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7 Sea Monster Drawings That Spiced Up Old-Timey Maps

In an era when humans were just starting to explore the ocean, map makers felt free to improvise when thinking about the dangers sailors might face.


Old maps are amazing for many reasons, but one of the best reasons is the monsters that mapmakers would draw on the edges of their creations. Some would go a little overboard and just sprinkle their fanciful creatures wherever.

They may seem like quaint little doodles now, but according to the Boston Public Library's Dory Klein, who works at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, to Renaissance explorers these monsters were serious business.

“In the Medieval and Renaissance period in Europe, people didn't really know what was out there,” Klein told PRI. "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 this supernatural landscape.”

"When a map maker didn't know what was out there," she says, "he might just plop some little creature into the map to signify, 'I don't know what's here but it could very well be a dangerous creature.’”

Klein says that maps used by actual sailors were less fanciful and contained a lot more practical information. The sea creatures adorning maps were often created for rich people who wanted to "travel" around the world without leaving their libraries.

In short, says PRI, "mapmakers let their imaginations run wild."

That's how we get this guy.

From a 1618 map by Franciscus Verhaer.

A literal seahorse. How did that become a thing? Who saw a seahorse and said "Yes, this is exactly what it looks like," right down to the scary claw-like hands?

The only thing we can conclude is that this description came from a MASSIVE game of Renaissance-era telephone.

Carta Marina, Olaus Magnus, 1527-39.

Same with this guy. The Latin here says "sea cow," so close enough?

Carta Marina, Olaus Magnus, 1527-39. Carta Marina, Olaus Magnus, 1527-39.

I think this is supposed to be a whale? A porcupine-whale?

Carta Marina, Olaus Magnus, 1527-39.

Ok, now this is just wrong. This inset from a 16th-century map of the Nordic Countries shows some Faroe Islanders cutting up what’s probably supposed to be a whale. But clearly, mapmaker Olaus Magnus had never seen one in real life. This thing looks like a ginormous fish with horns? Come on, man, get with the program. (And apparently, the islanders liked a spot of bagpipe music to accompany them while they worked.)

Carta Marina, Olaus Magnus, 1527-39.

I don’t even know where to start with this one. Kind of loving the sea-warthog look though.

Carta Marina, Olaus Magnus, 1527-39.

Is the swimmer being eaten by those sardine-like fish, or are they all just hanging out in the same place? Either way I would think they should all be more concerned with that eel-frilled lizard thing on the left. The frizzled eel? Yeah, that's it. Watch out for the frizzled eel, guys!

Map of Cuba, by Gerhard Mercator. Image courtesy of Boston Public Library

Ok, this actually looks kind of like an alligator, so good job, Gerhard Mercator. (Yeah, he was that Mercator, as in, the one who invented the projection named after him that we still use every day.)

Sebastian Munster, 1558

And this is what happens when you give up on the idea of making a map and just want to draw sea monsters. Special props to the owl-fish that appears to be chomping on a duck's butt in the lower left.

It's easy to make fun of Renaissance-era cartographers for taking a little creative license, but it's important to remember that these guys were doing their best with the knowledge they had at the time.

And even now, the ocean isn’t fully explored and we "enlightened" humans are still making mistakes about what things in the deep really look like.

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