Medieval Maps and Monsters

History and Folklore Podcast

May 12 2021 • 24 mins

Maps from Medieval Europe are littered with strange lands, monsters and mythical races. On them you can find the Tower of Babel, the Minotaur's Labyrinth, unicorns and men with the heads of dogs. Find out what these maps can tell us about how medieval European's saw the world in the latest episode of the History and Folklore Podcast.

B.L Gordon, 'Sacred Directions, Orientations, and the Top of the Map' History of Religions Vol. 10, No. 3 (Feb., 1971), pp. 211-227

British Museum, 'Tablet'

Chet Van Durez, 'Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps' (2014).

Edward Brooke-Hitching, 'The Phantom-Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps' (2016).

Gerhard Dorhn-van Rossum 'Al-Idrisi and His World Map (1154)' (2011)

Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping, 'History of Mapping'

John Block-Friedman, 'The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought' (2000).

John Mandeville, 'The Complete Works of John Mandeville (Shrine of Knowledge, 2020)

'Mappa Mundi Hereford Cathedral.'

Paul B. Sturtevant, 'A Wonder of the Multicultural Medieval World: The Tabula Rogeriana' (2017)

Richard Barber, 'Bestiary MS Bodley 764' (1999).

Richard Jones, 'The Medieval Natural World' (2013).

Robert Bartlett, 'The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages' (2006).

Thomas Wright, 'Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian.'


‘Whatever Part of the Earth that Men dwell, either above or beneath, it seemeth always to them, that they go more up-right than any other Folk. And right as it seemeth to us that they be under us, right so it seemeth to them that we be under them.’

Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. Today we’re looking at historical maps and the strange creatures and the mythical races found within them. This is a huge subject, so I am only going to be able to really give an overview of the subject, but am happy to make more indepth episodes on any of the different topics if there is any interest.

I find this topic really fascinating as maps, despite what we like to tell ourselves, very rarely show the world how it actually is. Instead they are excellent sources to show us the preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices of the map maker and the society the map is made in.

It has also been claimed that maps can affect the perception of people who view the map. We like to tell ourselves that maps are entirely neutral records of landscapes and settlements but this is not entirely true. Even today there are issues with our world map that are believed to affect  the way we see the world. The most well-known example is the Mercator Projection, invented in 1569 as a way of displaying a globe on a 2D surface. Because of the way the projection works, countries at the top are distorted to become larger, while those closer to the equator appear smaller. The creator of this method, Gerardus Mercator, also chose to orientate the map with North at the top, which is the way we still orientate maps today. It has been argued that, while this map is useful for navigation, the location and relatively large size of northern countries gives them a more prominent place in the mind of the viewer.

While there is still a lot of discussion as to whether this is actually true, it is clear that maps have traditionally been used as a means of communicating ideas and values to the viewer. The earliest maps that survive today depict very local places that highlight sites of interest. There were no real conventions in cartography yet and so the layout and orientation of these maps was pretty much all over the place.

While it seems normal and obvious to us, it is only really quite recently in human history that maps have been oriented with North at the top. In Europe, East was often placed as the highest point as in early Christian tradition heaven was located in the east. This is an idea that was likely borrowed from ancient Jewish traditions which saw the east as a particularly holy direction. Likewise, South was often seen as a desirable direction as it was associated with warmer, more hospitable weather. North, on the other hand, was considered a dark and sinister direction.

Ancient Egyptians also tended to orientate maps with east at the top, as this is the direction in which the sun rises. Early Islamic cartographers often placed south at the top of the map, as these mapmakers often resided in countries that were north of Mecca and they envisioned they were looking up towards it when they prayed. In Ancient China, compasses were oriented to point south, which was considered a more desirable direction as it was believed to be where the winds came from. However, maps in ancient China tended to place north at the top as the Emperor resided in the north of the country and the people were expected to look towards him. So it appears that there is a tendency among people everywhere to place that which they consider the most important at the top or centre of the image.

The oldest surviving world map is the Imago Mundi, which was created between 500-700 BCE in a town called Sippar in Iraq. This map placed Babylon in the centre, as this was probably the most important city to the map maker. The Euphrates is also shown and circles surround Babylon to show other cities and districts, including Assyria, Der and Habban. These cities are surrounded by a circular ‘bitter river’ in which other districts are located. These represent the unknown or unexplored world, and are labelled with descriptions such as ‘where shamash (the sun deity) is not seen, reflecting the belief that the sun does not pass through the northern lands. The map is accompanied by accounts of Babylonian myths, written in conform script, with the corresponding locations in which they happened.

Early medieval maps are remarkably similar in design to the Imago Mundi. Known as TO maps, they show the world as a round disc. Inside this disc the known world is split into three segments, with the East orientated at the top. Asia fills up the top half of the circle, and is separated from Europe in the bottom left quarter and Africa in the bottom right quarter by a river that starts as the Don or Tanais in the left and turns into the Nile half way through. Europe and Africa are separated by the meditteranean sea, depicted as a line that meets the rivers at the half way point to make a T shape. The rivers and continents are surrounded by a circle of sea, the O of the TO map.

It is unclear where this style of map originated from. Similarities can be drawn with the Imago Mundi, but some historians think that they may originate in the Ancient Greece or Rome. Others argue that they probably have a Judaic origin, due to the habit of labelling each continent in association with one of Noah’s sons - Asia often has the label of Shem, Africa is labelled with Ham and Europe tagged with Japhet.

TO maps are only concerned with recording areas of the world that were known to be habitable. Maps that showed all habitable and uninhabitable land on the globe were portrayed in a different way, based on the subdivision of the world created by Ptolemy in the second century and built on by Macrobius in the fifth century. In this, the world was divided into five latitudinal zones that varied in climate. The poles were the two frigid zones and considered to be too cold to sustain life. The fiery zone was located at the equator and was too hot to sustain life. Between these two extremes were the temperate zones, which were both theoretically habitable although it was believed that the southern temperate zone was uninhabited by humans.

The subdivision of the world in this way was still being used as late as the fifteenth century. It was also used as the basis for maps created by influential Islamic geographers and cartographers, such as al-Muqaddasi and al-Biruni, who developed this technique and further broke the inhabited world down into seven climes, which differed by half an hour each. These cartographers also believed that only the northern part of the world was inhabited and was separated by the rest of the globe by inhospitable climates that could not be crossed by humans. Islamic scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni claimed that the ‘sea separates the inhabitable world from whatever continents or inhabitable islands there may be beyond it, both towards West and East; for it is not navigable on account of the darkness of the air and the thickness of the water.’

This method of dividing the world was used in what was the most influential map of its time, the Tabulana Rogeriana, translated in English as the ‘Book of Roger’, which proves that everything sounds more impressive in Latin. This was created by Muhammad al-Idrisi in 1154 for King Roger II of Siciliy in a book containing 70 smaller regional maps which, when put together, created a huge rectangular map of the world. This incredibly detailed map was broken down into seven different climatic zones and ten geographical sections. As well as this al-Idrisi was able to calculate the circumference of the globe within ten percent of its actual size. To achieve this, al-Idrisi poured over Arabic, Latin and Classical records, as well as conducting extensive interviews with contemporary travellers, endeavouring to dismiss the fantastical and include only what could be corroborated or proven. While this technique was not foolproof, and popular mythical elements such as the islands of Gog and Magog were still included, it was by far the most accurate world map of its day, and was used and distributed for three hundred years after its creation.

Despite the creation and popularity of the Book of Roger, new maps continued to be made and distributed. One of the most well-known today is the Hereford Mappa Mundi, which was created around the year 1300. This was created at a time when European maps were becoming more complex, showing serrated coastlines and individual islands. Despite these details, it still keeps the early ‘TO’ format with Asia at the top, Europe on the bottom left and Africa on the bottom right. Christ sits above the world, looking over God’s creation, and paradise and the garden of Eden can be found just below him. Jerusalem sits prominently in the centre of the inhabited world.

As well recording existing cities and landscape elements we would expect to see on modern maps, the Hereford Mappa Mundi also depicts stories from the bible such as Eden, Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel, all located in the top half of the map, as well as stories from Classical Greece and Rome. The columns of Hercules, the golden fleece and the labyrinth can all be seen on the map. This reflects a method of map making that leaned more towards symbolism than accuracy. The purpose of maps such as this was not to create an accurate geographical record to assist travellers. They were instead created the greatness and expanse of God’s creation and the viewers place within it spatially, culturally, temporally and spiritually. Medieval maps were created to measure time and culture as well as space.

For this reason the anomalies in early maps can give a real insight into the mindset, worldview and values of the time. We already know that places like Eden and the Minotaur’s labyrinth were placed on maps due to their spiritual, cultural and historical importance. But some other elements are less easily explained. Strange islands and creatures pepper the seas and the margins of early maps.

Sometimes these were recorded through simple error, especially non-existant islands and land formations. Other times weather conditions such as low forming clouds could appear to sailors as an island, which would later be recorded on maps. Anomalies were sometimes included on purpose as a type of copyright protection. If an incorrect detail was found on a different map, the original cartographer would know they had been plagiarised.

I think the most amusing incidents were when islands were included on a whim. In 1659 Peter Helyn recorded a story about the explorer Pedro Sarmiento when he was captured by Walter Raleigh. Raleigh asked him about a particular island that was depicted on one of his maps, which Raleigh had never seen but which may have had some tactical advantage to him. Sarmiento explained that that island was known as ‘painters island’ because when the painter was drawing the map, his wife asked him to add an island for her, so that in her imagination she could have an island of her own. A really lovely story, but not very helpful to people trying to actually navigate.

I think that the monsters and so called monstrous races that were recorded in maps, bestiaries and encyclopedias of the time are even more interesting than mysterious island stories as they raise so many questions about medieval assumptions of the foreign, otherness and humanity itself.

Strange creatures were also often believed to be found in far flung lands. Dragons fought elephants in India, hyenas mimicked and ate humans in Africa, leopards were the ferocious offspring of lions and pards and birds the colour of fire and with razor sharp wings soar through the air in Asia. These creatures all give an impression of foriegn countries as strange and dangerous places to be, as though the further you get from the known world the more fantastic and deadly nature becomes, a reflection of understandable anxieties and real dangers involved in travel during this period.

Probably the most fascinating are the so called ‘monstrous races’ that are depicted on the edges of world maps, reflecting their perceived status as being just on the edge of civilisation.  Many of these races were taken from the writings of Pliny the Elder and were even further embellished over the years by explorers and traders, missionaries and pilgrims who would come back with tales of the strange lands, creatures and people they had seen on their travels.

Monstrous races that were commonly recorded included the Blemmyes, a warlike people found in Africa, notable in that they had no head but whos faces were instead located on their torso. Sciapods could be found in India. They had only one leg which they would use to hop about, and would use their one giant foot to shade them from the sun. Panotti had long ears that they used to wrap around themselves to keep warm at night. The Astomis were found by the Ganges river, they had no mouths but gained nourishment through pleasant smells. The cynocephalli were humans with the heads of dogs that were widely recorded from Scandinavia to Syria to India. In some accounts they were depicted as bloodthirsty fighters, while other writers claimed they were relatively shy and kept to themselves in peaceful communities.

While some believe that these people were solely the creation of overactive imaginations and tall tales spun by travellers, others think that there may have been a grain of truth in the stories, filtered through the perceptions of reporters trying to understand what they saw through the filter of a very ethnocentric worldview. For example, the Sciapods may have simply been people practicing yoga, lifting their feet above their heads as though to shade from the sun. While the true origins of these stories is not known, the fact that the stories exist at all raise a lot of interesting insights into the medieval European worldview.

There was a fair amount of contemporary discussion as to whether any of these races could be considered human, or whether they were closer to animals. This debate was based on the medieval Christian worldview that God created three different types of living spirit. Angels, which are not bound to a physical body, humans which are bound to a physical body but do not die with it and animals, which are bound to a physical body and who die with the body. It was believed that what separated humans from animals was their rationality. The issue then lay in defining and identifying rationality in the behaviour of the monstrous races.

The answer to this question had practical as well as theological implications. In the ninth century a missionary in Scandinavia wrote to a monk named Ratramnus asking whether he should preach to the dog headed people in order to win human souls for Christ, or whether it would be wasted effort, akin to trying to convert mice or birds. Ratramnus responded by stating that the dog heads should be viewed as human. He claimed that while certain elements of their behaviour, such as their barking speech, pointed more towards the animal, other behavioural aspects placed them firmly in the realms of the human. The fact they covered themselves with clothes showed they had a sense of shame and decency. They could farm and make tools and, according to Ratramnus, ‘knowledge of technical skills is granted only to the rational soul.’ The main point in their favour though was that they lived in communities and therefore had laws and were able to create and keep to the rules of society.

Personally I find Ratramnus’ answer unstatisying when looking at perceptions of other mythical creatures. Trolls, for example, were considered different from humans as they were not Christians and were, in fact, often believed to be angels that had remained neutral in the war between God and Satan and so fell to earth. Trolls could be killed and it was not believed that they had the promise of eternal life, as humans did. However, like other hidden people, they were portrayed as rational, they lived in societies that mimicked humans, wore clothes and used tools. It was not rationality or mortality, but lack of Chritian belief and immortal soul that separated the trolls from humans or angels, but Ratramnus made no suggestion of this possibility for the cynocephalli.

During the twelfth century Europe and Asia became linked in a way that it had never been before, largely due to the expansion of the Mongol Empire that spanned from Korea to Persia, Poland to Vietnam. This overarching administration facilitated merchants trading across borders and was also a tempting target for Christian missionaries, as the Mongols were not originally Muslim and appeared to be widely accepting of Christianity - employing Asian Christians as advisors and administrators.

As such a greater number of Europeans than ever before began travelling to places that they previously had either non-existent or very weak contact with. You may think that as explorers, traders and missionaries came to be more familiar with distant lands, and as travellers from across Asia came to be a more familiar sight in European cities, that medieval Europeans would quickly realise that the monstrous races on maps and monsters in bestiaries did not exist. In some cases doubt did begin to creep in. In 1253 William of Rubruck recalled a conversation he had with a group of Mogul people during his travels in India saying ‘I asked about the monsters or monstrous humans but they had never seen such beings, wherefore we wonder very much whether it were true.’

But belief in monsters and monstrous races was surprisingly tenacious amongst the general population. This was partly because returning travellers could not resist telling fantastic tales of ferocious and strange beasts to impress people back home. However, even when travellers wanted to present a more realistic view of the world their efforts could be undermined. Marco Polo’s Travels, for example, was published in 1298 and presented a fairly subdued and down to earth picture of Asia that was somewhat sabotaged by illustrators who added monsters and wonders to the margins, likely trying to meet the expectations of the readers.

In other cases, when monsters were not found where they were expected to be, it was sometimes assumed that they did exist but their location had been recorded wrong. As European travellers became more familiar with the wider world the monstrous races were pushed further, always pushed the edges of the known world, and those that were once believed to reside in India were later thought to reside in the habitable southern hemisphere, where humans did not live. An early example of this was the Panotti people with long ears. Around 43 CE Roman writer Pomponius Mela claimed they lived on the Orkney islands. When the Orkney islands became part of the civilised world they were recorded as living in Scythia and later, when Scythia was no longer considered particularly distant, it was believed that they resided in southern Asia.

It is probable that the belief in monstrous races reflects a need in people to create a recognised ‘other’ against which they can define themselves. Through these stories, they were able to explore what it meant to be civilised, what it meant to be human and understand and define their place in the world.

It is also apparent that this belief in strange and monstrous races was not just limited to Europeans. John de Marignollis  travelled extensively through China and India in the 1330s. Although he was originally sent by the Pope he extended his travels in order to search for the monstrous races he had heard about. He wrote ‘I travelled through all the provinces of India with great curiosity. . . never was I able to track down such peoples in the world in reality; instead people asked me whether there were such creatures.’

As well as giving the impression that medieval Asia was filled with people wandering round asking each other if they knew where the dog-heads were, de-Marignollis statement, and the quote from John Mandeville at the beginning of this episode, suggests that people around the world created their own kinds of strange and monstrous people, living in far away lands. I think it is likely that such stories were important in helping people strengthen their identity at a time of increased travel and exploration. Through these tales people could examine who they were, who belonged to their group, who were outside it and why. They could even be used to examine what it meant to be human at all.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. An extra thank you goes to my new patreons DD Storyteller, the Fairy Folk Podcast, Louise, Vanessa, Ben and John. My supporters on patreon help make these episodes possible and I am so grateful.

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