Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Here Be Dragons

          At some point in my education I was told, in order to illustrate how ignorant and superstitious our ancestors were,* that the cartographers of bygone eras would write, "Beyond here there be dragons"** once they'd reached the limits of their geographic knowledge (which, it was always implied if not actually claimed outright, was approximately 93 miles from where they were currently sitting).

          Look how benighted our ancestors were, was the refrain. They didn't know anything about anything, made goofy-looking maps, and believed that there were dragons on down the road.

          I'm not necessarily claiming our ancestors were any brighter than we are today, I'm simply observing that just because we*** invented the Google Earth doesn't mean we should trash-talk the old cartographers with their parchment and quill pens. They got out some very respectable maps for not having satellites to help them.

Hunt-Lenox Globe, ca. 1503-07, As illustrated in the Encyclopaedia
Britannica, 9th edition, Volume X, 1874, Fig.2. This image can be found here

           The globe depicted above is, according to Wikipedia, the only known surviving map where the phrase "here are dragons" is actually used. If you spend a little time looking at it, you'll be impressed that, aside from the fact that it's missing North America (South America's there, though), it's a pretty good depiction of the world. Score one for ignorant, superstitious medieval cartographers.
          I would also like to add that they were right about the dragons. For I have traveled and encountered dragons in strange lands, and I have the photos to prove it:

St. George's Dragon, England

Dragons in Paris

Dragon making itself useful in Rome

Dragon in Kyoto

Cheerful dragon in Salzburg

          I use Google Earth and Google Maps a fair bit, and even though they will helpfully find you nearby pizza joints or gas stations or tattoo parlors wherever you are, according to your interests, they are curiously silent on the subject of dragons—which, as the photos above attest, are not as uncommon as you might think. I believe this a bug, and I wish Google would please fix it right away.

*Ignoring the fact that today, according to a Gallup poll, 24% of us admit that we are somewhat superstitious, 44% of us believe in ghosts, and 77% of us believe in angels. Meanwhile, a majority of us still believe politicians when they promise not to raise taxes while balancing the federal budget.

**The actual phrase, it turns out, is, "Here are dragons." ("Hic sunt dracones.")

***And by "we" I don't mean all of us, but rather a few exceptionally math-enabled geography geek engineer types at Google.

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