While navigation used to be an endeavor undertaken only by the highly educated and brave, the tools necessary for a successful journey through a wild area are now available even to young adventurers just learning the basics of compasses and how to read them.
Someone had to be the first person to visit a place, however—and in the 1500s, that was a scary prospect. Maps of the known world tended to be bordered with grotesque artistic embellishments that revealed monsters and mythical beasts that represented the danger of less-charted territories.
While the equipment and knowledge necessary for people to make scaled and useful maps was growing at the time, artistic license shaped by sailors’ accounts of previously undiscovered sea life led to some bizarre marriages of fact and fiction.
One of the most iconic examples of this blend of precision and imagination is the Carta marina—literally “map of the sea”—drafted by Olaus Magnus in 1539. The work is hailed as one of the earliest accurate depictions of the Scandinavian region, a corner of the world known for producing people with a fondness for geography and navigation (and who, as a culture, would eventually invent the sport of orienteering).
Magnus’s map seems innocuous from a distance, but a closer look reveals waves teeming with monsters. Finned creatures with beaks and horns appear to walk on the surface of the ocean, gnawing on smaller—but no less creepy—animals. Numerous shipwrecks and broken masts litter the seas, some of them sinking in the clutches of twisting serpents and fanged, spouting fish.
These things are ugly. One of them has three eyes on its side, all of them glaring out at the viewer while their twins—presumably on the other side—watch an angry, sock-puppet-like monstrosity prepare to chomp a galleon.
Surprisingly, amid all of this chaos, there’s a fairly accurate drawing of cracking sheets of ice, upon which normal-looking polar bears stand and bite into fresh-caught fish.
A bit to the south, though, men armed with what appear to be hatchets climb over the back of a enormous scaled fish with two forehead protrusions. This may be Magnus’s attempt to portray whalers butchering their catch. Even farther south are two huge beasts with snouts and paws, labeled “balena” and “orca.” Just beneath these crude portrayals of whales squirms what must be a bus-sized crawdad-like crustacean clutching a flailing man in its left claw.
This is how the vast oceans were depicted at the time—and yet explorers still ventured beyond the relative safety of the shore to find new lands. The drive to move beyond the edges of the known propelled people into the regions where nothing was secure, and that same drive continues to this day.
What is a modern orienteering challenge but a test of will against the behemoths and leviathans of exhaustion, ignorance, and apathy? Every journey into the wild—even if that course has been charted by a prior adventurer—is a step into the personal unknown, which carries a thrill of excitement, expectation, and even danger. If we wanted to stay in the relative safety of a controlled environment, we would never set foot out our front doors—and certainly wouldn’t do so with nothing but a map to guide us and a backpack stocked with a limited amount of food and clothing.
OK, that may be a bit melodramatic, but the underlying premise is true. Monsters—real or imagined—are a part of the world, and we don’t let that stop us from venturing into their territory and finding our own way. We do it to grow, to expand our own abilities and perspectives, and, sometimes, to simply have fun amid the wild things.