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Cartographic Curiosities

Odd, curious, and fanciful maps from the holdings of the Map Collection, Yale University Library


Real Places, Fanciful Visions

Tabulae Asiae VIII. Sebastian Munster, from an edition of Ptolemy's Geography, c. 1540.

Legends of strange human beings have a long history, as do their depictions on maps. Many of these representations were derived from the descriptions given in the Natural History of the World by the elder Pliny (AD 23-79) and first printed in Latin in 1469. Pliny's ideas were absorbed by most geographers of the 16th century, and were particularly well illustrated in the successive editions of Ptolemy's maps published by Sebastian Munster from 1540 onwards.

On the Ptolemaic map of Asia, a number of strange beings are placed in Scythia or part of Northern Asia. At the top of the map Munster shows the Anthropophagi, who feed on men's flesh and live near the North Pole. In the margins he depicts those humans described by Pliny in Book 7:

"In India there is a kind of men with heads like dogs...who in lieu of speech use to bark. Likewise there is a kind of people named monoscelli that have but one leg apiece. In the hottest season of Summer they lie along their backe and defend themselves with their foot against the Sunnes heat."

The last tribe shown, those with their faces below their shoulders, later reappear, as do the anthropophagi, in the New World of America, as legends of the Old World were transferred to the unexplored continent. Sir Walter Raleigh, in his description of Guiana, tells of the existence of a warrior tribe with their heads below their shoulders in the Orinoco basin and also describes the fierce Amazonian women.


Septentrionalium Partium Nova Tabula. Girolamo Ruscelli. Venice, 1562.

Mythical islands appeared on maps and charts for hundreds of years. One of the more curious and persistent groups of false islands was placed in the North Atlantic. Among these, Frisland is probably the best known.

In 1558, the Venetian Nicolo (the Younger) Zeno claimed to have discovered a 14th century manuscript recording a voyage made by his ancestors Nicolo and Antonio. According to the text, in the year 1380 a terrible storm swept the Zenos into unknown seas where they found a group of inhabited and hitherto unknown islands named Frisland, Estotiland, Icaria, and Drogeo. The description of Frisland created a geographical confusion to which numerous contemporary and later cartographers fell victim.

When Zeno published this apocryphal work in 1588, it was accompanied by a woodcut map. The copperplate engraved version of the map, shown here, was included in every edition of Ruscelli's Geographia from 1561 to 1599. Frisland is depicted in considerable detail, with many place names indicated. Maps throughout the 16th century continued to show the fictional islands, especially Frisland. The long-held assumption that the geographic data were derived from a valid source lent credence to their existence.


Islandia. From the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of Abraham Ortelius. Antwerp, c. 1585.

Early map makers often recorded on their maps and charts the presence of fabulous beasts, many of which reveal themselves as identifiable species made grotesque by the embroidered tales of sailors and travelers. Of the many maps depicting sea monsters, the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus was the most influential. First printed in 1539, it showed the area of the North Sea filled with dangerous maritime creatures. Versions of Olaus Magnus's monsters populated the seas on charts until the mid-18th century.

Ortelius copied many of these monsters for his map of Iceland, published in editions of his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Iceland is shown at large scale, with its fjords, glaciers, and mountains, including an erupting volcano, Mt. Hekla. Polar bears on icebergs can be seen at the top right, while the ocean contains probably the most fantastic collection of sea monsters to be seen on one engraving.


Europae Descriptio. Matthias Quad, Cologne, 1587.

Europe in the form of a woman is a well-known theme in maps representing living creatures. First drawn by Johannes Bucius in 1537, this subject appeared in editions of Sebastian Munster's Cosmography between 1580 and 1628, and in Bunting's Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae.

The design is oriented with west at the top of the map. Spain is the crowned head, Italy is the right arm, and Denmark the left. Eastern Europe forms the skirt of her dress, the hem of which runs northward from Greece. It has been suggested that the figure is not a women, but Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1519-56) and King of Spain (1516-56). The robes are sketchy enough to be either female or imperialm and the argument is based on the idea that Spain was at the time the 'crown of Europe.' The scepter in the left hand, which reaches the British Isles, becomes a symbol of the alliance between Charles V and Henry VIII.


Asia Secunda Pars Terrae in Forma Pegasir.
Die Gantze Welt in ein Kleberblat
. Heinrich Bunting, c. 1590.

Among the earliest cartographic oddities are the famous maps from Heinrick Bunting's Itinerarium Sacra Scripturae, or Travels According to the Scriptures, first published in 1581. A description of Biblical lands, it was a popular book that was reprinted many times. In addition to correct maps of the Holy Land, it also contained three maps of pure fantasy: the world in the form of a clover leaf, Europe as a robed female figure, and Asia as Pegasus the mythical winged horse. The horse is drawn fairly realistically, so that the shape of Asia has to be adjusted; the Caspian Sea lies horizontally between the wings and the saddle, and modern India is the off hind leg. The Pegasus map can be found in a number of different editions in both woodcut (as displayed here) and more rare copperplate versions.

In Bunting's map of the world as a clover leaf, representing the Trinity, each of the three continents of the Old World forms a section, with Jerusalem in a circle in the center. England and Scandinavia appear separately at the northern edge of the mpa, and the new continent of America can be seen in the lower left corner. It has been suggested that the cloverleaf design represents not only the Trinity, but the arms of Bunting's native city of Hanover.


Geographical Fun. "Aleph" (William Harvey). London, 1869.

France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Prussia.

These maps are from Geographical Fun, or Humorous Outlines of Various Countries, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1869. The author, William Harvey writing under the pseudonym Aleph, created a series of twelve maps showing various countries as curious people in the great tradition of English caricaturists. The idea behind the maps was taken from sketches drawn by a fifteen year old girl wishing to amuse her sick brother confined to bed.

Harvey states in the introduction: "It is believed that illustrations of Geography may be rendered educational, and prove of service to young scholars who commonly think Globes and Maps but wearisome aids to knowledge." The maps and rhymes were thus designed to amuse children and to teach some basic geographical concepts, rather than as political satires.


Geographical Misconceptions

Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio. Gerard Mercator, Duisburg, 1595.

This map, the first separately printed map of the Arctic, combines antiquated, medieval geographical concepts with some of the more advanced cartography of its day. The map, which first appeared in the posthumous third part of Mercator's atlas of 1595, shows the 14th century notion of the polar region with the oceans of the world flowing into a polar sea between four huge islands. Mercator also drew upon the Inventio Fortunata, which contained an account of the "Rumes nigra," the black magnetic rock 33 miles in circumference beneath the Arctic pole. The map also contains, in the upper left, a circular inset of the mythical island of Frisland, and shows California north of the Arctic Circle, the Straits of Anian, and the promise of a Northwest Passage.

On the other hand, this map also shows awareness of recent discoveries of explorers John Davis and Martin Frobisher. Like other progressive men of his age, Mercator was very interested in the northern sea passages through America to Asia and was convinced of their navigability. His ideas greatly influenced the prime movers of European exploration.


America, with those known parts in that unknowne worlde... John Speed. London, 1626.

The notion that California was an island west of the continent of North America was a product of imaginative speculation born of geographical ignorance in the early 1600s. A credulous world seized upon the idea, and for well over a century hundreds of maps appeared depicting California totally separated from the mainland. One of the first maps to record California as an island was this map of North America engraved by Abraham Goos and first published in Speed's Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World in 1627.

After this pattern was established, nearly all maps of North America followed this notion of California's geography. The island myth persisted because it was difficult to explore the area by either land or sea. The Jesuit Padre Eusebio Kino finally determined that California was connected to the mainland at the mouth of the Colorado River. Since he had only observed the connection on land, Kino's findings were disputed for over 40 years. The final proof was gathered by Ferdinand Konsag who in 1746 sailed completely around the Gulf of California to confirm the mainland connection. This led King Ferdinand VII of Spain to issue a royal decreein 1747 declaring that "California is not an island." Map publishers apparently took little notice and continued to depict California as an island until 1784.


Topographia Paradisi Terrestris Iuxta Mentem et Conjecturas Authoris. Athanasius Kircher, from Arca Noe. Amsterdam, 1765.

For over 1500 years the existence of the Garden of Eden was an unquestionable fact for most Christian believers. Its location varied, but in the early Middle Ages it was generally thought to be at the eastern extremity of the world, while later it was placed in the area of Mesopotamia.

Here it is located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, north of the Persian Gulf. Assyria is to the east, Armenia on the west. Adam and Eve, with the serpent and the tree of knowledge are shown within the garden, whose four gates are guarded by angels. In the upper left, outside Eden, Cain is shown killing Abel.


Maps for Learning and for Fun

Europe Embroidered map, by Lydia Smith, 1818.

This embroidered map of Europe was produced by an otherwise unknown English woman named Lydia Smith in 1818. It is entirely sewn by hand; none of the lines or text are printed on the cloth.

Until relatively recent times, needle skills were considered an important part of a girl's education, whether she was taught at home by her mother or at a young woman's academy or seminary. In these schools, in addition to basic reading and writing and arithmetic skills and accomplishments such as drawing, music, and languages, geography was taught because it improved the memory. There was also much stress on needlework. Plain sewing and darning were taught to the youngest girls and the older ones learned fancy work. It was perhaps inevitable that instruction in basic subjects would be combined with needlework, and samplers showing alphabets and maps began to appear.

It appears that embroidered maps and map samplers developed in the British Isles in the 1770s and spread to North America. They were far more common in England than in the US, and the era of greatest popularity was from the 1770s to the 1840s. In England these maps typically showed Britain or Europe. In the US, embroidered maps of Europe were common, possibly because teachers had immigrated from Britain and brought the traditions with them.


Colton's Geographical Combination Map. J.H. Colton. New York, 1855.

In England, printed "board-games" became popular towards the end of the 18th century and created an appropriate background for the invention of what we now call the jigsaw puzzle. In the 1760s John Spilsbury was producing "dissected maps" by mounting a printed map on a thin piece of mahogany, then cutting it up into a number of pieces so that children might learn their geography by putting it together again.

While map table games were essentially toys, dissected maps would sometimes be used in the schoolroom, perhaps as a light relief after some more arduous task. The educational uses of the puzzles were stressed in advertisements. The text on the box containing Colton's Geographic Combination Map of the United States in this exhibit reads in part:

"The design of the Publishers has been to furnish an agreeable and attractive method of imparting to the young a knowledge of Geography, and of blending amusement with instruction....

"The act of combining these parts exercises and amuses the mental faculties; and the study of Geography thus made attractive is rapid and permanent in its results; and more knowledge of the subject is acquired in one hour spent in this intellectual amusement than in a month of hard book-study."


Maps of Life and Love

Accurata Utopiae Tabula Das is Der Neu-Entdecken Schalck-Welt, oder des so offt benannten, und doch nie erkannten, Schlaraffenlandes. Matthias Seutter, c.1730

Schlaraffenland is the German utopia, an imaginary country of idleness and luxury, where, as described in the 16th century satire of Hans Sachs, chickens, geese, and pigeons fly around already cooked and waiting to be eaten, and every house is surrounded by a hedge of sausage. Seutter's map expands this theme considerably, and his Schlaraffenland becomes the land of all vice with names like Mammon, Stomach Empire, Land of Booze, Republic of Venerea, Tobacco Island, Prodigal Kingdom, etc., all surrounded by four others: the kingdoms of Youth and Old Age, Terra Sancta Incognita at the top, and Tartari Regnu -- the nether regions -- at the bottom.

The geography of the various countries is worked out in great detail, and described at length in a large book that was published at the same time. The numerous place-names on the map are nearly all puns, such as Alamode, Bacchanalia, and Cortisan; many of them are quite crude. To the north is New Jerusalem, in the unknown country of the pious; to the south is the kingdom of Hell, where all the inhabitants of Schlaraffenland will eventually arrive. "Schlaraffenland" maps were issued in a number of atlases by Dutch and German mapmakers between about 1700 and 1750.


A New Map of the Land of Matrimony Drawn from the Latest Surveys. J. Johnson. London, 1772.

A typical example of a late 18th century matrimonial map showing an English view on the matter. Here the traveler is sailing on the Ocean of Love with the map indicating the "Track of the vessels bound to the Land of Matrimony." The ships have to navigate past the Rocks of Jealousy and through the Straits of Uncertainty, while avoiding Danglers Island and Cape Shilly Shally. Their destination is Brides Bay, with its Honeymoon Island, and the final journey past the Temple of Hymen and up the L'Amour River into the Land of Matrimony.


Das Reich der Liebe. Johann Gottlob Immanuel Breitkopf. Leipzig, 1777.

Love and marriage have always been popular subjects for invented lands, although the subjects have been treated in a variety of ways. J.G.I. Breitkopf's 1777 map of the kingdom of love, Das Reich der Liebe, was acoompanied by a brief explanatory text. The pilgrim sets out from the Land of Youth, where lie the sources of the rivers of Wishes and Joys. There are six other lands where his travels may lead him, such as the Land of Unhappy Love, with the Desert of Melancholy and the River of Tears, and the Land of Desires, beyond which lies a no-man's-land containing the towns of Separation and Hatred, and the Heath of Vexation.


Matrimonial Map. Unidentified Mss., 19th century.

This undated and unidentified manuscript matrimonial map, probably from the early 19th century. The Great Ocean of Love is full of hazards like the Rocks of Jealousy and the Shoals of Perplexity, and surrounded by the Islands of Perseverance and Obstinacy, Coquette Island with its Vanity Fort, and the dangerous Dead Lake of Indifference. An interesting site on land is Bachelor's Fort, located near the Gulf of Self Love.


A Map of the Various Paths of Life. B. Johnson. Philadelphia, 1805.

A wonderfully detailed guide through life, from birth through death. The obvious best path through the maze of life leads from Parental Care Hall at the top of the map, to Happy Old Age Hall near the Peaceful Ocean at the bottom left. The roads run through such areas as the Exulting and Humble Districts, cross the Indiscreet Range and Bad Mans Land, and wander through the Poverty Maze and Distress Borough. Care must be taken on the journey, so as not to arrive at the bottom right of the map where Agony Whirlpool, Horror Bog, and the Bottomless Pit await.


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