The Earthly Paradise was generally set in the dominion of Prester John, and for this reason in medieval roll of arms, for example, Prester John of the Indies (Prester Johan de Ynde) was listed first in precedence followed by the King of Jerusalem, the Emperor of Rome and the Emperor of Constantinople in that order, followed by other Christian kings.
From the Herald's Roll (late 13th century)
Azure a cross or (attributed arms)
2 Roye de Jerusalem
Argent crusilly and a cross potent or
3 Emperor de Rome
Or a double headed eagle displayed sable
4 Emperor de Constantinoble
Gules a cross or
In the millenarian environment of Europe during Columbus' time, the honor of ruling over the Garden of Eden would certainly suit the prophesied king, the Encubierto, as many fancied Columbus' patron Ferdinand of Spain. Technically such an honor would rank even higher than reconquering Jerusalem.
On his way home from his first voyage, Columbus wrote in his Diario that the land he had discovered must be Paradise Terrestrial which 'sacred theologians and philosophers' had located in the 'end of the East' ("en el fin de oriente"). One of the admiral's favorite books, Imago Mundi, placed the Garden of Eden at the extremity of the East where the Sun rose for the first time on the morning of creation.
The idea that Cipangu and China could be reached by sailing West and that the distance was not that great appears to have originated with Nicolo di Conti and/or the mysterious ambassador from the East Indies -- from a Nestorian Christian nation 20 days beyond Cathay (China). These two are mentioned together by Poggio after the latter's interview of de Conti.
Both had influenced Paolo Toscanelli and others, and Toscanelli is believed by many to have encouraged Columbus to undertake his fateful mission. Previously, under the Ptolemaic system it was believed that the Indian Ocean was landlocked and that the eastern coast of Asia could not be approached by sea from the West. Pierre d'Ailley, the author of Imago Mundi had these concepts in his book, but later gave up the idea of an open Indian Ocean after reading the Latin Ptolemy.
At this time, the view that the distance from the Canaries to Cipangu was relatively small became current. Toscanelli estimated it at only 85 degrees, while Martellus put it at 90 degrees and Behaim at 110 degrees. Some scholars believe the idea of such a short distance originates with Marinus of Tyre, but even the latter but the distance at 135 degrees. In reality, the measure was about 225 degrees.
Whatever the source of the idea, Columbus believed that he was sailing along the coasts of southeastern Asia when he discovered the Americas. After his third voyage, he wrote in a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella: "I am completely persuaded in my own mind that the Terrestrial Paradise is in the place I have said...just above the Equator, where the best authorities had always argued Paradise would be found."
The idea that Eden was near the equator was related to the idea of climate and the lack of extreme changes of hot and cold seasons. Eden was thought of as a lush place with a dazzling variety of living creatures. In 1554, an anonymous English author writes:
All who have gone there agree that the best and greenest fields and countrysides in the entire world are to be found there, the most pleasant mountains, covered with trees and fruits every kind, the most beautiful valleys, the most delicious rivers of fresh water, filled with an endless variety of fishes, the thickest forests, always green and laden with fruits. As for gold, silver, and other kinds of metal, spices of all kinds, and fruits desirable both tor their taste and touch and for the salutary effects they have: so abundant are they that until now it has not been possible even to imagine that they could be as many elsewhere as here. In conclusion, it is now thought that the earthly paradise can only be located on the equinoctial line or close to it, for the only perfect spot on earth has its place there.
In a letter that Columbus wrote to his son after his voyages, he said:
Certain it is that I have served Their Highnesses with as great diligence and love as I might have employed to win paradise and more; and if in somewhat I have been wanting, that was impossible, or much beyond my knowledge and strength.
Probably the paradise that Columbus mentions above is that of the eternal reward after life, but after his time, the idea of reaching the Garden of Eden began to fade. Explorers may have realized the futility of such an endeavor, but they continued to look for other fabled lands including Cipangu, Tarshish and Ophir, and Cattigara.
Paul Kekai Manansala
Delumeau, Jean. History of Paradise. The Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition, Trans. Matthew O'Connell. New York: Continuum Publishing C., 1995, 111.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. Admiral of the Ocean Sea a Life of Christopher Columbus, Little Brown & Co., 1942.