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Department of Geography
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UC Santa Barbara Geography / News & Events / Department News

July 07, 2011 - Inhuman Geography: Here There Be Dragons

Everyone who has a smattering of cartographic knowledge knows that medieval maps often bore the Latin inscription HC SVNT DRACONES (hic sunt dracones; “here are dragons”) to indicate unexplored or dangerous territory. Right? Wrong.

It turns out that there is only one such map in existence that bears that phrase, and that’s The Hunt-Lenox Globe which is dated ca. 1503-07. Sure, other maps have images of dragons on them (as well as images of other mythical beasts and some real ones that were perceived as monstrous at the time), but only the Hunt-Lenox Globe bears the legendary phrase hic sunt dracones. What a letdown!

The Lenox Globe is a hollow copper globe that measures 112 millimetres (4.4 in) in diameter and 345 millimeters (13.6 in) in circumference. It is two parts, joined at the equator and held together by a wire strung through holes at the poles. The globe is of unknown origin. It was purchased in Paris in 1855 by architect Richard Morris Hunt, who gave it to James Lenox, whose collection became part of the New York Public Library, where the globe still resides (Wikipedia: Hunt-Lenox Globe).

Nobody seems to know the origin of the myth that medieval maps annotated the boundaries of the known world with the phrase (in Latin) “Here There Be Dragons (or Tygers, or Monsters).” On the Lenox Globe, the phrase appears on the eastern coast of Asia, and it “might be related to the komodo dragons in the Indonesian islands, tales of which were quite common throughout East Asia” (Ibid.). “How the phrase ever gained the legendary status that we assume it to have is absolutely mystifying. Erin C. Blake has compiled a wonderful list of dragon and similar monster references in maps, but even this annotated list fails to uncover any medieval references other than the Lenox Globe. That the source of the myth is unknown, however, does not change the bare fact that it is, nevertheless, a myth” (source).

Image 1 for article titled "Inhuman Geography: Here There Be Dragons"
The Hunt-Lenox Globe or Lenox Globe, dating from ca. 1510, is the second or third oldest known terrestrial globe, after the Erdapfel of 1492. It bears a striking resemblance to the Globus Jagellonicus, also tentatively dated to 1510. It is housed by the Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library (Wikipedia: Hunt-Lenox Globe)
Image 2 for article titled "Inhuman Geography: Here There Be Dragons"
The T-O Psalter world map (ca. 1250 AD) has dragons, as symbols of sin, in a lower "frame" below the world, balancing Jesus and angels on the top, but the dragons do not appear on the map proper (Ibid.)
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