Hic fuerunt dracones

Scary Monsters I: mapping the landscape of monstrosity

When early map-makers depicted the world, they filled in the familiar regions with exquisite detail – names, places and things thought to exist there, rich layers of imagery and knowledge that resonated with those viewing and using the charts. The unknown regions were an informational blank, a terra nulla void that fringed the ecumenical space (ecumene being ‘inhabited world’ in Latin).

This void invited speculation; though it was devoid of the known, it was filled with belief. Map-makers rarely left blank space; more often than not they populated the beyond-known world with unknowable wonders: monstrous races of men with single gigantic feet or dogs’ heads, cannibals, belching volcanoes and endless floods, extreme heat and extreme cold. Cartographers claimed ‘Hic sunt dracones‘ (‘Here are dragons’), and nobody had seen to argue otherwise.

As maritime and land explorations pushed further and further into the unknown, the boundaries of the ecumene expanded. The dragons’ hic withdrew to the dark centres of vast continents; the inhospitable regions of north and south; impassable seas. The monstrous and unknowable receded as fast as the familiar and known proceeded. It seems that dragons could never be ‘here’, they were always ‘there’.

Why were monsters and marvels perpetually located beyond the extremities of the known world? Why can monstrous things not co-exist with us?

These are not only geographical questions. They mark a pattern reiterated many times and in many ways through human history. These shifts in the geographies of the past echo ecological realities that have been replayed right from human origins, up to the present. As humans have spread through different regions across the globe, so they have erased almost all of the large and spectacular fauna that have existed in each place.

Why were monsters and marvels perpetually located beyond the extremities of the known world? Why can monstrous things not co-exist with us?

In prehistory, during the Pleistocene age, Europe was home to giant elk with wide-spreading tines, steppe mammoths, spectacularly horned elasmotheria, cold-loving woolly rhinos, cave bears and heavy-shouldered aurochs. North America boasted mastodons, mammoths, cave-dwelling sabre-toothed cats and gigantic mace-tailed glyptodonts. Australasia was inhabited by elephantine marsupials – including gigantic kangaroos and marsupial lions, the towering moa birds and Megalania lizards seven metres long. The remaining large animals that still exist today are but glimmerings of the fantastical global menagerie that once was.

Most of these beasts disappeared around 10,000 years ago; some declined with the end of the last Ice Age. But there is an unmistakable pattern: human arrival and proliferation mirrored by the dwindling and final disappearance of other large species. Physically, early humans may have been comparatively weak and vulnerable, but by force of their imaginations – their cooperation, strategic thinking and tool use – they were able to shape their world from one inhabited by gigantic monsters, to one where they became the apex predator. Human presence has meant possession, to the exclusion of other spectacular beasts. Hic sunt dracones, no longer.

Or are there monsters still? Most of the giants have disappeared, and the survivors dwindle as a result of unrelenting exploitation (the horror-filled trade in symbolically-potent relics embodies a different sort of monstrosity). But the monstrous has not disappeared altogether. It has simply moved down the food chain, as easily as it moved beyond the shifting frontier. The dragons and wild things still lurk in the subconscious; our ecumenical space can always be further tamed.

Those beasts that we feared and hunted as hunter-gatherers may be gone, but their smaller and less ferocious relatives remain. All it takes is an ‘othering’ of these lesser beasts, and there are dragons beyond the boundaries again. Monstrous wonders always must be elsewhere, but an ‘elsewhering’ can transform things that were once familiar.

In killing monsters, we have made monsters: brutalised and marginalised, tempted with the docile forbidden fruit of which only humans can partake.

In Australia there is a wall that has stood for well over a century, the longest continuous man-made barrier on Earth. It is a 3,500-kilometre boundary to confine the dingoes to the continent’s dry interior. For sheep cannot be kept in the arid zone and dingoes are very partial to these most ecumenical of beasts, their zoological opposites. As the product of thousands of years of selective breeding, sheep have been made by mankind to be unintelligent, standardised, useful. They must therefore be protected from the wild things that lurk beyond. And so ‘beyond’ is defined and defended by a wall, and those animals that stray back where they don’t belong are ‘culled’. Or rather, killed.

Licensed culling disrupts dingo social structures; their AWOL adolescents kill more frequently. Fewer sheep fall prey where dingoes are not culled, a fact few farmers wish to accept. In killing monsters, we have made monsters: brutalised and marginalised, tempted with the docile forbidden fruit of which only humans can partake. We keep the dingoes rare and elsewhere, making them into lurking monsters of the outback.

This game of childlike fearful wonder has been played elsewhere: the thylacine that lived alongside the dingoes was hunted down until the last, lone beast died of exposure in a zoo in 1933; elephants are shot and beaten away from the parts of their land humans have designated ‘farmland’; tigers and mountain lions are also beaten away from the livestock we keep on their former hunting grounds, so making them into malevolent ghosts that flicker at the edges of anthropogenic landscapes.

We need these beasts, yet we cannot countenance them. So we keep creating and destroying them, banishing them to the edges of the ecumene so that they can grow sufficiently monstrous to show us where our boundaries lie. These monsters mark out our limitations like Cerberus at the boundary of the living world; they are images of what we wish to excise or exile, the beasts of the beyond. A cycle of fascination and revulsion that has spiralled into ecological catastrophe. We need to see where the monsters really live: not elsewhere, but in here.


This is part I of a trilogy of articles by Natalie Lawrence on the natural history of monsters.

Read part II: The Monstrous Body, on global greed and the gluttonous dodo.
Read part III: The Chimaera, on the collapsing space of the wunderkammer.

Cover image: Carta marina, a map of Scandinavia, by Olaus Magnus. The caption reads: “Marine map and Description of the Northern Lands and of their Marvels, most carefully drawn up at Venice in the year 1539 through the generous assistance of the Most Honourable Lord Hieronymo Quirino.” via Wikipedia


The Learned Pig


Natalie Lawrence

Natalie Lawrence is a freelance natural history writer and science presenter with a special interest in all things monstrous and beastly. Following an undergraduate degree in zoology and masters in history of science, she completed her PhD on the natural histories of exotic monsters in the early modern period at the University of Cambridge in 2016. She currently lives in London with her partner, who kindly gave her a beautiful cabinet to house her natural history collection, in the hope that this would prevent the collection taking over every inch of living space. Good idea… didn’t work.