IV: Monsters

From the earliest times mankind has been fascinated by monsters — creatures of bizarre, grotesque, or frightful configuration. Monsters were variously regarded as supernatural beings, creations of a wise and all-powerful god, omens signifying divine displeasure, or the products of cross-breeding between different species of animals or between humans and animals. Some were of purely imaginary origin, while others arose from faulty observation or misrepresentation of real creatures.Purely animal types included the dragon (winged scaly reptile), griffin (lion’s body with head and wings of an eagle), and chimaera (lion’s head, goat’s body and dragon’s tail). Partially human monsters included the centaur (human head and torso, body and legs of a horse), satyr (human head with horns, human torso, goat’s legs), and sphinx (head and bust of woman, wings, body of lion). Sea monsters included marine counterparts of land animals, such as sea horses, sea serpents, and sea dragons, as well as distinctive aquatic creatures. As on land, there were partially human varieties, such as Nereids (mermaids) and Tritons (mermen) with human heads and torsos, and fish’s tails.Remote areas of the world were believed to be populated by monstrous human races or tribes. Some were characterized by relatively mild deformities such as extra digits or limbs, single or quadruple eyes, absence of the mouth or nose, or enormous protruding lower lips. Others were more grotesque, with dog’s heads, or bird-like elongated necks and beaks, or lacking heads and having facial features on the chest. Monsters were prominently featured in classical Greek mythology, and were recorded in some detail in the fifth century B.C. historical writings of Herodotus. Pliny the elder, in his first century A.D. treatise on natural history, indiscriminately mingled fantasy with science, describing imaginary beasts and monstrosities along with real animals. Monster legends were perpetuated and embellished by the sensationalized and fraudulent writings of Gaius Julius Solinus (third century A.D.) and Sir John Mandeville (fourteenth century A.D.). Monster lore was thus widely disseminated and given great credibility from ancient times through the middle ages and even during the Renaissance. In terms of popular appeal, these curious beliefs may be compared to contemporary fascination with U.F.O.’s and science fiction.

25. Abraham Ortelius

This is one of the more spectacular maps in the Ortelius atlas, with its vivid depiction of the rugged terrain of Iceland including fiords, mountain ranges, glaciers, and the erupting Hekla volcano. Its most engaging feature, however, is the collection of fantastic sea monsters inhabiting the surrounding waters. Some of them are based on faulty observation or inaccurate descriptions of real creatures such as whales. It is likely that the majority derived from medieval legends, mariners' tales, or outright artistic license. As testimony to their purported authenticity, each of the creatures is assigned an identifying letter keyed to a detailed description on the back of the map.


Item 25
Abraham Ortelius
Flemish, 1527-1598
Islandia, 1585
Engraving, hand colored
In: Theatro d'el Orbe de la Tierra
Antwerp, 1602
Smith Collection
*Map pictured here is the same state, but uncolored and a part of the Osher Collection

26. Pieter van den Keere

This atlas is a miniature counterpart of the Ortelius volume. Because of its handy size, informative text, neatly engraved maps, and modest cost, it was a popular favorite. The two sea monsters seen here are identical to those labeled D and E on the Ortelius map [# 25], evidence of copying or a shared source.


Item 26
Pieter van den Keere
Dutch, 1571-1646
[Islandt], 1598
In: Barent Langenes, Hand-boeck; ofCort begrijp der Caerten...
Amsterdam, 1609
Smith Collection

27. Sebastian Munster

Illustrations of this type, along with the known perils of frigid weather and icebergs, undoubtedly contributed to apprehension on the part of northern explorers. The accompanying text describes the creatures labeled "A" (upper left and lower right) as huge fish the size of mountains, called "Fish of the Devil." They were said to be capable of capsizing ships, but could be frightened away by the sound of trumpets or diverted by empty barrels with which they enjoyed playing. They were sometimes mistaken for islands, with disastrous results for sailors who landed on them. Monster "N" (right center) was described as a rhinoceros-like creature with a sharp pointed nose who was capable of devouring a crab twelve feet long. Monster "M" was a huge crab who crushed swimmers in its claws. On the other hand, "S" was a benevolent fish who protected swimmers.


Item 27
Sebastian Munster
German, 1489-1552
Les marins monstres & terrestres
From: Cosmographia
Basle, 1550
Osher Collection

28. Gerard de Jode

This is the first separate map of the northwestern part of North America, depicting the region from present-day California to Alaska. The land animals are recognizable as goats and "cattle with humps like camels." The two sea creatures, however, are clearly monstrous. The "sea-unicorn" is particularly fanciful, and illustrates the notion that land animals, even imaginary ones, had marine equivalents.


Item 28
Gerard de Jode
Dutch, 1509-1591
Quivirae Regnu cum alijs versus Borea
Amsterdam, 1593
Engraving, hand colored
Osher Collection

29. Willem Barents

This rare and historic map documents the discoveries made by Willem Barents during his heroic expedition in search of a "Northeast Passage" over the top of Europe to the Orient. His ship was trapped in the ice and he survived the cruel Arctic winter, only to die of scurvy while en route home in the spring. His map, published posthumously, shows the tracks of his vessels and the newly discovered regions. In keeping with its scientific character, depictions of the sea creatures are more realistic, with recognizable walruses, seals, and whales predominating over sea monsters.


Item 29
Willem Barents
Dutch, 1550-1597
Delineatio cartae trium navigantium..., 1598
From: Jan Huygen van Linschoten, Itinerario...,
Antwerp, 1599
Osher Collection

30. Jodocus Hondius

This is one of five known surviving copies of one of the earliest maps to show information from Sir Francis Drake's voyage around the world (1577-1580). The beautifully engraved "watered silk" oceans contain a variety of sea monsters, the largest and most distinctive of which appears to be quite docile and under the control of a female figure whose appearance may reflect Drake's encounter with South American Indians.


Item 30
Jodocus Hondius
Flemish, 1563-1612
Jean Le Clerc
French, 1560-1621
Americae Novissima Descriptio
London, 1589; Paris, 1602
Osher Collection

31. Benito Arias Montano

This map is from Arias's eight-volume Polyglot Bible with text in Hebrew, Syriac, Greek and Latin. It records, with tables in Hebrew and Latin, the distribution of the descendants of Noah who repopulated the world after the great biblical flood. Location of some of them in the New World supports an early theory that the native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Israel. Sea monsters abound, no doubt as examples of The Almighty's wondrous creations.


Item 31
Benito Arias Montano
Spanish, 1527-1598
Benedict. Arias Montanus Sacrae Geographiae Tabulam...l571
From: Biblia Sacra, Hebraice, Chaldaice, Graece & Latine...
Antwerp, 1572
Osher Collection

32. Henricus Hondius

On this map the seas are inhabited by traditional monsters under the supervision of Neptune and Amphi trite, with flying fish overhead. The "dark continent" of Africa, on the other hand, contains numerous vignettes of camels, elephants, ostriches, and other indigenous animals depicted realistically, except for their relative sizes. However, their strange and exotic appearance to unaccustomed European eyes elicited fascination and wonder not unlike a modern day visit to the circus.


Item 32
Henricus Hondius
Dutch, 1597-1651
Africae nova Tabula
Amsterdam, 1631
Engraving, hand colored
Osher Collection

33. Hartmann Schedel

This map summarizes concepts of the world and its inhabitants prevalent in the late fifteenth century, before the news of the Columbian discoveries reached Europe. The geography is archaic, derived from the second-century work of Claudius Ptolemy. In the panel on the left and two additional panels on the back of the map there are images of bizarre humanoid monsters. These outlandish creatures were first described by the Greek physician Ctesias about 400 B.C., based on travellers' tales and his own visit to India. Later writers accepted these creatures as authentic semi-human beings who inhabited remote regions such as Ethiopia, India, and Scythia. Their fearsome appearance and purported bestial behavior constituted a potent deterrent to travel and exploration beyond the civilized world. On the other hand, some medieval church fathers pointed out that as descendants of Adam they had souls and were deserving of salvation.

The enlarged images on both sides are from the back of the map:

  • Amyctyrae had lower lips so large that they covered their entire faces during sleep. This creature may have been based on exaggerated versions of the Ubangi tribe of Africa, whose women stretched their lips with wooden disks.
  • Sciapods or Monoscelli were one-legged men in India and Ethiopia who were so swift as to be able to pursue wild beasts. In hot weather, they were said to lie on their backs and shelter themselves from the sun with their huge feet.
  • Cyclops or Monoculi are clearly derived from the mythical Greek giants with a single eye in the middle of their foreheads. Their humanoid counterparts were believed to live in India and Sicily, and to consume only raw fish and meat.
  • Cynocephali or dog-headed men were said to live in India and Ethiopia. In some accounts, they were described as wild creatures who barked like dogs and fed on animal skins and human parts. In others, they were characterized as intelligent and talented people whose principal peculiarity was that they worshipped an ox, or as adherents of Islam who were targets for conversion to Christianity.
  • Satyrs are modeled after the mythical Greek spirit of the -woods and mountains, and attendants of the god Bacchus. They had goat-like horns and hooves and were considered lazy and mischievous.
  • Acephali or Blemmyae were creatures with no heads or necks, whose facial features were on their chests. They were originally believed to inhabit only the outermost parts of Asia and Africa, but were described in 1596 by Sir Walter Raleigh in the Orinoco basin of South America. Widespread belief in their existence is evidenced in Shakespeare's Othello (Act I, Scene III) when the Moor of Venice, in describing his travels, speaks of "men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders."


Item 33
Hartmann Schedel
German, 1440-1514
Untitled Ptolemaic map of the world
In: Registrum hujus opens libri cronicarum...
Nuremberg, 1493
Osher Collection