I: Visual Poetics and Historic Cartographies

Arctic Regions in Early Modern Maps

Maija Ojala-Fulwood

Until the mid-1550s the Arctic was an unknown place for most Europeans. Many people were familiar with arctic products, such as walrus hide, fur, and ivory, but for most the North - Ultima Thule - was more of a myth, a fantasy tale and a legend than a reality that was found on maps (Vaughan 1994, 35; Whitfield 1996, 28; Hayes 2003, 6). This was about to change, however, as the search for trade routes meant that explorers encroached closer to the icy seas and the illustrated travelogues of northern expeditions became best sellers of their time.

Definitions of the Arctic vary according to whether it is being studied in terms of its ecosystem, climate, geography or politics (Emmerson 2010; Howkings 2016). Adrian Howkings (2016, 10) has proposed that the Arctic can be understood as a multidimensional cultural construction in which nature and human culture, history and myth, as well as understandings of place and space, interact. Taking Howkings’s reading as a foundation, I will go one step further and suggest that this interaction culminates in maps. We are accustomed to maps that are accurate down to the smallest detail; that is, they show technically measured geographical features of the earth. For centuries, however, maps were based primarily on the visual observations and narratives of travellers. Mapmakers left unknown and unseen territories blank or filled them in with decorative and imaginary illustrations. The historian of cartography John Andrews (2009, 35) has argued that seeing is never just seeing. With this in mind, he includes habit, memory and anticipation. Thus, cultural contexts, current beliefs, and knowledge affect what we actually see and how we transform this seeing into a two-dimensional drawing. Consequently, historical maps not only reflect contemporary knowledge and experience, but also express beliefs about the surface of Earth and its inhabitants, humans and animals (cf. also Bagrow 1985/2009, 216). By analysing maps, it is therefore possible to examine past societies and their understandings of the world.

In this chapter, I will examine how the northern polar region and Arctic waters were depicted in early modern maps, particularly during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The maps are analysed in the context of visual culture and European expansion, which was characteristic of the period. With the help of three case studies, I will discuss how the polar region was visualised. I will focus on three aspects: the mythical Arctic, northern exploration and human-animal relations. My hypothesis is that these visualisations not only reflected the knowledge, experience and beliefs of contemporaries but also shaped them. This might have had long-lasting implications on how the Arctic region has been understood.

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