II: Classical Mythology

Myths are narratives of primeval supernatural beings and their deeds in relation to universal themes such as creation. While some early civilizations regarded myths as sacred history, they eventually came to be accepted as allegorical and exemplary. Their function was to explain things that are not subject to logical proof and to tell how concepts, practices, and natural phenomena came into existence.
The mythology of early civilizations was frequently adopted by later cultures, usually with some revision of the characteristics and deeds of the principal actors. For example, many of the ancient Greek gods were embraced by the Romans who changed their names and often their attributes, domains, and life stories. The result was a complex web of interrelated and sometimes conflicting tales subject to a variety of interpretations.
The rich imagery of mythology has engaged the imagination of writers and artists through the ages. Mapmakers, in common with other artists, have made effective use of mythological sources to embellish their works and add to their cultural content. Figures from classical mythology were frequently used for allegorical representation of celestial bodies, the four classical elements, and the four seasons.

10. Abraham Ortelius

This beautifully executed sixteenth century landscape depicts the Vale of Tempe, lying between Mount Ossa and Mount Olympus, the mythological home of the gods. The scene is idyllic, consistent with its description by ancient poets as the most delightful place on earth. The altar of Zeus (Jove, Jupiter) is located at the summit of Mount Olympus, in keeping with his station as the all-powerful chief deity. The temple devoted to his worship, at the base of the mountain on the right, contained one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the gold and ivory statue of Zeus by Phidias.


Abraham Ortelius (Flemish, 1527-1598)
Tempe, 1590
In: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Antwerp, 1595)
Engraving, hand colored
Osher Collection

11. Frederick de Wit

The ornate border illustrations  of this  map are complex allegorical portrayals of the four elements, using figures from Greek and Roman mythology. At the upper left, fire is represented by Pluto transporting Proserpina to Hades, whose fiery gates are guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed dog; a battle rages in the background. At the upper right, air is represented by the mythological deities associated with celestial bodies: Jupiter (with Juno and her peacock), Mars, Venus, Apollo (with halo as the sun god, and lute as the patron of music), Saturn (with scythe, about to devour his child), Luna (Diana), and Mercury.  A cherub blows the wind, and a river god pours rain from his urn. The scene at the lower left represents earth;  the central figure illustrates the frequent blending of mythological figures, having the cornucopia of the Greek goddess Ceres, the turreted crown of the Phrygian earth-mother Cybele, and the multiple breasts of the Ephesian goddess Artemis.  At the lower right, water is portrayed by a marine scene featuring Neptune, Amphitrite, Tritons, and Nereids. In the central cusps  between the terrestrial and celestial hemispheres, are miniature allegorical representations of the continents (above) and the seasons (below).


Item 11
Frederick de Wit
Dutch, 1616-1698
Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula, 1668
In: Louis Renard, Atlas de la Navigation et du Commerce...
Amsterdam, 1739
Engraving, hand colored
Osher Collection

12. Joan Blaeu

This map is considered one of the masterpieces of Dutch cartography owing to its excellent design and engraving. The top border depicts the heavens with an array of mythological gods reclining on clouds amid what appear to be numerous rainbows. In actuality, this is an allegorical representation of the solar system, with the sun represented by Apollo in a halo at the center, surrounded by the rainbow-like orbits of the known planets in their correct order: Mercury (with winged hat and caduceus), Venus (with love apple and Cupid), Mars (with helmet, shield, and sword), Jupiter (with crown, scepter, thunderbolt, and eagle), and Saturn (with scythe). The moon, represented by Luna (with crescent on her head), is seen in the cusp between the two hemispheres of the earth. At the bottom, the four seasons are represented by mythological figures in chariots drawn by animals and birds.  From the left they are: spring, represented by Flora, goddess of flowers; summer, represented by Ceres, the goddess of agriculture; autumn, represented by Bacchus, the god of wine; and winter, represented by an old man warming himself against the chill of Boreas, the north wind. 


Item 12
Joan Blaeu
Dutch, 1596-1673
Nova et Accuratissima Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula
From: Atlas Major
Amsterdam, 1662
Engraving, hand colored
Osher Collection

13. Nicolas Visscher

The borders of this map are given over to allegorical representations of the four classical elements of the Greek universe (Cosmos): fire, air, water, and earth. At the upper left, fire is dramatically portrayed by a scene of Pluto abducting Proserpina in his chariot to his fiery underworld kingdom. At the upper right, air is represented by Jupiter and Juno in their chariot drawn over the clouds by eagles, with putti (winged cherubs) hovering about. At the lower left, water is personified by the sea-god Neptune and his wife, Amphitrite, in a seashell drawn by sea horses, and surrounded by Nereids (sea nymphs or mermaids) and Tritons (mermen). Earth, at the lower right, is represented by Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, wearing her characteristic crown of ears of corn and holding a cornucopia overflowing with fruit; vegetables and sheaves of grain lie on the ground and the scene connotes a pastoral thanksgiving.


Item 13
Nicolas Visscher
Dutch, 1618-1679
Orbis Terrarum Nova et Accuratissima Tabula
Amsterdam, 1658
Engraving, hand colored
Osher Collection

14. Moses Pitt

On this map, the ornamental imagery is contained in a framelike paneled border, a format known as "carte a figure."  The top  border  displays  the  known  celestial  bodies,  labeled "SEPTEM  PLANET A"  (seven  planets),  in  the  form  of mythological  gods and goddesses. Their attributes differ somewhat from those seen on the previous maps, and they are now traveling across the heavens in their chariots.  They are, from left to right: the moon goddess Luna (also goddess of hunting known as Artemis or Diana) with crescent headdress and bow, in a chariot drawn by two maidens; Mercury, with winged hat and caduceus, in a chariot drawn by birds; Venus, accompanied by Cupid in a chariot drawn by swans; Sol, the sun, represented by Apollo in a chariot drawn by four horses; Mars, an armed warrior whose chariot is drawn by wolves; Jupiter, king of the gods, with gold crown and thunderbolts, in a chariot drawn by eagles; and Saturn, holding a scythe in a chariot drawn by dragons. Along the left side, the four elements are personified by figures not representing specific deities but having meaningful attributes.  For example, "Aer" holds a chameleon believed to survive on air alone, and "Aqua" leans on an overturned urn, the symbol of the ancient river gods. On the right, the four seasons are portrayed with attributes appropriate to the time of year.  The bottom border contains vignettes of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.


Item 14
Moses Pitt
English, active 1654-1696
Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica
Tabula From: The English Atlas
Oxford, 1680
Engraving, hand colored
Osher Collection

15. Johann Melchior Fuessli

Although this depiction of the creation of the universe is from a Bible, its only religious symbolism consists of the Tetragrammaton (Hebrew name of God in the Old Testament) at the top center. The remaining images illustrate various scientific concepts of the universe including the ancient Greek concept of concentric spheres surrounding the earth (upper left). The large central image is a surprisingly accurate diagram of the (sun-centered) solar system, contradicting the traditional biblical teaching of an earth-centered universe. Forming the outer border of this system is the Zodiac, a zone of the heavens through which the sun, moon, and planets travel. Its name derives from the Greek word for animals since it passes through many constellations named after animals. As seen here, it is divided into 12 equal arcs called signs and named after the constellations.


Item 15
Johann Melchior Fuessli (Designer), active 1731
Jacob Andreas Friderich (Engraver), 1683-1751
Creatio Universi. Erschaffung der gantzen Welt
From: Johann J. Scheuchzer, Kupfer-Bibel...,
Augsburg and Ulm, 1731
Engraving, hand colored
Smith Collection

16. G. Wright

A celestial globe is a spherical model of the heavens with the stars arranged on its surface in the form of constellations. The latter are groupings of stars into patterns or pictures of various objects, figures, and animals, a convention which originated about 3000 B.C. in Babylon. The ancient Greeks adopted their own system of constellations based on characters from their mythology, such as Cassiopeia and Andromeda. These became the basis for standardized depictions of the heavens such as that used on this globe made in 1782. Throughout the centuries the fantastic and exotic forms of the constellations have offered an irresistible creative challenge to artists, who have responded by producing numerous imaginative and beautifully crafted celestial images in the form of charts and globes. Among them is the first printed chart of the heavens made in 1515 by the German master, Albrecht Dürer.


Item 16
G. Wright
English, 1740-1783
Wright's New Improved Celestial Globe
London, 1782
Celestial globe, hand colored, on wooden stand
Osher Collection

17. Vincenzo Maria Coronelli

These "gores" were designed to be cut out and applied to the surface of a sphere to form a celestial globe. Their maker, Vincenzo Maria Coronelli, was the foremost globe maker of his day, as evidenced by the striking design and fine engraving of this work. The dark "dashed" line forming an upward curve across the center of the engraving marks the ecliptic ~ the apparent path of the sun through the constellations of the Zodiac.


Item 17
Vincenzo Maria Coronelli
Italian, 1650-1718
Untitled [Celestial Globe Gores]
Venice, 1700
Osher Collection