A Pictorial Glossary of Allegorical & Mythological Figures on Maps
Carte pour Conduire a l'Intelligence de la Fable ... pour en Comprendre le Sens Moral by Henry Abraham Chatelain (ca. 1720)

A Pictorial Glossary of Allegorical & Mythological Figures on Maps
by Eliane Dotson
Mythology and allegory have played an important role in the arts for centuries, so it is no wonder that they made their appearance on maps as well.  These figures are commonly found on maps from the 16th-18th centuries – a time when decorative embellishments were a prominent element on most maps.  As mythology was passed down from generation to generation orally, in written texts, and in visual arts, gods and goddesses were well-known to most people and could convey meaning to a wide audience.  Mythological and allegorical figures represented important themes, moral values, and even historical events, and when used on maps could add substance that enhanced the geographical backdrop.
This iconographical imagery is most often found in cartouches and borders on maps, and also features prominently on atlas title pages and frontispieces.  Both Greek and Roman deities were depicted on maps, and many Roman gods have a Greek counterpart that shares the same story and identity, as outlined below.  In order to appreciate the meanings behind mythological and allegorical figures, one must be able first to identify them.  As such, we have compiled an alphabetical list of the most frequently encountered figures on maps and title pages, with each figure accompanied by the physical characteristics and symbols commonly associated with it.  [Click on any image to see the full map in our Auction Archive.]
Aeolus (Greek)
Symbols: imprisons the winds in caves or frees the winds
Meaning: god of winds and clouds
Apollo (Greek)
Symbols: lyre, crown of laurel leaves, sun, chariot pulled by white horses
Meaning: god of music, arts, medicine and beauty
Atlas (Greek)
Symbols: holding up the earth or sky
Meaning: Titan who supported the heavens for eternity
Bacchus (Roman) / Dionysus (Greek)
Symbols: scantily clad youth, crown of ivy, grapes, wine goblet, pinecone-tipped staff
Meaning: god of wine, chaos and ecstasy
Ceres (Roman) / Demeter (Greek)
Symbols: sheaves of corn or wheat, torch, cornucopia, rudder
Meaning: goddess of grain and harvest
Clio (Greek)
Symbols: scroll or tablet, pen
Meaning: Muse of history
Cronos (Greek)
Symbols: scythe, hourglass
Meaning: god of time and death
Cybele (Greek & Roman)
turreted crown made of walls, key, scepter, globe, lion
Meaning: goddess of Mother Earth
Diana (Roman) / Artemis (Greek)
Symbols: young woman in tunic with bow and arrows, often accompanied by dogs or a stag; or with a crescent moon headdress riding a chariot; or as a multi-breasted goddess with a cornucopia or gold coins
Meaning: goddess of the chase and wild animals, moon goddess, and goddess of fertility
chariot drawn by a pair of lions
Meaning: eternity
winged angel with two trumpets, laurel wreath
Meaning: fame or honor
Fortuna (Roman) / Tyche (Greek)
cornucopia, wheel, wreath, coins, jewels
Meaning: goddess of fortune and luck
map, globe, surveying instruments, dividers
Meaning: Muse of geography
Helios (Greek)
radiant crown, horse-drawn chariot through the sky
Meaning: god of sun
Hercules (Roman) / Heracles (Greek)
club, lion skin
Meaning: god of strength and courage
Janus (Roman)
man with two faces
Meaning: god of beginnings and endings, doorways, passages
Juno (Roman) / Hera (Greek)
crown, lotus-tipped staff, peacock, Milky Way flowing from breasts
Meaning: goddess of motherhood, queen of heavens
Jupiter (Roman) / Zeus (Greek)
lightening bolts, beard, eagle, bull
Meaning: god of sky, weather, law and order; father of gods
This image shows Jupiter and Juno, husband and wife, riding in a chariot pulled by a pair of eagles
blindfolded woman, scales, sword
Meaning: justice
young woman wearing a liberty cap or holding a staff topped with a liberty cap
Meaning: liberty
Mars (Roman) / Ares (Greek)
helmet, armor, sword, spear, pair of hounds, vulture, snakes
Meaning: god of war
Mercury (Roman) / Hermes (Greek)
winged hat, winged sandals, caduceus
Meaning: god of trade, commerce and communication
Minerva (Roman) / Athena (Greek)
crested helmet, spear, shield with Medusa, owl
Meaning: goddess of wisdom and military strategy
Neptune (Roman) / Poseidon (Greek)
trident, seashell chariot pulled by hippocampi (seahorses) or dolphins
Meaning: god of sea, rivers, water, floods and droughts
Pan (Greek)
man with goat-like features and a pan flute
Meaning: god of pastures, protector of sheep and goats
angel wings, olive branch, doves, caduceus
Meaning: peace
Proserpina (Roman) / Persephone (Greek)
shown being abducted by Hades
Meaning: goddess of birth and death, queen of the underworld
Pluto (Roman) / Hades (Greek)
shown abducting Persephone, three-headed dog, drinking horn, scepter
Meaning: king of the underworld and death
Putto (plural: Putti)
winged cherubs
Meaning: accompany people throughout life and with various pursuits
River God
large urn pouring out water
Meaning: rivers, water
goat-like men, ivy
Meaning: personification of lust and evil
female figure looking into mirror or holding a radiant disk
Meaning: truth
Urania (Greek)
crown of stars, celestial globe, compass, telescope, armillary sphere
Meaning: Muse of astronomy
Venus (Roman) / Aphrodite (Greek)
scallop shell, swans, doves, dolphins, red rose, flaming torch, myrtle wreath
Meaning: goddess of love, beauty, fertility
Vulcan (Roman) / Hephaestus (Greek)
forge, blacksmith hammer, tongs, anvil
Meaning: god of fire and smiths
The continents were also frequently represented as female figures on maps and title pages.  These have been separated from the alphabetical listing of deities and muses in order to present them together.  In addition to identifying the symbols commonly associated with each continent, it is important to note that the location of these figures on a map was also critical.  Europe was represented as the most regal and civilized of the continents, and as such was always placed higher on the page so that the other continents were “beneath” her (both literally and figuratively).  For symmetry purposes, Asia was often depicted on the same level as Europe, either slightly behind Europe or to the far right (east) of her.
queen with crown, scepter, orb, or a maiden riding a bull
exotic costume, smoking incense censer, camel, elephant
partially clothed, a radiating sun, umbrella, lion, crocodile, elephant, rhinoceros
partially clothed, feather skirt and headdress, bow and arrows, alligator, armadillo, tropical bird
This pictorial glossary is not exhaustive but illustrates the most common deities and allegories found in cartography.  However, there are many other figures and symbols that can be found on maps.  These include human personifications of the seasons, elements, planets, and day and night.  Ethnographic figures from specific countries and cultures are also included on maps to illustrate local costumes, hairstyles, and appearances, as they were known at the time.
Understanding who these characters are and why they were engraved on a map can illuminate deeper meaning.  For example, the appearance of Mars can convey that the region was recently the theater of war, Ceres indicates bountiful land and harvest, and river gods symbolize a region with important rivers.  Mythology and allegory were such common themes on maps during the early modern period in Europe that their role as storytellers was clearly important to cartographers.  One of the most famous cases of this is Gerard Mercator coining the term “Atlas” to represent a collection of maps as an homage to the Greek Titan Atlas.  While it may be relatively simple to identify Atlas holding up the heavens, some of the other figures can be harder to discern.  The hope is that this glossary will help map aficionados more readily decipher allegorical figures and their cultural and historical context.
[Tip: Use the “find” function on your browser to search this page for a specific symbol or keyword to help identify a figure.]
Day, Malcolm. 100 Characters from Classical Mythology, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY, 2007.
Manasek, F.J., Curt Griggs & Marti Griggs. Collecting Old Maps, Old Maps Press, Clarkdale, Arizona, 2015.
Shirley, Rodney. Courtiers and Cannibals, Angels and Amazons, Hes & De Graaf Publishers, The Netherlands, 2009.