There was a time when monsters roamed the earth. They could be found in the sky, on the ground, and under the sea. But this isn’t a reference to dinosaurs. Rather, they were actual “mythical” creatures. At least, that’s what people thought. It was such a reality for them that many cultures made no distinction between fact and myth. Have you ever seen a very old map with a dragon or sea monster? The so-called “supernatural” was far more natural for them. To this day, there are many cultures that exist with other-worldly or mythical beliefs.
For example, many Native Americans are offended when one suggests that their ancestors came from Asia. That’s because their creation stories explain how the first of their peoples came directly out of the ground. This is quite similar to the Judeo-Christian creation story which teaches that all humans were born from one man who was formed by the dust of the earth.
The unknown has always been explained through myth. Quite often these myths include demonic or other fear-mongering characters. When it came to exploring land and sea, most people were very isolated and lacked the means to travel far. Thus, all they could do was speculate about the world, including whatever mythical creatures walked among them or swam in the sea. They knew some to be friendly and others to be terrifying and dangerous.
In a lecture sponsored by the Library of Congress, American historian of cartography Chet Van Duzer explains some classical and medieval thoughts that influenced the mapmakers of the day. He says that while the definitions of “monsters” are often contradictory, many authors defined them as being at odds with nature. Even St. Augustine is reported to have said that “a monster was part of God’s plan, an adornment of the universe that can also teach about the dangers of sin.”
Van Duzer goes on to explain a medieval theory that every land creature had an equivalent in the sea. This is why you may come across an old map depicting hybrid land and aquatic animals. These can include everything from aquatic lions and sea goats to aquatic birds and sea dragons. For example, the images shown in this masthead depict a fresco from Naples, Italy. The city sits directly on the Bay of Naples of the Tyrrhenian Sea. This fresco came from walls at the seaside city of Herculaneum (a suburb of Naples), which was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. They portray traditional sea creatures like the dolphin right next to an aquatic ox and horse. The aquatic hybrids are similar to other mythological hybrids, such as mermaids, centaurs, and or a sphinx. Though not specific to any given old map, the images reflect a common belief of that age.
The Supernatural Landscape of an Old Map
A segment on PRI’s The World featured Boston Public Library’s education and outreach assistant for their Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Dory Klein. She explains, “In the Medieval and Renaissance period in Europe, people didn’t really know what was out there. So your corpus of knowledge came from folklore and the Bible. And so in that world, monsters could very well be real and they were just part of the supernatural landscape.”
The segment added, “You won’t find sea monsters in every map from earlier centuries. Cartographers drew these creatures to adorn maps that would be on display in upper-class settings, such as fine homes or castles. Maps made for navigators heading out on ocean expeditions would have been more utilitarian, says Klein…People back in Europe, however, really wanted to get a feel for their world without leaving home because travel was very difficult at that time. So maps became a way to understand the world without actually going out exploring.”
Strange, But True?
Cartography historian Chet Van Duzer further explains similarly strange reports of sailors who tied their ships to islands. Once they unloaded some supplies from the boat, the sailors would build a fire for camp and begin cooking. After the fire gained momentum, they quickly discovered the “island” was actually a whale that quickly plunged into the water to escape the pain of fire. The sailors and their ships were pulled under the water to their destruction. There are depictions of this on old maps that lend some possible credibility to the legends. Additionally, some old maps also portray sailors mistaking whales for islands because of the plants growing from them. Are these legends based on observed reports or on speculation?
The James Ford Bell Library archives at the University of Minnesota adds that according to Olaus Magnus, creator of the map at left, “The whale’s skin has a surface which looks like sand on the seashore. Hence, when it raises its back above the waves, as it frequently does, sailors completely mistake it for an island” (Magnus 1998, III:1108).”
Humans have used myths and legend to understand their world since the earliest records of history, both written and oral. It’s truly fascinating to see depictions of those beliefs and worldviews on old maps.
We have in our own collection a map of Spain from 1634 ($800 unframed) depicting a sea monster of unusual size. The earliest map in our collection depicts France and was printed in 1592. It sells for $950 unframed. If you’re searching for an old map from a specific era or region of the world, just email or call us at 615-472-1980.