Introduction | Contents | Download as PDF (132mb)

<< Previous Next >>

Chapter 10

'Here be Dragons . .'



MYTH: A purely fictitious narrative, magnified by tradition, usually involving supernatural persons or events and expressive of primitive beliefs.

LEGEND: An unauthentic story handed down by tradition and popularly regarded as historical.

A study of cartography may well seem to many to be a weighty subject, so let us digress in lighter vein for a moment to look at some of the myths and legends which over the ages have intrigued our ancestors and which, to a surprising extent, may be claimed to have affected the course of historical discoveries.

Writing in 1665 John Bunyan could have conjured up the most unlikely dragons in the awareness that his readers would accept them, however fearsome, as nothing more than allegorical. Chaucer, writing three hundred years earlier, would not have been so confident of readers' acceptance of his dragons as mythical beasts and, indeed, in the setting of the time, why should he have done so. In the fourteenth century anyone looking, shall we say, at the Hereford World Map would not doubt the existence of the most extraordinary creatures and, more important, could not be blamed for contemplating with wonder, and perhaps fear, the outside world beyond the encircling ocean, the 'Sea of Darkness'.

When we consider, then, the myths and legends of medieval times we should not be deceived into thinking that stories which we may now regard simply as folklore were always accepted as such. On the contrary, in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they represented very live issues and European thought was strongly influenced by, for example, the belief in the Kingdom of Prester John, in Marco Polo's 7,448 Spice Islands in the Far East and in the possibility of a second great river, a Western Nile, in Africa. Today, with any part of the world only hours away, it is perhaps hard to imagine the intense excitement and the intellectual ferment created among scholars in general, and geographers in particular, by the knowledge that it was possible to sail 'around the world' and not be lost 'over the edge' . It was surely the conquest of the fear of the unknown world, rather than the physical prowess involved in its exploration, however great that may have been, which was the true measure of achievement in the Age of Discovery and in the long period of European renaissance.

Where better to start than by looking at the mythical island of Hy Brazil which appeared out in the Atlantic to the west of Ireland in charts as early as 1325, in the famous Catalan Atlas dated 1375 and, subsequently, on numerous maps for the next zoo years, including Waldseemuller's map of the British Isles issued at Strassburg in 1513 and its later editions. It was also shown on Toscanelli's chart dated about 1457 which was said to have been used by Columbus on his first voyage. Early Celtic legends say that the island only appeared at sunset in the mists of the Atlantic and they called it 'the blessed stormless isle, where all men are good and all the women pure and where God retreats for a recreation from the rest of us'.* (*From Summer of the Red Wolf by Niorris West, William Heinemann Ltd (1971).) To add to our confusion these early charts depicted not only Brazil off the coast of Ireland but also St Brendan's Island far out in the ocean half way to Zipangu (Japan). One can imagine the Irish monk, St Brendan, setting sail sometime in the sixth century on a seven -year voyage in search of this paradise and arriving, according to one version, in the Fortunate Isles (the Canaries), then the limit of the known world. According to other interpretations he reached not only the Hebrides and the Faroes but even America. It is hard to believe that as late as the eighteenth century seamen were still seeking these islands, and so often had Brazil been 'sighted' that geographers were reluctant to abandon the possibility of its existence; in fact it was not finally removed from British Admiralty charts until the 1870s. The Celts were not alone in their belief in the existence of an earthly paradise in the Western Ocean; the Greeks too, among others, imagined these 'Isles of the Blest' beyond the Pillars of Hercules which legend claimed were 'peopled not by the dead but by mortals on whom the Gods had conferred immortality' and where there was perpetual summer and abundance.

MARTIN WALDSEEMULLER British Isles. Map originally published in Strassburg in 1522. This extract, showing the island of Brazil set in the Atlantic to the west of Ireland, is from an edition issued at Vienne (Dauphine) in 1541.

In the medieval mind Brazil and St Brendan's Island were by no means the only islands in the Atlantic; Martin Behaim's famous globe constructed about 1492 in Nuremberg shows the ocean abounding in islands stretching as far as Zipangu, without the American continent, of course. Among these, in the region of the West Indies, was Antillia, the island of the Seven Cities, recorded on Genoese charts about 1450. According to Portuguese tradition, following the conquest of Spain and Portugal by the Moors in the year 734, the island was colonized by Christian refugees led by an Archbishop of Oporto and six Bishops, each of whom founded and ruled a utopian city far from the turmoil of the Old World. In later years the Portuguese dispatched expeditions to search for the island and so absolute was the belief in its existence that Columbus was advised that the island was a principal landmark for measuring distances between Lisbon and Zipangu. The name itself has been perpetuated as The Antilles, the island group in the West Indies. Although the island with its Seven Cities failed to materialize, the legend lived on in new guise as The Seven Cities of Cibola, the site of gold and silver mines in the continental interior north of the Gulf of Mexico, confidently said to have been visited in the year 1536 by Spanish explorers. The claim was soon dashed by later expeditions but the search nevertheless revealed great areas of Colorado and the prairie lands.

In the vastness of South America there was ample scope for such legends. The El Dorado, somewhere in Guiana, was long sought by the Spanish and twice by Raleigh who was executed for his failure to find the promised land. Even in Patagonia there is the story of Sebastian Cabot's pilot, Francisco Cesar, who in 1528 travelled up country from the River Plate and saw yet another city of gold. Expeditions to find it were mounted as late as the end of the eighteenth century.

On the same map in the Catalan Atlas mentioned above, and on the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon world map', there appear in the furthermost part of Siberia the names of Gog and Magog. It was widely believed in medieval times that those mythical giants existed somewhere in Asia, penned in by Alexander the Great behind the great mountain walls shown so prominently on early world maps. The source of the belief lay in the Bible story that they represented the forces of evil who would appear immediately before the end of the world. In England, Gog and Magog were supposed to be the survivors of a race of giants destroyed by Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain who brought them to London and condemned them to act as porters at the gates of the royal palace; hence their place over the entrance to the Guildhall.

Many stories as early as the year 1122 centred on Prester John, who was thought to have been a Tartar chief converted to Christianity, ruling somewhere in the East beyond Armenia and Persia. As a great warrior, all-powerful in Asia, his help was sought as an ally by the Crusaders in their attempts to free Jerusalem from the Saracens. Stories of his existence were taken so literally that emissaries and letters were despatched to him on a number of occasions by the Popes; the travels of Marco Polo and others, in their search for his Kingdom, led directly to the re-establishment of links with China and other Eastern lands. Later legends placed Prester John in Abyssinia or Central Africa, an idea which influenced not a little the Kings of Portugal in their efforts to penetrate the Indian Ocean, and by linking up with the mythical Kingdom, to outflank the power of Islam. Ortelius's map of 1573 entitled A Representation of the Empire of Prester John, or of the Abyssinians, showing Africa from the Mediterranean to the Mountains of the Moon, placed well below the Equator, is a splendid illustration of the ideas current even in the sixteenth century.

 The whereabouts of the Kingdom of Prester John was only one of the many legends associated with Africa. The source of the river Nile, one of the few rivers known to the ancient world which flowed from south to north, was an unsolved mystery and Ptolemy wrote that he was told that the river rose in the Mountains of the Moon, an idea which persisted until the beginning of the last century. Seamen had long believed that a western flowing Nile (or Niger) also existed, running across or round Africa to the Atlantic, which would provide a short route to the Indies and to those 7,448 Spice Islands spoken of so confidently by Marco Polo. Indeed, the first Portuguese voyages planned by Henry the Navigator in the early part of the fifteenth century were intended to find just such a route. They failed to find a river, of course, except the mouths of the Niger and the Congo, but the lure of the Indies proved strong enough to take Bartholomeu Dias round the Cape in 1486 and, a few years later, Vasco da Gama into the Indian Ocean and to India.

In the other direction, the idea of reaching India and the Spice Islands by a 'short voyage' across the Atlantic was strongly influenced by the fanciful facts and figures quoted by Marco Polo, added to which Ptolemy's exaggeration of the size of the land mass of Europe and Asia led Columbus and other explorers to believe that their landfall in America was, in fact, in the Indies. It is said that Columbus, even after four Atlantic crossings, never reconciled himself to the fact that he had not really landed in Asia or its islands, and in 1523 a Florentine captain, Giovanni da Verazzano, sailing along the coast of North America seeking a North West Passage, claimed that he had seen across a comparatively narrow isthmus, probably near Chesapeake Bay or Pamlico Sound, a great stretch of water which, he believed, was an arm of the Indian Ocean. This became known to navigators as the Mare de Verazzano and for sixty years or more was regarded as a possible route to Asia. Verazzano's claims must always have been treated with a degree of skepticism for we do not hear of any further exploration of his sea, but even so it is still shown on a map by Sir Humphrey Gilbert drawn about 1583 and on a number of others of about the same time. As late as 1651 Farrer's map of Virginia indicated that it was only 'ten days' march' from the Atlantic to the far coast and throughout that century a shorter route to the Pacific was still hoped for, if not to the south, then to the north, through a North West Passage. To some extent we have once again to blame Marco Polo for the suggestion of the existence of such a route. He mentions the Kingdom of Anian in the far north off the coast of Asia and the idea grew that adjacent to this land was open water, the Strait of Anian, through which a way could at last be found to the Pacific Ocean and the Orient. The idea was taken up by Giacomo Gastaldi in A Description of the World written in 1562 and the name subsequently appeared on maps of the New World for a century or more.

ABRAHAM ORTELIUS Septentrionaliam Regionum Descrip Amsterdam (1570) 1573. An interesting map of the Northern Regions showing many non-existent islands including Brazil and St Brendan's Island and a note in the Arctic stating that 'Pigmys live here'!

ABRAHAM ORTELIUS A Representation of the Empire of Prester John, or of the Abyssinians. Published in the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum in Antwerp in 1573, this is one of the most famous maps by Ortelius.

The remoteness and vast extent of the Pacific Ocean itself inevitably led to confusion among explorers and cartographers and in particular there was argument for more than a century over the outline of California. Although originally believed to be an island somewhere near the Garden of Eden, Spanish charts and the maps of Mercator, Ortelius and others showed it correctly, but in about i6oz a Carmelite friar, following further voyages up the West Coast, prepared and dispatched to Spain a chart showing it again as an island. The chart fell into Dutch hands and it was not long before Speed and others were showing the new island in their atlases, a practice almost universally followed until early in the eighteenth century when exploration by Father Kino disproved the 'island' theory and a new generation of cartographers, especiallv Guillaume Delisle, reverted to the peninsula outline.

NICOLAS DE FER La Californie on Nouvelle Caroline. Published in Paris in 1720, based on an earlier map of 1705, still showing California as an island.

In the sixteenth century the enormous distances across the Pacific proved to he far greater than the early explorers had suspected. The Spaniards particularly were intrigued by the story of Lochac, yet another of were intrigued by the story Marco Polo's 'lands of gold and spices' (probably Malaysia) and in 1567 an expedition sailing from Peru eventually made landfall in a large group of islands near the Equator. These so enchanted the explorers that they were identified in their minds as the biblical land of Ophir, and hence were named King Solomon's Islands.

As to the lands to the south of the Pacific, speculation about a hypothetical southern continent terra incognita had intrigued geographers from the earliest times. To those who believed the world was disc-shaped, it was logical to suppose that there must be a great land mass somewhere to the south to counterbalance Europe and Asia in the north. Indeed, how else, they argued, could the disc of the earth maintain its equilibrium? In the first century AD Pomponius Mela, a Spaniard, postulated the theory of a wide ocean stretching across the world to the south of Egypt, thus dividing the 'disc' neatly into two halves, the southern portion containing the undiscovered continent. In AD 150 Ptolemy, although believing the world to be spherical, visualized land across the base of the world stretching from the lower parts of Africa to somewhere beyond India and embracing a landlocked Indian Ocean. Ptolemy's ideas persisted well into the sixteenth century and as late as 1570 Ortelius's world map showed land spanning the globe, and his 1589 map of the Pacific Ocean marks it as 'Terra Australis, sive Magellanica, nondum detecta'. Even after the discovery of Australia by the Dutch in 1605 there seemed to be a marked reluctance in Europe to accept the discovery and the idea of a continent still further south lingered on. only after Cook's return from his second voyage to the South Seas in 1775, during which he had annexed, in the name of the Crown, the bleak and uninhabited land of South Georgia, was the almost fanatical belief in a vast southern continent abandoned, at least temporarily, only to be revived again when modern exploration proved that the conjectures of the ancient geographers were right after all and that their Terra Incognita could now be renamed Antarctica.


Collectors new to our subject may wonder about the significance of those figureheads symbolizing the winds which frequently border fifteenth- and sixteenth-century maps. In seeking their origins it soon becomes apparent that here, myth, legend and historical fact intermingle and, as so often happens in studies of cartography, we have to start by going back to the earliest days of the Greek world.

In classical lore the names of the four principal winds Boreas (north), Notos (south), Burus (east) and Zephyrus (west) - are ascribed to Homer who told of Aeolus, the son of Hippotes, the father of the winds. Aeolos, it was said, jealously guarded the winds in a remote cave in Thrace, but was prevailed upon to release them as a gift to Odysseus who had long awaited a favourable wind to take him on the next stage of his Aegean adventures. The adverse winds were to be restrained in a leather bag but the story in the Odyssey relates how they were unwittingly released with dire consequences for Odysseus and his crew. The compilers of the early medieval maps followed the Homeric legend, the winds being represented by 'wind-heads', sometimes using their 'Aeolus' bags or, more often, simply by figures blowing benignly or ferociously depending on the nature of the wind they represent. Apart, however, from the genesis of the wind names in Greek mythology, what do we know of the more practical aspects of the subject?

Life for the peoples of the Mediterranean was inseparable from the sea; Minoans, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans all left their mark and all were dependent for survival at sea on their knowledge of the winds. The Greeks - who deified the winds - developed and refined the basic idea of the four principal winds by adding others adjusted to the summer and winter sunrise and sunset, roughly equivalent to the northwest, north-east, south-west and south-east. From the earliest times the 'winds' became synonymous with 'direction' and chart makers must have soon found that it was convenient to combine indications of direction with the names of the winds: in consequence, the windrose took shape. One of the earliest, consisting of twelve winds, was set out by Timosthenes of Rhodes, a Greek admiral of the third century BC on whose work Marinus of Tyre is said to have relied for calculations of distances in the eastern Mediterranean. These in turn were accepted by Ptolemy in compiling his Geographia. It would be too much, however, to expect to find in those early times a 'standard' windrose acceptable to all seamen throughout the Mediterranean. Long after Timosthenes, the Tower of the Winds, erected in Athens about the year 100 BC had only eight sides bearing emblematic figures representing Boreas (north), Cecias (Kaikias) (north-east), Burus (east), Apeliotes (south-east), Notos (south), Lips (south-west), Zephyrus (west) and Skiron or Corus (north-west).

Following the Greeks, the Romans were no less mindful of the need to propitiate the gods, or rather goddesses, before any major undertaking at sea; white animals were sacrificed to the beneficent winds, black animals to those regarded as malevolent. Later generations of seafarers in north-west Europe and the Mediterranean may not have deified the winds as their ancestors did but they were equally dependent on them. Charlemagne is said to have introduced new Frankish names for the 12 point windrose and, centuries later, traders from the Low- Countries started to use their equivalent of the modern English terms North, South, Fast and West for the four principal winds.

About the end of the 13th century the discovery of the magnetic compass finally enabled sailors to plot a more accurate course even if they were still reliant on wind power. In the new era the windrose was combined with a compass card with as many as 32 directional points but it seems that its use was not always welcome. Traditional knowledge of the winds gained over many centuries was not to be discarded lightly and there was always suspicion of the accuracy of the compass itself due, no doubt, to magnetic variation, then, of course, not understood. In fact, the use of the wind names persisted for centuries and appeared on most of the first printed world maps. These show a confusing array of wind heads bearing what seem sometimes to he almost a random choice of names, Greek, Latin and medieval. During the century which spanned the printing of the first maps down to Mercator's elegant drawing of Ptolemy's maps in 1578, engravers conjured up every style of wind head ranging from those on the Ulm Ptolemy (1482/6) - where thev look like benign citizens of Ulm rather than Greek Gods - to those on the Ortelius world map of 1564 where they seem to have become contemporary figures of the Low Countries. A particularly fascinating example is the Gregor Reisch (c. 1470-1525) map of the world (1503) embellished with twelve windheads bearing a variety of Greek, Latin and medieval names - in the case of 'South' using all three, while in another, 'Vulturnus' is looking through a pair of spectacles, perhaps not surprisingly, as he has been placed in the north-east quadrant of the map instead of the south-east where he properly belongs! 'Vulturnus' is similarly misplaced in a number of other maps of the time. On occasion, as in the Laurent Fries World Map (1522), the wind names are incorporated in a decorative border without the benefit of windheads.

 By the fourth quarter of the 16th century the classical 'wind-blowers' had outlived their time and were giving way to other more abstract forms of decoration. About the same time the compass rose, which of course had long appeared on portulan and manuscript sea charts, finally displaced the windrose and for centuries became an essential and highly decorative feature of printed charts and of many other maps which included an area of sea.

<< Previous Next >>

Introduction | Contents | Download as PDF (132mb)