The Amazing Medieval Map Of Sea Monsters

“But, with time, one has encountered many of the monsters, and one is increasingly less terrified of those still to be met.” —Kay Redfield Jameson, An Unquiet Mind

In A Nutshell

Catholic priest and exile Olaus Magnus is perhaps best known for his chronicle of medieval life in Scandinavia, presented in his epic work Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (“A History of the Nordic People”). He also spent 12 years of his life creating an elaborately detailed map of Scandinavia. Not only has it been found to be eerily accurate, but it’s also been found that swirls and squiggles previously thought be decoration actually coincide with real oceanic phenomenon. Also on the map are amazingly detailed drawings of sea monsters, accompanied by thorough descriptions of the mythical beasts then thought to roam the sea.

The Whole Bushel

Swedish exile Olaus Magnus’s intricately detailed, beautifully drawn map of medieval Scandinavia was originally printed in such a small quantity that it was lost and forgotten about for nearly 300 years. It took the Catholic priest 12 years to create, and it was finally published in 1539 under the title “Carta Marina.” Only two original copies have ever been found—one in Munich, the first copy that rediscovered the map, and another that was purchased by the Uppsala University Library.

As a useful tool and when it’s judged on the basis of its cartography, it’s surprisingly accurate, especially considering it was done by an amateur cartographer with no modern tools. So accurate, in fact, that an examination of the original maps show something surprising.

The original map has a number of swirls drawn on the waters around Scandinavia. Reprints were done on copperplate in 1572, but because of the medium and the much smaller scale, most of the detail was lost—including the swirls. It was only with the rediscovery of the much larger, much more detailed original map that the “decorations” were finally understood. A comparison to modern thermal images shows that many of the swirls and symbols on the map correspond with ocean phenomenon.

Where the Gulf Stream meets the colder northern waters, the different temperatures create massive, slow spiraling currents. These are marked on this 1539 map.

Many of the details that are on the map came from stories Magnus heard from sailors and fishermen who would be able to point out just where these phenomenon were, even if they didn’t know why they happened. They also told stories of sea monsters—and those, too, Magnus included in his map, along with complete descriptions of the monsters in an accompanying text.

It’s these drawings that are truly breathtaking. Some are interpretations of creatures we now know to be real, like the manta ray, the octopus, the swordfish, and the walrus.

Others give some incredible insight into the fantastic world that those of the medieval age must have thought was just outside their borders. The map warns of islands that aren’t really islands at all, but the hunting grounds of massive creatures trying to fool sailors into landing their ships on their backs, only to be pulled beneath the water.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating is the Duck Tree. As far as people were concerned, ducks appeared in the spring, left for a while, and more ducks came back. So Magnus included a Duck Tree, that bore ducklings as fruit. Ducks were never seen mating or laying eggs, so it was as good an explanation as any.

Not just a sea map, the land masses are filled with amazing drawings as well, each capturing a picture of 16th-century Scandinavian life. Two reindeer pull a sleigh while a maid milks another. Bundles of fish surround what much have been bountiful lakes. Kings sit atop their decorative thrones while travelers lead snowshoed horses over mountains.

Magnus had left his native Sweden and moved to Italy in order to preserve his right to practice his Catholic faith. For most people in Rome, the north was a mysterious, marvelous land, and Magnus’s map undoubtedly made it more so.

Interestingly, the map is also one of the earliest examples of something else. Neither of the original surviving copies were in color, and according to Magnus, that was because the buyer was supposed to color it in the way he or she desired.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota (includes photo of full map) Here Be Duck Trees and Sea Swine (includes interactive map/monster guide)
The Cipher Project: Exploring Carta Marina
Carta Marina at Uppsala University Library

  • inconspicuous detective

    first ever coloring book? check. more interesting: in the year 1539 people still weren’t aware of how birds made more birds? i mean if humans didn’t clue them in, and other birds (like domestic chickens) didn’t make it obvious…

    • Tom Johnson

      I agree, a ‘duck tree’ even in that era is just ridiculous. Shown around Greenland is driftwood- I wonder if a lot of driftwood really does make it up there or if the map maker misunderstood the prevalence of icebergs in the area.

      • Sifjaspellir .

        I’m not sure about Greenland but driftwood usually comes to the northern shore of Iceland. It’s probable that the driftwood comes from logs that are thrown in rivers in Russia for easy transportation, and not all are picked up. They then float to the west, until they get hit by a cold current going southwards and end up on the northern shore of Iceland. Driftwood was important to Icelanders since there are so few trees, and a lot of people still collect and dry driftwood.

        • lbatfish

          I was in the same situation back when I used to live in the delta of the Yukon River. Nothing but bushes locally, but lots of huge logs floating down from eastern Alaska and Canada.

          That makes summer a busy time, in addition to the salmon-fishing — the other seven months of the year, you’d need dynamite to blast them out of the frozen mud.

    • Befuddled Mike

      Actually the fact that geese (barnacle geese, to be exact) were thought to be part plant was used as an excuse to eat them during feasting days, when the consumption of meat wasn’t allowed. Maybe it had more to do with that?

  • Hillyard

    Amazing amount of detail, and correct information considering that he had no modern tools. Good article.

  • Check

    Feels to me like an ancient Dungeons and Dragons map, one ahead of it’s time. Just needed adventurers to partake in the exploration.

    • TheMadHatter

      I volunteer as tribute!

  • Sifjaspellir .

    An interesting map. I’m from Iceland so of course i checked that first, and there are some oddities there of course. Hvítserkur(Hvitsark) on the map is placed far away in the ocean, when it’s really pretty close to land, and can easily be seen from the land which would probably have been mentioned if Hvitserkur was mentioned at all. Armoured knights are also an oddity but probably just put there for fun.

    Then we have the Faroese butchering a whale, which is pretty accurate, and funny. But we got this Island west of the Faroese islands, Tile which isn’t there. It’s possibly the old Thule legend, and now i really wish i knew latin so i could read what he put there.

    Svalbard was officially indisputably discovered in 1596 though most likely scandinavians knew of it before. This map shows an Island to the north-east of Iceland which is very likely Svalbard(though possibly Jan Mayen).

    The icebergs east of Iceland are also something I have never heard of, since this was around the little Ice age, it’s probable that icebergs were a lot more common there at the time.

    I guess the 2 large land masses north of Scotland are Orkney and Hjaltland(Shetland)

    • Befuddled Mike

      On Thule/Tile Olaus writes: “Many call this island Thule, others say Iceland is Thule. I, however, point out that Procopius (accidentaly) identified the great Scandiana, which will be mentioned further on, as Thule. But on Thule lives the master of the Islands which are called the Orkneys. He has there castles and 30.000 inhabitants who wouldn’t want to exchange their happines and wealth with any other nation in the world.”

      Orkney itself is the mass of islands south of Thule, named here “Orcad”. On one of them the goose tree is located.
      The gunk swimming to the east of the Faroe is ambra btw.

      Iceland itself is called “an island, more than twice as big as Sicily, which shows an exceptional number of natural wonders, which are barely able to be fully explained.”

  • I see the map even includes the city of ‘Levert’, my hometown Ljouwert, in Frisia Occidetalis, just above the number 23!

  • Akarasakii

    “But, with time, one has encountered many of the monsters, and one is increasingly less terrified of those still to be met.” —Kay Redfield Jameson, An Unquiet Mind

    Yeah, this guy has definitely not played dark souls.

    • Andy West


      • lbatfish

        “Gal (4 liters)”

        There . . . fixed it!

        • Andy West

          Ah, The Tubeway Army.

  • Rinezca Grace

    Did he include Tortuga?

  • Befuddled Mike

    The best part about the Carta Marina is the little squirrel that uses it’s tail as a sail. (On the map part C, detail N)

    The sea monsters that decorate the sea where very often copied in later texts, for example in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia, or as a wall decoration in several Italian villas, even in some rooms of the Vatican.

  • new

    Kind of creepy

  • Andy West

    Here be monsters!

  • RobertaWaters

    For using it Map we can finds a Place for the Sea Monster .