One of the classic images of a sea monster on a map: a giant sea-serpent attacks a ship off the coast of Norway on Olaus Magnus’s Carta marina of 1539, this image from the 1572 edition. (Illustration: National Library of Sweden, shelfmark KoB 1 ab)
The iconic sea serpents, mermaids and other mythical creatures found on world maps from medieval and Renaissance times splash to life on the pages of a new book.
Chet Van Duzer's "Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps" (British Library, 2013) charts the evolution of the mythical creatures that adorned atlases from the 10th century through the 17th century. Cartographers used the beastly art to illustrate mysterious, unexplored regions of the globe and the possible dangers of seafaring.
Despite their wild appearance, many of these creatures were based on real animals.
"The creatures look purely fantastic. They all look like they were just made up," Van Duzer, a map historian at the Library of Congress, said here Thursday (Sept. 5) in a talk about his book. "But, in fact, a lot of them come from what were considered, at the time, scientific sources." [In Images: Ancient Maps and Sea Monsters]
Sea monsters on maps run the gamut from menacing sea serpents to improbable lion-fish hybrids. Many cartographers simply copied these sea monsters from illustrated encyclopedias, Van Duzer told LiveScience. At other times, particularly a period in the 16th century, mapmakers took some poetic license with the animals (like terrestrial-aquatic hybrid animals).