatra by wooden boat. If you fancy checking it and correcting my poor French, you can find the Indonesian section starting on folio 141 (recto).

       Either way, this must have been a marvel indeed: a piece of direct visual evidence of the curvature of the planet, observable only when one went as far south as the rich kingdoms of Sumatra and Java. I'm not sure that these were the very first European accounts of this phenomenon as I don't know the classical sources well enough, and there's every reason to believe that Roman (or Greco-Egyptian) sailors travelled near the equator in (probably) visiting Indonesia. But it does show, at least, that people in thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe were quite familiar with the concept of a spherical earth.

      It would be interesting to compare the Arabic sources for similarities. Lamori, Odoric's name for part of Sumatra, came from the Arabic al-Rāmnī, and I have already noted a correspondence between the spices listed by Polo, al-Mas'udi, and Odoric, so we shouldn't be surprised if this part of the narrative also had some Arab inspiration. The only Arabic source I know in real detail is al-Mas'udi on Sumatra, Java, and Cambodia from The Meadows of Gold, and I haven't come across any mention of the disappearance of the pole star in those sections.
Detail from a south-up modern reproduction of al-Idrisi's famous world map, the Tabula Rogeriana (after Roger II of Sicily). This section shows islands in Indonesia in a slightly confused way; gezira al-rami on the right of the map is clearly Sumatra, and presumably the island called gezira malai is the Malay Peninsula (bearing in mind that the Arabic word jazīrah can refer to both islands and peninsulas).

       The brief excerpts from Arabic sources in Paul Wheatley's The Golden Khersonese seem to give much more detailed information about the stars, however, and don't seem to regard the disappearance of any particular star behind the earth as at all remarkable; perhaps this was something Europeans up in their far-northern peninsula regarded as more of a marvel than Arabs, whose travels regularly took them out into the southern Indian Ocean.

      Perhaps Arab and Malay sailors pointed out the loss of the star to both Odoric and Polo as relative newbies on the Monsoon Marketplace. Perhaps it was all just a part of the tour - see the man-eating beast-people of Lamori, check out the tall piles of nutmegs and cloves, try to keep your eye on the north star as it disappears below the horizon, don't forget to try the sago-bread.


  1. Arabs regularly journeyed South along the African coast as well, and presumably would have observed the same thing

    1. Yes, presumably - I'm not familiar enough with the Arabic texts (I can't read the language) to be able to find relevant texts on that easily, though. Maybe someone can comment here with something good.

      I certainly don't get the impression from the texts I do have that Arab sailors were particularly surprised by the motions of the stars, and it doesn't seem to me that they depended on a single star for navigation as the Europeans seem to have done. See this text by the fifteenth-century Omani navigator Ahmad ibn Majid, translated by G. R. Tibbetts, as an example:

      As for Sumatra, O My Brother, when you have sailed from Takwa by the Southern Cross, you will approach it.
      And another said, the most obvious path to Sumatra, our pole should be that of Canopus.
      To Mal'aqa [Melaka]. Listen to my positions, and the water will be ten fathoms.
      He will come before Malacca, and perceive Fal Fasalar with al-Qafas, and know
      Fal Fasalar is a mountain and Qafasi, it is an abundance of shallows in the water.
      When there are gaps, O My Brother, when you see Fal Fasalar with Simak [=Arcturus] then give thanks.
      And if you desire the land of Malacca, then rely upon the small star of the Dog
      Till near Singapur and travel there towards Taik [Wheatley thinks this was was Pulau Tinggi, which makes sense to me from spelling and context] by the Great Bear
      Then steer from Tingi in the direction of Sura by the setting of the famous seven [the Great Bear].
      Due north from Sura to Shahr-i-Naw, to the right or the left is no use.
      From Shahr-i-Naw to Kanbusa [Cambodia?] by the Scorpion is your route, by its rising, not setting.
      From there steer to Shanpa' [Champa] by the rising of the Great Bear
      (p.242 of Wheatley's 1961 work, The Golden Khersonese, Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press).

      I suppose another reason I'm not going to tackle the Arabic texts is that they're very often oddly-written poems. Anyway, we've got navigation by Canopus (Sohel, which the Europeans may have been unaware of), Arcturus (al-Simak), and several constellations, so I don't suppose they'd have thought Polaris slinking away was particularly worthy of note.

  2. Herodotus 4.42 has a famous statement that as the Phoenecians circumnavigated Africa clockwise they saw the sun to their right "but I do not believe it." If there is a Greek tradition about the stars changing as one sails south, its probably in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. The tradition about measuring the circumference of the earth using shadows at Alexandria and a city in Upper Egypt is also vaguely related but much less spectacular.

    1. Thanks for the Herodotus reference - very interesting. I don't think there's anything in the Periplus, though. I looked through it recently and have read it a couple of times. The author talks about east Africa, of course, but in that section mentions nothing about the stars (and possibly doesn't go down as far as the equator), and the same goes for 'Chryse', perhaps the Malay Peninsula. It seems to me that the Roman sailors at the time of the Periplus sailed near the coasts rather than following the monsoon winds and the stars, so perhaps they didn't rely as much on pole stars, etc.


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