Continuing my infatuation with maps, I came across this fine 16th-century example of a cartographer’s imagination running wild in an excellent post by Urvija Banerji of Atlas Obscura.
The creatures depicted on land in the 16th-century Carta Marina are not particularly unusual: the map’s lands contain knights on horseback, wild boars and bears climbing trees. The west side of the map, however, shows a much more fanciful plethora of wildlife.
Cartographer Olaus Magnus created the Carta Marina above while staying in Rome, between the years 1527 and 1539. However, Magnus was originally from Sweden and chose to depict the Nordic countries in his map.
The Carta Marina was one of the most precise depictions of any part of Europe at the time. Which is more than can be said about its portrayal of the oceans.
As you can see, the northern seas are filled to the brim with all kinds of aquatic monsters. Some maps of the era depicted dragons to metaphorically indicate uncertainties or dangers in a region. But the Carta Marina’s mythological sea creatures were thought to really exist at the time Magnus drew them. He even identified each creature in the map’s key. You can take a closer look at some of them below.
Magnus described this creature as a whale whose skin resembled the sand on a seashore. An English ship is depicted as having laid anchor on the whale, and two unwitting sailors are cooking a meal on its rump.
Just beneath Iceland, the Carta Marina offers up a curious sight: a sailor aboard a ship, playing the trumpet for two sea monsters. The sounds, along with the empty barrels shown, could have been a futile attempt to scare away the attacking beasts.
Magnus explained that the fearsome sea serpent above was over 200 feet long, and over 20 feet thick, and lived off the coast of Bergen, within its caves and hollows.
One of the more recognizable shapes on the Carta Marina is the Leviathan, a sea monster that has been documented since the Old Testament days. In the map, only the creature’s head is shown emerging from the sea, but Magnus describes its whole length to be over 300 feet long.
If pigs could swim, this is what they would look like. Below the Leviathan is a “monstrous pig” that is claimed to have been spotted in the North Sea in 1537.
One can hardly ignore this bizarre swimming owl, the Ziphius, which is being attacked by a rhinoceros-type creature that sinks ships by swimming beneath them and cutting into their hulls.
Finally, this sea-cauliflower is not technically a monster, but rather an absurd phenomenon. These green lumps make up a large chunk of ambergris, a highly prized mix of whale vomit and feces that still sells for exorbitant prices today.
So THAT’S why they needed to know what to do with the drunken sailor…
Ha ha – yes, quite. BTW, what DO you do with a drunken sailor? Have we reached a consensus yet?
Oh, I dunno, Nick. It’s too earl-y in the morning for that…
Well, let me be the first to say that I prefer the option of being put in bed with the captain’s daughter, rather than be tied to the mast and flogged. And yes, these are both put forward as options in the homonymous song.
What a fascinating post, Nicholas! I’ve heard about monster-filled seas, but had no idea someone actually mapped them. Thanks for for sharing.
Thanks for enjoying it as much as I did 🙂
Fascinating. A little too much sun and grog on those ancient ships. And “a highly prized mixture of whale vomit and feces” – wow! Now that sounds fabulous.
Lol – yes, the extra grog does probably explain a thing or two 😀
Fascinating, Nick! Not just a map, but a reflection on thinking of the time, and a work of art!
Google Earth does take the fun out of things, doesn’t it 😀
But I LOVE Google earth! I spend hours on it!
Lol – didn’t mean to disparage it. It’s just so… prosaic compared to the maps of yesteryear 🙂
Yes I know exactly what you mean!
Lovely how the human mind is capable ot making up explanations for the very real hazards of activities such as seafaring!
Imagination’s a wonderful thing 🙂
“Here be sea monsters” — how fascinating! I love seeing the closeups and descriptions of all those fanciful creatures. (And since I write fantasy, it gives me ideas…) How amazing to think of a world where people believed such things existed, and lay just beyond the next horizon, waiting to be discovered.
The level of detail is particularly amazing 😀
A lot of them make me think of whales. What if the trumpet guy was trying to communicate? By the way, there’s a show called River Monsters and this season was looking at the ocean. They touched on that crimson serpent to suggest, which creature was responsible for the myth. Forgot what they chose as the top possibility, but it was a very rare, widespread serpent-like fish.
How about the giant swimming owls?
The cartographer was drunk and saw an elephant seal? Not sure if I should focus on the beak, eyes, or mane as a clue. What if mapmakers of that era were the precursors to fantasy writers?
There’s definitely some sort of connection there 😀
Always the chance of some of them being extinct too.
You need to add some sort of conspiracy. Otherwise, we would have found the fossils by now.
So, I don’t want to say aliens, but yeah. Aliens.
I always wondered if there are thousands of fossilized animals beneath the ocean. No way to dig for them with modern technology.
What if it’s Atlantians instead of aliens?
Didn’t Doeniken argue that Atlantis was an alien outpost?
I’ve heard that theory in passing, but never looked much into it. Kind of torn on Atlantis outside of fictional uses. Not really sure what to make of it.
The scientific consensus seems to be that Plato was inspired by cataclysmic myths, probably borne out of the Santorini earthquake that wiped out the Minoan civilization. But where’s the fun in that?
I don’t know. Could be fun to read a story about a person trying to explain such things. Depends on how you portray it.
Lol – only you could make that sound like fun 😀
Maybe play it as someone losing his grip on reality and the world changes around him. So the reader/viewer eventually has no idea what’s real and what’s from his head.
Sounds like something in an asylum might go through. Now, why does this sound familiar?
Probably something Stephen King wrote.
Yeah, that sounds about right 😀
The imagination knows no bounds. 😀
Quite right 😀
I just wish that they really existed. Imagine being able to see a gigantic swimming owl!
Best wishes, Pete.
Lol – that would surely be a sight to behold 😀
Amazing, Nicholas. Thanks for sharing. 🙂 Suzanne
Sure is! Thanks 🙂
Really found this quite fascinating Nicholas thanks for sharing!
Thanks! I’m glad you found it as fascinating as I did 🙂
Oh my, talk about a vivid and fanciful imagination; shame they don’t make maps like this anymore – they sure knew how to make a map interesting, back in the day. Great post 🙂
So glad you enjoyed it! Yes, maps would be rather more interesting with the addition of a few monsters 😀