Sea Monsters: A Voyage around the World's Most Beguiling Map

Sea Monsters: A Voyage around the World's Most Beguiling Map

by Joseph Nigg


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Smart phones and GPS give us many possible routes to navigate our daily commute, warn us of traffic and delays, and tell us where to find a cup of coffee. But what if there were sea serpents and giant man-eating lobsters waiting just off course if we were to lose our way? Would there be an app for that? In the sixteenth century, these and other monsters were thought to swim the northern waters, threatening seafarers who ventured too far from shore. Thankfully, Scandinavian mariners had Olaus Magnus, who in 1539 charted these fantastic marine animals in his influential map of the Nordic countries, the Carta Marina. In Sea Monsters, well-known expert on magical beasts Joseph Nigg brings readers face-to-face with these creatures, alongside the other magnificent components of Magnus’s map.

Nearly two meters wide in total, the map’s nine wood-block panels comprise the largest and first realistic portrayal of Northern Europe. But in addition to these important geographic elements, Magnus’s map goes beyond cartography to scenes both domestic and mystic. Close to shore, Magnus shows humans interacting with common sea life—boats struggling to stay afloat, merchants trading, children swimming, and fisherman pulling lines. But from the offshore deeps rise some of the most magical and terrifying sea creatures imaginable at the time or thereafter—like sea swine, whales as large as islands, and the Kraken. In this book, Nigg provides a thorough tour of the map’s cartographic details, as well as a colorful look at its unusual pictorial and imaginative elements. He draws on Magnus’s own text to further describe and illuminate the inventive scenes and to flesh out the stories of the monsters.

Sea Monsters is a stunning tour of a world that still holds many secrets for us land dwellers, who will forever be fascinated by reports of giant squid and the real-life creatures of the deep that have proven to be as bizarre and otherworldly as we have imagined for centuries. It is a gorgeous guide for enthusiasts of maps, monsters, and the mythic.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226925165
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/22/2013
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 10.40(w) x 11.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Joseph Nigg is also the author of The Book of Fabulous Beasts and How to Raise and Keep a Dragon, among others.

Read an Excerpt

Sea Monsters

A Voyage Around the World's Most Beguiling Map

By Joseph Nigg

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 Joseph Nigg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92518-9


Invitation To A Voyage

The first time one looks at a color print of Olaus Magnus's 1539 Carta Marina, the eyes scan the crowded land mass and fix on the creatures in the western part of the map. Larger than the other images and framed by open space, they dominate the chart visually and stir the imagination.

To us, the quaint figures rising in the northern waters of Olaus's map of Scandinavia could be illustrations in a children's book. However, given that maps chart human knowledge, that they provide glimpses of our understanding of the world at any point in time, Olaus's sixteenth-century contemporaries would have regarded the Carta Marina sea monsters differently than we do. When the chart was made, in the early years of the Age of Exploration, there was a lingering belief in the existence of griffins, unicorns, dragons, the phoenix, the monstrous races, and a host of other unnatural creatures. Modern science was in its infancy. Although adherents to the direct observation of nature would soon challenge hearsay and tradition and begin to classify animal life, at the time the medieval imagination was still free to shape its own forms of the natural world. The chart's giant lobster gripping a swimmer in its claws, a monster being mistaken for an island, and a mast-high serpent devouring sailors would have represented actual fears of the unknown deep.

Those and Olaus's other fanciful sea beasts are not mere decorations to fill empty spaces. Nor are they only visual metaphors for dangers lurking in the sea. Intended as representations of actual marine life, they are identified in the map's key. Most of them are also pictured and described in Olaus's commentary of the chart, Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus ("History of the Northern Peoples," 1555).

The western half of the Carta Marina can be considered the major source of Renaissance sea monster iconography and lore. Olaus's innovative monsters inspired the other two most famous keyed charts of fantastic sea creatures: Sebastian Münster's Monstra Marina & Terrestria (1544) and Abraham Ortelius's Islandia (1590). Variations of Carta Marina 's beasts multiplied on other maps, and they spread from woodcuts inConrad Gesner's voluminous Historiae Animalium (1551–1558) to other natural histories, including Adriaen Coenen's 1585 marine-life manuscript (The Whale Book, 2003). Through his map and its voluminous commentary, Olaus became the age's principal chronicler of the sea serpent, the giant squid, and sea monsters in general. These representations were influential for centuries and are still discussed in our own time. They are the ancestors of the decorative whales that dot oceans on modern commercial globes.

A Voyage with the Sea Creatures

To sight Olaus's beasts, this book takes the reader on an imaginary voyage up the northern seas of the Carta Marina, with Olaus himself as the guide. His commentary, from the first English translation of his book, A Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes, and Vandals and Other Northern Nations (1658), introduces each beast before it surfaces in full-blown art. The beast encounter ends with discussion of the figure's traditional lore, its legacy, and its modern forms. Reproductions of the three renowned sea monster charts, and translations of their keys, enable the reader to cross-reference influential images throughout the book. Surveys of sea beasts' mythical beginnings and natural history complete preparations for the voyage.

Olaus Magnus

* * *

The man whose map and History became influential sources of sea monster lore up to our own time was a noted ecclesiastic, cartographer, and historian in his own age.

Olaus Magnus (Olaf Månsson, 1490–1557) and his elder brother, Johannes, were Catholic priests who sought exile following their native Sweden's Reformation conversion to Lutheranism. Both brothers, born in Linköping, Sweden, had traveled throughout Europe in service to the Church, and both produced nationalistic works. Johannes's earlier appointment as Archbishop of Uppsala passed on to Olaus after the brother's death—but only in name, not as an active position.

The brothers were living in Danzig (modern Gdansk), Poland, when Olaus began work on a map of the northern regions in 1527, the same year that Sweden became Protestant. The map would introduce Europeans to the rich history and culture of the peoples of formerly Catholic Scandinavia. Changing vague notions of his homeland entailed correcting a particular recent map.

The Vikings left no charts of their voyages, but a twelfth-century manuscript, The Book of the Settlement of Iceland, lists sailing directions and times on the Norwegian Sea: "from Norway, out of Stad, there are seven half-days' sailing to Horn, in eastern Iceland, and from Snowfells Ness, where the cut is shortest, there is four days' main west to Greenland." Figures representing Northern countries appear on the famous Hereford Mappa Mundi (ca. 1300) and the first printed world map, the Rudimentum Novitiorum (1475). Those were derived from medieval "T-O" maps that divided the circular world into Asia, Europe, and Africa, with Jerusalem in the center. It was not, however, until cartographers charted land masses from the second-century numerical coordinates of Greek geographer Ptolemy that the region began to take visual shape. The 1482 Ulm edition of Ptolemy's Geographia contained the first printed map of the North. Adapted from a manuscript version by Claudius Clavus, this trapezoidal map of Nicolaus Germanus remained the standard charting of the North for decades.

The Map and the History

Dissatisfied with the Germanus map, Olaus labored for nearly twelve years to produce a more accurate one of his beloved region. In the meantime, he added a newer charting of Scandinavia from Jakob Ziegler's 1530 Schondia. Olaus's original wood-block map comprised nine folio sheets, the total wall map being about 4 feet high by 5 feet wide. Printed in Venice, Olaus's Carta Marina was the largest, most detailed, and most accurate map of any part of Europe up to that time.

Only a few copies of the expensive map were printed, but the Carta Marina influenced the charting of Scandinavia up to the early seventeenth century. The French-born Italian engraver and publisher Antonio Lafreri produced a smaller copy in 1572, and the fresco of Scandinavia still in the Vatican's Map Gallery was heavily influenced by Olaus's map. Nonetheless, copies of the original Carta Marina dropped out of circulation by the 1580s, and Italian and German translations of the Latin key, the Opera Breve, also became rare. It was not until 300 years later, in 1886, that a copy of the original was discovered in the Munich state library. It was thought to be the only one in existence before another surfaced in Switzerland in 1962. That second copy is now in the University of Uppsala Library in Sweden.

Olaus noted on the Carta Marina that he would supplement the map with a book explaining the figures. And so he did—after working on it for the next sixteen years. During that time, he and Johannes lived in Venice and moved to Rome, where Johannes died in 1544. Olaus devoted entire chapters to the map's figures in his comprehensive History. Sea monster chapters dominate the work's penultimate section, Book 21.

The History provides a blend of personal observations, Scandinavian culture, and scholastic dependence on ancient authors. It was the first comprehensive study of people of the Nordic countries. Olaus completed the work while serving as the head of the Swedish convent of St. Birgitta in Rome; he died two years later. Publication of multiple editions attests to the book's popularity into the middle of the next century.

Olaus Magnus's Carta Marina

* * *

From the northern seas portion of the Carta Marina, reproduced here are six of the nine "A" through "I" panels of the total map—from left to right in rows across the top, center, and bottom of the chart. Each panel is labeled with a large letter. Figures within each section are marked with smaller letters and are identified in the key in the map's lower left corner.

The entire Carta Marina is both a sea and land map, as declared in its full title: "A marine map and description of the northern countries ..." The bulk of the map is devoted to a charting of the region, with its myriad of pictures depicting the rich history, mores, folklore, and natural history of Scandinavia. Degrees of latitude and longitude as well as length of days are indicated in the map's frame. The common "Carta Marina" name, compass roses with directional rhumb lines, and a distance scale with dividers are in the tradition of navigational charts. The northern seas of beasts and images of maritime life occupy more than the western third of the map.

Sea creatures graphically dominate the mass of figures on the total Carta Marina. Framed by open space, they rivet the attention of the viewer by their size and fantastic forms. Several are the stuff of nightmare, the shapes of Renaissance mariners' fears. Among them are many unnamed "monsters." Unlike the map's familiar land animals, which are drawn from life, most of Carta Marina's sea beast figures were born of the artist's imagination, by someone who had heard such animals described. Olaus gleaned much of his knowledge of marine life from tales told by fishermen and sailors. Standard names, drawings, and classification of species were yet to come, following systematic observation of nature.

In the decades of the waning medieval imagination, Olaus's fantastic creatures surface not only in Conrad Gesner's great, transitional natural histories, but also on the other two most famous Renaissance charts of sea monsters: Sebastian Münster's Monstra Marina & Terrestria and Abraham Ortelius's Islandia.


Adapted from the Uppsala University Library's translation of Olaus Magnus's Latin key.


(K) Sea monsters, as huge as mountains, capsize the ships if they are not frightened away by the sounds of trumpets or by throwing empty barrels into the sea.

(L) Seamen who anchor on the backs of the monsters in belief that they are islands often expose themselves to mortal danger.

(1) Southwest—The Sea Unicorn (not keyed on the original map).


(B) Two colossal sea monsters, one with dreadful teeth, the other with horrible horns and burning gaze—the circumference of its eye is 16 to 20 feet.

(2) Northwest—A Sea Creature (not keyed on the original map).

(C) A whale rising up and sinking a big ship.

(D) A worm 200 feet long wrapping itself around a big ship and destroying it.

(E) Rosmarus, a sea elephant, sleeps hanging from the cliff and is caught thus.

(F) Several horrendous whirlpools in the sea.


(A) The Faroe Island; its fish-eating inhabitants cut up and divide among themselves the big sea animals thrown up by the storms.

(D) The terrible sea monster Ziphius [actually "Xiphias," swordfish] devouring a seal.

(E) Another grisly monster, name unknown, lurking at its [the Ziphius's] side.

(I) Ducks being hatched from the fruit of the trees.

(K) A sea monster similar to a pig.

(L) A whale, a very great fish, and the Orca, which is smaller, his deadly enemy.

(M) A Polypus, or creature with many feet, which has a pipe on his back.

(O) The Whirlpool, or Prister, a kind of whale whose floods of waters sink the strongest ships.

(P) Spermaceti, which is called ambergris.


(E) A monster looking like a rhinoceros devours a lobster which is 12 feet long.

(M) A sea snake, 30 or 40 feet long.

(3) West—The Sea Cow (not keyed on the original map).


(F) The benevolence of the fishes called rockas in Gothic and raya in Italian: They protect the swimming man and save him from being devoured by sea monsters.

Sebastian Münster's Monstra Marina & Terrestria

* * *

The indebtedness of Sebastian Münster (1488–1552) to Olaus's Carta Marina is evident in the renowned German scholar's woodcut plate of sea and land "monsters" of the North. All of Münster's animals—whether in the sea or in the land panel at the top—are derived from figures on Olaus's map. Some, such as the lobster (M) and thesea swine (K), are virtual copies of the originals; others are artistically modified. Nearly all Olaus's marine images, reversed through printing, fill the chart. And Münster's lettered key often echoes that of Olaus.

Like the sea beasts of the Carta Marina, those from Münster's Cosmographia Universalis (1544 and after) are intended to represent real animals. They comprise an illustrated catalog of imagined marine life. The tusked, spouting monster that attacks a ship at the top left (A) is pictured again—at the bottom—in its full, detailed form (A), as if it were serious natural history. The engraver's most accurately rendered "monster," as it is on the Carta Marina, is the gigantic lobster.

Münster was one of the preeminent cartographers of the sixteenth century. His best-known works are editions of Ptolemy's Geographia (1540 and after) and his voluminous Cosmographia. His portrayals of Scandinavia in editions of both books were influenced by Olaus's wall map. The latter volume went through nearly forty editions in Latin and European languages, becoming one of the most popular and influential books of its time.

In his History, Olaus cites Münster's earlier Cosmographia several times, and even refers to him by name, completing the cross-germination between the two authors. The History itself would qualify as the "great book" Münster refers to in the final entry of his key.


(A) Great whales as large as mountains are sometimes seen near Iceland, which overturn ships unless frightened off by the sound of trumpets, or they distractedly play with empty barrels dropped into the sea. It also happens sometimes that sailors are put in danger when they fix anchors onto the backs of whales which they think are islands. In the language of these men they are called Trolual, that is, devil whales.

(B) A terrifying type of huge monsters, called physeteres. Solinus makes mention of these after Pliny. This whale upright submerges even a large boat, drawing up water and blowing it out through the holes of its forehead in the manner of a rainstorm.

(C) In the ocean one finds sea snakes, 200 and 300 feet long. They twist around the ship, harm the sailors, and attempt to sink it.

(D) Two large sea monsters, one fierce with teeth, the other with horns and terrifying with a flaming appearance, whose eye's circumference has the measurement of 16 or 20 feet. The head is square with a great, long beard, but the rear part is small.

(H) This horrible sea monster is called Ziphius, and it eats a seal, which they translate in German as selehund.

(I) Ducks are born from the fruit of certain trees in Scotland.

(K) Sea monster, somewhat resembling a pig, was seen in AD 1537.

(L) A type of whale, called orca by some, which is called the springval by the Norwegians because of its sprightliness, and it has a high, wide hump on its back.

(M) Crabs of notable size, which the people of Humeren call gambars, are of such strength that they seize men with their claws and overwhelm them.

(N) A monster like the rhinoceros devours a gambar, or crab, of 12 feet, has a horned and sharp nose even as a back sloping with a sharp point.

(R) The pelican, a bird not smaller than a duck, when its throat is full of water, sends out a sound like that of a braying donkey. It has a lump like a sack under its beak.

(S) The mercy is noted of fish which are commonly called Rocken and in Italian Raya for they save and watch over a submerged man lest he be devoured by sea monsters.

(T) That monster is called a sea cow because it has a head shaped like a cow on earth.

(V) Many other types and marvelous forms of animals, fishes, and birds are found in the northern regions, about which a great book could be produced. For as the torrid zone in Africa has its unique and marvelous animals which can scarcely live outside the heat of that region, so in turn the creator gave the cold northern region its own animals which cannot bear the heat of the sun.


Excerpted from Sea Monsters by Joseph Nigg. Copyright © 2013 Joseph Nigg. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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