For years, I pored over historic maps, examined old globes and spent hours looking at the edges of tattered nautical charts hoping to glimpse those letters: BHBD.
My searches never yielded any kind of “Eureka” moment, but I held fast to the romantic notion that someday I would encounter that cryptic message. Some other friends also believed the oft-repeated notion that ancient mapmakers noted the ends of the known world with the notation, “Beyond here be dragons.”
As it turns out, it simply isn’t so. And it’s a disappointment, for a lot of reasons. First, it was not just my fantasy, but a commonly held belief. I feel cheated somehow, and duped. No matter how silly it seems, I still choose to believe that out there, somewhere, there be dragons.
The notion has fueled my wanderlust for decades; I am certain that old salts and continental explorers fully expected dragons when they embarked on those journeys into the beyond. Instead they encountered wonders, and that was sufficient to keep them moving.
But do you think they secretly longed for the dragons? I still choose to believe so.
Those who today visit the depths of the oceans and those who venture into space must, I think, still be searching for them.
Back to those dragons
Truth be told, apparently, there are no maps that bear any sort of legend concerning dragons — here, there or beyond.
There is one reference — in Latin, mind you — on a small globe dating to the early years of the sixteenth century (1503-1507). It is now in the possession of the New York Public Library; it is the first to depict the Americas in reasonable perspective, and it notes “HC svnt dracones” along the eastern line of Asia.
But, even though there are other beasts on its copper surface, there are, unfortunately, no dragons. (There is also some doubt about the translation from Latin — does it really mean “here be dragons?”) Another question that will not be answered, apparently, any time soon.
The only other map that anyone can point to is a real leap for those who search for dragons on the pages of vellum. The phrase “Here There Be Dragons” was reportedly used for an unknown polar region labeled Terra Incognita on the asteroid Vesta in a paper submitted by Michael Gaffey of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for the planetary science journal Icarus.
Just what is it about dragons?
There are dragons, large and small, worldwide, it seems. Not only Saint George, but countless others — Norsemen and Chinese, among others — searched for and battled dragons. There are Japanese, North American Indian and Ethiopian dragons; they lived in Scandinavian, Welsh and German myth and in the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien.
There are dragon sculptures and dragon jewelry and dragon tattoos.
There is a final reference to the phrase (and the title of the book) by David Koerner and Simon LeVay in “The Scientific Quest for Extraterrestrial Life.”
During my travels, especially on the sea, I have over and over again scanned the horizon for dragons, just as I still sneak quick peeks at the edges of old maps. I am certain I always will.
I cannot put aside the conviction that, somewhere, beyond the known limits of the page or of this world, somewhere . . .
There be dragons
Koerner and LeVay say in their introduction: “The same sense of mystery, the same lure to adventure, now colors the unexplored lands of the cosmos. Welcome to the dragon hunt.”