Here be Dragons

The Borgia map (c. 1430)
The Borgia map (c. 1430)

You have probably heard the expression, and most likely associate it with images of old maps covered in drawings of sea serpents and other mythological creatures. But what are exactly those creatures living on the margins, and how did they get there? Pack your bags and jump on board. But aware, though, for Here be Dragons.

Despite its popularity, there are only two references to the phrase, both from the XVI Century. An inscription reading “hic sunt draconesfloats above Asia in the Hunt-Lenox Globe (c. 1510), the oldest one known to show the New World. It‘s thought however that the Hunt-Lenox globe is a cast of a globe engraved on two conjoined halves of ostrich eggs that dates back to around 1504. The ostrich globe, not bigger than a grapefruit and of unknown origins, is labeled in Latin and includes what were considered exotic territories at the time, such as Japan, Brazil and Arabia. Stefaan Missinne, the Austrian collector who last bought it, speculates that the egg could have loose connections to the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci (but most experts dissent).

There is a similar expression observed in many medieval maps, and used for depicting dangerous or unexplored areas. It reads “Here are lions“. Could the dragons just be an early typo? Why did the artist choose this word and not another? Some argue the phrase is simply a reference to Komodo dragons and monitor lizards, not uncommon in Asia. I dissent.

Back when the world seemed so much smaller, mystery filled the darkest corners of the oceans, yes, but also those of existence. The uncharted is out there as much as in here, filled with dragons, serpents or lions. For who doesn’t also have dangerous and unexplored territories within themselves?

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