Here Be Dragons at the Edges of the Map

I don’t know about you, but to me it feels like the world gets to be a little bit scarier every day. This probably has a lot to do with our 24-hour news cycle. That opens up space for the regional tragedies of which many of us might have remained blissfully unaware, preoccupied with the goings-on in our own little corners of the world. More news also invites more commentary, creating increased competition to place the most sensational spin on every big (or not so big) event, whether it carries a ring of truth or not.

It can get overwhelming, and there’s little doubt, at least here in the US, we are more stressed out than we were when we didn’t have to pay as much attention. A glance at our social media feeds might suggest, too, that we’re not as kind and gentle with one another, either. Because the world is a more frightening place when the dragons in the fairy tales become real.

Encased in an armillary sphere among the rarest of rare collections in the New York Public Library is a sphere about five inches in diameter, which carries this dire Latin warning: HIC SUNT DRACONES or “Here Be Dragons.”

Illustration of Hunt-Lenox globe.By Kattigara (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Known as the Hunt-Lenox Globe, the hollow sphere of engraved bronze is one of the oldest existing globes produced since Columbus originally sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Though it bears no date, people who know about these things have placed it somewhere in the 1504 to 1511 range, when the Pacific Ocean didn’t yet exist and the continent that would come to be known as North America was no more than a spattering of islands.

But what I find most exciting about the Hunt-Lenox globe is that it warns of the dragons of Southeast Asia. Dragons weren’t an uncommon sight on maps of the era, often gracing the edges or wide open spaces, but this is the only globe (with exception of a matching one created on an ostrich eggshell and probably the original from which the Hunt-Lenox was casted) that actually bears the warning.

Okay, maybe they’re not all scary. Image courtesy of cocoparisienne, via Pixabay

The expression is probably borrowed from maps of Ancient Rome, that often displayed the phrase “Here Be Lions” in unknown territories. Of course everyone knows dragons are scarier. And I mean everyone.

From pretty much every corner of the world, comes a fairy tale or two in which a dragon kidnaps a princess or guards a mystical treasure or becomes a frozen zombie creature north of the wall. Whether being slain by St. George, or ending a drought, or befriending a runaway foster child named Pete, dragons are everywhere in the stories people have been telling for millennia.

It’s no wonder the phrase “Here be dragons” has come to symbolize the frightening unknown on our maps.

Komodo Dragon. No wings. No fire breathing. Kind of cute. Might just eat you if given the chance.

Except that it hasn’t. Not really. It’s just this one globe. And there’s even an outside chance that the unidentified cartographer was referring to literal dragon-like creatures in Southeast Asia, where the Komodo Dragon can be found. Though it has yet to breathe fire, this creature is pretty cantankerous and can give you a nasty infection. And maybe eat you.

I would prefer to think the creator of the Hunt-Lenox globe, like the ancient cartographers before him, chose to issue a warning a little more vague in nature. Like the rest of us, he’d surely heard tales of dangers unknown. And maybe sometimes that’s quite enough to cope with. There’ve always been dragons at the edges of the map. We just haven’t always had to attempt to slay them all at once, all day, every day.

So this coming Monday, February 26, to celebrate National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, I’m going to take a little time to ignore the dangers and nastiness that threaten to infect and consume me. Instead I’m going to turn off the news and let the dragons recede, for just a little while, to the edges of the map.


A Celebration Worthy of a Slice of Non-Satan-Spit-Poisoned Pie

Centuries ago, though no one is quite sure when, Michael the Archangel engaged in war with the forces of evil. It was a great battle that ended with the expulsion of Lucifer and his minions from Heaven.  And to add injury to insult, the story goes, Lucifer fell directly into a large, thorny blackberry bush and got so mad he spit on the otherwise delicious fruit.

Michael defeating the Dragon. I suppose a day like this would be enough to make anyone a little cranky. But why is that the blackberries’ fault? Jerk. By Sultan Edijingo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Originally, the story of this epic battle was extrapolated from a few verses in the twelfth chapter of Revelation and explored by a number of writers including John Milton. Today, the interpretation of those verses is widely debated by Biblical scholars with most assuming that they don’t really refer to a Heavenly battle in the distant past, but instead represent an end-of-days battle to come.

But sometime in the fifth century, a basilica near Rome began to celebrate the feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, also called Michaelmas, on September 30, the traditional day the battle was won. It’s been celebrated to varying degrees ever since.

How exactly the blackberry bush became a part of the legend isn’t entirely clear, but the tale emerged from England where Michaelmas was widely considered the marker of the change of seasons from summer to fall. Since Revelation contains oh-so-delightful imagery of Satan spewing a river of dragon drool, and since blackberries, which usually peak in August, are pretty iffy by the end of September, I suppose it stands to reason that the two are somehow related. I guess.

Or maybe it’s just that with the shifting of the seasons, from long days and ripe berries, into long nights and barren fields feels a little unfair. And Lucifer is just the kind of jerk that might add injury to insult and spit poison all over the last vestiges of summer goodness.

Or it could just be an excuse to eat blackberry pie and celebrate a holiday with a ridiculous name, because by tomorrow, blackberries the world over will be covered in poisonous Satan spit, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to take any chances.

The wisest course of action, then, is to bake your last summer pie of the season today, in honor of Poisoned Blackberries Day. Because Satan is a jerk.

Actually you should probably eat the whole thing because it’s a pretty important day. Also, just to be safe. photo credit: David Gallagher Apple Blackberry via photopin (license)

But if that’s not reason enough for you to celebrate, then perhaps you could bake a pie in recognition of another equally ridiculous and even less well-known event that also occurs today. Because this is my 200th post on this silly little blog that pretends to be about history. I think a milestone like that deserves a slice of non-Satan-spit-poisoned pie.

A Troublesome Apple and an Ample Supply of Butt Glue

It all started with an apple. Or perhaps it started when Eris, the goddess of discord got her toga in a bunch because she wasn’t invited to a wedding. The problem with offending the goddess of discord is that she’s pretty good at causing trouble. The story goes that Eris crashed the wedding, but only long enough to present a golden apple to the fairest of them all.

The world’s first beauty contest, maybe ever so slightly more risqué than the swimsuit competitions of today. The Judgement of Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904, Pubic Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Three formidable goddesses (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite) stepped forward to claim the prize. Zeus wasn’t about to wade into that hornet’s nest by declaring a victor, so he passed the responsibility off to Paris, who faced a very difficult choice. None of the goddesses was keen to hand over the title of fairest and so they bribed their unfortunate judge. Hera offered him the opportunity to rule, Athena offered him victory on the battlefield, and Aphrodite offered him the love of Helen, who was quite a beauty queen herself.

Paris chose the pretty girl because, like Aphrodite, she appeared well-poised and graceful in a swimsuit and high heels and could clearly benefit from a scholarship. She also wanted world peace and “like such as, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq, everywhere like such as…”*

Alas, world peace was not to be, since Helen was married to Menelaus of Sparta, and he didn’t agree that Aphrodite should be given the title of Miss Olympus. War broke out and because the Trojans couldn’t resist a good looking giant wooden horse any more than Paris could resist a pretty girl, it didn’t end well for Troy.

Given the bloody history, then, it isn’t all that surprising that outside of a few small May Day festivals, there really wasn’t much in the way of beauty contests for thousands of years. Then along came P.T. Barnum who, in 1854, thought it would be a great idea to parade women in front of a crowd to judge their beauty.

Margaret Gorman, 16-year-old, 1921 winner of the Bather’s Review, and the first Miss America, without even a single glob of butt glue to keep her swim suit in place. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It turned out it was a pretty good money-making idea, just a little ahead of its time. But what ended in angry protest in 1854, started to catch on almost seventy years later in Atlantic City, as the Inter-City Beauty Contest in which women competed for applause and a chance to parade around in their swimming suits the next day in the “Bather’s Review.”

From these humble beginnings emerged the Miss America Pageant, which is ongoing and will wind up with the crowning of a new beauty in a glued-on bathing suit this Sunday, September 11.

Now, I’m not a big pageant fan myself, and I have never competed in one (frankly, it just wouldn’t be fair to the other ladies), so I have mixed feelings about criticizing them. I do think that, with a few unfortunate exceptions, the contestants of most of the larger pageants today, are smart, talented, and highly-motivated women who are working hard to find a platform from which to make a positive difference in the world.

I don’t begrudge them that opportunity, but here’s my question. If we have so many smart, talented, and highly-motivated women in the world (or even the universe, though I think that pageant is rigged as only Earth girls have ever been crowned), why is it that we need to see them in a bathing suit and high heels? Does their poise and athleticism while half-naked make them somehow more likely to be forces for positive change? Or does their successful application of butt glue somehow make them more worthy of college scholarships?

Homer: a practical history blogger before his time. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tough questions, I know, and not easily answered by world peace and, like um, South Africa. Too tough for me, a lowly blogger of all things historical, and, evidently mythological. Because, yes, in addition to being among the four fifths of Americans who can identify the United States on a world map, I am also aware that the Trojan War may not have happened at all. And if some version of it did, it most likely didn’t start with an epic godly beauty pageant.

But then again, on the rare occasion that I have flipped on the television and watched part of the Miss America Pageant, I have usually found myself asking if it’s for real, too.


*Actual excerpt from an actual response given by a contestant in the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pageant while answering the question, “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” In her defense, it was a pretty high pressure situation and a FIFTH OF AMERICANS CAN’T IDENTIFY THE U.S. ON A WORLD MAP! Likely this beauty contestant is not among them. I suspect she can also find, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq.

Of Hippos and Submarines

When Lugne Mocumin decided to serve with St. Columba in his mission to spread Christianity to the Picts of Northeast Scotland in the middle of the sixth century, he may have gotten a little more than he bargained for. While on its way to visit with the leader of the Picts, a fellow by the name of Brude, the missionary party headed across Loch Ness.

During the trip, the missionaries spied a group of men on the shore engaged in burying a fallen friend, a victim of the ferocious beast that lived in the depths of the lake. Naturally Columba wanted to help in some way and so he ordered Lugne (who truthfully no one in the group really liked that much anyway) to swim out to retrieve the victim’s abandoned boat.


Not surprisingly the monster of Loch Ness rose up to attack, but Columba was prepared for that. He calmly made the sign of the cross and said: “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” At these words, the monster shrugged and swam away with his serpentine tail between his flippers.

This is the earliest known record of the famed Loch Ness Monster and it comes from Adomnán, the 9th Abbot of Iona who wrote his account about a hundred years after the alleged event. That Adomnán’s distance from the event should be considered when determining the reliability of his account is something even most Nessie enthusiasts (sometimes known as “crazies”) will grudgingly admit.

But the same problem can’t be attributed to the next reported appearance of the monster. After Columba it seems no one heard a peep from the fearsome creature of Loch Ness until just eighty years ago on May 2, 1933 when the Inverness Courier broke the story that a couple of highly reliable witnesses driving a newly completed road along the lake edge had seen, well, something.

The report attracted a great deal of interest (mainly from “crazies”) and soon big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell was on the job. Hired by the London newspaper Daily Mail, Wetherell soon discovered a set of large footprints. Unfortunately for Wetherell and monster enthusiasts everywhere (still known up until 1959 as “crazies”), the prints belonged to a hippopotamus foot umbrella stand.

Shamed by the exposure of the hoax, Wetherall didn’t give up there and in April of 1934, Colonel Robert Wilson, a respected British surgeon, took a stunning picture of the beast, or perhaps of an otter, or maybe a log. The picture, though hardly conclusive evidence of the presence of a lake monster, appeared authentic and it wasn’t until 1994 that the photo was entirely exposed as a hoax perpetrated in part by Wetherell.

Christian Spurling - Loch Ness Monster (1934)
Christian Spurling – Loch Ness Monster (1934) (Photo credit: luvi)

With the exception of a few cryptozoologists (a term coined in 1959 because nobody could get “crazyologist” to stick) who don’t find this whole hoax theory at all credible, the world was shocked when it was revealed that instead of a genuine lake monster, the picture actually showed a plastic mold mounted on a toy submarine.

So, then, what do we make of the story of St. Columba’s redirection of the murderous beast and Lugne Mocumin’s narrow escape? First, I think we need realize that encounters with toy submarines sprouting plastic heads were most likely an uncommon and alarming sight in the sixth century. Second, from some perspectives a hundred-year-old tale of an encounter with an otter or perhaps a log, paired with an untimely death, can look an awful lot like a lake monster. That is if you happen to be a “crazyologist.”

LOOK! THE LOCH NESS MONSTER! (Photo credit: Extra Medium)

Avast Ye Wedding Lubbers

Multnomah Falls

On a recent family excursion to Multnomah Falls, a place I’ve been too few times, I noticed a sign along the trail that I hadn’t read before, probably because I assumed it had something to do with rock formations and/or water volume as most of the signs do.

But this one was different. It described an event from September of 1995 when a boulder weighing 400 tons (according to the sign that is approximately the same weight as a school bus filled with concrete, and go ahead and disprove that) fell from the rock face next to upper Multnomah Falls, plunging 225 feet into the pool at the bottom. Upon entering the water the school bus boulder produced a 70-foot splash that washed over the observation bridge, completely dousing a wedding party that had been posing for pictures. Now, I may not care much about geology, but I am a big fan of wedding photos.

In case you haven’t been to the falls, though, let me just provide a little background. Located on Interstate 84, just outside of Portland, Multnomah Falls drops a total of 620 feet, making it the highest waterfall in the Columbia River Gorge and the second highest year-round waterfall in the United States. Between the upper and lower portion of the falls spans Benson Bridge, constructed in 1914.

And if geology is your thing, Multnomah Falls is allegedly a fascinating place to visit because rumor has it you can see something like six different lava flows, evidence of flooding that occurred thousands of years ago, and probably even some really interesting differences in rates of erosion that have led to the tiered formation of the falls and the occasional plunging school-bus-sized rock. Personally, I just care that it’s pretty.

In fact, all those impressive geological goings-on coupled with the well-placed bridge in the middle make the easily accessible Multnomah Falls an ideal spot for all your magical wedding photo needs. Then there’s the tragic and super romantic mythological accompaniment that I didn’t even mention yet.

According to one Native American legend, the chief of the Multnomah people had a beautiful and beloved daughter. He arranged for her to marry a strong young chief from the neighboring Clatsop people and planned many days of feasting and celebration during which tragedy struck. A terrible sickness descended on the wedding festivities. The only solution, as determined by an honored medicine man, was for an innocent maiden to sacrifice herself. The idea was that her sacrificial love would impress the Great Spirit and the sick would recover. When her betrothed fell ill, the young maiden took it upon herself to save her people. She climbed up to the high cliff and leapt to her death. As a token of her loving sacrifice, a spring welled up on the cliff top, the water descending as a lasting bridal gown testimony to the young maiden.

I don’t know about you, but had I gotten married in Oregon, I think we would have made the effort to get that picture. But even though the myth lends a certain wild sentimentality to the photo op, I have to wonder if it ultimately makes a lot of sense to get fancied up in tuxedoes and ball gowns and go for a hike. Assuming here that your daily wear is somewhat less formal, don’t the memories painted by such pictures just ring a little false?

Yet as anyone who has ever tried to make small talk with relative strangers for hours at a wedding reception while waiting for the bridal party to arrive knows, couples do this kind of thing all the time. In fact, my husband was a groomsman at the beginning of this summer and while I’ve not yet seen the photographic evidence, it sounds like things may have gotten a little out of hand. Let’s just say there are some modern art sculptures on an undisclosed Midwestern college campus that are probably feeling a little violated. What that has to do with the celebration of marriage, well, you’d have to ask the couple. No one else seems willing to talk about it.

So the sign at the falls got me thinking about wedding photos and it happens that a few days ago some good friends of mine celebrated their wedding anniversary. It’s one of those that I always remember not only because I was a bridesmaid (and I actually liked the dress, and yes, I have even worn it since), but also because they had the foresight to get married on International Talk like a Pirate Day.

They’re a great couple and I am honored to be featured in their wedding photos, in which I never once posed with any modern art sculptures. But as I was looking back through the pictures, I realized that along with the lined up bridal party, the first kiss as husband and wife, and the gathered family, were some of the other kinds of photos as well: the ones in which excessively well-dressed people are deliberately posed in unnaturally casual ways.

Clearly these men are pirates. You can tell by the way they are standing.

Ultimately, though, I think these are the ones I like best because it says a lot about a photographer (and how well they know the couple whose wedding they are trying to capture) and even more about the couple themselves, because if the photo didn’t somehow resonate with who they are, then it never would have made the wedding album. For my friends, their memories will forever include a nod to the internationally celebrated holiday with which they share their special day. And because of their willingness to embrace it, their friends will never forget to leave a heartfelt message on their Facebook pages: “Arr. Ye be havin a jolly anniversary ye old scurvy dogs.”

I am happy to report, too, that the Multnomah Falls wedding deluge resulted in no major injuries. In an interview after the wedding, the bride said of the event, “We got the tragedy out of the way and now we’re home free.” That’s a great attitude that I assume has led to many years of happily ever after. I just hope someone managed to snap a picture of the splash.

Just a bunch of well-dressed people casually hanging out in a courtyard, cuz that’s how we roll.

Wedding photos by Layne Aumann Photography.

These wedding pictures are used by permission and may not appear elswhere without consent, lest ye be wantin to walk the plank.