In latitude Europe extends from 36°00’N to 63°00’N. The main horizontal axis of Europe was meridian 45°12’N, considered the middle point between the Equator and the Pole. The displacement of 12’ to the north could be explained by the fact that the Earth is not a perfect sphere: the degree of longitude at 45°12’N has the length that it would have at latitude 45°00’N if the Earth were not flattened at the poles.
The mouth of the Danube, identified with the point 45°12’N on the Western Axis of Egypt (29°50’E), was a paramount geodetic point. It was the SW angle of the geodetic square of 10° by 10° used to map Scythia and the NW angle of the rectangle of 4° by 10° used to map the Black Sea, according to the geographical system followed by Herodotus.
The Western Axis of Europe was meridian 8°24’E—in mythology this marked the line on which the sun sets and the beginning of the realm of the dead. It corresponded perfectly with the physical features of Europe. In the Mediterranean this meridian marks the western limit of Sardinia and Corsica and approximately the deepest point of the Ligurian coast. Europe west of this meridian was described as unmapped. Herodotus reveals that for him Europe was mapped only up to about this meridian. He observes that its most important river is the Danube, since this river traverses the entire length of the continent.1
Herodotus describes in detail the course of the Danube and lists its affluents (IV 48-49). The description is correct, but it has been made the object of great scorn and ridicule because he says that the Danube originates near Pyrene and runs all across Europe for a length equal to that of the Nile that runs across Libya from West to East (II 35). These statements are interpreted as evidence of a supposed belief by Herodotus that to the south of Egypt the Nile took a turn to the West, running across the Sahara, and that the Danube originated from the chain of the Pyrenees.
Herodotus reports in ample detail the information concerning an equatorial Nile that went across Libya from the true source of the Nile at Lake Albert, on the Western Axis of Egypt, 29°50’E, to the Outer Sea which was reached at a point reckoned as 0°00’, 8°24’E and indicated concretely by the bay enclosed by Cape Lopez (0°38’S, 8°42’E). Quite soundly he doubts the existence of the equatorial Nile, which truly is a mathematical line, whereas other Greek thinkers, such as Anaxagoras, accepted it as a reality. The equatorial Nile extends from the Western Axis of Egypt to meridian 8°24’E and hence is as long as the course of the Danube. In Europe this meridian passes quite close to the point where the Brigach and the Pregen join to form the Danube at Donauschingen (47°58’N, 8°30’E). Herodotus declares that the Istros or Danube divides Europe into two halves, just as the equatorial Nile, which is a mathematical line running along the Equator but physically corresponds to the river Congo, divides Africa into two halves.2 Herodotus establishes several comparisons between the Nile and the Danube, because the Danube, like the equatorial Nile, runs perpendicularly to the meridian of the true Nile and its continuation by the Boristhenes or Dnieper.
It is alleged not only that Herodotus had inane notions about the course of the Danube, but that the rest of the Greeks knew about it only fables, offered only hypotheses.3 It has been argued that the Roman historian Sallust was the first, around 36 and 34 B.C., to discover that the upper course of the Danube, the Danuvius, and its lower course, the Istros, were one and the same river. These assertions are uttered in spite of Herodotus’ statement (II 34) that whereas he cannot speak with any assurance of the equatorial Nile because it runs through uninhabited and desert country, he considers certain his information about the Istros which runs through inhabited country, familiar to many. Practically all scholars of ancient geography insist on identifying Pyrene, the source of the Danube according to Herodotus, with the chain of the Pyrenees.4 Only a few isolated writers have objected that the term Pyrene must be explained by the fact that the Danube begins at Donauschingen at the confluence of two streams called today Brigach and Pregen.5 In the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, the course of the Danube begins at the two Brygeian Islands; there cannot be any doubt that in this poem the source of the Danube is in the region of the Alps. To argue that by Pyrene Herodotus must mean the chain of the Pyrenees is a perverse effort to make him appear absurd.
The course of the Danube was identified with the basic parallel 45°12’N, just as the course of the Nile was identified with meridian 31°24’E. The course of the Istros or Danube was identified with the segment of parallel extending for a distance of 21°36’ from the Western Axis of Egypt (29°50’E) to the Western Axis of Europe (8°24’E). The Danube actually extends to meridian 8°24’E, but reaches it at a point further north than parallel 45°12’E. The greatest difficulty in the mathematization of the geography of Europe was caused by the fact that parallel 45°12’N, which is both the middle parallel between the Equator and the Pole (with the usual displacement of 12’ to the north), and the middle parallel of Europe, coincides with the course of the Danube only from its mouth (at meridian 29°50’E) to the junction with the Sava at Belgrade (44°50’N, 20°30’E). From this point the real Danube, called Danuvius in order to avoid confusion, runs to its sources on meridian 8°24’E in a more northerly direction. The fact that at times the ancients distinguish the upper course of the Danube, as Danuvius, from its lower course, as Istros, results from an effort at accuracy and not from gross ignorance, as it is assumed. The name Istros was reserved to that body of water that can be identified with parallel 45°12’N. Strabo reports (III. 213) that the name of Istros used to be applied to that part of the Danube beginning from the Iron Gates. This was perfectly sensible, since the Iron Gates are a fundamental breaking point on the course of the Danube and are not much to the east of Belgrade, where the river takes a turn toward the north. Beyond Belgrade the Istros as a mathematical line was apparently identified with a trade route that followed the Sava to Istria and the Adriatic Sea.
On the opposite side of the Adriatic Sea the course of the Istros was assumed to be continued by the Padus or Po.6 Ideally the Padus or Po extended to meridian 8°24’E, where it was continued to the north by the Ticino, flowing along the meridian. From the point of view of mathematical geography the Po and the Ticino formed a single entity, at times referred to as the Padus.7
Since there was a displacement to the north in the geography of Europe, consisting in the displacement of the real sources of the Danube to a point on meridian 8°24’E which is 2°42’ north of the parallel 45°12’N, the hub of Europe was identified with a point which is on meridian 8°24’E, exactly at the middle of the distance between the ideal and the real sources of the Danube: today this area is known as the Furka.8 It is on the basic meridian at a latitude 46°33’N, exactly halfway between 45°12’N and 47°54’N. This point had the virtue of being the true center of Europe from the angle of hydrography and orography. Every modern geographer would agree in putting the middle point of the chain of the Alps in this area.
The Furka is significant because it connects the most important river valleys and basic ancient trade routes of Europe. On the west of the Furka are the sources of the Rhone, formed by the Rhone Glacier on the south side of the Dammastock. On the east side of the Furka, beyond the Oberalp, begins the river Reuss, which I shall show is the ancient Eridanos. The Rhone, the Danube, and the Rhine were conceived as tied together by the course of the Reuss. Hence the Reuss was identified with the imaginary river Eridanos which represents meridian 8°24’E.
Meridian 8°24’E marked the westernmost limit of the Oikoumene; to the Greeks it was known as the River Eridanus, a mythical entity which divides our quarter of the world from Hesperia, the realm of the dead. Ovid makes clear that Phaethon fell in this place because it represents the extreme west:
Whom, at the maximum arc of distance from his native place,
The tomb of Phaethon was conceived to be in the area of the Furka pass, an area that has always been considered the core of the chain of the Alps. Mount Damma was properly conceived as the center of the Alps and the navel of the geography of Europe.
The massif that forms the northern side of the Furka, whose highest peak is the Dammastock (46°38’N, 8°26’E), was known as Solis columna, Column of the Sun.10 In a scholium to Dionysos’ Periegesis it is called the bank of Helios.11 It marks the origin of the River Eridanus, beyond whose banks the Sun passes out of the Oikoumene, into the Western quarter of the globe. The Column of the Sun was the counterpart of the Pillar of the Sky in Africa. In describing Africa, Herodotus mentions the Pillar of the Sky which is at the Tropic at longitude 6°48’E (1°36’ beyond meridian 8°24’E) adding beyond this point my knowledge fails. (IV 185) For Herodotus the mapped earth has the same limits as those indicated by the poem Argonautica of Apollonius: the Pillar of the Sky in Africa and the Column of the Sun in Europe. This conforms to an original cosmology by which the western limit of the Oikoumene went from the island of Thule at latitude 63°00’N to the territory of Atlantis at the mouth of the equatorial Nile.
After leaving the Furka the Reuss flows in an east-west direction through the valley of Urseren, which is about 10 miles long and a mile wide. The north side of this valley is formed by the massif of the Dammastock and the south side by the San Gottardo. At the middle of the San Gottardo massif, which extends from the Furka to the Oberalp, is the San Gottardo pass, on the south side of which is the source of the Ticino. The north side of the San Gottardo pass, at the middle point of the valley, gives rise to another branch of the Reuss, called Gottharder Reuss. To the east the Urseren Valley is closed by the Oberalp, on which there is a pass on whose western side are the sources of the Rhine.
The river Reuss was considered the key to the geography of Europe because it joined together all the important rivers of Europe, the Danube, the Rhone, the Ticino-Po, and the Rhone, and because it provided the missing link between the sources of the last three of them and the sources of the Danube. After opening its way through the gorge Schöllenen, cut into an extension of the massif of the Dammastock, the Reuss flows north along meridian 8°24’E. It passes through the heart of Switzerland and the locations of Swiss national legends. The Reuss forms the peculiar fjord-like Lake Uri which becomes the Lake of the Four Cantons. It leaves this lake at Luzern (47°03’N, 8°17’E), passing under a medieval bridge, the Spreuerbrücke, on which there is appropriately painted a Dance of the Dead, since the Eridanos and meridian 8°24’E marks the limit of the realm of the dead. A remarkable sight in this part of the lake and of the Reuss is the great number of waterfowls and wild ducks; there is a possibility that these birds may explain Strabo’s reference (V, I, 9) to guinea-fowls at the mouth of the Eridanos. Finally, at the location Vindonissa (the present Windisch), the major city of Switzerland in Roman times, the waters of the Reuss merge with those of the Aar, which also originates from the massif of the Dammastock, to flow within a few miles into the Rhine, at a point downstream from the Rheinfall.
In the area of Oberalp the Reuss makes a sharp turn to the north where it hits an extension of the of the Dammastock massif. It opens its way through it by a narrow channel and then falls dramatically into a deep gorge called Krachental, Valley of the Roar or Valley of the Crush, one of the most remarkable sights of Switzerland. The gorge together with the mountains the surround it is called Schöllenen, a term that one has tried to explain by the Latin scaliones, rocky steps, but which I would rather connect with the German verb schollen, to fall with a thud. It has to be noticed that the ancient name of San Gottardo is Mons Tremulus, a name preserved today in the valley that descends from its south side, Val Tremola. It is reported that the latter name means Valley of the Upset in the local dialect, and it may be a reference to the catastrophe of Phaethon.
Today the Schöllenen gorge is crossed by a bridge called Teufelsbrücke, the Devil’s Bridge. The turbulence of the water in the gorge is so great that a spray fills the gorge like a cloud that reaches the height of the bridge. According to local legend, only the Devil could construct the bridge and, having built it, he lay in wait for the soul of the first man who would cross it. This legend renders in Christian terms the notion that the bridge linked our world with the world beyond the limit of the Oikoumene, the realm of the dead. Swiss historians have debated with eagerness the question of when the Teufelsbrücke was built, whether at the beginning of the thirteenth century A.D., or, as some claim, at the beginning of the previous century, because the building of this bridge changed the isolated valley of the Reuss into a route of international traffic, bringing prosperity and national consciousness to those who lived on the Lake of the Four Cantons. It seems that the Teufelsbrücke did not exist during the Roman Empire, but it must have existed earlier, as the myths indicate.
This gorge and this bridge has been celebrated in several works of modern European literature, without knowing that this locality was already mentioned in the Argonautica of Apollonius. The Argo reaches the source of the Rhone from the Adriatic Sea by sailing up the Eridanos to a place where the waters are furiously agitated and send up a great cloud of steam, because they are trying to quench the flames of the body of Phaethon, fallen from the chariot of the Sun (IV 595-600). According to both Apollodorus and Ovid around the place where Phaethon fell there are the Heliades or Daughters of the Sun, whose tears for their brother give origin to the great rivers. By immoderately weeping around the fallen body of their brother Phaethon, the Heliades were transformed into trees. The Heliades and these trees represented the sources of the main rivers of Europe, which cluster around the sources of the Eridanos. Ovid in the line that follows the two just mentioned refers to the Heliades as Naiades Hesperiae, water nymphs of the West. I have pointed out how the concept of the extreme West is connected with meridian 8°24’E. Their names are Phaethusa and Lampetie. According to Homer, Odysseus and his companions encounter Phaethusa and Lampetie, daughters of the Sun-Titan Hyperion, just after passing through the gorge of Scylla and Charybdis. These nymphs live on the island of the sun-god, where the sheep of the sun graze. The island of the sun in the vicinity of this gorge corresponds to the area of the Column of the Sun. That Apollonius was referring to this locality is made explicit in the Odyssey. Circe, in describing to Odysseus the route through the gorge of the clashing rocks refers to the Argo as the only vessel that ever sailed and got through. The higher of the two rocks is the home of Scylla, a name still heard in the modern name of the gorge, Schöllenen. The rock of Scylla is the Dammastock, or Column of the Sun. Homer describes it as an actual column, which
reaches heaven and its peak is lost in a dark cloud. This never leaves it, so that the top is never clear not even in summer and early autumn. No man, though he had twenty hands and twenty feet, could get a foothold on it and climb it, for it runs sheer up, as smooth as though it had been polished.
The geodetic point of the Column of the Sun was placed at Mount Damma, because physical geographic features pointed to that area, but ideally the point which represents the extreme west should have been placed at 45°12’N 8°24’E. This is the reason why Ptolemy places the common termins of the Alps and the Adulas at this latitude. For this reason Pliny (III 117) places Phaethon’s punishment place in the Eridanos identified by him with the Padus or Po; Ovid (Metamorphoses II 47) lets Phaethon fall into the Padus. Apollonius in the Argonautica combines the Rhinefall with the rapids of the Schöllenen. The ship Argo, coming from the Danube, enters the Eridanos where it spreads out into a limne of great depth (IV. 599). From the wording of the mentioned passage of Strabo it can be gathered that this is a reference to the swamp that begins at the Rheinfall. Possibly Apollonius confused the description of the Schöllenen with that of the Rheinfall, or perhaps he is rather suggesting that such confusion should be avoided. He describes the disturbance of the waters at the point where Phaethon fell as being caused also by the mingling of the waters of the Eridanos (which is the Reuss) with the Rhone (VI. 629). Hence, he seems to be speaking of the area of the Column of the Sun. But then he says that from that commotion of the waters they began to follow a river, believing it to be the Rhone; but it would have led them into the gulf of Oceanos, which in ignorance they were about to enter (VI. 639). They were saved by the goddess Hera screaming to them from the Hercynian rock (VI. 640), that is, from the area of the Rheinfall. The Argonauts retraced their way in order to enter the Rhone correctly. Possibly in the geographic poems that constitute the antecedents of the Argonautica of Apollonius, a wrong turn at the Rheinfall was used as a literary device in order to introduce the description of the course of the Rhine.
On the opposite side is the whirlpool of Charybdis. Odysseus is advised to shout the name of Scylla’s mother Krataiis as his ship passes through the narrow channel. The names Charybdis and Krataiis may be connected with the name Krachenthal. The Krachental marks the eastern end of the massif of Mount Damma.
Phaethon was understood to have fallen at the foot of the Column of the Sun because it marked the extreme west. According to Apollonius the commotion of the waters where the Eridanos is conceived as joining the Rhone was at the earth’s end where there are the gates to the enclosure of Night (IV 629-630). This is explained by the fact that the meridian 8°24’E was considered the limit of the Oikoumene.
The ancients were concerned with bringing the real sources of the Danube in close conceptual connection with the valley of Urseren, that is, with the sources of the Rhone, the Ticino-Po and the Rhine. They achieved this by exploiting two aspects of the physical reality.
On leaving the area of the Column of the Sun, beginning at the pass Oberalp, the Rhine makes a wide semicircular movement to the east, passes through Lake Constance, and comes very close to the sources of the Danube, where it falls into cascades called the Rheinfall. These cascades of the Rhine are the greatest waterfall of Europe. It is at this point that the Rhine becomes navigable. The point Rheinfall (47°42’ 8°36’E) was considered a new beginning of the Rhine. It was an ancient conception that at waterfalls a river has a new beginning, as is well illustrated by the notion that the Nile begins at the Little Cataract. From the Rheinfall the Rhine moves west up to Basel, where it makes a 90° turn to the north. Hence, schematically, the Rhine was conceived as moving north along meridian 8°24’E. It actually moves along this meridian from Karlsruhe to Mainz (50°00’N, 8°16’E), crossing meridian 8°24’E at latitude 49°12’N, near Gemersheim, the Vicus Iulius of the Romans. At the Rheinfall the Rhine is quite close to the source of the Danube at the point Pyrene. The ancients conceived that the water of the Rhine was the same as that of the Danube, which is the mythical way of expressing the concept that Danube and Rhine form a simple geographical line and a single line of communication. These two rivers were chosen as the European boundary of the Roman Empire.
The ancients tended to merge the entire stretch from Donaueschingen to the confluence of the Ticino with the Po, for the mentioned reason that the parallel of the Danube is 45°12’N, whereas the physical Danube originates almost three degrees to the north at Donauschingen, the Pyrene of Herodotus and the Brygeian Islands of Apollonius. However, it was more practical to assume that the Danube originates in the area of the Column of the Sun together with the Ticino-Po, the Rhone, and the Rhine, and for this reason the ancients merged into one entity the area Rheinfall-Donaueschingen with the area of the Column of the Sun or Dammastock. The geographer Mela (II, 5, 79) asserts: Rhodanus non longe ab Histri Rhenique fontibus surgit. The entire stretch of meridian from the Adulas or Furka to Pyrene was merged conceptually into a single point.Today we identify the sources of the Danube with the point where two streams called Brigach and Pregen (or Brege) join together at Donaueschingen (47°58’N, 8°30’E). But the ancients must have placed the source of the Danube, called by them Pyrene, at the southernmost point of the course of the Pregen, the southern of the two streams, in order to place it as close as possible to the Rhine and on meridian 8°24’E. The point Pyrene was at 47°54’N, 8°24’E, near the village of Hüfingen (47°56’N, 8°30’E). This is the point where the Pregen acquires substance by being joined by another small stream.
In terms of mathematical geography, the sources of the Danube at 47°54’N 8°24’E were at the perfect longitude, but were 12’ too far north in latitude. The Rheinfall was at the perfect latitude 47°42’N (twice the latitude of the Tropic, 23°51’N), but was 12’ too far to the east. The slight deviation of the physical reality from the ideal pattern was remedied by assuming the existence of a geodetic square with sides of 12’, of which the NW angle is the source of the Danube and the SE angle is the Rheinfall.
It was assumed that the geodetic square corresponded to an underground swamp in which the water of the Danube mingled with those of the Rhine.12 I have already pointed out that geodetic squares or geodetic rectangles correspond to the practice followed by navigators up to modern times to follow meridians and parallels when they needed to achieve mathematical precision in their navigations.
Strabo refers to the geodetic square linking the sources of the Danube with the Rheinfall, taken as source of the Rhine, in these terms (VII, 1, 3):
The Hercynian Forest is not only rather dense but has also large trees, closing a large round area with a circle of impassable places. But in the middle of it there is a country well fitted for human habitation. Near it there are the sources of both the Istros and the Rhine, and between the two the lakes13 and the swamps into which the Rhine spreads. The perimeter of the lake is more than three hundred stadia, whereas the passage across is nearly two hundred.
The ideal swamp which Strabo took for a real lake and came to identify with Lake Constance, is a square with sides of 12’ or 140 stadia, by the stadium of 700 to the degree. Hence Strabo, reckoning that the distance along the diagonal from the Rheinfall to the sources of the Danube is the square root of two x 140 stadia = 200 stadia, concluded that one would go 200 stadia by sailing across the lake or more than 280 stadia by walking along the shores.
The Romans gave the name of Hercynian Forest to the mountains of Germany, but earlier the name applied to an area further south.14 The substance of what Strabo’s source meant is clear when we consider that most of the land south of the Rhine is relatively barren country with the exception of Aargau (the lower course of the Reuss) and the Thurgau (the area to the SW of Lake Constance), which have always been the grain-producing part of Switzerland and where today the greatest part of the Swiss population lives. If we center a compass on the Rhinefall, a first semicircle south of the Rhine delimits the more fertile part of Switzerland and the wider circle marks the line of the Alps and of the Jura.
The same information is reported by Aristotle in support of the notion that the largest rivers flow from the highest mountains (Meteorologica 350A). In order to refute the contrary opinion and prove his view, he begins by referring to the sources of the Danube and of the Rhine, which he calls Tartessos (350B):
Later I will deal with this text in detail, but here it is enough to point out that Aristotle and Strabo must have drawn from the same source. The source of Aristotle and Strabo must have criticized the conception that makes all the important rivers of Europe flow from a single peak, known as the Column of the Sun.
The lower course of the Danube was identified with the basic parallel 45°12’N. Mythology indicates that the river Istros was conceived as reaching the Adriatic Sea in the area called Istria, to be continued by the Po up to meridian 8°24’E, where the water line turned north in the form of the river Ticino. Hence, ideally the hub of Europe should have been point 45°12’N, 8°24’E. Strabo (IV, 6, 9):
The fact that the text of Strabo appears ungrammatical suggests that he misunderstood his source. It must be kept in mind that for the ancients a limne was a point where the water of a river goes underground to reappear somewhere else. The source of Strabo must have assumed that the water of the Danube flowed into the Rhine, the two rivers being linked by a limne, which would be placed on the far side of the Rhine, that is, on the north side. Strabo identified this limne with a mountain between the...
Since according to classical scholars the Rheinfall is never mentioned by ancient authors, this has caused bewilderment among some educated people, who not being initiated into the arcana of professional classical studies, cannot believe that the Greeks and Romans could have ignored one of the most important and impressive landmarks of Europe. Hence the notion developed that the Rheinfall did not exist before the early Middle Ages and various geological explanations have been offered for its late formation.
It must be granted that the references to the Rheinfall are not clear, because ancient authors tend to merge the Rheinfall, on one side, with the sources of the Danube, and, on the other, with the sources of the Rhine near the sources of the Rhone.
For Ptolemy the area north of latitude 45°12’ along meridian 8°24’E (= 30°P), is a key reference point. He places the common termins of the Alps and the Adulas at 45°15’N 29°30’ P. By 45°15’N he means 45°12’N, since his figures are always rounded to multiples of 5’. He places the origin of the Rhine at 46°N 29°20’E near the Adulas mountains. He places the source of the Danube at 46°20’N 30°P, adding that the Alps are to the north of it, extending from 47°N 29°P to 48°30’N 33°P. but he declares that the boundary of Raetia is formed to the west by the Adulas mountains and the tract that lies between the source of the Rhine and that of the Danube... and to the south by the Alps mountains that extend above Italy, of which those parts near Graiai have position 45°20’N 30°P.
It is significant that Ptolemy provides little positional information concerning the area about Switzerland beyond what I have quoted. Perhaps his source of information was a text of mathematical geography that explained the significance of meridian 30°P in the area; possibly he derived from the same text the information about Thule at the extreme north of this meridian and about the territory of Atlantis at the extreme south. As far as Atlantis is concerned, I have concluded that Ptolemy drew on the source followed by Plato.
Meridian 8°24’E explains the mystery of the river Eridanos. Since it is said that the Eridanos has its source in the Column of the Sun (Dionysos, Periegesis 290) it can be identified with the Reuss which moves north along this meridian and joins the Rhine, through a brief stretch of te Aare, to the west of the Rheinfall. To the south the Reuss is continued, south of the Gottardo pass, by the Ticino which flows into the Po. This explains why the Eridanos came to be identified with the Po. In the Argonautica of Apollonius the ship Argo ascends the Danube up to the Brygeian Islands (IV 330), that is, to the source of the Danube; from there they reached the sacred island Elektris, the northernmost of the many islands near the river Eridanos (IV 505-506). This island can be readily identified with Jutland and particularly the west coast of this peninsula which was the great souce of amber in prehistoric times.
Apollonius relates that the tears of the Daughters of the Sun originate the amber which is carried downstream by the current of the Eridanos. Strabo mentions a version by which the Heliades were changed into weeping willows (V, I, a), trees that are properly associated with the sources of a river. But according to Pliny (III ~~~), around the source of the Padus there are many pine trees which exhude the resin that carried downstream becomes amber. This is a more realistic version of the story of the tears of the Heliades, since amber is a fossilized resin. According to Strabo, at the mouth of the Danube there is an island called Penke, that is, pine in Greek. Apparently the explanation for the origin of amber was traced to the sources of the several rivers that converge into the Eridanos and the Column of the Sun. According to Pliny, amber is found at the mouth of the Po.
There can be no doubt that the geodetic system built around the meridian 8°24’E and the geodetic point Dammastock, is connected with the amber routes which were the main trade lines of Europe in prehistoric times. Eric Herbert Warnington declares, in one of the few reasonable statements ever made about the river Eridanos: The description of the Eridanos as an amber-river may embody the memory of an early amber route from Jutland up the Elbe and Rhine and down to the Rhone and across the Alps to north Italy.
Because of its connection with amber a number of German scholars have identified the Eridanos with the Elbe. Karl von Maack asserted: There is no doubt that the Elbe was the Eridanos. But the Eridanos is not to be identified with the Elbe, although it is a mathematical line that cuts through the mouth of the Elbe. Strabo preserves a reference to this mathematical line, although he does not fully understand his source, when he reports (VII 1, 4): The Rhine is about three thousand stadia distant from the Elbe, if one could find roads . . .The Eridanos is meridian 8°24’E which indicates the direction of the amber route from the western shore of Jutland and the estuary of the Elbe to the heart of Europe which was indicated by the Column of the Sun. The term Eridanos refers to a mythical concept, a river of the extreme west; the noun was applied to an infernal river and to real rivers in several parts of the earth. But in the texts that concern us here it was applied to the Reuss and to its geographical extensionsto the south, Ticino-Po and to the north, Elbe. This explains why in the Argonautica of Apollonius the ship Argo ascends the Danube up to the Brygeian Islands, moves north to the Isle of Amber, and then all the way south into the Adriatic Sea to ascend again the Eridanos to the sources of the Reuss and the Rhone. From there it descends the Rhone to the Mediterranean; after crossing the Mediterranean it moves across Africa along meridian 6°48’E.
There is an extremely large body of literature on the subject of the river Eridanos, a supposedly mysterious stream,which has the purpose of proving that up to about the time of Caesar’s Gallic Wars the Greeks and the Romans had the most distorted and contradictory notions about the geography of Europe, particularly on what concerns the area of the Alps. The grandparents of Catullus, Vergil, and Livy would have had such confused notions about the land in which they lived that they must be presumed not to have belonged to the species homo sapiens because even the most primitive humans have notions about routes, trails, and river lines.
In reality the numerous references to the river Eridanos that occur in Greek literature as early as Hesiod (Theog. 338) are in substantial agreement and not difficult to interpret. In concrete terms, this means that the trade route went west up the Po as far as the confluence of the Ticino and then followed the course of this river towards the north. From fragments of the tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides one gathers that they saw the Eridanos as being continued by the Rhone. The concept of Eridanos in a way made one entity of the Po and the Rhone. According to Ovid (Metam. II 258, 323, 369) the fall of Phaethon causes both the Po and the Rhone to dry up.
Because the fall of Phaethon was localized specifically in the gorge Schöllenen, it is the Reuss that has the greatest claim to be identified with the Eridanos. But since the Eridanos essentially is a mathematical line, Herodotus (III, 115) doubts its existence, as he doubts the existence of the equatorial Nile, which is a mathematical line to which the River Congo and the estuary Gabon give concrete existence.
The matter of the river Eridanos can be further clarified by considering the etymology of the term. I would suggest that the term is derived from the root of the English ferry, fare, ford, the German fahren, the Latin portus, and the Greek poros, passage, ferry, means of communications. In Celtic the initial p- is lost. The notion of Eridanos may have originally stressed the notion that there was a way to pass from the course of the Danube, the Rhine, the Rhone, or the Ticino-Po to any of the other rivers; but the Eridanos may have become first known to the Greeks in the form of Po, since for them the Adriatic Sea was the easiest way of access to the center of Europe.
All the nonsense that has been written on the river Eridanos could have been spared if classical scholars had bothered to glance at a map of Switzerland. But Switzerland is not popular with classical scholars, being a country of practical, realistic, egalitarian and democratic people.15 The national myths about the origin of Swiss independence are derivations of the old myths concerning the Eridanos. In the last century scholars of the critical school were delighted to point out that these myths are not the national property of the Swiss, but are common themes of other mythologies, particularly of Scandinavia. But the fact that these myths occur in other parts of the world does not disprove that they should be properly localized on the valley of the Reuss. The story of Wilhelm Tell as boatman contains elements of the myth of Charon. The story of the marksman hitting the apple without error has to do with the founding of a geodetic point on a globe.
When the poet Schiller wrote his famous tragedy William Tell, he was as sympathetic to the Swiss spirit as the classicists are hostile. Hence, he grasped the spirit of the legends. In the very first lines of the play the song of the fisher-boy makes clear that we are at the edge of the realm of the dead. At the very end Schiller, with his poetic insight, added the strange episode of the parricide who is chased by the Furies away from human society because of the sin of blood that stains his hands. He is told that he can be saved if he can cross the Teufelbrücke over the Reuss:
Schiller, whom I took the liberty of quoting in a literal translation, drew his inspiration from the Swiss legends, but writes as if he had had in mind the ancient myths about the Eridanos.
Finally, in the matter of the importance of the Eridanos in Swiss history, it may be called to attention that according to legend the Swiss Confederacy came into existence through an agreement between the Swizers coming from Scandinavia and the people of Uri and Unterwalden coming as Roman colonists. This legend reflects the fact that meridian 8°24’E, the meridian of the Reuss, links Scandinavia with Italy.
Strabo, for instance, once refers correctly to Mount Adula as the Dammastock by saying (IV, 6, 6):
Because of the similarity of names between Mount Adula and the river Addua or Adda, Strabo mentions this river instead of the Ticino which flows into Lago Maggiore. Strabo also reports:
As for the country that is on the Rhine, the first of all the people who live there are the Helvetii, on whose territory, on Mount Adula, there are the sources of the river. Mount Adula is a part of the Alps, from which on the opposite side, towards Cisalpine Celtica, there flows the Adda, which fills Lake Lario (near which the city of Comum has been founded) and then from there goes to contribute its waters to the Po, as I shall explain later. The Rhine, too, spreads into great swamps and a great Lake. . . .
The text of Strabo does not leave any doubt that at the last point he is speaking of Lake Constance. Strabo reports also (III 163) that the Rhine has its sources near the Hercynian Forest, where the Danube also has its sources.
But because ideally the Danube moves along parallel 45°12’, the Padus or Po was conceived as the continuation of the Danube. This is the reason why in the myth of the Argonauts the navigation up the Danube leads to the Po. This was a region at the north of the Adriatic Sea called Istria. This is the reason why Pula (44°52’N, 13°50’E) is said to have been founded by the Argonauts (Strabo I, 2, 39; V, 1, 9). The harbor of Pula, being 16°00’ west of the mouth of the Danube, may have been considered a geodetic point. But since the correct latitude is slightly to the north, the name of Istria is given to the coast that extends from Pola to the north (Strabo V, 1, 9).
After mentioning the foundation of Pola, Strabo, who does not understand mathematical geography, reports:
Some also say that Jason and his companions sailed up the Istros for a long distance, whereas others says that he sailed up as far as the Adriatic Sea. The former speak in ignorance of these regions; the latter also say that there is a river Istros which branches off the great Istros and empties into the Adriatic Sea.
The course of the Istros, taken as moving along parallel 45°12’N, must also have been identified with the Adige which near its mouth runs along this parallel. Strabo reports (IV, 6, 9):
Above the land of the Larni there is a Mount Atesinos in which there is a lake that issues forth into the river Atagis, which after having received another river, the Isarkas, empties into the Adriatic Sea. But from the same lake there comes also another river that flows into the Istros, which is called Atesinos.
Strabo had difficulty in reconciling two statements about the same river, the one called Adige today, which was called Atagis in one of his sources, and Atesinos in another, because he could not understand how the Adige could be said to flow into the Istros.
Modern scholars follow the view of Strabo and accuse the ancients of ineptness for having spoken of a river Istros that moves along parallel 45°12’N.
Ptolemy distinguishes the Alps which run from east to west from a chain of mountains called Adulas which run perpendicularly to along meridian 8°24’E = 30°P. According to one datum, the common terminus of the Alps and of the Adulas are at 45°15’N, 29°30’ P ; this means that Mount Damma is placed on the parallel Danube-Po, but its longitude is correctly placed slightly to the west of 8°24’E. In a similar spirit he reports that the boundary of Rhaetia is formed to the west of the Adulas mountains and the tract that lies between the source of the Rhine and that of the Danube.... and to the south by the Alp mountains which extend above Italy, of which those parts near Graiai have position 45°20’N 30°P.
Apparently he assumes that the Rhine originates near Mount Damma and there is a line linking its sources with the sources of the Danube, which is also the western boundary of Raetia. Accordingly, he places the source of the Rhine at 46°N, 29°20’ P near the Adulas mountains, which are obviously Mount Damma. The Rhine can be conceived as originating in the area of Mount Damma or as originating at the Rheinfall, in which case it originates 38’ south of the sources of the Danube at Donauschingen. Ptolemy places the sources of the Rhine at 46°N 29°20’ P according to the first location, but calculates the sources of the Danube as placed at 46°20’N 30°P, according to the distance between Donaueschingen and the Rheinfall. Having confused the position of the area of Mount Damma with the Rheinfall, Ptolemy uses the latter to locate the Alps and places them from 47°N 29°P to 48°30’N 33°P.
All the positional data that Ptolemy provides for the area of Switzerland are based on meridian 8°24’E which for him is 30°P. But he misunderstood the information, because he confused the sources of the Rhine at the point Adulas with the sources of the Rhine at the point Rheinfall.
Ptolemy’s source or sources of information must have mentioned the L-shaped line formed by parallel 45°12’N and its continuation to the north by meridian 8°24’E. It must have also mentioned the point Adulas as placed on the same meridian, explaining that a parallel drawn through it marks the main line through it. It must have also mentioned that the L-shaped line formed by this line of the Alps with the segment of meridian from the Adulas to the sources of the Danube, marks the boundary of Rhaetia. Ptolemy confused the first L-shaped line with the first, with the result that he placed the Adulas and the line of the Alps on parallel 45°12’N (rounding the figure to 45°15’ as usual). Ptolemy places the common terminals of the Alps and the Adulas at 45°15’N, 29°30’ P. He declares that the boundary of Rhaetia is formed to the west by the Adulas mountains and the tract that lies between the sources of the Rhine and that of the Danube . . . and to the south by the Alps mountains which extend above Italy; the parts of these mountains near Graiai have position 45°20’N 30°P. The description is correct except that the point Adulas and hence the chain of the Alps are placed 1°30’ too far south.
Ptolemy places the sources of the Rhone near the Adulas at 46°29°20’ P, providing data that are correct within half degree. But he places the sources of the Danube at 46°20’N, 30°P, placing them on the correct meridian, but placing them only 20’ north of the sources of the Rhone, because he confused the point Rheinfall with the point Schöllenen. Because he confused the area Rheinfall-sources of the Danube with the area Schöllenen-Adulas, Ptolemy declares that the Alps are north of the source of the Danube, extending from 47°N 29°P. to 48°30°N 33°P. The ancients had both practical and mathematical reasons for confusing the point Rheinfall, with the adjacent Pyrene or Donaueschingen, with the Column of the Sun and the adjacent sources of the Rhone, Reuss, Ticino-Po, and Rhine. I have already considered the practical reasons. In order to understand the mathematical reasons, we must keep in mind that the Column of the Sun is the counterpart of the Pillar of the Sky in Africa at the Tropic, or 23°51’N. The source of the Danube was considered the counterpart of the Island of the Gorgones at the Equator, which was the source of the Equatorial Nile. It was assumed that the Tropic passed through the Island of the Gorgones, being the hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle in whih one of the sides extends west by 23°51’ from the southern limit of Egypt along latitude 23°51’N. If the direction of the north-south side of this triangle is reversed, the triangle will reach the point Rheinfall which is at latitude 47°42’N (=2 x 23°51’). But I have shown that the reckoning of the position of the Island of the Gorgones ran into difficulties when one tried to be precise, since if the island is on meridian 8°24’E it is 23°00’ west of the main axis of Egypt and not 23°51’. But if the southern limit of Egypt is placed at latitude 23°00’, latitude of the Sacred Sycamore, one can count 23° east and 23° [west] to the Island of the Gorgones, placed at 0°00’N, 8°24’E. If one counts 23° to the east and 23° to the north, one reaches the position of Lake Maggiore, which can be considered the source of the Danube. Hence, the occurrence of the figure 46°N in the data of Ptolemy.
Beginning with the line of the Po, which was conceived as continuing the course of the Danube along parallel 45°12’N, meridian 8°24’E marks the course of the Ticino, the axis of Lake Maggiore, the pass of San Gottardo. The Ticino begins at the south side of the pass of San Gottardo; on its north side begins the river Reuss.
Having surveyed the entire extent of meridian 8°24’E from the Island of the Gorgones to Thule, we may return to the Rheinfall. This was an important geodetic point because it was at latitude 47°42’N. The ancients conceived of the line of the Ecliptic as being marked on the face of the Earth, as it is marked today in some globes. It was assumed that the line of the Ecliptic crossed parallel 23°51’N at the Tropic, at the southern limit of Egypt. The line of Ecliptic was understood to cut the Equator at the bight of Biafra or territory of Atlantis. The intersection of the Ecliptic with the Tropic was the Island of the Gorgones. Since the intersection of the Ecliptic with the Tropic was placed on the Main Axis of Egypt at longitude 31°14’E, the corresponding intersection at the Equator was placed either 23°51’ east at the eastern end of the island São Tomé, or 23°00’ east on meridian 8°24’E. The figure of 23°00’ was arrived at by taking into account the fact that in actual distance the segment of meridian between the Equator and the Tropic corresponds to about 23°00’ of longitude.
If beginning with the point 23°51’N, 31°14’E, the line of the Ecliptic is drawn as perpendicular to the Ecliptic line just mentioned, that is, as moving to NW instead of SE, this line will cut meridian 8°24’E at latitude 47°42’N (two times 23°51’). Later I shall point out that Herodotus and Aristotle deal with this line in discussing the sources of the Danube. There was, however, a little difficulty in that the Rheinfall (47°42’N, 8°36’E) was at the right latitude, but 12’ east of the right longitude, whereas the source of the Danube at Pyrene (47°54 ‘N, 8°24’E) was at the right longitude but 12’ too far north in latitude. This difficulty was solved with the method usually employed when physical features do not correpond exactly with mathematical lines, that is, by constructing a geodetic square.
Ptolemy must have reasoned that ideally the intersection of the meridian with the Ligurian coast should have been at the northernmost point of the coast, that is, at Genova (44°24’N, 8°56’E); hence he placed Genova on meridian 30°P.
When Virgil describes the Elysian Fields, the most pleasant part of Hades, but also that closest to the exit, he identifies it as located (Aen. VI, 658-659): unde superne plurimus Eridani per silvam voluitur amnis below the place from which in the world above the abundant stream of the Eridanos flows amid the forest. The comparison of the unknown place below to a known and similar place above would not have any meaning if it did not refer to an identifiable place.
It is a vivid memory of my youth that the trains of the railroad linking Italy with the north through San Gottardo used to make, for no apparent reason, a long stop at the station Göschenen, which is at the lower limit of the gorge Schöllenen, and most of the passengers descended in an air of festivity to partake of milk, coffee, or Apfeltorte. Perhaps they were unconsciously repeating an ancient rite de passage similar to one that is still today followed when ships cross the Equator.
The figure of 3000 stadia is incorrect; but possibly one can arrive at what was the correct figure. Strabo (IV, 3, 3) after mentioning the marshes of the Rhine by which, as I explained earlier, he refers to the Rheinfall, criticizes Asinius Pollio for having said that the Rhine has a length of 6000 stadia, whereas it could only be slightly more than half of that, counting in a straight line.
. . . roads going in a straight line, but today one is obliged to move in a circle through marshy country and forests.Probably Asinius Pollio counted by stadia of 1111 to the degree: he meant 5°24’ from longitude to