Musings on mapping and (sea) monsters…



I find myself musing on the connection between mapping and the depiction of monsters. Mapping in the past, and mapping for the future. In the history of mapping, the charting of place and space has also represented the unusual, uncanny beasts which inhabit ‘the unknown’. Scary monsters, aliens, strange creatures in a strange land (inspiration for the terminology courtesy of Bowie of course, once again…).

In early medieval maps like the Hereford Mappa Mundi, the world (that is, the Christian world) is shown as a circle with 'the East' at the top. East represents Paradise, the Garden of Eden. The rest of the world is depicted as geographically - and historically - developing out from that top point. Cities and places are shown, also events, but what is significant is the inclusion of a variety of extraordinary creatures, which are indeed ‘scary monsters’ and super beasts.

The creatures depicted are part of the experience of the mapping. It is not about finding your way. It is about losing yourself in an experience of being placed. Or maybe it is not about being placed at all. Quite the opposite, perhaps. Dominic Harbour (Hereford Cathedral) speaking on BBC programme about the Mappa Mundi says: "It is... unfathomable...you have to immerse yourself into it."

In these early maps, then, the creatures depicted are shown as strange, monstrous and unknown, yet the function of these disturbing depictions at the time was to show the power of God, in that if such beasts could be created by God's power, then this was the threat of what could exist in the afterlife. The unusual and the unknown, therefore, was used to ward off uncertainty, in that if such strange creatures did exist, then it confirmed God's power. The mirabilia (marvels) were necessary: they proved a moral point.

Yet, of course, now in the 21st century we have moved on from this imaginiative form of mapping.  Our Mappa Mundi is google earth? But what about the mirabilia - the scary monsters? Do they still have a function?

We do still seem obsessed with notions of scary monsters, particularly the unknown creatures of the sea, about which we still know so little. Several recent news stories are evidence of our persistent interest: giant whales washed up on beaches at Skegness and Hunstanton, giant squid seen alongside boat in Japan (and the recent Octopus Village…)…and we do continue to marvel at these creatures.

Yet, as we learn more about them as zoological species and our technology (and the numerous videos we can view on You Tube) gives us insight, is the marvelousness being diluted? We are even told they are not so unusual, not so remarkable. Smithsonian Zoologist Dr. Clyde Roper (2013) "the world's foremost authority on giant squid" tells us: "Giant squid are probably not rare, as was once thought. In fact, since sperm whales regularly feast on them, giant squid must be quite abundant, perhaps numbering in the many millions within the ocean’s vast inky depths. But they are hard to find because they occur at depths where it is challenging and expensive to work." 
Facts. Science. Measurable information. We might know everything if we could fund the expedition?

Yet, while the 'monsters' become more accessible and less scary, we remain fascinated by these creatures. Their mystery, their strangeness. Maybe we want them to remain mirabilia, even monstrous. Maybe we want to feel that we cannot be reassured by knowledge.

"She opened strange doors that we'd never close again......Scary monsters, super creeps. Keep me running, running scared." (David Bowie)












(1) Image by Olaus Magnus (born 1490) from a wood-block map titled Carta Marina (printed Venice, 1539). Magnus also wrote a book titled Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus ("History of the Northern Peoples") published in Rome in 1555, which explained the images of the sea creatures. 
(2) Hereford Mappa Mundi c1300.
(3) (4) The bodies of sperm whales washed up on British beaches on the east coast - Gibraltar Point in Skegness.

Fay Hoolahan (3.1.16)

References:
Clyde Roper (2013) http://ocean.si.edu/blog/reflections-successful-search-giant-squid
The Beauty of Maps Episode 1 - BBC Four [TX: 19 Apr 2010]
BBC News Report - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-35400884
David Bowie Scary Monsters, Super Creeps (1980)









No comments:

Post a Comment