The world is divided into innumerable islands and seven continents. These seven have Latinate names which were created various ways and which then were adopted and perpetuated by European mapmakers.
So, to start, how did these names of the three continents known to the ancient Western World come down to us: Europe, Africa and Asia? Are they autochthonous, pre—Hellenic goddesses, as Athena is to Athens? Mystère.
To begin with Europe itself, according to myth Europa was a Phoenician princess, the daughter of the King of Sidon. Disguised as a white bull, Zeus managed to whisk her off to Crete where he seduced her and then made her Queen of the island. Her name was first used as the name of the island and then came to designate the Greek speaking world and eventually the whole of Europe. She had three sons by Zeus. One was the Minos of the Labyrinth and Minotaur fame (the bull motif being important in the Minoan culture of Crete); one was Sarpedon whose descendant of the same name is a heroic warrior in the Iliad who is slain by Achilles; the third was Rhadamanthus who became a judge of the dead, in charge (according to Vergil) of punishing the unworthy.
The origin of the name Africa is subject to scholarly debate. The simplest theory is that it came from the name of a North African people known to the Carthaginians, themselves colonists from Phoenicia; from Carthage the name made its way into the Greco-Roman world.
The name Asia comes from Herodotus, the early Greek traveler and historian who in turn took it from the Hittite name Assuwa which simply designated the east bank of the Aegean Sea; in Herodotus’ usage, it meant the land to the east of the Greece and Egypt, notably Persia. It eventually came to mean the eastern part of the Eurasian land mass.
By the way, autochthonous was the winning word at the 2004 National Spelling Bee.
The four remaining continents were not known to the ancients but were charted and named as a result of voyages of discovery and mapmaking from 1490’s to the 1890’s, five hundred long years.
First, how is it that North America and South America are not named for Christopher Columbus, truly a mystère.
The continents of North and South America take their names from the feminine form America of the Latin version Americus of the first name of Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci famously wrote “I have found a continent” in a letter that was published in 1502 as a tract and entitled Novus Mundus in Latin. The appellation for South America was used as early as 1507 by the mapmaker Martin Waldseeműller and was later employed by cartographers for both continents, notably by Gerardus Mercator (of Mercator Projection fame).
This leads us to the question of how that next magnificent continent unknown to the European Old World got its name, viz. Australia. Was this the name the indigenous people gave to the land? Mystère.
In the ancient world, there was a widespread belief that the there must be masses of land south of the equator to balance all that land north of the equator. If you think of the world as flat, this makes sense – something has to keep it from tipping over. So in some sense these lands were “known” to the Greeks, Romans and later Europeans. In Latin borealis means northern and we have the aurora borealis (aka the Northern Lights); in Latin, australis means southern and in the Southern Hemisphere, we have the aurora australis (aka the Southern Lights). This belief in undiscovered southern lands persisted into the modern era and was promulgated by eminent mapmakers such as Mercator: in his famous globes and projections, the Southern Pacific contains a land mass labeled Terra Incognita Australis. Here is a link to a sample map of the era with a huge land mass in the south.
That there was, in fact, “new” land down under in the southern part of the Pacific was known to Western mariners and explorers from the 1500’s on. And, of course, the aboriginal Australians had been there for some 50,000 years making their culture the longest continuously lived culture in the world, by a lot. Portuguese explorers most likely reached Australia but it was on the Spanish side of the Line of Demarcation, that imaginary line drawn by Pope in 1493 (and revised in 1494) that divided the world between the two pioneering imperialist powers, Spain and Portugal. In the early 1600’s, the Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon encountered indigenous people in the Northwest; later in the 1640’s, working for the Dutch East India Company, Abel Tasman probed the western and southern coasts of Australia named the region New Holland, discovered Tasmania, then missed the left turn at Hobart and sailed on to New Zealand. The Dutch didn’t follow up on the charting of New Holland, presumably because the area lacked readily obtainable riches such as gold or spices and did not lend itself to European style agriculture and settlement.
Enter Captain Cook and his famous voyages to the South Seas with reports of albatrosses and other creatures, adventures that, in particular, inspired the Rime of the Ancient Mariner – although the grim myth of the albatross is of Coleridge’s own making. In 1770, Cook explored the South East coast of Australia, entered Sydney harbor at Botany Bay and named the area New South Wales. The colonization began in 1788.
It was in 1803 that a British navigator Matthew Flinders (who had sailed with Captain Bligh but luckily on the Providence, not on the Bounty) became the first European to circumnavigate the island continent and to establish that New Holland and New South Wales were both part of a single island land mass. He used the name Terra Australis on his charts and in his book, A Voyage to Terra Australis. And this later became simplified as Australia; as put by Flinders
“Had I permitted myself any innovation upon the original term, it would have been to convert it into AUSTRALIA; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.”
Just think, if Flinders had used his native English instead of Latin, Down Under would be called South-Land today!
And just think, if Flinders had sailed on the Bounty, Marlon Brando and Clark Gable would have played Mr. Flinders instead of Mr. Christian in the movie versions of Mutiny on the Bounty!
Last but not least (in area it is slightly bigger than Europe and Australia), there is the new continent of Antarctica. Did some mapmaker just coin it or does it have a history? Mystère.
The term Antarctica, meaning “the opposite of the Arctic,” does have a history going back at least to Aristotle. In maps and in literature, it was often used to designate a given “land to the South.” It was also used by Roman and medieval writers and mapmakers; even Chaucer wrote about the “antarctic pol” in a technical treatise he authored. Throughout the 19th century, expeditions, sealers and whalers from Russia, the United States and Great Britain probed ever further south; the felicitously named Mercator Cooper, who sailed out of Sag Harbor NY, is credited as the first to reach the Antarctic land mass in 1854. The first map known to use Antarctica as the name of the continent itself dates to 1890 and was published by the Scottish mapmaker John George Bartholomew. Bartholomew held an appointment from the crown and so used the title “Cartographer to the King”; this doubtless emboldened him to invoke cartographer’s privilege and name a continent, harking back to Waldseeműller and Mercator.