Charting The Unknown

Frank Jacobs debunks the myth that “mapmakers of yore, frustrated by the world beyond their ken, marked the blank spaces on their maps with the legend Here be monsters”:

It’s a pleasing hypothesis. For to label a cartographic vacuum with the stuff of nightmares solves two problems at once. It explains why the fringes of contemporary knowledge didn’t match the outer limits of the entire world – monsters were keeping us out! And, by being equal parts fantastic and horrific, those monsters symbolise our fascination with the known unknowns just out of our reach. What keeps us out is also what draws us in.

Unfortunately, the theory suffers from an all too common trifecta: it’s neat, plausible and wrong. No map dating from the Age of Discovery (or before) is emblazoned with the slogan Here be monsters, nor with its variant: Here be dragons. At least not in English, or any other vernacular language. But there is one (if only just one) example in Latin: h[i]c sunt dracones, placed over the eastern shore of what is barely recognisable as Asia, on the so-called Lenox Globe.

(Above: Detail of the map Americae 1562 (the Americas) by Diego Gutiérrez and Hieronymus Cock (engraver) via LoC and Wikimedia)