The Map Myth of Here Be Dragons

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What lies at the edge of the known world?  During Roman times and extending into medieval times, cartographers would use the inscription HIC SVNT LEONES to mark areas of unexplored territories on maps, the Latin phrase translates to mean “Here are Lions”).   During medieval times, distant and unexplored lands on the edges of maps were marked by drawings of dragons, sea serpents, and other ominous looking fictional animals.  The notation of dangerous beasts and mythical sea creatures invoked the harm that sailors feared to encounter when entering previously uncharted waters.

The less dramatic notation was the latin phrase “Terra incognita” or “terra ignota” which stands for land unknown.  The first documented use of Terra incognita was in 150 with Ptolemy’s Geographia.  Ptolemy’s atlas warned of (then) mythical and dangerous creatures such as elephants, hippos and cannibals in unknown areas.  The phrase died out in the 19th century as global cartography completed its documentation of coastlines and most areas of the continents.

While the phrase about dragons has become a popular way of referring to such maps, no English language maps ever bore that phrase, and only one map has been documented with the phrase in Latin.  The origins of the phrase “Here be dragons” to popularly refer to the unknown edges of map extents is unknown.  The Hunt-Lenox Globe of circa 1510 bears the phrase “HC SVNT DRACONES”  (here are dragons) near the coast of eastern Asia.  Now housed in the Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library (NYPL), the Hunt-Lenox Globe is a small globe about 5″ in diameter.  According to the NYPL’s web site, the globe is a copper engraving by an unknown creator and is the earliest such surviving engraving from the period right after the discovery of the New World.

The Hunt-Lenox Globe is the only documented example of the phrase “Here be dragons” (red arrow) on a map.

Listed here are some examples of maps that contain dragons, sea creatures, and other mythical creatures.  Erin Blake of the MapHist discussion list compiled a list of maps with creatures from a discussion about the origins of “Here be dragons” in 1999.

Ebstorfer World Map

Discovered in a German convent in Ebstorf, this T-O Mappa Mundi was created by Gervase of Ebstorf around 1232.  The map shows dragons in the south-eastern part of Africa. The Ebstorfer map is the first known depiction of a dragon on a map.

Ebstorfer World Map, 1232.

A detailed look at the Africa section of the Ebstorfer map shows dragons, asp, balisks, along with other exotic animals for the remote section of southern Africa

Carta Marina

For twelve years, Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus meticulously worked in his highly detailed map, Carta Marina (full Latin title: Carta marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum diligentissime eleborata anno dni 1539 which translates as A marine map and description of the northern countries and their remarkable features, meticulously made in the year 1539).  The map, first printed in Venice in 1539, is the earliest map with detailed features and placenames of the northern countries of  Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, and shows roaming sea creatures.

Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, 1539.


The 19th century Japanese map Jishin-no-ben shows a dragon encircling the map as an ouroboros.  This map shows the beast not as an indication of unknown lands but as a suggestion for the cause of the earthquakes.  The map was created in 1855 shows areas devastated by two earthquakes and a tidal in 1854 and 1855.   The yellow markings denotes the areas damaged by earthquake in Kaei 7 (4 November 1854), the blue shows the coasts inundated by the tidal wave of that year, and red the areas devastated by the earthquake of Ansei 2 (2 October 1855).

Jishin-no-ben, 1855.

The phrase “Here be dragons” is now relegated to fantasy maps popular in role playing games.  The term has also been adopted by programmers to comment on code that is unintelligible but still works.  The phrase is intended to serve as a warning for other programmers to not tweak the code in fears of breaking it.

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3 thoughts on “The Map Myth of Here Be Dragons”

  1. Really enjoyed this. Had a short history of GIS recently in class, but this blew it out of the water, and you got dragons in it as well :)

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