Imagining the Arctic

Gerhard Mercator, Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio (Amsterdam, 1633). OS-1633-2

This map represents the second stage in the development of Gerhard Mercator’s map of the north Polar Regions, Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio, which was first published posthumously by his son Rumold in the Atlantis Pars Altera (Duisburg, 1595). Jodocus Hondius, an engraver, printer, and publisher in Amsterdam, made important changes to the map after purchasing the plate from the Mercator family in 1604. Hondius altered Mercator’s geography in two ways: first, he joined the two islands of Nova Zembla, although the eastern, ice-bound coast of the island still remained undetermined; second, he added Spitzbergen, discovered by Willem Barentsz in 1596, in the process destroying the neat symmetry of the four Arctic landmasses that Mercator had imagined (Burden 1996, 113). This particular impression of the map, made from a copper-plate engraving and hand-painted, was originally bound in the two-volume French edition of the Atlas published by Henricus Hondius (Amsterdam, 1633).

The prototype of the polar map was an inset in Mercator’s famous world map (1569), in the lower left corner. Reaching only to 70° latitude, it contained fewer land features than the later incarnation. Mercator turned the polar map into a free-standing work by extending its coverage to 60° latitude and including new information. The geographic development of the Northern Arctic was drawn from various sources: an account given in the Itinerarium by a fourteenth-century traveler, Jacob Cnoyen; from the Zeno map (Venice, 1558), later proven to be fictitious; and the Arctic portions of Eurasia known from the voyages of Frobisher and Davis (Kershaw 1993, 25-28). The map contains three circular insets depicting islands of the north: the Shetland Islands (bottom-left), the Faroe Islands (top-right), and the Frisland Islands (top-left); the last are fictitious and were derived from the Zeno map.

At the time of the map’s initial creation, no one had yet been to either polar region and, as such, geographical hearsay provided Mercator with an ideological and mythical view of the North Pole. In particular, Mercator understood the pole to be surrounded by four large islands; on the southern rim of each of the Islands is a chain of mountains, which are incomplete on the 1633 map because of changes made to incorporate Spitzbergen (shown as three large islands: t’Nieulant; Hugo Willoughbesland; Macsin). Mercator thought that the four polar islands were divided by four rivers of the sea that flowed northward as if pulled by the magnetic force of the pole and then absorbed into the depths of the Earth. Within the open water at the pole itself is the tall lodestone to signify the North Pole, which was reported to have a circumference of 33 leagues (183,348 meters) (Verner and Stuart-Stubbs 1979, 132). Between the Arctic coasts of America (curiously labeled as California) and Asia are two separate magnetic poles, indicating Mercator’s knowledge of magnetic deviation and also the uncertainty of representing a true north. As a whole, the map is a fantastic work, in which geographic truths meet with creative imaginings of the unknown.

Further Reading (online)

Dunkleman, Arthur. 2013. "To the Ends of the Earth... and Back: Selections from the Jay I. Kislak Polar Collection." An exhibition at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education.

Further Reading (print)

Burden, Philip. 1996. The Mapping of North America: A List of Printed Maps 1511-1670. Rickmansworth: Raleigh Publishing.

Crane, Nicholas. 2003. Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Kershaw, Kenneth A. 1993. Early Printed Maps of Canada 1540-1703. 4 vols. Ancaster, Ont.: Kershaw Publishing.

Krogt, Peter van der. 1997. Koeman’s Atlantes Neerlandici. Volume 1. ’t Goy-Houten, The Netherlands: HES Publishers.

Taylor, Andrew. 2004. The World of Gerald Mercator: The Mapmaker that Revolutionized Geography. New York: Walker & Company.

Taylor, E. G. R. 1956. “A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee.” Imago Mundi 13: •••-••.

Thrower, Norman J. W. 2008. Maps and Civilization: Cartography in Culture and Society. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Verner, Coolie, and Basil Stuart–Stubbs. 1979. The Northpart of America. Toronto: Academic Press Canada.


Jamie McFaul (BA Geography-Anthropology; USM 2015)

November 2013

Prepared for GEO 207, “Map History”