MapHist general information

Where Be "Here be Dragons"?
Ubi sunt "Hic sunt dracones"?

That English mapmakers formerly placed the phrase "here be dragons" at the edges of their known world has somehow become general knowledge... and here is the list of all known historical maps upon which these words appear.

In other words, there aren't any.  Of course, it is not surprising that the English phrase does not appear on maps from a time and place where Latin was the language of learning, so here is the list of all known historical maps where the phrase appears in Latin:

In other words, there is one.  Just one.  MapHist's collective wisdom has turned up an additional list of textual and pictorial references to dragons and beastly creatures, but only the Lenox Globe bears the legendary phrase.


How and when did the notion that old maps commonly bore the phrase "here be dragons" become established in popular belief?  Did a Shakespeare or a Byron put it into circulation?  It must at least pre-date the publication of Dorothy L. Sayers' short story "The Learned Adventure of the Dragon's Head" in Lord Peter Views the Body (London: Gollancz, 1928), in which a character refers to having seen "hic dracones" on an old map [spotted by both Andrew S. Cook and Benjamin Darius Weiss].  Does it pre-date the publication of the text of the LenoxGlobe in 1879?  Why dragons, and not one of the other terrifying creatures depicted on old maps?  We don't know.
According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, "The animal called a dragon is a winged crocodile with a serpent's tail; whence the words serpent and dragon are sometimes interchangeable."  Furthermore, says Brewer, the word "dragon" was used "by ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages as the symbol of sin in general and paganism in particular.  The metaphor is derived from Rev. xii. 9, where Satan is termed 'the great dragon'."  In this sense, a picture of a dragon on an old map is analogous to a modern map which shows Commonwealth countries in pink, not to a vignette of the Official State Bird, or the notation "unsurveyed area".  As M. Hoogvliet pointed out to MapHist, "The dragon (draco) is a sub-species of the serpents (cf. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae XII,4,4: "Draco maior cunctorum serpentium ..."); most medieval maps have serpents in southern Africa (i.e. southernmost part of habitable world), which derives from Classical Roman authors, e.g. Pliny the Elder and Soninus."

Several MapHisters mentioned that numerous terrifying and amazing beasts appeared on the sorts of map in question.  These included many which are not considered mythical today (e.g. elephants, walruses, lions), but would have been just as fantastic as a dragon to contemporaries.  Furthermore, Larry Cruse suggested that actual "algae-impregnated icebergs" might look and behave like dragons in European shipping-lanes.

This page is concerned with "here be dragons" on old European maps, but dragons do occur on other categories of non-fictional map, notably:

containing DRAGONS and similar BEASTS

The following references have been compiled from MapHist's archive.  Names of those who supplied the reference are given after each entry (apologies to anyone whose name is mis-spelled, missed-out, or otherwise mis-represented).  Additional information from standard reference texts has been added by the compiler in a haphazard fashion.  For more descriptions, see Wilma George, Animals and Maps (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), and Judy Allen and Jeanne Griffiths, The Book of the Dragon (Chartwell Books, 1979).
  • Ptolemy's Atlas (originally 2nd century, taken up again in the 15th century) warns of elephants, hippos and cannibals [Ian Seymour via Jeremy Crampton]
  • Tabula Peutingeriana (medieval copy of Roman map) has "in his locis elephanti nascuntur", "in his locis scorpiones nascuntur" and "in his locis cenocephali nascuntur" ("in these places elephants are produced, in these places scorpions are produced, here dog-headed beings are produced") [Susan Weingarten]
  • 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." [Helen Wallis cited by Geoff Armitage]
  • The Psalter map (ca. 1250) has dragons in the bottom "frame", below the world (but no text), balancing Jesus and angels at top; verso has a T-O map with Christ standing on dragons; i.e. related to victorious ruler trampling enemies (the calcatio motif) where the dragon stands for the devil or death [Sinclair A. Sheers]
  • The Ebstorf map (13th c.) has the draco in the extreme south-eastern part of Africa, together with the aspis and basiliscus [M. Hoogvliet]
  • The Borgia Map (ca. 1430), Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, has text above a dragon-like figure in Asia (the upper left quadrant of the map) which reads "Hic etiam homines magna cornua habentes longitudine quatuor pedum, et sunt etiam serpentes tante magnitudinis, ut unum bovem comedant integrum" ("Here also are huge men having horns four feet long, and there are serpents also of such magnitude that they can eat an ox whole") [Geoff Armitage; Alice Hudson; Margaret Wilkes]
  • Giovanni Leardo's map (1442) has, in southernmost Africa, "Dixerto dexabitado p. chaldo e p. serpent" [M. Hoogvliet]
  • 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 [Kirsten A. Seaver]
  • Waldseemüller's Carta marina navigatoria (1522), revised by Laurentius Fries, has the morsus moved to the Davis Strait [Kirsten A. Seaver]
  • Bishop Olaus Magnus's 'Carta Marina' map of Scandinavia (1539) has many monsters in the northern sea [Kirsten A. Seaver; Ian Seymour via Jeremy Crampton]
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    The globe was purchased in Paris in 1855 by Richard Hunt, who gave it to James Lenox, whose collection became part of the New York Public Library.  The earliest known articles on the globe are:
    B. F. da Costa, "The Lenox Globe," Magazine of American History, vol. 3, no. 9 (Sept. 1879), pp. 529-540.
    B. F. da Costa with additions by Gabriel Gravier, "Le Globe Lenox,"Bulletin de la société normande de géographie, (Oct-Dec. 1879), pp. 216-228.
    Neither article links "hic sunt dracones" to dragons, though.  Da Costa writes, "In this region [i.e. China, called East India on the globe] near the equatorial line, is seen 'Hc Svnt Dracones,' or here are the Dagroians, described by Marco Polo as living in the Kingdom of 'Dagroian.'  These people... feasted upon the dead and picked their bones (B.II. c.14, Ramusio's ed.)"  However, in his translation of Da Costa's article, Gabriel Gravier adds that Marco Polo's Kingdom of Dagroian is in Java Minor, or Sumatra, well away from the spot indicated on the Lenox Globe.

    The flat drawing of the globe which accompanied the early articles is reproduced as map 7 in Emerson D. Fite and Archibald Freeman, A Book of Old Maps Delineating American History (New York: Dover Reprints, 1969) and as figure 43in A. E. Nordenskiöld,Facsimile-Atlas to the Early History of Cartography (New York: Dover Reprints, 1973).  [note: map illustrations 6 and 7 are reversed in some copies of Fite and Freeman].  A photograph of the globe itself can be found on page 81 of Ena L. Yonge, A Catalogue of Early Globes Made Prior to 1850 and Conserved in the United States (New York: American Geographical Society, 1968), but the relevant side faces away from the camera.

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    Everything you want to know about dragons is on the HERE BE DRAGONS! page (addition by Peter van der Krogt)

    Mercator's World magazine has chosen this Web site as one of the MAY/JUNE 1999's top ten winners.
    This page was compiled and edited in April 1999 by Erin C. Blake in response to the frequency with which MapHisters are asked about "here be dragons" maps.  Her cartographic research concerns the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and she is in no way an expert on early maps, but she can be reached.  All the information on this page comes from simple library research and from MapHist participants (both directly and from the CD-ROM edited by Peter van der Krogt).  All the rhetorical questions on this page come from her own head, and are now keeping her awake at nights.  The fact that this post-script is written in the third person is merely a compositional device she is using.