Polar Bears Were the Mythical Dragons From the North

This celestial chart from 1687 is one of many illustrations from books, charts, and maps showing artists’ imaginings of polar bears. (Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.)

How Polar Bears Became the Dragons of the North

by Michael Engelhard/Hakai Magazine/Smithsonianmag.com  2017

This article is from Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakaimagazine.com.

In the repertoire of Renaissance cartographers, fierce mythical beasts—from sea serpents to manticores—represented dangers of unknown worlds. Rather than “here be dragons,” one early terrestrial map of the Arctic warned that hic sunt ursi albi—here are white bears. Rarely seen and poorly understood, the pale predators signified the Arctic’s challenges to the world.

As men ventured into the Arctic, they returned home with stories of this mysterious creature. Bolstered by the invention of the letterpress, interpretations of the white bear began to appear in print. Painstakingly compiled from hearsay, travelogues, and existing charts, these first images often contained substantial errors, which were then copied. Mapmakers sometimes let their imagination run rampant. Abhorring a vacuum and trying to boost sales, they populated empty spaces on their sheets with creatures that were part fancy, part sailors’ yarns. In an early version of the party game telephone, mistakes were compounded with exaggerations ever more outlandish.

The region’s name itself pays homage to a northern bear. The Greek root arktikos refers to lands that, when viewed from the Mediterranean, lie below Ursa Major, the Great Bear. In the 1687 celestial chart by Johannes Hevelius, the Great Bear has a longer tail …read more:


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  1. This reminds me of a question from the verbal part of an SAT exam back in the early 70’s: Dog is to canine, as bear is to _____? The correct answer is “ursine”. Have a great day!

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