Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler aboard Maggellan's journey, saw miracles in the new world. We had his report at home, two beautifully bound red volumes full of giants, cannibals, and chimerae. As a teenager I was amazed that direct observation can be so imaginative. Recently I came across similar examples in Tristes Tropique by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Columbus confused three suckling manatees with mermaids. The three mermaids raised their bodies above the surface of the water and, although they were not as beautiful as often depicted, their round faces were clearly human, Columbus wrote. Also in this time the cotton tree was described and drawn as a sheep tree, with woolly sheep as fruits, ready to be shorn. It was a lack of taste, writes Lévi-Strauss, the people then had no sense of the harmonious coherence of the universe. But an explorer with a sense of harmony would never have been able to discover the platypus or tapir, which even now appear to us as chimerae. As a child I must have had a sense of harmony. I used to feel certain that Formula 1 cars only existed on posters, Einstein was a cartoon character, and it was surely a fairy tale that the moon, so small and so far away, could lift up and drop the seas and oceans of this world.

© 2009–2023, Martijn Wallage