I’ve always been intrigued by the phrase “Here Be Dragons” (in Latin “Hic Sunt Dracones”), which was sometimes used to denote dangerous or unexplored territories on older maps. (Or at least, that’s how the phrase has passed into cultural memory.) There’s just something romantic about it. It conjures up thoughts of explorers, adventurers and pioneers heading off to uncharted domains just to see what was there.
The only place that you can find it is on the Hunt-Lenox globe – a small bronze globe created in the 16th century.* The magical words appear off the eastern coast of China.
But even there, the actual meaning isn’t clear. There’s no indication that it was used for uncharted regions or mysterious locales. It may be referring to legends of the Komodo dragons, which were well known in Europe at the time.
Does this mean that the phrase and everything it has come to stand for is somehow fraudulent?
No, it doesn’t.
Literal representations of “Here Be Dragons” may be lacking, but there are many historical examples of similar admonitions (both verbal and pictorial), some of which are just as interesting. Below, you can find a gallery of examples, spanning history from the Romans to the late Renaissance.**
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Ancient Roman cartographers used “Hic Sunt Leones” (“Here Are Lions”) when denoting unexplored territories and variations can be found on copies of several ancient Roman maps. For example, the Tabula Peutingeriana, a map of the road network of Rome included both “Hic Sunt Leones” and similar admonitions, such as “hic cenocephali nascuntur” (“here dog-headed beings are born”). Other maps included warnings against hippos and elephants, which were considered to be myths by many in the Roman empire.
Detail of the Tabula Peutingeriana (5th century) showing the routes of the Eastern Empire. (Image taken from a 16th century reproduction of the original.)
The Ebstorf Map (13th century) includes a dragon and several other exotic animals (such as a basilisk and asp) in order to demarcate the extreme southern reaches of Africa.
Many mediaeval navigational charts incorporated large serpents and other dragon-like beings near the borders of known territories. Such creatures could be seen smashing ships or swallowing sailors. Such charts included other terrors, such as the Moskenstraumen (a maelstrom that exists near the Lofoten archipelago in Norway).
Sea serpents and other mythical beasts from the Carta Marina, created by Olaus Magnus in the 16th century. It shows many geographical, historical and cultural details of the Nordic countries. The Carta Marina, like many other medieval maps, served as a way to preserve many types of information and functioned as a simple form of encyclopedia.
Mediaeval schematic maps, such as the Psaltar map, would often incorporated dragons and other fantastical beasts as a way of warning against sin or spiritual peril.
Dragons incorporated into the Psalter Map, an early mappae Mundi from the 12th century. Mappae mundi were used to explore and explain the early teachings of the Christian Church, rather than to accurately depict geography. Dragons were often incorporated as a representation of pagan beliefs or sin.
* The Hunt-Lenox globe was found in France by Richard Morris Hunt and brought to the United States in 1855. It was later given as a gift to Hunt’s patron, James Lennox. It is currently kept at the New York Public Library.
** In compiling this list of examples, my goal is not to be exhaustive or authoritative. I have no idea where the practice of using dragons/mythological creatures to demarcate the limits of human knowledge/understanding began. As far as I know, it dates to the same time we started inventing stories to describe the unexplained. But as I said in the introduction, I think it’s really cool. As a result, as I locate additional examples I will post them here and try to include links to the originals.