Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
A glorious weekly social media celebration for the Internet’s history and map nerds.
All maps are stories. They tell looky-loos about the values of the cartographer, and of her intended audience. They point out disturbing histories and hopeful futures. They offer peeks into the particular aesthetic preferences of specific people in specific moments in time. And that’s why Dory Klein loves map monsters.
From the 15th through 17th centuries, monsters served as delightful map marginalia, adorning wide swaths of the world still mysterious to those in Europe. When looking at these map monsters, “you’re really getting a glimpse into a medieval or Renaissance imagination,” says Klein, who is the education and outreach assistant at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. “At the time of their creation, [the monsters] were real to people. You’re getting a look into how scary the world was in these centuries.”
Map monsters are fun, fascinating, and a little bit silly, which is why Klein decided #MapMonsterMonday was the perfect hashtag and vehicle for the launch the Leventhal Center’s social media accounts in early 2015.
We’re kicking off the Leventhal Map Center's Instagram with our inaugural #mapmonstermonday. Sea monsters commonly appeared in European maps between the tenth and seventeenth centuries. These creatures took myriad forms: some featured yawning mouths lined with rows of teeth, some had wings, others breathed fire, and still others were humanoid. They might look goofy to us, but they were very real sources of fear for medieval and Renaissance sailors. This #monster appears off the coast of South America in Augustin Roussin’s 1620 Portolan atlas. #mapcenter #bpl #seamonster #maps #history #cartography #renaissance #medieval #portolano #portolan #atlas #map #library #mapmonster #monster
Each Monday, Klein selects a antique different map and zooms in on a monster, captioning the image with a bite-sized history lesson.
Well, it may be Monday, but at least it's #MapMonsterMonday! This creature appears atop the scale in Lézin Guyet's 1579 #map of Anjou (today part of Maine-et-Loire, one of the original 83 départments created during the French Revolution). She appears to be have an Anjou pear and a bunch of Anjou grapes at her feet, along with an Anjou...turnip? We're not so sure about that last one. As an aside, we also love her little snail friend. Lézin Guyet, "Anjou: Andegavensium ditionis vera et integra descriptio," Abraham Ortelius, 1579. #Anjou #France #Loire #maps #monster #monstermonday #16thcentury #engraving #geography #history #anjoupear #cheninblanc #mapmonster #mythologicalcreatures #cartography #oldmaps #historyteacher #historylesson #geographyteacher #geographylesson
#MapMonsters are not real, per se, but many were based on real animals that sailors had glimpsed during their travels. Large aquatic elephants may have been walruses. Fearsome and dangerous beasts with waterspouts were probably, yes, whales. Some of these maps also served as natural history primers, and cartographers took inspiration—along with some serious artistic license—from more scientific zoological accounts.
Good old Abraham Ortelius is our go-to guy for #MapMonsterMonday. His 1570 book of #maps, "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum,” is widely considered the first modern #atlas, and happens to be chock-full of creepy-crawly #mapmonsters. This spiny, taloned, double-spouted cutie pie lurks along the coast of Terra Australis Nondum Cognita, a hypothetical landmass that appears in Ortelius’s world map, "Typus orbis terrarum.” Terra Australis was not based on any actual survey of such a continent, but rather hinged on the hypothesis that landmasses in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the Southern Hemisphere. Ortelius, Abraham. “Typus orbis terrarum.” Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. 1570. https://goo.gl/xpYxKv. #map #AbrahamOrtelius #world #worldmap #monster #seamonster #TerraAustralis #16thcentury #geography #cartography #history #mythology #legend #historylesson #historyteacher #geographylesson #geographyteacher #library #librariesofinstagram #BPLMaps #BPLBoston #BostonPublicLibrary
Most of the maps featured in the Leventhal Center’s collection, the ones that survived the centuries, were ornamental designs created for the European elite. There was plenty of empty space on these early art maps, in part because Western explorers were still not quite sure what was out there. That only incentivized the concoction of fantastical beasts. “Partially it was just a decision to fill up a map with vivid details,” Klein says. “But also, it was the the mapmakers’ way to say, ‘We don’t know what’s there, but it’s probably monsters.’”
It's #MapMonsterMonday, and we're getting biblical with Thomas Duffield's pictorial #map, "A new map of the Land of Promise and the holy city of Jerusalem describing the most important events in the Old & New Testaments," published in 1823. This detail shows the famously dyspeptic #whale that swallowed #Jonah and, after three days, spat up the prophet onto dry land. The inscription reads, "Here Jonah was thrown into the Sea and continued 3 Days & 3 Nights in the belly of the Whale which was a type of Christ being 3 Days & 3 Nights buried in the Earth. Jonah I." . Why condemn this poor whale to monster status, you ask? Whale, let us explain: in short, we owe sea monsters to high strung sailors, who encountered these unfathomably large creatures in the shifting, stormy, undrinkable seas. YOU try describing a whale to the folks back home. This astonishing illustrated map shows the Holy Land, the Sinai and the Nile Delta; in addition to biblical scenes, the map includes birds-eye-views of towns, villages, and fortresses, as well as fourteen detailed vignettes, an inset view of the Temple of Solomon, and a large inset plan of Jerusalem. Link in profile. Thomas Duffield. "A new map of the Land of Promise and the holy city of Jerusalem describing the most important events in the Old & New Testaments." 1823.
Cartographers also used map monsters symbolically. For example, a be-fanged beastie could indicate the presence of a particular rude and savage ruler, while the image of a king astride a sea monster, riding the waves, suggested he was a powerful or very wise sovereign.
Map monsters began falling off maps toward the end 17th century, as navigation technologies improved and the printing press allowed for the wider proliferation of (sometimes more accurate) information. The margins of maps began to be reserved for more useful facts or illustrations: “Here are pirates who will kill you,” for example, or “Whales chock-full of valuable blubber and oil hang hereabouts.”
It’s #MapMonsterMonday, and this hand-colored detail appears to show a map monster happily snacking on…something. We also enjoy his befanged buddy coyly ignoring the naval battle raging in his neighborhood in the Indian Ocean. These creatures are just a couple of the incredible details in Willem Janszoon Blaeu’s "Nova totius terrarum orbis geographica ac hydrographic tabula.” First published in 1606, Blaeu's world map is one of the foremost examples of ornamentation during the Golden Age of Dutch Cartography. This #map had a long life, and was reissued numerous times in four states, or editions, over the next 50 years; the one you see here was published in 1638. Willem Janszoon Blaeu. "Nova totius terrarum orbis geographica ac hydrographic tabula.” 1638. #maps #seamonsters #monstermonday #world #worldmap #IndianOcean #17thcentury #Blaeu #geography #cartography #history #library #librariesofinstagram #BPLMaps #BPLBoston
For Klein and the Leventhal Center, the monsters are still doing important work: serving as social media ambassadors for a massive collection of 200,000 maps and 5,000 atlases. Other libraries and cartography enthusiasts have gotten in on the weekly #MapMonsterMonday celebrations, too, posting examples from their own map treasuries. Klein says some of the most rewarding moments have come when someone has reached out to tell her that they have another edition of a map (and map monster) she posted on Instagram, maybe with slightly different coloring.
“We realize that it’s a map that traveled across the world,” Klein says. “It makes it come alive in a new way.”