Here Be Dragons: The Facts and Fictions of Mapmakers

| |

Here be (insert your preferred being here). Whether you finished the previous sentence with unicorns, dragons, centaurs, or another mythical or fearsome being, the phrase ‘here be dragons’ has infiltrated history and popular culture.

The popularity of the phrase ‘here be dragons’ in movies, fantasy stories and other fictions isn’t by accident; the phrase plays into our human fascination with what exists in the unknown.

Although the commonality of the phrase ‘here be dragons’ seems to speak to some frequency of historical use, only two surviving maps of the world include the inscription ‘here be dragons.’

The Hunt-Lenox Globe, created around the year 1510, bears the small inscription ‘Hic Sunt Dracones’ (‘here be dragons’ in Latin) off the coast of eastern Asia. The Hunt-Lenox Globe’s prototype, made around 1504 with the world engraved onto an ostrich egg, also bears this same inscription. 

A scanned image of the Northern Hemisphere from a 16th contrary metal globe.
A scan of the Northern Hemisphere from the Hunt-Lenox Globe. The location of the phrase, ““Here be dragons” written in Latin (red arrow). Image: NYPL.

A zoomed in look at that section of Eastern Asia shows the Latin phrase for “Here be dragons”.

A detailed look at the Latin phrase for "here be dragons" on a 16th century globe.
A detailed look at the Hunt-Lenox Globe which one of only two maps or globes that actually contain the Latin phrase, “Hic Sunt Dracones” (Here be dragons). Image: NYPL.

Mapping the Unknown

Hic Sunt Dracones, Hic Sunt Leones (here be lions), and terra incognita (land unknown) all denoted areas on the earliest surviving maps of the world that were unknown to the explorers of the time. These blank spaces on the map provoked fascination, fear, and uncertainty in those who were on the front lines of exploration and for those who viewed the maps back at home. 

Early sailors were often the first to come across lands and waters unknown, and their travels provided the information that would be used by cartographers to push the boundaries of the known world further and further. Governments were interested in this data not only because they often paid for these expeditions, but because mapping new territories gave them a perceived claim over those areas and the resources they contained.

A 16th century map of Florida and parts of Cuba.
A sea monster off the coast of Florida can be seen in this map created in 1591 by Jacques Le Moyne De Morgues. Via Loc.gov.

While some of the stories told by the sailors proved to be true, plenty of other facts and fictions made their way around the world as ships were lost, strange creatures were seen through the fog, and new and (presumably) terrifying things were witnessed by people who relied on superstition to keep them safe thousands of miles away from everything they knew. 

Many early maps depicted what was known at the center. The religious beliefs at the time influenced the direction of the map; for instance, south was at the top of the map in Al-Sharif al-Idrisi’s 1154 depiction of Africa and the Mediterranean region, as south was the direction of Mecca in Muslim mapmakers’ tradition. His maps contained no monsters and were more concerned with representing the world as it was without the influence of politics, religion or mathematics. 

Around this same time, Christian maps often put east at the top. This referenced the Christian sites in modern day Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria. The Mappa Mundi, created around 1300 by England’s Hereford Cathedral, put Jerusalem at its center, God above and Africa to the right. The unknown places at the edges of the map are filled with monsters, giving us insight into the worldview of the medieval Christians who commissioned and created this map. 

The Monsters in the Details of Cartography

From the earliest surviving maps written on cave walls and carved into ivory to Google Maps and satellite imagery, maps tell stories that go far beyond simple geography. How a map is drawn, what is depicted on a map, and when the map was created paints a picture of the religion, politics, and worldview of the surrounding culture at the time. 

One of the most famous historical maps is Ptolemy’s Geographia, which warned of ‘elephants, hippos, and cannibals’ in the far reaches of the known world. Unlike other maps, these are very real things to be scared of, unless you’re a dedicated anthropologist or a zookeeper.

There are many examples of the use of map monsters in cartography.

Olaus Magnus’ 1539 map of Scandinavia, the Carta Marina, was not only the first highly detailed map of that region but depicted sea monsters and other terrifying beings off the coast of these northern latitudes. 

A 16th century map of Scandinavia showing sea monsters off the coast.
Second edition of Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, published by Antoine Lafréry in 1572

Dragons, sea creatures, and other mythical beasts were often drawn in and around maps as decoration and as a warning about exploring parts unknown.

The Mappa Mundi by Gervase of Ebsdorf created around 1234-1240 was the oldest surviving map depicting dragons. The T-O map has an east orientation with the head of Jesus Christ at the top of the map, hands point to the north and south, and feet at the bottom of the map.

While the original map was destroyed during World War II, replicas were made based on black and white photos taken in the late 19th century.

A photographic reproduction of a 13th century map of the world.
Reproduction of the Ebstorf mappa mundi, originally created around 1234-1240. East is at the top of the map. The original map was destroyed during World War II in 1943. Image via Dieter Schmudlach

A close examination of the Africa area of the Ebstorfer map reveals a fire breathing dragon, asps, basilisks, and other strange animals along with more recognizable animals such as a cheetah.

A cropped section of a 13th century map of the world featuring mythical and real creatures.
A detailed look at Africa on the Ebstorf map reveal fantastical creatures along with real animals.

The 19th century Japanese map, Jishin-no-ben, shows an intricate dragon drawn in the shape of an ouroboros encircling the map. This map is unique, however, in that the dragon represents the creature that regularly caused earthquakes and tsunamis in the region. 

These monsters were as much a product of reality as they were the cartographers’ imaginations. What existed beyond the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding could truly be anything, and the stories and tales brought home by travelers from far away lands and waters took on mythical proportions as they were passed from person to person. 

The Decline of Monsters in the Satellite Era

As mapmaking technologies improved over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, fewer and fewer cartographers took artistic liberties on their maps or in the margins. With the advent of latitude and longitudinal instruments, satellite data, and highly tuned scientific methods, fewer and fewer locations seem to be unknown to humanity.

In the age of Google Maps and satellite imagery, it can be tempting to think that everything has been discovered that can be discovered here on Earth. The edges of the map aren’t as scary, and our grasp on Earth’s geography leaves little to be concerned about. Yet, even with our incredible advances in technology and cartography, maps are still subjective.

Despite many efforts, we have yet to create a map that is 100% accurate in scale and perspective. Even today, our maps may not be as accurate as we assume- even in my small town in Alaska, some of our existing streets don’t exist according to Google.

We can take our methods of analyzing historical maps and use those same skills to consider how technologies like Google Maps speak about how we view the world in 2022. Taken from a bird’s eye view, we have mapped the world in unprecedented detail. Zooming in, however, we start to understand just how much we still don’t know about the world.

The many advances in cartography throughout history haven’t dispelled humanity’s fascination with the unknown. What lies beyond the horizon still takes up space in our imaginations, whether the horizon lies in our backyard or on another planet.

Read next: What is “Horror Vacui” in Cartography?

References

Danforth, Nick. “How the north ended up on top of the map.” Aljazeera America. 16 February, 2014. america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/2/maps-cartographycolonialismnortheurocentricglobe.html

Friedman, Uri. “12 Maps that Changed the World.” The Atlantic. 30 December, 2013. www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/12/12-maps-that-changed-the-world/282666/

Ghosh, Iman. “The Shape of the World, According to Old Maps.” Visual Capitalist. 12 July, 2019. www.visualcapitalist.com/shape-of-the-world-ancient-maps/

“Here Be Dragons.” National Geographic. 28 May, 2020. www.nationalgeographic.org/article/here-be-dragons/

Kim, M. “Oldest globe to depict the New World may have been discovered.” The Washington Post. 19 August, 2013. www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/oldest-globe-to-depict-the-new-world-may-have-been-discovered/2013/08/19/503b2b4a-06b4-11e3-a07f-49ddc7417125_story.html

Pischke, G. (2014). The Ebstorf Map: tradition and contents of a medieval picture of the world. History of Geo-and Space Sciences5(2), 155-161. https://doi.org/10.5194/hgss-5-155-2014

Van Duzer, C. “Bring on the Monsters and Marvels: Non-Ptolemaic Legends on Manuscript Maps of Ptolemy’s Geography.” Viator, 45(2), 303-334. DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.103923

Wikipedia. “Here be dragons.” Accessed 1 March, 2022. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Here_be_dragons

Related

Share: