The Flammarion Wanderer and I in Seattle

Posted on February 14, 2013, 2:20 pm
9 mins


The Wanderer as I first saw him, elegantly monochrome a l’ancienne

The Wanderer is traversing the length of the page from its eastern border to its western boundary. (How much time did he need to cross it?) The first time I encountered him was in Kluczbork in fifth grade. When he made a temporary stop in my black and white history book.

He fascinated me from the first glance. I expected that my teacher would know something about the Medieval traveler. I expected that my teacher might be able to guide me back to the Wanderer’s point of origin, but this never happened. My teacher didn’t pay much attention to him. He indicated only vaguely that the image showed the medieval understanding of the earth—flat as the page where the Wanderer knelt…or as flat as my teacher’s imagination. (Whether or not this was an accurate depiction of actual Medieval attitudes was also irrelevant.) I know it’s not a very kind comment to make, but—unlike the worldview he so easily dismissed, as if no imagination or intellectual engagement was needed—it is the reality. My preceptor showed no curiosity, only boredom and apathy toward the lesson—the journey itself.

Now I think it would have been worth asking why the Wanderer left and where his curiosity led him. When did he depart? Yesterday? In the morning? In the 16th century? Why is he clothed in a long robe and why did he carry a staff? Who helped him? Was he on a mission? Did anyone want him to return home? Did anyone await his return? Was his journey triggered by his curiosity, or perhaps necessity? Did he speak a foreign language? Was Latin—the language of the 16th century elite—sufficient?

One could ask all those questions in the history lesson, but it had never happened. At the end of the school year, I passed down my history book to a younger schoolgirl. (I do not remember her name anymore, but I have not forgotten the Wanderer, about whom I knew even less than the schoolgirl.)

The undocumented story has it that in the 16th century, the Wanderer left Germany, divided at that time by the Peasant’s War. The first news about the Wanderer—that one can treat seriously—comes from the 19th century in France. The engraving appeared then (for the first time documented) in Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book “L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire” (“The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology”). It is a wood engraving by an anonymous artist, but there is some likelihood that the design was Flammarion’s own, and in all events it became known eponymously as The Flammarion Engraving.

I know not what happened on his way from Germany  to France, and neither my history book nor I can say what happened to the Wanderer when he and I left the elementary school in Kluczbork. One can only guess how many people he met, how many countries he visited, which one he liked the most, etc.

Corollary of my elementary education, I proceeded through high school and a couple other “hatcheries” for young talents of the more or less same pedagogical quality. I then moved to a city to earn my higher degrees. I had been busy constructing the foundation of my professional life. That is, I built it, then razed it, then raised it again. But even in the midst of this activity, I never forgot the Wanderer. I did not go in active pursuit of him or research in earnest. I must confess that, in this, I acted as my history teacher had, revealing neither curiosity nor courtesy. I had only been waiting passively for a miraculous enlightenment. I hadn’t even asked myself what pushed the Wanderer to go through unknown countries and landscapes while I had been doing the same. Even that resemblance had not piqued my curiosity. I cannot remember or comprehend why not. In my own time, I traversed west as he had (Kluczbork, Breslau, Paris, etc)—chased, perhaps as he was, by divine disquietude, and guided only by intuition and navigated by hope, which were but a hair broader than my fear.


The Wanderer flush with the color of the 21st century

Thus I arrived in Seattle, reaching the western boundary of western civilization, the brink of my world. Shortly after my arrival, I saw the Wanderer again. I treated him as my old friend, who follows me, who cheers me on my way. (Who follows whom, in the reality? Whatever it was, his assistance has been always appreciated.) This time the Wanderer was resting on the cover of a book—“The Discoverers” by Daniel J.Boorstin.

He rested? Perhaps he was contemplating in silent surprise what was happening beyond the borders of his world, his knowledge and his time. He reached the brink of the world. He left behind him the well-known landscape of the Grand European Plain, dotted with high towers and church steeples piercing the sky, the tiny houses surrounded them. He left behind everything known and familiar. How did he reach the horizon—that illusory line that connects sky with earth, that moves away as one tries to approach it? Somehow, mysteriously, he reached that point where the earth and sky meet and found a place where they parted. He stooped his shoulders and crawled between, pushing against the gauzy tapestry of heaven. His surprised eyes observe some fantastic phenomenon in the firmament, inexplicable things. Flanked by an icy ring, a marvelous realm of circling clouds, fires and suns beyond the heavens and his imagination are displayed. Does the cosmic machinery produce any sound? One of its elements bears a strong resemblance to traditional pictorial representations of “wheel within wheels” described in the visions of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. Did the Wanderer know about that vision? Did he have any time to study the Bible, printed in his time in Germany and then throughout Europe by the hundreds, thanks to Gutenberg’s invention? Another question to ask—but whom to ask?

Some time later I learned that the Flammarion engraving was purchased by a private collector in Seattle. I saw it as a good omen. After all, I have learned something from my history lessons in my elementary school—plus a little independent research a bit later.

One more question is following me: Is Seattle, this beautiful place distant from Europe, truly our destination?

Update from the editor, February 20, 2013: La Skibska received a thoughtful message from one her readers that we thought was worth sharing.

Read your piece; is Seattle truly your destination? For me, no place is a destination really, as one’s reality is in their spirit, thoughts, perceptions and ongoing journey. Even if one stays put in the same place, the place changes as well. My thoughts…


Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?

Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?

2 Responses to: The Flammarion Wanderer and I in Seattle

  1. J Max Soos

    June 26th, 2013

    Your globe-trotting friend, you call him The Wanderer, has been my travelling companion as well. I however had named him The Pilgrim, as he clearly is not walking on some misguided flat earth, but has instead journeyed to a sacred landscape to glimpse across the threshold and into the Mysterium. Thanks kindly for your story. By the way, Is he actually residing now in Seattle? It’d be reason enough to make the short trip from Vancouver to greet the peripatetic sage in person.

  2. Leon K

    June 20th, 2015

    A fascinating work, often seen but poorly understood. Surprising to know it has arrived so far away in Seattle.