Bella Bychkova Jordan.
The European Cultural Area: A
edition). Lanham: Rowman and
Littlefield Publishers, 2002: 1-28.
The Continental Myth
Most people would define Europe as a continent. You may recall from elementary
school days reciting the names of the family of continents, in which Europe held a place
of full membership. Support for the continental status of Europe appears in various
dictionaries and in the writings of numerous geographers. For example, Webster’s New
World Dictionary defines Europe as a "continent between Asia and the Atlantic Ocean,"
while the British geographer Lionel Lyde entitled his textbook The Continent of Europe.
In this view, then, we are led to believe that Europe constitutes a distinct physical entity,
because a continent is a sizable landmass standing more or less separate from other
landmasses. North and South America, connected by the narrow Isthmus of Panama,
form continents, as do Africa, linked to Asia only by the severed land bridge at Suez, and
Australia, fully separated from other landmasses by
Europe, however, cannot meet the definition of a continent since it does not form a
separate landmass. To be sure, the Mediterranean Sea provides a clear separation from
Africa in the south, while the Atlantic and Arctic oceans well define Europe’s western
and northern limits, but in the east, the notion of continentality founders. Only the
beginning of a water separation appears in the southeastern fringe, where an arm of the
sea reaches northward from the Mediterranean, through the Aegean, Dardanelles, and
Bosporos to the Black Sea, and still beyond to the Sea of Azov. There the division ends,
for to the north stretches the vast East European Plain. Instead of a narrow isthmus
similar to Panama or Suez, the map reveals a wedge of land broadening steadily to the
east, welding Europe and Asia into one large continent called Eurasia. Europe lacks a
clear-cut oceanic border in the east and as a result is not a continent. In fact, a glance at a
map of the Eastern Hemisphere reveals Europe as simply one rather small appendage of
Eurasia, merely a westward-reaching peninsula. At most, Europe forms only about one-
fifth of the area of Eurasia.
The erroneous belief that Europe possesses the characteristics of a continent came down
to the modern day from the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean, in particular from
the Greeks and Romans (Figure 1.1). The Greco-Roman worldview in turn owed much to
other, older cultures. One theory concerning the origin of the words Europe and Asia
relates them to the Semitic Assyrian-Phoenician ereb ("sunset") and acu ("sunrise"). The
"land of the sunset," Europe, may have first appeared as an entity among the peoples of
the Fertile Crescent, meaning simply "the western land." Too, an ancient, mythological
ruler of Sidon in Phoenicia reputedly had daughters named Europa and Asia. The