hic sunt dracones

Here be dragons” is a phrase used to denote dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of the medieval practice of putting sea serpents and other mythological creatures in blank areas of maps.

The only known historical use of this phrase is in the Latin form “HC SVNT DRACONES” (i.e. hic sunt dracones) on the Lenox Globe (ca. 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.

The classical phrase utilized by ancient Roman and Medieval cartographers used to be HIC SVNT LEONES (literally, Here are lions) when denoting unknown territories on maps.

Dragons on maps

Dragons appear on a few other historical maps.

  • The T-O Psalter map (ca. 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 (ca. 1430 AD), 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, indeed, are men who have large horns of the length of four feet, and there are even serpents so large, that they could eat an ox whole.”) The latter may refer to the dragons of the Chinese dragon dance.
  • A 19th-century Japanese map, the Jishin-no-ben, 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 dog-headed beings 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 truly fertile, however it is full of beasts and serpents.”)
  • The Ebstorf map (13th c.) 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.
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