Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lost Islands and Pygmies of the Far North

NOTE: This post is a digression from another post I'm working on that got out of hand.

In 1569, Gerhard Mercator published the great world map that introduced his innovative map projection. Although he intended his projection as an aid to navigation, this particular map was not practical for that purpose. It was too large (1.24 x 2 meters), many parts of the oceans were covered by text boxes in Latin, and the instructions for using his method made up only small part of the text. The map, with its beautiful cartouche, colorful illustrations, interesting stories, and careful attention to the latest land discoveries, was better suited to be wall decoration or reference for educated patrons that as an aid for mariners.

Mercator's projection was wasn't the only innovation on the map. Mercator recognized the main limitation on his map. It was useless at the very highest latitudes. To reach the North Pole, the map would have had to be infinite in height. To also reach the South Pole, it had to be two infinities in height! Because making a sheet of paper that size was beyond the technology of his time, he came up with an elegant work-around. In the lower, left-hand corner of the map, he placed an inset with a polar view of the North down to 70°. This provided enough overlap with the main map that viewers could easily picture how the two maps fit together. Previous map projections of the world, such as the double cordiform projection that he and Oronce Fine had experimented with in the 1530's, had provided polar views, but this had not been their primary purpose. In dealing with a flaw in his new projection, Mercator unintentionally produced the first map devoted specifically to portraying one of the polar regions.

Detail of Mercator's 1569 world map showing the north polar regions. Source.

Mercator's 1538 double cordiform world map showing both polar regions. Source.

Mercator died in 1594 leaving his last great project, a six volume atlas and history of the world, unfinished. His only surviving son, Rumhold and the men of his workshop, which included three of his grandsons, gathered up his completed materials and published them as a third volume to accompany the two already published. These materials included twenty-eight maps and the first chapter of his history. One of those maps was an enlargement and update of his north polar projection. As with the 1569 map, the most distinctive feature of the map is four large islands where the Arctic Ocean should be. In the text on the map, Mercator explains that the waters of the oceans rush inward, between the islands, to the pole, where they plunge deep into the Earth. At the pole is a black island thirty-three leagues in circumference. A magnetic island lies just north of the Streto de Anian (Bering Straits). On one of the large islands is the legend: "Pygmae hic habitant 4 ad summum pedes longi, quaemadmodum illi quos in Gronlandia Screlingers vocant (Here live Pygmies, at most 4 feet tall, who are like those called Scraelings in Greenland)."

Mercator's 1595 map of the Arctic. Source. High-res version.

As strange as these islands look, they were not products of Mercator's imagination. He had a source. It's pretty remarkable that we know anything about the source. Mercator read the story in a now lost Fourteenth Century book, the Itinerarium of Jacobus Cnoyen. Cnoyen had two sources. He learned the main part of the story from an unnamed traveler who heard it from another unnamed traveler. The earlier unnamed traveler is supposed to have written the story in another now lost book, Inventio Fortunatae. Cnoyden's other source was--you guessed it-- another now lost book, the Gestae Arthuri. Mercator gave a brief explanation of these sources in a text box on the 1569 world map.

Meanwhile, in England, Dr. John Dee was looking for ways to expand the British Empire (a phrase he coined) over the entire Arctic. It was a bit of a hard sell. In 1553, a chartered company, the delightfully named Mystery, Company, and Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown, had sent three ships to open up a Northeast Passage around Russia and Siberia to the Indies. The captains and crews of two of the ships died in the cold and dark, while the third made to a Russian port and brought back a trade agreement from the court of Ivan the Terrible. The Russian trade was profitable enough that very few in places of influence were willing to finance additional expeditions to die in the cold and the dark on mere speculation. This wasn't enough to stop Dee who argued that British merchants should turn their attention to the Northwest. Dee argued that, not only was there a Northwest Passage waiting to be discovered, but that the British were entitled to own the passage and the lands around it through the right of prior discovery and occupation by expeditions in the time of King Arthur.

In 1577, Dee wrote to Mercator asking for more information about Cnoyen's account. Mercator copied an extensive part of Cnoyen's book and sent it to Dee. Unfortunately, that letter has since been lost. Fortunately, Dee copied the letter into one of his secret notebooks. Unfortunately, the notebook was damaged when an angry mob, believing Dee to be an evil enchanter, set fire to his house. I'm not making this up. Most of what we know about Cnoyen's Itinerarium and the anonymous Inventio Fortunatae come from Dee's damaged notebook. Mercator explained that, while he no longer had access to Cnoyen's book, he had copied the relevant parts and had translated them from "Belgic" into Dutch. He assured Dee that Cnoyen was a trustworthy source.

John Dee. Probably not a wizard. Source.

Cnoyen explained that in the far North there is a mountain range that completely surrounds the North Pole at about 78°. The mountains are penetrated by nineteen ocean channels with currents so strong that any ship entering the channels will be dragged north with no hope of escape. The nineteen channels combine to form four Indrawing Seas. One of the lands between the seas is fairly nice, two are completely uninhabited, and one has Pygmies. The province of Dusky Norway (Greenland) is attached to one of the Arctic islands by a narrow isthmus. West of Dusky Norway is the easternmost extension of Asia, the charmingly named Province of Darkness. Above these two provinces is a large island called Grocland which shields them from the Indrawing Seas. Some giants live on Grocland. The weather is misty and dull in the Far North, there are no trees, and the wind is too weak to turn a corn mill, let alone prevent ships from being pulled to their doom. Naturally, King Arthur thought this gloomy, barren land where the rivers sucked was just what he needed to add to his realm. In 530, he sent out armies and colonists and conquered the whole thing. This much comes from the lost Gestae Arthuri.

In 1364, eight people came to the court of the king of Norway from the islands. They were descendents of some settlers who had been sucked into the Indrawing Seas. Or maybe their fathers were from Belgium. Cnoyen was unclear on this point, to Dee's frustration. One of the eight was a priest carrying an astrolabe that he said he had received from an English Minorite (Franciscan) monk whom he met in the islands. This monk, he said, had spent years traveling the islands and making geographic observations with his astrolabe. The monk's description of the North confirmed that in the Gestae Arthuri and added details about the arrangement of the channels and islands. He had journeyed as close to the pole as possible. At the top of the world, the four Indrawing Seas come together and circle round before disappearing into the Earth beneath a black, magnetic island. The only people the monk met in his travels were a band of Pygmies, mostly women. The monk later wrote up his observations as a report for King Edward III of England. This is the Inventio Fortunatae.

The priest from who Cnoyen presumably heard the monk's story never laid eyes on the Inventio Fortunatae. Mercator doesn't make clear whether he heard the story from the priest or from additional middlemen. However, Cnoyen must have had independent knowledge of the report. If the priest met the English monk on his way back from the North, he wouldn't have written the report yet. And, Cnoyen mentions that the monk made five more voyages for Edward after writing the Inventio Fortunatae. We, too, have independent confirmation that the report existed. Both Martin Beheim's 1492 globe and Johannes Ruysch's 1507 world map mention using information from it and we three separate references to Columbus trying to locate a copy (he failed).

Detail from Johannes Ruysch's 1507 world map. Ruysch interpreted the nineteen channels and four lands differently than Mercator. He also ignored the Pygmies and populated two of the islands with legendary tribes out of Herodotus.Source. High-res version.

The popular impression that mapmakers of the time simply made things up to fill empty space on their maps is not true. The best mapmakers combed through all the sources at their disposal hunting for nuggets of information. Even the sea monsters were based on mariners' reports. The worst mapmakers copied the best. On Mercator's 1595 map, he based the Far North on Cnoyen's book. The north coast of European Russia he based on reports from the English merchants allowed in under the agreement with Ivan the Terrible. For Asia, he used Marco Polo and Pliny the Elder. Around Greenland he included information from Martin Frobisher's three voyages, one of the projects that Dee had been lobbying for when he wrote to Mercator. The large, nonexistent island of Frisland below Iceland and in the upper left-hand inset was based on a widely believed book about the voyages of a Venician family in the 1380s. The real crime of Renaissance mapmakers was, that they were so eager for information they ended up being credulous and uncritical. In the next century, additional information allowed cartographers the luxury of choosing between competing sources.

POSTSCRIPT: And what of the Arctic Pygmies? Pygmies, in Ancient and Medieval lore, were not merely small people; they were one of the monstrous races said to inhabit the far parts of the world. In the case of the Pygmies, "monstrous" was not a moral judgment. Pygmies were said to be brave and organized in their age old war with the cranes (the birds, not the construction equipment or the guy on "Hogan's Heroes").

On his map, Mercator said that the Pygmies of the Far North were like the Scraelings of Greenland. "Scraeling" is the word the Norse used for the various natives of the New World--mainland Indians, the Dorset people of the islands and the Eskimos who replaced the Dorsets in the early Second Millennium. Kristin Seaver writes that, although its exact etymology is obscure, the word Scraeling was almost certainly intended as a translation of Pygmy. The Norse believed that Greenland and the lands to the west were either part of Asia or islands near Asia. The geography of the time had pushed the Pygmies far into Asia. When they Norse met small people in, what they believed to be Asia, it made sense for them to believe they had discovered the homeland of the legendary Pygmies.

Olaus Magnus described the Pygmies of Greenland as small in stature but big of heart and able to kick butt many times their size. Source.

John Dee and Richard Hakluyt were certain that the traveling monk was one Nicholas of Lynne. There are records of a Nicholas of Lynn who was a mathematician active in the second half of the Fourteenth Century. At first glance, a mathematician would be a good match for a man who traveled the world making measurements with an astrolabe. What little is known of the biography of this Nicholas excludes him. He was probably too young, he was a Carmelite brother, not a Minorite, and there is no mention of him ever traveling, let alone spending years away on various missions for the king.

But there is another possibility. In Lynn at that time, there was also a Minorite house. Is it possible that there were two Nicholas' of Lynn? If there was a Minorite Nicholas of Lynn, what became of him? Cnoyen write that the monk went on five more missions for King Edward III, though he doesn't say what or where those missions. Perhaps Nicholas engaged in regular mission work among the little people he found near the pole. Perhaps he eventually stayed with them and taught them reindeer herding and toymaking...


  1. I've been fascinated by Mercator's polar islands for years. Cnoyen may have been the source for his description and influenced the geographical layout of the isles, but he must have had another (much older) source. Google Earth is the easiest way to demonstrate this. Locate the Svalbard archipelago (North of Norway) next to Greenland. Specifically look at the upper-righthand quadrant of his polar maps and ignore everything else. Specifically look at what he has labeled as Asia and the Scythian Ocean. In Google Earth, look at the submerged continental shelf which Svalbard and other isles are dotting on the edge of this shelf. Compare this with Mercator's map. Compare Greenland in Google Earth to most of the right side of his polar isles. Even the little gulf of the Scythian ocean, including some of the little islands (but not so much the ones next to Norway, ignore those) are represented by submerged features visible in Google Earth. You don't have to use your imagination either, this is not coincidentally seeing something that it is not there. This works best on the (not pictured) color 1623 map where the "Pygmy" isle is unfinished on the side facing Europe and Novaya Zemlya in the Barents Sea is mostly visible.

    Here is the best part: His magnetic polar rock next to Asia matches our actual North Pole in this configuration. This is a little bit too much for a coincidence. Cartographers had to work from multiple sources. The area surrounding Europe was familiar, Russia and especially most of Asia were more vague and had to be derived from other less reliable sources. What he has labeled as Asia is still Asia, but in Northwestern Russia. Right after the White Sea near Arkhangelsk in Russia, Scandinavia "repeats" so-to-speak.

    This confused another cartographer, Oronce Fine, into not only accurately extending Scandinavia to Svalbard (and thus also depicted the submerged continental shelf visible on Google Earth), but repeating it after Novaya Zemlya and the Kara Sea, probably modeled after Mercator's Asia. The geography in both cases makes Asia larger than it actually is which was common at the time (along with cartographers connecting it to the Americas as Fine did in his map and Mercator did not).

    This makes his polar isles not the geographic North Pole, but Greenland and Northern Canada (Nunavut) where there are magnetic anomalies and the magnetic pole may even (apparently) wander near the Hudson Bay. The resemblance is there as well. The island labeled Greenland being a confusing repeat (and strangely shaped similarly like the lower-right polar island). I know there is at least one Icelandic account (which was about Greenland and Vinland) that says uninhabited land stretches from the White Sea all the way North, almost touching Greenland.

    Possible explanation: The Norse colonization of Greenland and North America is thought to have occurred during a warming period and also thought to have ended due to climate change. I would expect water levels to be higher, but perhaps they were lower? The Fra Mauro map depicts the area North of Permia (approx. modern Arkhangelsk) as a frozen desert. Another explanation is the entire area could have been an ice sheet. That makes less sense though. A less likely explanation is that the source is from an even more ancient map. (The Zoroastrian and Vedic homeland of Indo-Europeans, Airyana Vaeja, has been thought to be the North Pole or Hyperborea of myth for ages which is where the Santa Claus North Pole home is partially rooted in. The Avesta calls it the best of places then goes on to say there are now 10 months of winter and one time winter came and the ice never melted...)

    This isn't my theory, unfortunately I read it from a definite known crackpot from Russia. But even crackpots can be right on occasion, and there is too much detail here for mere coincidence.

    Great piece by the way