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.”

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Illustration of Hunt-Lenox globe.By Kattigara (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, 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.

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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.

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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.

Game of Allergens

On June 13, 1483, just two months after the death of his brother King Henry IV and a few weeks before his own accession to the English throne, Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of the Realm, survived an evil curse.

The curse came from Lord William Hastings, a man who had served as Lord Chamberlain to Henry IV (basically the Ned Stark to his Robert Baratheon). I’m not going to try to puzzle out the mess that was the struggle for the English throne toward the end of the Middle Ages because either 1. You, dear reader, know far more about it than I can pretend to in the space of a blog post and will just find errors that you’ll feel compelled to tell me about or 2. Like me, you just assume that whoever had dragons and a proper attitude toward an invading zombie horde eventually came out on top.

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Described by his detractors as a hunch-backed and deformed troll-ish sort of a man, Richard III was probably just a normal-ish looking guy. Unless you gave him strawberries. By Unknown, British School – Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But it seems that Hastings was just the sort of man to try to put the pieces together and he may have suspected that when Richard sought to declare his deceased brother’s marriage illegal and therefore his own nephew illegitimate, that Richard might have just wanted the throne for himself.

So, logically, when Hastings next arrived for a council meeting, he cursed the pretender to the throne. Shortly after the Lord Chamberlain’s arrival, Richard’s health began to suffer. His lips swelled. His face and limbs grew red and puffy. He became short of breath.

What today we might recognize as an allergic reaction to the fresh strawberries Sir Thomas More tells us Richard ate for breakfast, Richard identified as a curse. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that casting a potentially deadly curse on the Lord Protector of the Realm might result in a beheading.

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I suspect I’m allergic to dragons. Fortunately the current dragon count is pretty low. photo credit: SnoShuu Dragon via photopin (license)

That’s exactly what became of Lord Hastings, a man who might have otherwise caused a crimp in Richard’s plans to rule. The would-be king wasn’t taking any chances. Many contemporary writers (at least the ones that didn’t seem to like Richard much) suggested he murdered his young nephews as well.

There’s some speculation that perhaps Richard knew of his own allergy to strawberries and ate them anyway so he could pretend to have been cursed by Lord Hastings and justify ordering his death. Other historians argue that given the general belief in curses and ignorance of allergens at the time, Richard, perhaps already feeling a little paranoid in the course of his plotting, probably thought he really had been cursed.

I tend to believe the second scenario is more likely because of several good reasons explained by more informed historians (of the variety that would be sure to let me know about my mistakes when discussing the fall of the House of York).

First, fruit didn’t travel much in 1483 and so it was extremely seasonal, giving strawberries a pretty narrow window of availability in the English court. Richard wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunity to observe his own symptoms. Second, food allergies can be kind of like that, showing up unannounced after years of laying low. Third, a person would have to be pretty crazy to willingly inflict an uncomfortable allergic reaction on themselves. And finally, his successor, the usurper Henry VII probably had dragons anyway.*

onthethrone
No throne is worth intentionally exposing yourself to a known allergen. But maybe it’s worth a curse or two? If you have dragons.

It’s the third point I want to discuss further because over the last week or so, some of my nearest and dearest have been cursed. Here in Missouri we are experiencing some of the highest mold and ragweed pollen counts we’ve seen in some time. That means that here in my household we have been experiencing some of the itchiest eyes, scratchiest throats, sneeziest noses, and achiest sinuses that we’ve seen in some time.

Catch them at the right moment, and my nearest and dearest might even suggest that having their heads lopped off might be more comfortable than the curse these allergens have brought upon them. This is definitely not a condition they would wish upon themselves, regardless of their aspirations to any thrones. Right about now, they’re kind of hoping that winter is coming. As long as someone steps up with a couple of dragons to take on the zombie horde.

*No historians I came across actually suggested that Henry VII had dragons. Also, if you ever do stumble across a legitimate historian that references dragons, you should probably ask a few follow-up questions.