One of the most influential books to appear in the fourteenth century was ostensibly written by Sir John Mandeville, who compiled an account of his “travels” throughout Turkey, Armenia, Tartary. It is likely that “John Mandeville” was the pen name of a Liege physician, Jean de Bourgogne, or Jehan a la Barbe. The book—in fact a compilation drawn from a number of other travel accounts—first appeared in French about 1356; it is known in English as The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight. One of Mandeville’s accounts concerns the “anthills of gold-dust,” a story that created enormous interest among adventurers anxious not so much to see the ants (they were said to be as large and as ferocious as ill-treated dogs) but rather to view the anthills and, if at all possible, secure a number of them for further study.

The anthills, Mandeville reports, were to be found on the island of Taprobane (the name used by the ancient Greeks and Romans for Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka, shown on some old maps as Taprobana and Taprobane). The island is also called Zeilon, Serendip, or Taprobane (from the Sanskrit word tamraparni, meaning copper-leaved.) Early Greeks also called it Palaesimundum.

This island, said Mandeville, was large and productive, blessed with a mild climate, and visited by two summers and two winters each year, permitting the inhabitants to harvest two crops instead of the usual one (doubtless this is the narrator’s version of the two different monsoons that annually sweep across Ceylon or Sri Lanka).

One of the best marvel to attract the interest of ordinary people is the one concerning the ants. These ants were said to live on a mountain which, apparently, was composed solely of gold; furthermore, the creatures, rather than gather what food supplies ants of that size might require, instead spent their time refining the gold that their industry extracted daily from the mountain. Unhappily, not only were the ants very large indeed, they were also possessed of a vicious and curmudgeonly nature, such that men were loath to go anywhere near them. One day, however, they discovered that the ants commonly retreated below during the worst of the heat of the day, and it was then but a matter of a few moments to drive all the available beasts of burden up the mountainside and load them with as many sacks of gold as each could carry.

There are many other myths about Taprobana too - that there was a race of men there that had tails, or a 4 - headed snake whose heads would point North, South, East and West.

Seafaring Lore & Legend: “A Miscellany of Maritime Myth, Superstition, Fable and Fact” by Peter D. Jeans;

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