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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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!