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The Renaissance Map That Filled My Childhood With Monsters

Growing up amid the political conflict in Northern Ireland, a 16th-century map that blended real and mythical monsters spoke to my fears and fascinations.
Created in the 1530s, the "Carta Marina" was full of mythical beasts and terrors; so was my Northern Ireland neighborhood.
Created in the 1530s, the "Carta Marina" was full of mythical beasts and terrors; so was my Northern Ireland neighborhood.Madison McVeigh/CityLab

My grandfather was a cartographer, though not in an academic sense. For decades, he earned a living on the sea, primarily as a fisherman but also as a smuggler, a minesweeper, and a retriever of the drowned. Visiting his house as a boy, I was captivated by the nautical objects he had assembled: tide charts, barometers, knots and hooks, flotsam and jetsam. Amongst these items were maps of rivers, loughs, the islands that peppered the north and west Irish coast (now called the Wild Atlantic Way); all of them were filled with mysterious symbols.

But there was one map my grandfather kept that intrigued me above all others: the Carta Marina. Crafted by a Swedish exile, the Carta Marina was initiated in the Baltic port of Danzig in 1527, and published in Venice twelve years later. Its creator was Olaus Magnus, a clergyman who created his map to try and convince the Catholic Church to retake the north after Sweden had turned to Lutheranism.