Top of page

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Map Monsters

Share this post:

This blog post is part of a summer series on imaginary maps, written by Hannah Stahl, a Library Technician in the Geography & Map Division. Read the introductory post to the series here.

“You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters!”
– Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

The quote above is from the popular movie franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, and is a reference to the topic of today’s discussion: monsters found on maps.We chose to include a post on these creatures in our series on imaginary maps because they contain elements of the imaginary, but also some truth as well.

As users of Twitterand Instagram have discovered, there is a lot of whimsy to be found on 16th and 17th century maps in the form of sea creatures. Commonly referred to as “map monsters,” these creatures adorn maps on spaces that are usually left blank or in spots where the geography of the world was still unknown. What was their purpose when they were created, and why are they so popular today?

Detail of map monsters on Vniversale descrittone di tvtta la terra conoscivta fin qvi. Published by F. Bertelli, 1565. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
Map monsters on the Northern Europe sheet of Atlas [Geografia tavole modern di geograpfia] by Antione Lafrey, ca 1575. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Dory Klein, Education and Outreach Assistant of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, is behind much of the recent obsession with map monsters on social media. In describing their origins, Klein states, “In the Medieval and Renaissance period in Europe, people didn’t really know what was out there, 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.” This is one explanation for why map monsters are commonplace on 16th and 17th century maps, and why the creatures look so familiar.

One example of this occurs on a map of Iceland from the 16th century by Gudbrandur Thorlaksson. Packed full of map monsters, there is one in particular that one may recognize from folklore: the water-horse. A water-horse is a mythical creature that lives in lochs. It has the appearance of a horse, but has two flippers.

A map of Iceland from Islandia, map in the Titled Collection. Islandia by Gudbrandur Thorlaksson, re-engraved from 1585 edition of map published by Ortelius. ca. 1620. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
Close-up on the water-horse from Islandia, map in the Titled Collection. Islandia by Gudbrandur Thorlaksson, re-engraved from 1585 edition of map published by Ortelius. ca. 1620. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Water-horses in folklore were dangerous creatures who could drag unsuspecting victims into their watery lairs. Therefore, it makes sense that a water-horse would make an appearance in the sea off of the coast of Iceland. Water-horses live in lochs, why not in the deep blue sea?

This may also be why so many maps that do feature monsters are full of violence. Many maps depict a small ship in the middle of the ocean with a monster leaping out of the water, poised to attack. The message is thus: if you plan to take a journey on the open sea, prepare not just for tempests but for attacks from unknown beings from the deep. This could be why during their epic battle in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Barbossa tells Captain Jack Sparrow, “You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters!” Captain Barbossa and his crew didn’t believe in the curse of the Aztec Gold that left them as monsters stuck between living and dying. It is a reference not only to the figurative uncharted territory that he and Captain Jack Sparrow are living in, but also the cost of not being wary of the knowledge people chart out for you.

Detail of a map monster attacking a ship. From Africae novaq tabula by Jodocus Hondius. ca 1640. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
Map monsters attacking a ship. From Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio by Diego Gutiérrez, ca. 1562. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Contrary to popular belief, map monsters are not found on all maps from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. More often than not, they’re found on maps intended for decoration and not for nautical use. As Chet Van Duzer mentions in Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, “Most nautical charts lack sea monsters because…this decorative element was optional, and if the client commissioning the chart did not pay for sea monsters, he or she did not receive them.” This observation holds true in the portolan charts the Geography and Map Division has in its collections. Many of these charts feature flora and fauna of the regions they show. Some charts also show illustrations of rulers and their boundaries. Van Duzer also notes that maps used for decoration were commissioned by rich nobles who expressed an interest in their own edification by studying the boundaries of oceans and the creatures that may inhabit them. How much more interesting would you find a world map from 2016 if map monsters graced its seas?

Detail of a portolan chart showing the King of Spain and King of France. By Mateus Prunes, 1559. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
Detail showing elephants and a camel from a portolan chart. By Mateus Prunes, 1559. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Occasionally, map monsters grace the pages of modern atlases and maps. Like their counterparts in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, they are meant for decoration. Coincidentally, the maps they appear on are usually illustrative in nature, rather than technical. As mentioned in previous posts, maps that are illustrative are artistic in nature and generally are less used for tasks such as wayfinding or navigation. Instead, they are used for knowledge gathering and entertainment. The map monsters seen below, for example, are found in a 1929 pictorial map of Los Angeles.

Detail from Los Angeles as it appeared in 1871. Published by Women’s University Club of Los Angeles, 1929. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Why is it that map monsters have become so popular on social media, and why do they occasionally make an appearance on modern maps? Is it simply that we find them amusing additions? Could it be that maps used today on our phones or online are only utilized for more banal and practical reasons? We use GPS on our phones to find our way in cities and on highways, and we use web mapping services if we need to look up the location of a country. Very rarely today do we find time to look at beautifully illustrated maps for pleasure or entertainment. Personally, I think this is why map monsters have become such a hit on social media. They give us a chance to imagine what the world would look if monsters truly did live in the seas.

Comments (4)

  1. Awesome Stuff!

  2. Will you suggest some illustrated readings on this topic?
    If some of these “monsters” were available in digital form, I think they would make an interesting addition to modern maps!

  3. This is so terrific! Thank you for writing such an informative article about such a wonderful topic!


Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.