Don Beck and Ravi Shankar: A Brief History of the Imaginary Map

…from MungBeing

“Nobody really knows why there is no patron saint of cartographers. Even the meanest human professions have one: criminals can turn to St. Dismas and drug addicts to St. Kolbe for comfort, but nobody offers the honest, hardworking cartographer solace against the misfortunes of an inaccurately drawn coastline or a spilled ink pot. Not so for navigators (and how far would they get without a map?) who have no less than four patron saints, including the queen of hearts of the patron saint deck, the Virgin Mary herself, and the indefatigable St. Francis Xavier who, in between conducting 40,000 baptisms, managed to find time to dine with head-hunters, raise the dead, and calm the occasional storm. It appears a patron has been set aside for every profession imaginable — except for cartography.

So spare a thought for the younger sibling of cartographers, the ‘fantasy cartographer’, who draws maps not of our real world, but of imaginary places. The chances of this small community of ever being bestowed their own patron saint must be smaller than the finest dot of a crow’s quill pen, although as this brief history of this obscure subculture of mapping shows, there are no shortage of candidates for the Patronus Sanctus Mappi Imago, or Patron Saint of the Fantasy Mapper.

In the beginning there was really no distinction between fantasy and factual cartography at all. Our understanding of the Earth and everything on it was sketchy to the point that beyond the next village, geographical fact often merged into fantasy. Blank spaces on maps are not good for the cartographer’s business, so to provide money’s worth to their customers, cartographers filled out the empty spaces on their maps with invented countries and fantastical creatures, including that old standby margin filler: ‘Here be Dragons’. Factual and fantasy cartography diverged in the 18th Century when exploration and map-making greatly improved and more reliable information edged the unicorns, gryphons, and dragons towards the borders of modern maps until they disappeared altogether. But during the same period, the birth of the mass produced printed picture created a large demand from a still largely illiterate population for illustrations of popular stories, including maps of fictional places. The public was keen to see an illustration of Dante’s nine circles of Hell (perhaps thinking that by memorizing a street map of Hades they could find their way out if they were unfortunate enough to be cast there in the afterlife) or the journey of Christian in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ — a road map to salvation which if followed meant that Dante’s map would not be required.”

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