Main menu


Cartographers used to draw strange and enchanting sea animals on medieval maps, but what do they mean?

featured image

Depictions of sea serpents, mermaids and other mythical creatures have long provided maps of the world from the 10th century, through medieval times, to the Renaissance. Despite their fantastical and often enchanting appearances, most of these creatures are based on real encounters with sea animals, demonstrating how mythology and folklore are derived from reality.

Chet Van Duzer’s book “Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps”, published by the British Library, traces the evolution of these sea monster devices. Cartographers once hired them to adorn uncharted regions of the globe on maps and depict possible navigational hazards. Many have assumed that these mythical creatures were the products of illustrators having a little fun or exercising creative license; many ocean creatures including whales, walruses and squids were rarely seen in medieval and Renaissance times and were considered monsters. The artists did not have much to draw from.

There is both fact and fiction in these marvelous artifices of the sea. There is much to enjoy either way.

“The creatures look purely fantastic. It looks like they were all made up,” Van Duzer, a map historian at the Library of Congress, said in a talk about his book. But, in fact, many of them came from what were considered, at the time, to be scientific sources. It was fairly typical for encyclopedias of the time to display hybrids of chimeric, land and water animals, and cartographers just took poetic license to describe them.

vintage photo
Map of Olaus Magnus “Carta Marina” from 1539. (Public domain)

An example, showing how an actual sea creature was transformed into a legendary beast, is the Kraken. A giant sea creature from Scandinavian mythology, first mentioned in the 13th century Icelandic saga “Örvar-Oddr”, is said to have been a mile long and attacked ships. The Kraken was so huge that its body could be mistaken for an island.

The Kraken is also mentioned in the first edition of Systema Naturae (1735), a taxonomic classification of organisms by Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus. He considered the Kraken to be a cephalopod, giving its scientific name Microcosmus marinus.

It was apparently also depicted on the 1539 map by Swedish clergyman Olaus Magnus “Carta Marina”, which is replete with lush illustrations and is the first map of the Nordic countries with details and named places.

Historians and scientists believe the mythical Kraken is a relative of the giant squid, which can reach 18 meters in length and has rarely been seen by humans as it lives in the deepest parts of the ocean.

vintage photo
The red “bearded” beast (top right) on Olaus Magnus’ 1539 “Carta Marina” map has been speculated to be a representation of the Kraken. (Public domain)
vintage photo
An assortment of fantastical sea creatures from Olaus Magnus’ 1539 “Carta Marina” map show creative license and imagination in their interpretations of reality. (Public domain)

In another example, a map of Scandinavia from 1573 features an “ichthyocentaur” – a half-human, half-horse, half-fish chimerical beast – playing the viol. This creature has traditionally been a representation of the peaceful passage of sailing ships on the high seas.

In yet another example, the bizarre depiction of a “sea pig” seen on Olaus Magnus’ 1539 map Carta Marina was synonymous with heretics who tended to distort the truth and who lived like pigs. According to said map, this creature inhabited the North Sea.

vintage photo
A “sea pig” (top left) is depicted alongside a whale and an orca on Olaus Magnus’ 1539 map “Carta Marina”. (Public domain)
vintage photo
Among several unidentified sea creatures is a red serpentine creature attacking a ship. (Public domain)

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, it was once thought that all land animals had their sea equivalent. It wasn’t just sea pigs, but also sea wolves, sea lions, and more. Some of them exist: eared seals are “sea lions”; deep sea sea cucumbers (relatives of starfish) are “sea pigs”. These Renaissance designers simply indulged in artistic embellishment, taking the comparison at face value.

In other cases in Carta Marina, animals are given bestial appendages. Whales are sometimes drawn as a cross between a wolf and a bird, often possessing tusks or large teeth, and were regularly depicted as ferocious animals attacking ships. In said map, sailors They are shown tossing barrels into the water and playing trumpets in an attempt to ward off attacking whales.

It was often the tales of sailors – describing mermaids luring sailors into watery tombs or various serpentine or “lobster-like” creatures assaulting ships – that informed the creators of these maps. Their devices became the syntax for representing a strange world that, at the time, existed as much in wonder and imagination as in reality.

vintage photo
Tusked whales are pictured attacking a ship as sailors hurl barrels and play trumpets to ward them off. (Public domain)
vintage photo
Other creatures, like what looks like a seahorse and crustacean, look more familiar to modern eyes. (Public domain)

By tracing these representations of sea monsters through the centuries, Van Duzer’s catalog presents an evolution: the unknown of the distant seas manifests itself in the form of gigantic octopuses and whales dragging ships and sailors to their death; until the 17th century, when much of the map was explored and ships exercised dominance over the beasts of the ocean; Eventually, scientific exploration grows, pragmatism prevails, and beasts disappear from the maps altogether.

The important message to take away from Van Duzer’s documentation of sea beasts is that myth and legend are not mere conjurations of vapid imagination. They are clear reminders and affirmation that creative forces and curiosity arise from the sublime element of the unknown. Perhaps it’s a reminder to appreciate the world more as it is and continue to draw inspiration from that element of transcendent wonder.

April Holloway