History of Allegory in Geography


Throughout the centuries, the use of allegory in geography has played a significant role in shaping our understanding of the world. Allegory, derived from the Greek word “allegoria” meaning “speaking figuratively”, is a literary device that uses symbolic representation to convey complex ideas or concepts. In geography, allegory has been used for various purposes, including political commentary, religious expression, and philosophical exploration. In this article, we will delve into the history of allegory in geography and explore its evolution and impact on the discipline.

The earliest examples of allegory in geography can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. These civilizations used allegorical symbols to represent features of their natural environment, such as the Nile River in Egypt being depicted as the god Hapi, the giver of life. These allegories were not only used for practical purposes, such as mapping out the land for navigation, but also served to convey religious beliefs and cultural ideas. For instance, the ancient Greeks believed that the Earth was divided into four distinct regions, each associated with an element and represented by a god or goddess. This notion of the “four corners of the Earth” was an allegory for the diversity of the world and the importance of balance.

During the Middle Ages, allegory in geography took on a more philosophical and spiritual role. This was largely influenced by the Christian Church, which used allegorical maps to represent the journey of the soul towards salvation. The famous “T and O” map, which depicted the world as a divided circle with Jerusalem at its center, was a powerful allegory for the spiritual journey towards the holy city. These allegorical maps also portrayed an ordered and hierarchical view of the world, with Jerusalem at the top and exotic lands at the fringes, reinforcing the Church’s belief in the superiority of Christianity.

The Age of Exploration saw a shift in the use of allegory in geography. As explorers ventured into unknown territories and brought back new knowledge and maps, allegory was used to make sense of this ever-expanding world. For example, the allegorical map “Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula”, created by Hendrik Hondius in 1613, depicted the known world as a woman, with her arms and legs representing the four continents. This allegory not only conveyed information about the shape and size of the continents, but also reflected cultural and societal views of femininity and the Eurocentric view of the world.

In the modern era, allegory in geography has taken on a more critical and political role. With the rise of imperialism and colonialism, maps were used as tools of power and control. Allegory was used to justify and perpetuate ideas of superiority, with maps portraying colonial territories as inferior and in need of “civilization”. This is evident in the allegorical maps used during the Scramble for Africa, which depicted African countries as empty spaces waiting to be filled by European powers.

In recent years, allegory in geography has also been used to raise awareness about social and environmental issues. For example, maps have been created to depict the impacts of climate change through allegorical symbols such as melting ice caps and rising sea levels. These maps serve as a powerful tool to communicate the urgency of these issues and the need for action.

In conclusion, the use of allegory in geography has evolved through time, reflecting the societal, cultural, and political contexts of each era. Despite its many uses and interpretations, allegory remains a valuable tool in the discipline of geography. It not only conveys information and knowledge, but also serves as a powerful means of expression and critique. As we continue to explore and map the world, allegory will undoubtedly continue to play a significant role in shaping our understanding of it.