Most of the medieval maps with pictures of sea creatures were meant to adorn the houses of wealthy people, who were curious about what was beyond their limited experience. The maps that were used for navigation were less adorned, and more practical. Travel at the time was difficult, and rare, and most people were ignorant about the world beyond. Some of the maps contained scarier images than others, and many of the tales that went with them were shaped by biblical stories and folklore. Some of the creatures that were drawn on the maps were:
Sirens – Sailors’ imaginations ran wild when they were away on long journeys. There were often reports of ‘sirens,’ or mermaids, who had the upper body of a human and the lower body of a fish. They would sing beautifully and lull the sailors to sleep, attacking and killing them after they had dozed off.
Tribes of Mutated Humans – As exploration expanded, maps were made of newly discovered regions and the people were often portrayed as having the characteristics of monsters. After Pliny the Elder described several African tribes of fearful nature they were drawn on maps for over a thousand years, even though they had never been seen. These included:
The Nigroe – whose king had a single eye.
The Cynamolgi – Humans with the heads of dogs.
The Artabatitae – A tribe of humans that walked around on all fours like animals.
Dragons – One of the earliest maps of Scandanavia, Olaus Magnus, Carta Marina, 1539, illustrates an area north of Norway. The scene includes a walrus, reindeer, Lapp hunters and a dragon with wings devouring a rodent, casually mixing fact and fiction. Many historians believe that other references to dragons during the period were referring to ‘Dagroians’ that were a bloodthirsty tribe in Samaria first described by Marco Polo.
Sea Serpents – Many ancient maps show serpents wrapping themselves around ships, from which sailors jumped to their deaths in rough seas. Historians believe that these images came from descriptions of giant squid, and oarfish, that can grow up to 50ft.
Blemmyes – These headless people were illustrated in maps of Ethiopia, and other regions of the Upper Nile. There were two types of Blemmyes, those with no neck and their eyes located on their shoulders and those who had their faces on their chests. Scholars that have studied medieval maps have also suggested that the distinct types could indicate the gender, as many of the drawings include their genitals. By the Late Middle Ages these people were also placed on maps of Asia and India.
Ichthyocentaurs – Originating in Greek mythology, these creatures had the upper body of a human, the lower front of a horse, lobster-claw horns and the tail of a fish. Many sailors reported seeing these creatures along their journeys and cartographers would often include them on their maps.