Maps, Shakespeare and Melville- One Year Later

Rajasthani girls with Mendhi on their hands. (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Exactly one year ago I wrote my first blog about maps and decided that I would write a series on that topic– maps, their history, the people who made them, and how maps have been used by people. I did this because maps are integral to the series of books I write in the Cartographer Universe and I wanted to understand more deeply what maps have meant to humankind.

What I’ve come to understand is that maps can be a truth, a lie and a metaphor. They can present the ‘reality’ of the physical world—the mountains and rivers and roads and cities and can inspire men to superhuman acts just to complete a map. Just as often, though they represent lies or half-truths—the imaginary island of Brasilia, the shifting landscape of Prestor John’s Kingdom or, more overtly, contorted landscapes intended to lure the unwary into towns, gold fields and department stores. And that’s a problem, because we tend to think of maps as representing the truth and we don’t  approach maps with a ‘use at your own risk’ mentality or with the realization that any map may only represent the reality that the map’s maker wishes to represent. They’ve been used this way for centuries, so that the modern-day Chinese maps which change the location of major city thoroughfares to stymie the advance of any potential invasion are only an extension of the same tradition that caused British mapmakers to make erroneous maps of the West Coast of Canada (presumably to stymie the work of Spanish spies), and the Portuguese and Dutch Kings who kept secret their routes to the spice islands.

Ship off the Portuguese Algarve, (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps are much more than simply tools to convey or obscure information. Maps are a part of our psyche so deeply engrained that the map metaphor has seeped deep into our culture. Cervantes wrote ‘Journey all over the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of travelling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst.’ Shakespeare wrote “In thy face I see the map of honor, truth and loyalty.”

The Camino Inca Trail to the sacred city of Machu Picchu. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps themselves are not truth, but metaphors. Once, in Fra Mauro’s time, they represented the mythical extent of man’s imagination and potential. Once, they represented the adventure, the spirit of mankind in the terra incognita of the empty sections of the map. Nowadays they represent the world as governments want it to be when they represent contested borders (think the current battle over islands between Japan and China, or the oil-rich islands in the South China Sea that three countries claim). Maps are used to represent presidential aspirations, shifts in battlefields, oil pipeline routes, and enemy and friendly countries—not that these presentations are the truth, but they are one truth—the truth that the mapmaker wants us to believe.

In this day and age when maps are no longer produced by a person hunched over vellum and ink, we must remember that many things influence the mapmaker’s pen. Everything from politics, funding sources and the publishing company’s allegiances represent what is filtered onto the page. Which brings me to my final conclusion about maps and the truth. They have always been creatures of the imagination and not of the truth, no matter that they grew out of scientific endeavors, but now that purpose of inciting the imagination is being used with more strategic purpose than ever before. Can we trust maps? No.

As Herman Melville stated so well:

It is not down on any map; true places never are.

Porto boats at dawn , Porto, Portugal. (2005) Photo (c) Karen L. Abrahamson

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