Here be dragons

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The text Hic Sunt Dracones on the Hunt–Lenox Globe, dating from 1504

"Here be dragons" (hic sunt dracones in Latin) 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.[1][2]


Although several early maps, such as the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, have illustrations of mythological creatures for decoration, the phrase itself is an anachronism.[3] Until the discovery of the Da Vinci Globe by Prof. Stefaan Missinne in 2012(1), the only known historical use of this phrase in the Latin form "HC SVNT DRACONES" (i.e, hic sunt dracones, 'here are dragons') was the Hunt-Lenox Globe dating from 1504.[4] Earlier maps contain a variety of references to mythical and real creatures, but the Da Vinci Globe and its twin the Lenox Globe are the only known surviving globes to bear this phrase. The term appears on the Da Vinci and the Lenox Globe at the peripheral, extreme end of the Asian continent.

The probable source for "HC SVNT DRACONES" on the Da Vinci and the Lenox Globe is the treatise De rebus metallicis et mineralibus. This treatise dating from 1276 contains a reference to the Orient by Albertus Magnus, who writes "ubi sunt dracones magni", i.e. "where there are big dragons". Leonardo da Vinci makes reference to "Secreti d’ Alberto Magno" which means the secrets of Albertus Magnus in his Codex Madrid II, page 2 verso.[5] The original passage by Albertus Magnus is: 'Draconites autem lapis est a capite draconis extractus, et fertur ab Oriente ubi sunt dracones magni'. In English this means: "Draconites is namely a stone drawn out from the head of a dragon. This stone is brought from the Orient where there are many big dragons".

Pliny the Elder made reference to Draconites or dragon stone, which is a transparent gem or diamond. The phrase "here are dragons" (in Latin) is located just below the word "ANFVROIN" on the Lenox Globe, which has at its centre "furo", i.e. wild or furious, which is the base for "furorem", i.e. anger. The initial "AN" may be an "abbreviation" of "ANIMA", i.e. life/breath/vigour/mind/soul. Whereby the "IN" may stand for in/onto/within. Combining "ANFVROIN" with Draconites could be therefore be interpreted as the "vigorous fury in the dragon stone", and reflects the furious light reflected from the diamonds. On a Portolan chart by Girolamo da Verrazano, brother of the navigator Giovanni da Verrazano (1485-1528), at the Vatican Museum there is depicted a mountain of diamonds in the Far Eastern Region near the Equator. For Leonardo, prudence, i.e. "Prudentia" is symbolised by a dragon.[6]

A more speculative theory regarding the phrase "HC SVNT DRAGONES" is that, because it appears on both the Da Vinci and Lenox Globes at the periphery of Asia, it may be a very early reference to Komodo dragons, the world's largest lizards, found on Komodo and other islands in Indonesia.

As geographers, Sosius, crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect, that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts, unapproachable bogs, Scythian ice, or a frozen sea, so, in this work of mine, in which I have compared the lives of the greatest men with one another, after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off, beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables; there is no credit, or certainty any farther.

Plutarch, Parallel Lives (1st century)

The classical phrase used by medieval cartographers was HIC SVNT LEONES (literally, "here are lions") when denoting unknown territories on maps.[7]

Dragons on maps[edit]

The Psalter world map with dragons at the base

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) shows the "Island of Dragons" (Italian: Isola de' dragoni), an imaginary island in the Atlantic Ocean.[8] In an inscription near Herat in modern-day Afghanistan, 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.[9] In an inscription elsewhere on the map, the cartographer expresses his scepticism regarding "serpents, dragons and basilisks" mentioned by "some historiographers".[10]
  • A 19th-century Japanese map, the Jishin-no-ben, in the shape of ouroboros, depicts a dragon associated with causing earthquakes.
Close-up view of the dragons on the 1265 Psalter world map

Other creatures on maps[edit]

  • Ptolemy's atlas in Geographia (originally 2nd century, taken up again in the 15th century) warns of elephants, hippos and cannibals.
  • The Tabula Peutingeriana (a 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 European maps of Africa, up until the Berlin Conference and the subsequent Scramble for Africa produced accurate cartographic representations of Africa, elephants replaced dragons as placeholders for unknown regions. An excerpt from On Poetry: a Rhapsody by the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift states: "So geographers, in Afric maps, With savage pictures fill their gaps, And o'er uninhabitable downs, Place elephants for want of towns".[citation needed]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Waters, Hannah (2013-10-15). "The Enchanting Sea Monsters on Medieval Maps". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 2017-01-19.
  2. ^ Van Duzer, Chet (2013). Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps. British Library Publishing. ISBN 978-0712357715.
  3. ^ Blake, Erin C. (1999). "Where Be "Here be Dragons"?". MapHist Discussion Group.
  4. ^ Missinne, Stefaan (2018). The Da Vinci Globe. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 978-1-5275-2614-3.
  5. ^ Ibid., pp. 72-73.
  6. ^ Ibid., pp.74-75.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ "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
  10. ^ Item 460 in Falchetta 2006, pp. 276–278


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