Here be dragons

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
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] The only known historical use of this phrase is in the Latin form "HC SVNT DRACONES" (i.e. hic sunt dracones, here are dragons) on the Hunt-Lenox Globe[1] (c. 1503–07). Earlier maps contain a variety of references to mythical and real creatures, but the Lenox Globe is the only known surviving map to bear this phrase. The term appeared on the Lenox Globe around the east coast of Asia, and might be related to the Komodo dragons in the Indonesian islands, tales of which were quite common throughout East Asia.[2]

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 ancient Roman and Medieval cartographers was HIC SVNT LEONES (literally, "here are lions") when denoting unknown territories on maps.[4]

Dragons on maps[edit]

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.[5] 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.[6] In an inscription elsewhere on the map, the cartographer expresses his skepticism regarding "serpents, dragons and basilisks" mentioned by "some historiographers".[7]
  • A 19th-century Japanese map, the Jishin-no-ben, in the shape of ouroboros, depicts a dragon associated with causing earthquakes.

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.
  • 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."

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. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ "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
  7. ^ Item 460 in Falchetta 2006, pp. 276–278


External links[edit]