September 13, 2011

Here Be Dragons?

        I was thinking about maps and unexplored territory the other day, and the exciting and romantic phrase "Here be dragons" signifying the terror and wonder and limitless possibility of the unknown…  Only it turns out that the saying "Here be dragons" is almost as fictional as the dragons themselves.  Apparently there exists only one old map with the phrase.  The Hunt-Lenox Globe from around 1503-1510 has the Latin HIC SVNT DRACONES on the eastern coast of Asia.  (Alas, not visible in any photo I could find.)  Whether the phrase was ever intended to refer to actual dragons is also a subject of debate.  Clearly this was not a phrase medieval cartographers used to describe the unknown.  So, what's the deal with the dragons in unexplored territory?  And how did the myth of "Here be dragons" arise?
        For the first question, there are certainly a fair number of ancient, medieval, and renaissance maps with pictures of dragons, mythical beasts, or real beasts that seemed every bit as fantastic as dragons to people at the time.  For example, elephants and walruses both feature on maps as strange, monstrous creatures inhabiting exotic territories.  It seems that the earliest map we know of with a proper dragon on it was the Ebstorf map from the 13th century.  (The dragon has the company of a basilisk and some other strange critter, too.)  The Ebstorf map was made from 30 goatskins and measured 3.6m x 3.6 m - That's a serious map.  It was destroyed in the bombing of Hanover during WWII, but luckily there were at least several photographs and reproductions of it that had been made before it was lost forever, just one more casualty of war.
        Another nice example is the "Carta Marina" of Scandinavia (1539), which has a wealth of fabulous monsters in the oceans, plus a beautiful wyvern way in the north (in the upper right of this detail).
        But the question of where the "Here be dragons" myth came from turns out to be a mystery.  Apparently no one can explain it!  There is a nice summary of the question by Erin C. Blake.  I find it fascinating that something can have such a hold on the popular imagination without any apparent source!  Of course the idea that this phrase was common on ancient maps must have gotten started somewhereSomeone must have started the rumor…  but apparently no one's tracked it down.
        There's one final twist to the story.  According to Wikipedia, ancient Roman and Medieval maps actually had unexplored areas marked HIC SVNT LEONES - "Here are lions" - as a warning of unknown perils.  Several sources mention this, and "Here be lions" seems to be a well-known phrase in Europe (although I'd never heard it before), just as everyone knows "Here be dragons..."  But this is the thing -- nobody seems to mention many actual examples of maps that warn of lions in unexplored lands.  I wonder whether the lions might be almost as mythical as the dragons.  Better just stick with Terra Incognita if you want to be safe… But if you want to be enticing, I say go with dragons!

[Pictures: "Hunt-Lenox Globe," engraved copper, c. 1503-1510, (collection of the New York Public Library);
detail from the "Ebstorf map" (reproduction), ink on goatskin, 13th c;
detail from the "Carta Marina" by Olaus Magnus, woodcut, 1539 (collection of the Uppsala University Library);
detail from the "Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi," ink on parchment, c 1025-1050, (collection of the British Library).]

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