Fernweh for Magellanica
Fernweh is what the Germans call that longing for faraway places, the poetic certainty that things are better elsewhere. But there is a superlative degree of geographic desire, a Fernweh even more sublime: the ache for fictional faraway places. Of such nonexistent locations, the mythical continent of Magellanica surely is the crowning glory. By rights of pedigree and size, it should be the most prominent of of phantom lands. Yet Magellanica is as absent from the imagination as it is from contemporary maps - those prosaic projections of mere topographic fact.
Magellanica has had many names and shapes, and regularly occupied large swathes of the southern hemisphere on world maps from the 15th to the 18th century. The most fantastic climates, cities and costumes were attributed to her. But most cartographers shied away from focusing on this hypothetical, as yet to be discovered continent. Conventionally, it is shown as an upside-down curtain, arbitrarily undulating upward from the South Pole, which in the projection popularised by Mercator is smeared out along the entire bottom of the map. However, this map, from Petrus Bertius’ Tabularum Geographicarum Contractarum (1616) audaciously places the entirely imaginary continent at the centre of the map.
The continent is labelled Magallanica, sive Terra Australis Incognita: ‘Magellan’s Land, a.k.a. the Unknown Southern Land’. The name of the Portuguese explorer was attached to the hypothetical continent because he supposedly skirted it in 1519, but the putative existence of a large mass of land in the southern hemisphere had been posited by Aristotle (4th century BC) and elaborated by Ptolemy (1st century AD).
You read those dates right: the idea that the Earth was a sphere was much more common in Antiquity (and even throughout the Middle Ages) than one might think. But the idea that the ‘Arctic’ continents on the northern hemisphere needed an ‘Ant(i)arctic’ counterweight on the planet’s southern half was based on a false analogy, and the bitter disputes about whether those places were habitable, or their inhabitants doomed, sound completely nuts these days.