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Sea monsters on medieval maps

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  July 16, 2013 12:35 PM

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It is revealing to know what people from different ages feared. Last month, the University of Chicago Press released a book by cartographic historian Chet Van Duzer called, "Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps." The book features striking images of maritime monsters taken from maps of the ocean made between the 10th and 16th centuries. Some of the creatures are wholly fantastical, like a male mermaid wearing a turban from a world map made in 1515, and an illustration of Neptune riding a sea horse in the South Pacific from a map made by Gerard Mercator in 1569. Others, though, are extrapolations from real creatures like whales and walruses that took on monstrous proportions because, Van Duzer writes, "they were so rarely seen." Most maps from the period did not feature monsters, but those that did included them for two reasons: to indicate places where actual peril awaited sailors, and to evoke, more generally, the mythic, dangerous nature of the sea.

Fig. 67 Olaus Magnus 1572 hand colored National Library Sweden - whale island Brendan.jpg

Fig. 68 Olaus Magnus 1572 hand colored National Library Sweden - whale flensing.jpg

Fig. 73 Olaus Magnus 1572 hand colored National Library Sweden - octopus lobster dangers.jpg

Images courtesy of the University of Chicago Press.

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