Bill Long 11/01/04
Weaving a Story of Ancient Ceylon
The entry under the gem "Taaffeite," in the Larousse Encyclopedia of Precious Gems got me started on this subject. Taaffeite, by the way is a "magnesium and beryllium aluminate, crystallizing in the hexagonal system." I know you will now sleep easier tonight because you know this. Count C.R. Taaffe discovered this odd and rare mineral in 1945 from already cut and misidentified gemstone specimens. Someone thought that the stone was spinel, but the refractive nature of the stone could not have been spinel, as the later was of an isometric crystal structure and the former was "doubly refractive." Since 1945 many examples of taaffeite have been discovered in Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon.
Well, as many new specimens from Sri Lanka came to light, other stones were discovered, and a hurried announcement was made that a new red mineral was discovered which its founders were going to call taprobanite. Taprobane, meaning "the garden of delights," was the ancient Latin and Greek name for Sri Lanka. But, alas, the new mineral turned out to be a form of taaffeite, and the name taprobanite disappeared almost as soon as it appeared. The International Mineralogical Association, fierce watchdog of mineral names, disallowed it in 1982.
Though the word may have disappeared from the mineralogist's lexicon, it lodged in my mind as I read the article, and got me thinking about the land of Taprobane. As I will show in this and the next mini-essay, Taprobane was a land of imagination, a sort of Zihuantanejo* of the spirit, where Christians for centuries imagined exotic things taking place, a place of wealth and allure and, finally in the 18th -19 centuries, a desired destination for those with missionary inclinations.
[*Zihauntanejo, Mexico is the place where Andy finally goes after escaping from prison in the modern "classic" film Shawshank Redemption. It is a place on the sea where there is no memory, a place desired by many for whom the pains of the past can be washed away by the shimmering spangled ocean].
Learning About Taprobane
The West learned about the fabled island of Taprobane through the medieval travel book called Mandeville's Travels. Though attributed to the fourteenth century English knight Sir John Mandeville, who engaged in extensive travels beginning in 1322, recent scholarship has tended to conclude that the Travels were probably written in French about 1357 and translated into English by the end of the century.
Mandeville's Travels was the most popular travelogue of its day because it combined stories of pligrimage to the Holy Land with fantastic tales of far-off lands under the dominion of foreign sovereigns or the shadowy Christian ruler Prester (i.e., "Presbyter" or "elder") John. Chapters 1-14 explain the routes to Jerusalem and describe the Holy City. Miraculous accounts of self-immolating Phoenixes and the origin of roses supplement the more sober religious purpose of this part. Chapters 15-34 recount the purported observations of the author when he visited the courts of the Great Chan, of Cathay (China) and of Prester John. The latter seemed to be the Christian emperor of India, though medieval maps often show the great Prester John sitting on his throne in the middle of Ethiopia. But, since we are dwelling now in the land of the imagination, precision is not only not possible but perhaps not even desirable.*
[*Another such literary example comes from the Book of Job. Job lived in the "Land of Uz" and was the "greatest man in the East" (Job 1:1-3). Some scholars have tried to "pinpoint" Uz as someplace deep within Edom. But, I think they miss the point. The Land of Uz is the Land of Oz, so to speak, a place in the spirit. It is no less real for being imaginary.]
The Visit to Taprobane
The author recounts his visit to islands in the East, of which Taprobane is one, in chapter 33. Actually, Taprobane seems to abut Paradise, even though it is separated from it by steep mountains. The story opens, "Toward the east part of Prester John's land is an isle good and great, that men clepe Taprobane, that is full noble and full fructuous." In that isle there are two summers and two winters per year, and "men harvest the corn twice a year." Gardens flourish year round. Good and reasonable men abound there, "and many Christian men amongst them, that be so rich that they wit not what to do with their goods." Suppose that would interest any medieval/early modern Englishman?
The story goes on to describe a piece of Taprobane exotica. On that island there are "great hills of gold" which are guarded over by "pismires"--i.e., ants. These ants are "great as hounds, so that no man dare come to those hills for the pismires would assail them and devour them anon." Thus, the men may only get the gold guarded by the ants "by great sleight."
The breathless reader is told how this great sleight takes place. Well, first the narrator tells how gold can be gotten without much trickery. Because it is so hot in Taprobane, the pismires have to retire into the earth, thus leaving the stash of gold unprotected during the heat of the day. At that time the country folk take "camels, dromedaries and horses and other beasts" and with all haste take some gold before the ants return to the surface and chase them away. But then, in the cool season, the gold is taken by "sleight." People take mares that have young colts or foals, accoutre them with large sacks and send them forth among the pismires. The ants have a great liking for the mares and are curious about the low-hanging sacks and so they both jump in to inspect the sacks and fill them with gold. Then, when the far-off people can perceive the sacks on the backs of the mares are full of gold, they "put forth anon the young foals, and make them neigh after their dams." And the result? "The mares return toward their foals with their charges of gold."
How clever. So the people of Taprobane are incredibly rich, despite the fact that the gold is guarded by the pismires. And, since Taprobane is so close to Paradise (which is also described in chapter 33), the story must have fueled interest in visiting this land. The next essay will talk about one who did, the nineteenth century Bishop of Calcutta, Reginald Heber.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long