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Hic sunt dracones

The unknown both fascinates and terrifies us. It creates a sense of insecurity and responsibility in us that can be attractive to many, like those moments of pure activity and adrenaline that can even be addictive. There was a time when mapping the unknown was a profession -actually, has it ceased to be one?- fuzzy lines behind which mythological beings appeared representing danger, terror, insecurity. “Hic sunt dracones” was written over these lines, which comes to warn us that “Here are dragons”.

Unraveling the world

When the entire expanse of the Earth was not yet drawn, the guilds of cartographers enjoyed their moment of maximum splendour. A discipline that danced between mythology, geography and, of course, drawing. Not a few have been the maps that have drawn in different ways the environments that surround us. Each scientific, technological and iterative advance on the work previously received has allowed us to fine-tune the level of detail and broaden the horizons of each new work, but there was a long time in which there was always something common in all those maps: the mystical. Mythology at the service of science to explain those phenomena that we did not yet understand. Fantasy as a tool to warn of the dangers of crossing that line between the known and the unknown. Intuition over reason, when selecting the most important elements in each one of those traces that draw the geographies of the new territories.

Traveling to historical maps of Norway’s coasts, ship captains could find the dreaded way of representing the “Maelstrom“, described as a gigantic vortex in the middle of the ocean that reached to the bottom of it, gobbling up any ship that dared to approach its strong currents.

Carta marina of Olaus Magnus. S.XVI

But the violence of the sea was not only present because of the aggressiveness of its eddies, but the animals that inhabited it threatened even more intensely the concerned sailors. Only in this small fragment of the sea chart, in addition to the dreaded whirlpool, can one see the Kraken or a sea serpent of colossal proportions.

But the sea wasn’t the only dangerous place. On the mainland we can find numerous references to the homes where the feared dragons lived, whose way of life was the looting of merchants and of the villages closest to their dwellings.

Book Historiae Natura, Johannes Ionstonus (1755).

The descriptions of them vary depending on the location in which we are, as well as their relationship with people. From the dragons of Chinese origin with that mysticism and respect that emanate from them, to the aggressive European dragons that terrorized the lands of the poor peasants.

However, the dragon was not the only mythological animal that appeared in these maps that were drawn trying to tell the reality and dangers of the world. If we look at the cartography made by Diego Gutiérrez and Hieronymous Cock about the “New World” in 1562, we find a land plagued with different mythological beings, peculiar situations, or terrifying dangers.

Cartography of the New World by Diego Gutiérrez and Hieronymous Cock. 1562.

If we stop to take a closer look at this detailed map -which we strongly recommend by clicking here-, we will discover a world that emanates more fantasy than reality. What the authors tell us are distant lands populated by beings of varied nature. America as a land of mermaids, giants and, of course, also dragons.

Time passed, and little by little it was possible to draw each one of the lines that conformed the coasts of our planet, the limits that appeared in our mountains. It seemed that there was nothing left to draw and it was time to begin to erase all those ancient terrors, beginning to be recognized them as fictitious elements.

When the whole Earth was drawn

Logic used quickly would tell us that in a drawn world it no longer makes sense to continue mapping places. But if we stop to think, we will realize that although the morphological characteristics of a territory may not vary, it will undergo different changes over time. This forces us to update these cartographies. But that is not everything, in the past the unknown was the dangerous, the object to know, for which to venture. Today it seems that the dragon of the 21st century is no longer the unknown terrain but the problems or characteristics that compose it.

This then leads us to observe a beautiful evolution between those maps that wanted to represent a world still to be known with the plans drawn by architects and urban planners in their years of work, wanting to represent the problems of a place. Problems that, if not solved, could end up with these territories in the same way that they were endangered before because of those dragons.

However, moving away from fantasy, it is now abstraction that becomes our tool, abstraction used in the same way that fiction was once used. The surprising thing about this is that some plans that are generated feel as attractive as those that could appear in that time of the explorers, although it is true that the level of graphic density of the ancient ones has not yet been reached -although it seems that we are on the way to it-.

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