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Art / Carta Marina

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Sea serpents and maelstroms and giant whales, oh my!

The Carta Marina is a Renaissance-era map of Northern Europe and the North Atlantic, printed in 1539 in Venice. Carta Marina means Sea Map, but this is only an abridged nickname; the full title (Carta Marina et Descriptio Septemtrionalium Terrarum ac Mirabilium Rerum in Eis Contentarum) translates to Sea Map and Description of the Northern Countries and the Marvels Contained in Them. It is frequently reproduced for the sake of its lavish illustrations.

The Carta Marina was created by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), a learned and widely travelled Catholic Swedish dignitary who moved to Italy after Sweden joined the Protestant Reformation. The original was printed in an extremely limited edition of nine copies, so as to increase its value. Only two of these survive today (located in Munich and Stockholm respectively), although a scaled-down replica was produced in 1572, of which several copies survive. The original map was not colored, and none of the two remaining specimens is.

The size of the original map is 1,25 m x 1,70 m. It consists of nine separate woodcuts, each marked with a capital letter from A to I, and combined in a 3 x 3 grid. There are three different commentaries that go with the map, a Latin one in the bottom left sheet of the map itself, and two separately printed ones in German and Italian respectively. Of these, the Italian commentary is somewhat more exaggerated and fantastic.

It draws heavily from Nautical Folklore.

The Carta Marina has the merit of being the first fairly correct map of Scandinavia, and for a long time helped to shape the popular image of Scandinavia in the rest of Europe. The most salient feature of the map, however, is the gallery of blood-curdling sea-monsters that populate the map's North Atlantic. Descriptions and pictures of sea monsters throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond are frequently based on the Carta Marina.

You can explore the Carta Marina of 1539 online as a virtual tour or as an interactive version. There is also an interactive version of the 1572 reprint.

See also A Description of the Northern Peoples.


  • Behemoth Battle:
    • While Ziphius, a "terrible seamonster" (in reality either a swordfish or a beaked whale), is swallowing a whole seal, it is itself attacked by an unnamed monster which is sinking its teeth into Ziphius' side.
    • South of Tile, a whale ("balena") is being attacked by an orca.
  • Eyes Do Not Belong There: The "monster seen in 1537", called a "sea-hog" in the commentary, has three additional eyes on each side of his body, making eight eyes in total.
  • Food Chain of Evil: Several monsters are shown preying on each other — the Ziphius and a prister are both attacked by smaller monsters, while a giant lobster is shown being attacked by another creature with a rhino-like horn.
  • Giant Enemy Crab. There is a kind of giant lobster between Orkney and the Hebrides, holding a man in his claw. According to the commentary, this monster is called "Polypus" and is considered very dangerous.
  • Here There Be Dragons: One of the most notable historic examples of this trope. The map is lavishly decorated with wondrous scenes and creatures — besides the famous sea monsters, Olaus Magnus included depictions of various unusual peoples, as well as a few land-bound monsters in northern Scandinavia, and added descriptions and warnings to various illustrations. All in all, there's barely an inch of the map that isn't home to some strange thing.
  • Horse of a Different Colour: To the east of "Finnmarchia", there is an armed troop of "Scricfinns" ("Skiing Finns", meaning Saami) riding to battle on reindeers.
  • Informed Species: Many of the sea monsters are meant to represent real animals—various whales, walruses (depicted with four clawed legs, a fishtail, and upwards-pointing tusks), and a "marine unicorn" that was in all probability inspired by a narwhal—but look nothing like them from a modern perspective. It's understandable, though, given that the artist would only have known of these creatures from travelers' tales.
  • Kraken and Leviathan: The map depicts numerous "pristers", which are whales "as big as mountains" and which can capsize a large ship just by surfacing from the water.
  • Loud of War: South of Iceland, a ship is being pursued by two "pristers" (giant whales) while a man standing on the ship is blowing a trumpet. The commentary explains that the sound of trumpets frightens pristers away, which is necessary to prevent them from capsizing ships.
  • Mega Maelstrom: There is a large swirl in the sea amid the Lofoten islands, captioned HEC EST HORRENDA CARIBDIS ("This is the horrible Charybdis"). There is also a small ship in the middle of the maelstrom that is apparently just being sucked down. For bonus points, this would seem to be the Maelstrom itself, the whirlpool that gives us the name.
  • Monster Whale: "Pristers", the monstrous whale-like creatures typical of the time, are the most common sea monsters featured on the map. Examples include one large enough to have been mistaken for an island by sailors, and one — specifically identified as a "balena"', the Latin word for whale — being attacked by an equally monstrous orca.
  • Ocean of Adventure: According to this map, the North Atlantic Ocean is littered with mysterious islands, unexplored lands, a Mega Maelstrom, and giant Sea Monsters of mythological origin. More southern seas are calmer, however.
  • The Place: Its extended title goes like this "Sea Map and Description of the Northern Countries and the Marvels Contained in Them".
  • Portent of Doom:
    • The appearance of the Great Norwegian Serpent ("200 feet long and over 20 feet thick") is a bad omen that betokens a sudden change of rule in Norway, or else an imminent war.
    • Mermen coming near ships is a sign of imminent danger, and may actually presage the sinking of the ship.
  • Sea Monster: There is a sea serpent, numerous types of gigantic whales, a merman, a marine unicorn, a sea cow, a kind of giant seahorse, a giant lobster holding a man in his claws, a bizarre "sea hog", a so-called "sea monk" and various other weird fishes or sea creatures. These monsters, notably, are only in the Atlantic Ocean proper — the North and Baltic Seas are quite free of them — due to the Renaissance concept that things grow more strange and monstrous as one heads away from Jerusalem.
  • Sea Serpents: There's a large serpent off the coast of Norway in the act of coiling around an unfortunate ship. Olaus describes this creature as being 200 feet long and twenty thick, and as dwelling in the sea caves in the nearby coast. The most well-known print of the map colors the creature bright red. Its appearance is a bad omen, and portends an imminent war or change in rulership.
  • Turtle Island: The English ("Angli") have cast anchor on a giant whale and apparently boil a kettle on its back.