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Unicorns, Serpents and Mermaids…
Medieval Sea Monsters

One of the things that is a window into the past is imagination, and medieval imaginations were vivid. Despite living in an age of Church oppression, people found ways of bringing their fears and superstitions to life. Medieval cartographers treated their craft like an art, and added fanciful decoration to many of their maps in the form of sea creatures and monsters. However, many of the monsters drawn on these 15th and 16th century maps were not only for show – cartographers often referenced nautical reports of sea monsters when they created their maps. Sometimes, the monsters were depictions of real witness accounts of what had been seen or fought during a voyage, and put on the map as a warning to sailors in the area. Narwhals became sea-unicorns, whales became angry, scaled monsters, and mermaids and mermen populated the waters of the world. According to Chet Van Duzer, author of Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, as the age of exploration progressed, sea monsters became less and less frequent inhabitants of maps, which began to be seen as scientific documents and not in need of decoration. Here are some awesome examples of the medieval mind at work – I can only imagine how terrifying these images would have been to someone with no experience of the sea!

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Fig. 67 Olaus Magnus 1572 hand colored National Library Sweden - whale island Brendan

Fig. 68 Olaus Magnus 1572 hand colored National Library Sweden - whale flensing

Fig. 73 Olaus Magnus 1572 hand colored National Library Sweden - octopus lobster dangers

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Rosmarine-Boar Whale-Gesner 1555

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Written By

Meghan MacRae grew up in Vancouver, Canada, but spent many years living in the remote woods. Living in the shadow of grizzly bears, cougars and the other predators of the wilderness taught her about the dark side of nature, and taught her to accept her place in nature's order as their prey. She is co-founder of CVLT Nation.

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