It’s been a while since we checked in on how the Renaissance is doing with its ocean mysteries, so here is a marine biology update circa 1550.

Seals come in two forms:


& Triangular

Walruses are horrifying

But whales are worse

Fish can have human faces

but not always where you’d expect

As for the rest

… it’s probably better left alone.

[All images except chest face fish from Historiae animalium liber IV : De piscium & aquatilium animantium natura. Chest face fish from The noble lyfe & natures of man of bestes, serpentys, fowles & fisshes yt be moste knowen]

Slate presents an amazing, interactive digital version of Olaus Magnus’ 1539 Carta Marina, a chart that portrays the sea as teeming with monsters… 

When the chart was made, in the early years of the Age of Exploration, there was a lingering belief in the existence of griffins, unicorns, dragons, the phoenix, the monstrous races, and a host of other unnatural creatures. Modern science was in its infancy. Although adherents to the direct observation of nature would soon challenge hearsay and tradition and begin to classify animal life, at the time the medieval imagination was still free to shape its own forms of the natural world. The chart’s giant lobster gripping a swimmer in its claws, a monster being mistaken for an island, and a mast-high serpent devouring sailors would have represented actual fears of the unknown deep.

Those and Olaus’ other fanciful sea beasts are not mere decorations to fill empty spaces. Nor are they only visual metaphors for dangers lurking in the sea. Intended as representations of actual marine life, they are identified in the map’s key.

Click through to Slate to explore the stories of each creature, and read more on the chart’s origins… 

Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina: Sea monsters on a gorgeous Renaissance map…


Medieval and Renaissance Sea Monsters from Maps

A visually stunning new book, Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, covers a topic of history, that until now, has not been published in a comprehensive collection. The book’s author Chet Van Duzer, a Medieval and Renaissance map scholar, joined forces with the British Library, who published the book. The book’s jacket liner bests explains its content:

“The sea monsters on medieval and Renaissance maps are one of the most visually engaging elements, and yet they have never before been carefully studied. The subject is important not only in the history of cartography, art, and zoological illustration, but also in the history of the geography of the marvelous and of Western conceptions of the ocean. Moreover, the sea monsters depicted on maps can supply important insights into the sources, influences, and methods of the cartographers who drew or painted them.”
{Book jacket liner notes 2013 ©The British Library}


At this point it’s been pretty conclusively established that the ocean is weird, but one of weirder marine phenomena I’ve encountered is the sea monk or sea bishop, an animal that was sighted of the coast of Poland in 1531, washed up on Danish shores in the late 1540s and went the 16th century equivalent of viral.*

*This of course had nothing whatsoever to do with the Protestant Reformation or Henry the Eighth declaring himself head of the Church of England.  Scientific interest only.

Pretty much every major work on fish in the next 100 years included one:

Guillaume Rondelet (1554) [“human features, but with a coarse and rude outline […] the head was shaved and smooth; the shoulders were covered by a cape.”]

Pierre Belon (1551)

Conrad Gesner (1558)

Richard Breton (1562) [Breton was a Protestant, which may explain the increased levels of eldritch]

Caspar Schott (1662)

Johann Zahn (1696)

And a late entry: this abomination from Robert Chamber’s The Book of Days (1869)

Explanations for these include most of the usual contenders: monk seals, grey seals, hooded seals, walruses, angel sharks, deliberate fraud of the Jenny Haniver variety,  Steenstrup’s ever popular ‘squid doing victory arms’.


An avid enthusiast of mythology and cartography, Toronto-based artist Bailey Hendersonsculpts the fearsome sea creatures depicted on medieval and Renaissance-era maps. She brings her bronze sculptures to life with acrylic paint and powdered pigment, creating dimensional versions of the mythical beasts sailors once feared. There’s Ziphius, a bird-faced orca rumored to slice boats in half with its dorsal fin; the cockatrice, a rooster-dragon known to kill by breathing on its victims; and the pinniped, a dog-like seal with protruding tusks. Henderson’s work is often whimsical and humorous, and brings with it a bit of history that makes it all the more fascinating.

See more on Hi-Fructose.


lost at sea | for mermaids, pirates, sailors, and souls that go to the deep   {listen}

I’ll tell you a tale of the bottomless blue
And it’s hey to the starboard, heave ho
Look out, lad, a mermaid be waiting for you
In mysterious fathoms below

Pristers, monsters actually identified as whales in historic publications, are reported to be mighty enough to sink the strongest ships. According to Olaus Magnus in his Carta Marina, cannon-fire was useless against these beasts. Instead, sailors should sound trumpets and throw barrels into the water to distract these monsters. Follow #bhlMonstersRreal on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about the real animals that many legendary monsters are based on.
There are even more historic monster illustrations in the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

GIF based on Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd ed. 1604


Game Board, c. 1581.  Augsburg, Germany. Maker unknown.

Ebony veneers inlaid with engraved bone and ivory.

During the 16th century, cabinet-makers in southern Germany created beautiful luxury items made of inlaid bone and ivory atop ebony veneers. This gamesbox or game board has two double-sided playing surfaces  - for backgammon, chess, draughts, and merels [a game of alignment]. Game pieces could be stored inside the box. Lavish decorative engravings include sea monsters, hunting scenes, dancing couples, birds, monkeys, lions, and devils. x

© V&A Images.


The Carta Marina was originally published in 1539. There are a couple of versions of it around. Here’s a big one, and some details from the map. You can visit a version of the map at the National Geographic site, and click around, zoom in etc. I love the sea-creatures in this map, ever since I spotted them in a monster book I owned as a child.