On a Renaissance map of the world, there is a small white elephant standing near the Arctic coast of Russia. How it got there is a mystery. Is it a mammoth, or does it symbolize something else? The solution is like a jigsaw puzzle. We have many pieces of evidence, in different colors and shapes. But it’s not clear that all of the pieces belong to the same puzzle and, in any case, too few pieces have survived for us to be able to construct a clear image of the thinking that led the artist to place that elephant in the frozen north. Perhaps the most important clue that we have to work with is that the elephant occupies a position that mapmakers had previously reserved for a monster that we now call the walrus.
The Dieppe school is the name given to a group of cartographers who worked, predictably, around Dieppe, France and who produced maps during the middle decades of the sixteenth century. Most of the Dieppe maps are large, hand-drawn, decorative maps produced for rich patrons. The maps are not useful for any practical purpose, such as sea navigation or invading the Netherlands, but they are very accurate and up to date for their times. Their real purpose was to inform kings and courts about the latest discoveries in other parts of the world.
The world map signed by Pierre Desceliers and dated 1550 is a perfect example this type of map. It is large, 135 cm x 215 cm. It was clearly meant to be read spread out on a table rather that hung on a wall. When looking at the map from the South, the text in the Southern hemisphere is right-side up, half way across the map, the text suddenly flips so that the Northern Hemisphere reads correctly for someone on the other side of the table. The map has notes scattered about it describing distant lands and recent discoveries. It is beautifully decorated with color illustrations of real and mythical animals, peoples, and cities. It carries the coat of arms of kingdom of France and was probably made for King Henri II.
For the last hundred and fifty years, two opposite corners of the map have attracted the most attention from scholars. In the Northwest, Canadian historians study this map and the other Dieppe maps because they were the first to display information gained from the voyages of Jacques Cartier and Jean-François Roberval. These maps were the first to show the Gulf of St Lawrence and a mostly correct shape for Newfoundland. In the Southeast, the map shows a great landmass with some Portuguese place names on it separated from Java by a narrow channel. On other Dieppe maps, this land is called Java la Grande. To many, this appears to be evidence that the Portuguese knew about Australia long before its official discovery by the Dutch in 1606.
There are other fascinating details on the map, but for mammoth researchers, the most interesting detail is on the north side, just west of center. There, in what corresponds to Northwestern Russia, is the elephant. That part of the map is twisted ninety degrees counter-clockwise so that Russia’s European Arctic coast runs straight north from Scandinavia instead of east. Although it is very close to France and Germany, very little was known about Scandinavia by continental mapmakers at the time. However, there are enough details and place names on the map for us to be sure where the elephant is meant to be.
In the detail (right), Scandinavia is at the top of the map. “Sveti” (the word that looks like “Sulti”) is Sweden. The embayment just below it is the Gulf of Bothnia, part of the Baltic Sea. The embayment below that, to the left of the word “Finland,” and entering from the West (right), is the White Sea. “Groullande” means Greenland. Why it’s in Russia is a story for another day. Below that, next to a vacant native village, are a bear, some kind of deer, and a white elephant.
This scene is more than a decoration; the animals are supposed to be representative of the native fauna of that region. Other real animals on the map are in the same approximate locations where they would have been found in life. Mythical animals are in the correct places where the myths place them. There are other elephants on the map in central Africa, Persia, at the court of the Chinese emperor, and in Java la Grande (next to a description of Sumatra). Desceliers appears to have known the difference between Asian and African elephants. In his illustrations, the latter are bigger, have larger tusks, and larger ears (though he did give them Bassett hound ears). And, in case there was any doubt, the legend specifically mentions elephants in Russia.
In a text box to the right of the elephant, Desceliers describes Russia:
Near the north pole is a country and people called Rucheni and they confess in the manner of the Greeks. They are beautiful and blonde, dependent on sleighs, and have silver mines. Their merchandise consists of valuable pelts, falcons, gyrfalcons, white elephants [ylefanz blanc], bears, moose and others that they carry to other parts of the world. The region is very cold; the land is known as the glacial. It is continuous day for six months, when the sun is above the equator, and for another six months it is night, when it is the on the opposite side.
The obvious questions, at this point, are: Could Desceliers’ white elephant be a reference to the mammoth and, if not, what else could it be? Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as “well, of course it’s a mammoth.” Most people are familiar with the fact that mammoth bones, ivory, and, occasionally, complete carcasses of mammoths are found in Arctic Russia. In fact, mammoth ivory currently makes up a significant portion of the global ivory trade. How big a portion is impossible to determine, since most of the trade is illegal. But no mammoth remains have been found around the White Sea; it was still covered with glacial ice when mammoths died out in Europe. The prime region for collecting mammoth ivory begins two thousand miles to the East in Siberia. Still, there is a way that mammoth ivory could have been traded there.
The White Sea is at the end of a long system of trade routes that extend along the Arctic coast and deep into Siberia using the great Siberian river systems. The first known historical accounts that unambiguously mention Siberian mammoth ivory refer to it being traded along this coast.
In 1611, Josias Logan, the representative of the British Moscovy Company at Pechora, on the European side of the Urals wrote, in a letter to Richard Hakluyt, “There use to come hither in the Winter about two thousand Samoieds with their Commodities, which may be such as we dreamed not on yet. For by chance one came to us with a piece of an Elephants Tooth….” Logan thought the ivory meant that there was an easy way across Siberia to China, because that was the closest place he thought elephants could be found. Eight years later, Richard James sailed to Russia as chaplain on a diplomatic mission to Moscow. The mission was a failure; James missed the ship back to England and ended up spending winter in Kholmogory on the White Sea. He kept a small journal in which he wrote new words that interested him. On page 62, following the word for elephant (slone), he wrote: “maimanto, as they say, a sea Elephant, which is never seene, but according to the Samites, he workes himself under grownde and so they find his teeth or homes or bones in Pechare and Nova Zemla.” Sea elephant was sometimes used as a synonym for walrus, but James had already made a separate entry for walrus (mors), so he clearly meant that maimanto was a different elephant-like creature.
Logan and James both observed elephant (mammoth) ivory in the hands of Samoyeds (now called Nenets), a people whose territory extended across the Arctic coast from the White Sea to the Urals and beyond, covering a large part of the trade route that would have brought mammoth ivory to Europe. From Kholmogory, where James saw ivory with the name mammoth (maimanto), to the mouth of the Pechora, where Logan saw what he called an elephant’s tooth, is about four hundred miles. The trade route from Pechora across the Urals to the Gulf of Ob is another six hundred miles. From there to the region where most mammoth ivory is collected, on the Eastern side of the Tamyr Peninsula, is another thousand miles. How did mammoth ivory enter into such a long trade route? Given enough time, any valuable commodity will find its way to market. At the western end of the trade route that brought mammoth ivory to Pechora and Kholmogory was a market that was that already demanded ivory. For centuries, this demand had been satisfied by walrus ivory. Over time, the western walrus herds were driven to near extinction and hunters and merchants moved further afield looking for new sources of ivory. As they worked their way east, word of their desire for ivory and their willingness to pay for it with good iron tools would have moved east ahead of them into the mammoth regions.
Sometime before the year 890, a Viking named Othere, looking for new trade opportunities, showed up at the court of King Alfred of Wessex, who was busy uniting England at the time and would later be known as “the Great.” Hoping perhaps to impress his host, Othere bragged of his wealth, his lands, and his travels. Othere was a lord in Hålogaland, the northernmost settlement of the Norwegians as he described it. Othere gave Alfred some walrus tusks and told him where he acquired them. “He said that on one occasion he wished to find out how far that land extended due north or whether anyone lived north of the waste….” Othere described sailing north for three days, east for three days, and finally south for five days. There he stopped at the mouth of a great river. North, east, and south from Hålogaland would have taken him around North Cape and the Kola Peninsula and deep into the White Sea. The largest river entering the White Sea is the Northern Dvina. At its mouth is the site where Kholmogory would later be built. At this point in his story he admits, “He travelled there chiefly – in addition to observing the land – for the walruses (horshwælum), because they have very fine bone in their teeth.” Othere knew there was walrus ivory in the Northeast before he made his voyage, possibly from the Finnish tribes that paid him tribute. The implication of his story is that he made his journey to see if he could cut out the middleman and acquire ivory directly.
Othere’s tale, which tradition says was written down by Alfred himself, shows that almost seven hundred years before Desceliers drew his map, Europeans were traveling to the White Sea, specifically to look for ivory. From that date forward, there are plenty of accounts of ivory being traded across the Russian lands into Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. In the eleventh century, the Persian polymath al Biruni wrote that the Volga Bulgars “bring from the northern sea teeth of a fish over a cubit long. White knife hafts are sawed out of them for the cutlers.” In 1207, during one of their frequent uprisings, the people of Novgorod evicted their prince and each of the rebels took as their booty three coins and a walrus tusk. In 1476, one of those same Novgorodians presented a tusk to their new ruler, Ivan III of Moscow. In 1527, envoys from Moldova demanded free passage across Poland-Lithuania to Russia so they could “acquire furs and fish teeth to pay tribute to the Turks.” By the early sixteenth century, walrus ivory had appeared everywhere that ivory was imported.
This is not to say that walrus ivory was recognized as such everywhere that it was imported. The trade routes that brought elephant ivory from Asia and Africa and walrus ivory from Greenland, Iceland, and northern Eurasia were long and involved, with the ivory changing hands many times before it reached its final consumers. Europe, in 1500, was in the midst of a poison panic. Unicorn horn was the only known protection against poisons and upper class Europeans would pay any price for genuine unicorn horn. In those pre-FDA days there was no quality control for magical anti-poison artifacts. The market responded to the demand by providing buyers with elephant ivory, walrus ivory, narwhal horn, old bones, random teeth, and even interestingly shaped white rocks, all of which were guaranteed to be authentic unicorn horn. In such an atmosphere it was only natural that there would be some confusion about the nature of the animals that supplied ivory.
Before 1500, Europeans had only the vaguest idea what an elephant actually looked like and absolutely no idea what a walrus looked like. The artist who illustrated the Anne Walshe*** bestiary in the early fifteenth century might have been able to find some images of elephants in older illustrated manuscripts or descriptions from recent travelers. Instead, he pieced together an animal based entirely on classical texts. The accompanying, seven sentence description, uses information from the earlier bestiaries of Physiologus, Solinus, and St. Ambrose, all sources over a thousand years old at that time. The illustration gets some things right. The elephant is large, grey, and boxy. It has a trunk and tusks. But it has too many tusks—four. It also has tiny ears and hoofed feet. Like most medieval bestiaries, his follows a classical canon of animals known to Roman writers. It does not include any animals of the far north, such as moose, polar bears, or walruses.
The earliest European illustrations of walruses begin to appear after 1500 and are based on even less information than the Walshe elephant. The most influential of these illustrations came from Olaus Magnus, the last catholic bishop of Upsalla, Sweden. In 1539, Olaus published a colorful map of the northern Atlantic filled with ships and delightful monsters. But his monsters were not there just to fill space. Olaus was able to cite sources for most of the animals and dramatic scenes on his map. In 1555, he published Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, a lavishly illustrated book on the people of the north that included descriptions of the animals and monsters depicted on his map. Olaus placed his walrus near the White Sea in roughly the same location as Desceliers’ white elephant. He described the animal in this way: “To the far North, on the coast of Norway, there lives a mighty fish, as big as an elephant, called morse or rosmari ….” His walrus had legs and tusks in its lower jaw, like a wild boar. He also noted that it climbed mountains.
Olaus’ illustrations and descriptions carried a certain weight of authority; he came from a family of respected thinkers and had actually been further north than anyone else in the community of European thinkers. When writing the first edition of Historiae animalium (1551–1558), a work sometimes called the first work of modern zoology, Conrad Gesner relied heavily on Olaus’ descriptions of marine animals. Olaus’ Historia was translated into several European languages and republished many times over the next century. Even though somewhat more accurate information about walruses had been circulating since the 1520s, Olaus’ images continued to influence concepts of the animal well into the next century. But if Olaus’ readers thought his travels in the North had given him firsthand knowledge of walruses, they were mistaken. Olaus’ written description of the walrus is based on a thirteenth century description of walrus hunting by Albertus Magnus and on two recent travelers to Russia who themselves repeated part of Albertus’ description, adding only that walrus ivory was an important export commodity for Muscovy.
Olaus was not the first to repeat Albertus’ description of walrus hunting—which involved slipping a rope through a cut in their skin while they slept on rocks, tying the end of the rope to a tree, awakening them, and allowing the frightened walruses to run out of their own skin in their rush to get back to the sea. Besides the two travelers Olaus mentioned by name (Maciej z Miechowa, 1517, and Paolo Giovio, 1525), at least two other writers had repeated the tale before him, Hector Boece (1526) and Sigismund von Herberstein (written in the 1520s but not published until 1549). Of these writers, only Herberstein mentions legs (“It has short feet, like those of a beaver”). Albertus described the walrus as a type of whale and, since whales were classified as fish during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it should have been doubly clear that walruses should not have feet or legs. When Albertus described walruses climbing up on rocks to sleep, he clearly stated that they used their tusks to pull themselves up. Olaus repeated that detail. This raises the question, why did Olaus draw his walrus with feet and thick legs?
It should be easy to dismiss the legs as an imaginative flourish, but the work of another mapmaker suggests that Olaus might have had an unmentioned source that did mention legs. Like Desceliers, Martin Waldseemüller is best known for something other than his Arctic elephants. His 1507 map of the world was the first to use the word “America” to describe the new world. With such a claim to fame, it’s not surprising that first thing most writers say about his next world map, the Carte Marina of 1516, is that it does not use the word “America.” But, like Desceliers’ map, there are plenty of other interesting details on this map that merit our attention. One of them is a strange, large creature in the far North.
The legend next to the animal reads: ****
The walrus (morsus) is an elephant sized animal with two long, quadrangular teeth. It is hindered by a lack of joints. The animal is found on promontories in Northern Norway where it moves in great herds.
Whoever drew the animals for Waldseemüller’s map (possibly Albrecht Dürer) had more in mind than just an elephant-sized animal. What they drew is a very elephant-like animal. The body shape is passable for an elephant, as are the fan-shaped ears and longer legs than those on Olaus’ morse. Less elephant-like are the hooves, lack of trunk, and boar’s tusks. A second edition of Waldseemüller’s map was made six years later by Laurent Fries. Fries produced a less expensive and smaller map that, while being much less detailed than the Carte Marina, retained the walrus and its description. Fries moved the morsus west of Greenland and made it more elephant-like by adding a trunk, though the hooves and boar’s tusks remained.
Albertus’ description compared the walrus’ teeth to those of an elephant or boar. This was probably his way of saying that the teeth in question were tusks and not ordinary teeth. This mention could have been responsible both for the sixteenth century artists consistently putting the tusks in the walrus’ jaw, boar style, and for the elephantish shape to its body. However, there is one strong clue that the elephant-ness of Waldseemüller’s walrus was more than a suggestion planted in his artist’s mind by Albertus using the word “elephant.” That clue is Waldseemüller’s mention in his description that the morsus has no joints. Ancient and Medieval scholarship is filled with authoritative statements that the elephant has no knees and sleeps standing up. Aristotle himself tried to debunk the legend, but was generally ignored.
How did an animal that is basically a giant seal with fangs turn into a four-footed animal that invited comparison with an elephant? Did Waldseemüller and Olaus have unnamed sources that gave some additional anatomical details that sounded more elephant-like than seal-like? Unless we discover some amazingly detailed secret diaries, we will never know for sure if they had some unwritten sources or what those informants might have told them about walruses. We can, however engage in some logical speculation.
In a series of papers written in the first quarter of the last century, Berthold Laufer documented the history of walrus and narwhal ivory importation into China. He found accounts of ivory being traded down the Pacific coast from the far north as early as the fourth century AD. As a side note, he also described the ivory trade in Central Asia, the landward side of China. Laufer was strongly against the idea that any of the Pacific ivory was from mammoths, but grudgingly admitted that it might have been present in the Central Asian trade. He made very clear that the Chinese had no idea what kind of animal produced northern ivory. They generically called it ku-tu, a word which eventually made its way into Persian and Arabic. Laufer pointed out that, like unicorn horn in Europe, the ivory arriving in China passed through so many middlemen between the original collectors and the final consumers that any idea of the source animal was lost in transit. He also pointed out that often the ivory had been cut up to remove spoiled parts and for ease of transport, making it difficult to know even what shape the tusks or horns had originally had.
In the West, there would have been some important differences in this process. The Scandinavians, Russians, and Nenets who controlled different parts of the northern ivory trade were all people who hunted walruses and narwhals. They knew what these animals looked like, though they were not always eager to share their knowledge. In addition, walrus tusks and narwhal horns often made it to European markets uncut. When mammoth ivory moved along the Arctic coast to Pechora and Kholmogory, it would have been recognized as something different and treated as the “other” ivory. Questions about its origin would have been asked more knowledgably than in China or Central Asia where all three types of ivory were lumped together. They would have found out that the mammoth was a four-legged land animal, had a good idea of its size, and, possibly, even gained some idea of its general shape.
Waldseemüller and Olaus were not merchants. They never traveled into the Arctic and never saw any part of a walrus other than its tusks. Getting the walrus right was not their top concern. They were engaged in gathering enormous amounts of information about many things only one of which was the walrus. The descriptions and images that they ended up creating could very well have been a mish mash of information, part walrus and part mammoth, and representing nothing more than a vague “source of Russian ivory” animal.
Two other maps from the years between Olaus’ map and Desceliers’ are worth looking at to get a sense of where mapmakers’ minds were by mid-century, at least as far as walruses were concerned. Both are considered products of the Dieppe school. The first is a plate in the Vallard Atlas which was created sometime before 1547 by an unknown artist. The second is a map of the world created in 1546 and usually attributed to Desceliers. Both feature animals near the White Sea, though neither one has an explanatory legend.
The animal in the Vallard Atlas looks so much like Waldseemüller’s morsus that it could only have been copied from that source. It is in color and the artist has painted it a very elephant-like grey. The animal on the Desceliers map is similar, but not an exact copy. The body is longer and lower, like Olaus’ walrus, but with thinner legs and hooves, like Waldseemüller’s. The hooves are cloven; it has droopy ears and a short snout. The total effect is very boar-like, but still within the tradition of walrus-monsters. In this context, the white elephant on Desceliers’ 1550 map represents something new. He is no longer struggling to make sense of garbled descriptions of the walrus. At some point in the years between 1546 and 1550, Desceliers must have come into possession of some new information that caused him to believe that products, not just of an elephant-like animal, but of real elephants were being traded in—and originating in—the Russian far north.
Like Olaus and Waldseemüller, Desceliers did not record the names of all of his sources. He had a good reason for his silence; some of his informants may have been spies. In the sixteenth century, accurate maps and navigational directions were trade secrets for merchants and state secrets for imperial powers. They were the equivalent of high-resolution satellite photography during the Cold War. In Spain, merchants returning from far parts of the world were required to turn their logs and charts over to a government official, who incorporated new discoveries into the official world map, which was then used to produce official charts. In Portugal, after word of Vasco da Gama’s trip around Africa into the Indian Ocean leaked out, giving away geographic secrets became a crime punishable by death. The Dutch East India Company maintained its own secret atlas. Attempts at monopolizing information were doomed to failure. Sailors drifted from ship to ship, port to port, and country to country and could always be encouraged to talk about their travels. Within the ranks of the smaller, but better informed, group of captains, mates, and government officials were plenty of bribable members. In the world of surreptitiously traded geographical intelligence, mapmakers were major players.
This is not just supposition where the Dieppe mapmakers are concerned. Remember that southeastern corner on the Desceliers’ map? In the last years of the nineteenth century and again over the last thirty years, the land mass south of Indonesia has been the subject of a lot of attention. On the Dieppe maps, Java le Grande is seen as an extension of an assumed unknown southern continent believed necessary to create balance on the globe. Most of the place names on Java la Grande are of Portuguese origin. Whether or not this is evidence of a Portuguese discovery of Australia eighty years before the Dutch arrived there is still a subject of hot debate. What’s less debatable is that these and other place names prove that the Dieppe mapmakers were getting some of their information from Portuguese sources. This was information that was not generally available to the rest of the world.
Portuguese imperial interests were not limited to Brazil and the Far East. The Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the non-European world between Portugal and Spain, left much of the North Atlantic to Portugal. And Portugal did have an interest there. As early as 1500, Portuguese sailors had known about the fisheries around Newfoundland. Gaspar Côrte Real arrived in that year and rather unimaginatively named the island Terra Verde, Greenland (not that “Newfoundland” was a work of spectacular creativity). Most etymologies say Labrador was named for another Portuguese explorer, João Fernandes Lavrador (“lavrador” simply means “laborer” and was a nickname rather than a proper family name). Both Fernandes and Real may have sailed up the east coast of Greenland until they were stopped by floe ice. A number of maps published before 1550 show Labrador, Newfoundland, and southern Greenland as Portuguese possessions.
Portugal is not the only contender for a source of undocumented information on the far north. Within the Spanish office of the Padron Real, an Englishman of Venetian heritage, Sebastian Cabot, produced charts for thirty years. Despite his one voyage for the Spanish being a disaster, Cabot maintained the confidence of the emperor on matters of navigation right up until the day he defected to England in 1548. With his vast knowledge of Spanish discoveries, Cabot was welcomed with open arms, rewarded with a generous salary and pension for services already rendered to the crown and to be performed in the future. Once settled in England, Cabot set about establishing a company, the charmingly named Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown, to explore the Arctic regions hoping to find a shortcut to China. The first voyage of the company, in 1553, was to the East across the Russian coast, not to the West, where his father John Cabot had explored.
Did Desceliers learn something from his Portuguese informants that led him to believe there were elephants in the North? We’ll likely never know. The Portuguese archives of exploration were all destroyed in the fire that followed the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Did Cabot carry some information about the North learned during his long tenure in Spain? Cabot’s personal papers have disappeared and nothing exists in the remaining Spanish and English archives to confirm such an idea. Could there have been a voyage to North not recorded in any government archive? This is very possible. Most voyages of exploration were commercial ventures, without government involvement. Thirty years after Desceliers published his map, a representative of the Muscovy Company (successor to the Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers) wrote to an unnamed Russian official asking for aid in exploring a route to the Ob River in Siberia. The Russian replied that he would be glad to help, although a ship load of Englishmen had already been in that country some years before. Stephen Burrough, one of the first English merchants of the Company, reported meeting Dutch merchants to the west of the White Sea. The Swedish king, Gustavus Vasa, was attempted to extend his kingdom to the Arctic Ocean and White Sea and must have collected intelligence there. Norwegian trade to the White Sea dropped off in the thirteenth century, but it is unlikely that it ever completely died out.
We know that a trade in walrus ivory had been going on along the Russian Arctic coast since at least the ninth century, almost seven hundred years before Deceliers created his map. We know that at some point mammoth ivory made its way into that trade. The first unambiguous reference, Logan’s “Elephants Tooth,” comes only sixty years after the map. Before Desceliers, almost all written descriptions of walruses were based on Albertus’ fanciful description of walrus hunting. Before Desceliers, visual representations of walruses in Europe portrayed a fantastic monster with legs and tusks. While these monsters might have been the result of mammoth characteristics being combined with Albertus’ walrus, nothing that is unquestionably an elephant appears before Desceliers.
If early sixteenth century mapmakers had access to some intelligence about an elephant-like creature as a source for Arctic ivory, it appears that that information was lost soon after Desceliers finished his map. Russian tax rolls mention mammoth ivory in the 1580s. Logan’s 1611 letter to Hakluyt, commenting on the elephant’s tooth he bought at Pechora, was published in 1625. James recorded his in lexicon 1620, but the manuscript languished in various collections unnoticed until 1950. Literate society in Europe didn’t become aware of the mammoth until the 1690s, didn’t accept that it was an elephant until the middle of the eighteenth century, and didn’t begin to understand it as a hairy, extinct cousin of the elephant until the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Was Desceliers elephant a mammoth? In the end, we have only the mystery.
Fig. 1 The Desceliers map of 1550.
Fig. 2 Canadian bears at lunch. – same as Fig.1
Fig. 3 Dog-headed men sacrifice… – same as Fig.1
Fig. 4 Desceliers Arctic elephant. – same as Fig.1
Fig. 7 Olaus Magnus … 1539.
Fig. 8 Olaus Magnus … 1555.
Fig. 10 Fries’ morsus, 1522.
12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99X