Boston Public Library gets in on a monster act

A detail from John Seller’s “A Mapp of New England” (1675).
A detail from John Seller’s “A Mapp of New England” (1675).

People may be familiar with social media trends tied to the days of the week, such as “Follow Back Friday” or “Throwback Thursday.”

But experts at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, in the Boston Public Library’s Copley Square building, have launched their own weekly theme: “Map Monster Mondays.”

Each Monday, Dory Klein, the center’s education and outreach assistant, hand-picks a map from the 16th or 17th centuries and then highlights on Instagram and Twitter the strange and mysterious beasts that adorn the top corners and oceans of the maps.


“Cartographic resources can be intimidating, because there is so much information embedded on them,” said Klein. “So I thought I would zoom into something accessible and fun but that also has meaning behind it.”

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The map center, a non-profit organization established by the library and philanthropist Norman Leventhal, has a collection of more than 200,000 maps and 5,000 atlases, so Klein has a lot of material to work with.

“I have become fairly familiar with our collection, although it’s quite massive,” said Klein. “Looking through the maps is my favorite thing about Mondays.”

On March 7, Klein shared an image of a “mustachioed, polka-dotted cat-monster” standing opposite a dragon holding a human hand between its sharp teeth.

“These baddies support the coat of arms of the Dukedom of Beaufort, as this map was dedicated to Charles Somerset, Marquess of Worcester, the eldest son of Henry Somerset, [first] Duke of Beaufort,” Klein explained on social media, using the hashtag #MapMonsterMonday.


Two weeks ago, Klein explored details in Willem Janszoon Blaeu’s “Nova totius terrarum orbis geographica ac hydrographica tabula” map, a hand-colored map that was first published in 1606. On the map, she highlighted two fish-like creatures splashing in the Indian Ocean — one “happily snacking on … something,” and a second “befanged” beast “coyly ignoring the naval battle raging in his neighborhood.”

Another week the map center showed off a “hippocampus,” a mythical beast that has the upper body of a horse, and the lower body of a fish.

Klein said some of her favorite maps were created by Abraham Ortelius, a Dutch cartographer known for publishing the first world atlas.

“His maps are just full of really diverse and vibrant map monsters,” she said. “He had a very vivid imagination. So some of them are funny, some are fluffy, some look sinister, and some look cuddly. He has this whole universe, in a way, of really fun monsters.”

Klein said monsters were used not just to fill a blank space on maps used by explorers, but to indicate to people charting the open waters that there was a potential threat or unknown species lurking beneath the ocean waves.


“A lot of it was just purely unknown. The same way we imagine aliens in outer space, they thought there was something crazy with lots of legs and eyes waiting to eat them,” said Klein. “People weren’t so sure what was out there.”

Below are examples of monsters featured on maps that the center has shared on social media:

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.