A History of the World in 101/2 Inches

By Hartston, William | The Independent (London, England), May 9, 1996 | Go to article overview
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A History of the World in 101/2 Inches


Hartston, William, The Independent (London, England)


European civilization began with a beef crisis. Zeus, chief of the Greek gods, fell in love with Europa, daughter of the Phoenician king Agenor. Disguising himself as a white bull, he wandered among her and her handmaidens, lying down to let them stroke him. Europa found him so sleek and gentle, she climbed on his back, whereupon he galloped off into the sea and carried her off to Crete. Turning back into Zeus, he made love to her either in a cave or under a plane tree (which was rewarded for the shelter it provided by being made evergreen). Before ditching her, Zeus gave Europa three sons and three presents: an unerring spear, Laelaps the inexorable hound, and Talos, a bronze man who drove away strangers.

Europa, whose name comes either from the Greek for "broad face" or a Semitic verb meaning "to set" (symbolising her riding off into the setting sun on a bull), gave her name to the continent; the bull is seen as the constellation of Taurus.

Geographically, Europe has no real claim to be considered a continent. Its notional boundary with Asia began as a matter of convenience for the Greeks, who wanted a way to differentiate between the land on the two sides of the Hellespont. That local viewpoint extended as European civilization did, causing great confusion to Herodotus. After his account of the discovery and exploration of Asia, he wrote: "As for Europe, nobody knows if it is surrounded by sea, or where it got its name from, or who gave it."

Covering 4,000,000 square miles, (roughly eight per cent of the earth's surface) Europe is the much the same area as Canada. Geologically, its oldest part is the Baltic (or Fennoscandian) Shield, covering Scandinavia, which is a relic dating back to pre-Cambrian times of around 600 million year ago.

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