Here Be Dragons


Here be dragons‘ means dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of the medieval practice of putting dragons, sea serpents and other mythological creatures in uncharted areas of maps. There are just two known historical use of this phrase in the Latin form ‘HC SVNT DRACONES.’ The term appeared on the 16th century Lenox Globe around the east coast of Asia, and might be related to the Komodo dragons in the Indonesian islands, tales of which were quite common throughout East Asia. 

It also appeared on another globe of that era engraved on two conjoined halves of ostrich eggs. Earlier maps contain a variety of references to mythical and real creatures, but the Lenox Globe and the egg globe are the only known surviving maps to bear this phrase. An investigation of the egg globe performed by collector Stefaan Missinne concluded that the Hunt-Lenox Globe is a cast of the egg globe.

The classical phrase used by ancient Roman and Medieval cartographers used to be ‘HIC SVNT LEONES’ (literally, ‘Here are lions’) when denoting unknown territories on maps. Plutarch said in the 1st century: ‘As geographers, Sosius, crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect, that beyond this lies nothing but sandy deserts full of wild beasts, unapproachable bogs, Scythian ice, or a frozen sea, so, in this work of mine, in which I have compared the lives of the greatest men with one another, after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off, beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables; there is no credit, or certainty any farther.’

The ‘Borgia Map’ (c. 1430), in the Vatican Library, states, over a dragon-like figure in Asia (in the upper left quadrant of the map), ‘Hic etiam homines magna cornua habentes longitudine quatuor pedum, et sunt etiam serpentes tante magnitudinis, ut unum bovem comedant integrum.’ (‘Here there are even men who have large four-foot horns, and there are even serpents so large that they could eat an ox whole.’) The latter may refer to the dragons of the Chinese dragon dance.

The ‘Fra Mauro Map’ (c. 1450) has the ‘Island of Dragons,’ an imaginary island in the Atlantic Ocean. In an inscription near Herat, Fra Mauro says that in the mountains nearby ‘there are a number of dragons, in whose forehead is a stone that cures many infirmities,’ and describes the locals’ way of hunting those dragons to get the stones. This is thought to be based on Catholic Saint and alchemist Albertus Magnus’s treatise ‘De mineralibus.’ In an inscription elsewhere on the map, the cartographer expresses his skepticism regarding ‘serpents, dragons and basilisks’ mentioned by ‘some historiographers.’

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