BBC History Magazine
Medieval maps are often illustrated with strange sea creatures. What are they supposed to represent?
Medieval European maps differ from modern charts in several significant respects. They’re rarely orientated north–south – most have east at the top. Their descriptions of landmasses and their sense of scale are also different yet, curiously, not entirely dissimilar to the northern hemisphere as seen on Google
Earth. And the oceans, too, look unfamiliar, often populated with extraordinary creatures.
On the world map in the 11th-century manuscript Saint-Sever Beatus, for example, the ocean that encircles Asia, Africa and Europe teems with giant fish. And on the 14th-century English Gough Map, fish as large as Orkney swim off the coast of Scotland. More than merely helping the viewer to distinguish between land and sea, these creatures signify the abundance of life (and food) in the oceans, while also acknowledging the awesome scale of animals such as basking sharks and whales.
Sea creatures depicted on other maps tap into the classical monster repertoire. On the Hereford Map of the World, made c1300, a fish labelled “soldier of the sea” swims in the Mediterranean, alongside a siren with a mirror, combing her hair; elsewhere on the chart, Scylla’s roaring head and the whirlpool-monster Charybdis evoke the tale of Odysseus.
Medieval viewers might also have recognised the prophet Jonah, swallowed by a whale but delivered safely to shore, or perhaps a bestiary’s (an illustrated volume about animals and other natural phenomena) account of fish so large they are mistaken for islands by hapless sailors.
There is no single meaning of the sea creatures on medieval maps. Rather, they evoke a sense of wonder at the immensity of the oceans and their mysterious, mythically charged inhabitants.