Magellan was commissioned for his world journey by Charles V who was also widely seen as the Universal Emperor of the Last Days. The millenarian aspects of the age of exploration have their roots in the old motif of the "Hidden King."
The Hidden King theme is related to similar motifs like the "sleeping king/god", "lost king/brother", and the messiah of lowly origins who often has a secret or lost lineage.
In India, the Narayana mythology of the sleeping god that awakens periodically to save the world is a well-developed version of this theme.
A very old example of the motif is the serpent king of Punt who appears and disappears on a hidden moving island. The "hidden island" also occurs in latter beliefs of the Hidden Imam in Shi'ism and the Ilha Encuberta of Joachimite-inspired beliefs. The Hidden King takes recluse on this island or in a cave, fortress, etc., or dissimulates among the populace until the appointed time of the last days. In other cases, he is born/reborn and raised among the peasants unaware of his destiny and/or high origin until a sudden or gradual revelation occurs.
Ancient Chinese prophecies tell of a savior with the surname Li, the surname of the sage Laozi, who would arise at times of crisis. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, the imperial family claimed that the future Mingwang or Luminous King would arise from their line and would have their own surname Zhu.
Messiahs with the surnames Li and Zhu have sprung up periodically including in modern times with the founder of the Falun Gong movement, Li Hongzhi.
In the Old Testament and in Rabbinic Judaism, the idea of the Hidden Messiah was well-developed. Joachim of Fiore, a Cistercian abbot appears to have absorbed some of these and other "Oriental" influences when he experienced a "conversion" on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
His apocalyptic writings set the stage for late medieval European millenarianism and had much in common with Jewish and converso millenarianism, and also the cyclic thinking of Albumasar. Belief arose in a Pastor Angelicus, an Angelic Pope (Papa Angelico) and/or the Last World Emperor who would come during the latter times to reconquer Jerusalem just prior to the Second Coming.
In Iberia, the Last World Emperor became known as Rey Encubierto or Rei Encuberto, "Hidden King," and El Murcielago "the Bat." This coming monarch would conquer the Antichrist, who would also arise in Spain, defeat the Muslims and establish a worldwide empire. Spain with its heavy milieu of Muslim millenarian thinking as represented by Albumasar and Jewish/converso apocalyptic thought was ripe for messianic revival.
By the late 15th century, it became popular to think of Ferdinand of Spain as the Encubierto. The Marquis of Cadiz wrote a letter to the high nobles of Castille in 1486 revealing to them the "true" identity of Ferdinand:
"...there will be nothing in this world capable of resisting him...because he is the Hidden One.. and he will subdue all the nations from sea to sea...and he will not only be an Emperor, but he will be monarch of all the world."
To this end, we may find some of the more esoteric motivations for Ferdinand's sponsorship of Columbus and his voyages. The Encubierto was by necessity of connection with earlier prophetic traditions a King of the East (ab ortu solis), an Emperor of the Indies. In earlier ages, Prester John played this role, but for the new European savior it was necessary to establish an eastern empire from which to retake Zion like the angel in Joachim's visions.
Columbus himself was inspired by the works of Pierre d'Ailly, a student of the Albumasar school, and had started but never completed a work entitled the "Book of Prophecies." In this work and his other writings, he outlines the destiny of Spain in the reconquest of Jerusalem, and states that the gold of the East Indies (Tarshish and Ophir) would be used to rebuild Zion.
He saw himself as a divine guide in the "enterprise of the Indies." In the model of his namesake St. Christopher, the dog-headed "bearer of Christ," (Christoferens = 'Christ-bearer') Columbus would carry Christianity to the East. He also noted the same spiritual symbolism in his surname Columbus which means "dove" in Latin.
Abundant evidence exists suggesting that Ferdinand also fancied himself as the Encubierto and never stopped believing that he would conquer Jerusalem before his death.
After Columbus, the messianic expectations continued unabated and were directed strongly at the newly-ascended emperor Charles V.
A "constellation of prophecies" swirled around the new emperor. Writers like Giles of Viterbo helped develop the idea of Charles V as the Last World Emperor. His device Plus Ultra "beyond which" referred to the Pillars of Hercules, the old limit of traditional Europe beyond which he had passed.
Some believe that Nostradamus may have been alluding to Charles V in one of his prophecies when he says:
Chief of the world will the great Chyren be,
Plus Ultra behind, loved, feared, dreaded:
His fame and praise will go beyond the heavens,
And with the sole title of Victor will he be quite satisfied.
Such were the messianic expectations at the time that Charles V had to face insurrections himself from peasant saviors like El Encubierto who led the Germanias revolt of artisans in Valencia. Some of the peasant leaders claimed descent from the old kings of Aragon or other monarchs.
When Charles V sponsored Magellan's circumnavigation, we can say that he was seeking the title of Emperor of the Indies, something rather unofficially used for his son Philipp II, for whom the Philippines were named. The last emperor of the East Indies was the legendary Prester John, but now the European monarchs themselves strived to become the Christian savior king from the East.
Unlike Columbus, Magellan seemed less concerned with his own place in prophecy, but evidence points to a spiritual goal also for his journeys. Notes from this writings indicate he was interested in finding the Biblical lands of Tarshish and Ophir, nations which also figured in apocalyptic thought.
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles
shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and
Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall
down before him: all nations shall serve him.
-- Psalm 72
Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first,
to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them,
unto the name of the Lord thy God,
and to the Holy One of Israel,
because he hath glorified thee.
-- Isaiah 60
Samuel Purchas writing in the early 17th century stressed the need for Britain to involve itself in the "Ophirian navigation" to secure its own self-vision as the chosen messianic nation but with a more mercantile twist:
And this also we hope shall one day be the true Ophirian navigation, when Ophir shall come unto Jerusalem as Jerusalem then went unto Ophir. Meanwhile we see a harmony in this sea-trade, and as it were the consent of other creatures to this consent of the reasonable, united by navigation howsoever by rites, languages, customs, and countries separated.
Magellan appears to have placed Tarshish and Ophir near Ptolemy's Cattigara, the great ancient trading city of the farthest East. When nearing the end of the world circuit, he deliberately set his sights for Cattigara sailing at 12 or 13 degrees North latitude, which he believed to be the proper course for that fabled city.
For Philip II who inherited both his father's empire and that of Portugal, he could not but help continue with this messianic vision. The Spanish monarchy according to Tommaso Campanella writing in 1600 was "founded upon the occult providence of God." The Count-Duke of Olivares declared "God is Spanish and fights for the nation these days."
Philip II is said to have attempted to attain the title of "Emperor of the Indies," of which he was known in his own kingdoms, through an Imperial Vicariate from the Vatican, but those attempts ultimately failed.
Such title ultimately was equivalent to that of the "Hidden King," and its acquisition served as a primary esoteric motivation for the voyages of both Columbus and Magellan.
I see greater things than I had expected and were told me. Verily, this Philip, pious jewel among kings, as a second Solomon mercifully gave both here and elsewhere examples of his wisdom.
-- Viglius van Aytta on the seventh window donated by Philip II and Mary Tudor to Sint Janskerk.
In its riches the scriptural land of Ophir prefigures the Indies of which Luis de Haro is chancellor, and Solomon, associated in late sixteenth-century Spain with Philip II, is a type both of Christ and of the Spanish king.
-- Stephen Rupp in Allegories of Kingship
"....the principle settler of these archipelagoes was Tharsis, son of Japheth together with his brothers, as were Ophir and Hevilath of India..."
-- Francisco Colin speaking of the Philippines in Labor Evangelica, 1663.
In an interesting coincidence when Philip II, the "Second Solomon," dispatched Legazpi to occupy the Philippines, the latter encountered and entered into alliance with one Rajah Soliman, king of Manila, during his invasion of Luzon.
Paul Kekai Manansala
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