Detail of mythical creatures from Frederick de Wit, Nova Totivs Americae Descripto, [Amsterdam], [1666], Map# 93818, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Terrors on the Terra Incognita

In the Age of Exploration and Discovery there were perils aplenty as men (and a few women) traversed the globe looking for new lands, resources, and other materials. The life of an explorer was one fraught with danger and a definite fear of the unknown.

Details of an alligator hunt from Vincenzo Coronelli, America Settentrionale Colle Nuoue Scoperte sin all Anno 1688, Venice, 1688, Map #93709, General Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
Maps often depict practices and customs deemed “savage” by the European explorers. These were incorporated onto maps as both a feature of horror and of interest. Detail of ritual human sacrifice in Mexico. Henry de Leth, Carte Nouvelle de la Mer du Sud, Amsterdam, [1730], Map #93824, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

The soldiers, sailors, merchants, and other adventurers who boarded ships bound for terra incognita (Latin for unknown land) encountered bizarre (to them) beasts, lush (or frightening) landscapes, and heard tales of “savage” peoples and their practices. Many of these experiences found their way onto the maps describing these new lands.

Cartographical researcher Chet Van Duzer explains that monsters appeared on maps for a variety of reasons. One reason was the cartographers’ fears of horror vacui (Latin for fear of blank space) on the map so they filled in unknown spaces with artistic renderings of animals and other things. Artwork was also added to enhance maps’ visual appeal. Cartographers, and their artists, often made up creatures to increase the excitement of the map and in turn increase sales.[1]

Cartouche detail featuring the ferocious felines of Africa. Henry de Leth, Carte Nouvelle de la Mer du Sud, Amsterdam, [1730], Map #93824, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
Fantastical sea creatures are the most prominent animals on early maps. Two details of ferocious beasts from Cornelis De Jode, Qvivirae Regnv, cum alijs verfus Borea, 1593, Map #93833, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Often cartographers did not know what was in a particular area, but assumed, or had heard from sailors’ and other travelers’ stories, that it was most likely dangerous.

Detail of boats of sailors confronting/hunting sea monsters (possibly narwhals). Vincenzo Coronelli, America Settentrionale Colle Nuoue Scoperte sin all Anno 1688, Venice, 1688, Map #93709, General Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
Biblical reference to a demon being cast down adorns a decorative cartouche. The shield surrounded by an angel, a herald, and a female figure bearing a cross symbolizes the Christianizing of the native peoples — represented by the figure below the herald. Nicholaus Visscher, Novissima et Accuratissima Totius Americae Descriptio, Amsterdam, [1677], Map # 93819, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
Detail of America, symbolized as a Native American woman, riding on the back of a Glyptodon, prehistoric megafauna and cousin to the modern-day armadillo. Frederick de Wit, Nova Totivs Americae Descripto, [Amsterdam], [1666], Map# 93818, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Dory Klein of the Boston Public Library explains that “people didn’t really know what was out there [and their] corpus of knowledge came from folklore and the Bible…in that world, monsters could very well be real and they were just part of this supernatural landscape.”[2]

The beasties took on many forms — physical, geographical, and fantastical. Maps of the unknown lands of the globe were marked with volcanos, shipwrecks, megafauna, winged beasts, treacherous shores, leviathans, horned creatures of all manner, and the scariest of the scary — cannibals!

Rumors of the lands of the New World being full of cannibalistic tribes were rampant in the early stages of exploration and discovery. Scenes of cannibalism were often featured on maps. Here we see a detail from an early woodcut map showing natives dressed in leaves carrying home a fresh kill and cooking and feasting on human flesh. The scene is rendered more horrific by the storage of various parts in a nearby tree. Laurent Fries, Terre Nove, Lyon, 1522, Map #93801, , Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Many maps are adorned with these fantastical beasts, and in the archives of the General Land Office is where you can find them! Reproductions of these monstrous maps can be had for as little as $20, and all proceeds from map sales benefit the Save Texas History program.

[1] For more on map monsters see Chet Van Duzer, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (London: The British Library, 2013).

[2] PRI’s The World “Why there are sea monsters lurking in early world maps” April, 11, 2016, http://www.pri.org/stories/2016-04-08/why-there-are-so-many-sea-monsters-early-world-maps