The Hollow Earth

The wonder of history lies in the fact that it is only available to us in fragments, tantalizing scraps that glimmer amidst the obscurity of the past.  Take, for example, this brief mention found in the letter of Pope Zachary to Boniface, the indomitable English missionary and destroyer of pagan oaks. For Boniface, the greatest threat to his mission were not the defenders of said oaks but wicked priests.  He is eternally complaining, prosecuting, and excommunicating these imperillers of his flock, typically for the mundane sins of adultery, murder, and failing to recognize that being a Christian priest requires one to stop being a pagan.  Yet, there are also unique cases, such as that of Virgilius, who (apparently) attempted to usurp one of the dioceses under Boniface’s care and, moreover, taught a “false and sinful doctrine” that “there is below this earth another world and other men, and also a sun and a moon.”1

Was Virgilius merely guilty of teaching that there were men living in the antipodes?2  The mention of another sun and moon seems to belie this.  Perhaps then he was a preacher of the Hollow Earth?  He was Irish after all, and the Irish had a rich tradition of a subterranean otherworld, the dwelling-place of the sídhe–fairies.  The Germans also had a tradition of underworld spirits, and we can easily imagine an Irish preacher appealing to this tradition as a piece of common ground, “now we all know about the fairies underground, don’t we?”  Or maybe it was both, the antipodes made accessible through the subterranean paths of the sídhe, a syncretic blend of cutting-edge medieval geography and Hiberno-German mythology?  (This last is obviously the best and most likely scenario).  In any case, Virgilius was apparently acquitted of teaching this pernicious doctrine–guilt would have necessitated his expulsion from the Church, Zachary tells us–and later became bishop of Salzburg and a saint in his own right.  I like to think this acquittal was not the result of him renouncing his belief or of Boniface misrepresenting his teaching, but rather canniness on the part of the Irish bishop, who remained dedicated to his belief in another world lying below our own, to subterranean paths that led to the far side of the earth, with other men and another sun, lurking in the caves of Thuringia.

 

1. Letter LXIV in the Emerton translation.
2. An issue because it was widely believed that the antipodes were inaccessible, thus making the Gospel command to preach to the whole world impossible.

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