Fantasy Worlds: A Gallery of Mythical Maps

Fern Riddell | Published 02 April 2015


Understanding our place in the world has been an innate part of the human character since the dawn of time. The cave art of the Ice Age Lascaux Caves, France, are thought to show star maps over 16,500 years old, and, for the Ancient Greeks, Homer’s view of the world as a flat disk surrounded by a single ocean became fundamental to a geographical understanding of the world around them. 

Early maps were often symbolic, combining local geography with folklore, myths and legends. By the 11th century, with the invention of the compass, Chinese map-making became the most advanced in the world, but still retained that important connection to the imagined world. The stone-carved Yuji tu (Map of the Tracks of Yu, 1136) is an incredibly accurate cartographic grid of China’s coastline and river formations to a scale of 1:1,500,000. But it is named after the ancient hero Da Yu, who is supposed to have carved out China’s river system with the help of a river god.

We have never lost the ability to use maps to dream, to combine the real world with fantasy and exploration, and in the modern world this has taken on a new importance with literature, television and online gaming including maps in their creation.  

Fern Riddell is contributing editor at History Today