Here be dragons
"Here be dragons" means dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of a medieval practice of putting illustrations of dragons, sea monsters and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps where potential dangers were thought to exist.
Although several early maps, such as the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, have illustrations of mythological creatures for decoration, the phrase itself is an anachronism. There are just two known historical uses of this phrase in the Latin form "HC SVNT DRACONES" (i.e. hic sunt dracones, 'here are dragons'). One is on the Hunt–Lenox Globe (c. 1503–07), on which the term appeared around the east coast of Asia. This might be related to the Komodo dragons on the Indonesian islands, tales of which were quite common throughout East Asia. The other appearance of the term is on a globe engraved on two conjoined halves of ostrich eggs, dated to 1504. Earlier maps contain a variety of references to mythical and real creatures, but the Hunt-Lenox Globe and the egg globe are the only known surviving maps to bear this phrase. Furthermore, the two maps may be closely linked: an investigation of the egg globe performed by collector Stefaan Missinne concluded that the Hunt–Lenox Globe is in fact a cast of it. "'Here be dragons,' [is] a very interesting sentence," said Thomas Sander, editor of the Portolan, the journal of the Washington Map Society. "In early maps, you would see images of sea monsters; it was a way to say there's bad stuff out there."
More recently, the Firefox browser uses the phrase as a warning when the address about:config is accessed.
Dragons on maps
Dragons appear on a few other historical maps:
- The T-O Psalter world map (c. 1250 AD) has dragons, as symbols of sin, in a lower "frame" below the world, balancing Jesus and angels on the top, but the dragons do not appear on the map proper.
- The Borgia map (c. 1430), in the Vatican Library, states, over a dragon-like figure in Asia (in the upper left quadrant of the map), "Hic etiam homines magna cornua habentes longitudine quatuor pedum, et sunt etiam serpentes tante magnitudinis, ut unum bovem comedant integrum." ("Here there are even men who have large four-foot horns, and there are even serpents so large that they could eat an ox whole.").
- The Fra Mauro Map (c. 1450) has the "Island of Dragons" (Italian: Isola de' dragoni), an imaginary island in the Atlantic Ocean. In an inscription near Herat, Fra Mauro says that in the mountains nearby "there are a number of dragons, in whose forehead is a stone that cures many infirmities", and describes the locals' way of hunting those dragons to get the stones. This is thought to be based on Albertus Magnus's treatise De mineralibus. In an inscription elsewhere on the map, the cartographer expresses his skepticism regarding "serpents, dragons and basilisks" mentioned by "some historiographers".
- A 19th-century Japanese map, the Jishin-no-ben, in the shape of ouroboros, depicts a dragon associated with causing earthquakes.
Other creatures on maps
- Ptolemy's atlas in Geographia (originally 2nd century, taken up again in the 15th century) warns of elephants, hippos and cannibals.
- Tabula Peutingeriana (medieval copy of Roman map) has "in his locis elephanti nascuntur", "in his locis scorpiones nascuntur" and "hic cenocephali nascuntur" ("in these places elephants are born, in these places scorpions are born, here Cynocephali are born").
- Cotton MS. Tiberius B.V. fol. 58v (10th century), British Library Manuscript Collection, has "hic abundant leones" ("here lions abound"), along with a picture of a lion, near the east coast of Asia (at the top of the map towards the left); this map also has a text-only serpent reference in southernmost Africa (bottom left of the map): "Zugis regio ipsa est et Affrica. est enim fertilis. sed ulterior bestiis et serpentibus plena" ("This region of Zugis is in Africa; it is rather fertile, but on the other hand it is full of beasts and serpents.")
- The Ebstorf map (13th century) has a dragon in the extreme south-eastern part of Africa, together with an asp and a basilisk.
- Giovanni Leardo's map (1442) has, in southernmost Africa, "Dixerto dexabitado p. chaldo e p. serpent".
- Martin Waldseemüller's Carta marina navigatoria (1516) has "an elephant-like creature in northernmost Norway, accompanied by a legend explaining that this 'morsus' with two long and quadrangular teeth congregated there", i.e. a walrus, which would have seemed monstrous at the time.
- Waldseemüller's Carta marina navigatoria (1522), revised by Laurentius Fries, has the morsus moved to the Davis Strait.
- Bishop Olaus Magnus's Carta Marina map of Scandinavia (1539) has many monsters in the northern sea, as well as a winged, bipedal, predatory land animal resembling a dragon in northern Lapland.
- On the maps surrounding imperialism, up until the Berlin Conference of 1885 and the discoveries made by Livingstone, elephants were drawn in as is shown by this excerpt from "On Poetry: a Rhapsody" by Jonathan Swift: "So geographers, in Afric maps, With savage pictures fill their gaps, And o'er uninhabitable downs, Place elephants for want of towns."
- Waters, Hannah (2013-10-15). "The Enchanting Sea Monsters on Medieval Maps". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 2017-01-19.
- Van Duzer, Chet (2013). Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps. British Library Publishing. ISBN 978-0712357715.
- Blake, Erin C. (1999). "Where Be "Here be Dragons"?". MapHist Discussion Group.
- "Lenox Globe". Cartographic Images. 1998. Retrieved February 10, 2006.
- McCarthy, Dennis (2009). Here be Dragons – How the study of animal and plant distributions revolutionized our views of life and Earth. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-954246-5.
- Kim, Meeri (18 August 2013). "Oldest globe to depict the New World may have been discovered". The Washington Post. Retrieved 20 August 2013.
- Van Duzer, Chet (2014-06-04). "Bring on the Monsters and Marvels: Non-Ptolemaic Legends on Manuscript Maps of Ptolemy's Geography". Viator. 45 (2): 303–334. doi:10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.103923. ISSN 0083-5897.
- Item 558 in: Falchetta, Piero (2006), Fra Mauro's World Map, Brepols, pp. 294–295, ISBN 2-503-51726-9; also in the list online
- "In le montagne de la citade de here sono dragoni assai, i qual hano una piera in fronte virtuosa a molte infirmitade". Item 1457 in Falchetta 2006, pp. 462–464
- Item 460 in Falchetta 2006, pp. 276–278
- Livingston, Michael (2002). "Modern Medieval Map Myths: The Flat World, Ancient Sea-Kings, and Dragons". Strange Horizons. Archived from the original on February 9, 2006. Retrieved February 10, 2006.
- Myths & Legends On Old Maps (Chapter 10)
- Cecil Adams on the Subject (see bottom of page)
- An overview of dragons on antique maps
- "Here be Dragons" by David Montgomery, Washington Post, 3/14/07
- "Here Be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical Thinking" by Brian Dunning from Skeptoid
- "Here Be Dragons" by Brian Dunning – Spanish Subtitled Version (Versión Subtitulada al Español de "Aquí Hay Dragones" por Brian Dunning)
- "Here There Be Dragons". TV Tropes.