Hic sunt dracones, translated as Here be dragons, is a line often found on maps throughout the world of fiction. The phrase can be found anywhere from video games to literature to tabletop games. And the idea behind the phrase is so commonly used it has its own TV Tropes page. The historical context for the word however is fairly limited.
The idea of a mysterious and forbidden land filled with dragons, beasts or other dangerous creatures comes from the simple fact that map making was once a very imprecise task, cartographers didn’t have anything close to the tools and resources we have today, or even those explorers such as Lewis and Clark would’ve had during their expedition across America. Due to the limitations of cartography, map makers would often draw images on their maps depicting various beasts, warning travelers about the dangerous of entering into unexplored territory. Writers and other creators often use the phrase Here be dragons or Hic sunt dracones (because Everything’s Better in Latin) to show that a map is old or that the task the characters face is a dangerous one.
From the frequency that Here be dragons shows up in fiction, one would expect that the exact phrase to be found frequently in historical maps as well. Interestingly however, the phrase only appears a couple times in historical documents. One such document is the Hunt-Lenox Globe, dated to 1510 CE. The globe is considered to be either the second or third oldest globes ever recovered. Strangely enough, the oldest globe recovered also depicts the phrase Here be dragons. That globe consists of two half ostrich eggs engraved with a map of the world and is dated to 1504 CE. Because of their close age and similar appearance, the Hunt-Lenox Globe is actually suspected to be a casting of the ostrich egg engraving.
Although Here be dragons only occurs a couple times throughout history, the act of drawing dangerous creatures in uncharted territory is fairly common throughout historical maps. Various dangers such as seamonsters, scorpions and cannibals also appear on early maps in addition to dragon-like creatures of various designs. Despite these dangerous depictions, early travelers would likely need to worry about hunger, scurvy or getting lost than they would have to worry about cannibals.
Until next time,