The Viking Imagination: Medieval Cartography of Scandinavia

The Viking Imagination: Medieval Cartography of Scandinavia

Just because I love cartography, here’s a couple of remarkable Scandanavian medieval maps. Note the dominance of several kraken and sea monsters off the Norwegian coast and how each country is barely hanging on by a thread because of these menacing beasts. Here be magic, Vikings and mysterious beasts.

Velleius Islandia by Abraham Ortellius (1603)

The Viking Imagination: Medieval Cartography of Scandinavia
Velleius Islandia by Abraham Ortellius (1603) The Viking Imagination: Medieval Cartography of Scandinavia

The map depicts Iceland in remarkable detail, including its mountains, fjords, glaciers and a graphic depiction of Mount Hekla erupting in a fiery explosion of flames and volcanic material. Along part of the coastline, Polar Bears can be seen floating on icebergs. The map includes over 200 place names, primarily Danish in origin and many of which are likely misread from the original map, owing to the different writing style employed in Iceland during the period. While the map is far from accurate, it depicts first time a meaningful depiction of all known settlements in Iceland and many other points of interest, including a number of glaciers.

The map illustrates a remarkable array of the legendary and mythical sea monsters and creatures of the 15th and 16th Century, along with early depictions of the sea horse, manta ray, walrus and whale. 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.

Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus (1539)

When this map was made in 1539, scientific innovation was still largely a dream. There was an abiding and widespread belief in the sea being the dwelling place of unknowable creatures like griffins, unicorns, dragons, the phoenix, the monstrous things.

The Viking Imagination: Medieval Cartography of Scandinavia
Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus (1539) The Viking Imagination: Medieval Cartography of Scandinavia

Olaus Magnus (1490–1557) and his elder brother, Johannes, were Catholic priests who sought exile following their native Sweden’s conversion to Lutheranism during the Reformation.

While living in Gdansk in Poland, Olaus begun work on a map of the northern regions in 1527, the same year that Sweden became Protestant. This map would take him nearly 12 years to finish. A triumph of skill, imagination and patience, it was printed in Venice, and was the largest and most detailed map of Northern Europe ever completed at that time.

Listen up

If you haven’t been reading my blog lately, I’ve been on a Viking-loving journey. Listen to these podcasts about the Icelandic sagas, the mystery of the Lewis Chess Men, an orchestral interpretation of the story of Odin’s Raven Magic, how Viking language become modern English and check out these Epic Maps from other places.

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4 thoughts on “The Viking Imagination: Medieval Cartography of Scandinavia

  1. God I love vikings too. Thanks for the post! I have, since I was a child, found maps intoxicating, especially older ones which depict a world long since past. The history attached to such gems provide me with hours of reading.

    1. Thanks Jamie, so glad to provide this inspiration for you. Yeah I was the same as a child too, ancient maps have something magical about them for me still, even as an adult.

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