Between the 10th and 17th centuries, cartographers would add detailed hand drawings to their maps. Many of these were monstrous sea creatures and mythical beasts. The adornments were to illustrate unexplored regions of the globe, speculate about the mysteries that could be found there and warn people about the possible dangers of seafaring. The maps, known as ‘mappa mundi,’ had different origins including: Medieval Europe, Ptolemy’s Geography and nautical maps used as decorative hangings. The horrible nature of the creatures was often exaggerated, but most were based on real animals, such as whales and walruses. Without much chance for firsthand research, many of the illustrations had been copied from encyclopedias.
The beasts on the maps were often drawn to resemble a combination of land and sea animals. It was thought that each land creature would have its equivalent in the ocean, a hybrid of the known animal with a fish. Whales were a prominent feature on many of the maps, and one popular story told of sailors mistaking one of the large animals for an island. After they had anchored their ship to the whale’s back, the travelers lit a fire to cook. Feeling the heat, the animal dived beneath the surface, dragging the sailors and their ship along with it. Whales on the medieval maps were drawn as hybrids, often appearing to be a cross between wolves and birds with tusks and waterspouts.
The Latin version of Ptolemy’s Geography, known as the Madrid Manuscript, is one of the rare maps found with unrealistic, terrifying sea monsters. These seem to have been drawn by an expert, possibly to increase the map’s sale value, and suggest that there were many dangers that lurked between the ocean’s surface. Sea travel was scary, and rare, at the time, and there were accounts of ships being driven into unknown territory. Most of these were never located again, and survivors were few and far between.
Most of the population would never venture into the sea, and the sailors’ tales became the basis of natural history texts and the drawings on the maps. The storms that occurred while their ships were at sea, produced terror in the sailors often causing them to imagine horrific creatures during the darkness, and wreckage. Many of them were also uneducated and their descriptions based on folk tales and fear, rather than fact.
During the 17th century, as sea exploration increased, the portrayal of whales and other animals became more realistic. New maps showed ships overcoming these previously feared beasts, and the images of sea monsters decreased. The invention of the printing press also made it easier to produce more realistic pictures. There was also a greater understanding of science and navigation of the oceans, and the sea began to be portrayed as a friendlier place. Images of ships became more common on 17th century maps than those of sea monsters.