The Septentrionalium Terrarum, first known map of the North Pole

Monday, 6 March, 2017

Septentrionalium Terrarum, Arctic map by Gerard Mercator

It sounds like the storyline of a Tolkien novel, the presence of a magnetic mountain at the North Pole. Yet the notion itself wasn’t fantasy. In centuries passed, people believed it to be so.

Or at least so did Gerardus Mercator, a Flemish cartographer and geographer, who in the sixteenth century created the Septentrionalium Terrarum, the first known map of the Arctic.

In this instance, Mercator’s efforts relied more on imagination than facts, and the would-be endeavours of an English monk, who wrote of travelling to the Arctic in the fourteenth century.

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.”

Even if you’ve not heard of the Septentrionalium Terrarum, you probably know Mercator’s name. That’s because he devised the Mercator projection, the cylindrical map projection that shows maps of the world as being flat on charts.

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