Saturday, February 18, 2012

The monsters of Islandia

Last fall while researching my article on images of walruses and possible mammoths on Renaissance maps, I looked at dozens of maps before finding the five I finally used. This was more fun than anyone deserves to have. I wasn't able to find excuses to use all of my research at the time. During the next few months, I'll put together a couple of less polished pieces so that I can share some off the more interesting tidbits that I found. One of the most fun maps that I found was Abraham Ortelius' Islandia, Iceland.

Ortelius is an important figure in the history of cartography. He is regarded as the father of the modern atlas. His Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was a bound volume of maps, with descriptive text, intended to sytematically cover the entire world. It came out in many editions and languages between 1570 and 1612 and was generously plagiarised then and later. The map Islandia first appeared in the edition of Theatrum in 1587. Islandia was the first detailed and accurate (by the standards of the time) map of Iceland. The information for the map itself originated with Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson who sent it to a Danish historian, Anders Sörensen Vedel. Vedel sent the notes and a map of his own creation to Ortelius who used them used when preparing the copperplates for Islandia. The Vedel map has not survived. Many of the placenames on the map were badly mangled by Ortelius when he converted the Icelandic script (Latin letters with additional characters) into the Latin script common in Holland.

Islandia, printed in Antwerp, 1603.

I don't intend to write a detailed article about the map as a whole, today. I just want to make some comments about the animals surrounding the island in the sea, especially his sources for the animals. The auction site of Barry Lawrence Ruderman (my source for the Ortelius images) says:
Some of the more purely fanciful images may derive from tales of St. Brendan, a sixth century Irish missionary who, according to legend, journeyed to Iceland and whose name is associated with a mythical island of the same name. Others are traceable to Olaus Magnus's Carta Marina of 1539, although they were probably derived directly from Munster's Cosmographia of 1545 and most notably Munster's chart of the Sea and Land Creatures[Meerwunder und seltzame Thier].

Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina, printed in Venice, 1539.

Münster's Meerwunder und seltzame Thier, printed in Basel, 1552.

As far as I can tell, this is true, though I have identified some of the other sources. I believe Ortelius relied more directly on Olaus that on the intermediary of Münster. Only a few of the beasts on Islandia were portrayed in Cosmographia, while several more can be found on Olaus' map and, more importantly, in his book Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, first published in 1555 and many times thereafter. Another source that Ortelius used was Konrad Gesner (De Piscibus Orbiculatis 1558), who commented on and, in some places, corrected Olaus. One of those corrections appears on Islandia. Finally, he might have used Ambroise Paré's Des Monstres. Although there is nothing in this that he couldn't have found in any of the other sources, Des Monstres first published in 1573, is one of the greatest monster bestiaries of all time.

On to the illustrations. Ortelius marked the animals on the map with capital letters. These were described in text on the back of the map. For each animal, I'll start with the image and description, follow with some possible sources for the image, and end with any other comments that wander into my mind.

A. is a fish, commonly called NAHVAL. If anyone eats of this fish, he will die immediately. It has a tooth in the front part of its head standing out seven cubits. Divers have sold it as the Unicorn's horn. It is thought to be a good antidote and powerful medicine against poison. This monster is forty ells in length.

From the description, it's quite clear that he intends a narwhal. I've written before about the European belief in unicorn horn. By the time that Ortelius wrote the text for this map, the belief in an actual unicorn animal was fading. However, belief in the horn itself, whatever its true source, and its anti-poison properties hung on for another century. Curiously, although there were plenty of images of sea unicorns that Ortelius might have drawn on, he chose to use something that resembles a swordfish to represent the narwhal. I haven't been able to locate a source for this image.

The ell is a highly flexible measure. It most commonly means, either a cubit (half yard, finger tips to elbow, or roughly eighteen inches) or a three-quarter yard (finger tips to arm pit, or roughly twenty-seven inches). Just to keep things confusing, it was also used for any foreign measure of the same order of magnitude.

Since I can't find anything to match his narwhal, we'll move on to B and C.

B. the Roider is a fish of one hundred and thirty ells in length, which has no teeth. The flesh of it is very good meat, wholesome and tasty. Its fat is good against many diseases.

C. The BURCHVALUR has a head bigger than its entire body. It has many very strong teeth, of which they make chess pieces [some editions say bricks]. It is 60 cubits long.

I don't have anything to offer for the images of B or C either. Their basic forms, with the wide open mouthes, vaguely matche standard artistic representations of fish going back to Minoan Greece. One thing I can say about the Burchvalur is that the description of a long head and teeth used for carving sounds like a sperm whale. In fact, several of the monsters on the charts of Ortelius, Olaus, and Münster are based on different stories about sperm whales.

On a linguistic note: Roider or reydur or reidr is an old Icelandic name for baleen whales, which have no teeth. The suffix -valur, in Burchvalur, comes from the root as "whale." It shows up as hvalur, wal, ual, hval and other forms hidden in the names of many northern sea mammals.

For D, I do have some meat. Ortelius points to Olaus as his source for the sea hog. Olaus bases his pig-like monster of the German Sea on a specific sighting in 1537. Between Olaus' first representation in 1539 and Ortelius' image in 1587, the beast has undergone some evolution.

D. The Hyena or sea hog is a monstrous kind of fish about which you may read in the 21st book of Olaus Magnus.

This first is from Olaus' 1539 map. The sea hog has a boar's head, a very scaly body, webbed feet, what might be a row of uneven spines or bristles on its back, horns like a cow's over its shoulders, and, strangest of all, what appear to be three eyes on its side.

Münster's version from six years later has fewer details. The webbed feet now look more like fins and the side eyes are gone. Where Olaus' sea hog faced right, Münster's faces left. This reversal was common when prints were copied. The engraver set the original work next to his plate and copied what he saw, forgetting, or not caring, that when his plate was printed, the image would become reversed.

The version printed in Olaus' book in 1555, faces left again. My guess is that Olaus' engraver worked from the map plates rather than a print. The image is a little more detailed and has a new background but it is otherwise unchanged.

In Gesner, three years later, the image is reversed, it's slightly more detailed (beautifully so), and lacks a background. In case there was any question about where he got the image, he directly quotes Olaus' book and comments on it.

Finally, we have Paré in 1573. The image face left and lacks any background, so I think it's safe to say it was copied from Gesner.

Looking back at Ortelius' image, I think it's clear that he did not get it from Münster. The most important in my making this judgement is the three side eyes. Münster did not have them, and does not mention them in his accompanying text. He merely calls it a "monstrous fish that resembles pig." In Ortelius, they look more like bullet holes that eyes, but they are there and in the same arrangement (two above one below). My principle of reversals would seem to argue that Ortelius worked from Olaus and not Gesner, but I think one other point argues in Gesner's favor. Ortelius' image is not a simple copy; it has been completely reworked. The scales are gone and the beast looks furry. The feet are no longer webbed; they look like those of a dog or some other terrestrial carnivore. In fact, he calls it a hyena. Gesner was the only previous writer to use the word hyena to describe the monster. I'm not sure where he picked up that reference. It's possible that there is another source that I'm not aware of that had an image of a furry sea hog, but until I hear of it, I'm going to say Ortelius was the one who improved the sea hog based on Gesner's description.

E. Ziphius, a horrible sea monster that swallows a black seal in one bite.

Various sources I've looked at claim that the Ziphius is a goose-beaked whale, a sperm whale, or an orca. Olaus, who first used the image was very clear that Ziphius is a swordfish (xiphia). He wrote that is had horrible eyes, a sharp beak like a sword, a triangular back (a fin), and that it was a stranger in the North that only occasionally showed up as a robber. However, he also said it had a head like an owl's and he drew it that way. Here are the images of Olaus, 1539; Münster, 1545; Olaus, 1555; and Gesner, 1558.

Three things stand out when comparing Ortelius' Ziphius with Olaus' first image. First, the second attacking monster is missing from the scene. Second, Ortelius' Ziphius has no dorsal fin. Third, it looks like Vincent van Gogh. I think the last one is a coincidence. Ortelius' Ziphius most closely matches Münster's. Of the four earlier images, only Münster's lacks the dramatic staging and it has the smallest dorsal fin. These make it the most likely source for Ortelius' Ziphius.

F. The English whale, thirty ells long. It has no teeth, but its tongue is seven ells in length.

Several things stand out taking this image and description together. First, it appears to have teeth, contrary to the description. Second, it has arms. Third, is that a giant penis? All of these details come from Olaus and are repeated in Gesner and partially in Paré.

Olaus' illustration is not based on a species called the English whale. It is, rather, an illustration for a report of a particular whale that beached itself near the mouth of the Thames on August 27, 1532. He describes the proportions of the whale, commenting on the fact that its mouth was long in proportion to its body. He says that is had long "wings," half the length of its body. He says it had no teeth but, instead, hairy blades on the roof of its mouth and a long tongue. He says that its genitals were of monstrous magnitude. I think most modern people would have no problem recognising this as a male baleen whale of some sort. Olaus' illustration shows workers chopping up the stinking carcass to dispose of it. Olaus appears to have had some trouble translating the report into an image. The "wings" turned into dragon's feet and he drew the baleen plates as a series triangles that looked a lot like teeth.

Gesner's English whale is essentially a copy of Olaus' with the people removed, possibly to give us a better look at the giant penis. His one significant change is that he has added some teeth in the lower jaw.

Paré started from scratch and created a new image. In his, the front of the whale has been reworked to have a profile like a sperm whale and the "wings" have been changed from arms into cute little bat wings. Its lower jaw has teeth that again resemble a sperm whale and it appears to have no teeth at all in its upper jaw, only some curious holes.

There is one hint in Olaus' drawing that he might have had some experience with whale bones. This is in the strange arms of the whale. The arms look flabby and are made up mostly of wrist and fingers, which is exactly the bone structure of a whale's fins. Like the wings of its fellow mammal, the bat, a whale's fins have kept most of their fingers, as opposed to birds whose fingers are all fused into one structure. Ortelius was apparently not familiar with these bones as he has rendered the fingers more paw-like. The bones are well displayed in this Nineteenth Century German illustration.

G. HROSHUALUR, that is to say as much as Sea horse, with manes hanging down from its neck like a horse. It often causes great hurt and scare to fishermen.

There's really nothing special about the sea horse. Both the legend and image had been well known since classical antiquity and, by the Medieval times, it was used in heraldry. The pose is a common one. Ortelius could have taken his image from a fountain, mural, coat of arms, or book illustration. It's very similar to Gesner's sea horse, but not enough so that I would say it was based on Gesner.

Ortelius' sea horse is really quite beautiful. Today, it would be easy to imagine his horse showing up as an airbrushed poster full of rainbows and unicorns. But, such a treatment obscures the legend, which was that the sea horse was a horrible monster that hunted and killed fishermen. Then again, the unicorn was often portrayed a a horrible monster that hunted and killed men in the forest.
H. The largest kind of Whale, which seldom shows itself. It is more like a small island than like a fish. It cannot follow or chase smaller fish because of its huge size and the weight of its body, yet it preys on many, which it catches by natural cunning and subtlety which it applies to get its food.

Like the sea horse, the island fish has a long heritage in mythology. It appears in the Arabian Nights, Icelandic mythology, and in the Voyage of St. Brendan. In most legends, a ship comes across the island fish sleeping on the surface (a basking shark?). Thinking it is an island, the sailors land and build a fire to cook their dinner, waking the monster. The island fish is not usually malicious, it is merely dangerous because of its size. Olaus had an image of the island fish on his 1539 map but not in his book.Olaus' image shows the episode of the sailors starting a fire. Münster had a variation of it without the sailors. Gesner has the sailors and so must have copied it from Olaus' map.

Both Olaus' and Gesner's fish have a row of small fins running along its spine, while Münster's and Ortelius' do not. This, and the sailors, make me believe that Ortelius was more inspired by Münster than by the others for this image.

I. SKAUTUHVALUR. This fish is fully covered with bristles or bones. It is somewhat like a shark or skate [thorn-back in the German edition], but infinitely bigger. When it appears, it is like an island, and with its fins it overturns boats and ships.

According to the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture only two species of rays or skates are native to their waters and neither one is big enough to capsize a ship. Ortelius' image could owe something to Olaus and Gesner. The fish in its mouth resmbles Olaus, but the spininess does not.

While there is some resemblance in the images, the descriptions are completely different. The ray described by Olaus is presented as a model of virtue. In the image, the ray is rescuing a fisherman who has fallen into the water and is being eaten by hungry fish. Later on, Olaus describes a different giant ray that uses its stinger to pluck sailors off of ships.

K. SEENAUT, sea cow of grey colour. They sometimes come out of the sea and feed on the land in groups. They have a small bag hanging by their nose with the help of which they live in the water. If it is broken, they live altogether on the land, accompanied by other cows.

Notice the three cows on the shore behind the Seenauts. They are labled vacca marina, which is Latin for "sea cows." Olaus, Münster, and Gesner all had sea cows in their presentations, but none of their illustations resemble Ortelius'. Still, I like the sea cow enough that I'm going to show them anyway.

Münster's and Gesner's sea cows are descended from Olaus' map illustration and not from his book illustration, which is completely different. I think it might be the ancestor of the cow in Guernica.

L. STEIPEREIDUR, a most gentle and tame kind of whale, which for the defence of fishermen fights against other kinds of whales. It is forbidden by Proclamation that any man should kill or hurt this kind of Whale. It has a length of at least 100 cubits.

The image of the Steipereidur nearly matches the island fish above. Olaus, on his map, has several whales that all basically fit this image. Besides the one shown above as the island fish is this one illustrating a battle between a whale and an orca. That scene was a standard piece in natural histories dating back, at least, to Pliny in the first century. This might be what Ortelius was referring to when he described Steipereidur.

On a less happy note for the Steipereidur, the royal proclamation must not have lasted long. In a history of Greenland published in 1705, Thormodus Torfæus wrote that Steipereidur was the tastiest kind of whale.

M. STAUKUL. The Dutch call it Springual. It has been observed to stand for a whole day long upright on its tail. It derives its name from its leaping or skipping. It is a very dangerous enemy of seamen and fishermen, and greedily goes after human flesh.

The springing whale is another name for the orca. The presence of two so different orcas in the literature of the time shows how confused information arriving from different sources could become. Ortelius should have been aware of the orca, under that name, as portrayed by Olaus and numerous other artists, but the springing whale description was so different that he never made a connection of them being the same animal.

N. ROSTUNGER (also called Rosmar) is somewhat like a sea calf. It goes to the bottom of the sea on all four of its feet, which are very short. Its skin can hardly be penetrated by any weapon. It sleeps for twelve hours on end, hanging on some rock or cliff by its two long teeth. Each of its teeth are at least one ell long and the length of its whole body is fourteen ells.

And here we are with my friend the walrus. In my Ruscheni article, I gave some history of European knowledge of the walrus. Some other day, I'll do a complete data dump of everything I found in my research. For now, I'll just give a short version of that which is relevant to Ortelius' map.

The description of the walrus spending its time hanging by its teeth to sleep dates back to the thirteenth century and a bestiary written by St. Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus). It is part of a bizzare description of hunting walruses by sneking up on them while the slept, cutting slits in their skin, running a rope through the slits, tying the rope to a tree and then waking the walruses (as if all this cutting and tying didn't) and stampeding them into the sea during which they were supposed to literally run out of their skin Like some Tex Avery cartoon character. The description was repeated by many writers including Olaus and Gesner. Olaus' illustrations show the walrus as a legged monster with tusks in its lower jaw.

The first edition of Gesner's book copied Olaus' illustration and repeated the Albertus story.

None of these images resemble the one that Ortelius used. Münster's chart of the Sea and Land Creatures does not include a walrus. But Ortelius' walrus does have a source and that is the second edition of of Gesner's De Piscibus. between 1558 and 1560, Gesner learned of a drawing of a walrus in the wall of the Strasbourg city hall. Around 1520, Bishop Erik Valkendorf of Trondheim sent the head of a walrus, preserved with salt, to pope Leo X. On the way to Rome, it was displayed at the Strasbourg Rathaus. Someone made a drawing of it on the wall, imagining a seal-like body with a fish tail, four chubby arms, and wing-like structures behind the fore-arms. Gesner was skeptical about the body, but faithfully reproduced it.

In the thirty years between Gesner and Ortelius, Western Europeans began to penetrate the Arctic in significant numbers looking for shortcuts to China and trade with Russia. Many of these travelers saw walruses and brought back ivory and more realistic stories of walrus hunting, but I cannot locate any images during that time.
O. Spermaceti parmacitty or a simple kind of amber, commonly called HUALAMBUR.

This is ambergris or whale barf. Aged ambergris is used as a fixative in perfume and was, and still is, extremely valuable. On the map, the ambergris is represented as two blobs flanking the walrus. We don't need to look for a source for shapeless blobs.

P. Blocks and trunks of trees, by force of winds and violent tempests torn off by their roots from the cliffs of Norway, tossed to and fro, and surviving many storms, finally cast upon and coming to rest at this shore.

The significance of the driftwood is that, by Ortelius' time, Iceland had almost no trees big enough to use for ship building or construction. For the same reason, Olaus made a point of showing driftwood around Greenland. Like the ambergris, we don't really need to look for sources for driftwood.

Q. Huge and marvellously big heaps of ice, brought here by the tide from the frozen sea, making loud and terrible noises. Some pieces are often as big as forty cubits. On some of these, white bears sit together, watching the innocent fish play about in exercise.

I don't think there is a specific source for this illustration. Bears were a familiar animal to European artists. In Ortelius' time, they still lurked in forests across most of the continent. Bears were used in heraldry, so most artists would have been able to draw them. I find these bears especially charming. Rather than the fierce animals of reputation, they are shown playfully.

Olaus also showed ice floes and polar bears on the northeast coast of Iceland. One of them is eating an innocent fish.

An interesting detail is that the polar bears on Olaus' map are brown. Renaissance maps were printed in black and white and later hand colored. Color printing did not come into being until the nineteenth century. Quite often, the maps were colored by their owners and not by the publishers, meaning different copies of the same map can quite different color schemes. Though Olaus clearly labeled the bears "white bears" (ursi albi)whoever colored his map colored the bears a more familiar brown.

And now we've come all the way around the island. By my count, most of the identifiable sources for Ortelius' sea animal images are either Gesner or Olaus, though he was also aware of Münster. Sea horses and bears were common enough in European art that they could easily have been original creations. As to the descriptions, most of these are also Gesner or Olaus (Münster's descriptions are very short). Finally, the inclusion animals not in any of those sources and the use of Icelandic names makes me think that he got most of the rest of his information from Bishop Thorlaksson and Anders Vedel. Whatever his sources, the map is a beautiful glimpse into the state of knowledge during the age of discovery.


M. Engelhard said...


Nice post! I am currently writing a cultural history of the polar bear and would like to include an illustration of one of the two map details you show. Where can I get high-res (at least 2 MB at 300 dpi) printable downloads of these?

Also, please contact me about the mammoth book idea -- I've published seven books with university / regional presses and might be able to give you some pointers. (I also know at least one other writer who's working on a mammoth travelogue.)

Michael Engelhard
(Nome, Alaska)

Felix Gilman said...

This is a great post.

Anonymous said...

Nice post!

About the steipereidur (L), the story may have been confused with the "fiskreki" or "fish herder whale" mentioned in the Norse "King's Mirror" from the mid 13th century. This was a generic name for baleen whales that follow schools of fish to their spawning grounds to pray on them. For the fishermen, sightings heralded the start of the winter fisheries. People had the cause and effect mixed up and believed the whale was herding the fish into the fjords, and as such it was forbidden to hunt it for fear that the fish would disappear with it. As far as I know, this is the earliest known example of a whale being designated a protected species.