Worldview in the Age of Exploration

By: Mackenzie Cernuska

Art and literature can show more than what they depict or describe. Through the lens of time and culture the audience can view images, letters, and stories and see more than what is there, they can look past ink and paper and devise an understanding of something much bigger than the author or artist’s subject. This phenomenon can be seen in even the most historically uncreative documentation of drawings and writings, such as the letters, maps, and writings from the age of exploration, or sacred and religious texts and literature such as native creation stories, through these examples the commonality, differences, and changes in understanding and value of the world and universe from a Native perspective versus a European perspective can be argued and understood. 

In the Iroquois Creation Story, there is a clearly illustrated organization of the universe from the beginning of creation to the end of it. The story begins with the mention of two levels and explains how the pregnant woman, who was conceived of nothing, began to fall toward the great water and the monsters there catch her, save her, and eventually provide a home for her and her twins on the back of a large growing turtle, which becomes known as the “great island” (32-33). This introduction shows the audience that animals–the monsters in the great water–existed and were established in this level of the universe before the world was built there. The fact that the Sky Woman was saved by the monsters and that they provided for her, later her children, and eventually humanity shows that the Iroquois believed the monsters, which appear to be fantastical versions of other animals, provided the basis upon which humanity was built. This communicates the belief that not only do humans need animals to survive, but that humanity would not exist without the support of the animals, providing a basis for a worldview in which animals are revered and respected. Throughout the Iroquois Creation Story, there are depictions of the land which give the audience more insight into how the Iroquois viewed and understood the world around them. After the twins were born the story states that “the turtle increased to a great Island and the infants were grown up” (33). This quotation shows that island is more than a descriptor, as “island” is capitalized, showing a reverent regard for land. After the good mind begins to create on the back of the turtle, the story begins to address the land as the “Great Island… When he made the universe he was in doubt respecting some being to possess the Great Island” (33). This change can be seen either as the storyteller giving the land a higher place of reverence or dignifying the land by naming it. Either way, this change is in response to the idea of “Great Island” being inhabited. This detail shows that to the storyteller the land is more than its physical attributes; it is a part of the basis on which humanity is built. When the twin minds begin to create, the land and animals are created before humanity is and they are described as being created with respect to beings that would inhabit the world, as seen in the previous quotation. The bad mind makes many different dangerous terrains and reptiles that “would be injurious to mankind, but the good mind restored the Island” (34). This description shows that the storyteller believed in or experienced some great physical change to the land, but still related the land’s aspects to their effect on humanity showing how deeply connected the Iroquois believed the land and animals were to humanity. The story also depicts the way the Iroquois interpret the nature of the land, animals and other aspects of creation.  When the sky woman’s twins are born; one is deemed good and the other evil. The good mind creates a landscape with foliage and bodies of water, then creates two humans in his own likeness from the dust–a man and a woman. While the good mind continued to create the rest of the universe the evil mind created rough terrain and dangerous reptiles that would cause harm to the humanity his brother created (33-34). This depiction of a back-and-forth struggle between the brothers that shapes the world, humanity, and the other parts of creation communicates the belief that all of the world is made up of good and evil–that nothing is isolated from either. This idea of nothing being purely good or purely evil is solidified by the brothers’ fight at the end of the story. The evil mind challenges the good mind to fight, the good mind deceives the brother by falsely telling him how to kill him and in return, the fooled evil mind tells the good mind the actual way to kill him (34). In their fight, the evil mind was honest and did not even attempt to use the weapon that he believed would kill the brother, implying that the evil mind wanted a fair and just fight which reveals an amount of goodness in the brother. The good mind, however, lies to his brother and also uses the weapon he knew would kill his brother to secure his victory, which shows an amount of evil in the good mind. This gives the possibility of a worldview that suggests, rather than parts of creation being good, bad, or neutral, all parts of creation have good and evil in them. 

The Mercator Map (1569) provides a glimpse into how European cartographers estimated the Americas before the continents and surrounding islands were fully explored, giving modern viewers evidence of the worldview of Europeans in the age of exploration. Though this map clearly emphasizes the size of the European continent, which implies the idea that it was held to a higher level of importance at the time the map was created, it also greatly exaggerates the size of the islands in the Atlantic Ocean which were being conquered by European explorers and monarchs. In the Mercator, there is an obvious difference in the level of detail between the eastern and western hemispheres. The more explored land masses of the Eastern Hemisphere are arguably more accurate, but are obviously more detailed. For example, the topography of the Eastern Hemisphere is more detailed throughout the entirety of the continents while the land of Western Hemisphere lacks topographical indications leaving the land masses to appear largely blank. The difference in depicted topography shows the lack of information Europeans used when sharing information about the newfound world, however, the map’s iconography surrounding the Americas shows what larger ideals and themes Europeans believed about the Americas. The iconography in the map shows ships and sea beasts in the waters around the continents, however, they are only depicted in the waters surrounding land masses of the unexplored Americas. This inclusion and placement of iconography communicates the idea of fantasy, mystery, and danger surrounding the explorations of the Americas. 

Columbus’s “Letter of Discovery,” written in February of 1493, due to its style and purpose, is not as clear in its communication of believed organization of the universe or world view as the “The Iroquois Creation Story.” However, parts of Columbus’s beliefs about the structure and order of the universe are revealed in this letter. Columbus begins “Letter of Discovery” with eloquent praise of his voyage and fleet. Columbus wrote that “Our Lord has crowned my voyage, … with the fleet the most illustrious king and queen our sovereigns gave to me”(45), which shows the first piece of the order in which Columbus believes the universe is organized into: God then royalty. While Columbus details the islands he discovered, he mentions one of them had a name given to it by the Indians that lived there, “Guanahani,” and that he renamed the island after his God, “San Salvador.” This is important because Columbus did not have to include the detail which revealed the island was already named, but it shows to the reader that Columbus believed he had the power to rename the island and enforce his order of the universe in which his will is far superior to that of all of the inhabitants on the island. Later in the letter, Columbus writes about the Indians who inhabit the island and emphasized that more than form a relationship with Spain they may become a part of the nation and become an asset of the nation, that they “might become Christians and be inclined to the love and service of their highnesses and of the whole Castilian nation, and strive to… give us the things which they have in abundance and which are necessary to us” (47). This shows that Columbus does not recognize this island or its inhabitants as its own nation or even as a part of “Christendom,” which is what he calls the known or developed world, but rather as part of a conquerable world provided to him by God and the Spanish royal family. 

In the descriptions of the newly discovered lands, Columbus seems to be extremely exaggerating the aspects of the land. He describes a lush, ever-growing and evergreen jungle with the highest mountains he’s ever seen that is filled with many different species of animals and inhabitants that are nude, except “women cover a single area with the leaf of a plant” (46-47), which does not seem realistic. Columbus describes the island as inconceivably large and bountiful, to the point that it seems like he is describing fiction or he is purposefully making this place sound like the Garden of Eden, a part of the Catholic creation story, which would appeal to the Catholic monarchy. The idea that Columbus described the land in a way that was not accurate to the reality of land implies that the physical aspect of the land does not matter in Columbus’s order of the universe, only that it is the best land that can be discovered or conquered and he was the one who discovered or conquered it. 

In great contrast to the Iroquois Creation Story and the Letter of Discovery, some of the writings from Champlain, a French explorer who is credited with discovering parts of the coast near the Northeast United States and eastern Canada, seem to be more detached and distant from his personal feelings and views. This detachment, though providing a less immediate connection to Champlain’s ordering of the universe, shows how he valued truth and accuracy over his own reputation. In Champlain’s writing it is revealed that he was traveling with Indian prisoners, and rather than forcing their assimilation or stripping them of all dignity and power as a captain focused on conquering the new world might have done, he used them as a source of information on his exploration as seen when he writes “I saw towards the east very high mountains… I enquired of the Natives whether these parts were inhabited. They said they were” (Champlain). Champlain also writes that he allows them to continue in their superstitious ceremonies and even aids them in these ceremonies by sharing his dreams, which were important to their superstitions, with the captured Natives. Though Champlain does not believe in these rituals his recognition and allowance of them does imply that he respects the Native people with him and the rituals meaning to the Natives in the war he eventually helps them fight and win. Champlain’s writing, when looked at in full, shows that his ordering of the universe is largely based on how he experiences it as he experiences it and his belief in the order of the universe is not directly attributed to a larger or preexisting belief system as seen with Columbus’s relation to Catholicism or the Iroquois story of creation.

When mentioning the land, flora, and fauna Champlain stays with the same simple and realistic descriptions and comparisons of the land, which shows that he did not value the idea of achieving greatness in the way that Columbus seemed to. Champlain describes an abundance of huntable land and water animals, familiar species of trees, and the size and layout of the large bay as well as its islands and coastal features and even details the events of this portion of the exploration without any notable exaggeration or embellishment, which show his value of realism and experience. 

Though the three author’s beliefs in the order of the world or organization of the universe differ greatly, they are all revealed through their relation and description of the world around them. The Iroquois and Columbus both heavily base their organization of the universe on the belief in a higher power; however, this similarity does not lead to very similar worldviews. Due to the belief in a higher power or powerful creator of the universe the author of “The Iroquois Creation Story” gives the land that was created for humanity by giving reverence to the land by naming it and using “Island” as a proper noun, implying it is of great importance or even the name of the world, rather than using it as a common noun as Columbus and Champlain did when describing the islands they came across. This author also relates all of the things created to mankind and credits the creations as being an important part of mankind’s existence. Columbus on the other hand credits the higher power he believes in as well as the royalty he serves for allowing him success in discovering more of the world. However, he does not relate the objects and beings directly to the higher power, the royal family, or himself; he relates all parts of what he discovers by how they can be of use or benefit to him, the royal family, or the higher power he believes in, which shows his value in power and control. Lastly, Champlain’s writings lack a mention or relation to a higher power or monarch that he serves or believes in, which shows a lack of hierarchy or relation in his world view. The land and other parts of creation are not more than what they are as he experiences them. These worldviews, though from varying places, perspectives, and periods, all shed light on the human consciousness and mankind’s feelings during the age of exploration. By determining the worldview of the many that willingly or unwillingly took part in major parts of the age of exploration, we can further discover the reasons, motives, and feelings of those who experienced this vast expansion of the Known world and the effects it had on the existing societies, both native and foreign to the New or Known World. 

Works Cited

Columbus, Christopher. “Letter of Discovery”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 

Beginnings to 1865, edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 


Champlain, Samuel de. “The Works of Samuel de Champlain” (Toronto, 1925), Vol 2, 89-101. 

History Matters. Web Accessed 10 September 


“The Iroquois Creation Story”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 

1865, edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 31-35. 


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