Sea Monsters

The Evolution of Sea Monsters on Medieval Maps

(Read the article on one page)

A recently published book published by the British Library charts the evolution of iconic sea serpents, mermaids and other mythical creatures found on world maps from the 10 th century through to medieval and Renaissance times.  Despite their wild appearance, most of the creatures were based on true encounters with sea animals, shedding light on how mythology and folklore can evolve from real events.

Chet Van Duzer's " Sea Monsters  on Medieval and Renaissance Maps" (British Library, 2013) depict a range of ‘sea monsters’ which cartographers used to illustrate mysterious, unexplored regions of the globe and the possible dangers of seafaring. Many have assumed that these mythical creatures were the results of illustrators having a bit of fun or exerting their imagination in their work. However, many of the ocean’s creatures, including whales, walruses and squid were rarely seen and were considered monsters in medieval and Renaissance times.

"The creatures look purely fantastic. They all look like they were just made up," Van Duzer, a map historian at the Library of Congress, said in a talk about his book. "But, in fact, a lot of them come from what were considered, at the time, scientific sources." For example, it was quite usual for the encyclopedias of the time to contain reference to strange looking terrestrial-aquatic-hybrid animals and mapmakers just took some poetic license in depicting them.

One example of a real sea creature being transformed into a legendary beast is that of the Kraken is a giant sea creature in Scandinavian mythology which was said to be 1 mile long. It was depicted as great beast that would attack ships and was so huge that its body could be mistaken for an island. It is first mentioned in the Örvar-Oddr, a 13th century Icelandic saga.

The Kraken was also mentioned in the first edition of Systema Naturae [1735], a taxonomic classification of living organisms by the Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus. He classified the Kraken as a cephalopod, designating the scientific name Microcosmus marinus.

The myth of the Kraken is believed by historians and scientists to relate to the giant squid, which can reach 18 meters in length and has been rarely seen by humans as it lives the very depths of the ocean.

By tracing the depictions of sea monsters throughout the centuries, Van Duzer presented an evolution from a world full of dangers lurking in distant oceans where gigantic octopuses and whales drag ships and sailors into the sea, to 17 th century maps showing ships exerting dominion over the beasts of the ocean.  Eventually, the beasts disappeared from maps altogether.

The important message to take from Van Duzer’s fascinating depiction of sea monsters is that mythological stories and legends of the past are unlikely to be purely fanciful stories stemming from overly imaginative minds. Rather, it seems clear that most, if not all, the stories from our ancient ancestors evolved from real events that were portrayed according to the understanding and knowledge of the time.

By April Holloway


Ragnar Taltos's picture

While its certain that map makers used sea monsters as decoration. I think there is a basis in truth to many of these accounts. For instance the encounter in 1915 of the UBoat U28 with a sea monster after  the sinking of a British ship as detailed here- could well be a sighting of a Mosasur, as unlikely as that may sound. A short video of a sea serpent type creature was shows on a show called Hillstranded several years ago. The video seems to show what people in that area have named Caddy, short for Cadborosaurus.



“Under the Capitalist Sun, there is Nothing Sacred” Dr. Li-Chuan Chen

I'm a sucker for antique's one of my many weaknesses....

Leonard G. Whitney Jr.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

The excavation of the Oseberg Ship, Norway. 1904 - 1905.
In the autumn of 834 AD, two elderly women were buried together in the magnificent Oseberg ship discovered in 1903 near Tønsberg in Vestfold, Southeast Norway. Ever since the ship was excavated in 1904-1905, many theories have been put forward about who these women were. The objects they took with them to the grave may provide the answer to this Viking Age mystery.

Human Origins

Kalash girls with traditional clothing.
The Kalash (known also as the Kalasha) are an indigenous people living in what is today Pakistan. Although Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, with more than 95% of its population being adherents of Islam, the Kalash hold on to their own religious beliefs, along with their own identity, way of life, and language.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article