Gerard Mercator’s 16th-century attempt at mapping the Arctic includes such guesses as a giant whirlpool and polar pygmies.
These days, climate scientists are looking hard at Arctic maps. As winter sea ice shrinks and cracks appear, they try to understand the reasons for these changes, and determine what we should expect in the future. Centuries ago, though, when people tried to map the Arctic, they weren’t too concerned with what was happening to it—they just wanted to know what the heck was up there. And, if they didn’t know, they pretty much made it up. Such was the case with the first known map of the Arctic: the Septentrionalium Terrarum, which is filled with magnetic stones, strange whirlpools, and other colorful guesses.
The map’s creator, the Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator, is best known for the “Mercator projection,” the now-famed method of taking the curved lines of the Earth and transforming them into straight ones that can be used on a flat map. The Mercator projection was invented for sailors, who, thanks to its design, could use it to plot a straight-line course from their point of origin to their destination. In 1569, Mercator came out with a map of the world based on this principal, which stretched from East to West and promised, in his words, “no trace… of any of those errors which must necessarily be encountered on the ordinary charts of shipmasters.”
In order to make his map useful for navigation, though, Mercator had to sacrifice accuracy in other areas—specifically, he had to stretch out the top and bottom parts of his map, making the lands and seas in the far North and South appear disproportionately larger than those nearer the equator. (This is also why so many people think Africa is the same size as Greenland, when it is really about 14 times bigger—the Mercator projection is still very common in schools.)
Under the terms of this Mercator math, the North Pole would appear so large as to be almost infinite. So instead of including it in the overall projection, Mercator decided to set a small, top-down view of the Arctic in the bottom left corner of his world map. Geographical historians consider this to be the first true map of the Arctic. Over the subsequent decades, as new information came to light, Mercator and his protégés enlarged and updated this original map—the draft above is an attempt from 1606, updated by his successor, Jodocus Hondius—but those original bones remained in place.
By the 1500s, not very many people had ventured up to the Arctic—no explorer would set foot on the Pole itself until 1909. This didn’t stop Mercator, who dug into some dicey sources to suss out what he should include. The most influential, called Inventio Fortunata (translation: “Fortunate Discoveries”) was a 14th-century travelogue written by an unknown source; in Mercator’s words, it traced the travels of “an English minor friar of Oxford” who traveled to Norway and then “pushed on further by magical arts.” This mysterious book gave Mercator the centerpiece of his map: a massive rock located exactly at the pole, which he labels Rupus Nigra et Altissima, or “Black, Very High Cliff.”…