The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus, 1539

The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus, 1539

Carta marina et descriptio septentrionalium terrarum (Latin: ‘Marine map and description of the Northern lands’, commonly abbreviated to Carta marina)

One of the most enigmatic artefacts that is displayed in the Orkney Museum is a copy of a large map of Scandinavia called the Carta Marina, created by Olaus Magnus and originally published in 1539. This is, of course, a copy. There are only two originals known to exist; one at the Bavarian State Library in Munich, Germany, and the other at the Upsala University Library, Sweden.

The map shows not only the countries, but a host of marvelous illustrations depicting scenes from daily life in the north lands. But what it is famous for are its sea monsters. Many of the sea monster images would be copied and used by later map makers. Not only did Olaus Magnus create the map, but he also wrote about the sea monsters. Each one is given a letter as a key, with a description given in the bottom, left hand corner.

A ‘balena’ whale is seen suckling its calf, but they are under threat from an orca.

Olaus Magnus was a Swedish Catholic priest who was sent by the Swedish Government on a diplomatic mission to Rome in 1523. He created his map in Rome between the years 1527-39. His prolonged stay was linked to his brother, Archbishop Johannes Magnus, who was in dispute with King Gustav I Vasa, who had him exiled from Sweden. Olaus’s map was based on earlier maps, classical writings and accounts of sea monsters from sailors. Olaus spent his time in both Rome and Venice. After his brother’s death in 1544 Olaus was made Archbishop of Uppsala in his place, but the Reformation had made it impossible for a Catholic Archbishop to return to Sweden. While in exile Olaus wrote a book to accompany the map, called ‘Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus’ (Latin: A Description of the Northern Peoples), which was published in Rome in 1555. It is from the natural history section of this book that much of the text used here is drawn, as he describes the sea monsters.

Archbishop Johannus Magnus.
Archbishop Johannus Magnus.
‘On the three Main Gods of the Geats’, L-R Frigg, Thor, Odin. From ‘Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus.’
‘The Alphabet of the Geats’. From ‘Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus’.
The Carta Marina on display in the Baikie Library in the Orkney Museum.

Where the Orkney Museum’s copy of the map came from, we don’t know. When ‘Tankerness House Museum’ (as the Orkney Museum was known from 1968-99) first opened in May 1968 it displayed the collection of the defunct ‘Orkney Antiquarian Society’. The first curator was the County Librarian, Evan MacGillivray (1908-87). Evan had close ties to Sweden and retired there. It is possible that he acquired a copy for the new museum. When the first professional curator (Museums Officer) Bryce Wilson was appointed in 1976 the map was already in place, with no documentation to say where it had come from.

The copy, like the original, is made from nine separate sheets of paper, labeled A-I. The original was made from woodcut block printed in black and white, but later coloured.
“The Whirlpool, or Prister, is of the kind of Whales, two hundred Cubits long [300 feet, 91.44 meters], and is very cruel. For to the danger of Sea-men, he will sometimes raise himself beyond the sail-yards, and cast such floods of Waters above his head, which he had sucked in, that with a Cloud of them, he will often sink the strongest ships, or expose the Mariners to extreme danger.” [Top Left] “The Unicorn is a Sea-beast, having in his Fore-head a very great Horn, wherewith he can penetrate and destroy the ships in his way, and drown multitudes of men. But Divine goodness hath provided for the safety of Mariners herein; for though he be a very fierce Creature, yet is he very slow, that such as fear his coming may fly from him.“

The ‘prister’ is a large whale, thought to be a sperm whale. The sea unicorn is a narwhal. The strange creature, like a winged fish (in the top right of this photo), is not recorded in Olaus Magnus’s description or book. It is interesting to note that the nationality of the ships are given – here is a Norwegian ship.

Here another ‘prister’ is attacking a Danish ship. ‘Hic est horrenda Caribdis’ (Latin: ‘This is the horrible Charybdis’) depicts a whirlpool, swallowing a ship. Charybdis is a whirlpool that Odysseus had to avoid on his voyage home from the Trojan War. The whirlpool shown is the Maelström off the coast of the Lofoten Islands, Norway.
Two ‘pristers’ are being repulsed by a ship that they are going to attack. Barrels are being thrown to them, to distract their attention. Olaus Magnus records that they like to play with such barrels. Also, a man on the sterncastle of the ship is playing a trumpet. These creatures hated any loud, sharp sounds and would flee in fright. It is interesting to note that barrels are thrown to distract a sea monster in folk tales from Lofoten in Arctic Norway, Shetland and Orkney.
A beached whale in the Faroe Islands is being cut up for meat. Note the piper.
Shetland, with a church dedicated to St Magnus. This is likely to be the main church in Shetland in medieval times, built at Tingwall, near the site of the Thing, or assembly, where law courts were held.
Orkney is depicted with Shetland to the east, Faroes to the north east and the island of ‘Tile’, the semi-mythical Ultima Thule of the Greeks and Romans. This island, said to lie to the far north, has been claimed by Shetland and Iceland, but it was probably just a metaphor for a far, distant land.
This version of the map shows more clearly a strange belief that was held about birds. In the bottom right of Orkney, marked with the letter I, are three ducks, within a shell. They have fallen from a ‘duck tree’, of which they are the fruit. If they land on the earth they become ducks (or geese) but if they fall in the sea they become ‘goose barnacles’, whose feathery looking filters, used for feeding, resemble a bird’s feathers. The shape of them also resembles a goose’s beak, hence the origin of the name ‘barnacle goose’. Goose barnacles are to be found growing on the bottom of pieces of driftwood, which gave rise to the idea that they were once the fruit of a tree. This was before the migration of birds was understood.
An illustration of a ‘goose tree’ from 1597.
Orkney is unrecognisable, but the Mainland (the largest island) is called ‘Pomona’. This was used on old maps as a description, meaning ‘fruitful’ or fertile. It was later wrongly applied as the name of the Mainland, although it was never called that in Orkney. The original name was Hrossey (Old Norse: Horse Island) but this soon fell out of use as ‘Mainland’ was adopted. Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruitful abundance, her name deriving from the Latin word ‘pomum’, meaning fruit.
The ‘Polypus’ (Latin: many footed) is depicted as a giant lobster, which has seized a swimmer in its claws. From Olaus’s description it sounds more like an octopus, with a tube along its body and the ability to change colour, especially when startled. It lives in holes under the sea, where it piles up the bones and shells of its prey.
Here (as seen above) is a ‘Balina’ whale suckling its calf, while being attached by an ‘Orcha’ (Orca, killer whale). The strange creature above is a ‘Sea Swine’, which Olaus describes as a ‘monsterous Hog’.

“For it had a Hogs head, and a quarter of a Circle, like the Moon, in the hinder part of its head, four feet like a dragons, two eyes on both sides of its Loyns, and a third in his belly inkling towards his Navel; behind he had a Forked-tail, like to other Fish commonly.”

This fantastic creature was based on accounts of a strange animal that was published in an anonymous pamphlet in Rome in 1537. Some have attributed the pamphlet to Olaus Magnus himself, but there is no evidence to either support or deny this.

The Whale Island: “The Whale hath upon his Skin a Superficies, like the gravel that is by the Sea-side: so that oft-times, when he raiseth his back above the waters, Saylors take it to be nothing else but an Island and sayl unto it, and go down upon it, and they strike in piles unto it, and fasten them to their ships: they kindle fires to boyl their meat; until at length the Whale feeling the fire, dives down to the bottome; and such that are upon its back, unless they can save themselves by ropes thrown forth from the ship, are drown’d.”
The Rockas is a type of ray, which tries to protect humans from being devoured by “Sea-Dog fish“. These fish are said to: “…sink a man to the bottom, not onely by his biting but also by his weight; and he will eat his more tender parts, as the Nostrils, Fingers, Privities, until such time as the Ray comes to revenge these injuries, which runs thorow the Waters armed with her natural fins & with some violence drives away these fish that set upon the drown’d [soaked] man, and doth what he can to urge him to swim out.”
The Sea Worm: “There is, on the Coasts of Norway, a Worm of a blew and gray colour, that is above 40 Cubits long, [60 feet, 18 meters] yet is hardly so thick as the arm of a Child… he hurts no man, unless he be crushed in a mans hand: for by the touch of his much tender Skin, the fingers of one that toucheth him will swell. When he is vexed by and tormented by Crabs, he twines himself about hoping to get away, but cannot. For the Crab with his Claws, as with Toothed Pincers, takes so fast hold of him, that he is held as fast is a ship by an Anchor.”
In the key to the map Olaus describes these as: “Two colossal sea monsters, one with dreadful teeth, the other with horrible horns and burning gaze – the circumference of its eyes is 16 to 20 feet.” [4-6 meters]

The Rosmarus, as Olaus calls it, is “…a kind of Whales, who shew their cruelty at first sight, and make men afraid of to see them; and if men look long on them, they will fright and amaze them.” It has been identified with the walrus.

The Kraken: “Their Forms are horrible, their Heads square, all set with prickles, and they have sharp Horns round about, like a Tree rooted up by the Roots… [the eye] is red and fiery coloured, which in the dark night appears to Fisher-men afar off under Waters, as a burning fire… one of these Sea-Monsters will drown easily many great ships provided with many strong Mariners.” This may be a giant squid, but legends of giant octopus were a staple for novelists for centuries.

This strange ‘Sea Rhinoceros’ cannot be equated with any real, living creature. In the key Olaus merely says “A monster looking like a rhinoceros devours a lobster which is 12 feet long.”
The Ziphius: “The Sword-fish is like no other but in something it is like a Whale. He hath as ugly a head as an Owl: His mouth is wondrous deep, as a vast pit, whereby he terrifies and drives away those that look into it. His Eyes are horrible, his Back Wedge-fashion, or elevated like a sword; his Snout is pointed.” Here we see the Ziphius devouring a seal. It has been suggested that it might be an orca (‘killer whale’) as the ‘sword’ isn’t on its snout like a swordfish, but is more like the dorsal fin of an orca.
Sea Serpent: “They who in Works of Navigation, on the Coast of Norway, employ themselves in fishing or Merchandise, do all agree in this strange story, that there is a Serpent there which is of vast magnitude, namely 200 foot [61 meters] long, and more – over 20 feet [6 meters] thick; and is wont to live in Rocks and Caves towards the Sea-coast about Berge: which will go alone from his holes in a clear night in Summer and devour Calves, Lambs, and Hogs, or else he goes into the Sea to feed on Polypus, Locusts, and all sorts of Sea-Crabs. He hath commonly hair hanging from his neck a Cubit long, [18 inches, 45 cm] and sharp Scales, and is black, and he hath flaming shining eyes. the Snake disquiets the Shippers, and he puts up his head on high like a pillar and catcheth away men, and he devours them, and this happeneth not but it signifies some wonderful change of the Kingdom near at hand; namely that the Prince shall dies, or be banished; or some Tumultuous Wars shall presently follow.”
The Stoor Worm, by Bryce Wilson.

Sea serpents are common in folklore and tales. In Orkney we have the folk tale ‘Assipattle and the Stoor Worm’, where the unlikely hero, the ‘ash-raker’, sails his stolen boat down the throat of the monster and sets its liver on fire. The dying monster’s forked-tongue gouges out a hole in the surface of the earth that fills wit water and becomes the Baltic Sea, while its teeth, knocked out during its violent death throws, creates the islands of Orkney, Shetland and Faroes. Its body curls up and it dies, forming Iceland, where its burning liver creates hot springs and volcanoes. All these places are featured in the Carta Marina. I hope this post inspires you to be creative and to visit the Orkney Museum to gaze on this wondrous map for yourself.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank you.

Scroll to Top