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) Symbols: 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
Eternity Symbols: chariot drawn by a pair of lions Meaning: eternity
Fame Symbols: winged angel with two trumpets, laurel wreath Meaning: fame or honor
Fortuna (Roman) / Tyche (Greek) Symbols: cornucopia, wheel, wreath, coins, jewels Meaning: goddess of fortune and luck
Vulcan (Roman) / Hephaestus (Greek) Symbols: 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.
Europe Symbols: queen with crown, scepter, orb, or a maiden riding a bull
Asia Symbols: exotic costume, smoking incense censer, camel, elephant
Africa Symbols: partially clothed, a radiating sun, umbrella, lion, crocodile, elephant, rhinoceros
Americas Symbols: 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.]