No Old Maps Actually Say 'Here Be Dragons'

But an ancient globe does.
The Hunt-Lenox Globe (NYPL)

Here be dragons. The words supposedly contain every difference between ancient maps and our own. Where old maps were illustrated and incomplete, ours are accurate and photographed from the sky. Old maps were pricey and precious; ours are nearly free and ubiquitous.

Most importantly: Old maps—early modern European maps—contain uncharted territory, across which beasts rumble and serpents writhe. They have dragons.

Our technology might be indistinguishable from magic, but it does not contain magical creatures. Google Maps does not have dragons.

Or that’s the story, anyway. But I’d always wondered: Do any old, original maps actually say those words, “Here be dragons?” 

The answer, it seems, is … No.

Not a single old paper map presents those exact words—“Here be dragons”— in the margins or otherwise. Nor does any paper map include “Hic sunt dracones,” the words’ Latin equivalent. 

But a globe does.

That’s right: One globe—just one—contains the words Hic sunt dracones. Called the Hunt-Lenox Globe, it was built in 1510, making it one of the first European globes ever made. It’s tiny and made of copper—you can see it pictured above. Now in the possession of the New York Public Library, the Hunt-Lenox Globe contains the famous warning on the southeast coast of Asia:

The Hunt-Lenox Globe, as transcribed by B.F. da Costa

No dragons are near the words themselves, but the globe hides various sea beasts throughout. 

The Lenox globe wasn’t the only old European map, though, to feature beasties. The Ebstorf map, for instance, created in the 13th century, has all manner of animals in the south of Africa, including a dragon (it’s near the top): 

Other maps included real animals, accounts of which had perhaps only reached the makers secondhand. The Carta marina navigatoria, for instance, has this elephantine thing with massive teeth hanging out around Norway:

Library of Congress, via FYeahMaps 

(That beast, by the way? Almost certainly a walrus as described by sailors. The German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller made the Carta marina—he also first dubbed the continents across the Atlantic “the Americas.”)

Of course, Europe doesn’t have a monopoly on monstrous maps. A massive dragon rings a 19th century Japanese map, the Jishin no ben.

But if Here be dragons is only on one map, why do we think of it as “typical?” Erin C. Blake, now a curator of special collections at the Folger Shakespeare Library, muses:

It must at least pre-date the publication of Dorothy L. Sayers' short story "The Learned Adventure of the Dragon's Head" in Lord Peter Views the Body (London: Gollancz, 1928), in which a character refers to having seen "hic dracones" on an old map [spotted by both Andrew S. Cook and Benjamin Darius Weiss].  Does it pre-date the publication of the text of the LenoxGlobe in 1879?  Why dragons, and not one of the other terrifying creatures depicted on old maps? 

The final answer, Blake writes, may be just this: “We don’t know.” 

Maybe it’s this: Those famous words served as a warning to the map’s original users and a kind of flourish from the map’s artisan makers. To us, they seem to comment both on the travails of the terrain (“We don’t know what’s here!”) and about the dangers of ignorance (“There might as well be dragons in this unknown spot!”).

Now, we use here be dragons to name our novels full of knights and kings, our treatises on fantastic maps, and even our investigations into extraterrestrial life. The words remind us how different our modern-day map-making is: Shot from cameras in the sky, and available on every smart phone, maps are ubiquitous and photographic, and, the creatures they catalog are too small to see.


via Andrew Gray

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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